Saturday, 28 November 2020

Atari Battlezone (1980)

Introduced November 1980

Displays on early computer systems – and arcade games – tended to be divided into two categories. Most used a series of dots created line-by-line, like a domestic TV set – these were raster scan devices. But you don’t have to create a picture like that with an old-style cathode ray tube (CRT), you can draw lines from point-to-point too – these are vector devices.

Atari’s Lunar Lander and Asteroids games used vector displays to create cool space-age graphics, modelled in part on the look and feel of Spacewar! on the PDP-1 decades earlier. The next stage for Atari was an impressive evolution of vector graphics, with Battlezone.

Modern rendering of the periscope view of Battlezone
Modern rendering of the periscope view of Battlezone

Launched in November 1980, Atari’s Battlezone was set firmly on the ground. Instead of a spaceship, the player controlled a tank with two controllers that pushed backwards and forwards. Push both forwards, and the tank moved forwards, you would go backwards if both were pushed backwards, and to turn you would push one back and one forwards. A button on one of the controllers fired a shell towards enemy tanks prowling around the landscape, or faster super tanks, UFOs or missiles.

The gameplay was fairly straightforward, but the graphics set it apart. In the standard versions, the player would look through a periscope with a lens in it and some painted on artwork, to simulate a real tank. What they saw was a flat plane with an occasional enemy, distant mountains and a live volcano, a crescent moon and random geometric shapes scattered around which could act either as cover or as obstacles. The wire-frame vector graphics, given a primitive but compelling 3D experience.

The enemy often wasn’t visible at all, except for being on radar. A frantic swing around to find the opposing tank would often be too late to avoid an incoming round. Unseen objects could block escape routes, or alternatively save your bacon and block an attack. All the time, the mountains beckoned in the distance. Could you ever reach them? All sorts of rumours and myths abounded, sadly untrue.

Battlezone machine with periscope
Battlezone machine with periscope

The game was a huge hit, but the periscope remained one of the most divisive parts. Although it added to the feel of the game, you had to be able to reach it and it wasn’t always the most hygienic thing to press your face into. Some later versions removed the periscope which made the game more accessible.

Battlezone also had official ports to most of the popular systems of the early 1980s, include the Apple II, Commodore 64, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Atari 8-bit machines and the Atari ST. Unofficial versions and games inspired by Battlezone proliferated across every  platform you can think of and are still popular today. Vintage machines seem rare, with prices in the US being around $5000, but if you want a more modern (and compact) VR experience you could try something like the PlayStation 4 version.

Image credits:
Gamerscore Blog via Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0
Russell Bernice via Flickr – CC BY 2.0

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