Computer Space Simulator

Until recently, Computer Space was available only to a few lucky ones, and the information about it was rather sporadic. Sure enough, many things about it were known, for example that it was based on the game Space War from the 1962, which was the first game in history, created for the PDP-1 computer, and that it was created for one player who was supposed to fight against two flying saucers.

Computer Space was released in 1971 with the efforts of Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, the former associates of the company Atrex. Bushnell then founded Atari, and the first game created in the new company was Pong. A number of variations of Pong appeared over time, which was not the case with Computer Space. After its original version, this game did not get one single new release. This was changed when in November last year Canadian Kevin Armstrong obtained a Computer Space machine. In mid-January 2005 Kevin posted a website, with a number of photos, the information about the machine and about other owners of Computer Space. On the same website one can also find a short but complete history of the first computer and video games, as well as short clips of the gameplay of Computer Space, which before had been extremely hard to find. Many people were aware that the game Computer Space existed, but very few actually saw it. The machine appeared to be pretty complicated for its time, which was the reason it was not very popular and practically disappeared. As stated on the Computerspacefan site, the game is indeed very difficult, and people now can see it for themselves. Nevertheless, the historical significance of the game Computer Space is obvious.

No wonder that the owner of the site is surprised that until now nobody attempted to create, if not an emulator (a ROM started to be used only in the 1974 in the game Tank, so it would not be possible to get an image of the game), but at least a simulator of the famous game. The main obstacle, however, was the lacking of the material. These machines can still be found in the States, but in other countries they are very rare. In Seti, it was possible to come across a couple of blurry screenshots, or the shots from the science fiction movie Soylent Green, which were giving a rather unclear idea about the game.

The main thing that Armstrong wanted to make available from his site was a simulator for Computer Space. Kevin Karstens, an artist and designer from the States, agreed to work on the simulator, but had warned that it would not be completely accurate. Says Armstrong: “We used the program Games Factory, which is indeed very good for simple games, but way too simple, so unfortunately we could not come up with an accurate version of Computer Space.”

Nevertheless, Armstrong did not want to miss the opportunity, and the work began. He created graphics of the flying saucers and the rocket and added sound. Karstens worked on other images and on the programming. A month after the site was published, the simulator was done. Judging by the video clips, it is quite similar to the original. The run of the game Computer Space can be exactly described: two flying saucers, with the flickering lights running around their edges, circle one above another, accurately firing at the player’s space ship. It is not easy to swerve, and indeed, it becomes obvious that in 1971 the concept of how to play the game and the game itself were rather complicated. This is definitely not a professional version; there are also misprints: the program is called emulator, but it is obvious, and the site states this as well, that it is nothing other than a simulator. On his site Armstrong lists the differences between this version and the original: the changing behaviour of the player’s rocket and its missiles, the new system of scoring, changed from the hexadecimal to decimal, as well as the hyperspace mode, which in the original version used to be a bonus game.

However, the importance of the event should not be underestimated. Karstens and Armstrong did what many gamers were long waiting for: they saved the game for future generations. It might happen that the simulator and the site itself will stimulate the enthusiasm of some of the fanatics, and that other, more precise programs will appear in the future [Note from Kevin Armstrong: a new, much more accurate version of the simulator has since been posted on the site]. The information now exists out there, and there is big enough number of programmers who already successfully applied their skills when writing the clone Asteroids, the successor of the Spacewar and Computer Space. A programmer from Australia, who wants to create a version much closer to the original, contacted Armstrong recently. Kevin does not know how long it will take for the new simulator to be finished, but he already sent to the programmer the sound recordings taken from the game machine.