Asteroids

AsteroidsBuy this gameThe Game: As the pilot of a lone space cruiser, you must try to clear the spaceways of a swarm of free-floating asteroids, but the job isn’t easy – Newton’s laws of motion must be obeyed, even by asteroids. When you blow a big rock into little chunks, those chunks go zipping off in opposite directions with the speed and force imparted by the amount of energy you used to dispel them. To that screenful of bite-sized chunks o’ death, add an unpredictable hyperspace escape mechanism and a pesky UFO that See the videolikes to pop in and shoot at you, and you’re between several large rocks and a hard place. (Atari, 1979)

Memories: Easily the most “physics-correct” space video game ever made, Asteroids was also one of the coolest. It was equally fun to play it real safe or, as in the example animation seen below, to just go nuts and live on the edge. Continue reading

Basketball

Atari BasketballThe Game: It’s a one-on-one hardwood hoedown as two players control tank-topped, gym-socked hoops stars in an effort to bank the most baskets. Whoever buckets the most balls by the end of the game’s preset timer wins. (Atari, 1979)

Memories: Since the previous year’s Football lost its quarter-eating steam after the end of football season, Atari decided to take a swipe at other popular American sports. Taking another cue from Football, Basketball used the trakball controller – two of them, actually, meaning the cabinets took a real beating in arcades. The result was a simple enough one-on-one game – something which had been done as early as 1974 by Midway, Atari’s chief U.S. competitor – though this was the first time basketball had gone 3-D, courtesy of four simple diagonal lines. Continue reading

Bomb Bee

Bomb BeeThe Game: Video pinball is back, and now in more than one color! Bomb Bee takes the game mechanics of Gee Bee and makes them noisier and brighter, adding “bumper traps” that can keep the ball bouncing in tight cul-de-sacs, racking up massive bonus points with every strike. (Namco, 1979)

See the videoMemories: When Namco introduced the world’s first arcade game with a full-color monitor, Galaxian, it was still fairly experimental, and some other Namco releases in 1979 were still in black & white. One of the first color games to follow Galaxian was Bomb Bee, Toru Iwitani’s reworking of Gee Bee, now in brilliant color. Continue reading

Cutie Q

Cutie QBuy this gameThe Game: You control a pair of paddles at the bottom and center of the screen. Serve a single ball into play, and skillfully deflect it toward rows of brightly colored monsters; tripping all of the “face bumpers” near the center of the See the videoscreen can yield a big bonus multiplier. If you can drive the ball toward a tunnel structure at the top center of the screen, it’ll do a lot of the work for you, blasting monsters from behind until it carves a gap big enough to fall toward your paddles again. Of course, standard Breakout rules apply: if you let three balls leave the screen, the game’s over. (Namco, 1979)

Memories: The third and final game in Toru Iwitani’s series of riffs on video pinball and Breakout, Cutie Q is the most unique (and also my favorite of the three). Not simply content to add more color to his previous game, Iwitani started from scratch, even adding a tunnel full of suspiciously Q*Bert-like critters that can be eliminated for bonus points. It still retains some pinball elements, but Cutie Q is more firmly in video game territory than either Gee Bee or Bomb Bee. Continue reading

Galaxian

GalaxianThe Game: In one of the most seminal variations on the Space Invaders format, Galaxian was among the first clones to introduce attacking formations that would break off from the usual rows and columns of See the videoBuy this gameinvaders. Though Galaxian‘s use of this innovation was minimal, it was a drastic change from the usual slowly-advancing target gallery. (Bally/Midway [under license from Namco], 1979)

Memories: Galaxian may not be as well remembered as the much more strategically challenging Galaga, but it ultimately added a vital new twist to the Space Invaders-inspired genre, a format which was badly in danger of becoming stale. Galaxian was also the first arcade video game to use a color display instead of a monochrome monitor with translucent colored overlays. Continue reading

Lunar Lander

Lunar LanderBuy this gameThe Game: Gene Kranz isn’t around to give you a go/no-go for landing – in Lunar Lander, you’re on your own, trying to use the least fuel to bring your lander down for a soft touchdown on the safest target area available. You can always scrub the landing by pulling the ABORT handle, or you can opt for nerves of steel and try to keep your ship – valued at 100 megabucks, incidentally – in one piece. Failure, as some associated with the moon program have been known to say, is not an option for making that one small step…but if you do litter your landing pod across the lunar landscape so many times that you run out of fuel, you can always try to salvage the space program’s integrity for another quarter. (Atari, 1979)

See the videoMemories: Atari’s first foray into vector graphics was old news by computer mainframe standards. The basic premise of Lunar Lander had been around as a text-only game, blasting craters into college students’ productivity and computer lab time, for years. Continue reading

Lunar Rescue

Lunar RescueBuy this gameThe Game: Those pesky Space Invaders are back and this time they’ve got hostages. Your mothership hovers in orbit over the craggy, uninviting surface of the moon, waiting for you to hit the action button and signal the beginning of your mission. The docking back doors open underneath you and your lander begins See the videodropping toward the surface. You can control where you land, and to some extent the speed, and you’ll have to weave through several rotating zones of meteoroids to reach the surface safely. Once landed, you can take on one passenger, and then you have to blast off again to ferry your man back to the mothership. Only this time, the meteors are replaced by several waves of flying saucers who will not only be happy to ram your lander, but shoot at you from above too. If you get your man home – or even if you don’t – the mission begins anew until you run out of ships. Higher difficulty levels add more enemies, such as fireballs streaking through the sky. (Taito, 1979)

Memories: This very obscure Space Invaders sequel takes some of the same basic ideas as Atari’s Lunar Lander (released the same year) and adds some lunar loonies and other more obviously fictional elements; Lunar Lander was good if you wanted a straight-ahead simulation of an Apollo landing, but you get to land your ship and then take off and shoot stuff in Lunar Rescue. It’s challenging and quite a bit of fun, too – I find myself playing this one for a pretty good stretch if I start. Continue reading

Monaco GP

Monaco GPThe Game: Players get behind the wheel of a roaring race car, viewed from overhead, as it navigates a series of roads and occasional tunnels whose width varies dramatically. Tunnels are illuminated only by See the videoheadlights, which means that collisions with other cars are, if not certain, then at least much more likely. Any collision results in the player’s car having to get into traffic again from a dead standstill at the side of the road. (Sega, 1979)

Memories: Monaco GP looks like just about any other overhead racing game, though it certainly upped the ante in terms of color. Its interesting take on the concept of “road widening” also made it uniquely frustrating and amusing at the same time. But as similar as it may seem to rest of the overhead-view racing games of its day, Monaco GP does hold one distinction in video game history. Continue reading

Starhawk

StarhawkThe Game: The player pilots a space fighter into an endless dogfight above a space station trench. Enemy ships attack from all directions, and even zip See the videodown the trench; and and all of these can be blasted into bits for points. Beware the fastest of these enemy fighters, which will appear with very little notice and fire directly at the player’s score, relieving it of points every time the fighter is successful with its attack! (Cinematronics, 1979)

Memories: 1979 is the year that trench warfare – i.e. the Death Star trench – hit arcades and consoles alike. With the premiere of Star Wars in May 1977, game designers everywhere seemed to home in on the movie’s climactic flight through the Death Star trench as obvious video game material, and with good reason: the enclosed space offered plenty of hazards and limited room to maneuver, as well as the illusion of 3-D depth. As long as the hardware for a given project could handle the display requirements, the game play was a no-brainer – it had already been dictated by George Lucas and ILM. The only thing that kept the earliest variations on the Death Star trench theme from appearing immediately after the movie was the turnaround time for development, programming and manufacturing. Continue reading

Star Fire

Star FireThe Game: This may sound awfully familiar, but you’re the lone surviving pilot of a space squadron decimated by enemy attacks. The enemy’s bow-tie-shaped fighters are closing in on you from all sides, and you must keep an eye on your own fighter’s shields, weapon temperature (overheated lasers don’t like to fire anymore), and ammo, all while trying to draw a bead on those pesky enemy ships. You’re also very much on your own – nobody’s going to show up and tell you you’re all clear, kid. (Exidy, 1979)

Memories: It didn’t just sound familiar – Exidy’s 3-D blast-o-rama Star Fire looked familiar – its TIE fighter-shaped enemies and the typestyle seen in its attract mode were straight out of Star Wars. How it escaped a legal dogfight is hard to fathom – unless it has something to do with George Lucas and 20th Century Fox not wanting to remind everyone that the only other exponent of that galaxy far, far away in 1979 was the Star Wars Holiday Special. Continue reading

Video Pinball

Video PinballThe Game: Pull the plunger back and fire the ball into play. The more bumpers it hits, the more points you rack up. But don’t let the ball leave the table – doing so three times ends the game. (Atari, 1979)

Memories: Having done Basketball and Football as successful video games, Atari turned its attention to other sports and other balls…so to speak. One such experiment was the not-quite-successful Video Pinball, the company’s attempt to bring the excitement and physics of pinball to the video screen.

The game’s dazzling disco-era look was the result of the video display being generated backward by a monitor laying flat inside the cabinet. The monitor’s display was then reflected toward the player by way of a half-silvered mirror with the overlay decal attached. The result was that the video display now magically shined through the artwork. (The animation seen here shows a rough approximation of the screen as seen in the arcades, the actual video display, and the artwork overlay that made things a bit more colorful.) This was actually a very common trick in early arcade games: Space Invaders used it, and so did many others right into the 1980s…until processing power increased enough for most games to generate their own backgrounds. Continue reading

Warrior

WarriorThe Game: Two armored knights coalesce out of thin air in an enclosed arena, swords at the ready. Before they can do battle, there’s the matter of simply navigating the arena’s geography: a pair of bottomless pits can lead either knight to his death, and each pit is surrounded on two sides by a staircase than can make for a handy resting place – or an even deadlier place to duel. There’s also a narrow catwalk between the pits. If the knights can stay on firm ground, the sword-swinging begins; when a knight is vanquished, he re-forms in the corner where he first appeared and can charge into battle again until he has lost all of his lives. Whoever’s still standing at the end of the game wins. (Cinematronics/Vectorbeam, 1979)

See the videoMemories: A great example of how new everything was in the early days of video games, Warrior is the first head-to-head fighting game, allowing two players to bash each other to bits (or stumble into the pits); there was no single-player mode. Graphically, the game is incredibly simple: the black & white vector graphics are responsible for nothing but the knights (nicely drawn and animated for the late 70s) and their respective scores. Everything else is a fluorescent-lit overhead view of the arena. That artwork could be seen through a half-silvered mirror, while the monitor itself actually displayed the graphics backwards so the mirror would show the knights over the playing field. This was a common trick of the day to achieve graphics that there simply wasn’t enough computer power to draw, but it was incredibly effective – and, at the time, it was all so new. Continue reading

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