The Game: You command a mighty battleship with three squadrons of fighters at your disposal to fend off five alien attack fleets. You can manually dispatch your fighter squadrons, send them directly into battle, and recall them to defend your ship. When your fighters go into battle, you can assume control personally and engage in a dogfight with the agile enemy fighters, or you can let the computer fight your battles on autopilot (it’ll get the job done, but usually with an undesirable, if not unacceptable, rate of losses for your side). The game ends when your squadrons have eliminated all of the converging alien fleets, or when the aliens have made quick work of both your squadrons and your command ship. (Mattel Electronics, 1979)
Memories: In 1979, Glen Larson’s TV space epic Battlestar Galactica was as hot a property as you could get on the small screen, with its movie-scale special effects (or at least, the show’s underbudgeted and overworked producers and special effects wizards hoped you thought the effects were movie-scale). Having watched rival toy maker Kenner score a major coup with the license to manufacture toys based on Star Wars, Mattel quickly stepped in to snag the rights for Battlestar Galactica. Short of whatever Star Wars sequel George Lucas turned out next, Galactica was as close as you could get to the next big thing.
But like the TV show’s ragtag fleet of colonists, Mattel’s licensing machine only went so far. The company did produce a line of action figures and a handheld, LED-display battery-powered electronic game based on the series, and the programmers in the Intellivision division of Mattel Electronics were keen to translate Galactica into a video game (and keen to get a name-brand property into the Intellivision stable that could help to raise its awareness against the already-ubiquitous Atari VCS). And in a roundabout way, Space Battle was the result.
The game is based, conceptually and visually, on Battlestar Galactica – and its makers had every intention of making it the official Battlestar Galactica video game. The attacking aliens, if you get a look at them between trying to blow them to bits, are clearly based on the distinctively disc-shaped, bat-winged Cylon warships. As cool as kids thought Battlestar Galactica was on TV, surely they’d eat it up as a video game.
But there was one little hitch – Mattel’s license for Galactica, while it did allow room for the handheld game, did not cover actual video games that could be played on a television. (One has to give Universal Studios credit for realizing that video games were the next big entertainment medium and being picky about their licensing. Then again, they also licensed E.T. to Atari a few years later – go figure.) With the game all but finished, anything Galactica-specific in the game, manual and packaging was renamed to something more generic. The game, no longer Battlestar Galactica, was now the very generic-sounding Space Battle.
Not that this makes the game any easier, though – the attacks come lightning fast, and the first-person space dogfights can be very hairy – and you don’t have Boomer and Starbuck riding shotgun and saving your butt at the last minute. At its most basic, Space Battle takes the essence of the old Star Trek mainframe computer game – find the enemy on a sector map, work out how to get there, and engage them – and updates it, though by replacing clinical paper-and-dice-game-inspired space battles with arcade-style sequences, it becomes a whole new entity. With its unique and fairly extensive use of the keypads on the game controllers, Space Battle was a minor coup for the Intellivision, once again demonstrating that there were some things that the Atari VCS couldn’t do. (At least not until Atari invented a whole new controller and ported Star Raiders from its 8-bit computers to the VCS.)
To celebrate the launch of the new Battlestar Galactica, and to give a fond look back at what could have been, we’ve prepared a “remixed” overlay that features just a few visual nods to Space Battle‘s hidden origins (click the button at right). And in the end, the “generic” outcome of Space Battle‘s gestation has turned out to be a plus for the Blue Sky Rangers, the original Intellivision programmers who carry their proud, lo-fi video gaming tradition into the present day. Because unlike certain licensed games based on arcade games, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons or Tron, the Intellivision gang has been able to keep translating the original classic games from their console to modern-day consoles, handhelds and even cell phones – and had the Battlestar Galactica name been attached to Space Battle, it too might have become an un-reprintable title. Instead, it’s one of the many classic Intellivision games featured on recent console and PC compilations and even a handheld, all-in-one TV game.