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The History of Spacewar!: The Best Waste of Time in the History of the Universe
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The History of Spacewar!: The Best Waste of Time in the History of the Universe

June 10, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next

Bushnell and Dabney weren't the only ones to try to market a coin-operated version of Spacewar!. A more successful effort came in 1977 with Larry Rosenthal's Space Wars. Rosenthal had been a student at MIT where the original game had been developed, and felt that he could do a better job than the earlier efforts at converting it for arcades. However, he demanded a full 50% of the profits, and only the floundering Cinematronics was willing to accept his demands.

Rosenthal's key innovation was developing a special processor, which was cheap to make yet still sophisticated enough to run the full version of Spacewar!, complete with the gravity well and two-player dog fighting that made the original so compelling. It also offered other innovations, such as the ability to take some damage before exploding. Players could adjust the gravity and inertia of the game world as well. Gameplay was strictly time-based; whoever had the most kills at the end of the match won the game.

Perhaps the game's most important feature was its vector-based graphics, which made it both more faithful to the original and better-looking than Computer Space's raster graphics had been.

The essential difference between vector and raster graphics is that the former are based on lines instead of dots or pixels. Vector graphics tended to look much sharper than the raster games of the era. In the end, it was a wonderful adaptation of Spacewar! and earned rich profits for Rosenthal and Cinematronics.

In 1978, Atari released Orbit, yet another raster-based adaptation of Spacewar!. Unlike the previous effort, however, this one at least offered two-player side-by-side play out-of-the-gate and borrowed the partial damage system of Space Wars.

Perhaps the only really interesting aspect of the game is that the ships now looked like the Enterprise and a Klingon Bird of Prey from Star Trek. The game wasn't a hit and is rarely spoken of today, though a simplified home version for the Atari 2600 VCS was released in 1978: Space War.

Screenshot from Atari's Orbit.

Box back from one of the many early home games that took inspiration from Spacewar!, Fairchild's Space War (1977) for their Video Entertainment System.

Atari went vector skelter in 1979 with Lunar Lander (also discussed in book Chapter 8, "Flight Simulator (1980): Digital Reality") and Asteroids, two stunningly innovative but notoriously difficult games. Lunar Lander, as the name implies, had players carefully landing a lunar module on one of several moon bases (platforms, really).

What made the game so challenging was its painfully realistic physics: players had to work hard to generate just enough thrust to maneuver the lander and resist gravity. Fuel was at an absolute premium; running out meant almost certain death.

This game was eventually ported and cloned on home platforms; former Commodore VIC-20 owners may remember the clone Jupiter Lander (1981), for instance. The gameplay concepts introduced in Lunar Lander would later evolve into the many "gravity" and "thrust" games of the 1980s, including Atari's aforementioned Gravitar in 1982.

Screenshot from Atari's Gravitar.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next

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Richard Kiernan
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The first computer game that I've found evidence for is a 1951 game for the British-made Ferranti Nimrod. Designed for the Festival of Britain, a World's Fair-type event, the Nimrod, as its name suggests, played a number of different variations of Nim.

There may have been an earlier game, but the signs seem to point to this machine being the first example of a computer game, produced a few years after the first development of the EDSAC, which was the computer used for OXO.

Bill Loguidice
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Thanks for that Richard. An argument can be made against NIMROD for the simple fact that - if my reading of its history is correct - it only controlled a series of lights/lamps to play Nim, i.e., it didn't generate its own display like the EDSAC and its OXO game did. While Nim was certainly computer controlled and that would make it a computer game in the broadest sense, from my perspective I still see OXO as still the first known prototypical videogame.

Jeff Zugale
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I'm pretty sure the Cinematronics Space Wars version was the second video game I ever played - there was one in the pinball arcade at the Willowbrook Mall in New Jersey back in the early '70s. (The first video game I played was Pong, which was in the lobby at Don's restaurant in Livingston!) I think I was barely tall enough to be able to use the controls, but the fact that one of the ships looked like the Enterprise made this young Trek fan drop an awful lot of quarters into that box... thanks for the history!

Bart Stewart
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Computer Space, sitting in its futuristic cabinet at one of the Baton Rouge State Fairs in the early 1970s, was the first computer game I ever played, and it blew my mind. I remember my grandfather having to nearly drag me away from it; I was mesmerized by the realization that there was an entire simulated world inside that box that was different every time you interacted with it.

The first sign of a lifelong infatuation with interesting systems, I suppose.

Matt Barton
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It wouldn't surprise me at all at this point if there were many forgotten videogames of some sort in the 40s and 50s. Who's to say what was happening in all those top secret labs? I've also scratched my head a few times at the fuzzy line between videogames and wargames. Could you say that radar was the first videogame; at least the first massively multiplayer "game?"

Gerard Gouault
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A device called the Cathode-Ray Tube Amusement Device was patented in the United States by Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr. and Estle Ray Mann. The patent was filed on January 25, 1947, and issued on December 14, 1948. It described using eight vacuum tubes to simulate a missile firing at a target and contains knobs to adjust the curve and speed of the missile. Because computer graphics could not be drawn electronically at the time, small targets were drawn on a simple overlay and placed on the screen.