This Week in Gaming History: Centipede makes money and headlines0 Comments
Atari's Centipede first blasted into arcades in June 1981. Featuring a small trackball controller, colorful graphics and distinct sounds, this bug blasting game stood out in even the most crowded of arcades. While it never quite reached the same level of success as Pac-Man or Defender, Centipede was a fixture in almost every arcade and street location out there for a number of years. But as popular as it was on-screen, the game was almost as popular in the media for reasons unrelated to spiders and mushrooms.
Dona Bailey, who worked on the game along with Atari's Ed Logg, gained almost as many headlines as the game itself. She stood out as one of the few women video game programmers, and the press ate it up. Coming from General Motors, where she'd worked on the then state-of-the-art computer system in the 1981 Cadillac Seville, Bailey became one of video gaming's earliest celebrities. It was rare back then for any video game programmer or designer to appear in the press, as most video game companies did all they could to keep their creators behind the scenes. 1982 book The Winner's Book of Video Games by Craig Kubey kicked off the chapter on Centipede by talking about Bailey rather than the game.
Bailey worked for Atari for nearly two-and-a-half years before moving on to other things. As the industry continued to develop, her story was seemingly forgotten until recent years. Now, with the identities and faces of video game programmers out of the shadows, Bailey has been the subject of historical stories, interviews and speaking engagements as an industry pioneer. She has also been interviewed for World 1-1, a recent video game documentary about the early days of Atari and the industry.
Centipede also gained headlines for being the focus of what might be the most notorious early competitive gaming event in history. Tournament Games International, a company experienced in running foosball tournaments, hosted an event on Centipede in 1981. Few turned out to play, with some spending a great deal of money to travel to the event only to learn of a high entry fee and the requirement to use quarters in the machines to compete. Also unknown to players before the event was that the gameplay was timed, giving gamers only a few minutes to run up the highest scores they could. The event, won by Eric Ginner, also experienced funding problems. Checks to the winners bounced, eventually forcing Atari itself to step in and cover it in an effort to squash the negative publicity the event was causing.
Back in the arcade, Centipede continued to be in high demand by both players and arcade game operators. Atari went on to build and sell over 56,000 units of the arcade game, putting it just behind Asteroids as the best-selling arcade game in the history of the company. Along with Ms. Pac-Man and Galaga, it was also one of the few early 1980s arcade games to remain rather common in arcades and street locations for many years after release. Centipede was still commonly found in the wild until the 1990s, when the supply of original machines finally started to dry up.
In late 1982, Atari released Millipede, a faster and more challenging sequel to the game. While Atari was not a fan of creating sequels to their titles, Millipede was born in large part to help phase Centipede out of production. Ironically, the original game continued to hold popularity long after Millipede had come and gone.
Today, Centipede continues to stand out as one of the most memorable games from the first golden age of video games. It has made cameos in video game related films while standing out as a fixture in every Atari collection re-release made through the last several console generations. While it might not generate headlines like it used to, the colorful gameplay and challenge has endured and likely always will.