The Game: You’re an adventurer with a bullwhip and a hat, and you hate snakes and love treasure – sound familiar? The bad news is that you’re surrounded by slippery snakes, scurrying scorpions and jumping spiders, all of whom can kill you instantly on contact. The only way you can eliminate these foes and claim the treasure is with a precisely-aimed crack of your whip…but if you’re surrounded, your treasure-hunting days are probably over. (Bally Sente, 1984)
Memories: When Warner Bros. bought Atari, it quickly became apparent that Atari founder Nolan Bushnell and new CEO Ray Kassar – Warner’s newly installed point man at Atari – were an uneasy fit at best. Though accounts differ between the two men, the final straw seems to have been Bushnell calling an executive board meeting and not quite getting around to inviting Kassar to it, after which Kassar went to his Warner Bros. boss, Manny Gerard, and drew up the legal papers to forcibly retire Bushnell from his duties at Atari. Bushnell was put – as Atari senior staffers called it – “on the beach,” with no say in the company’s future but a healthy percentage of a bonus pool that depended on the company’s performance.
But Atari wanted more than that to retire Bushnell to the beach: it wanted a non-compete clause, legally forbidding the Atari founder from getting in bed with one of Atari’s competitors – or, considering Bushnell’s talent for finding venture capital, preventing him from forming a new one. The clause kept Nolan Bushnell out of the video game business until 1985, by which time Bushnell had already opened talks with a small software house called Videa. When the non-compete clause expired, Bushnell bought Videa, retained its small staff of programmers, and renamed the company Sente – “checkmate” in the Chinese game Go (whose equivalent of “check” happened to be “Atari”). With much fanfare, Bushnell re-entered the business, and found a distributor in Bally/Midway. Snake Pit was one of Sente’s earliest offerings, and its hero’s resemblance to a certain fedora-wearing, bullwhip-cracking, snake-hating adventurer is surely a coincidence.
Snake Pit is certainly a unique game experience, building on Robotron’s basic concept of moving with one joystick and aiming with another, except that Snake Pit assigns a much more precise control to the task of moving the player’s character onscreen. Aiming is still relatively crude, and yet it’s an interesting combination. What works against Snake Pit is the game’s demand that the player be incredibly proficient and precise with the aim of his bullwhip – the snakes have to be hit just right or they keep coming. Even larger targets are tough customers, from the giant scorpions that split into three smaller, more agile ones (on the off chance you hit the big scorpions in just the right spot) to jumping spiders that will put an end to your adventurer before you even know what’s hit him.
Still, Snake Pit can be a lot of fun – and it’s a shame that there wasn’t a follow-up to this unique control system. It had a lot of potential.