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Computer Space (Arcade) artwork

Computer Space (Arcade) review

"The Video Game Industry's False Start"

In 1962, computer scientist Steve Russell and his colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology created Spacewar!, an interactive tech demo for the PDP-1 minicomputer that doubled as an addictive multiplayer space shooter. Players piloted virtual spaceships and attempted to shoot each other down while taking care not to fall into a lethal star in the center of the screen. Spacewar! became so popular with students and staff that some of them recreated the game on other computers across the country, thus exposing the game to more players and programmers. Inevitably, someone would ponder the idea of creating a commercial version of the sci-fi sensation. The first known attempt at a coin-operated version of Spacewar! was Galaxy Game by Bill Pitts and Hugh Tuck, initially available exclusively at Stanford University in September of 1971. The game included new features, and it was fairly successful on campus, but it couldnít be mass-produced, as it still ran on a pricey minicomputer. In order for a Spacewar! clone to be profitable, it would need to be able to run on affordable hardware.

Enter Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, best known as the future co-founders of Atari, the most famous video game company in the late seventies and early eighties. Their solution to the problem was to design their own dedicated video game machine, custom-built for the sole purpose of running their very own Spacewar! derivative, Computer Space. Bushnell and Dabney formed a partnership with Nutting Associates to manufacture and distribute Computer Space machines. After a successful location test at the Dutch Goose bar just outside Stanford University, Nutting was confident that they would be rolling in money shortly after the gameís official release in November of 1971. Unfortunately, the average consumer proved to be much harder to please than tech-savvy college students. Computer Space was a very ambitious project, as indicated by the glossy, colorful fiberglass arcade cabinets that the game shipped in. However, consumers were far more interested in less sophisticated electronic games, including pinball machines. What could have gone wrong? Did people in the seventies just have poor taste, or was there something else holding Computer Space back? Letís take a look, and find out.

The custom hardware used for the Computer Space arcade machine wasnít powerful enough to run a perfect port of Spacewar!. In order to compensate, Bushnell and Dabney needed to make some major changes to the gameplay. Computer Space still takes place in a small portion of outer space, but the star obstacle has been removed from the playfield, resulting in a lack of gravity. Also, the game has been changed from a multiplayer game to a single-player game. You control the Space Rocket, a combat spaceship armed with an infinite supply of missiles. Your enemies are the Space Saucers, a crafty pair of flying saucers possessing an equally deadly missile arsenal. The objective in Computer Space is to shoot and destroy the Space Saucers more times than they shoot your rocket within the time limit. You earn a point every time you take out a saucer, and the saucers earn a point whenever they hit your rocket. A single round of gameplay can last anywhere from 60 seconds to 150 seconds, with a default setting of 90 seconds. If you have a higher score than the saucers at the end of a round, you are rewarded with an additional round. The game repeats itself endlessly until you fail to earn a higher score than the saucers. The rocketís score, the saucersí score, and the time limit are displayed on the right side of the screen.

The most commonly cited reason for Computer Spaceís lack of mainstream success during its years on the market is its controls. The Space Rocket is operated with a four-button control panel, which many consumers apparently found to be too complex at the time. Today, it can be hard to hold back laughter when someone complains about controls that are so simple by modern standards, but you have to bear in mind that this was the very first video game to be widely available to the general public, so it would be unreasonable to expect anyone to be a professional gamer back then. Even today, some gamers may still have trouble with the controls, due to the placement of the buttons on the control panel; the fire and thrust buttons are on the left, and the rocket rotation buttons are on the right. Most video game controllers have a joystick or directional pad on the left for movement, and action buttons on the right. Due to the unusual controls, this game has a higher learning curve than later shooters such as Asteroids.

Speaking of Asteroids, the Space Rocket has almost all of the same functions that the famous triangular ship from Asteroids possesses, with the exception of the warp drive. Players can hold the thrust button to make the rocket accelerate in the direction itís facing, and the force of the thrust will cause the rocket to continue moving in that direction after the button is released. In order to slow down and/or start moving in the opposite direction, you will need to rotate the rocket until itís facing the direction that itís drifting from, and apply more thrust. Unlike the ships in Spacewar! and Galaxy Game, the Space Rocket has unlimited fuel, so players can rest assured that they will never be hopelessly stranded in outer space. The photon torpedoes from Spacewar! have been replaced with guided missiles. They donít travel as far as the torpedoes, but the missiles move faster and they can be steered with the rotation buttons, making it easier to line up your shots with the Space Saucers. If the rocket is hit by a missile, or if it collides with a saucer, the rocket will explode, and then reappear close to where it was destroyed. Additionally, colliding with a saucer will result in a point being distributed to each type of ship.

The Space Saucers always appear in the same formation, with one saucer flying above the other. They move in unison, drifting in random directions and occasionally pausing. Shooting a saucer will cause both of them to disappear, and then a new pair of saucers will materialize elsewhere on the screen. Only the bottom saucer is capable of firing missiles. Computer Space has a wraparound feature, meaning that the different spacecraft and their missiles have the ability to move off one side of the screen and emerge from the opposite side. Players can take advantage of this feature to destroy distant saucers, but the saucers arenít smart enough to utilize similar battle tactics. The Space Saucers are only capable of aiming specifically at the quadrant of the screen that the rocket is in, rather than the rocket itself.

In 1973, Nutting Associates released an updated version of Computer Space. Designed by the late Steve Bristow, who worked on several arcade games for Atari in the seventies, this version is identified by its green metalflake exterior and a redesigned control panel, featuring joysticks instead of buttons. What makes the 1973 version of Computer Space stand out from the 1971 version is the inclusion of a multiplayer mode alongside the original single-player mode. Two human players control cosmetically different Space Rockets and attempt to eliminate each other with guided missiles to earn points. The player with the highest score at the end of the round wins the game. The screen wraparound feature is still present in the multiplayer mode, but unfortunately, the star and the warp drive from Spacewar! remain absent. Because of this, the playersí potential strategy options are extremely limited; the outcome of a multiplayer game is usually determined by whoever shoots first. Essentially, the multiplayer version of Computer Space feels more like a poor manís version of Spacewar!.

Like every other early video game, Computer Space has monochrome graphics. The Space Rocket and Space Saucers are represented as dotted white outlines. For a 1971 video game running on discrete logic chips, Computer Space has some very impressive visuals, particularly when it comes to animation. When you see the way that the rocket rotates, you may be surprised to hear that the process only uses about four different images. Also, the horizontal line of dots on a Space Saucer shifts back and forth so that the ship appears to be spinning. The background consists of numerous white stars on a black void. The ships and their missiles are projected brightly onto the screen, so that they donít blend in with the background. In the multiplayer version, each Space Rocket has a unique shape to help players remember which one they are controlling. When a rocket or saucer is destroyed, the gameís colors invert for a split second to simulate a bright explosion. During extended single-player sessions, every other round takes place in hyperspace, which really means that the gameís colors are inverted until the next round.

Unlike Spacewar! and Galaxy Game, Computer Space actually has audio. Unfortunately, the audio is quite terrible. The sounds of the saucersí missiles are shrill, high-pitched beeps, similar to what you might listen to during a hearing test, but much louder. The rocketís missiles arenít as high-pitched, but they can still be irritating. Other sound effects include what sounds like a motor running in the background, and a static noise for the rocketís thrusters, which is comparable to old television static.

Technically, Computer Space is responsible for starting the commercial video game industry, as it was the first video game to be mass-produced. However, the industry didnít shift into high gear until the more accessible Pong was released in 1972. Pong was such a hit that it spawned several clones and variations, prompting its developer, Atari, to continue innovating with their products. Computer Spaceís main problem comes from its repetitive gameplay. The Space Saucers are the only enemies encountered in the entire game, and they donít get smarter or tougher during extended gameplay sessions, so a skilled player could theoretically play for an indefinite amount of time. Also, the game doesnít even keep track of how many rounds were cleared in a row. Itís factors like these that prevented Computer Space from becoming one of the classics. On the other hand, the game had great physics and excellent graphics, and it helped to establish the basic standards for video arcade machine design. Atari knew the Spacewar! formula still had potential, and they would eventually perfect their interpretation of the multidirectional space shooter genre with what is undeniably their magnum opus, Asteroids. Computer Space may have failed to capture the interest of the general public, but its legacy lives on.


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Featured community review by Midcore (November 25, 2017)

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