[Retro Monday] Lunar Lander

[Retro Monday] is a series that takes a look at games of the past. Expect articles chock full of interesting information; how the game ties into the political, economical, and cultural situation of its time; and most importantly, pretty pictures.

This week’s focus? Lunar Lander. There’s not much information on it, but that won’t stop me from presenting some interesting stuff to you all.

Lunar Lander is one of the first video games I played upon coming home from the hospital as a baby. The controls are simple and the results of hitting a key were immediate. This was perfect for my little toddler mind. Did I know what I was doing? No. I only knew that hitting the ground at the wrong angle would cause certain death. Did I have fun? You bet I did.

Let’s take a look at a game whose name I didn’t discover until a mere four years ago.

Lunar Lander

Lunar Lander is an arcade game released by Atari back in 1979. It utilized Atari’s new Quadrascan display system, which drew vector graphics on the monitor for players to see. The time of its release put it into direct competition with Galaxian and Space Invaders. However, where those games were fantastical and imaginative, Lunar Lander was more grounded in reality, thus creating its own special appeal.

Lunar Lander Gameplay

Lunar Lander challenged players to pilot a lunar landing module and its safe descent onto the moon’s surface. Apparently, the moon’s surface has seen better days because it boasts incredibly jagged and rocky terrain. Players can only land on areas that are smooth and flat. These areas were marked with score multipliers, with more difficult ones awarding more points if successfully maneuvered. If that proves to be too difficult, the difficulty settings can be accessed and changed at any point in time.

The Cabinet

Players controlled their little lunar lander with the control scheme pictured above. Not much can be found on the specifics save for that there was a throttle and three buttons, and those three controlled the clockwise movement, counterclockwise movement, and the ability to abort the mission by fully engaging the thrusters. The throttle controlled the thrusters. Players used these controls to maneuver their lunar lander. If they successfully landed, they would score points on the ease of landing and the difficulty of the landing site. They would then begin the next round with however much fuel they had from the previous round. They would play and play on randomly generated levels until fuel ran out and the lander crashed.

Lunar Lander Arcade Cabinet, Far Left

Touchy controls and jagged terrain aside, Lunar Lander also featured the use of gravity. Players had to fight against gravity by engaging the thrusters. From there it became a careful balancing act–if too much thrust was used, the lander would go veering off into a completely different direction and probably hit a jagged wall of deadly rock. If not enough was used, the lander would unceremoniously crash onto the flat landing area, and the level was lost.

An interesting aside: the throttle used to control the thrusters was a new and novel feature for its time, and Lunar Lander was one of the first games to use this.

Game Play

Lunar Lander is obviously influenced by the Space Race just a few years prior to its release. The Space Race, as we recall from our history books, was an ongoing competition between the USSR and the US. We’ve already seen in the Gauntlet Retro (go ahead and click, it’ll open in a new window) how these two adversaries influenced the games industry. The Space Race, a more scientific pursuit rather than a violent one, saw the desire to land humans on the moon drive scientific and technological advancement.

Apollo 16 Lunar Module Orion

You can see with the image above the similarities between the real lunar modules and the fictional lunar lander. Let’s briefly recap the history of lunar landers and their design, because it’s actually an interesting tidbit. The initial design of the landers had only three legs. The problem with that is if one of the legs were to be broken off during landing, the lander would become extremely unstable. The designers then pitched around the idea of five legs, but that was scrapped because it would cause the lander to be too heavy to allow for a safe descent. They finally settled on four landing legs, which is represented as best as possible by Lunar Lander.

Now, let’s quickly take a brief look at an important piece of history, and the reason why I can write a Retro piece on Lunar Lander. On July 20, 1969, Kennedy saw his dream of having a man safely travel to and from the moon achieved. Apollo 11 Lunar Module (LM) Eagle was the lander that allowed this to happen. Neil Armstrong stepped out onto the moon’s surface and delivered the line that is still often repeated today. Monumental, inspiring, and valiant.

Apollo LM 11 Eagle

This momentous occasion found the United States–and indeed, the world–swept with a space obsession. Granted, humans had been for a great while, but it reached a fever pitch. Young children idolized and adored the astronauts. They wanted to be space pioneers, they wanted to ride in space shuttles and lunar modules, and they wanted to walk on the moon. Books, movies, songs, and various other forms of entertainment capitalized on this trend.

Advancements in astronautics didn’t stop with the landing of a man on the moon, and neither did the public’s fascination. 1979, the year Lunar Lander released, saw the first fully functional space shuttle orbiter, Columbia, prepare to launch. In that span of ten years, a multitude of exciting announcements and space launches were made. In 1979, people were clamoring to know more and to be more engaged in the space age.

STS-123 Mission Specialist Richard Linnehan (recent photo, courtesy of NASA)

What better way to capitalize on the space obsession than to engage people in an adventure in which they could pilot their own lunar expedition? A video game allowed players to fully interact with the challenge that Atari created, and gamers could indulge their fantasies of beating Armstrong to the punch and landing on the moon first. Lunar Lander allowed several generations to participate in their own astronautic tale immediately. Players didn’t have to spend years of training to prep themselves for the trip–they only needed a few quarters. The dream of many became extremely accessible, and perhaps even inspired future generations of astronauts and astronautical engineers  to follow their dreams.

Microsoft's Game Room

Since then, Lunar Lander has seen a few releases on a variety of platforms. In 1981, Adventure International released home computer port. Commodore shortly followed suit, releasing a like-minded title Jupiter Lander on its own VIC-20 computer, then the Commodore 6. More recently, it was release on the AmigaOS 4. Lunar Lander became a featured title in Microsoft’s Game Room (pictured above) in March of 2010. Later that year, Jason Brown recreated the original Lunar Lander using HTML5–it can be found here. Th arcade original even made an appearance on the Google Chrome Web Store in early 2011, when a free flash version of the game was made available by Atari.com.

Lunar Lander was definitely a product of its time. It encompasses the fascination that the world had with the never ending mystery of space and the triumph of landing a man on the moon. It transformed that fascination into something tangible that anyone could participate. From the implementation of a throttle to control the thrusters to the techie feel of the arcade cabinet to the smart, mechanical look of its controls, Lunar Lander balanced accessibility with faithful representation to create an experience that arcade goers wouldn’t soon forget.

All apologies for running this column late! The next one will run as scheduled on Monday, Jan 30th.

Special thanks to:

Wikipedia Page

Arcade Archive (Arcade flyer photo)

Wikipedia Page on Apollo Lunar Module (I’m a bit of a closet space nut, but there’s some interesting tidbits!)

Astronaut Photo

Photos have been linked back to their origins, unless found in a Wikipedia article.

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2 thoughts on “[Retro Monday] Lunar Lander

  1. Pingback: [Retro Monday] Corridor 7: Alien Invasion | Fully Interactive

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