The male-dominated video game industry was injected with a woman’s perspective in 1980, when Dona Bailey became the first woman to help design an arcade game. Alongside the legendary Atari programmer Ed Logg, who had unleashed Asteroids on the public a year earlier, the pair created a masterpiece called Centipede, one of the first games to appeal to both men and women alike. The result was one of the most successful titles in arcade history.
Similar in design to popular games such as Galaga and Space Invaders, players were represented by a small maneuverable cannon at the bottom of the screen. But, whereas the predecessors could only move side-to-side, Centipede allowed for a much greater range of movement, thanks to a trackball that could move within the entire bottom fifth of the screen. And with a steady onslaught of nasty spiders, scorpions, fleas and mushrooms, this extra maneuverability was essential.
But the star of the show was, of course, the menacing and lengthy green centipede. Starting at the top of the screen, it slithered its way from side to side, changing direction whenever it reached the side of the screen or encountered an obstacle in its path, and made its way toward your trusty cannon at the bottom. A successful shot from the cannon only took out a single segment at a time and could split the creature into a pair of more quickly descending centipedes. And with each shot further splitting the segments, the player was soon forced to contend with a barrage of smaller, but equally deadly segments. That trusty trackball had to be expertly handled under pressure if one hoped to survive. While the game started out relatively slow, it soon became a shooting frenzy against an army of quickly-descending, deadly critters.
If the centipede wasn’t enough to contend with, those other creatures demanded a fair share of attention as well. The fleas rained down from the top of the screen, leaving a path of new mushrooms in their wake. Scorpions could turn an innocent mushroom into a formidable poisonous fungus on contact. Should a centipede hit one of these, it would stop its zigzagging motion and head directly to the bottom of the screen. Spiders, on the other hand, merely crawled around the bottom of the screen, trying to collide with your gun. All of this quick paced action was enough to give a player Carpel Tunnel Syndrome as they spun the ball with reckless abandon with one hand, and fired as fast as their finger could move with the other.
Centipede was like no other game that preceded it, either in terms of action or in appearance. Displaying a palette of pastel colors, such as violet, green and baby blue, it was visually appealing at first glance. Dona Bailey was responsible for these color choices and perhaps they were responsible for the fact that, for the first time, women were just as eager to drop quarters into the slots as their male counterparts. The result was the second-biggest title to date for Atari, right behind the iconic Asteroids.
Atari followed up with Millipede in 1983, featuring a whole new cast of critters and something every Centipede player prayed for in the original game – a steady supply of pesticide (in the form of DDT bombs.) It was also a major success and both titles remain favorites in the memories of former arcade aficionados, who fondly recall the glory days of waging war against some of the most insidious insects to ever crawl across a video display.
If you spent hours at the local arcade (or on your home gaming system) shooting at a hungrily-descending centipede, we welcome your memories in our comments section, as we tip our hats to this iconic arcade game from Atari.