CENTIPEDE / Atari / Arcade

Released in 1980, Atari's Centipede is definitely a riff on 1978 release Space Invaders. It's a very good riff, though, as evidenced by its place as an iconic title in gaming history and long legs as a household name for gamers.

Centipede shifts the focus from deep space alien defense to eliminating obnoxious garden pests. Instead of a regimented alien army marching at you, you get a relatively speedy and twitchy serpentine creature. When shot, segments will separate and move on their own, and their speed increases as you knock bits out. The bulwarks of Space Invaders are also removed and redistributed all over the screen as little destructible mushrooms that serve more as hindrance than protectors.

Not only is the enemy faster and more slippery, but there are added bonus critters that are frequently hostile to your ship. The most notorious being the spider, who starts appearing right away and loves to jump into the playfield from the side of the screen at the worst moments. The upside for you is that nothing shoots back at you, and the centipede reaching the bottom of the screen doesn't mean instant death since you can freely scroll up three spaces from the bottom. If the full centipede makes it down to you you're probably dead, but smaller segments can be dodged as they work their way back up the screen after hitting bottom.

The gameplay tweaks make it feel very distinct from Space Invaders, but we haven't even got to the biggest factor yet - the trackball. Atari had been using trackballs in arcade cabinets since 1979, but only for a very forgettable series of sports games. This was the first trackball game by any company to really break out as a big hit, and it paved the way for a bunch of later hits - Missile Command, Arkanoid and Crystal Castles among them.

Unless you buy a trackball to play with on a computer, you likely won't be experiencing this as it was intended in the arcade. So the big question is, does it hold up when playing with a gamepad or mouse? Naturally, the arcade version is not quite as good or accurate as a trackball in good shape, but it's at least decent and playable enough in MAME with a mouse or with the analog stick on a good-quality pad like a recent Xbox or PlayStation controller.

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* Gameplay Video