The Fair Shake

Spacewar: DOS

Greetings Readers! Carl is trapped in 80’s PC land again. This time, he’s engaged in an endless battle between two space ships. Actually, it’s more like a Spacewar. Ever heard of it?  Read on.

Some quick background. In 1960, the DEC PDP-1 was created. It is a computer that is larger than most home entertainment system setups, originally used by universities and  governments for research. The system caught the eye of a  small group of students who wanted to create some demonstration programs for the system to show what it was capable of, and before you know it, a game was created: Spacewar! The game endured, not only due to playability, but because DEC actually used the game as a test program of sorts for their system. Later, several versions of Spacewar! were released over the years on various computers, arcade, and home console systems. The version we’re covering today is a shareware port released in 1985 for IBM PC and compatible systems, by Bill Seiler. 

Object of the game: Death to the opposition! – Worf

What is Spacewar anyway? Think “Thunderdome” but with spaceships instead of Mel Gibson and a dwarf fighting. Each spaceship is identical in power and ability, differing only in appearance. One ship looks like an olive with a bite taken out of it while the other looks like a round Klingon Bird of Prey. Both ships have weapons pulled from the Star Trek canon: ‘photon torpedoes’ are more like ‘dumb bullets’, travelling in a straight line, looping around the edge of the screen for a few seconds until they hit something or disappear, and ‘phasers’ are your basic attack. Again, no targeting systems here; the weapons are aimed manually using the ship. It’s all skill, or lack of skill, depending on the player. Spacewar has no time limit. The only way death occurs is when a player runs out of shield energy and is then either shot or they crash into a planet.  Luckily, this energy slowly recharges over time and can be transferred between shields and weapons. Shooting uses energy, and movement is not possible with energy depleted. To make things more interesting, there are options for gravity, which causes the ships to be constantly pulled toward the planet at the center of the screen. Much like a real planet, players crash into it and quickly die. A simple win/loss score is kept during each game. There is a computer AI, which can actually be set to play against itself! 

That’s no space station.. it’s a Christmas ornament planet.

Graphically, Spacewar is ‘stark’. It’s a simple white graphics against a black background game. Everything is white. Ships, torpedoes, energy status, planets. The ship designs are simple but work. Torpedoes have an appearance of a Nike swoosh, while the phaser is quite literally a short straight line. The planet looks like Jupiter would if a second grader drew it. The explosion graphic is slow and dramatic.

Shooting torpedoes..

Sounds are sparse in Spacewar. No intro music, no ship movement noise. In space no one can hear you move… Or something. Torpedoes sound like a pin dropped onto a piece of metal, and phasers can get obnoxious after a time. The red alert is simple, appropriate, and irritating all at the same time. Death is anti-climatic. Play control is keyboard by default, with two players using opposite sides of the keyboard. It works, assuming you don’t mind sitting close to your opponent. A better solution is to use a program like JoytoKey, which will directly translate a USB gamepad or joystick button press to keyboard buttons. 
Spacewar is another ‘wayback’ game, and is part of what I’d unofficially call the “quadrumvirate” of mid 80’s PC shareware. I’ve covered three of them, and the forth game will be covered in a future Fair Shake. I’ve got more than one games compilation disk that has these games on it. A modern game (comparatively speaking),  Star Control does a decent job of creating this type of battle with the melee option, but SpaceWar feels more like a game of skill, combining fighting with energy management all in real time. The options of gravity and a planet at the center of the screen add more difficulty and strategy to the game. I managed to get Spacewar working (in Dosbox, of course), with JoyToKey, and it worked flawlessly. If you have your computer piped into a TV (you mean you don’t yet?) It makes a pretty good couch game with two gamepads. Back in the day, my father and I would shoot the !@*$&@ out of each other, until one of us got pissed, or it was time for bed. Today, it makes a decent quicky shooter on it’s own merits, and a nice trip down Retro Road to see where real time space based two player shooting games came from.  Sometimes it’s fun to let the computer controlled ships pound each other into space dust and pick up some strategy from the AI. Who will win? My money’s on the computer. Give Spacewar the Fair Shake.