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.

You Can Rent a ‘Lisa Frank Flat’ in Los Angeles on Hotels.com

Hotels.com
Hotels.com

If you went to elementary school in the 1980s or 1990s, chances are there was at least one piece of Lisa Frank gear in your classroom. The artist's aesthetic helped define the decades, and wide-eyed, technicolor animals still hold a special place in the hearts of millennials. Now, you can live out your childhood dream of having a room that looks like the inside of your 3rd grade backpack: a penthouse suite inspired by Lisa Frank is now available to book in Los Angeles.

The Lisa Frank Flat, a collaboration between Lisa Frank and Hotels.com, screams nostalgia. Each room pays homage to the settings and characters in the artist's vast catalog. The bathroom is painted to look like an underwater paradise, with shimmering dolphins swimming in a pink and blue sea. The kitchen is stocked with snacks from your childhood—like Gushers, Pop-Tarts, Pixy Stix, and Planters Cheez Balls—and painted in bright, rainbow animal patterns that will reflect how you feel when your sugar rush peaks.

Lisa Frank bathroom.
Hotels.com

Lisa Frank kitchen.
Hotels.com

In the bedroom, the colors are toned down only slightly. A light-up cloud canopy and a rainbow sky mural create a soothing environment for falling asleep. And if seeing Lisa Frank around every corner makes you feel inspired, there's a place for you to get in touch with your inner pop artist. The desk comes supplied with pencils, folders, and a notebook—all branded with Lisa Frank artwork, naturally.

Lisa Frank bedroom.
Hotels.com

Lisa Frank desk.
Hotels.com

Interested in basking in the glow of your childhood hero for a night? Online reservations for the Lisa Frank Flat at Barsala in downtown Los Angeles will be available through Hotels.com starting October 11 and lasting through October 27. You can book your stay for $199 a night—just don't forget to pack your Trapper Keeper.

11 Apps That Will Make You Feel Smarter

Deagreez/iStock via Getty Images
Deagreez/iStock via Getty Images

Encased beneath the delicate surface of your smartphone is what seems like practically all the knowledge in the world, both past and present. This is, in a word, awesome. It’s also, in a different word, overwhelming. Deciding you’d like to take advantage of that unfettered access to learn a thing or two is easy—deciding where to start isn’t quite so straightforward. To jumpstart your quest to pick up some information without making any serious financial or time commitment, we’ve assembled a list of apps that will definitely make you feel smarter, no matter what topic you’re interested in.

1. Today in History

This free app takes the daunting yet admirable goal of “wanting to learn more about history” and breaks it up into daily digestible pieces that cover events, births, deaths, holidays, and more from a variety of time periods and places. You can browse by category—technology, entertainment, science, and sports, to name a few—or you can visit the “events” tab to see a timeline of important events from years past. The stories are paired with engaging images, and you can personalize notifications to occur just once a day or much more often. In addition to helping you fill in the gaps of your historical knowledge, it’s also an often-heartening daily reminder of just how far we’ve come in the world (and great fodder for water-cooler conversation when you have nothing to say about the weather).

Download: iOS

2. TED

In the last several years, TED Talks have become an extremely popular way to learn about topics you may not have thought to seek out on your own. Having said that, you don’t necessarily have time to watch a TED video every time one appears on your Facebook timeline. The TED app is a perfect way to keep track of the latest and greatest TED videos on your own time—you can see what’s trending, get personalized recommendations, download videos for offline viewing, and save videos to your own watch list. There’s even a “Surprise Me!” feature that will offer you a video recommendation outside of your interests.

Download: iOS, Android

3. DailyArt

Even if you can pick a Picasso painting out of a lineup, how deep does your art knowledge really go? DailyArt educates art aficionados and rookies alike by serving them one artwork each day from a collection of more than 2000 pieces, complete with all of its basic information and history, plus some interesting behind-the-scenes details about the artwork and/or artist, too. You can swipe through past days’ entries, explore more than 700 artist biographies and information about more than 500 museums, and even bookmark artworks to your own list of favorites. It’s a low-investment way to foster a passion for art, whether or not you have one to begin with.

Download: iOS, Android

4. Flipboard

In a world where you end up completely behind the times just by neglecting to check a certain app for a few hours, it can feel impossible to stay on top of what’s going on. Flipboard makes it easy by aggregating both news and social media in one streamlined place. You decide which news sources and topics will appear in your feed—from there, all you really need to do is flip through the content, and Flipboard will update your feed based on what you interact with and suggest other topics you might be interested in adding. There’s also an even simpler “Daily Edition” feature, a daily roundup of the top stories from each category.

Download: iOS, Android

5. Lumosity

Lumosity begins with a 10-minute “Fit Test,” a series of three games that evaluate cognitive ability in areas like memory and attention span. It then uses your scores to devise a personalized brain-training program with games guaranteed to improve those scores. While information-based apps help you fill your brain with new knowledge, Lumosity helps you feel like you’re actually expanding your brain’s boundaries in ways that will make daily life easier. For example, if you specify that you’d like to work on losing fewer objects and better remembering people’s names, Lumosity will offer you a game that targets those areas of your brain. And, since you probably have a few minutes to kill every day while waiting for a bus to come or water to boil, why not give your brain a little exercise?

Download: iOS, Android

6. Vocabulary.com

This app—which both TIME and Fast Company called “addictive”—is worth the one-time cost of $3 for its dictionary alone, which includes definitions, helpful notes about how the word is usually used, and example sentences pulled from actual news articles. In addition to the dictionary, the app boasts an algorithm-based system for learning vocabulary where you play games to earn points and collect achievement badges. There are also more than 50,000 word lists that you can choose from, which cover everything from GRE prep to words in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

Download: iOS

7. NASA

Between the recent 50th anniversary of the moon landing and the ever-present hope for a Mars landing (not to mention all the space-related movies, both Star Wars and otherwise), NASA is definitely hot right now—and its app is a great way to stay awestruck and in-the-know. In addition to featuring more than 17,000 images, 360-degree videos, launch updates, and breaking news stories, it also includes a tracker for the International Space Station (ISS), and it’ll even send you notifications when the ISS is visible from your location.

Download: iOS, Android

8. National Geographic’s GeoBee Challenge

The description of National Geographic’s GeoBee app opens with “This is a challenging game, so it's not for beginners...but do keep in mind that the National Geographic GeoBee is meant for kids in grades 4-8. Are you smarter than a 4th grader?” Though you’re probably not entering an elementary school geography bee any time soon (or ever), this app will help you find out how you’d fare as a participant—and, of course, give you the opportunity to improve your knowledge of world geography. After a few rounds of answering multiple choice trivia and locating places on an interactive map, you’ll never again feel lost while reading international news headlines.

Download: iOS, Android

9. Daily Random Facts

With an average of 4.8 out of 5 stars from about 20,000 Apple user reviews, this Monkey Taps app practically needs no other endorsement. By just reading a sentence or two every day, you’ll quickly build an impressive arsenal of the type of grab-bag information that’ll make you everybody’s first choice for their trivia team. The app includes interesting facts about history, science, sports, life hacks, animals, the human body, and more—all you have to do is enable push notifications (or remember to visit the app every day on your own).

Download: iOS, Android

10. TheSkimm

If someone bottled that heavenly feeling of knowing what’s going on in the world and sold it to you for $3 a month, would you buy it? That’s basically what TheSkimm has done. Every weekday morning, the app feeds you need-to-know, nonpartisan news stories that’ll only take you about five minutes to consume. In addition to the daily digest, you can also listen to audio episodes that cover important news, read longer stories that break down complex topics like immigration and Brexit, and even get book, movie, and recipe recommendations. Not only does TheSkimm make you feel like you’re capable of understanding basically everything, it also does a great job of explaining how and why global news is relevant to you.

Download: iOS, Android

11. iNaturalist

When you stop to smell the flowers, the iNaturalist app will tell you what kind of flowers you’re actually smelling. Snap a photo of any plant or animal in your area, and iNaturalist will use crowdsourced image data to identify the species. With more than 400,000 users, there’s a good chance iNaturalist already has enough images of your mystery organism to provide you with the correct answer—but if not, you can also chat with knowledgeable scientists and naturalists within the app who may know the answer themselves. And, of course, it works both ways: Your uploaded images will help other curious observationalists identify flora and fauna in the future, and you can even explore the map to see which species have been logged around you.

Download: iOS, Android

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