Spacewar! - A (Very) Retrospective Review

Even though nobody would give the time of day to my most recent reviews, dealing with some proper classics, I'm not going to condescend to the public and review a game which everybody else likes. I'm going to go my own way.

Some people here ask the rhetorical (and often soon-answered) question, "Why am I reviewing a game so old?" when referring to something that's a few years old. Other people start to ask it when they go pre-fourth generation. As for me, I don't start to ask until I go pre-Magnavox Odyssey. So, why am I reviewing this game? Because I've done my services to modern gaming. Most of the rest of modern games can go rot in hell, because I have Spacewar!

In order to properly review this game, I had to acquire an original copy of Spacewar! in order to play. However, there's only one working PDP-1 in existence, it's priceless and it's in the possession of the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, so I wasn't exactly going to be able to get my hands on that. What I did acquire, however, was the most recent copy of the MESS multi-system emulator and an image of the original game for the MESS PDP-1 emulator. Thus, I present you with the oldest computer game that I, or anybody else here, will ever be able to review.

Spacewar! - A Retrospective Review

Spacewar! is a 1961 space combat and shoot 'em up game, designed for the DEC PDP-1 minicomputer and developed by Steve Russell, a computer scientist and programmer then studying at MIT. While not the first computer game ever designed, Spacewar! was one of the most seminal and groundbreaking games ever designed.

It's difficult to impress on a modern audience just how important and influential Spacewar! is in the history of computer games. Prior to the development of Spacewar!, all of the computer games that had been designed had been programmed on one-of-a-kind computers, often custom-built for the very purpose of playing them. However, the DEC PDP-1 that Spacewar! was designed on was one of the first affordable computers, relative to the budgets of universities, and was purchased by many of the computer science departments of large technical and scientific universities. This meant that Spacewar! could be opened up to a larger market than the computer games that had existed previously, and by releasing the source code to the game, more and more people became acquainted with the experience of computer gaming. Later becoming a technical demo and diagnostic program for the PDP-1, Spacewar is the first computer game which became popular, and apart from William Higinbotham's 1958 Tennis for Two, is the first computer game which can be said to have inspired gameplay elements in later games.

So, it's important. But is it any good? Amazingly, and somewhat shockingly, it is. This almost-fifty year old game has gameplay elements which didn't look out of place twenty years later in arcade games, with Nolan Bushnell, later of Atari fame, first tried his hand at an arcade version of Spacewar! More surprisingly, the gameplay wouldn't look out of place in today's Flash games either. It simply is that timeless and that well-designed.

The premise is simple: it's one of those eternal "opposites" battles, like red versus blue, or left versus right. Taking control of one of two spacecraft, the aim is to destroy your opponent using your supply of missiles, while also avoiding the gravity well of a centrally-placed star. The gameplay is simplistic, but surprisingly complex at the same time, with the star in the centre creating new variables, new strategies and new possibilities than if it weren't present. Advanced players can use the star's gravity to slingshot around, drastically affecting their speed and direction, and generally, the star works as would be expected of a gravity well in reality.

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Don't laugh - this was groundbreaking in its time!

Unlike the later Pong, however, the gameplay of Spacewar! is more difficult to pick up right away. That central gravity well will demolish many first-time players, and the slow movement of the spacecraft may frustrate those players more used to the smooth gameplay of later computer games. As well as that, the spacecraft are affected by momentum, which while offering new strategies for the advanced player, would confuse those unfamiliar with the concept from either experience at the game, or from knowledge of physics. On the other hand, because of the very difficulty posed by the central gravity well, the ultimate mastery of the controls in this game is more satisfying than many later multiplayer games.

Using the sense switches on the PDP-1 unit, one was able to change the options in the game, and by eliminating the star, enabling angular momentum or by making the star teleport rather than kill, the gameplay can be altered drastically, requiring more strategies to be devised, and allowing for much more variety.

Surprisingly, also, the controls in Spacewar! are tight, and while not necessarily intuitive to the modern computer gamer, are perfectly mapped and do their job admirably. There are five controls, mapping to left and right rotation, thrust, fire and the hyperspace function, which teleported the player to an unknown destination, which could include right into the centre of the star, if they were unfortunate, and included the possibility of the spacecraft exploding, the possibility increasing with every use.

Once again, with the controls so expertly designed, this almost-fifty year old game can embarrass many modern games, and the makers of games with poor controls may want to hang their heads in shame - this wasn't a professionally-directed effort, with dozens of artists and programmers; this was an amateur attempt, designed by university students in their spare time on a computer that they could only time-share, and what is more, they had no precedent to be inspired by. It wasn't the first computer game by any means, but the games which they had seen were simple tic-tac-toe and card games, and had little relevance to their own work.

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Spacewar! running on the only working PDP-1 in existence.

The only other computer game which may have assisted their control system, Tennis for Two, designed for the visitors' day at Brookhaven National Laboratory by William Higinbotham, had already been taken out of commission. Thus, the computer games that had been demonstrated on MIT's own computers were unlikely to inspire the work of the developers of Spacewar!, and thus they worked without precedent to make a game so groundbreaking and spectacular that it would have looked new alongside the arcade systems twenty years later.

The gameplay couldn't be considered perfect, however. The central star creates so much gravity at standard settings to make it necessary to escape the gravity well before any chance at fighting, which slows down combat significantly, and makes the star more of an antagonist than your opponents, compounded by the fact that the spacecraft don't have a particularly high rate of thrust. It's possible to reduce the gravity or remove the star altogether, but the spacecraft still suffer from a lack of thrust, which makes it difficult to change directions very quickly.

The spacecraft don't have particularly strong offensive power either - the missiles that they fire are slow as well, and they require a lot of target-leading, which is difficult and not particularly intuitive. The hitboxes for the spacecraft are ridiculously small, also, only covering the middle of the spacecraft rather than the entire length of them, meaning that the difficulty in hitting a target is increased, leading to frustrating situations where your missiles will pass right through the sprite of the enemy spacecraft. This makes combat not as exciting as it could have been with faster and more powerful missiles, and means that games will take a long time to resolve between players experienced at using the central star as a tool rather than a hazard.

And, of course, there's the graphics. To the credit of the developers of the game, the simplistic graphics are highly advanced for the time, and squeeze every bit of power out of the PDP-1. However, due to the early CRT display that they were rendered on, the graphics tend to display a bit of ghosting when the sprites move, which creates quite an eerie and pretty effect, but one which can be a bit distracting when you're trying to lock on a target.

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Note the ghosting on the sprites as they turn.

However, computer games wouldn't get much more advanced graphically for many years, and to achieve the performance which the developers did with such hardware must have taken some significant skill.

Spacewar! is a triumph. A game which feels fresh almost fifty years after it was developed, one of those technical experiments which turned out fantastically, not only can Spacewar! claim to be one of the most important games ever developed, but also one of the fairest and most balanced multiplayer games ever devised. For a game like Spacewar! to be still playable is an achievement in itself; for it to be good is an utter and very pleasant surprise.

Wow, a great idea, i never heard of this game but it doesent surprise me, Pong was better simply because people still play it.

I saw a PDP-1 set up in Chicago's Museum of Science and Technology... I don't think it was running, but they did put a working Vectrex next to it running, you guessed it, Spacewar!

It's also interesting to note that its gameplay, with minor changes, was yoinked into the Star Control series of games for its ship-to-ship combat.

-- Steve

Sweet...an actual review of Spacewar!, the game that proves that if nothing else Sid Meier didn't invent the practice of sticking exclamation points at the end of game titles.

an actual review of Spacewar!, the game that proves that if nothing else Sid Meier didn't invent the practice of sticking exclamation points at the end of game titles.

I had the tape image lying around on my hard drive after my stage of testing crazy systems in MESS, so I figured I might as well do something with it, and separate myself from the pack. I can't review most new games with any competence.

It's very long lolz.

The opening and the history segment are great but I question the value of the actual 'review' part. Not that it's bad, it does the job admirably but perhaps because you're trying to go into a detail about a game that is by today's standard very simple it simple doesn't have the oomph of the opening segment.

In short, it's a very good piece, but I think it would have been better presented in an article or retrospective rather than a straight up review.

Good work. I look forward to reading more.

It's very long lolz.

It's actually the shortest review I've done since my pre-OFP reviews.

The opening and the history segment are great but I question the value of the actual 'review' part. Not that it's bad, it does the job admirably but perhaps because you're trying to go into a detail about a game that is by today's standard very simple it simple doesn't have the oomph of the opening segment...

I think it would have been better presented in an article or retrospective rather than a straight up review.

I think my intention was to try to challenge myself by reviewing it as a game rather than a point of computer gaming posterity. It probably would have been better presented as an article, without the review bit, but it was an experiment on my behalf to see whether a 1960s game could be reviewed, and whether it could be reviewed well. The answers: yes, and possibly, respectively.

 

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