The Beginnings of Arcade Game Mazes, Part 1

The video game landscape opens up a great deal in 1981, in large part because of the tremendous success of Pac-Man. The pellet-munching game inspired not just clones, but also a wide variety of experiments in maze games. As such, I want to take a step backwards and look at the role of mazes in early arcade games.  

Note that video game mazes were prevalent on mainframe and home computers throughout the '70s (see Akalabeth, for example), and that's a story that I hope to cover at some point, but I won't get into it here.

Gotcha (1973, Atari)

The first video game maze to see wide release was also Atari’s third original game. Gotcha pitted two players against one another in a constantly shifting labyrinth. 

Gameplay from the 1973 arcade Game, Gotcha, played on the DICE emulator.

Nowadays, Gotcha is best known for the controversy it excited. Apparently, one of Atari’s engineers thought it was interesting that joysticks resembled phalluses and wanted to make an equivalent set of controllers to resemble the female anatomy. 

Perhaps a bit more subtlety was called for -- the resulting controversy forced Atari to replace them with joysticks almost immediately after release.  

As for the game itself, there was nothing more to Gotcha than a plus sign and a square chasing each other around.  However, it offered arcade gamers their first look at a maze as a battleground. 

Tank (1974, Kee Games)

It didn't take long for arcade game developers to come up with better ways to use this battleground.  The following year, a subsidiary of Atari, called Kee Games, released an original title by the name of Tank.  In it, players controlled tanks that shot at each other in a 2D maze, using a control scheme similar to what would later be used in Battlezone (1980).  The only real improvement over Gotcha was the ability for the players to fire at one another, but what a big improvement it was.

When you add shooting, the maze suddenly plays a much bigger role in the game.  It’s no longer just an obstacle for movement, you can also use it for cover, arranging a trap, or testing your marksmanship between walls.

Three years later, Atari released a title with very similar gameplay, called Combat, as one of the launch games for the Atari VCS.  The "mazes" are less complex, but you now have access to additional modes, including one where the bullets ricochet off of walls.  The more strategic possibilities you add for your combatants, the more emergent maze battlefields become.

Gameplay and sprites for the 1977 Atari VCS game, Combat.  Sprites shown are for tank and airplane.

It is a relatively small conceptual step from Combat and Tank to the many multi-player first-person shooters that still frequent the gaming landscape to this day.  Sure, the graphics are more detailed and the game world has an extra dimension to it, but ultimately, it still comes down to players hunting each other in a maze-like setting.

Gran Trak 10 (1974, Atari)

Around the same time, another branch of gaming was developing that would end up seeding subsequent generations of maze games. Gran Trak 10, yet another Atari product, was the first overhead racing game.  Released in 1974, a single player used a steering wheel and pedals to navigate a race track with many twists and turns.  It was a big success at the arcades, though Atari incorrectly calculated the initial cost of production and ended up a loser on the bottom line.  

Throughout the rest of the decade, Atari (and Kee Games) produced a slew of similar overhead racing games, including Sprint, LeMans, Formula K, Twin Racer, and the one shown below, called Indy 4.  

A looping animation from the 1976 arcade game, Indy 4, played on the DICE emulator.
The above clip is taken from playthrough with the DICE emulator, which can run some of the early arcade games that don't contain CPUs and therefore can't be played with MAME.

A track like the one shown above is a trivial maze in the sense that it lays out a path without branches.  However, later game developers would move the overhead racer to elaborate, maze-like courses with interleaving tracks, resulting in gameplay that more resembled a maze game than a racer.

The Amazing Maze (1976, Midway)

There are other ways to compete in a maze other than combat and racing.  In The Amazing Maze (1976), players were challenged to be the fastest to complete a maze, either competing against an AI or another player.  You're given five seconds to study the maze before a timer starts, at which point players and AI can start their trek through the maze.

Gameplay and sprites for the 1976 arcade game, the Amazing Maze.  Sprites shown are for the two players.

While the gameplay leaves a lot to be desired, the ability to randomly generate large mazes and navigate them with an AI was impressive for the time.  Maze-solving and maze-generation algorithms have been the subject of academic research since the 1800s, mostly in the context of graph theory, and a plethora of such algorithms were developed in the mid-20th century.  However, it's one thing to have an algorithm on paper, but it's another to efficiently implement it in assembly language on an 8080 microprocessor.  Early game developers often used idiosyncratic homebrew algorithms for generating mazes, so it's entirely possible that none of the well-known maze algorithms were used in the game.

There was a bit of a lull in arcade maze games in the mid-70s, but they would come roaring back in 1979, where I'll pick up again in the next part of this retrospective.