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Gravitar

words manifested by: AJ Johnson

A game by Atari for the arcade, originally released in 1982

Title
Console
Publisher
Developer
Players
Year
Gravitar
Arcade
Atari
Atari Games (Midway)
1P
1982


CONTEXT
In March of 1981, Atari designer Mike Hally and programmer Rich Adam began working on a concept for a game that combined elements of Lunar Lander and Asteroids. The result was a prototype called Lunar Battle. The game went through a number of design changes, the greatest of which was to reduce the effect of gravity and lower the aggressiveness of the enemies in order to make the game less difficult. The Atari marketing department then changed the name of the game, which was released into arcades in the summer of 1982 as Gravitar.



Unfortunately, the game still proved to be too difficult for most players and was a resounding failure. Rather than the pick-up-and-play style of most arcade games, Gravitar required that players learn the intricacies of the control scheme in order to experience the game properly (and to survive), which meant that players would have to spend several quarters before they were able to truly play the game. Frustrated, gamers turned to other more accessible machines, and most of the Gravitar cabinets were soon refitted with other games.


However, while it was a commercial failure, the game did have a certain allure, particularly given its tremendous amount of depth, and the intricate controls – once mastered – opened up a gameplay experience that was not possible in any other game. As such, it has remained a favorite of hardcore gamers, and has influenced a number of other games, which saw more prosperity on home consoles and computers where there was no penalty for taking the time to learn the controls.

Also of note are Gravitar’s vector graphics and the fact that the game zooms in real time as the player descends upon the planet, and zooms back out as the player makes his escape at the end of the level. Similar technology was later used in Atari’s popular vector-based Star Wars game, which was also designed by Mike Hally and released into arcades in the following year. A port of Gravitar was also released on the Atari 2600 in 1983.

Gravitar was the primary influence for a number of other gravity-based games, most notably Thrust and Oids, both of which were released in 1987. While Oids is gravity-based and shares a similar control scheme with Gravitar, there’s less focus on precision flying and conservation of resources. The primary goal of Oids is to rescue the “Oids” from the surface of the planet. This is done in a similar fashion to Choplifter, where you blast open a bunker and let the prisoners escape. You can land your ship on any flat surface by aiming perpendicularly away from the planet and allowing gravity to take you down, and then wait while the prisoners board your ship. Your dropoff point is a mother ship that hovers high over the landscape.



Thrust goes in the opposite direction and places even more focus on precision flying and resource management. In this game, you must descend through the cavernous reaches of several planets, pick up an orb, and leave orbit with it intact. What makes this particularly challenging is that the orb is connected to your ship via a rigid bar, and it is affected by gravity in the same way as your ship. As such, it weighs you down and can swing back and forth, forcing you to use extra fuel to lift it and to keep it steady. In advanced stages, you even encounter situations where you have to purposely swing the pod or accelerate very quickly so that it will fit through a narrow horizontal passageway.


Like Gravitar, you’ll be fighting turrets and picking up fuel. There are also reactors, similar to those on Gravitar’s red planets, but they serve a slightly different purpose. Shooting a reactor causes turrets to stop firing momentarily, while destroying the reactor causes a critical reaction, and gives you 10 seconds to escape the planet before it explodes. Of course, it can be pretty difficult to line up a shot on a reactor, which often requires you to turn your ship toward the reactor, open fire, and then readjust your ship’s heading so that you can thrust and hold up the orb. To destroy a reactor, you may need to do this more than once. Reverse gravity and invisible landscapes were also used in later levels, with some versions of the game also offering levels with double gravity and double reverse gravity.


It is a combination of gameplay from these titles that influenced games such as Solar Jetman, Sub-terrania, Gravity Force, Gravity Clash, the Gravitron series, and the PixelJunk Shooter series.


PREMISE
From the arcade flyer:

Message from Atari Mission Control: Your mission is to travel to alien planets, wipe out enemy bunkers, gather fuel units and make the solar systems safe for you and future generations of space pioneers. Fuel units should be collected on each planet… fuel is depleted each time Thrust and Shield/Tractor are utilized. Measures should be taken to insure [sic] ship safety… use Shield against enemy fire from bunkers and alien ships.

There are three solar systems in each universe, with five planets in the first two solar systems and four planets in the third. Gravity is positive. After completing missions in positive gravity solar systems, ship will travel to a new universe with three negative gravity solar systems. Following this is a dark universe where terrain of planets is invisible, gravity is positive. Finally, ship will travel to dark universe with negative gravity.



CONTROLS


Gravitar’s control scheme is simple, but requires a great deal of finesse. On the left side are 2 buttons that allow you to rotate your ship to the left or right. On the right are 3 buttons. Like Asteroids, one fires your weapon in the direction you are aimed, and the other activates your thrusters. The third button activates your tractor beam and shield.


MECHANICS
The player starts out in an overworld-style solar system map, and is free to fly to one of several planets right from the start, each of which offers a point value based on its difficulty level. The player cannot dawdle here as he will be affected by gravity and pulled toward a “death star”. Enemy ships also pursue the player in the overworld, and encountering one sends the player into a one-on-one dogfight where he must defeat the other ship to continue, or lose a life and be booted back to the solar system map.


The goal of the game is to descend on a series of planets and destroy all of the enemy bunkers that are constantly firing projectiles, all the while fighting the effects of gravity. In the early levels, bunkers are easily accessible, but as the game progresses, the player will have to fight through tighter and more complex geometry. Once all of the bunkers have been destroyed, the HUD will display a “mission complete” message, at which point the player is free to fly out of the planet’s orbit and return to the solar system map. Of note is the fact that the player is free to leave orbit at any time and return to the overworld, even if the mission has not yet been completed.


Further adding to the complexity is the fact that the player has limited fuel, and must therefore be precise in his movements. Additional fuel pods can be found within the level, which the player can pick up by using his tractor beam. The tractor beam and shield are assigned to the same button, but the tractor beam only activates near fuel pods. However, the shield/tractor beam also consumes fuel when used. Running out of fuel at any point ends the game. There is also a bonus timer that is constantly counting down, which tempts the player to move more quickly to receive more points at the completion of the level.


There is also a red planet in each solar system that has very complicated geometry and has a reactor at its center. Players must navigate to the reactor under a short time limit (and avoid enemy bunkers in higher difficulties), destroy it, and get back out before it explodes. Completing this mission will allow the player to proceed directly to the next solar system, but the player can also proceed by simply completing the 4 main planets. Essentially the red planet acts as a warp for skilled players to move ahead to the next solar system without completing the standard levels.

As he progresses through each of the solar systems, the player will encounter planets with more bunkers, faster enemies, and a higher enemy firing rate. Each solar system also contains an asteroid with gravity pulling toward the center instead of straight down, requiring the player to adjust his tactics accordingly. After completing the first 3 solar systems, the player will enter a new universe (with the same solar systems and planets) where the planets have negative gravity. In the next universe, the player will encounter invisible landscapes where the geometry can only be determined by enemy placement or by firing the ship’s weapon (and for a brief moment after exploding). And the final universe has invisible landscapes and reverse gravity.



BASTARD CLASS ENEMIES (What's this?)

The Welcoming Committee From the instant you begin this challenging game, you will find yourself under attack. In the arcade, this means that plugging a quarter into the machine might leave you to watch your ship float slowly toward the sun, while trying to figure out the controls and where you need to go, only to be shot down before you even make it to the first planet. These ships seek you out, shooting as you maneuver through the solar system map. Getting too close pulls you into a battle to the death, where victory means only that you are allowed to continue your mission unmolested for a few extra seconds.



Gravity Your toughest adversary is gravity. It is as powerful as it is relentless. It skews your course, causes you to drain fuel, requires precise rotation and thrust to overcome, and it constantly pulls you toward death. And just when you’ve managed to compensate for this dark force, you find yourself in worlds where it is reversed.



BOSSES
There are no bosses in this game. Your greatest enemy is gravity itself.


HERITAGE

Why this game should be part of your 2D heritage:
  • High-precision gravity-based gameplay
  • Skill-based warp system
  • Gameplay variety requires increasing application of skills
  • Play through planets in any order

The downside:
  • Steep initial learning curve

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