Thursday, May 15, 2008

Chronology: Spacewar

(Image above is "Computer Space")

"Hackers" get a bad rap.

"Hacking" today tends to mean breaking into a computer system. This is a corruption of the term - the original hackers didn't break into computers - because they were the only computer users and already had access. At MIT at the beginning of the 1960s, the first hackers prized efficient, elegant, beautiful solutions - the noun "hack" has been said to be undefinable, but has been characterized as "an appropriate application of ingenuity." So it's a shame that the mass media has been ruining the word since the 80s.

Especially because it's hackers we have to thank for making computers fun. For a long time, computers were just for doing work. Sure, there was Tennis for Two back in 1958, and other trinkets here and there, but things didn't go serious arcade style until 1961 when those hackers at MIT dreamed up Spacewar. It was at once complex and bind-mogglingly simple - with game physics including gravity, thrust and hyperspace, not to mention an astronomically-accurate background star field, courtesy of a subroutine dubbed "Expensive Planetarium" - yet at its heart, it was a simple two-player hot seat duel. Spacewar was, by necessity, a shared experience.

Take a look at the prodigious progeny of this game:
  • 1961-62 - Spacewar! (Steve Russell et al, PDP minicomputer)
  • September 1971 - Galaxy Game (Installed at the student union at Stanford, a version of Spacewar that cost 10 cents or three plays for a quarter.)
  • November 1971 - Nolan Bushnell (later the father of Atari) mass produces Spacewar as "Computer Space" - the first video game in arcades.
  • 1977 - Space Wars, the first vector graphics arcade game, is released by Cinematronics- it's a very accurate arcade version of Spacewar. "Vector" graphics are made up of very bright, clear, lines, which makes the game more appealing than the blocky low resolution graphics on black and white televisions, as is more common in arcade games of the day.
  • 1979 - Atari releases Asteroids - along with Space Invaders, one of the biggest arcade smash hits of the 70s. Asteroids uses the same left/right/thrust/fire control scheme as Spacewar, as well as the "Hyperspace" concept that - as everyone knows - randomly teleports your ship to another location on the screen.
  • 1980 - Cinematronics releases Star Castle, a one-player-at-a-time space battle against a circular fortress in the middle of the screen.
  • 1981 - Sega comes out with Eliminator, a vector game for one to four players, not unlike a Star Castle with the enemy installation mobile and floating around the screen. [video]
  • 1982 - a version of Spacewar is ported to the Vectrex game console, the only vector graphics game console ever made. It's a very faithful rendering, and even includes a one-player version - though the intelligence of the opposing ship is not what you'd face from a human adversary.
  • 1988 - The Dreamers Guild creates Ebonstar, a version of Eliminator for the Amiga home computer.
This is only a small sampling. Steve Russell, when asked, was extremely modest about his contribution, saying if he hadn't done it, someone else would have. Maybe. What we do know for sure is he came up with one very influential computer program - and since his nickname was "Slug" due to his tendency to be slow to start anything, and he was the first, who's to say we might not still be waiting for Spacewar if he hadn't come through?

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