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Computer Space (Arcade) artwork

Computer Space (Arcade) review

"The Video Game Industry's False Start"

Back in the first quarter of 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 digital 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 began to recreate the game on other computers across the country, thus exposing the game to more players and programmers. With such an influential program becoming widely available, it was inevitable that someone would ponder the idea of developing 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. This enhanced port for the PDP-11/20 offered some new features, including visible fuel meters for the spaceships as well as a variety of customizable gameplay settings for players to tinker with. Although Galaxy Game was fairly successful on campus, 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 capable of running 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 build a dedicated video game machine from spare parts, designed for the sole purpose of running their very own Spacewar! derivative, Computer Space. Bushnell and Dabney started an independent video game development company called Syzygy Engineering (later renamed to Atari), and 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, Syzygy and Nutting were certain 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 impress 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, such as pinball machines. 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 copy of Spacewar!. In order to compensate, Bushnell and Dabney needed to make some major changes to the gameplay. Like its precursors, Computer Space takes place in a virtual, two-dimensional starfield, but the star obstacle has been removed from the playfield, resulting in a lack of gravity. Due to hardware limitations, the game has also been changed from a multiplayer game to a single-player game.

In Computer Space, 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. Your objective 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, the colors of the graphics will invert, and you will be 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 space.

The photon torpedoes from Computer Spaceís precursors 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. Only one missile can be fired at a time; you will have to wait for your current missile to vanish before firing another. Fortunately, the same rule also applies to the saucersí missiles. 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. When a collision occurs between the spaceships, the rocket and the pair of saucers will earn one point each.

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. The saucers are unable to steer their missiles, but they can remain on the screen for a slightly longer period of time than the rocketís 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. Even with this restriction, the saucers usually manage to score several hits. The best way to evade enemy fire is to keep moving, and to avoid getting too close to the saucers.

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 two sets of rocket controls. What makes the gameplay in the 1973 version of Computer Space different from the 1971 version is the inclusion of a multiplayer mode alongside the original single-player mode. Two human players assume control of opposing 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, rather than pure skill.

Computer Spaceís strongest feature is, without a doubt, the quality of its graphics. Most first-generation video games, such as Pong or Breakout, used simple lines and blocks to represent a variety of different objects, due to the restrictions of the hardware that the games ran on. With Computer Space, the developers wanted the graphics to resemble those of the gameís minicomputer-based precursors as closely as possible. The Space Rocket and the Space Saucers are rendered in dotted lines, and the former spaceshipís bulky, cartoonish appearance harkens back to one of the two ships featured in Spacewar!. Each Space Saucer has a horizontal dotted line in the center that shifts back and forth, which makes the saucer look like itís spinning rapidly. The rocketís rotation uses about 16 frames of animation, which is very impressive to see in a video game from 1971. The missiles are displayed as tiny, white dots. Since they look nearly identical to the stars in the background, you would think that this would be a problem, but fortunately every mobile object in the game shines brighter than the stars. The screen flashes every time a ship is destroyed. During extended gameplay sessions, every other round takes place in hyperspace, which really means that the colors of the graphics are inverted until the next round begins.

Spacewar! and Galaxy Game did not include any sound effects or other audio elements, possibly because of how much memory was already used up by the rest of the gamesí respective features. Despite being limited to weaker hardware, the developers of Computer Space managed to include a variety of sound effects in their game. The best of these sound effects is a loud explosion, which plays every time a ship is destroyed, and is always satisfying to hear when itís a saucer thatís exploding. Unfortunately, the rest of the sound effects donít come close in terms of quality. In fact, some of them can actually be rather irritating. The saucers make a long, high-pitched beep when firing missiles. This noise sounds similar to what you might listen to during a hearing test, but itís definitely not something anyone would want to be hearing constantly. Other sound effects include what sounds like a motor (possibly the rocketís engine), and white noise for the rocketís thrusters. If youíre playing Computer Space in a room with a lot of background noise, you should still be able to hear the explosions clearly.

The developers of Computer Space deserve credit for doing something new with the Spacewar! formula and turning it into a decent single-player experience. However, the game has one fatal flaw, which prevented it from becoming one of the golden age classics. For an arcade game, Computer Space is extremely repetitive. The Space Saucers are the only enemies encountered in the entire game, and they do not appear to get tougher or smarter during extended gameplay sessions. A skilled gamer could end up playing for an indefinite amount of time, which is made pointless by the fact that the game does not record high scores, nor does it keep track of how many rounds were cleared in succession. Therefore, what may have appeared to be a technical marvel at first glance turned out to be rather mundane.

Technically, Computer Space is indeed 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 colossal success that nearly every competitor in the industry began to develop their own Pong clones and variations, which prompted Atari to continue innovating with their own products. Despite the commercial failure of Computer Space, Atari knew that the Spacewar! formula still had potential. After video games became mainstream thanks to the success of more advanced action games such as Taitoís beloved hit, Space Invaders, Atari revisited the space shooter genre and created what is now undeniably their greatest achievement, Asteroids. Computer Space may have been forgotten, but it helped Atari to get their foot in the door.


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Featured community review by Midcore (November 25, 2017)

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