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5 Fascinating Facts About Atari's Star Wars

by Ryan Lambie

Videogames simply wouldn't have been the same without Star Wars. The first of George Lucas's grand space operas landed in 1977, inspiring game designer Tomohiro Nishikado to give his nascent arcade shooting game a science fiction theme. Thereafter, numerous games tried to give players the experience of saving the galaxy from some kind of evil empire, but it took Atari to make the first Star Wars game, which was released in 1983.

Debuting when the golden age of the arcade was at its peak, Atari's Star Wars was a technical marvel at the time. Although available as an upright machine, the sit-down version offered the full, immersive experience. Its vector graphics made you feel as though you were Luke Skywalker himself, piloting an X-wing fighter and leading the assault on the Death Star. Digitized speech from the movie added to its authenticity, and the result was one of the biggest arcade hits of the era.

Even today, Atari's Star Wars arcade game is remembered with an affection approaching the original films themselves. Here are a few facts about the game and its impact.

1. IT BEGAN AS A GAME CALLED WARP SPEED.

One of the key figures in the creation of Atari's Star Wars game was Jed Margolin. When he joined Atari in 1979, it was because he had a burning ambition to create what he later described as "a 3D space war game." Margolin served as the hardware engineer on Atari's wave of classic vector arcade machines, including Lunar Lander, Asteroids, Tempest, and Battlezone.

Eventually, Margolin finally got the greenlight to make his 3D space war game, which he called Warp Speed. But when Atari forged a deal with Lucasfilm to make a range of games for both the 2600 and the arcade, Margolin suggested that Warp Speed would make "a good platform for a Star Wars game."

2. THE PROJECT WAS LED BY THE CO-DESIGNER OF GRAVITAR.

Project leader Mike Hally joined Atari in 1976—just before Star Wars became a phenomenon—and for several years, he largely handled the design of pinball machines and their mechanical parts. But in the 1980s, Hally moved over to the burgeoning electronic games market, and co-created the space shooting game Gravitar with designer Rich Adam.

Inspired by the success of arcade hits like Lunar Lander and Asteroids, Gravitar saw the player guiding their ship around jagged chunks of space rock, shooting gun turrets, and collecting blue fuel tanks. You can see some of the traces of the later Star Wars game in Gravitar, but in terms of technical sophistication, Atari's take on A New Hope would provide a far greater challenge to create.

3. IT PUSHED TECHNICAL BOUNDARIES.

Atari's Star Wars arcade project was by no means the earliest first-person game of its type; its design could have been inspired by the seminal Star Raiders on the Atari 2600 (1982), and Battlezone (1980) provided a vector-based shooting sim three years earlier. The concept for Star Wars was, however, far more sophisticated than either game. Whereas Battlezone's tank moved slowly across an almost featureless landscape, Star Wars's X-wing flew rapidly through different environments—outer space, along the Death Star's surface, and finally through its narrow trench.

"What [Lucasfilm] wanted wasn't really possible until one or two years ago," Hally said in a 1983 interview. "It was no small feat to get the game, so I was under a lot of pressure to make the game go over well."

The processing demands of Star Wars's fast-moving gameplay were such that new components had to be used. Where Battlezone used mylar capacitors, Star Wars required polycarbonate capacitors capable of handling the game's faster drawing speed. Separate processors were also used to handle the graphics and all the digitized sound effects from the movie.

4. THE CONTROLLER CAME FROM A MILITARY VERSION OF THE BATTLEZONE COIN-OP.

One of the challenges of making Star Wars was not just making it look and sound like the film, but actually making it feel as though the player was controlling an X-wing. The game clearly needed some kind of high-tech feeling control system, but where to source it? The yoke seen in the final game came from an obscure source: something called the Bradley Trainer.

The Bradley Trainer was a version of Battlezone created by Atari for the military and, as its name implies, was designed as a trainer for the Bradley tank. Although only two of these machines were ever produced, the yoke design was adopted—albeit in smaller form—as the controller for Star Wars.

According to Margolin, Atari tested a version of the game with a more conventional joystick in the hope of saving money, but players were confused over which way to move the stick. This meant that, fortunately, the team was able to justify the higher cost of the flight controller.

5. STAR WARS WAS NEARLY A TWO-PLAYER GAME.

Very early in its development, while Star Wars was still called Warp Speed, a two-player prototype was built, which allowed two players to sit at separate monitors. Unfortunately, the additional screen placed extra load on the hardware, so the idea was soon dropped.

All told, Star Wars took around six months to create, and emerged in arcades in the summer of 1983. Selling around 12,000 cabinets, Star Wars was a major hit, bolstered in no small part by the release of Return Of The Jedi that same year. Ported to numerous home systems later in the decade, Atari's Star Wars was arguably the first game to capture the wide-eyed thrill of Lucas's classic film.

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Art
5 Things You Might Not Know About Ansel Adams

You probably know Ansel Adams—who was born on February 20, 1902—as the man who helped promote the National Park Service through his magnificent photographs. But there was a lot more to the shutterbug than his iconic, black-and-white vistas. Here are five lesser-known facts about the celebrated photographer.

1. AN EARTHQUAKE LED TO HIS DISTINCTIVE NOSE.

Adams was a four-year-old tot when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck his hometown. Although the boy managed to escape injury during the quake itself, an aftershock threw him face-first into a garden wall, breaking his nose. According to a 1979 interview with TIME, Adams said that doctors told his parents that it would be best to fix the nose when the boy matured. He joked, "But of course I never did mature, so I still have the nose." The nose became Adams' most striking physical feature. His buddy Cedric Wright liked to refer to Adams' honker as his "earthquake nose.

2. HE ALMOST BECAME A PIANIST.

Adams was an energetic, inattentive student, and that trait coupled with a possible case of dyslexia earned him the heave-ho from private schools. It was clear, however, that he was a sharp boy—when motivated.

When Adams was just 12 years old, he taught himself to play the piano and read music, and he quickly showed a great aptitude for it. For nearly a dozen years, Adams focused intensely on his piano training. He was still playful—he would end performances by jumping up and sitting on his piano—but he took his musical education seriously. Adams ultimately devoted over a decade to his study, but he eventually came to the realization that his hands simply weren't big enough for him to become a professional concert pianist. He decided to leave the keys for the camera after meeting photographer Paul Strand, much to his family's dismay.

3. HE HELPED CREATE A NATIONAL PARK.

If you've ever enjoyed Kings Canyon National Park in California, tip your cap to Adams. In the 1930s Adams took a series of photographs that eventually became the book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail. When Adams sent a copy to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, the cabinet member showed it to Franklin Roosevelt. The photographs so delighted FDR that he wouldn't give the book back to Ickes. Adams sent Ickes a replacement copy, and FDR kept his with him in the White House.

After a few years, Ickes, Adams, and the Sierra Club successfully convinced Roosevelt to make Kings Canyon a national park in 1940. Roosevelt's designation specifically provided that the park be left totally undeveloped and roadless, so the only way FDR himself would ever experience it was through Adams' lenses.

4. HE WELCOMED COMMERCIAL ASSIGNMENTS.

While many of his contemporary fine art photographers shunned commercial assignments as crass or materialistic, Adams went out of his way to find paying gigs. If a company needed a camera for hire, Adams would generally show up, and as a result, he had some unlikely clients. According to The Ansel Adams Gallery, he snapped shots for everyone from IBM to AT&T to women's colleges to a dried fruit company. All of this commercial print work dismayed Adams's mentor Alfred Stieglitz and even worried Adams when he couldn't find time to work on his own projects. It did, however, keep the lights on.

5. HE AND GEORGIA O'KEEFFE WERE FRIENDS.

Adams and legendary painter O'Keeffe were pals and occasional traveling buddies who found common ground despite their very different artistic approaches. They met through their mutual friend/mentor Stieglitz—who eventually became O'Keeffe's husband—and became friends who traveled throughout the Southwest together during the 1930s. O'Keeffe would paint while Adams took photographs.

These journeys together led to some of the artists' best-known work, like Adams' portrait of O'Keeffe and a wrangler named Orville Cox, and while both artists revered nature and the American Southwest, Adams considered O'Keeffe the master when it came to capturing the area. 

“The Southwest is O’Keeffe’s land,” he wrote. “No one else has extracted from it such a style and color, or has revealed the essential forms so beautifully as she has in her paintings.”

The two remained close throughout their lives. Adams would visit O'Keeffe's ranch, and the two wrote to each other until Adams' death in 1984.

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Dan Bell
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Design
A Cartographer Is Mapping All of the UK’s National Parks, J.R.R. Tolkien-Style
Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park
Dan Bell

Cartographer Dan Bell makes national parks into fantasy lands. Bell, who lives near Lake District National Park in England, is currently on a mission to draw every national park in the UK in the style of the maps in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Kottke.org reports.

The project began in September 2017, when Bell posted his own hand-drawn version of a Middle Earth map online. He received such a positive response that he decided to apply the fantasy style to real world locations. He has completed 11 out of the UK’s 15 parks so far. Once he finishes, he hopes to tackle the U.S. National Park system, too. (He already has Yellowstone National Park down.)

Bell has done various other maps in the same style, including ones for London and Game of Thrones’s Westeros, and he commissions, in case you have your own special locale that could use the Tolkien treatment. Check out a few of his park maps below.

A close-up of a map for Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park in central England
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Cairngorms National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Cairngorms National Park in Scotland
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Lake District National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Lake District National Park in England
Dan Bell

You can buy prints of the maps here.

[h/t Kottke.org]

All images by Dan Bell

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