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Spacewar! Legacy

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by Sam Derboo - June 3, 2012; updated April 22, 2013

Video games are turning 50 this year! Sure, the subject is much disputed - William Higinbotham first showed his Tennis for Two in 1958, but it was running on an analog computer that worked with actual physical parameters rather than program code. Other early "electronic games" were adaptions of Tic-Tac-Toe or other board games. The first video game, however, whose status no one can argue with, was running in February 1962 on a PDP-1 mainframe at MIT. The groundbreaking program by Stephen Russell and his companions did many things only a computer program could do: It calculated velocity, inertia and thrust of two player-controlled, simulated space crafts, as well as the projectiles of their weapons and the influence of a gravitational center, and displayed it all on a screen together with an authentic star map. The name of the game: Spacewar!

Spacewar! was also the first game to reach some kind of measurable popularity. Of course we're not talking mass-market million seller here, but it was soon installed on many PDP-1 machines to showcase the computer's capabilities, and thus became available to most of the students that worked with it. Soon they would start to make their own additions and modifications to the program, effectively creating the first game modding scene.

So, let's take a look at this great innovation in electronic entertainment, but let's not stop there. Instead we're going to trace its direct legacy of games that stayed true to the basic concepts and mechanics of Spacewar!. But of course, an article on a whole genre of games would soon become blown far out of proportion, so let's define a few rules of what deserves to be discussed here and what doesn't:

  • The games have to preserve the most basic control principles of their grand ancestor, with separate keys/buttons for steering and thrust. If simply pressing a direction also moves the ship (like in Color Meteroids and other twin stick shooters), then the game is out. Also excluded is semi-automatic cruise control for the thrust, like in Netrek and Solar Winds. There also has to be some simulation of the physics involved, however loose.
  • 2D only. This doesn't necessarily means 2D graphics, but ships have to move on a two dimensional plane rather than in three dimensional space. This distinguishes the genre from full free space combat simulations like Wing Commander.
  • Although there can be gravitational centers (as there is one in Spacewar!), the article focuses on games with a perceived top-down perspective. The branching subgenre of gravity games with clear up and down directions, which was started with Lunar Lander in 1979, will be outlined in brief on the last page.
  • Even more futuristic than the idea of playing games on a computer was the premise of Spacewar!, and the original drive behind the game was a love of technology and science fiction, so only games with sci-fi scenarios and spaceships are included.
  • Simple clones of other games that offer absolutely nothing interesting are omitted, the same goes for free- and shareware games. A few interesting ones will get a brief look on the final page.

Asteroids (PSX)

Sources and Links:

Playing Spacewar! on a PDP-12

Steve Russell, the main programmer of Spacewar!

Space Wars (Arcade)


Spacewar! - PDP-1 (1962)

Dan Edwards (left) and Peter Samson (photo: Computer History Museum)

How many laboratory workers do you need to invent video games? Well three, at first. The original concept for Spacewar! came from three die-hard science fiction fans at MIT: Wayne Wiitanen, J. Martin Graetz and Stephen R. Russell. In fall 1961, the institute was getting the brand new PDP-1, the first computer that had any semblance of user friendliness and is vaguely recognizable as related to the machines that have become an indispensable part of our lives today. Especially its CRT display, which was scheduled to follow later, would open unimaginable new possibilities in interactive computing. Even before the machine was installed, the three were already fighting dogfights in the space of their imagination. The original motivation was to demonstrate the capabilities of the new machine, which to them clearly meant to exhaust its computing power as well as the graphical capabilities of the corresponding cutting-edge CRT screen, all the while entertaining the person in front of the computer. So from the very beginning, long before Wing Commander sold the 386 to home users, and even longer before Rebel Assault made CD-ROM drives a success, games became a benchmark for new computer technology.

Alas, by the time the system was up and running, Graetz had been delegated to another department at MIT, and Wiitanen as an Army Reservist had been called to duty in Berlin, leaving Russell to actually program the game. Russell was called "Slug" at MIT, and doing his nickname honor, he delayed work until another colleague, Alan Kotok, brought him a sine-cosine routine from a trip to the Digital Equipment Corporation.

The first running version of Spacewar! that the Slug showed his co-workers in February 1962 was still quite barebones. The game consisted only of two ships that could move around in 360 degrees and shoot at each other with photon torpedoes, but it was playable.

The first extension for Russell's game came from Peter Samson. Not content with the random star background in the original version, he wrote a routine called "Expensive Planetarium," which generated a starfield based on the actual night sky between 22 1/2 N and 22 1/2 S, even representing each star's individual brightness.

One of the most defining factors in the finished game came from Dan Edwards, who put a sun in the middle of the playfield for the players to avoid, including the gravity calculations involved, so the star would suck player ships into its center. Finally, Martin Graetz added the hyperspace escape, a move players could use to randomly transport to another location on screen should they find themselves in a tight spot. By this time, in April 1962 the game was essentially complete.

There were a few technical issues left, though. The gravity calculations only included the ships themselves, but not their projectiles, which could fly right through the sun. The game still had no scorekeeping, which was later added for a presentation at MIT's Science Open House event in May. Finally, the PDP-1 didn't have the perfect setup for two player fun: the screen was set to one side of the control panel, giving one player the advantage, and it was easy to accidentally hit the wrong controls, like the system's power switch. So Alan Kotok and Robert A. Saunders decided to create dedicated controllers for the game, basically just detachable wooden boxes with some switches, to make the experience more comfortable.

The game was as big a hit as was possible at a time where computers weren't the widespread household equipment we know today, but rather big, bulky monstrosities owned only by technological research facilities. Spacewar! soon spread over to other institutes and was ported to many successive machines of the PDP series, and eventually the program code came to be shipped with the computers themselves. Soon students and engineers at other institutes produced a number of mods and upgrades to the program, including Silas Warner's Orbitwar, pioneering in networked gaming no later than 1974.

The game itself was a lot of fun, if a bit on the slow side from today's point of view. Too bad there's not much chance for most people to experience the game in its original state - the original Spacewar PDP-1 was retired in 1975 and there are only three known PDP-1 computers in existence, one of which was restored to working state at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, where it can be played on special occasions.

There is, however, besides tons of clones for later systems, an emulator running Spacewar! in Java, but of course it can't possibly even remotely convey the look and feel of the original hardware, and it lacks all the additional options of later versions.

Quick Info:

Main Programmer:

Stephen R. Russell

Genre:

Action: Single Screen / Arena
Shoot-'em-Up: Other

Themes:

Older than the NES
Space Combat


Spacewar! (PDP-1)

Spacewar! (Java PDP-1 Emulator)

Spacewar! (Java PDP-1 Emulator)


Galaxy Game - PDP-11/20 (1971)

Galaxy Game Cabinet

The next game among the many versions and clones of Spacewar! that deserves mention is called Galaxy Game. Basically a rather straightforward port on slightly newer computer hardware, Bill Pitts and Hugh Tuck made not only the first dedicated gaming machine out of the comparatively affordable PDP-11/20 (the whole unit including display and cabinet is said to have cost about $20,000), but also the first commercial computer game ever by including a coin receptor (a game was 10 cents, or three games a quarter). The computer, which later was capable to run up to eight consoles, was installed at Stanford University where it would continue operation until 1979, when it finally broke down. But Galaxy Game has been restored and is now located at the Computer History Museum.

Quick Info:

Creator:

Bill Pitts
Hugh Tuck

Genre:

Action: Single Screen / Arena
Shoot-'em-Up: Other

Themes:

Older than the NES
Space Combat


Galaxy Game


Computer Space - Arcade (1971)

Original Flyer

2-Player Cabinet Flyer

The last of the truly archaic parts of this article leads to Computer Space by Nutting Associates. It was developed by Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney of later Atari fame, and could be considered just another Spacewar! variant, but with a whole new twist. While Galaxy Game introduced commercial coin-op gaming, Nutting Associates went a step further by trying to mass market the concept. As the story is told, Bushnell envisioned coin-operated video games the first time he played Spacewar! in university, but the prohibitive costs of computer technology made it unfeasible. (Galaxy Game, while it took money from players, was an experimental project and not meant to make a profit.) Only when he and Dabney figured out a way to manipulate a TV screen with simple and cheap circuitry, they could come up with a design worth producing. So ironically, Computer Space doesn't actually run on a computer.

The marketing for the game wasn't bad at all. The cabinet was inspired by the spacey and futuristic trend of the late 60's and 70's, and even the woman on the legendary poster ad could as well have just jumped out of Logan's Run or Star Wars (the latter of which which it actually predates by six years). It's nothing too fancy, but from a retro-SF perspective, it's probably even more awesome today than it was back then.

Computer Space finally was trying to create a satisfying single player experience (a 2-player duel version was released later, though there's some dispute to when this exactly happened) - the player would wage war against a pair of flying saucers, which acted randomly, but nonetheless constituted a worthy opponent due to their agile maneuvering capabilities and secure aim. The basic controls are the same as in Spacewar!, but there is no escape warp. Instead, it featured a "hyperspace" extended play, which came after the normal game if you won, and messed with the display colors (all two of them!). Interestingly, the limited technology caused the rockets to be remote controlled, as their path would bend with the rotation of the ship.

The game would keep track of both the players and the UFOs' score for 90 seconds, and then decide the winner. Technical limitations didn't allow for a score higher than 15, though, and if someone should score more points, it would reset to zero. There are even sound effects in the game, but it sounds no different than a swarm of crickets.

While Computer Space, due to its orientation to the mass market, is somewhat more accessible than its contemporary Galaxy Game - computerspacefan.com lists some 60-odds known surviving machines - it's still far from being available for everyone, and since it didn't even run on a micro processor, there's not much going on in terms of emulation. However, there's a simulation by Mike "Moose" O'Malley that tries to recreate the original game experience as closely as possible (down to the painful sound).

Maybe thanks to its less realistic approach to inertial force, it feels more playable than Spacewar! from today's point of view, but the execution probably wasn't the most professional possible - besides the mentioned score limit "bug" (which is fixed in the simulator, by the way), the ships often respawn into each other, destroying both of them and adding up the score for both sides at the same time. Shooting the UFO's is also just not as exciting and intense as the player vs. player matches in Spacewar! could get.

Quick Info:

Publisher:

Nutting Associates

Designer:

Nolan Bushnell
Ted Dabney

Genre:

Action: Single Screen / Arena
Shoot-'em-Up: Other

Themes:

Older than the NES
Space Combat


Computer Space Simulator

Computer Space (Arcade)

Red Computer Space Cabinet


Space Wars - Arcade (1977), Vectrex (1982)

Spanish Arcade Flyer

Vectrex Cover

In 1977, Cinematronics released another version of Spacewar! to the arcades, with a slight name change. Other than Galaxy Game, this was basically just the same game as the original Spacewar!, mainly updating it to the current state of the art technology. In a long line of firsts in this article, its creator Larry Rosenthal built the game around the first vector-based arcade machine, which was not only predestined for this kind of 360 degree rotational games, but also at that time clearly outmatched the ugly, low-res pixel graphics commonly used, and would set a new trend that continued until the early 1980s. Also the sound effects, as agonizing they may sound to today's ears, set new standards as well.

On the gameplay side, Space Wars expanded into a fairly complex space combat simulation. The new hardware power allowed for more realistic physics, with gravity now afflicting the bullets as well. When hit, the ships would explode and scatter away into their fragments, and you can even continue playing with a partially damaged ship, though your warp engine might stop working. To round things up, ammunition and fuel are in limited supply, and when you run out of both, you are doomed to await your death. Another addition was a small asteroid cruising the playfield - would this give birth to Atari's later hit Asteroids? Nolan Bushnell wouldn't tell us...

To mix things up a bit, players can choose from a wide range of playing modes and options. There are varying degrees of gravity (with the possibility to even completely disable momentum) and speeds, with optional bouncing off walls, a black hole instead of a sun and reversed gravity. By the way, coins weren't used to buy extra lives, but extra time, naturally for both players alike, so weaker player's didn't receive the financial punishment they're subjected to in most arcade games.

When the Vectrex, the world's only vector based home console, hit the market in 1982, it received a port of Space Wars as well. This one is very faithful to the arcade game, only sacrificing a few minor aspects of the physics engine, so gravity influenced bullets disappeared once again. But since it was a home port, it introduced a CPU-controlled rival, and a quite competent one at that. The only gripe with this version is that it didn't make very good use of the Vectrex's overlays, compared to most other games for the platform.

Space Wars is also famous for the most legendary deal a game developer ever struck with a publisher. It is told that Rosenthal got a 50/50 share of all earnings made with the game, and also retained the patents for the technology, so Cinematronics would have to pay him a licensing fee for any games that built upon it. However, Cinematronics would soon buy out his failed independent venture Vectorbeam and thus get hold of the desirable patents, resulting in many more vector games by them.

Quick Info:

Developer:

Cinematronics

Publisher:

Cinematronics (Arcade)
GCE (Vectrex)

Programmer:

Larry Rosenthal

Genre:

Action: Single Screen / Arena
Shoot-'em-Up: Other

Themes:

Older than the NES
Space Combat


Space Wars (Arcade)

Space Wars (Vectrex)


Space War - Atari VCS, NDS (1978)

Atari VCS Cover

Another subtle name change later, Space War suddenly was an Atari game. The chunky visuals, of course, were nowhere near as elegant as the vector games, nor did it sport equally convincing physics. There is no ship-to-ship collision detection at all, so it's much harder to work out a tie if you've used up all your ammo, especially since it wouldn't be resupplied until the opponent ran out of it as well.

As if to compensate for this shortcomings, the home version Space War offered a ton of new options. Emulating most of the arcade game's modes, it also featured several new catch-the-ball games for one or two players.

This variant of the game is also emulated on the compilation Atari's Greatest Hits: Volume 2 for Nintendo DS.

Quick Info:

Developer:

Atari

Publisher:

Atari

Genre:

Action: Single Screen / Arena
Shoot-'em-Up: Other

Themes:

Older than the NES
Space Combat


Space War (Atari VCS)

Space War (Atari VCS)


<<< Prior Page

Next Page >>>

Page 1:
Spacewar!
Galaxy Game
Computer Space
Space Wars

Page 2:
Orbit
Asteroids
Rip Off
Star Castle

Page 3:
Omega Race
Space Fury
Solar Quest
Eliminator
Space Fortress
Moon War
Space Duel

Page 4:
Zektor
Gravitar
Dark Planet
Mine Storm
Star Trek
Cosmic Chasm
Star Maze

Page 5:
Cerberus
Blasteroids
Afteroids
Ebonstar
Stardust
Super Stardust
Asteroids (1998)

Page 6:
Star Control series
Starflight
Star Trek TNG
Big Sky Trooper

Page 7:
Fire Fight
Subspace/Continuum
Armada
Battlestar Galactica
Shred Nebula

Page 8:
What's up, Japan?
Gravity Games
Homebrew

Back to the Index