Lunar Lander [1979]

Lunar Lander [1979], at first blush, seems an incongruous fit for the arcade. It must be intentional as an attempted marketing strategy for floorspace in the ever-more competitive competitive arcade ecosystem. It’s austere, maybe serious, adult, even intellectual. Slow, certainly. Methodical: Twitchy, nick-of-time reactions will get you nowhere here, you need to commit to medium-term planning. It lets you see its fundamental guts in laying the vector math bare for you to work out instead of boiling it down to intuitive feel, and gives you fine-grained control in the superfluity of 10 levels of thrust. It’s so quiet, although its sound design remains as effective and appropriate as Death Race [1976]‘s. The only noises are the diegetic, the white noise whoosh of the thrusters and the bips of the low-fuel alarm. It effectively generates such an impression of science fact over science fiction, that in conversation about the game multiple people around me have remembered it as a barely-gamified training simulation for actual astronauts. If Death Race seems like it should be part of a horror movie, Lunar Lander seems to people like it should be the centerpiece of The Last Starfighter [1984].

Of course, it wasn’t designed nor used for practical, educational value. The vector-graphical real-time Atari Lunar Lander we recognize was first incarnated as Moonlander [1973], and the last Apollo mission to the moon was in December 1972. Lunar Lander arrived in arcades almost a decade after the first steps on the moon in 1969, which inspired the first, text-based The Oregon Trail [1971]-esque BASIC implementation of Lunar Lander. Once again, we cover an Atari game that draws upon refining prior work, but regard that as coincidence, though it does make this as good a chapter-close as Space Invaders [1978] is a chapter-open. The game mutated dramatically as its context changed around it, spreading like a rumor for probably the last time on this blog until Tetris [1984]. We’ve moved from the excitement about the possibilities of computing as applied to space personified by Spacewar [1962], to its actual implementation, to full-on NASAstalgia, a game about space flight openly set in the past, looking back on it as what arguably remains not just computing’s but humanity’s most tremendous singular achievement. Perhaps we’ve outgrown such expensive field trips to collect rocks and project implicit force. (Except Elon Musk, eternal teen.) In the fractured light of the new personal computing paradigm and the foreclosure on possibility wrought of governmental austerity, perhaps it’s a dream we no longer feel permission to have except in the past. This is a simulation, and the real has deserted us.

As much as Lunar Lander has one foot in its recent past, though, it also has one foot in its far future. In the arcade, Space Invaders might have been a phenomenal quarter-muncher, the money on the line accentuating its anxiety, but to the consternation of business owners, a good enough player could functionally buy hogging the machine for potentially over an hour on end for only 25 cents. In Lunar Lander, though, we find a truer antecedent to the loathed microtransaction, in that you only get yea much fuel per quarter and can — must — restock to continue playing, regardless of things like skill. Someone with more money and no interest in actually playing would find it absolutely trivial to run up the score, racking up 25 points per failure and buying the top rank cent-by-cent.

There’s one other respect in which I think the game incidentally foreshadows how games would be consumed in the online future. What all that talk about Lunar Lander’s low-key nature overlooks is how managing the trajectory feeds into a proper dramatic arc. Threading the needle is exquisite mounting tension. Like in The Oregon Trail, failure is constant enough to be outright rewarded with a handful of points, a dynamic animation, and fun rotating flavor text about how you created a two-mile crater or destroyed a “100 MEGABUCK” lunar lander. Successfully touching down fully-intact feels like an actual accomplishment, and if it doesn’t anymore, you can turn the difficulty level up in four steps all the way to a realistic game where even your redirection of thrusters to course-correct need course-correcting. All of this is key to how it fits in the arcade setting: It’s dynamite as a social spectator experience. Stream it on a group call or on Twitch sometime, go get egged on to go for the risky moves, listen to everyone “ooh” in unison as you approach and “ohh” as you just barely miss! It’s the most fun I’ve had playing a game for this blog so far. This is how this single-player game retains the communal spirit. This accentuation of the emotional experience by social performance makes the game come alive in a way that Space Invaders or Death Race doesn’t in the same situation, because those are much flatter experiences, with little of the peaks and valleys of Lunar Lander.

Which brings us to the map, which is all peaks and valleys, and loops around left to right. In retrospect, this game really cries out for randomized terrain, or even just varied levels, but such things may not have been technically possible — or at the very least, aesthetically precedented. Instead, variety between runs is provided merely by assigning the potential landing spots different score multipliers. Used to be, in Pong [1972] or Death Race, one point meant something, or rather, exactly one accomplishment. The most I think you’ll see in proper sports is 7 points at a time in gridiron football. Not sure exactly when it happened, but the point hyperinflation in video games was exceptionally brutal and rapid, and I doubt we’ll ever see just one meaningful point awarded again. The increments of fifties and hundreds in Space Invaders correspond roughly to how high they are in the wave, so even though all creatures are created equal, you are rewarded for progress and you don’t think about it. In Lunar Lander, though, the blatantly arbitrary hierarchy is painted across the craggy, inhospitable surface, and what narrow flat surface in one run was worth 5x points is now no longer. There is no reason here. There are no rivers nor places of strategic military value on the Moon, no grounds on which to divvy it up and assign higher value to any given landing spot. It must just not be enough of an accomplishment just to land on the moon to motivate us. So we invent a new way to read the land, to get kudos for adhering to willfully capricious signs. This is a simulation, and the real has deserted us.

Lunar Lander, though it penetrated the popular consciousness well enough, never really got off the ground. It was mostly scuttled by Atari in favor of Asteroids [1979], which ran on the cabinets designed for Lunar Lander. Asteroids was an original game of cellular subdivision (a fresh and organic approach to Space Invader’s difficulty curve) starring the Wedge from Spacewar. Much more action-packed and fast-paced, much more what you’d think of as arcade material. All told, though, releasing both contributed to an overall feeling that 1979 had seen far too many games set in space, natural as it was for the black screen. Color was finally showing up too, leaving black-and-white games like Lunar Lander looking ancient and hokey. The 80s were coming, fast and hard…

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