One of the earliest video games, Spacewar! was developed on the PDP-1 computer at MIT in 1962, fifteen years before The Golden Age of Video Games. It was also an important early prototype of computer graphics techniques that later became standard in the industry.
The game was created between 1961 and 1962 by a bunch of nerdy model railroad/computer enthusiasts that were students at MIT, led by Steve "Slug" Russell, who is often given sole credit for the game as he was the one that came up with most of the idea.
The game pitted two players, each commanding cosmetically different spaceships armed with torpedoes against each other around the gravity well of a planet. The ships and their torpedoes obeyed correct Newtonian physics (in two dimensions), and players navigated their ships by rotating them and applying thrust. One hit would destroy each ship.
The game quickly spread and by the beginning of 1963, any company or school who had the money to buy the PDP-1 (only 55 were ever manufactured, in the 1960s that was an almost ridiculously large run) had a copy of Spacewar! on it. In fact, by the end of the run of the computer, its manufacturer DEC had a copy pre-loaded on every new PDP-1. It was a good diagnostic of the computer and its display during factory testing, and even back then they saw the value of an entertainment program.
Ten years later, two electrical engineer/computer science student/entrepreneur by the names of Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney adapted a clone of the game and developed it into the world's first coin-operated arcade video game, called Computer Space. The game was a commercial flop, but the company they founded, Atari, became one of the main driving forces behind The Golden Age of Video Games. One of Atari's early successes, Asteroids, borrowed Spacewar!'s ships and mechanics, and adapted the game for one player by setting the battle in an asteroid field. In 1978, Atari ported Spacewar! itself to the 2600 game console. Another company, Cinematronics, adapted the game in 1977 as Space Wars, the first Vector Game.
You can play the original Spacewar! on the web: http://spacewar.oversigma.com or you go to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California (just south of San Francisco) and see a demonstration of the only PDP-1 still working (coincidentally that PDP-1 was the 55th and final one manufactured). If you're lucky, you might be able to play Spacewar! on that PDP-1 itself.
Being one of the first ever Video Games, Spacewar! is the Trope Maker for several Video Game Tropes:
- Cosmetically Different Sides: The "Needle" and the "Wedge".
- Game Mod: Various programmers added features like realistic star map for background (dubbed the Expensive Planetarium), mines or cloaking devices.
- One-Hit-Point Wonder: Both ships.
- Wrap Around
- Video Games
Spacewar! provides examples of:
- 2-D Space
- The '60s
- Arbitrary Maximum Range
- Every Bullet Is a Tracer
- Excited Show Title!: The full title according to The Other Wiki is Spacewar!
- Gravity Screw: The planet-type
- Lead the Target
- No Plot? No Problem!
- Player Versus Player
- Shoot 'em Up: Maybe the Ur-Example, depends on how you define the genre.
- Timed Mission: The arcade version would give you 90 or 120 seconds per round, but inserting more quarters could buy you more time to play, up to 20 hours.
- Training Stage: Specific to the Atari 2600 port, Game 14 is included as movement practice.