Once upon a time (that is, in the early 1960s), if you wanted to play a game on a computer, your options were pretty limited. While a few experiments in game creation had been done on oscilloscopes and the like, the fact was, if you wanted a game to really put your fancy 200 kHz computer through its paces, you were going to have to punch the code for it into the paper tape yourself. So, in 1962, that’s exactly what a handful of M.I.T. students did, spending roughly 200 hours putting together Spacewar!, an epic, dramatic space opera featuring hours of cut scenes, performances by celebrity voice actors, and extensive social network integration, complete with in-app purchases.
Or, rather, it featured two spaceships (“The Wedge” and “The Needle”) controlled by knobs on the front of the computer, and a star in the middle of the screen that drew them in. Two players (when they weren’t freaking out from the realism of the graphics, or fighting off protestors claiming that space-shooting video games would lead to kids going into space and shooting each other) competed to guide their ships around the star’s gravity well, firing missiles and occasionally resorting to the dangerous ‘hyperspace’ button in an emergency.
Spacewar! originally ran on M.I.T.’s DEC PDP-1, an early computer that printed data using an attached typewriter and cost the equivalent of a million 1959 dollars. Only one of the fifty or so PDP-1s ever produced still functions, so until recently, anyone looking to play this classic in its original iteration was forced to consider planning a high stakes break-in at Mountain View, California’s Computer History Museum, where the last remaining PDP-1 is on display.
Luckily, such larceny is no longer a necessity, as the Internet Archive has recently added PDP-1 emulation of Spacewar! to their increasingly impressive historical software collection. The emulation includes a depiction of the PDP-1’s display board, giving players all the information they could want about the computer’s program counter, memory address, and accumulator, whatever those are. Players are given instructions on how to load the game’s paper tape, and the keyboard is used to control both ships. There’s no AI (given that Spacewar!’s very basic physics simulation already pushes the PDP-1 to its limit), so be sure to bring along a retro-minded friend if you want to get the most out of this classic.