Player 2 Stage 2: Quarter Explosion
Founder Nolan Bushnell is about to leave Atari, but not before his company finally proves videogames a lasting force in the entertainment industry. And Midway/Taito's Space Invaders is set to launch the whole scene into the stratosphere.
Between the lines
As management chafes at his sweet 50/50 split of the Space Wars profits pouring in, Larry Rosenthal is convinced by head sales rep Bill Cravens to leave Cinematronics and start his own company, placing Cravens as president of the new venture. Thus he takes all his technology and documentation on the hardware and begets VectorBeam, baseing the company in Sunnyvale, CA and leaving the Cinematronics design labs barren. After producing his own competing Space Wars game, he designs vector game Speed Freak, released in 1977. While it is not the original "first-person" driving game (Night Driver, made by Atari a year earlier, takes that honour), it is nonetheless an astounding production. The most realistic driving game made up to that point, Speed Freak involves wheeling a car down a winding road while trying to avoid oncoming traffic and various
obstacles like hitchhikers and wayward cows at the side of the road. There is a gear shift offering four gears, and when the player collides with another car, there is a spectacular explosion of various automobile parts.
Unfortunately there are only 700 units produced, and Speed Freak speeds into oblivion. The steering wheel's super-sensitive response and the rather limited graphic of the player's car probably don't help matters. VectorBeam is soon folded back into Cinematronics, with Rosenthal receiving a million dollar payout for his company. In turn, Cinematronics gets Rosenthal's new game Tailgunner, as well as all rights to the vectorbeam game technology.
They're here! You're next!
In 1978, Taito is a struggling manufacturer of Pachinko games (players drop balls down into a colourful playfield and try to direct them into holes for points). That year one of their engineers, Toshihiro Nishikado, designs and programs their first videogame, Space Invaders. Players are charged with protecting the planet from relentless hoards of aliens marching down the screen, with just a single-shot moving gun and four shot-blocking bunkers as protection. The more aliens you shoot, the faster they move, accompanied by an ominous, thudding marching sound. The display is black and white, with screen overlays giving the appearance of colour. Adding to the festivities is an entertaining attract mode, featuring the little critters fixing onscreen typos like running out to replace an inverted "Y" in "PLAY SPACE INVADERS" or shooting away the extra "C" in the game's request to "INSERT CCOIN". Upon release Space Invaders practically causes riots across Japan, as well as being responsible for a nation-wide coin shortage that forces the government to quadruple Yen production to keep up. To cash in on the craze, shopowners clear out their merchandise and set up all-Space Invader arcades overnight. Midway, licensing the game, soon finds itself in possession of the biggest arcade videogame hit in America up to that point. The game
transcends the regular videogame ghetto of pool halls and bars, popping up in department stores, restaurants and other mainstream venues. It is followed by numerous imitators and sequels such as Space Invaders II and
Invaders Revenge, and becomes a huge force in the home videogame market as the first arcade game licensed for a home console, the Atari VCS. In its various incarnations, the game has pulled in over $500 million in revenue over the years. And what would a classic arcade game be if it wasn't the target of a seemingly superfluous modern updating? In Space Invader's case, it comes at the hands of game developer Z-Axis and distributer Activision, releasing their revamp on Nintendo's N64 gaming platform for Christmas 1999. Along with the obligatory graphics enhancement, the new game throws power-ups, multiple weapons and end-level bosses into the mix.
Atari Football is released to arcades by Atari in 1978, drowning out everything else as over-excited players slap its newfangled control method, the Trak Ball, into submission. A large black rolling ball sunk into the game cabinet, the faster it is swept by the player, the faster his on-screen alter ego "runs". The game was originally conceived in 1975 by Steve Bristow, with the title X's and O's. Bristow abandons the game to make Tank, and the game is later ressurected by Dave Stubbens and Mike Albaugh, with additional help from Lyle Rains. Also introduced for the first time is a playfield that extends beyond the borders of the monochrome screen, allowing plays to run the entire length of the simulated gridiron. It is also the first game to portray it's sport in an even remotely realistic manner. While the on-screen teams are represented by the former title character X's and O's (in the tradition of actual football playbooks), players can choose complex running and passing plays on a panel-mounted menu. No kicking plays allowed, however. The game also features a unique buy-in scheme; in addition to the game's original allotement of 1.5 minutes, additional time can be bought for more quarters. The game is a smash hit in the US, giving even arcade phenomenon Space Invaders a run for its money during the US football season. While the original is a two player game, Atari later releases a four player version, done by Ed Logg.
Breaking Rocks and Records
Reeling from the fact that they hadn't been responsible for quarter gobbler Space Invaders, Atari desperately scrambles for the next insanely great arcade game. In 1978, 27 year old Atari engineering Vice President Lyle Rains is developing a game concept for Cosmos, the company's planned holographic gaming project headed by Pong engineer Al Alcorn. With the working title of Planet Grab and rendered in 3D graphics, the game would involve players piloting around a solar system claiming planets by touching them. This 3D gaming system is little more than a pipe dream by Atari, and is eventually prototyped as a programmable, hand-held system and shown to the public in 1981. The much-hyped holographic content is limited to fancy 3D backgrounds for such standard games as Space Invaders, and the Cosmos project is eventually scrapped. But after Rains discusses his ideas with designer Logg, his game idea is further developed as a vector graphics arcade game. Named Asteroids, Logg and his team know they have a major hit on their hands. They literally have to pull Atari employees off the prototypes in order to work on them. When the game is released in 1979, they are proven correct. Asteroids is a truly watershed arcade videogame...it literally defines the genre in the minds of the public. A perfect synergy between simplicity and intense gameplay, the game has players using buttons to thrust a spaceship around an asteroid field. When one rock is shot, it breaks into smaller ones, and so on till completely destroyed. Using the Hyperspace button, the player's ship can jump to a random point on the screen to escape immediate death, but at the risk of re-appearing in the path of an oncoming projectile. Every so often flying saucers enter the screen, intent on the player's destruction. Adding to the popularity is a high-score system introduced by Asteroids, allowing players to record thier initials to be diplayed next to their score for all to see.
Demand is so strong for the game that Atari halts production of its first vector game, Lunar Lander (released just three months earlier), to switch over to making more Asteroids. They go on to sell in excess of 70,000 units, smashing the previous records set by Space Invaders. I myself become a hopeless addict; perfecting the "save one slow-moving meteorite and poach the UFO when it comes out" strategy in my arcade. To me, it was the first arcade game to really suck me into its premise and execution. I was never much of a Space Invaders fan, it was just too relentlessly monotonous. But Asteroids, with its cool ship inertia and frighteningly close shaves between the rocks, is simply a masterpiece of design and programming. The game is followed by Dave Shepperd's sequel Asteroids Deluxe in 1980, along with raster graphics makeover Blasteroids in 1987. Over an illustrious 16 year career at Atari, Ed Logg creates some of their more memorable arcade games, including Centipede (with Donna Bailey), Millipede, Gauntlet, Gauntlet II, XYbots, and Steel Talons.