Thursday, February 7, 2019

Game 42: Video Pinball and the road to Asteroids

The next whale goes back to Atari with their smash hit Asteroids, but there are some milestones along the way that I want to try out first.

Asteroids was directly influenced by a previous Atari arcade game, Lunar Lander (no relation to the Atari VCS game by the same name), for its vector graphics, physics, and controls. Wikipedia states that it was also influenced by Space Invaders, Computer Space, and SpaceWar, which I already played. Atari’s Lunar Lander is considered to be the epitome of its genre, which first existed in 1969 as Lunar and had its first graphical iteration in 1973 as Moonlander.

Asteroids was conceived and developed by Atari employees Ed Logg and Lyle Rains. Rains’ first design credit was Atari’s Jet Fighter, which I played already, and Logg’s first was Atari’s Video Pinball, which I haven’t.

And so, a slightly tangled roadmap to Asteroids:

There are possibly three completely different Atari games called Video Pinball; a dedicated console from 1977, an arcade game from 1979, and a VCS game from 1980. The relation between them is unclear; Mobygames lists the dedicated console separately and lists the VCS game as a port of the arcade game. Wikipedia lists the dedicated console and VCS games separately and makes no mention at all of the arcade game except as a category label on the dedicated console page, implying it is a port of the dedicated console.

I believe Wikipedia to be incorrect here. From the looks of things, the dedicated console is a set of Breakout-like games with only the barest trappings of pinball present in a handful of them. The arcade and VCS games look more like what the title suggests; a video rendition of pinball. Only the arcade game credits Ed Logg with a design role, so it’s the one I will be playing here.

This Video Pinball takes a novel approach; inside the cabinet is a miniature foam pinball playfield with real working LEDs, which is reflected onto the screen with a half-silvered mirror, while the ball, flippers, drop targets, and score displays come from the monitor image projected onto the screen through the mirror. The two images merge and create the impression that a 3D pinball playfield is on the screen. Of course I’m using MAME, so the pinball playfield is just a flat image.

This does a pretty impressive job of simulating pinball physics, if nothing else. Gravity feels convincing in a way that nothing before it really pulled off, and the flipper action feels satisfyingly forceful. But it’s not that much fun to play. I always found the electromechanical era of pinball to be a bit boring, and the disco-themed table design feels bog-standard for the era, doing nothing to take advantage of the inherently solid state nature of the hardware except for having simpler maintenance, and doing nothing to distinguish itself from any number of real tables out there, which would have been more fun to play just from having actual moving parts that you can see and feel. The nudge function didn’t even seem to do anything, though I can’t tell if it’s because of an emulation issue or not.


  1. The dedicated "Video Pinball" consoles did play pinball games. There's two different versions of the console, one woodgrain and one white, both of which have two simplisticand blocky pinball tables, a Breakout game, two weird mixes of the two where you play on the pinball tables with pinball rules and scoring, but with a Breakout paddle and Breakout physics, and a "basketball" game called Rebound that uses physics similar to the Rebound arcade game, but has you try to shoot the ball through a set of hoops high up on the screen instead of playing volleyball against another person.
    In addition to these 6, the white console comes with an additional basketball game that's the same as the othe rone, just with only one hoop instead of three, while the woodgrain version comes with a Breakout variant called Breakthru, where you need to clear each layer of the wall one by one (Breakthru is definitely the better value here).

    You can see gameplay videos here:
    White version:
    Woodgrain version:

    It's true that these consoles have absolutely nothing to do with the arcade game you played, though.

  2. I don't know if this will interest you at all, but a YouTuber named "Code Bullet" wrote an AI to play asteroids.

    What is interesting to me about this is that the AI found a completely new way to play the game by constantly spinning and precisely applying thrust. Here is a link:


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