Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Games 127-131: Early Cinematronics

Cinematronics nowadays is mostly known for producing Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace, but before that, they were a pioneer in vector arcade games, and likely an influence on Atari, whose subsequent use of vector graphics became a trademark of sorts. Cinematronics’ most successful vector game, Star Castle, is a known influence on our next whale Yars’ Revenge, which was conceived as a coversion but reworked to better fit the VCS’s capabilities.

Their earliest game listed on Mobygames is TV Pinball of 1975, and their earliest games mentioned on Wikipedia are Flipper Ball of 1976 and an unnamed Pong clone. None of these are emulated, but their first game of 1977 is.

A roadmap of the Cinematronics games I've selected to play, and their known or inferred influences:

Game 127: Embargo

Cinematronics’ earliest emulated title and, according to Wikipedia, their first original design, is essentially a four-player Snake game with 12-direction movement. Two to four players steer boats around Cuba dropping a trail of sea mines, and score points whenever another boat sinks. I have to imagine Castro howling with laughter at the sight of these incompetent skippers blowing each other up in their attempt to form a blockade. The mine trail can be temporarily stopped with a button press, to strategically leave an opening for yourself to pass through. A round ends when there is one or no survivors remaining, and whoever has the most points after three rounds wins.

There is a one player mode that adds a single AI player, but the AI is really stupid.

Perfect emulation isn’t practical; the arcade cabinet was controlled with four dials, and I’ve only got one. Paddles won’t do it; you need 360 degree rotation. MAME also does not emulate any sound, though according to its emulation notes, the explosions on real hardware sound more like coughs.

My friend “R” and partner “D” played a few three-player rounds with me.

Everyone immediately noticed the Snake/TRON similarities, and enjoyed the game’s sarcastic remarks when a ship crashes (CAPTAIN #2 LOST HIS RUBBER DUCK / CAPTAIN #3 GOT HIS BIKINI WET), but we didn’t like the game all that much. Whether playing on gamepad or keyboard, we all found the controls overly sensitive, and MAME provided no happy medium between being too sensitive and too unresponsive. Left and right rotate the ship, but it’s very easy to oversteer right into your own trail of mines.

In the absence of proper controls, I’ll decline to rate this game, but I suspect it would at best make the difference between Bad and Below Average. For what it’s worth, I also tried playing solo with my spinner, and still found it difficult to control ship rotation accurately.

Game 128: Space Wars

An unapologetic conversion of SpaceWar down to the name, its designer Larry Rosenthal, an MIT alumnus, had long wished to create an inexpensive coin-operated conversion of that seminal PDP-1 game, and a deal with Cinematronics gave him that chance. Featuring a custom CPU and vector graphics hardware of his own design, Space Wars became the first commercial game with vector graphics, and Cinematronics’ first hit.

Space Wars has an unusual amount of customization for an arcade game. To start, there are ten game modes.
  1. Beginner: No inertia, no gravity, slow ship speed
  2. Beginner: No inertia, no gravity, fast ship speed
  3. Beginner: No inertia, no gravity, very fast ship speed
  4. Intermediate: Moderate inertia, fast ship speed
  5. Intermediate: Moderate inertia, fast ship speed, faster missiles
  6. Intermediate: Moderate inertia, very fast ship speed
  7. Expert: Strong inertia, very slow ship speed
  8. Expert: Strong inertia, slow ship speed
  9. Expert: Strong inertia, fast ship speed
  10. Expert: Strong inertia, fast ship speed, stronger gravity

In addition, there are five gameplay modifiers which can be individually turned on, but can’t be turned off!
  1. Bounce back – Missiles and ships rebound when they hit the edge of the playfield
  2. Expanded universe – The edge of the playfield extends a few inches past the edge of the screen
  3. Black hole – Invisible sun
  4. Negative gravity – The sun repels instead of pulling
  5. No gravity – Negates mod 4 and mode 9. No effect on Beginner modes.

Unusually, tokens buy time rather than games. With default cabinet settings, each token inserted buys a minute of play, and coins can be inserted during play to extend play by the minute. But the only way to change modes or turn off the mods is to let the time run out, or reset the machine.

I played each of the ten base games with "B", ignoring the gameplay modifiers. I do feel like we rushed this a bit, but this is a strictly two player game, and I am limited by my friends’ available time and patience.

Game 0 – Beginner, slow ships

With no inertia or gravity, this game mode just isn’t very interesting at all, but I can see its use in helping new players come to grips with its controls. This was 1977, after all, nobody would have been familiar with Asteroids yet, and few consumers would have been familiar with SpaceWar or Computer Space.

Gameplay is quite a bit faster than SpaceWar, and the sound effects are kind of neat. Like SpaceWar, ships have limited fuel and torpedoes, but unlike SpaceWar, they are displayed on-screen, as is the score between rounds.

One addition is that sometimes, shots will blow chunks off your space ship instead of killing you outright. This can be pretty jarring; so little remains of a damaged ship that often neither of us realized that any of it had survived, until it dawned in on one of us that the round hadn’t ended. A few times, I blew so much off of “B”’s ship that nothing remained but a small fragment of the bow. He could do nothing but fire torpedoes, and still won as I carelessly flew into the sun.

Games 1-2: Beginner, fast/very fast ships

These modes still aren’t very interesting, only now they’re uncontrollable too. Without inertia, you instantly accelerate to your top speed as soon as you hit the thruster, which is too fast for normal human reactions. Rounds often ended with us crashing into each other. In the very fast mode we flew into our own torpedoes a few times.

Game 3: Intermediate, fast ships

With inertia and gravity, this now plays a lot more like SpaceWar but with a much more relaxed physics model, faster speed, and is better for it.

Interestingly, torpedoes are affected by the sun’s gravity, which was something they wanted to do in SpaceWar but couldn’t as it strained the computer too much.

I tried gravity whipping around the sun, but this usually failed, and with the relatively lax inertia in the intermediate modes, this technique is probably not that useful.

Game 4: Intermediate, fast missiles

Ship speed is the same as in mode 3, but with faster-moving missiles, which bend as they enter the star’s gravitational field, it quickly becomes very chaotic, with torpedoes flying at high speeds in multiple directions.

Game 5: Intermediate, very fast ships

Here, it’s necessary to use restraint to avoid overthrottling, or else the game becomes even more uncontrollable than the beginner’s fastest mode, as there you could at least stop instantly. But at least in these modes you have some control over the ship speed.

We didn’t enjoy this game mode as much as the slower intermediate modes.

Games 6-9: Expert

These were our favorite game modes. The slower speeds allowed thoughtfulness, and the stronger inertia made it necessary. Even at the slowest speed, it’s still faster than SpaceWar and with more relaxed physics, and the sun’s gravity still only affects you when you’re fairly close to it.

The powerful inertia did make modes 6-8 difficult to distinguish, as even with a fast top speed, it takes a lot of thrust to reach it, making for a slower paced game at any setting.

The final game mode increases the sun’s gravitational strength, and makes slingshotting your torpedoes more effective than usual. The field is still fairly small compared to the one in SpaceWar, even in this mode.

GAB rating: Above Average. Space Wars’ true legacy to gaming was its use of vector graphics. As a game, I think this was an overall improvement on the SpaceWar formula, more polished, more accessible, and speedier than the original. “B” and I spent a lot more time shooting at each other than avoiding the sun, which is good thing in our books. I regret that our playthrough was a bit rushed – I definitely think this merited some additional playing time.

According to an unsourced statement at, Atari tried to license Space Wars, but Cinematronics refused, and when Atari released their own vector-based Asteroids to massive acclaim and success, Cinematronics unsuccessfully sued for patent infringement. I can’t really see Cinematronics’ case here – both companies had copied the 1962 SpaceWar design, and Atari did it first with Computer Space, but Cinematronics did it more completely. But I’ll be damned if that asteroid sprite doesn’t look oddly familiar.

Game 129: Starhawk

After the success of Space Wars, a dispute between Rosenthal and Cinematronics led Rosenthal to sell his technology to the company, who produced several more games using his technology.

Starting the game up, I was immediately reminded of a certain low budget indie film of the late 70’s.

All you do in this game is shoot vector space ships by aiming your crosshairs over them and firing. It feels weird that in a vector space shooting game, the enemy ships aren’t actually 3D objects, but flat, static 2D sprites that use their vectors for no effect except to seamlessly grow or shrink to create the illusion of flying toward or away from the player. There is no other sense of 3D perspective except in the animated background and in your laser shots.

There is no analog control, but instead there are three selectable crosshair movement speeds. I didn’t find the slow movement necessary; medium was precise enough. Fast was too imprecise, and switching from fast to medium was too distracting. I did discover pretty soon that your shots are guided; they keep following your crosshair movement during their flight, which makes leading your shots much easier. The strategy becomes firing early without needing to also aim early.

Only one of the targets will shoot back; a “command ship” has a quick but predictable attack pattern, which will zap 800 points off your score, and certainly will if you don’t react immediately once your speakers buzz its tell-tale audio cue. Killing it is worth 800 points, so if your reaction is only a bit too slow, you stand a good chance of neutralizing this penalty.

Starhawk has a two-player mode, so “B” and I played a round.

“B” wasn’t really at the top of his game here, and took frequent breaks to nurse his hand as if it was hurting, and I nearly doubled his score. I would have offered a rematch at a later date, but this game just wasn’t a whole lot of fun in the first place. Even at a playtime of four minutes, it felt repetitive and dull long before that timer expired.

One gameplay quirk, which could have been a pretty big disadvantage for me, is that the command ship only zaps 800 points off the first player’s score. But either player can shoot it down for the 800 point score, so this really isn’t fair. Given how much I won by, I can’t complain too bitterly.

GAB rating: Below Average. It’s functional, but not a whole lot of fun.

Game 130: Armor Attack

This game reminds me a lot of Atari’s Tank, except that it’s cooperative and has simpler controls, with nothing more than two buttons for rotation, and two more for gas and firing.

You and optionally a partner drive armed jeeps around a city map, which is displayed on the screen with an overlay. Tanks and helicopters attack, the latter of which have a pleasingly realistic rotor animation.

“B” and I played some rounds of this.

It’s a fast and slightly chaotic game – the tanks are formidable opponents who shoot accurately and can sometimes take you out even after you’ve hit them once with a disabling shot, and the helicopters are dogged hunter-killers that ignore walls, though their bullets can’t pass through them. Patton tactics – hold ‘em by the balls and kick ‘em in the ass – proved really effective against isolated tanks when we were coordinated enough to pull it off, as they can’t aim for two jeeps at once, and aren’t as likely to hit you if you keep moving. But we weren’t coordinated enough to pull this off consistently, and the choppers were wildcards that could ruin things in an instant.

I played some solo rounds later, but they weren’t as much fun. I didn’t last long in any solo attempts; the difficulty seems balanced around co-op.

GAB rating: Above Average, but only if you can find a friend to play with. I generally enjoy co-op games more than competitive ones, and it was pretty neat to see such an early one.

Game 131: Star Castle

A singleplayer space shooter with SpaceWar-like controls, and cellophane overlays to create the illusion of color, this was Cinematronics’ most successful vector title.

The goal is to destroy the turret in the middle of the screen, protected by three spinning force rings. Your shots will destroy the rings, segment by segment, but completely destroying the outermost ring will cause regeneration, as the turret will spawn a new innermost ring and push the remains of the next two outward.

The castle will continually spawn small, slow-moving space mines which will chase you down mercilessly until you shoot them. Space wraps around, but the mines will not take advantage of this, allowing you to throw them off for a while by wrapping around yourself. Once there are holes in all of the rings, it only takes one shot to destroy the turret, but it will begin firing on you too, and its shots move fast.

I found that strafing runs were a pretty good strategy, building up speed so that I could fly past the castle and then rotate in its direction to fire a barrage of torpedoes while still moving laterally on inertia. This proved very useful for avoiding its own fire, though my accuracy wasn’t great, and it made dodging mines tricky. On later stages, the turret even led its shots, blasting me out of this maneuver on occasion.

I appreciate Star Castle’s unique concept, but I didn’t find it especially interesting or engaging, and it’s a bit luck-heavy for my tastes – landing a shot in the exposed core takes pinpoint accuracy, and taking time to line up a perfect shot is simply not an option, and the mines’ semi-random movements can make steering around them as you scream through space very easy or very difficult.

GAB rating: Average

Although Atari programmer Howard Scott Warshaw failed to port Star Castle to the VCS (and then turned his failure into the million-selling Yars’ Revenge), the homebrew scene succeeded where he had failed. Covering this conversion is beyond the scope of Data Driven Gamer, but it’s nonetheless very interesting to me that this even exists. You can download it yourself and be amazed that Atari hobbyist D. Scott Williamson managed to coax the VCS, a system never intended to display a scene with more moving pieces than two sprites, two bullets, and one ball, into displaying the segmented rotating concentric force fields, homing space mines, and sundry of explosions and particle effects of this game.

Cinematronics’ early games overall aren’t much to write home about. Space Wars is the best effort out of the games I played, based on a strong foundation, but the post-Rosenthal titles that I played haven’t got much to make them stand out apart from their vector graphics, and still come across as less polished and less interesting than Atari’s vector games of the era.

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