No, I’m not thinking of the play by Shakespeare, or the painting by Giogiorne, though both were quite good. I’m talking about the arcade game by Atari. Fresh off their success of Asteroids, Atari once again called upon the sexy power of vectors to make their next space-shooty game. In light of Asteroids’ marked success and the countless clones it inspired, just what makes this unassuming twitch game so special? I mean, aside from the awesomely angular cabinet? Let’s take a look. (Seriously, look at that thing. Atari was not messing around when they chiseled those edges and corners!)
1980 certainly was a year for firsts. King & Balloon was the first game to feature voice synthesis (mirror) (for which it needed an extra processor, another first), Time Traveller, obviously, was the first game to include rings, and Dallas was the first show to end a season on a cliffhanger, asking fans “Who shot J.R.?” (Spoiler alert! No one cares), only to reveal the next season that he was just fine. Yeah, that’s great, guys. Just manipulate us. It’s not like the viewers’ emotions are worth anything. No, really. It’s good to show contempt for your audience. Anyway, Tempest represented another first for the medium by being the first arcade game to have select-able difficulty levels. Tempest was the brainchild of Dave Theurer, the same man who created Missile Command earlier that year. This time he opted for simplicity and definitely succeeded in creating a more accessible game. This must have seemed welcome not only as a contrast to Missile Command’s more complex setup, but also in giving gamers an alternative to the ultra-difficulty which was standard at the time. It’s possible Atari didn’t want to emulate Berzerk, a game so formidable that it killed players in real life. Tempest’s new difficulty feature was called “SkillStep” which nicely complimented its progressive level design. Rather than have one level with increasing enemy difficulty, Tempest flew the player through different levels that were designed to make succeeding more difficult. The different levels also made it seem like you were really going somewhere, unlike in Asteroids where you just ended up right where you started–obviously a metaphor for life in corporate America.
Also present for the first time was a technology called “QuadraScan” (Apparently Atari hated spaces in their names). Rather than just white vectors, Tempest had Red, Yellow, Blue, and Green. One other thing the eagle-eyed player will notice is the addition of a new axis–The Z Axis (also the name of the band I was in during college). At a time when gamers were perfectly happy to play arcade games with only two dimensions (which they walked to uphill in the snow both ways), Tempest had breath-taking moving 3D. Sure, the RPG Akalabeth by Lord British had battles in first-person, but these scenes were stationary. All moving vectors at the time were only 2D like in Armor Attack. Imagine going to the arcade expecting to play a 2D shooter and then what’s this? Holy crap it’s 3D! I cannot stress how amazing this was at the time. Well here, have a look for yourself.
Extremely high sensitivity when played on my computer notwithstanding, Tempest is always good fun. There’s a special kind of intensity that comes from the enemies flying directly at the player. One has to wonder, though, how many arcade-goers thought they were going crazy because they kept seeing enemies fly at the screen after they stopped playing? Oh if only I had been alive in 1980 so I could have seen firsthand! You know what? Strike that. Living through the Backstreet Boys’ career was bad enough. No way would I let Frankie Goes to Hollywood and New Kids on the Block be etched into my brain too. shudder
Anyhoo, Tempest‘s 3D graphics made porting to the 2600 impossible, but the gameplay itself could be adapted. In 1982 Fox published a little-known gem for the Atari VCS called Turmoil. The player would control a ship flying up and down to fire on enemies on seven levels (think of a parking garage with an elevator in the center). The gameplay was pretty solid but unfortunately the game got lost in a sea of other games–1982 was a really over-saturated year for games.
In 1994 Atari gave Tempest a face-lift for the Atari Jaguar resulting in Tempest 2000, a.k.a. one of two games for the Jaguar worth playing. Unlike Nintendo’s face-lift Super Mario All-Stars, however, Tempest 2000 features updated gameplay mechanics, my favorite being the AI drone that shoots the baddies for you. It’s like a having a vicious attack dog, but with fewer midnight potty trips.
Only a year after Star Fox was released, Tempest 2000 exploded right in your face with beautiful polygons galore and even voice samples, fully taking advantage of the Jaguar’s power. Mind, these weren’t vector graphics. These were full polygons the engine had to render. Also of note was the extensive voice sampling, often with that 90’s “X-Treme” bravado. The psychedelic techno soundtrack was later released on CD and tape, being one of the very first Original SoundTracks to be released as a standalone product in the US. In 2001 there was a successor called Tempest 3000, released for the Nuon, possibly the most obscure console of all time. Tempest 3000 takes the formula of Tempest 2000 and takes it up a notch. It’s a visual trip, which makes it a shame that the Nuon is extremely rare. Oh, well, at least we have the Jaguar. For now I’ll leave you with this.
Seems like a bygone era, doesn’t it? This commercial was released only 32 years ago, yet it feels like ancient history. Such is the case with video gaming. What’s new is already old.