As far as 1992 and parts of 1993 go, other than what games I played in the slowly dwindling arcade scene in New York City’s Penn Station, I don’t recall too many other great things happening in my life. Atari’s now mostly forgotten Space Lords was and is the key game that stands out for me for a few reasons, the primary one being the game was pretty innovative and another great example of the company making strides in “social” gaming long before it became the far bigger thing it is these days. Granted, arcade gaming has always been social (duh), but Atari really nailed it with a game that would do a number of things perfectly that modern gamers take for granted as “innovations” on consoles and PC.
Like 1985’s mega-hit Gauntlet seven years before, Space Lords was a game where anyone could step up to a machine plunk in some change and play with other live players of any skill level. The big differences were the seven years worth of technical improvements that made this an even more thrilling game experience than Gauntlet ever was (in my opinion). Between the dynamic outer space setting, first-person viewpoint, rear gunner co-op play and addition of two multiplayer-centric modes along with the ability for up to eight people to play on linked machines, Atari basically blasted out of the gate with a stellar game that managed to be as good as (or even better than) some later (and more famous) PC games that kicked of the first-person shooter craze that still spits out multimillion selling franchise titles from Halo, Call of Duty, and medal of Honor (among others).
Predating popular online shooters and action games, Space Lords also had a PvP mode, Melee, a Team/Versus mode that could be played solo, with a co-op partner and other live players against each other. AI bots, a ranking system based on the number of kills you made before getting shot down and an upgrade system (slightly similar to the perks in current shooters) where you could trade off weapon energy for extra hyperspace jumps or nuclear missiles all added to the fun. Granted, the game is more Colony Wars than CoD (and hell, it’s a shame we haven’t seen a Colony Wars reboot this console cycle), but it’s hard not to see it in action and think of SOME future game-makers working in a few genres taking inspiration from their own experiences with the machine.
As space-based shooters go, Space Lords was for its time an incredible-looking game that I think still holds up to this day. As you can see by the videos above and below, things move VERY fast during a session, meaning only the best pilots would succeed when the game got harder. Along with blasting enemies, snagging power-ups, using nukes and warping away from trouble at the right moments made for an exhilarating ride each time. I recall that playing solo was pretty easy against the AI for a few stages with the first three or four being a breeze before things got bumpy.The killer thing about the game was you HAD to finish Mission mode in order to enter your initials on the high score screen. Staying alive and ranking as high as possible was not only a goal players obsessed over, that ranking meant you were one of the best pilots in that faux galaxy Atari had created, period.
Probably the greatest thing about the game was the community element. Finding an arcade with a complete linked setup (four machines) and starting or joining a game then watching complete strangers start gawking then step up to drop in their coins and dive into the fray made for some great times. At the one arcade in Penn Station that started with the bigger linked cabinet setup, I remember there was a line to play the game that while not “long” by today’s movie line standards, was impressive to see for an arcade game. Trying to stay alive as long as possible on a single credit was key during peak hours, as was dropping by the arcade during off-peak times when there weren’t businessmen with suitcases dropping in before their train ride home or kids who were terrible at the game haggling with their moms for another dollar. A bad co-pilot could send your ranking down fast (as could warping into an asteroid during solo play), but back in the day I can recall a sense of etiquette more or less ruled a good arcade experience (at least in some cases). A lousy pilot would normally play until their ship got shot down, give a sheepish “oops!” or something and slink off to some easier game.
I spent a good chunk of time and money on Space Lords during 1992, but it was clear that the arcade scene was slowly but surely shrinking from where it was years earlier. I do remember dropping by the arcade to play the game during a cold Saturday to find it wasn’t there any longer and had been replaced by some machines I’ve long since forgotten. The last time I recall playing the game was sometime around 1993 or ’94 in a blazing hot Chicago when I was working as an usher for a circus (a long story I may get into one of these days). I had a day off and there was an arcade near the tent that drew my attention. Walking in and looking around, I spied a pair of the smaller Space Lords cabinets and a big grin spread over my face. Of course, just as I’m starting up a solo game, a few people joined in and I had a gunner I didn’t know helping me out against his two friends playing next to us. I know I was a bit rusty, but I think I did pretty good for playing with complete strangers…
So, what happened to Space Lords that it’s all but forgotten to all save those who own a machine today or remember playing it back in the day? My guess would be a few different things, none of them good for the game’s future status. From Atari’s fortunes changing for the worse in the 90’s as they struggled with the Lynx and then the Jaguar before dropping out of new hardware (and almost off the planet entirely) and finally, no one creating a home version of the game for consoles pretty much doomed it to relative obscurity. All that and it’s even worse for those into game preservation as historical importance as the game has yet to be successfully emulated. That means there aren’t a lot of people out there who can play this even if they wanted to. However, there may be some light at the end of the galaxy, provided enough interest is generated in reviving this classic for today’s gaming marketplace.
These days, Atari seems focused on remakes of its classic games and getting them out on tablets and mobile devices along with the occasional console and PC versions. Done right, Space Lords would be a perfect home as well as portable game as it fits all the right criteria in terms of accessibility, “retro” trendiness and that perfect blending of casual and core gameplay. It could also be a rebirth of the space shooter as a sub-genre if enough people play it and love it enough to want more. Sure, the 4X strategy crowd and those who crave “realistic” space combat simulations on PC may be annoyed (and hell, Star Wars fans will plotz because this would make a near-perfect license), but I’d bet real money that even the most hardcore sim fanatic would let his or her shields down and play this one to death time and time again.