Original version: Centipede, released in 1980 for arcade
Refinement has always been as central an aspect to video gaming as innovation. As soon as a brilliant idea comes to the medium, it is edited and polished at such a dizzying pace that cinema seems downright sluggish. Devil May Cry (2001) introduced a semi-fixed camera that was refined by God of War (2005). Stardust (1993) used pre-rendered 3D sprite graphics that were refined by Donkey Kong Country (1994) and perfected by Vectorman (1995). Back in 1980, Dona Bailey was inspired by Space Invaders which created the “shoot ’em up” genre in 1978. Let’s look at her addition to the genre after the jump.

Despite unique cultural tastes, despite the many differences between the two genders (hair full of body vs. body full of hair, two pairs of shoes vs. too many pairs of shoes), despite the widest generation gap, there are two things that transcend all discrepancies and appeal to everyone: hating bugs and shooting crap. Atari saw a golden opportunity and prescribed exactly the right medicine to a want-to-kill-bugs market, which up until then had only been populated by Frogs. Clearly someone needed to compete with current mainstays like Dungeon of Death (which has no relevance to this article; I just like the name because it’s freakin’ metal). They succeeded in making a very popular game–it was Atari’s second most successful game, after Asteroids. There were many reasons Centipede resounded so well with gamers. One of the reasons was its bright, joyful colors. Like Pac-Man, the game’s vivid colors popped off the screen. Also like Pac-Man, it was a terrifying survival-horror game in which a lone survivor is endlessly pursued by enemies until he is devoured. I kid, they’re both kind of lighthearted.

Centipede, in another first, features autonomous enemy A.I. Sure, previous games like Video Olympics were programmed with algorithms to simulate human input, but they only followed a very specific set of instructions (pg. 39-40) Pac-Man took it a step further by having each ghost follow a specific movement pattern, but it was still just a railroad track. Centipede featured the first true A.I.; the willful movement of the enemies built on the already compelling gameplay of Space Invaders. Aside from what’s inside the game itself, Centipede is also notable because it was the first game to be designed by a woman.

Shut up, Roberta Williams! You don’t count!

Dona Bailey was the only female programmer at Atari’s arcade division, and one of the few females in the industry.
She dreamt up the prototype after being captivated by Space Invaders, and Ed Logg served as the editor. Together they refined the living daylights out of the shmup genre. Mushrooms serve to direct the invaders’ path, and when each one dies it turns into a mushroom which further affects the outcome of gameplay. Different kinds of enemies occasionally interject, some leaving behind extra mushrooms that can lay waste to a carefully crafted strategy, others poisoning mushrooms that cause centipede sections to go berserk and head straight for the player. And when the Centipede is fully destroyed, the level changes color and begins anew. Even though the player isn’t moving to a different place as in Tempest, it feels like each new stage is a new… forest, I think? Is that where they are?


Also, what is the protagonist, a garden gnome? An alien?
Is he repelling Earthling invaders who want to take over his home world?

Actually, the protagonist was represented as a caped elf in the VCS and 5200 versions. In the comic based on the game he is a little elfish boy with a magic wand named Oliver. Why exactly he would name his wand Oliver is beyond me. I guess the charm of graphics these simple is that they’re just enough to give you an idea of what you’re looking at, and then let your imagination fill in the rest.

The last thing I wanted to say about Centipede‘s appeal is that it demands a full range of skill from the player. From the book The Video Master’s Guide to Centipede:

The following lists some of the mental skills required to be a good video game player.

1. Reaction time
2. Attention
3. Concentration
4. Planning and anticipation
5. Judgment
6. Perceptual organization
7. Timing and rhythm
8. Pattern learning and recognition
9. Memory


CENTIPEDE has no apparent single skill that stands out; no one skill is at the heart of the game. Instead, it offers an incredibly satisfying mix of just about every skill that has so far been used in past video games. Not only are so many various skills required, but they are each required at a high level in order to fully master the game. CENTIPEDE, in borrowing from the best of what has gone before, culminates in a peak game-playing experience.

The current record for a single game of Centipede rests at 7,111,111 points set by Donald Hayes on November 5th, 2000. My humble score of 17,414 demonstrates that I do not possess a strong showing of the mental skills required to be a good gamer. I am quite pleased, however, to announce that I have the raw physical strength of approximately 1.2 college girls.

Centipede is included in Atari Vault for PC. If you own a Centipede arcade cabinet you can download a backup here and run it on MAME.
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