Arcade Rats on the Moon!

Paul Monopoli looks back on three popular arcade games set on the Moon: Lunar Lander, Battlezone and Moon Patrol.

During the 1960s the world was experiencing space fever. It was an ailment for which there was no cure, nor did anybody want one.

During the 1950s the United States and Soviet Union had sent vehicles into space, though this was only the beginning. In May 1961, John F Kennedy announced to the nation they would land a man on the moon ‘before this decade is out.’

In 1969 the Apollo 11 mission succeeded in this promise, just months shy of the decade’s end. Though John F Kennedy had been assassinated years earlier, he had kept his promise in the minds of the public. Though other missions to the moon have taken place, it is this first event that is seen as one of man’s greatest accomplishments. It also continues to be a goldmine for conspiracy theorists who claim the moon landing was faked.

Spacewar, the first ever computer game was developed using a space theme. This trend would continue throughout the 1960s and 1970s with Computer Space and other Spacewar clones being released to an increasingly uninterested public. 1969 saw the first ‘lunar landing’ type of game developed on the PDP-8/E Minicomputer. The idea behind the game was to take control of a lunar landing module. It would start at the top of the screen and the player would gently guide it down to the surface on an allocated landing platform.

Initially using a text interface, asking the player to enter numbers to determine how much fuel to use on each turn. Numbers would range between 0 and 200, with 0 being free fall and 200 the maximum burn. The author never followed up with the game, though it was later redesigned to work with a light pen.

Ten years later, in 1979, Atari decided to release a commercial version of the game. Indeed, this would be similar to Computer Space, which was a commercialised version of Spacewar, a game developed at an institution. This was in an era before lawsuits prevented such displays of plagiarism from being allowed to happen. Like the original Atari intended their version to feature vector graphics, but there was a problem. Cinematronics had already created the first vector based arcade game, so Atari were playing catchup in the technology game. However, one of the projects Atari’s Cyan Engineering was working on involved vector graphics, so with the idea in place it was time to get started.

It was Howard Delman who came to Atari with the idea of creating a remake of the original lunar landing game. Rich Moore was bought on board after it was determined that he had played the original game. Presumably he could use this insight to help them create a replica of the original. Rich admitted to Retro Gamer magazine that he had become a space enthusiast after seeing the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969. He even indulged himself by purchasing and building model kits of the lunar lander after the event.

With the team in place, supported by Rick Moncrief and Atari legend Ed Logg, it was time to plan the layout of the game. Graph paper was used to plot out the the landscape; something Rich was able to do purely based on his memory of the original game. Ed Logg created the font for the game on similar graph paper. This font would be used for later Atari vector games, most notably Star Wars.

From the drawings, Howard and Rich wrote the course code for the game which was typed up by two fast typists. As the game developed, Howard and Rich fell into specific roles. Howard would work on the hardware while Rich would explore the code and discover new ways in which to tweak it. The work flowed between the two men who continued in their individual roles, though they came together when it was time to discuss elements of gameplay.

Howard wanted a realistic simulator, though realised that even real lunar modules had a version of an ‘auto pilot.’ He also realised that to attract player an arcade game needs to be simple. Much of the development time was spent getting the four difficulty levels just right. The physics used are far from perfect, though they were actually designed to aid the player in landing the craft. Though the difficulty shoots up rather quickly the game allows you to get through the first level with relative ease.

The controls comprised of a thrust lever with two buttons to tilt the module left and right. A “save your ass” button was included that would straighten the module and increase the thrust. The pay off was that it cost a significant amount of fuel to use. However, if you were in a perilous position then you may not have a choice but to try it and see what happens.

Though the game was released shortly after the 10th anniversary of the moon landing, Atari neglected to mention this point in any promotion for the game. Sadly the success of Lunar Lander was short lived, as the action packed Asteroids stole any thunder it was likely to receive. Though it wasn’t as successful as other Atari projects of the era, Lunar Lander developed a cult following with fan made versions of the game being created across almost every platform that has ever been developed.

Continuing to make use of its new vector graphics engine, Atari released Battlezone in 1980. There is conflicting information about where exactly this game is based, with an early issue of Electronic Games Monthly claiming that it takes place on the moon, but a recent issue of Retro Gamer Magazine states that the game is set in a cyber world. With that said, later revisions of the game take place on the lunar surface, so one could assume that the original does as well.

Atari developers would participate in brainstorming meetings where new ideas could be introduced and worked over. Battlezone was the result of one of these meetings. It was suggested that the vector technology could be used to create a first person game, quite possibly the first of its kind. Indeed, the idea was such a draw for Atari employees that designer, Ed Rotberg, would have to kick people off the machine while it was being debugged.

Many of the in game effects came down to some tricky coding. In an interview with Retro Gamer magazine Ed Rotberg claims that explosions were actually rotated in 2D, while appearing like parts of the tank were exploding in all directions in 3D. Coding this part of the game was one of Ed’s fondest memories of the game.

While Ed claims that the game hardly broke new ground, it was the implementation of the design that keeps Battlezone in the minds and hearts of gamers today. It also attracted the attention of the military who requested that Atari use the game engine to develop a training simulator. This simulation focused on the firing of weapons and the use of targeting systems. Ed Rotberg was completely against working on a military project, but completed work on what is known as ‘the Bradley Trainer’ under the proviso that he be exempt from any further military projects.

Ed and co-designer Jed Margolin were also against the idea of using a viewfinder scope, something he felt the game wasn’t really designed for. In the end his superiors had their way and Atari released Battlezone with the iconic viewfinder. A monitor would allow those not playing to view the action. The way the cabinet is setup is similar to Space Invaders, with the player actually looking at a mirror which angles the image from the monitor. Twin sticks were used to control the tank.

The big problem with the viewfinder was the height, which was fixed in place. If you were below a certain height you would be unable to play the game, and this included children. A revision of the cabinet was released which removed the viewfinder, instead opting for a standard monitor. This is known as the “full face” version of the game.

Jed Margolin claims that the removal of the viewfinder would have doubled as a cost saving measure, considering that adding any extras of that nature to an arcade machine would increase its cost by a considerable amount. This also meant that the mirror did not need to be included inside the cabinet, and while those not playing were still able to see the action it was much easier without the scope in the way.

Many players have commented on how immersive the game is with the inclusion of the viewscope, though it’s sadly something that has been lost in all home ports of the game. While most of the home ports featured wireframe vector-style graphics, it is Atari’s own 2600 version that differs the most. Most likely the result of hardware limitations, the 2600 version does not use wireframe graphics, nor is it a first person shooter. Instead the game shows the outside of the tank in a semi third person perspective with basic, blocky full colour action.

The arcade cabinet holds another secret that arcade enthusiasts on managed to uncover. On official Atari cabinets with specific serial numbers (ranging from 997 – 2250 out of 13000 cabinets) there are holes drilled into the sides which have been plugged by plastic lugs. Jed claims that this was supposed to be for an external, mounted monitor that would mean those who were unable to crowd around the cabinet could see the gameplay from the distance. This was an idea that was implemented by rival Bally Midway for a short time. The Bally Midway ‘auxiliary monitor’ sat on top of the cabinets, and the promotional flyer shows passers-by checking out the action on the upper visual rather than crowding around the player.

Battlezone is a game that has endured over the decades, with sequels and ‘inspired by…’ games being developed for various platforms. Battlezone 98 is an official sequel released by former Atari breakaway company Activision in 1998. The game expanded on the original first person concept by allowing the player to not only control the tank, but construct other vehicles and bases. The game received high praise from the gaming press though was not the big seller Activision were hoping it would be.

On the flip side, one such ‘Battlezone inspired’ game known as Vector tanks was pulled from the Apple App Store in 2011 after Atari started to clamp down on its intellectual property. The developer, Black Powder Media, claims that they were not alone in having their app pulled from the store as Atari were clamping down on titles that infringed on their IP in the lead to re-releasing their games for the umpteenth time.

While Lunar Lander was the first vector based arcade game for Atari and Battlezone was the first vector based first person shooter, Moon Patrol introduced the world to another arcade first. Parallax scrolling was alleged to be first used in the game by Japanese developer Irem. While this is a generally piece of history, others would argue that the Eugene Jarvis developed Defender was the first game to do so.

Released by Williams, Defender uses a form of scrolling but video game enthusiasts online can be found arguing over the method used to generate the movement in the game, and whether it can be classified as parallax scrolling. It’s a moot point for the crew at Williams, who ended up licensing Moon Patrol for release in the West.

The story of Moon Patrol involves the player working for the Luna City police, though as a youngster this writer was not privy to that storyline, nor was anyone else he knew. The game generated pre conceived notions in the minds of players who created their own stories about the buggy that jumped over craters and shot tanks and UFOs. The game only became successful after its Western release and the game about a buggy on the moon was picked up by Atari to be converted for home computers and consoles.

The game was released on a plethora of systems, and though people can recall playing the game on the Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum, Dragon32 and others the game never actually appeared on any of these systems. As was the case with many popular games in the 80s, Moon Patrol was cloned by other developers. These clones filled the void for systems that never received an official release but, strangely enough, they also came out for systems that did have a port of Moon Patrol.

Each of the ports features a buggy jumping over holes in the ground and attacking other vehicles, though not all of them take place on the moon. Desert Patrol for the TRS80 takes place in… well… a desert, though the gameplay is pretty much identical. Overlander on the Amiga (the 1993 Scorpius release) shows the moon in the background, though it is unclear where the game takes place.

The parallax scrolling technique used by the game could be seen in just about every arcade game released during the 1980s and 1990s, though even today many independent developers will release games using the technique. What was a technical achievement at the time can now be replicated with tools and a little bit of coding. Though people are argue as to the origin of the technique it definitely left its mark on the arcade landscape.

Video games featuring the moon, or based on the moon, can be found in just about very genre. From Duke Nukem 3D to Command and Conquer to Super Mario Odyssey, both gamers and developers have demonstrated a keen interest in the celestial body. Though there seems to be a keen interest in Mars and other planets in and around the solar system, video games featuring the moon will be finding their way onto our devices for as long as video games are made.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply