THE SPACE RACE: 1962 - 1983
Spacewar! marked the first time a game had been made for a minicomputer – the PDP-1. A competitive two-player affair, it saw rival ships battling it out in the gravity well of a star, all the way back in 1962. But this decision to set things in space didn’t come from a grand desire to open up the universe to exploration by everyone the world over – these computers cost around £820,000 in 2020 money, after all, and weren’t seen much outside of MIT and co’s labs.
No, space was a logical decision based on the display technology of the PDP-1. Gaming’s history of spacefaring travel wasn’t because it was there, or to beat the Soviets, or to inspire hope in a younger generation: it was because it would look good on the fancy new computer of the day.
While Spacewar! had a brief run of fame and became a diagnostic tool for those testing their PDP-1s, it largely fell into the realm of the curio – the relic – rather than being something every gamer has played at some point in their life. Its influence spread, though, and by the 1970s there were others looking to capitalise on this public domain software.
It wasn’t the first video game, but Spacewar! was directly responsible for the creation of the arcade. First came Galaxy Game – a clone of Spacewar! which never received widespread release (limited to just two machines made, ever). Next, Computer Space, the first commercially released video game, the first arcade game in the modern sense, the birthplace of Atari (created as it was by Atari co-founders Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney), and a near-total clone of Spacewar!.
The gaming space race had begun, and over the years that followed – the rise of the microcomputer (and personal computer), the introduction of the home console, the explosion of the arcade scene Spacewar! had helped to create – space would be one of the main arenas designers went back to again and again. Spasim kept things in the mainframes and research labs for a while, but space was explored more publicly through the text-based titles like 1971’s Star Trek and 1974’s Star Trader.
It took things back into space after 1978’s close encounter with Space Invaders, bringing about a lasting impact through 1979’s Asteroids. Star Wars gave many an eighties kid the chance to interact with the blockbuster movie’s universe in 1983. There were even nascent attempts – by Activision, no less – to introduce a simulation approach to video game spacefaring, with 1983’s Space Shuttle: A Journey into Space released to a largely bewildered audience of Atari 2600 owners. The journey was just beginning, but it soon kicked into hyperdrive thanks to the influence of Atari’s groundbreaking Star Raiders, and an influential British classic.
JUMP TO HYPERSPACE: 1984 - 1993
A chunk of carefully crafted assembly language on a BBC Micro is all it took to create an entire universe. OK, so ‘all it took’ is massively underplaying the difficulty in using assembly and machine code. And it didn’t really feature an entire universe, even if those eight galaxies might have felt like it at the time.
All the same, Elite was a game-changer – in more ways than one. It took what had come before and refined it into an experience of freedom, of openness, of exploration.
It didn’t go pure simulation, instead keeping the excitement of space-based combat. It didn’t go full arcade either, with trading of goods playing a big part in your progress (and enjoyment) of the game. It wasn’t wholly original, but Elite brought together disparate elements into a single package in a way we hadn’t seen before, and single-handedly changed the trajectory of space games.
It’s not that Elite was the only game to look to the likes of Star Raiders for inspiration, of course – Derek Brewster’s Codename MAT did a great job of tweaking that formula for ZX Spectrum owners. And other titles focused on specific aspects, rather than always lifting wholesale from Elite’s blend.
1986’s Starflight offered another take on the explore-trade-fight dynamic, while 1990’s Star Control focused more on the combat side of things, mixing real and turn-based battles to great effect. Releases such as Buzz Aldrin’s Race Into Space and Shuttle: The Space Flight Simulator carried on down the route of pure simulation, meaning the educational aspect of space games was never forgotten – something that would prove important later down the line.
Epic, Starblade, Star Cruiser, Skyfox II, Psi-5 Trading Company, Space Rogue, Lightspeed… they all came and went. Some were good – some great – where others were middling at best. But it took an Origin Systems release in 1990 to ratchet things up a few notches again: combining space combat with cinematic presentation, bringing the excitement – and bombast – into the vacuum, up stepped Wing Commander.
Chris Roberts’s tale of close encounters of the blasting kind single-handedly dragged the space genre into the welcoming arms of the mainstream: pacey, explosive combat; a story you might actually care about; simpler mechanics; it all added up.
Then, at the end of 1993, we ended up with arguably two of the most influential space-based games ever released: September saw the release of Master of Orion – not the first 4X strategy game, but certainly the one with the biggest impact – while Elite’s own sequel, Frontier, landed (and took off again) in October, bringing with it an entire procedurally generated universe to explore, shaded polygons to admire, and the ability to land on planets between bouts of battling with idiots trying to steal your luxury goods.
Space had finally found its place in gaming, and the next few years would bring with it more incredible highs… to a point.
GOLDEN AGE/BREAK DOWN: 1994 - 1999
We should have seen it coming, really – 1995’s Frontier: First Encounters (i.e. Elite III) was a huge disappointment; inflated expectations meeting the reality of publisher mismanagement and a rush to wring some money from unsuspecting consumers. Meanwhile, Wing Commander – with its third and fourth entries – warped into some unrecognisable mix of underwhelming game and hugely overwrought full-motion video story sequences. The bloat was beginning to show.
But this wasn’t a period of bad games – not at all. Even First Encounters (once patched to fix some huge bugs) was a good ‘un. The Mark Hamill-fronted Wing Commander sequels offered a taste of Hollywood-ised gaming. This was actually a golden era for space-based titles, mixing those early influences and building on the foundations laid.
Case in point – Star Wars: TIE Fighter. The original X-Wing released in 1993 (and was superb, no doubt), but it was 1994’s follow-up, pitting you as a pilot of the Empire and fighting against the Rebellion, that made for the finest entry of LucasArts’ space sim series. X-Wing bedded-in with the 3D tech and complex control system that made you feel like a space pilot, but TIE Fighter lifted from a certain Wing Commander to tie it all together with cinematic elements, and a genuinely very good story. It was, indeed, good to be bad.
Wing Commander itself looked to Elite for inspiration with its Privateer spin-off series, which brought more freeform approaches to the experience, allowing for trading, piracy, and more on top of the expected Wing Commander-style store. Microsoft Space Simulator kept kicking the pure simulation can down the street, meanwhile.
The push into space made its way in a more concerted fashion to consoles, too, with tentative experiments like Frontier’s own Darxide seeing what might be possible on the 32X, and later on Psygnosis knocking it out of the park with the space opera epic Colony Wars on PlayStation.
The latter especially stepped away from the complexity the Elites and others of the world had embedded into the genre, instead taking – once again – huge cues from the narrative ambition of Wing Commander. The mainstream didn’t want knobs to fiddle, the argument went – it wanted to blow stuff up and have a cool story pushing it all forwards.
This bountiful period could only go on for so long, though. The big money started to move away from space-based games. The people just weren’t as wowed with the big inky black as they had once been. Homeworld was a genuine classic and sold well in 1999 – it even got a sequel – but it was saddled with the double-hit of being both a space game and an RTS.
FreeSpace 2, meanwhile, was – is – an all-time classic, and sold next to nothing on its original release. When the money dries up, the support quickly leaves too – and soon enough, space games were a thing of the past. Out of fashion. Drifting aimlessly.