Atari’s Space Lords: The “Best. Multiplayer. Game. Ever.” You’ve Never Played.

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).

(thanks, dbaker258!) 

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.

Thanks much to Atari, The Arcade Flyer Archive and most definitely,YouTube user dbaker 258 for the memories.

 

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21 thoughts on “Atari’s Space Lords: The “Best. Multiplayer. Game. Ever.” You’ve Never Played.

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  3. Thank you for the great write up! I have (2) spacelords cabs I am in process of reviving. Your article inspires me to see this project thru. Can’t wait to try this out linked multiplayer.
    Tom

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    • You’re welcome – if you get those both working, let me know and if possible post a video or two on YouTube. Atari has ignored this classic for far too long and it’s never been ported or emulated, so the more people who can see this in action, the merrier. I was lucky enough to play a full set with all live pilots and gunners and it was really something to see in public…

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  4. If you are in the SoCal area, I have (2) spacelords cabs that I plan on linking in the near future. I’m gambling the game is as good as I remember…they both need a little attention to become fully working.
    Tom

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    • Oh, I wish I lived out that way – I’d be there with a screwdriver and no clue what to do with it, though! When you get those cabinets up and running, a nice long YouTube post will be great, plus make sure to shoot what’s left of Atari an email to let them know that they really dropped the ball by never porting this or updating it as a modern console or PC game.

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  5. Absolutely fantastic game. Only got to play it on two occasions, though I emptied my pockets both times. If it’s ever financially viable I’m putting this in a home arcade between D&D: Tower of Terror and Lucky & Wild.

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  6. In Dallas we had FOUR cabinets linked for up to 8 players.
    I would mash my hand on the forward / reverse so hard that afterwards I would be shocked that I didn’t feel it (until the game was over).

    One thing about the Dallas machines was that the sound was absolutely fantastic.

    My favorite arcade game of all time.

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    • That four cabinet setup was around in at least one arcade in NYC’ Penn Station and it did draw quite the crowd. I recall one one of the quieter Saturday mornings when they opened, I came in to play and finally heard the game as it was meant to be heard. It was usually so crowded that all you heard were explosions over the din of other games. They eventually moved to the two cabinet setup because of space limitations and so many new machines coming in from old ones that were repaired to newer polygon entries. That and the arcade scene slowly drying up because rents were increasing and a bunch of those places disappeared as the 90’s marched onward didn’t help matters much.

      It’s too bad no one has revived this gem because it’s quite the experience and so easy to get into but tough to master without a lot of credits dropped mastering it.

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  7. This was my favorite post-golden-era game. The controls were fantastic for the time. I could really get into it. Are there any current games that you feel are comparable to Space Lords? I’d like to try re-capturing that fun, but I fear that any newer console game would have too much story and milestones to unlock. Probably because I’m a middle-aged first generation gamer, I really just want a game I can just start playing, and decide for myself whether I want to play for 10 minutes or 2 hours.

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    • You know… almost no one has truly captured the same pick up & play thrill despite SO many space combat games coming out since. I liked Colony Wars on the original Playstation quite a lot, but more recently, Everspace looks really cool: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G2Rf3aoJ6as

      As does Strike Suit Zero:

      But I need to try those out in a bit, as I’ve been a bit busy with too much other stuff to dip into this genre lately.

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  8. My friend… you are in luck. I had had some similar good memories and experiences with Space Lords, and I was thinking the other day of how much I missed this game. I know it hasn’t been emulated successfully, but every now and then I check MAME…

    BAM. It now works on MAME. The newest version of MAME which came out literally yesterday finally emulates this game properly. You can play it. Right now. I just did.

    YEAHHHHH!!!!!!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. My friends and I used to go to the arcade room every Saturday night just to play this game. We literally had hours and hours of fun playing this game. I did full speed and agility, 50% lazer and about 75% shield set up. The arcade room had the four player set up. This is the one game I will always remember.

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    • I’m glad more and more people remember this one! The 4-player setup was THE way to play, as 2 felt too easy and this game worked best with as many as possible at the controls. Yep, I used that same setup, too. 50/75 after a guy I played with recommended it.

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  10. The young kids still like playing as well. I have a Space Lords cabinet in my basement and whenever we have parties at the house, my kids and their friends enjoy it.

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  11. Space Lords was a big thing among the townies in Bloomington, Indiana back in ’93. We used to go for hours and hours head on and took great pride in being “the best.” We all used to play solo, but pay for the co-pilot thrust so we could move in a hurry. We all considered it weak to have an actual co-pilot; that’s how hard core we were. The local arcade had two of them linked up, so we would have four players going hard at the same time! What a great, great game. Probably my favorite arcade game of all time. Thanks for the trip down memory lane!

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    • The solo play was awesome (unless you ended up with a really ace player on the other cabinet who decided to let someone join as CP, boo!). Interestingly enough, there’s a remake of Star Raiders on PSN (PS3 only) that wasn’t so hot, but it tries hard to be a bit of that and SL (but doesn’t quite succeed).

      I know Atari (or the company that uses the name now) is trying to get a new digital-only console out at some point, but I’m not interested in it unless they’ve figured out how to get SL running. Probably won’t happen… but never say never, right?

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