By Alec M.
Ever wondered the story behind a certain artifact? Who was responsible for a particular piece of software? Well Living Computers' Did You Know feature will answer your questions and more! First up, a look at classic arcade game Computer Space.
When you walk into the Totally 80s Rewind Bit Zone arcade at Living Computers, you’ll see a strange looking piece made out of yellow fiberglass in the corner.
It’s called Computer Space.
The gameplay is nothing extraordinary--a little spaceship flies around and fires at two UFOs that fire back. It isn’t played a lot- it’s flanked by the classic Donkey Kong and the colorful Joust cabinets. We also don’t use tokens to run it, so there are never any jams to fix, so I’ve largely ignored it until I decided to do a deeper dive.
Turns out Computer Space marks the meeting of video games and coin operated machines. The first ones were sold in 1971--a solid 10 years before any of the other machines in our arcade--and while it didn’t sell incredibly well, it provided the foundation for video-games-for-profit. Before this machine, video games were on expensive mainframe computers, while “arcades” were full of what’s called “electro-mechanical” games. When I told my dad I was researching it in-depth, he actually recalled it as the first “video game” he had ever played, encountering it in Seattle’s Fun Forest arcade back around 1972 (he spent a whole $5 on playing it repeatedly).
One would guess that this progress was due to advancements in computing technology. While it’s true that the computer game Space War! was a direct inspiration for Computer Space, there’s no computer inside the cabinet. Instead there’s some nifty read-only circuitry and a video control board that allows the entire operation to run using a television monitor. This was necessary to keep both cost and size down.
The alternative was to invest thousands of dollars into a single computer, a route a different team was trying nearby. That game was called Galaxy Game, which was based around a full PDP-11 minicomputer. Such an infrastructure was too much for mass production.
As I mentioned earlier, it wasn’t exactly a runaway success--they only sold around 1,500 units. But the duo who created it founded a group called Syzygy Engineering--who would go on to found Atari and to be responsible for the immensely successful Pong. It’s a good reminder of the humble beginnings that some of these technologies had.