Thursday, June 6th, 2013
Video Game #2: Tempest (1981)
Is Tempest the most relentless video game ever created? It is certainly the most intense vector graphic title ever designed — pretty good considering it is composed of a handful of lines and basic shapes. And yet this simple set up reduces players to pure reaction, unable even to catch their breath between levels. All you have to do is shoot the pointy opponents sliding up the walls of a pit, and clear all the obstacles in your path before you plunge into the abyss.
In other words, it was exactly like high school.
Originally envisioned as a “3-D” version of Space Invaders, Tempest quickly mutated and surpassed its digital ancestor in every way, especially speed. As you danced on the edge of a dizzying vanishing-point perspective, slings, arrows and things were flung at you in quick succession. Just as soon as a pit was cleared of moving targets, you were fired like a bullet through a gun barrel to the next level (better hope you blasted all the spikes in your way, or your trip would be a short one). Each level the shape of the pit became more elaborate, and the objects flung at you more deadly. No music, no cute cartoon characters, just pure digital rush.
Thursday, May 16th, 2013
Video Game #5: Space Wars (1977) aka Spacewar! (1962)
Want to determine once and for all if an Imperial Star Destroyer can beat the USS Enterprise? Want to play THE original video game? You can do both with what is considered by many to be the very first digital game: Spacewar! Created in 1962 to showcase the computing power of the PDP-1 computer, Spacewar! is credited with helping to close many a sale of the expensive mainframe. Object? Blow up your opponent. While popular with programmers, the game was never available to the public.*
One of those programmers, Nolan Bushnell, who would eventually go on to found Atari, was inspired by Spacewar! to build the first commercial video game a decade later: Computer Space. Alas, in spite of its cool futuristic cabinet (which made a cameo in 1973’s “Soylent Green“), Computer Space wasn’t much fun to play.
What was fun? Space Wars, the commercial version of the PDP-1 game. Released in 1977 in the wake of Star Wars, the programmers creating the game had the brilliant idea, and presence of mind, to update the appearance of the two ship to look like those in Star Wars and Star Trek. And a star was born.
Talk about simple: the ships were composed of a handful of vector lines, moving against a black screen with a few dots on it for stars, and a circle in the middle representing the sun. And yet this simple setup produced one of the greatest games ever. Object? Blow up your opponent. Don’t fall into the sun. Really. That was it.
Honestly though, if its your brother’s ship you’re annihilating, what more do you need?
* Until now. Last year, someone emulated the original Spacewar! game and put it online. Enjoy.
Thursday, March 28th, 2013
Video Game #10: Battle Zone (1980)
Video Game #11: Assault (1988)
What’s better than one joystick? Two joysticks. Two joysticks were exactly what was needed to control the tank tracks in Tank (1974), the second smash arcade hit from Atari. Push both to move forward, pull both to go in reverse, and alternate to rotate left or right. Easy peasy. Oh yeah, and the big red button was TO BLAST YOUR KID BROTHER OFF THE SCREEN.
You have no idea how many quarters we borrowed from my grandmother to play this thing when it first came out.
Tank narrowly missed making this list, but only because two of its descendants placed higher. While Atari’s Battle Zone sorely lacked the player v. player aspect of Tank, it made up for it with a targeting periscope you had to lean into that cut off your peripheral vision and effectively gave you the illusion you were gazing out a viewport onto the green glow of a future battlefield. The stereo speakers on either side of your head didn’t hurt either. Even though the landscape was a simple wireframe of vector graphics, if you had a really good run and got immersed in the game, stepping back from the machine into the real world would often be disorienting. Battle Zone was so realistic the U.S. Army had a version built to train gunners on the Bradley Fighting Vehicle.
What’s better than a tank that can turn left and right? One that can roll over like slinky, sit up like a spitting cobra and pogo into the atmosphere to single-handedly take on an entire army! Namco’s Assault took the twin yoke control of Battle Zone to the next logical step, allowing you to move sideways and meticulously dodge the concentrated fire of dozens of turrets and waves of enemy tanks. The launch pads were a nice touch too, flinging your tank skyward to rain shells on distant opponents and allowing you to recon the road ahead. Assault wasn’t deep, but it was stylish, slickly designed and blew up shit real good.
Tank image courtesy of the 20th Century Tech Museum