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Spacewar! Legacy

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What's up, Japan?
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What's up, Japan?

With Space Invaders, Japan discovered its own distinct breed of space shooters early on, whereas the 360-degree free-roaming kind never quite caught on over there. Even Atari's big hit Asteroids, distributed by Sega, left Japanese gamers unimpressed and flopped. (The Sega games introduced on these pages were all done by the American Sega-Gremlin branch.) This caused reflections upon the different approaches to game design in the East and the West. In his book Video Invaders Steve Bloom quotes Yoko Yama, a spokesman for Data East in the US: "I think as a people, we did not understand it. It was very difficult for us to play." Further, the blame is placed on the control scheme: "The U.S. likes buttons. We are much happier with levers. I don't know why that is. Maybe it has to do something with typewriters."

The inability to "get" the control scheme wasn't unique to Japan, though. As Nolan Bushnell tells Retro Gamer about the first non-engineer crowd they tested Computer Space on: "They had no clue what was going on. (...) I remember trying to teach people about the thrust control and it just wasn't part of their DNA." (Amusingly, Computer Space prototypes had started out with levers, but they were replaced for buttons after they broke too quickly.) Probably Japan just didn't bother to get adjusted to the mechanics after Space Invaders.

There are a number of obscure Japanese home computer games that took inspiration from the likes of Spacewar! and Asteroids, but even then the mechanics were adjusted to something suiting the preferences of a Japanese audience. Both Galaxy Fight and Galaxy Mission (1984), published by ASCII for the NEC PC-6001 hardware, may look like clones of Spacewar! and Space Fury, respectively, and they simulate inertia alright, but they actually use a more direct control scheme and are essentially just 8-way shooters: Holding any directional control moves the ship straight into that direction, eliminating the gentre-typical division between thrust and steering.

Hudson Soft's Star Stream actually had the relative "tank controls," but it was still eight directions only, and like in early airplane dogfight shooters like Ace (1976) and Time Pilot (1982), the ship always rushed at full speed, giving the player no control over the thrust. Other games that look similar are Cyclod by Tukumo Denki and Super Meteor Invader (also known as Metro Wars) by Magicsoft, but neither seems to be available on the web, unfortunately. Thus the only confirmed genre example developed in Japan is the added stage in the SG-1000 version of Sega's Zoom 909.

Star Stream (PC-8001)

Galaxy Mission (PC-6001)

Galaxy Fight (PC-6001)

Super Meteor Invader (PC-6001)


Gravity Games

While mechanically very similar to the more direct legacy of Spacewar!, gravity games carry one distinctive difference: They have a fixed gravitational direction, usually towards the bottom of the screen, so the player has to adjust thrust constantly to avoid falling down and crashing on the terrain. The roots of the subgenre lie once again on PDP computers, in form of several moon landing simulations, where players set thrust and direction to safely place a landing capsule in a mountainous area. Atari adapted the concept for the arcade experience with their Lunar Lander in 1979, applying the same controls used by their other 1979 hit, Asteroids. The capsule in Lunar Lander however, maneuvers much slower, enforcing almost strategic thinking. Like many Atari classics, a remake of Lunar Lander is freely playable online. Atari's game inspired more imitations, the most famous among them Commodore's Jupiter Lander for their line of 8-bit home computers.

The next step in this evolutionary branch was made by Gravitar. This approach, which added combat and light exploration elements, was later fully popularized by Thrust. Jeremy Smith (who later worked on the Amiga classic Exile) programmed it originally for BBC Micro and Acorn Electron, two obscure computers only the Brits cared about, but it was eventually ported to most 8-bit computers around, and soon became exceedingly popular, spawning tons of "Thrust-clones," essentially forming a new sub-sub genre. In Thrust, the task was to find an orb inside the cave system of each planet, grab it by a rope and maneuver back to the exit with the cumbersome freight. Most of the following clones thus retained some element of picking stuff up from the surface.

Thrust itself warranted a sequel in 1987, the same year FTL Games delivered one of the first clones with Oids, for Atari ST and Mac. In the grand scheme of things, though, gravity games remained a tiny niche from a commercial standpoint, since their evolution came relatively late. For whatever reason Thrust-clones were a huge phenomenon on the Amiga, though, and the derivatives are legion. Beyond Commodore's 16-bit flagship, there's the unlikely candidate Solar Jetman: Hunt for the Golden Warpship for the NES and Sub-Terrania for the Genesis.

After countless indie adaptions for PCs, more recently the big consoles also got their fixes: GravityCrash is available for both PS3 (since 2009) and PSP (2010), while Xbox 360 users can find Gravitron 360 on the XBLIG marketplace.

Lunar Lander (Arcade)

Thrust (C64)


Noteworthy Free- & Shareware Games

Spheres of Chaos - Archimedes, Windows, Linux, PS2 (1992-2012)

When looking at the mechanics alone, Spheres of Chaos appears to be a simple clone of Asteroids, but it's the presentation that makes it special. While the original version for Acorn Archimedes computers was still comparatively tame, the 1998 Windows remake by the same author is a psychedelic mess of exploding pixels, and a real sight to behold in motion. Yet another redo is currently in the making, using more modern effects in place of a pixel mess. Screenshots are available at the official homepage.

Transplant - Amiga (1992)

This Amiga public domain title also starts out just like a scrolling version of Asteroids, but already in the second stage enemy space ships become the more dominant threat. The gallery of hazards includes many alien ship types (that fortunately have a very shot firing range to make up for their high numbers), turrets and even twirling asteroids. Remaining enemies are displayed on a radar, which is represented as a bunch of yellow dots around the ship. The playfield is quite small, though, so it's not really necessary. Finishing a stage awards the player some money, which can be used to purchase extra lives, stronger weapons, better maneuverability or shields. The most interesting feature is the two player splitscreen, which can be played in cooperative or competitive mode.

Xpilot - Windows, MacOS, Linux, iOS (1992-2012)

Xpilot's first versions were made public in 1992, so it predates the commercial SubSpace as an online-multiplayer Spacewar!-inspired title. Since the game is open source, numerous code branches and variants have evolved over time. Certainly the Continuum alternative for the tinkerer, Xpilot is content with a barebones interface and abstract graphics. (Official homepage)

Quasar Wars - Amiga (1996)

One wouldn't guess that Quasar wars never had a retail release, seeing how the shareware title is just as profesionally made as any other of the Amiga greats. Similar to Fire Fight from the same year, the player is sent on various missions to defeat certain enemies, destroy structures or collect computer chips. Every target brings in money, which can be invested in ship upgrades and consumable weaponst like air-to-ground bombs and missiles - the standard weapon is a rather weak hitscan machine gun.

Like many European Amiga games, the art style is influenced by Japanese manga, as can be seen in the character portraits during mission briefings, where the bearded commander Harlock gives the hero Nihimura his instructions.

Escape Velocity series - MacOS / Windows (1996-2002)

Escape Velocity is the Mac user's alternative to Star Control 2. Likewise a sandbox spaceflight, trade & combat simulation, only lacking the original's emphasis on story, making it actually more akin to a 2D-variant of Elite. The game spawned two sequels, respectively subtitled Override and Nova. The latter was even ported to Windows, while the first two games remain MacOS exclusives. The Escape Velocity series has its own article on Hardcore Gaming 101.

Raging Skies - Windows (2004)

Each stage of Raging Skies starts players on a "tactical" map, where the goal is to avoid incoming attackers and instead approach bases in order to bombard them. It is thus one of the very few games in the genre that support distinct air-to ground combat (Dark Planet being the only other example in this article).

Starscape - Windows (2004)

At the center of the critically acclaimed Starscape doesn't stand the player's ship (well, it does stand at the center of the screen), but the space station Aegis. Much time is spend blasting asteroids for minerals, which then serve as currency to research technology and upgrade the Aegis with them. The flight controls and combat are great enough to warrant a game that revolves just around them (and luckily there's an instant action mode for that), but the base-building elements are pretty dull. At the time of this writing, developer Moonpod's homepage is closed, but the game is available on Steam.

Darkside: Arklight 2 - Windows (2007)

One more game whose special merit lies mostly in the visual representation: In Darkside by Clockwork Pixels, Each stage takes place in the orbit of one bigger planetoid, with the camera rotating around it as the player ship moves. The mission mode offers 100 objectives; often you just have to destroy all the asteroids, but there are also other goals like protecting buildings and fighting alien attackers. The missions get hard really fast, but for everyone who needs more material after beating them, there are basic arcade and survival modes. The first Arklight, by the way, is an entirely different game, pairing a traditional vertical shmup with elements from Breakout.

Space Pool Alpha - Windows (2010)

Space Pool Alpha is an odd one. You're steering an abstract spaceship with the good old Spacewar! control scheme, but it all takes place on a pool billiards table. Only after grabbing the cue ball, you can shoot it at the rest of the balls to drop them into the holes, just like in a game of pool. It also has been made in the most unlikely game engine, the point & click adventure maker AGS, for a monthly competition. That also means that it needs at least a decent computer to run smoothly, though.

Super Laser Racer - Windows (2010)

As the title reveals, this is actually a racing game with the typical Spacewar! control mechanics. Like in Super Mario Kart, there are item boxes everywhere on the tracks that grant weapons or other items like shields and a tractor beam for a singe use. There is a ton of modes and tracks, and even an editor to create new ones. Unfortunately the controls don't feel very satisfying for a racing game, and the soundtrack consists mostly of hard club music, which might not be for everyone.

Cepinas - XBLIG (2011)

In Cepinas, players and the AI fight for domination over the planets in a star system, which is achieved by laying a trail of colored spots while circling their orbits. It's available on the Xbox Live indie marketplace for 80 MS points.


Related Articles


<<< 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