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Spacewar: It’s just a trick of Velocity

Something I’ve noticed in a few puzzle games that came out last year, such as Strange Attractors 2 and Orbient, is the focus on gravity and velocity. In both games you are completely at the mercy of these two forces of nature, and you can only indirectly interact with objects around you.

Spacewar! In a sense these games, as well as a few other examples, owe a great deal to arguably the first major game, Spacewar. Spacewar was initially released in 1962 by a group of computer hackers at MIT who, upon getting access to the university’s fancy new PDP-1 computer, proceeded to pool their efforts and write one awesome head-to-head game. The premise is simple enough—each player controls a ship and tries to blow up the other guy while utilizing a limited supply of fuel and ammunition.

What makes the game interesting is the role of gravity. The ships are circling a star, and crashing into it will destroy you. The star’s gravity will pull you in or fling you out, depending on how well you can utilize it. Though you do have direct control over your ship, your thruster isn’t good for much more than maneuvering. Firing the rocket long enough to actually move independently of the star will drain your fuel in about 28 seconds. The winner is the person who can keep gravity from becoming an enemy.

The game creators—Steve Russell, Martin Graetz, Pete Samson, and others—also went and made the game code open source. Tweaks went into the game as time went on: the programmers added an actual, real starfield; a hyperspace feature was added that would allow your ship to make an emergency jump to a random location, but not always safely; options to make the star invisible or nonexistent were also added. The game ended up pushing the PDP-1 computer so far that DEC, the manufacturer of the machine, ended up including the game with every PDP built as a test of the system. As a result the game spread across the country to every major university, inspiring a generation of programmers.

In fact, the earliest arcade machines were generally variations on Spacewar. Bill Pitts and Hugh Tuck put together Galaxy Game, an arcade cabinet essentially running a PDP inside it, and set it up at Stanford University in 1971. Only months later, Nolan Bushnell and Atari released their first arcade machine, Computer Space, also inspired by Spacewar: though there wasn’t a star to contend with, and as such no gravity, you still had to handle your own momentum to fight UFOs that weren’t bound by Newtonian phsyics.

Suspiciously similar: Space Wars resembles Spacewar not just in name alone.

Suspiciously similar: Space Wars resembles Spacewar not just in name alone.

Cinematronics’ 1977 arcade game, Space Wars, on the other hand, was practically a straight port of the computer version, albeit with stronger thrusters and weaker gravity, and it featured a control panel with a bevy of game options. And ports of that version made their way to the Atari 2600 and Vectrex consoles. There’s also a number of computer versions that have been made over the years, though usually based off of the arcade port.

Spacewar also strongly influenced Star Control’s combat, and it could be argued that the game set the stage for every competitive game since. More recently, Microsoft has included a version of the game with its XNA development program (and why isn’t that up on Live? I’d pay money for an online version of Spacewar!).

Despite its age, Spacewar has a depth to its gameplay that makes it timeless, even now. A few years ago my friends and I would play a java-emulated version of the game nearly every time we got together. Spacewar is a real testament to the idea that no matter how old the game, no matter how poor its graphics and sound may be, a good game is ageless.

One response to “Spacewar: It’s just a trick of Velocity” »

  1. Jon Conley says:

    I love the trails the old CRTs leave behind. The brightness of the objects rendered against the stark background is alluring. There’s just something about old technology that fascinates me. In a way, I actually think some of it is better. For example, in viewing black and white films. On an HDTV or modern CRT, black and white films look rather dull. But on a vintage television, they are rendered beautifully, with the appropriate contrast ratios that, seemingly, only old sets are capable of achieving.

    In a sense, these old games don’t fell as dated to me. Perhaps it’s the scientific backbone behind it all, the physics and everything, that grants them immunity?

    I especially love the Oscilloscope games, like Tennis for Two. Check it out:
    1) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UZZT4n1fzG8
    2) http://www.pong-story.com/1958.htm

    This is the game we will build, in a post-nuclear apocalypse.


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