The Beginnings of Arcade Game Mazes, Part 2

In part 1, I talked about the use of mazes in the earliest arcade games, with the first coming out only a year after Pong.  After this first wave, however, arcade maze games didn’t advance very much until 1979.  When the breakthrough came, it was in the form of a twist on the overhead racer.  In this innovative game, the player tries to avoid colliding with other cars rather than racing against them. The game is titled, appropriately, Head On.

Head On (1979, Sega)

Gameplay and sprites for the 1979 arcade game, Head On.  The sprites shown are the cars and the bezel title.

Head On was developed by Sega and is generally credited to them as an original game, but at least one source attributes the idea for the game to an Atari concept, called Dodgem, developed in 1978. I have never found any evidence for the existence of such a game in Atari’s arcade catalog (there is a VCS cartridge by that title), so I’m inclined to believe the Sega developer, Lane Hauk, when he says that Head On was an original idea. 

The playing field is laid out in a series of nested square tracks, where cars can change between the tracks only at four distinct locations. The idea is that once you have committed to a particular lane, you cannot escape it until the next junction, so if the computer has maneuvered into the same lane segment before you leave it, a collision will occur.  This design was ideal for early arcade hardware because the logic needed for the AI was relatively simple. The computer merely takes every opportunity to enter the lane that you are already in.  The computer is limited somewhat in the early levels, only changing one lane at a time, and the number of computer opponents increases with level.

Head On is easy to learn but difficult to master – ideal for an arcade game. It is also notable for introducing the concept of collecting pellets. By forcing the player to collect all of the pellets, you also force them to explore the entire maze, maximizing the variety of player-computer interactions that can occur in a given level.

Complete playthrough of the arcade game, Head On (1979), sped up to 5x.
Complete playthrough of a stage of Head On, sped up to 5x.

The game was incredibly popular, and led to a wide range of clones and imitators.  Here are some of the most interesting.

Safari Rally (1979, SNK)

Gameplay and sprites for the 1979 arcade game, Safari Rally.  The sprites shown are the snake, lion, and the splash screen title.

Safari Rally was either released in the same year as Head On, or possibly the following year, 1980.  Rather than a square track, Safari Rally places the player within a series of looping vertical lanes. The design is even more similar to Head On than it might appear at first, because a looping vertical lane is functionally equivalent to a square lane, it just lays out differently on the monitor.  It has the same number of lane segments in a given lane, as well as the same number of locations where you can switch between lanes.  The only difference, from the standpoint of the gameplay, is that the lanes are all the same length in Safari Rally, whereas in Head On, different lanes take different amounts of time to traverse. 

There are a few wildcards thrown in to Safari Rally that do distinguish it from its cousin. The most obvious are the lions and snakes that sporadically cross the track. Oddly enough, the player is actually given a point reward for direct collisions with the animals, though the most useful function of the animals is to stop the computer player for a brief period when they cross its path.  On occasion you will also see rocks pop up between the lanes. Again, the player is incentivized to collide with these rocks, not because they get a point bonus but because the collision causes them to spin out into another lane, usually adding to the distance between player and computer.

Complete playthrough of the arcade game, Safari Rally (1979), sped up to 4x.
Complete playthrough of a stage of Safari Rally, sped up to 4x.

I wouldn't bicker with anyone who wanted to call Safari Rally a Head On clone. I did find it more difficult than it’s cousin (there are more lanes to clear) and I enjoyed the variety that was added by the rocks and animals, but the experience was not fundamentally different from playing Head On.

Side Trak (1979, Exidy)

Gameplay for the 1979 arcade game, Side Trak, including a zoomed-in overlay with the bezel title.

Side Trak is the boldest of the experiments with the Head On formula.  Here, the player is challenged to navigate the entirety of a two dimensional train track with frequent intersections between tracks. At every intersection, the player has the option to continue along the track as it is or to change its direction.  

To say that the resulting playing field is complex would be a massive understatement — the player and computer are actively changing the maze with every turn! The learning curve for side track is very steep, as you'll find that even small adjustments in the initial geometry of the track can send you off on a course that is too complex to anticipate. I found that the most successful strategy for traversing the track was to attempt to stay in a single lane (i.e., one of the nested squares) for as long as possible and keeping it as straight as possible until you were forced to make a change.  The hardest area to clear safely is the central track because a single circuit around it goes so quickly that it is difficult to adjust your course in a predictable way.  

As if the game weren’t hard enough, the developers of Side Trak made several particularly cruel design decisions. First, the playing field resets between lives, meaning that any progress you make on a given attempt is erased if you did not finish the stage.  This is downright excruciating after you've spent several minutes avoiding close calls against the computer, only to have it reset when you make a single slip-up.  To make things even worse, every other stage is a "bonus" stage where play accelerates to 5x speed. This might be a fun addition if it were just for bonus points, but a lost life here is the same as a lost life at normal speed, meaning that the player is just out of luck if they can’t perform the near-impossible task of completing a full stage at 5x speed.

Complete playthrough of the arcade game, Side Trak (1979), sped up to 6x.
Complete playthrough of a stage of Side Trak, sped up to 6x.

Side Trak
is scarce among collectors, suggesting that it was not very successful.  Given the steep learning curve and overall cruelty towards the player, I don't find this surprising at all.

Space Chaser (1979, Taito)

The influence of Head On went beyond its titular concept of head-on collisions.  In Space Chaser, the playing field is laid out in a similar way to the original Head On, but this time, the computer can come at you from any direction.  I'm not aware of any direct connection between Space Chaser and Pac-Man -- the development of the latter certainly predates Space Chaser's release -- but the similarities in the gameplay are hard to deny.

Gameplay and sprites for the 1979 arcade game, Space Chaser.  The sprites shown are the player and computer spaceships and bezel title..

Of course, the AI is not nearly as clever in Space Chaser as in Pac-Man.  The pink rocket-like pursuer merely follows the player around at a lower speed for most of the stage, and the white ones seem to just wander the maze randomly. The pink enemy does speed up at the end of the stage, forcing you to think carefully about which pellets you collect last. I found that it was best to clear out the center of the maze first, because at the end of the level the increased speed of the enemy made it impossible to make a lot of turns without getting pulverized. As the stages progress more enemies are added and special portions of the maze appear where the enemy can increase its speed. 

However many similarities there are between the design of Space Chaser and Pac-Man, there is a huge gulf in quality between the two games. Turning your vehicle is slow and awkward, and the simplicity of the AI forces the player into a static strategy that only lends itself to a small amount of variation as the number and intelligence of the enemies increases.

Complete playthrough of the arcade game, Space Chaser (1979), sped up to 8x.
Complete playthrough of a stage of Space Chaser, sped up to 8x.

All things considered, however, it is remarkable to see how quickly the arcade landscape cleared a path from the primitive arcade mazes of the early 70s to the Pac-Man style of maze game that would proliferate in arcades in the early 80s.  I've already spent some time on Pac-Man on the Retrogame Deconstruction Zone, so I won't dwell on it any further here, but it will no doubt continue to feature prominently as I venture further into 1981 and beyond.