The history of coin-operated video arcade games began not with a whimper, but with several explosive bangs, rendered in simple black-and-white graphics by a young tech whiz named Nolan Bushnell.
Introduced in 1971, Computer Space was the first of its kind, a stand-alone computer console dedicated to a single purpose: game playing.
Inspired by the 1960’s computer lab craze Spacewar (a dot vs. dot battle programmed into several early supercomputers), Bushnell set out to build his pioneering machine.
Nutting Associates financed the venture, building several hundred funky-looking cabinets with metallic paint jobs.
The game itself featured a duel between your spaceship and a pair of malevolent flying saucers. Using the four control buttons (two for rotation, one for thrust and one for firing), you attempted to outshoot your enemies, hopefully scoring enough hits to continue play once time expired.
A two-player version was also produced, allowing space pilot rivals to duel each other, this time with joystick controls.
Promotional materials promised potential buyers that the machines were really quite simple – a computer “brain”, a few moving parts for controls, and an ordinary black-and-white TV set.
Pool hall and bowling alley owners may have bought the concept, but their patrons didn’t. Nobody knew what to make of this curious-looking machine, and despite a brief appearance in the 70’s sci-fi classic Soylent Green (1973), few were willing to give it a try.
Computer Space was a financial failure, but it set the stage for the coming arcade revolution. With the money he made from selling his work to Nutting Associates, Bushnell founded Atari and created the first breakthrough video game hit, Pong, one year later. And the rest is history.