"What's past is prologue" -Antonio, The Tempest, Act 2, Scene 1
"Such Stuff as dreams are made on" -Antonio, The Tempest, Act 4, Scene 1
Tempest is an arcade game by Atari, originally designed and programmed by David Theurer. Released in October, 1981, it was fairly popular and had several ports and sequels. The game is also notable for being the first video game with a selectable level of difficulty (determined by the initial starting level). The game is a tube shooter, a type of shoot 'em up where the environment is fixed, but is viewed from a three-dimensional perspective.
Tempest was the first game to use 'Color-Quadrascan' and 'Skill-Step', both features unique to Atari vector games. Tempest was originally a 3-D "Space Invaders" clone called 'Vortex'.
1981. High school. Big arcade boom. Us miscreants liked to hole up in those dark but beautiful small town arcades. There was the Station Arcade, a few games in the front of Hills store, and a few "here today, gone tomorrow" arcades on Main Street in Belle Vernon. All well within biking distance, and my preferred form of entertainment (besides a Lost In Space or Star Trek episode here and there). We had seen Space Invaders and burned out by now. I don't recall the order of other games, but I remember being drawn to the Tempest game almost immediately. The boldly decorated cabinet, sharp but multi-colored vector line graphics. I remember my first impression was that this was an "adult game" - seemed complex, utterly different than anything else. Not a tank, a smiley face eating dots, or a spaceship that fires something. No...this was geometric shapes that you manipulated things on. This was each level completed in 30 seconds and then presented with a completely different looking one. And it was INTENSE. Massive amounts of things going on. And...it had a completely different controller than any other game out there...a spinning knob. Watching other players deftly manipulate that thing was like watching a master surgeon perform. It often sat idle as not very many people had either the skills to take it on, the understanding of just what was to be done, or, as I later found out, the money to feed the thing. It was a masterful quarter-eater.
Every time someone took it on that seemed to know what they were doing, a crowd would gather to watch that intense and curious game in action. The sounds were unlike anything else as well...pulling people in by their ears. Get into the red zone and you had everyone's attention...this was clearly someone who knew what they were doing. I eventually became one of those players, and when a crowd gathered, it was like being a rock hero up on stage. It was a pure self-confidence builder. Intoxicating reassurance that you were somebody...if only for 90 seconds.
I'd make 20-minute bike ride to the Station Arcade even if I didn't have any money in hopes that my "adult friend" Mark Nogie would be working there that day. He was moody, but if you caught him on shift and in a good mood, there was a chance he might be interested in playing some rounds of Tempest. And this often meant coin door open and free credits. Playing 2 player games increases your chances of "maintaining the level" and continuing onto higher levels. This was the ONLY way to economical explore the higher/harder levels. Death comes quickly in the red zone, and even faster in the yellow zone.
I'll never forget my highest level/score was the flat board in the yellow zone, level 43 and 347,000 points. It was over in seconds, but it was amazing. To this day I've never beaten it. That may change...
I used to dream of Tempest. The visual barrage of the gameplay burns itself into your retinas and persists when your eyes close like the vector graphic light guns on the phosphor-coated screen of the game itself. I used to daydream in school, and doodle the Tempest graphic, and boards. I used to design my own board shapes too...just in case I ever grew up to be a game designer for Tempest Two. (There was a subsequent version called Tempest Tubes that had different shapes...some of them like mine!) I used to make lists of everything about the game...each level and its bonus score, when new creatures first appeared, point values for everything, and colors of zones beyond yellow that I heard rumor of or had personal theories on. I had a Tempest notebook for school, and even the Tempest pin (one of 12 collector pins released by Atari in 1982).
I was obsessed wholly and completely. I would dive into any arcade when traveling...sometimes the Penny Arcade at Kennywood would have one, and I'd abandon the rides for an hour to plays some games. Every mall visit meant a jaunt to the arcades to see if one was installed and working. I remember they started posting lists of used video games for sale...and most were about $100. Tempest was $93. I remember because that might have been the first time I ever considered I might own one one day. But $93 in 1980 dollars to kid was nearly impossible. Plus, what parent would let you spend that kind of cash on a "game" that takes up a good portion of the room!?
After the arcade boom there was a long dry period. None of the "ports" to the home game consoles or computers were good enough. And without the spinner knob, frustrating to play. I considered assembling my own controller panel and hooking it up to a computer. Through the years I gathered information on retailers. The game was now "vintage" and expensive. Also, possibly expensive to maintain -- old technology is finicky and parts are scarce. I started out three different times to try and mount an effort to find and buy one. Ebay. General internet searches. Classified ads. Classic Game vendors. I didn't get very far...too much research to do, and just too much money. I did add it to my Wish List so as to mark it officially as one of life's goals. But years have passed, and the project never seems to get attention it needs. I borrowed Johnny's Jaguar to play Tempest 2000 for a couple of months back in 2003. I needed the fix. No arcades have it anymore.
Tempest is one of those fondest of memories. A steady, sure joy in your life. It's just a game. But it was "my" game, and to me it's the stuff dreams are made of...
2007. June 4. A day to remember. They really, really shouldn't have. But I am sooooo glad they did!
My family and friends touched my heart, and pulled a 25-year long dream seemingly out of the hat. It was magic. It still is. To all that had a hand in this in any way, my deepest thanks. Here's the list of co-conspirators:
Mike & Kathy
Joanne & Jeff
Alexis & Tom
June & Richard
Lori & Tom
Kristen & Bryan
Mike & Tonya
Mom & Dad
Bonnie & Don
Kelly & Ski
Dan & Liz
“Think where man's glory most begins and ends, and say my glory was I had such friends“ ‑William Butler Yeats
Cousin Kelly has posted her pictures of the unveiling.
Glen posted a fine essay on the mission and its unfolding. I couldn't tell the story any better myself. As not everyone visits his site daily (as I do and they should) and perhaps hasn't achieved the password entry necessary, I'm reposting this perfect document of the occasion with last names scrubbed (to protect the criminals).
Tuesday, June 5th, 2007
Per my Thursday, May 24th, 2007 entry, Ron's friends and family wanted to show our appreciation for Ron. Surprise parties were suggested, but with Ron's rock climbing and mountaineering schedule, it was impractical. Finally it was decided that we'd get him something that he'd wanted for a long time (since 1981.) Hence, 'Mission: Tempest' was born.
Tempest is Ron's favorite arcade game. We wanted to get Ron an original arcade game and not a knock off. Several of us did research and finally Tom found a great deal in our own front yard: Butler PA.
So last weekend, as part of our Memorial Day weekend, Tom, Alexis and me found ourselves in Butler where we looked up the seller. We tested the game, bought it and loaded it into my van.
Ron was on vacation, climbing multiple mountains in the Canadian Rockies so we drove to Pittsburgh and broke into Ron's house. (Minus any actual breaking.)
We heaved the 250 pound (plus) counsel through his garage and into his living room. (Fortunately the back of the machine has two wheels built in, which made it easier. Still, it was a chore - trust me.)
The game was plugged-in and re-tested by Tom.
Some people were tests hogs and had to be convinced to share. (I kid.)
We covered the game and hid its form as best as we could with extra
There were many friends and family members who contributed to this gift, and we wanted to give everybody a chance to participate in its unveiling but we also didn't want to leave the mystery package in Ron's basement too long and we knew that there would never be a perfect date and time for everybody. So we sent out an email letting people know that Monday evening (June 4th) would be the game unveiling.
So those who could make it showed up as close to the meet time of 7:30 as we could. Only a handful of the many contributors could make it but still Ron instantly new the game was afoot as first Ron's mom showed, followed by me, Jenny, Kelly, Ski and Alexis.
We didn't know the exact day that Ron would return so we wrote a note threatening pain if he looked under the covers.
We'd received word from Ron's Mom who was our family insider that Ron returned late Sunday night (June 3rd).
After some drink, a little food and some catching up we headed down to his basement.
Ron had seen the mystery package in the intervening time but was good enough not to look. (As those who know him best expected.)
Jenny and Alexis look on in great anticipation.
Pre-opening photographs were taken. (These images are from my work Black Berry).
Ron seemed a little stunned at first.
But very quickly excited.
In short order the game was running and Ron was killing aliens...and more aliens...and MORE aliens.
Not only had Alexis coordinated much of the financial wrangling, she'd gotten a card with all of the names of his friends and family who'd contributed.
Of course Ron had the high-score in no time. (And the machine had retained previous high-scores even though it had been shut down.)