Saturday, September 6, 2014

From "Invasion of the Space Invaders" (1982)

By Martis Amis.

Lunar Lander is a game for owlish adolescents and gentle old hippies. It is qualitatively different from any other game. Most video creations stress a certain sort of game-activity. Missile Command is a game of interception, Lunar Rescue of dodging, PacMan of munch-accumulation (which perhaps explains why it is the only video game with any kind of following among women). Most games, of course, are games of blasting, wasting, creaming, smashing. Lunar Lander, on the other hand, is simply a game of landing.

No ghouls or hellcats lurk on the rocky moon where Lander lands; no rockets, photons or zipships buzz its slow descent. This is a game without aliens, without adversaries. The only enemy is the player’s own hamfistedness.

Like Asteroids, the Lunar screen is simply a matter of outline, white on black. The effect is well-defined, pristine, classy: it makes many of the more colourful games look like an infant’s paintbox or a cutprice carpet. The Lander’s module comes bleeping in over the spiky terrain. Various landing sites are indicated – graded according to difficulty (though I confess that I’ve never really seen the difference: once you get down to Landing, they’re all pretty much the same). Rotating right or left, and steadying the pod with deft surges on the reverse-thrust console, the Lander picks his spot and gingerly / descends, counteracting the simulated gravitational pull, friction and momentum.

As you home in on the flat landing-pad, the game pulls its best stunt: you switch to close-up. The landing then becomes a question of ticklish fine-tuning, as you adjust and correct and over-correct and re-adjust for touchdown. There are several grades of landing (good, hard, crash), as indeed there are four grades of ‘mission’ (Training, Cadet, Prime and Command – selectable at the beginning of the game), and points are awarded accordingly. The controls are beautifully responsive, though on any mission more advanced than Training you are going to have frequent recourse to the Abort button, which gives you escape thrust and resets the display for a fresh attempt. That little pod goes twirling out of control very easily, and no amount of thrust will tame it back into line. The top of the screen is adorned with altimeters and speedos and fuel readings, most of which can be safely ignored. Don’t bother with the readouts: just put more money in the slot.

Elsewhere: Mark O'Connell, "The Arcades Project."

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