Tuesday, August 27th, 2013
Computer game #13: “Spectre Supreme” (1993)
Once LANs (Local Area Networks) became commonplace in the early ’90s, it was finally possible to link up computers in the same room and play live head-to-head. While the Macintosh suffered from a dearth of games compared to what was available for PCs, we did have one classic to ourselves: Spectre. Widely considered the grandson of “Battlezone,” Spectre was a sci-fi tank game played on a TRON-like grid. And when “Spectre Supreme” came out, you could play against your friends on the LAN.
Around this time I spent a year working for a tiny design firm. It was just the two of us, the owner and me, and at the end of the day, we’d boot up “Spectre Supreme,” he in his office and me in mine, and spend an hour or so hunting each other down in cyberspace. It was the most productive we were all day.
[Photo via amatecha … for about a decade, computer game companies put a lot of effort into designing the boxes the game came in, and the Spectre series (Sumpreme, VR, etc) were notable for how elaborate and beautiful they were. Strange but true.]
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
Thursday, January 17th, 2013
Video Game #19: Tail Gunner (1979)*
Another space shooter, Tail Gunner put you in the back seat of starship where you had to fend off wave after wave of starfighters intent on blowing up your ride. Unlike the many pixel-based games that came to dominate the arcade in the 1980s, Tail Gunner was vector-based, using straight lines generated by electron beams to create objects. The glowing wireframe images certainly made you feel as if you were playing in a high-tech computer, and lent itself very well to space settings, as you will see.
I actually missed this game when it first came out and only discovered it years later in a forgotten corner of the massive arcade at Hersheypark, the summer I worked there. The amusement park had been collecting video and pinball games for decades, and with each new generation of releases, older titles were pushed further and further back into the building. The version they had — virtually the only one I ever saw, in any arcade anywhere — was a large enclosed cockpit with the joystick and controls on the side of the gunner’s chair. This unusual set up made Tail Gunner particularly challenging, and immersive in way few video games were at the time.