Category Archives: space

Still from Astron Belt, an arcade laserdisc game by Sega 1983

Astron Belted: Losing the Race to the Arcades

Something about the laserdisc video game craze of the early 80′s was and is fascinating to me.  From little pixellated images and 3 octave repeating tunes, we leapt into professional quality live-action or animated games with orchestrated scores. It seemed that arcade games had suddenly jumped into the future.  

Sega previewed their first video game to feature laserdisc technology, Astron Belt, in the fall of 1982 at the A.M.O.A. or Amusement & Music Operators Association trade show in Chicago. It wasn’t the first commercial interactive game with video footage: horse racing game Quarter Horse by Electro-Sport was shown at the 1981 A.M.O.A., and most likely released to the public that same year.

Laserdisc game Quarter Horse

Quarter Horse arcade laserdisc game, by Electro Sports

 

Even so, Quarter Horse was merely a betting menu accompanied by video footage of horse races. Sega’s machine allowed players to control a computer generated spaceship superimposed over movie footage. Players flew through space and over alien planetary landscapes, shooting enemy craft spewing laser fire and avoiding the tight confines of rocky canyons. It was a real game.

It was also real late. Shown at the 1982 AMOA, the game still needed refinement, and as it was being worked on the U.S. coin-op division of Sega was sold to Bally/Midway, prompting further delays. By the time Astron Belt reached U.S. arcades in late 1983, the  laserdisc video game craze had already been created earlier in the year by the animated extravaganza Dragon’s Lair, from Rick Dyer and Don Bluth, and was subsequently exhausted by a rush of carpetbaggers.

Hobbled by a lack of interactivity for players, along with nagging technical issues for arcade operators, these games were ultimately shown to be a brief respite for the slumping arcade market. The popularity of laserdisc games had begun faltering, and Astron Belt did little to improve this situation.

For more information on Astron Belt and the 80′s laserdisc craze, consult your local Dot Eaters Bitstory.

Image source: Quarter Horse flyer, The Arcade Flyer Archive

1983 ad for Astron Belt, a laserdisc arcade video game by Bally Midway

Major Faux Pas

Major Fun with Major Havoc

1983 may have been the waning days of the arcade era, but video game companies were still producing amazing products that pushed the envelope, and Atari’s Major Havoc coin-op was no exception. Designed by long-time Atari coin-op division employee Owen Rubin, and prototyped under the title Alpha-1, I had an obsession with the resultant released game. The “Breakout” and “Galaxian” modes were pretty blah, but the game really shone in the parts where the titular hero Major Rex Havoc would land his spaceship onto an enemy Vaxxian space station. The player would then guide him through the complex, avoiding the local enemies and obstacles, following arrows along maze-like corridors to the station’s reactor, which he would sabotage. Then it was a panicked, breakneck race through the floaty, near-weightless environment back to the ship and a blast off out to minimum safe distance for the explosion. All this while maintaining oxygen levels so Havoc doesn’t asphyxiate.

havoc

Colourful, complex vector graphics and a superbly animated main character added to the mystique of this classic arcade game, one of the few that you can play today and still be challenged and transfixed.

To check out creator Owen Rubin’s webpage, click here.

For more information on the history of Atari, consult your local Dot Eaters entry.

major-havoc-1983

A fight for supremacy around the sun of Spacewar!

Spacewar!: A Spin Around the Sun

Created by a group of hackers at MIT in 1962, the pull of Spacewar! on nascent computer gamers was as strong as the gravity well of the blazing sun in the game.

I’d like to say that Steve Russell “led” the group that developed the game, but he didn’t earn the nickname “Slug” for his programming alacrity. The rest of the team, consisting of Wayne Witanen, J. Martin Graetz, Alan Kotok, Peter Samson and Dan Edwards had to prod Russell every inch of the way, constantly throwing in pieces of the programming puzzle to skirt around the roadblocks Russell would profess were preventing him from continuing.

When they were finished, they had 9K worth of rolled-up paper-tape program that would create the foundation of the entire video game industry. Over a field of stars, two spaceships face off in a duel with limited missile supplies and fuel.  Besides each other, players would also have to avoid the bending gravity of a central star, eager to pull them down to their destruction. The game was such a hit around MIT that playing it was banned during school hours, and copies of the program were included by Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) with each installation of the computer system Spacewar! was created on: the PDP-1.

Image of A PDP-1 minicomputer, the same model used in the creation of Spacewar!

The PDP-1 computer by DEC

Spacewar! influenced later games made by entrepreneurs intent on creating the video game industry, including Computer Space in 1971, the first mass-produced arcade video game, made by future Atari co-founders Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney. It also inspired Larry Rosenthal, creator of the first vector game Space Wars in 1977, as well as Ed Logg, creator of 1979′s phenomenally successful Asteroids. Spacewar! blazed forth from the minds of those early computer hackers at MIT, lighting the way for others to follow.

For more information on the history of Spacewar!, consult your local Dot Eaters entry.