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.

15 Secrets of Courtroom Sketch Artists

Kim Ludbrook, AFP/Getty Images
Kim Ludbrook, AFP/Getty Images

After aviator Charles Lindbergh’s infant son was kidnapped and found dead in 1932, perpetrator Bruno Hauptmann was brought to justice—and cameras followed. So many lit up the courtroom during Hauptmann's trial and eventual conviction that the American Bar Association successfully lobbied to ban photographers from proceedings due to the distraction. Some 30 years later, during the trial of Lee Harvey Oswald’s killer, Jack Ruby, CBS found a solution. They hired illustrator Howard Brodie to capture Ruby’s expressions.

The rest is history, most of it rendered in charcoal and watercolor. Courtroom sketch artists go where cameras cannot, recording the often-tense atmospheres of high-profile judicial cases featuring the likes of Charles Manson, Bernie Madoff, and Michael Jackson. On tight deadlines, these artists use their craft to communicate the emotions of a courtroom.

But being talented isn’t enough. Speed is essential, and so is finding just the right scene to encapsulate an entire day or trial. “It’s difficult to do,” says Mona Shafer Edwards, a courtroom illustrator in California. “It’s not a cartoon, it’s not caricature, it’s not a portrait. It’s capturing a moment in time.”

To get a better sense of what goes into their work, Mental Floss spoke with three of the most celebrated artists working today. Here’s what they had to say about drawing conclusions to some of history’s biggest stories.

1. THEY HAVE TO DRAW AROUND OBSTACLES.

A courtroom sketch by Elizabeth Williams featuring Teresa Giudice
Courtesy of Elizabeth Williams

Imagine sitting down to sketch a friend and finding that someone has placed a column, screen, or body directly in your field of vision. Now imagine that if you can’t capture this person’s likeness, you don’t get paid. That’s the most common problem faced by courtroom sketch artists, who frequently have to navigate around obstacles in order to get a glimpse of their subject—often the defendant, attorney, or judge. “You generally have to wait for someone to lean over,” says Elizabeth Williams, an artist based in New York who works for CNBC and the Associated Press, among others. (Most artists are hired by the larger news outlets.) “Fortunately, people aren’t potted plants, and they do move.” If they don’t, Williams will move around the courtroom herself, trying to secure a better vantage point. During pleas and sentencing—and depending on the judge—she might be allowed to sit with other reporters in the jury box.

If visual obstacles remain a problem, some artists might turn to family members. Vicki Ellen Behringer, who works out of California for clients including CBS and Fox, says she once used the father of a defendant as a reference when she couldn’t see his son. “I had studied his son’s face and the father reminded me of what he looks like,” she says. “They looked so much alike.”

2. YOUNGER PEOPLE ARE HARDER TO DRAW.

A courtroom sketch by Vicki Ellen Behringer featuring Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and his attorney
Courtesy of Vicki Ellen Behringer

For Behringer, faces with plenty of distinguishing features are a gift. “I love glasses, I love facial hair, lots of wrinkles, anything that shows character,” she says. “The most difficult thing is doing someone fairly young and good-looking. They don’t have lines on their face.” Behringer cites the sketch of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski (above), seated with his attorney. While Kaczynski's weathered look was easy to render, his lawyer—younger and relatively unlined—was much harder to capture.

3. MORNINGS ARE BETTER FOR THEM.

A courtroom sketch by Elizabeth Williams features Bernie Madoff accomplice Frank DiPascali being led away in handcuffs
Courtesy of Elizabeth Williams

Sketch artists work in a pressure cooker environment. They’re often called to court by news agencies on a day’s notice or less and need to render their drawings quickly. If a crucial moment in a trial happens in the late afternoon, artists may have as little as an hour to finish coloring their piece before scanning and sending it to the news outlets that have contracted the work. “There’s a lot of pressure to turn it around quickly” in time for the evening newscasts, Williams says. If something transpires in the morning, she has more time to refine the work. “Nobody’s really breathing down your back then.”

4. THEY CATCH HEAT FOR CELEBRITY RENDERINGS.

A courtoom sketch by artist Mona Shafer Edwards depicts Gwyneth Paltrow testifying during a trial
Courtesy of Mona Shafer Edwards

Because celebrities are familiar to people, seeing a court sketch that doesn’t seem to line up can be disconcerting. But according to Edwards, that’s because celebrities aren’t necessarily putting their best face forward. “I was pilloried for making Gwyneth Paltrow look unattractive,” she says, referring to the actress’s appearance (above) during a 2016 trial to testify against Dante Michael Soiu, a man accused of stalking her. (He was acquitted.) “She had no make-up on, wore a beige turtleneck, and her nose was red from crying.” Paltrow’s fans criticized Edwards for the unflattering likeness.

5. THEY SOMETIMES REARRANGE THE COURTROOM ON PAPER.

A courtroom sketch by Vicki Ellen Behringer depicts players in the 2012 Apple v. Samsung trial
Courtesy of Vicki Ellen Behringer

According to Williams, some news outlets have strict guidelines about how sketch artists interpret a court scene. The Associated Press, for example, doesn’t allow artists to mess with the proximity of one person to another. If a defendant is four feet from his or her attorney, Williams can’t have their shoulders touching. But other outlets allow for artistic license. “Sometimes you can’t get everything you want and be accurate, so you squish it together,” Behringer says. “You sometimes want the defendant in the same sketch as a judge, or to move the defense and prosecution tables closer together.”

6. THEY SELL THEIR WORK TO ATTORNEYS.

A courtroom sketch by Elizabeth Williams depicts attorney Robert Hillard in a 2016 trial examining the possible fault of General Motors in a motor vehicle accident
Courtesy of Elizabeth Williams

Like big game hunters, lawyers enjoy a trophy. Some attorneys in high-profile case will approach Williams asking to purchase a sketch that she rendered. “I’ve sold my work to a number of attorneys,” she says. “Generally speaking, they only want it when they win.” Behringer says that some attorneys fresh out of law school will specifically request she come into court to sketch them. “I guess it might be to show parents you’ve finished law school.”

The Library of Congress even has a collection of 96 courtroom drawings from famous trials, with illustrations by Williams among them. They were purchased with funds from the noted L.A. laywer Thomas V. Girardi, best known for working on the California environmental contamination case involving Erin Brockovich.

7. SOMETIMES SUBJECTS ASK FOR A MAKEOVER.

Courtroom sketch artist Mona Shafer Edwards depicts the trial of the Menendez Brothers
Courtesy of Mona Shafer Edwards

Edwards is sometimes approached by defense attorneys or other jurists and asked if her work could be a little more flattering. “Men will come up to me and ask me to give them more hair or make them look thinner or better-looking,” she says. “It’s never women asking for me to take weight off or whatever. It’s always men.”

8. POLKA DOTS AND BARS ARE BAD NEWS.

A courtroom sketch by Vickie Ellen Behringer depicts accused Golden State Killer Joseph James DeAngelo in 2018
Courtesy of Vicki Ellen Behringer

Sketch artists need to spend their time capturing and refining emotions and moods. If defendants are wearing prints, it can be exasperating. “White polka dots on dark clothing can be hard to do in watercolor,” Behringer says. “Stripes, too. You don’t want to waste energy into making the clothing accurate. I’d rather put that time into the face. It can be frustrating.” Another Behringer pet peeve: bars. In California, some defendants are arraigned in a mini-jail cell in court, leaving artists to try and sketch them while they’re behind the railing. Behringer illustrated suspected Golden State Killer Joseph James DeAngelo while DeAngelo was in his mini-prison (above), carefully drawing each bar separating him from civilized society. “That was very time-consuming.”

9. THEY SOMETIMES PRACTICE BEFOREHAND.

An artist sketches using a pencil
iStock.com/cherrybeans

When artists book a trial, they know they might only have a millisecond to glimpse a defendant’s face before he or she is either ushered out of the courtroom or takes a seat out of view. To help get a better look, artists will sometimes do some drafts at home using existing photographs as reference before heading to trial. “Occasionally I’ll do that [practice] with someone famous because everyone knows what they look like,” Behringer says. “Even if they’re not a celebrity, looking for certain features in photos helps because you might not be able to see it in court.”

10. THEIR SUBJECTS RARELY COOPERATE.

A courtroom sketch by Elizabeth Williams depicts Michael Cohen seated next to his attorney during a 2018 hearing
Courtesy of Elizabeth Williams

Unlike normal portrait subjects, defendants and other court personalities don’t usually have a big incentive to cooperate with a sketch artist. They’ll express a variety of emotions, changing expressions so quickly that it can be difficult to nail one down. Covering former Donald Trump attorney Michael Cohen (seen above) and his federal hearing for tax evasion in August 2018, Williams was taken aback by his elastic face. “If someone is just sitting there, it’s like, ‘OK, got it,’” she says. “But during his allocution, he was so overwrought, his range of emotions went from fear to depression to practically being in tears. When people are making a lot of expressions, it’s challenging to make it look like them.” She drew 17 Cohen heads before settling on one she liked.

Other times, defendants can be chillingly emotionless. Chronicling the 2016 case of “Grim Sleeper” Lonnie David Franklin Jr., who killed between 10 and 25 people, Edwards was struck by the fact that he seemed unmoved by the trial. “I kept staring at this guy waiting for him to have some reaction,” she says. “He didn’t even lift his head.” Sketching James “Whitey” Bulger in 2013, the notorious Boston mobster who had finally been brought to justice after years on the run, Bulger looked directly at her and shook his finger “no" before trying to cover his face.

11. THEY BOND WITH JUDGES OVER ART.

A courtroom sketch by Mona Shafer Edwards depicts judge Elden Fox and Courtney Love during a hearing
Courtesy of Mona Shafer Edwards

Most artists have good relationships with judges, who appreciate their work in chronicling important civil and criminal cases. Sometimes, a judge may even decide to talk shop. “I’ve had judges buy my drawings and take me into their chambers to show me what they’ve done themselves or show their collection of art,” Edwards says. “A lot of them have good taste and a good eye.”

12. DEFENDANTS CAN CHANGE THEIR APPEARANCE.

A courtroom sketch by Vicki Ellen Behringer depicts Jay Leno's testimony while Michael Jackson looks on during Jackson's child molestation trial in 2005
Courtesy of Vicki Ellen Behringer

Some trials can mean day after day of sketching the same faces. Other times, defendants will experience some fairly radical physical transformations that keep sketch artists on their toes. “Barry Bonds, from the day he was indicted [in 2007, for perjury] to the day the trial was over, lost a significant amount of weight,” Behringer says. “There was another trial in Stockton where the defendant gained a significant amount of weight. People said it was the carbs in the jail food.”

The most dramatic alterations in appearance are usually attributed to the late singer Michael Jackson (above, seen with Jay Leno), who was frequently sketched during his participation in a 2005 trial to refute charges of child molestation. (A jury found him not guilty.) “Every day, he wore a completely different outfit, different armbands, and his hair would change from Monday to Friday. One time, it was longer on a Monday. It’s like, how did you do that?”

13. THEY TRY TO DRAW QUIETLY.

A courtroom sketch by Mona Shafer edwards depicts Clint Eastwood sitting next to his attorney during Eastwood's 1996 palimony trial
Courtesy of Mona Shafer Edwards

When cameras are in a courtroom, everyone knows it. When Edwards is around, subjects might not even know they’re being rendered. The artist carries a small 9-inch by 12-inch pad with her along with a small number of tools. “Defendants never know I’m drawing them,” she says. “You might act differently if you’re aware someone is staring. I try to blend in.”

14. O.J. SIMPSON MAY HAVE KEPT THEM IN BUSINESS.

A courtroom sketch by Mona Shafer Edwards depicts O.J. Simpson testifying during his 1995 trial for murder
Courtesy of Mona Shafer Edwards

The decision in 1995 to allow television cameras to depict the O.J. Simpson trial—Simpson was accused of killing ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ron Goldman—seemed to signal a new and relaxed policy about media coverage in courtrooms. “I thought that was it, the swan song of sketching,” Edwards says. “Then it turned out to be a joke.” Judges, fearing they’d be criticized as much as Simpson’s presiding judge Lance Ito, shied away from that kind of scrutiny. “Judges realized they didn’t want to be on camera. So every time I think it’s over, it keeps going.”

15. THEY DO WEDDINGS.

Artist Elizabeth Williams depicts a newlywed couple
Courtesy of Elizabeth Williams

The nature of the court sketch business has changed over the years as some federal courts are becoming more lenient with the presence of cameras. (While cameras are typically not allowed in federal trial courts, there have been certain exceptions, experiments, and pilot projects to allow cameras; state rules vary.) Experienced artists still find work, but it’s a good idea to have some alternative methods of income. Williams books her services as a sketch artist for weddings on weekends, when court isn’t in session. “People are always getting married, but you can’t always count on ‘El Chapo’ getting arrested,” she says. “You have to do other things.” Williams approaches nuptials in much the same way as a trial. “I’ll meet with a client and go over the key moments.” Instead of closing arguments, it might be the first dance as a married couple.

The biggest difference? “It’s so nice to be around people who are so happy and just beginning their lives, as opposed to people going to, you know, prison.”

All sketches are copyright their respective artists and used with permission.

Tudors to Windsors: Houston's Museum of Fine Arts Celebrates 500 Years of Royal Portraits

Portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger
Portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger
National Portrait Gallery, London

London's National Portrait Gallery has loaned around 150 British royal portraits, paintings, and other artworks to Houston's Museum of Fine Arts. Many of the pieces have never been seen outside of England, and it's also the first time the gallery has allowed so many of its prized possessions to travel anywhere—let alone across the pond.

Titled "Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits from Holbein to Warhol," the exhibit explores the ways in which Britain and its monarchy have evolved throughout history. Dr. Nicholas Cullinan, director of the National Portrait Gallery, says visitors to the exhibit will be given an "opportunity to encounter some of history's most fascinating personalities as well as many of the most accomplished portraits produced in the last 500 years." Its scope covers four British dynasties spanning five centuries, including the Tudors (1485-1603), the Stuarts (1603-1714), the Hanoverians (1714-1901), and the reigning House of Windsor.

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I

The Ditchley Portrait by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger

National Portrait Gallery, London

It also showcases an array of artistic styles, from old masters like Hans Holbein and Sir Joshua Reynolds to more recent artists like Andy Warhol, Cecil Beaton, and Annie Leibovitz.

The National Portrait Gallery was founded in 1856 during Queen Victoria's reign, and it has amassed quite the remarkable collection over the years. Visitors will have the chance to see the "greatest surviving painting of Henry VIII" as well as a portrait of his daughter, Elizabeth I, which is said to be one of the most historically important works in the gallery's possession. The latter work, known as The Ditchley Portrait, shows Queen Elizabeth I standing on a map of England. Her foot is touching the estate of Ditchley Park, Oxfordshire, which commissioned the portrait.

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth II
Queen Elizabeth II by Cecil Beaton
Cecil Beaton/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Among the more modern portraits are renderings of Queen Elizabeth II (1953) and Princess Diana (1990). The exhibit will be on view until January 27, 2019, and tickets are available for purchase on the Houston museum's website.

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