Monday, June 20, 2011

Armor Attack and the Anti-Draft Sentiments of Tim Skelly

According to my handy dandy "This Day in Tech" feed it was on this day in 1840 that Samuel F.B. Morse received a U.S. patent for his dot-dash telegraphy signal system known as "Morse Code". So it seems a nice opportunity to chat a bit about one of my favorite old vector arcade games that actually contains genuine Morse code in its sound effects - Armor Attack!

Vector game specialists Cinematronics released Armor Attack in 1980 and also licensed it to both Rock-ola and Sega for release as well. The game takes place on a single screen which shows a top-down view of a bombed out urban landscpape in which you, and a friend if you happen to have one lying around, control a small jeep and must drive around the war-torn city avoiding the tanks and attack copters that are trying to kill you while trying to bring them down with return fire of your own. You can bring the copters down with a single shot if you are good enough to hit them before they shoot you while they circle around the playfield, but the tanks take two shots to polish off. Your first shot immobilizes the tank but it will still turn its turret and continue to shoot at you until you are able to administer the coup de grace.

Being an early vector game, the graphics were simple monochrome wireframe, but like a lot of early video games it used overlays to give the illusion of more sophisticated graphics. In fact the buildings behind which you take cover from attacking enemies are not even present at all electronically - they are represented ONLY by the graphic overlay, but the code was written so that they provided cover and obstacles just the same.

Armor Attack was controlled entirely by buttons - no fancy shmancy joysticks here!  I have always been strangely attracted to games that are controlled solely by buttons without any joysticks (e.g. Astro Blaster, Asteroids, Rip Off) so this one is right up my alley control-wise. You control the jeep pretty much the same way you control the spaceship in Asteroids except that when you stop pressing on the gas, inertia doesn't keep carrying you forward - you more or less stop on a dime.  And you can make some really nice tight turns too to avoid enemy fire. Here is the control panel.

I don't recall ever actually playing this game in the arcades but I saw the artwork one day on the MAME cab and checked it out and suddenly I had a new one for my favorites list. The graphics are simple and the gameplay is admittedly redundant with just a single-screen that in true old-school arcade fashion just keeps getting harder and faster until you die, but the game is strangely addictive and never really gets old to me. One-player mode is fun, but it also offers a two-player co-op mode where you team up with a partner to kick tank and copter ass together which adds a new dimension to the game. The sound effects are excellent too for 1980. High replay value - at least for me it is - I give it an 8.0.

So what about the Morse code you ask? Interesting story.  The U.S. government had reinstituted the draft registration during the game's development and Tim Skelly, the game's designer/programmer, was a longtime opponent of the draft. So to voice his anti-draft opinion Skelly encoded the message "don't register" into the repeating morse code beeps you hear in the game. Skelly discussed it in the following interview piece.

Armor Attack was done at a time when I felt I had worked out a few things about game design. I was just trying to do an artful update of one of the earliest video games, "Tank." Everything went smoothly. There were only two problems. One was that (again and again and again!) (Jim) Pierce wouldn't allow the mirror technique used in Warrior to be used here for a background. Pierce and (Papa Tom) Stroud (the owners of Cinematronics) were cheap, cheap, cheap! With every game they took away one more color from the cabinet art because each pass cost a few pennies more. Check it out. If I had done one more game the artwork would have been black on black!

Like Warrior, I just didn't have the drawing time to draw the (very important!) background outlines on the screen during the game. (They can be seen by themselves in the test mode for alignment.) So, the clever solution that management came up with was to use the same kind of overlay that was used on Star Castle. The problem was that the overlay wasn't covering/coloring anything but black! That's why the playfield for the game is either black or slightly-greenish-black. Ah, well. It worked well enough I guess.

A second event occurred about the time I had just started the game. We heard through the grapevine that Atari had completed a tank game and was testing it in the Bay area. Obviously we were concerned. One of the management guys went through the phone books for the bay area and called every arcade until he found the one with the test game. (He used a cheesy hillbilly accent. It was pretty funny.) We flew up immediately. When we got there we spotted the game, which turned out to be 'Battle Zone.' Since it was 3D and mine was top-down with entirely different game play, we went ahead with our plans, despite how good we thought the Atari game was. But that's not the funny bit. While everyone else was checking out 'Battle Zone' I wandered around the arcade like I usually did, looking for games I hadn't played. I found one and really got into it. It, too, was an Atari test piece, but none of the management guys thought much of it. Funny, I really thought 'Missile Command' would make it. ;>)

At the time I was finishing the game, the (US) government decreed that every male of draft age had to register, even though there was no draft in effect. This pissed me off (old draft resistor), especially since my buddy Scott Boden was someone who had to sign up. I wanted to use morse code sounds in Armor Attack, and I knew morse, (old boy scout) so that's real morse code in the game beeping out "dontregister." I was also assuaging my own conscience, since I had heard that Atari had sold Battle Zone to the Army.

Armor Attack was ported to the classic vector home game system Vectrex in 1982 - and when I finally buy me one of those beauties I will also be getting a copy of Armor Attack.

Tom Larkin holds the official high score record for one-player on Armor Attack with 2,009,000 points on September 25, 1982.

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Mik said...

"In fact the buildings behind which you take cover from attacking enemies are not even present at all electronically - they are represented ONLY by the graphic overlay, but the code was written so that they provided cover and obstacles just the same."

That's amazing, I think they spared much code by doing so. I wonder if Vectrex games could be even better using the same trick? Well, guess we'll never know...

gnome said...

An amazing piece of gaming history you discovered there MadPlanet. I'm pretty sure though this lovable vector game wont be easy to emulate/simulate. Still, my respect goes to the anti-draft message. Having spent more time than anyone should be required to in my mandatory army service, I fully respect it...

MadPlanet said...

@ Mik: Yes, a very nice idea brought about by the demand to pinch more pennies out of the budget. I know plent of arcade games used overlays to add color to B/W graphics, but offhand I can't think of any others that used them to represent actual objects in the gameplay. Just be sure to download the artwork files if you try it out on MAME though; otherwise you'll constantly be slamming your jeep into phantom walls!

@ Gnome: I've never had to face the prospect of mandatory military service, so the concept is quite foreign to me. Given my general anti-authoritarian outlook and misanthropic refusal to be a member of any club that would have me as a member, I'm pretty sure I would not care for it much.

You're quite right - a raster display can only go so far in emulating a vector one. Vector games on MAME are fun but they inevitably come up short of the glowing crisp lines of the real thing. Still, you'd be surprised at how well MAME runs the game. Give her a try!

gnome said...

So glad to discover we have wider similarities dear MadPlanet. Mind you, military service is as atrocious as it sounds. I'm still hoping to run into my old commander in the streets of Athens...