Earlier this year, I joined The Strong to perform a truly exciting job: process the recently acquired Atari Coin-Op Division Collection. I loved Atari as a child, so I jumped at the chance to work firsthand on its records. My first exposure to video games, like many others born in the early 1980s, came through classic Atari games such as Pole Position, Asteroids, and Super Breakout. I was too young to experience these titles at the local arcade, but I spent countless hours at home on my family’s Atari 2600 playing these games. At the time, the rudimentary graphics didn’t matter. Their major appeal, as Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell once said in regard to what made a great game, was that they were “easy to learn, yet difficult to master.”
Bushnell’s phrase came to mind as I discovered that The Strong’s Atari collection materials were easy to appreciate but took time to master. The collection is massive (it arrived at the museum on 22 pallets!) so my first task was creating an inventory to gain intellectual control of the materials. I also looked for a semblance of original order, which archivists always strive to preserve. Fortunately, Atari had applied an organizational structure, which will be maintained and ultimately reflected in the finding aid that researchers will consult to understand the scope of the collection’s resources. While performing the inventory, I found that many of the files were organized by game. Types of game documentation include original cabinet artwork, assembly drawings, focus group reports, market research, memos, production schedules, financial and legal documents, and technical information. So far, I have found that the collection includes documentation on the majority of Atari’s arcade games.
I was thrilled to discover game documentation on the 1983 arcade classic, Star Wars. Like Atari, Star Wars (the movie, not the arcade game) defined my childhood. As a boy, I found myself thrilled by the original trilogy. The epic story of good versus evil, combined with the amazing special effects, mesmerized me. Star Wars, the arcade game, was developed to evoke the same magical feeling as the movie.
As I surveyed the Star Wars documentation, I was happy to see myriad records which give insight into the game’s development. Production schedules document the progress of game development, memos highlight various issues game developers ran into during production, story boards illustrate key scenes from the game, focus group results provide feedback from players during the final stages of production of the game, and market research shows how the game performed in certain test locations.
The documentation shows that the game was originally developed as Warp Speed, a space game which attempted to utilize 3-D image capabilities. Warp Speed began production in 1980, but after two years the project had considerable issues. In July 1982, the team working on Warp Speed decided that the game could use a boost. Realizing the profit potential for a Star Wars arcade game, Atari joined forces with Lucasfilm to convert the existing Warp Speed prototype into a Star Wars-themed game. After an additional year of development, Atari released Star Wars, a 3-D flight simulator game that featured vector graphics and used a flight control handle to navigate the spaceship. At the time, Atari found it difficult to feature various scenes from the whole movie, so instead it focused on the exhilarating conclusion of destroying the Death Star. Fans have the opportunity to play as protagonist Luke Skywalker and, if the player successfully destroys the Death Star, the game resets at a higher difficulty level. The game even features authentic sound clips from the movie (“Use the force, Luke!”), a new development for arcade games.
The documentation found on Star Wars has provided me with a new perspective on the arcade game. It was interesting to see the evolution of a failed space game to an arcade classic. Overall, the Atari Coin-Op Division Collection is an exciting collection that will provide researchers with unprecedented access into the development, production, and marketing of early arcade games. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll head down to the eGame Revolution exhibit to go play Star Wars…