Fresh off a strong and successful 1977, Atari’s Video Computer System was in a good place. Hundreds of thousands of units had been sold; the company’s home game design team continued to grow and was getting more experienced. Having exhausted most of Atari’s top-tier arcade titles, those same developers had to get creative on what to make next. One of those designers, Ian Shepherd, seemed to have decided to look backwards for inspiration – about 15 years backwards, specifically, to one of the very first video games ever designed: Spacewar.
Ask someone what they know about Tron, and odds that if they know it at all, it’s probably because of the light cycle sequence. In it, cyclists create walls of light behind them as they move, trying to trap their opponent and cause them to crash. As it happens, that idea didn’t originate with Disney, but dates back to the 1976 Gremlin arcade game Blockade. And as we’ll see, Blockade would find itself cloned time and again, including by Atari for the VCS with Surround.
For as long as people have been mashing up numbers, they’ve been looking for ways to make the process easier. Whether it’s mathematical techniques like long division or using an abacus to keep track of large numbers, anything that can help reduce human error, we like. And similarly, anything that might make teaching math easier, well, we’ll give that a shot too.
It’s no secret that computers are good at math problems, and the introduction of the pocket calculator in 1971 gave the general public its first real opportunity to find that out firsthand; suddenly, the idea that using a computer to learn things that traditionally required books, paper and pencil didn’t seem so far-fetched. And so when the first programmable game consoles started arriving on the market, they all tried to position themselves as being more than just game machines – they could teach your kids math, vocabulary, and even some social studies in a fun, entertaining environment.
From early on, video games have been translating the games people play in the physical realm to the digital. Sometimes this manifests as a sport, like racing cars, but it can also take the shape of something you might play in everyday life. One of the earliest computer games was a 1954 computer conversion of blackjack done on an IBM-701 by Los Alamos engineers to break down the best ways to play the game, and it would prove to be a popular target for computer programs in the 1960s and 70s, with early renditions such as David Frailey’s September 1967 version for DEC’s PDP computer line, and another written in BASIC that was included in David Ahl’s seminal book, 101 BASIC Computer Games. With this kind of background, it’s not terribly surprising that the card game was routinely among the earliest releases on the first programmable consoles, either.
Outer space has been a part of video games almost since their inception. One of the earliest computer games, Spacewar, came about in part because its designers were fans of pulpy science fiction stories such as the Lensman series. Spacewar went on to serve as inspiration for the first commercial arcade game, Computer Space, providing the first glimpse of the setting for public gaming consumption by having players shoot down UFOs within a time limit. Spacewar and the television series Star Trek inspired a text-based fan-made Star Trek computer game in 1971, with players jumping from sector to sector seeking out Klingon ships. But 1977 would prove to be an inflection point for a couple reasons.
No small number of VCS titles from 1977 were based on arcade games. Tank begat Combat, from Anti-Aircraft came Air Sea Battle, Pong morphed into Video Olympics, Indy 800 brought us Indy 500, Star Ship is based on Starship I, and Surround is a conversion of Dominos. But a few of these early games were unique creations, such as the one being highlighted here, Street Racer. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the weakest titles in the 1977 VCS lineup.
When the Atari VCS launched in 1977, there were two racing games that went out alongside it. Indy 500 is almost without question the better of the two, and features some of the best racing action on the platform in its lengthy life.
The overhead perspective and game mechanics seen in Indy 500 were pioneered by Atari in its March 1974 single-player arcade game Gran Trak 10, the company’s first true racing game. Gran Trak 10 was inspired by a pen-and-paper game called Racetrack published in the January 1973 edition of Scientific American. Developer Steve Mayer felt like the calculations used in that game to determine the movement of cars along a track could be used in a video game. Larry Emmons did the circuit design, and eventually Ron Milner came on board to help them finish the game, which included several firsts for arcade games: it’s the first game to use a ROM chip to store sprite data rather than hard-coding characters on the board. It’s the first game to use a dedicated monitor rather than repurposing a television, and it’s the first game to use interlaced video for its display. Essentially, the game will draw all the odd-numbered scanlines first and then circle back around for the even-numbered scanlines, which allowed for higher resolution and smoother animation. Despite all these innovations, Gran Trak 10’s production was a debacle, with manufacturing problems, pricing problems and expensive parts. The issues were great enough that even though the game sold around 10,000 units, Atari still took a hit in 1974 that put them $600,000 in the red. The game was nevertheless reportedly successful for arcade operators.
When the VCS hardware was being conceived by Jay Miner and Joe Decuir, their mission was to build a console capable of playing, at minimum, home versions of Atari’s Tank and Pong arcade games. Tank was the proof of concept game that would later be fleshed out into the pack-in title Combat by Larry Wagner, but even after hiring a group of programmers in 1976, by early 1977 nobody had taken up the task of writing a commercially viable Pong game for the system.
Of course, even by 1977 Pong was an old game concept. The arcade version launched in 1972 as the first commercial game released by Atari following the Computer Space game that Atari founder Nolan Bushnell had worked on alongside Ted Dabney. Computer Space had been published by Nutting Associates the previous year, but was considered in retrospect by Bushnell to be too hard to control for a game set up in bars and bowling alleys. Bushnell tasked early hire Al Alcorn with recreating a simplified version of the Magnavox Odyssey’s tennis game using arcade hardware as a test project, to familiarize himself with Dabney’s circuitry and their game design technology in general. Bushnell motivated Alcorn by telling him they already had a contract with General Electric to produce this game and that it had to cost less than $15 in parts. Alcorn simplified the game design from the Odyssey by eliminating the extra paddles that allowed players to move horizonally and affect the ball’s flight directly; instead, players can only move along a vertical axis, and the ball’s angle is determined entirely by where it connects with the paddles. Bushnell wanted cheering and boos as background audio, but Alcorn simply found tones that were already being generated by the game and hooked them into the speaker instead.
While Atari was working on developing its first programmable machine, the Video Computer System, the bare-minimum goal was to have something that could run home versions of their 1970s hit games, notably Tank and Pong. The company hired a programming crew in 1976 to begin the task of turning what was the cutting edge of arcade releases into something playable on a dramatically less capable system, as well as beginning the work of making home-exclusive games.
Among those early hires was Larry Kaplan, who came on board in August of 1976 as the company’s first VCS software designer after impressing them by building his own Altair 8800 computer from a kit. Kaplan enjoyed taking advantage of the company’s free arcade game room and was a fan of the 1975 arcade game Anti-Aircraft located there, deciding to make that one of his first projects for the system still in development.
Anti-Aircraft, developed by Gary Waters and released in June 1975, is a fairly straightforward two-player game where each player fires anti-aircraft guns at horizontally passing planes or UFOs; in an early example of a video game easter egg of sorts, a minor board modification will change out the planes for alien ships. Scoring is based off of how many aircraft the player hit, and whoever has the higher score at the end of the time limit is the victor. As a relatively recent arcade game and one suited to two players, it fit Atari’s ideal of bringing its arcade hits home.
The 1970s were a time of rapid growth and change in the nascent video game industry. Over the course of the decade, arcade video games were commercially introduced, grew in complexity, and shifted from black-and-white to color. But the video game industry as we know it started in the home, and there was a great deal of interest in bringing those arcade experiences back to the rumpus room. Much like the earliest arcade games, early home consoles were dedicated machines capable of only playing whatever the circuitry had built in. There was no real programming involved because there weren’t really microprocessors available to run these games; as such game design was in large part a function of hardware design. Although Magnavox’s Odyssey system functionally was the home market for the first few years – featuring changeable cards that, under the hood, were little more than circuitry that told the hardware to use specific rules for whatever game – around 1975 the market was flooded with dedicated consoles that largely worked to recreate the popular arcade game Pong. Such a market was always going at risk of becoming a fad the same way that CB radios or digital watches were, and electronics giants like Fairchild and RCA were in a race with arcade game developers such as Atari and Bally to change that paradigm and hit the storefronts with consoles capable of interchangeable, new games with a sturdier shelf life.
Atari’s effort, the Video Computer System, had its first proof-of-concept prototype design completed on paper in December 1975, by engineers Steve Mayer and Ron Milner of Cyan Engineering, which was a subsidiary of Atari. Mayer and Milner had been discussing how to follow up Atari’s Home Pong dedicated console that summer when Mayer suggested moving away from dedicated consoles, which required designing from the ground up new circuits and hardware for each new game, to building a base unit with different ROM chips that could be plugged into it to run games instead. The idea of porting the popular arcade game Tank – which was produced by another Atari subsidiary, Kee Games and published in November 1974 – was in the front of the engineers’ minds as a natural follow up to Pong. The initial prototype design included the idea of running what would become Combat on the eventual system, and used the arcade machine’s dual-stick control setup to run a basic version of Tank as a proof-of-concept. A second pair of hardware designers named Jay Miner and Joe Decuir were charged with building out that prototype design and turning it into a commercial product, with one basic edict: That the VCS should be able to run home versions of Tank and Pong, as well as home versions of other popular arcade titles such as Jet Fighter and Gran Trak 10.