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.