Atari Tempest: What's So Cool About It?

It works! My dad fixed my Tempest Machine!

...Continuing my previous post, let me first say that if you have tried Tempest in MAME, XBox, Playstation, or any other emulator or remakes, you have not had an adequate Tempest experience. On many versions the sound effects are horrible approximations, but the big omission is the knob controller. No mouse, stick, game pad, or trackball comes close to the feel, precision, and speed of a knob spinning a hefty little fly-wheel.

I sucked at arcade games when I was a teen in the early eighties. The irresistible draw was quickly overcome by frustration and lack of quarters. My attempts at Asteroids, Defender, Pac-man, Donkey Kong, and many others including Tempest, were always short-lived. Joust and Centipede were the only games I could survive long enough to enjoy. So I don't really have nostalgia for my youth in the arcade. Commodore 64 games like Lode Runner, Boulderdash, Jumpman, and Space Taxi have that honor.

Something about Tempest appealed to me though. The abstract, vanishing-point, vector graphics and the pulsing sounds created a psychedelic aesthetic that drew me to finally buy one, and now another one.

I made an important discovery with Tempest. You cannot excel by deliberate effort. You have to relax, adhere to the game's rhythm, watch with a broad perspective, and allow you mind to react involuntarily to the events in the periphery. It's a meditative state. This is exactly the same way I derive maximum enjoyment from biking, snowboarding, and other recreational pursuits. I have know idea weather this was intent of the designers but I have yet to see another game achieve this as effectively.

Tempest is as good as any milestone marking the end of the analog era and the dawn of the digital age. From the beginning of electronic technology until then, analog signals and wave forms were manipulated to model and record shapes and sounds. Forward from that point, the images and sounds our machines will be grids of pixels and streams of samples, all digital reproductions. Tempest sounds are synthesized. The graphics are drawn lines which only a few very early games can claim.

Tempest also marks a unique era in game design. The primitive technology did not allow any realism or much complexity. Games were necessarily abstract, concept driven, and required more imagination to design than today's games which generally model reality as closely as technology allows. Even though I think it's a blast to race cars in Gran Tourismo, and thrilling to play a soldier in Call Of Duty, I get more excited about doing something truly unreal like rolling skyscrapers into a giant ball in Katamari Damaci.

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