Login

It began with 'Spacewar!' A history of science fiction in video games

spacewar lead

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 <em>Spacewar!</em> exhibit opened on December 15th.

    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 <em>Spacewar!</em>

    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.

    The CRT monitor of the PDP-1 (left), and the typewriter (right) used for text input.

  • <em>Spacewar!</em> is a two player game that Russell says took about 200 hours to write.

    Spacewar! is a two player game that Russell says took about 200 hours to write.

  • The controls for <em>Spacewar!</em> were custom made as no game controllers yet existed. Spacewar! was a hit on college campuses.

    The controls for Spacewar! were custom made as no game controllers yet existed. Spacewar! was a hit on college campuses.

  • <em>Spacewar!</em> with the bright green, custom built <em>Computer Space</em> cabinet in the background.

    Spacewar! with the bright green, custom built Computer Space cabinet in the background.

  • <em>Computer Space</em> was the first arcade game to be featured in a movie, <em>Soylent Green</em>.

    Computer Space was the first arcade game to be featured in a movie, Soylent Green.

  • <em>Computer Space</em> cabinets were also manufactured in glittery dark blue.

    Computer Space cabinets were also manufactured in glittery dark blue.

  • Though Nutting Associates was unhappy with sales of <em>Computer Space</em>, Bushnell considered the 3 million dollars it made a success.

    Though Nutting Associates was unhappy with sales of Computer Space, Bushnell considered the 3 million dollars it made a success.

  • The basic gameplay of <em>Computer Space</em> is deceptively simple and shockingly difficult.

    The basic gameplay of Computer Space is deceptively simple and shockingly difficult.

  • <em>Computer Space</em> was followed in 1977 by Larry Rosenthal's <em>Space Wars.</em> The game is notable for its complex buttons and controls.

    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 <em>Space Wars</em> directly on <em>Spacewar!</em> His version had many gameplay options.

    Rosenthal, an MIT graduate, based Space Wars directly on Spacewar! His version had many gameplay options.

  • <em>Asteroids</em> 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 was released in 1979 to great popularity and success. The basic goal of the game is to destroy incoming asteroids and occasional flying saucers.

  • <em>Asteroids</em> inspired 1980's <em>Battlezone,</em> considered one of the earliest virtual reality games for its use of viewing goggles.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    Most of the cabinets, which weigh up to 300 pounds each, have colorful graphic artwork running down their sides.

  • 1981's Cold War-inspired <em>Missile Command</em> features three main firing buttons and a large trackball for the player to defend cities from incoming ballistic missiles.

    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, <em>Missile Command</em> displays a screen which ominously proclaims "The End."

    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 <em>Defender</em>, 1978's <em>Space Invaders</em>, and 1981's <em>Missile Command</em> are three of the most successful arcade games of the Golden Age.

    1980's Defender, 1978's Space Invaders, and 1981's Missile Command are three of the most successful arcade games of the Golden Age.

  • <em>Space Invaders</em> was released by Taito in Japan and Bally Midway in the United States.

    Space Invaders was released by Taito in Japan and Bally Midway in the United States.

  • 1978's <em>Space Invaders</em> was inspired by H.G. Wells' <em>The War of the Worlds</em> and popularized the use of microprocessors in arcade games.

    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 <em>Star Wars</em> 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.

    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.

  • <em>Star Wars</em> was an early success in branded gaming tie-ins with popular films.

    Star Wars was an early success in branded gaming tie-ins with popular films.

  • The <em>Spacewar!</em> exhibit continues through March 3, 2013.

    The Spacewar! exhibit continues through March 3, 2013.

The Verge
X
Log In Sign Up

forgot?
Log In Sign Up

Please choose a new Verge username and password

As part of the new Verge launch, prior users will need to choose a permanent username, along with a new password.

Your username will be used to login to Verge going forward.

I already have a Vox Media account!

Verify Vox Media account

Please login to your Vox Media account. This account will be linked to your previously existing Eater account.

Please choose a new Verge username and password

As part of the new Verge launch, prior MT authors will need to choose a new username and password.

Your username will be used to login to Verge going forward.

Forgot password?

We'll email you a reset link.

If you signed up using a 3rd party account like Facebook or Twitter, please login with it instead.

Forgot password?

Try another email?

Almost done,

By becoming a registered user, you are also agreeing to our Terms and confirming that you have read our Privacy Policy.
Spinner.vc97ec6e

Authenticating

Great!

Choose an available username to complete sign up.

In order to provide our users with a better overall experience, we ask for more information from Facebook when using it to login so that we can learn more about our audience and provide you with the best possible experience. We do not store specific user data and the sharing of it is not required to login with Facebook.