Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Atari Lunar Lander (1979)

Atari Lunar Lander (Right) next to an Atari Space War machine
Launched August 1979

It is 1979 and the dawn of the Golden Age of Arcade Games. The same technology that was bringing microcomputers such as the Apple II into homes and businesses was also revolutionising the Arcade with sophisticated machines that could prove very popular… and profitable.

Taito and Midway had launched the highly successful Space Invaders game a year previously, and now it was Atari’s turn. Based on the inexpensive but versatile 6502 processor, Lunar Lander was quite a different game.

The basic idea was simple enough – the player had to place a lunar lander module on a flat part of surface of the moon without running out of fuel or crashing out of control. In practice it was pretty tricky.

The idea wasn’t a totally new one as versions of the game had been around for a decade or so. Earlier versions of the game were mostly text-based and concentrated on balancing fuel and thrust. In 1973 DEC produced a graphical version running on a PDP minicomputer hooked up to a GT40 video terminal. Atari took the concept one stage further with an arcade version based on similar principles.

Lunar Lander Screenshot
In addition to the 6502, the Atari version of the game – like the DEC version before it – used vector graphics rather than raster graphics. Without going into detail, an old-fashioned cathode ray tube can work in two ways: when used as a raster device it can make a picture by drawing hundreds of individual lines, commonly used in TV sets. But instead of drawing hundreds of lines, the electron beam can actually be directed anywhere on the CRT with the right hardware to draw a pin-sharp line between two locations, something you might see in an old-fashioned laboratory oscilloscope. Vector graphics can be appealing if you have limited hardware to run on, but they also look rather good and space-age which is especially appealing in a game like this.

It looked brilliant, the game-play was compelling and addictive and it is probably no surprise that Atari had a hit on its hands. However, it was soon eclipsed by a new Atari came based on similar hardware called Asteroids. Asteroids knocked Lunar Lander out of the park when it came to sales figures, shipping nearly fifteen times the number of cabinets.

There are plenty of versions of Lunar Lander around today, original cabinet versions are pretty hard to come by with prices of $4000 being typical. Or you can play a free version in your browser right here.

Image credits:
Marcin Wichary via Flickr
Wikipedia



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