Last Saturday, at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, New York, a new exhibit opened. Entitled Spacewar! the large, dark space tells the story of science fiction video games from inception to now. True to the heritage of the games the exhibit houses, though, Spacewar! is an interactive exhibit, and when we visited, several teenagers were milling around, playing Space Invaders and Star Wars. Dollars can be exchanged for custom tokens, and each game costs 25 cents to play.
The Spacewar! exhibit houses twenty-one games, beginning with the 1961 PDP-1 original (the museum’s is a model, the only original, working Spacewar! can be found at the Computer History Museum in California), up through through 2011’s Xbox 360 Child of Eden. The other early notable cabinets, which are original and playable (if you can handle it, both are notoriously difficult), are Nutting Associates’ 1971 Computer Space, designed by Nolan Bushnell, and 1977’s Space Wars.
For anyone who remembers video game arcades, the experience of seeing these cabinets in a museum setting is slightly unsettling. That they have become worthy of exhibit is undeniable, however: many of the machines on display are quite rare, valuable, and requiring constant upkeep to remain operational. Most of the machines are a part of the museum’s permanent collection (several have been borrowed from other collections), though they’ll only be on display through the beginning of March, 2013.
Photography by Michael Shane
The Museum of the Moving Image's Spacewar! exhibit opened on December 15th.
A model of the PDP-1 (Programmed Data Processor-1) which Steve Russell used in 1961 at MIT to create Spacewar!
The CRT monitor of the PDP-1 (left), and the typewriter (right) used for text input.
Spacewar! is a two player game that Russell says took about 200 hours to write.
The controls for Spacewar! were custom made as no game controllers yet existed. Spacewar! was a hit on college campuses.
Spacewar! with the bright green, custom built Computer Space cabinet in the background.
Computer Space was the first arcade game to be featured in a movie, Soylent Green.
Computer Space cabinets were also manufactured in glittery dark blue.
Though Nutting Associates was unhappy with sales of Computer Space, Bushnell considered the 3 million dollars it made a success.
The basic gameplay of Computer Space is deceptively simple and shockingly difficult.
Computer Space was followed in 1977 by Larry Rosenthal's Space Wars. The game is notable for its complex buttons and controls.
Rosenthal, an MIT graduate, based Space Wars directly on Spacewar! His version had many gameplay options.
Asteroids was released in 1979 to great popularity and success. The basic goal of the game is to destroy incoming asteroids and occasional flying saucers.
Asteroids inspired 1980's Battlezone, considered one of the earliest virtual reality games for its use of viewing goggles.
Many of the cabinets in the exhibit show signs of their age, and require periodic servicing to remain operational.
The exhibit is interactive and all of the games are playable, for a 25 cent custom token.
Most of the cabinets, which weigh up to 300 pounds each, have colorful graphic artwork running down their sides.
1981's Cold War-inspired Missile Command features three main firing buttons and a large trackball for the player to defend cities from incoming ballistic missiles.
Unlike most games which display a "Game Over" screen when a player loses, Missile Command displays a screen which ominously proclaims "The End."
1980's Defender, 1978's Space Invaders, and 1981's Missile Command are three of the most successful arcade games of the Golden Age.
Space Invaders was released by Taito in Japan and Bally Midway in the United States.
1978's Space Invaders was inspired by H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds and popularized the use of microprocessors in arcade games.
1983's Star Wars is an early example of a cockpit-style, sit down video game. It also notably makes use of digitized sampled voices of many characters from the movie.
Star Wars was an early success in branded gaming tie-ins with popular films.
The Spacewar! exhibit continues through March 3, 2013.