Although it wasn’t released to arcades until 1978, the origins of Space Wars stretch back to the birth of video games in 1962. Generally considered to be the first computer game, the original Spacewar was written by a group of MIT students and quickly spread to computer labs across the country, giving grad students yet another excuse to put off their studies.
The game was an elemental duel between two spaceships set against the blackness of space. Simple as it may seem in hindsight, this classic time-waster influenced an entire generation of future game programmers, including Nolan Bushnell (who adapted the idea into the first coin-operated arcade game, Computer Space) and Larry Rosenthal, creator of the arcade’s Space Wars.
Though the game’s concept may not have been entirely original, Space Wars definitely had its share of firsts. The most obvious innovation was the pioneering use of vector graphics. Instead of the traditional dot-based raster graphics of earlier arcade games, Space War drew its objects with glowing lines, creating a sharper image. The vector look eventually died out, but not before appearing in such smash hits as Asteroids, Lunar Lander, Battlezone and Tempest.
Space Wars‘ other innovations came in its control and game options. Like Computer Space, Space Wars had buttons for left and right ship rotation, thrust and fire, but there was also a fifth-”hyperspace.” This button, which transported a ship from its present location to another random one, added a new twist to the classic space battle, and the feature became an arcade standard in later games like Asteroids. But this was only the beginning of Space Wars‘ customized features.
Battles still took place between two ships (one shaped like Star Trek‘s U.S.S. Enterprise, the other like a Starfleet insignia), but at the center of the screen was a small sun, which exerted a realistic gravity. If players got sucked in, a ship was lost and the other player scored a kill.
Other variables were available by pressing the numbers on the control panel’s ten-digit keypad. Some options affected the speed of the ships or their missiles, others changed the strength of the sun’s gravity, while others added new twists-bouncing walls, a larger playfield, invisible sun or negative gravity.
With so many options available, and with the ability to compete against a human opponent, Space Wars had enough replay value to keep gamers coming back for battle after battle. Space Wars gave Cinematronics its first major hit, and the company went on to create such vector graphics classics as Starhawk, Tail Gunner and Armor Attack before ushering in the Laserdisc age with the smash hit Dragon’s Lair.
If you popped a few quarters into this innovative arcade game back in the day, we’d love to hear any memories you have of waging a Space Wars battle in our comments section.