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The first commercial video game: how it looked 50 years ago

Walnut Associates

Fifty years ago, the October 15, 1971, Nutting Associates introduced the first commercial video game for sale: Computer space , a coin-operated arcade machine. Unlike previous arcade games, it used a television as a screen and launched the video game industry. That was how it was.

Computer space, but no computer involved

On Computer space , you play as a rocket that flies around a starfield while hunting flying saucers. If you are familiar with asteroids , is similar, but without space rocks.

Despite having the name of » Computer space «, No computer is really involved in the circuits of the game. Instead, Computer space uses TTL logic chips to control the game. Rather than a software program running on a computer, the game exists entirely as a hardware implementation of moving dots on a television screen (in the form of a finite state machine ), which is almost mind-boggling to consider in our software-dominated software. was.

Two men, Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, created Computer space and licensed the design to amusement maker Nutting Associates of California. When creating Computer space , Bushnell was primarily inspired by Space War. , a pioneering computer action game that ran on expensive mainframe computers in the 1960s. I wanted to make an arcade version of Space War! But computers were too expensive to use in 1970.

On October 15, 1971, Computer space made his public debut on the Music Operators of America show in Chicago. The set shipped in a striking fiberglass body in various colors, usually with a glossy finish. The following year, Bushnell and Dabney founded Atari and sold the hit arcade title. Pong . Computer space it was not as successful as Pong , but it sold an estimated 500 to 1,000 units, which was on par with a electromechanical arcade game moderately successful at that moment.

A Computer Space machine on Soylent Green.
MGM

Computer space looked futuristic enough to make a prominent appearance in the 1973 sci-fi film Soylent Green with Charlton Heston, set in the year 2022. At one point, one of the film’s actors even plays the game on screen.

Gameplay: shoot the UFOs

On the forerunner of Computer space , Space War! , two human-controlled spaceships engage in a one-on-one space duel. Due to technical restrictions, Bushnell’s version of the game became single-player – it’s your rocket against two machine-controlled flying saucers that move across the screen and fire missiles at the player. There is also no gravity well in the center of the screen, which tends to make the game more static and less exciting.

Seeing Computer Space by first Once, you will immediately notice that it is a monochrome game (played on a black and white television embedded in the arcade cabinet) and that the graphics of the ship, the flying saucers, and the star field in the background are collections of individual points. The game manipulates the relative positions of these points to generate the graphics for the game.

While playing, the game is usually count to 99 with an on-screen timer and keeps a numerical score for you and the cymbals. Every time a saucer shoots at you, its score increases by one. Every time you shoot a saucer, your score increases by one. If you score higher than the cymbals within the time limit, the screen is reversed in the mode. “Hyperspace” and the game continues. Otherwise, your game will end.

The Computer Space control panel.
The control panel Computer space . Walnut Associates

To control Computer space , the player uses four buttons. Two buttons rotate the player’s ship to the left or right, one button pushes the ship forward, and a fourth button fires a missile from the tip of the spaceship. What space war! and the latest arcade game Asteroids , Computer space simulates the momentum of your ship in a zero gravity environment, so maneuvering can be tricky.

Cultural impact

Yes OK Computer space did not receive wide distribution, it introduced the public to the concept of playing games on a video screen for the first time. The game was confusing for some at first, and some players wondered if the signal displayed on the television came from a television broadcasting station.

Comptuter Space arcade wheel.
Walnut Associates

At the time of launching from Computer space , Magnavox was developing the first home game console, the Odyssey , based on Ralph Baer’s work at Sanders Associates in the mid-1960s. The Odyssey was not released until September 1972 and was the second commercial video game product in the world. Interestingly, the first Atari game (and the second arcade video game), Pong , He was inspired directly into the Odyssey ping pong game.

As a partnership between Bushnell and Dabney, Computer space provided the springboard for the creation of Atari, which became a highly influential cultural and business phenomenon during the 1970s and early 1980s. While the Dabney and Bushnell partnership did not last long (it disbanded around 1973), the cultural legacy of what they built lives on in a $ 151 billion industry in the present.

Play Computer space today

If you want to try playing Computer space yourself, you can download a free simulator created by Mike O’Malley that runs on Windows PC. Since Nutting implemented Computer space in hardware logic circuits, it is not possible emulate it in software as you would a later arcade game that has a program stored on ROM chips.

A Computer Space Simulator that runs on Windows.

As a result, this simulator Computer space it is an approximation similar to the real game with some inaccuracies. In addition, you can play a computer space recreation at hobbyist console project MiSTer FPGA , which is potentially more accurate, but also more complicated to configure initially.

Despite the simulators, to play the full game with all its peculiarities, you will have to search a machine Computer space real and play it in person. It is a rare and hard-to-find machine, but it is sometimes featured in retro arcade game shows around the world.

At age 50, video games are still a historically young medium. It will be fun to see how they change and grow over the next 50 years and beyond. Happy birthday arcade video games and happy birthday video game industry!

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