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Video Game / Spacewar!

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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 engineers/computer science students/entrepreneurs 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: 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. Later ports would often give the ships Subsystem Damage if it on certain locations (one hit would reduce maneuverability destroying part of the ship, two would destroy the ship's engines and leave it with no capacity to thrust or maneuver and just with its inertia (very bad for your health if the planet or star caught you), and the last one would finally destroy it).
  • Wrap Around
  • Video Games

Spacewar! provides examples of:

  • Every Bullet is a Tracer
  • 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.
  • Tech-Demo Game: Back in 1961, some guys at MIT were trying to work out how best to demonstrate the capabilities of the new PDP-1 computer they'd got from DEC. They decided to cook up a test program; quoth the author, "the teamís PDP-1 test program was built upon three fundamental tenets. Firstly, the program had to use as many of the computerís resources as possible and push it to the limit. Secondly, it had to be interesting and, as much as possible, unique upon every run. Thirdly, it had to be engaging and interactive. In short, it had to be a game." This is the game.
  • 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.