Video Game #17: Lunar Lander (1979)
Remember when I said vector graphics were perfect for video games set in space? This was never more true than with Atari’s Lunar Lander. Debuting ten years after Apollo 11, Lunar Lander put you at the controls of the lunar module and dropped you over the moon, with limited time and limited fuel in which to safely land.
That was it.
Lunar Lander wasn’t deep, wasn’t complex and wasn’t fast — but it was intense. And for kids who had grown up on watching the Apollo missions and STILL COULDN’T BELIEVE NIXON PULLED THE PLUG ON APOLLO 18 AND THE MOONBASE, this was as close as we were ever going to get landing on the moon. (Points go to the designers for using a control bar for the rocket engine instead of a joystick or button, giving the arcade console a more tactile feel than other games.)
Alas, executing a safe landing was all you could do in the game, and after planting those a few times, my brother and I became more interested in how spectacular a crash we could make while plowing full speed into the lunar surface. The novelty wore off for other gamers as well, and Atari ended up converting many of the Lunar Lander cabinets into their other space game from that year: Asteroids. You may have heard of it.
Unlike its cousin, Asteroids was fast, complex and infinitely replayable, and went on to become one of the most successful video games of all time. Yet, when Brent and I went to the first major Arcade Museum show in Baltimore in 1999, we flew right past Asteroids and the other restored games and went straight to Lunar Lander.
It may have only been good for five minutes — but what a five minutes.
(Even though very few LL cabinets survived, you can still play the game today with this lovingly recreated fan version. It won’t even cost you a quarter: http://moonlander.seb.ly/ )