Eureka: Design Inspiration From 5 Arcade Classics

irobotI’ve just returned from California Extreme 2011 – the pre-eminent West Coast ‘gather hundreds of rare arcade and pinball machines in a room and put ’em on free play’ gathering. (Incidentally, it’s still taking place tomorrow, Sunday, in Santa Clara, CA, if any Bay Area folks feel like making an appearance!)

Although a lot of similar titles turn up year on year, CA Extreme is a gold mine in particular for early American arcade cabinets of the Atari and Midway ilk, from vector-based titles to limited-distribution prototypes. (The game list is semi-accurate, although there’s about 20% slosh in there of titles that didn’t make it, etc – since it’s all volunteer based.)

Some of the rarer titles on play have really got me thinking about the interesting experiments of the early arcade period — and what we can learn from them from a design perspective. So, here are the less obvious titles I played today that really spoke to me, and just why:

Space Dungeon (Taito, 1981 – YouTube video)
Apparently created before Eugene Jarvis’ seminal Robotron 2084, this is a frantic, Rex Battenberg-designed dual-stick shooter. And it’s a blast, once you work out which are the enemies and which are the pickups in the game (seriously, not that obvious!) There’s an interesting game design counterplay in going out of the way to grab pickups versus heading straight for the exit. Frenetic and unexpected.

Major Havoc (Atari, 1983 – YouTube video)
One of a pair of absolutely mindblowing – and somewhat lesser-known – Atari titles from the prodigously talented Owen Rubin. Major Havoc is consecutively an interesting-angled Galaga style title, a swift Lunar Lander-style mini-game and a physics-heavy platformer, all using super-attractive vector graphics. Design lessons? Multiple genres in one game can really work, spinner-controlled physics is fun _and_ frustrating. And the main character has an idle animation!

Mad Planets (Gottlieb, 1983 – YouTube video)
This Gottlieb shooting-heavy arcade title doesn’t have the most inspired gameplay ever, except some fun planetary physics. But what the Tim Skelly-designed game does have is a really interesting control layout – a spinner for changing the angle your ship and a joystick for moving it at the same time. This really does mess with your brain in a pleasant manner – if you’re used to twin stick, think of one of the sticks being a rotating knob instead. Just shows that control method changes can refresh genres.

(Incidentally, I found a very interesting contemporary interview with Tim Skelly online, also discussing his very tricky/odd Reactor, which is also at CA Extreme. This title involves decoying particles with fake player avatars and then bouncing them into walls with your trackball – quite counter-intuitive, but not like any other games I can think of.)

Joust (Williams, 1982 – YouTube video)
Undoubtedly the most famous of the titles in this line-up, designed by John Newcomer and his team. But having played it a bunch more today, I realized just what a wonderful game it is. In particular, it really is one of the pioneers of the avian physics game (take that, Angry Birds!), and the controls  – just joystick and a ‘flap’ button – are incredibly simple but effective. Its beauty is in its simplicity, and intuiting that if you are above an enemy when you hit ’em, you destroy them. This gameplay mechanic doesn’t really get re-used much, oddly! And the less said about Joust 2, the better.

I, Robot (Atari, 1983 – YouTube video)
Oh. My. God. I did know about this game, but had a chance to have a detailed play of it (it’s fairly rare in non-emulated form) at the show today. What you need to know – created by Missile Command and Tempest’s Dave Theurer, a massive flop at the time in 1983, has full vector-based 3D with platforming, surreal art, scary big brother eyeballs, multiple camera angles to pick from (which affect the score multiplier – what a neat idea!), terrifyingly beautiful, and feels at least 10 years ahead of its time. This is art. That is all.

[BONUS: While they don’t fit in the above list, here’s a few notable oddities on show at CA Extreme to point out, for anyone going or just interested in the rarer side of early arcade gaming:

– First, I was quite taken by Atari’s Accelerator, which only exists in prototype form – there’s a video up on It’s a tad clunky, but runs using a spinner and actually plays a bit like Unirally, of all things.

– Also showcased and rather beautiful – someone’s lovingly updated Atari’s Video Pinball into Encom’s Video Pinball 2.0 – there’s a big making-of thread on the Tron-themed hardware and software mod at It’s new but certainly feels old, in a good intentional way.

– Finally, I’ve mentioned it before in other blog posts, but Atari’s Quantum is a rare but beautiful trackball-based Qix-like game where you have to encircle particles with your cursor to destroy them. Tricky but abstract, it almost feels like a delightfully abstract indie game from today, rather than a game that debuted in 1982.]

2 thoughts on “Eureka: Design Inspiration From 5 Arcade Classics”

  1. Awesome, it’s great to hear about old games again! I actually played I, Robot years (and years) ago in an arcade. Trippy, but fascinating.

  2. I, Robot is a fantastic game. Technically it was head and shoulders above the competition. Atari were really kicking ass in the 80’s. I remember the levels with the sharks being particularly troublesome…

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