Centipede (1980)

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“I’m afraid of coaching, of writer’s classes, of writer’s magazines, of books on how to write. They give me centipede trouble – you know the yarn about the centipede who was asked how he managed all his feet? He tried to answer, stopped to think about it, and was never able to walk another step.”
-Robert A. Heinlein

 

 

You know what? Screw centipedes. Don’t give me that “Oh but they’re part of the circle of life, Red…” No, they’re not. They’re monsters.

I hate ’em. You’d probably hate them too if you were bitten by one as a child. I was just minding my own innocent business watering the orchids when a blue one crawled up my leg and bit me on the inner thigh. It felt exactly like you’d imagine it’d feel like: hideous, screaming pain. My leg swelled up like a watermelon.

A horrific experience that gave me a heavy dose of entomophobia but the incident also made me love the arcade classic Centipede. Why? Because it’s a game about shooting centipedes to death. In my lifetime I’ve cut them in half, smashed them under boots, throw them into campfires, and I even tried to drown one but nothing beats blasting them apart with 8-bit lasers.

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Centipede, in case you don’t know, is a vertical non-scrolling shooter pitting a tiny fighter against an army of bugs. Centipede was developed by Atari, proving Atari can actually do something right for once, and it has seen numerous ports over the decades since its inception. Just avoid the 2600 version like you would real centipedes. It has almost zero resemblance to the original.centipede2600screenThis arcade classic is notable for several reasons. It was developed by an Ed Logg and Dona Bailey, making Centipede one of the very first games to be developed (at least in part) by a female programmer. Bailey was actually the only woman in Atari’s arcade division, both at the start and at the end of her career in that area. I think that her involvement comes across in Centipede’s stylishness. The game was also a marked difference from the space shooters typical of that time, exchanging the macro-universe for the micro. She helped prove early on that video games could be anything.

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Video games can be anything, even a way to injure your spine if you play them with this posture.

Centipede is certainly an iconic arcade game from the early 80’s, when arcades covered the face of the land like so much acne. That slick retro art is the perfect example of the style of that decade, as well. But it is also just a lot of fun to play. You know how some of them just seem like coin-eaters? Centipede honors the formula of classic arcade games without being too difficult or too incomprehensible.1.pngPlaying the game on the original cabinet, you’ve only got one button to shoot with. Easy enough. The cabinet also had a built in trackball. Imagine a cue ball from billiards sunken down into the front of the machine, facing up. With your palm spinning the track ball, you could move your player character in any direction and at various speeds while playing the game. That’s different.

Honestly, I miss the trackball. It’s been a while since I’ve actually seen a Centipede arcade cabinet. I’ve recently enjoyed playing the excellent port in the Atari Flashback Classics vol.1 on PS4, but the left joystick (or conversely the d-pad) just can’t capture that same tangible sensation.

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I suppose no home console can ever really fully emulate what it was like to be in an arcade surrounded by all those glittering lights and digital sounds, well-worn, time-proven hardware under your grasp.

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You play the part of what looks like a minuscule spaceship at the bottom of the screen. In the artwork of Centipede’s sequel, Millipede, some kind of elfin archer is depicted. Maybe that’s what the tiny sprite is. But then why does it make a laser-beam sound when shooting? Who knows.

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The game is played in successive stages where the objective is to defeated a segmented centipede which appears at the top of the screen and slowly marches toward the bottom where the player resides. Shooting any middle segment of the centipede will cause it to split into a second centipede. The monster moves horizontally until it hits either the edge of the screen or a mushroom, in which case it takes one step down and resumes its horizontal path until it reaches another obstruction. The centipede gets faster and faster as the stages wear on.

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There are other bad bugs out to get you. This game will make you hate spiders even more than you most likely already do. The spiders will appear randomly from the sides of the screen and then move across your movement area in an unpredictable, zig-zagging fashion. Spiders also get much faster as you advance through the stages, so I’ve found the best place for me to leave my character is in the center of the screen away from the edges.

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Fleas fall vertically downward from the top of the screen in a straight line, creating more mushrooms in their wake. The fleas can be easily avoided or shot but the mushrooms they leave behind just make it easier for the centipede to reach the bottom of the screen. Mushrooms themselves can be destroyed with your laser or spiders will sometimes eat them.

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A final enemy, the scorpion, travels horizontally across the middle of the screen. It’s beyond your range of movement so it can’t directly hurt you. However, it will turn the mushrooms it contacts a different color, “poisoning’ them. Any time the centipede touches a poisoned mushroom, it will make a headlong dive toward the bottom of the screen, so it’s best to take down scorpions as quickly as possible.

The extra points from blowing up scorpions, spiders, and fleas besides of course the big bad centipede are essential, since you earn an extra life for collecting so many points. Beyond that, the game is endless so far as I know. I haven’t exactly reached that magic number of 255, but I can attest to the difficulty really ramping up quite quickly.2.png
Centipede is still on the pop culture radar today. The segmented beast appeared in a certain movie we do not speak of starring Adam Sandler’s dead career. Also, Atari announced a while back that Centipede and Missile Command are supposed to be developed into feature films. However, this might just be another typical example of Atari baloney. IMDb shows no such movie is in the works. Maybe they realized that a gnome blasting lasers at a giant centipede is a dumb idea.

The game itself is gold, though. You can take out your frustrations on the insect world with Centipede. Not only are real life centipedes vicious killers, they’re also walking bundles of lies. Did you know they don’t actually have a hundred legs? I want a refund.

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Here’s a picture you didn’t want to see. Now your neck is itchy.

 

 

The 8-bit Review
visual Visuals: 7/10
The graphics of Centipede were meant to be visually arresting. Two thoughts here. The artwork emblazoned on the side of the cabinet was always visually arresting. As a kid, I thought that was what real centipedes really looked like. Since I didn’t want to look at any one of the fiends close enough in real life, the fanged, bug-eyed, crab-clawed, serpentine alien of Centipede filled that empty socket in my childhood entomology.

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The original art is also undeniably cooler than this home version cover art…

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How could DC Comics ever approve of this?

Even though this delightfully dated art was something outside of the actual game, it was immediately enticing. I can remember vividly that the neon colors made me want to deposit my precious coins and playing Centipede for the first time, I was indeed arrested by its visuals. I thought (and still do think) that the constantly changing roster of colors between the stages is hyper-rad. Hyper Light Drifter rad. I’m glad some newer games are hearkening back to these delicious colors.

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audio Audio: 3/10
There is no music in Centipede, unless you could the brief jangle which plays when you earn an extra life. Everything else is sound effects: the pew-pew of your laser beams, the thrum of the centipede’s march, the squiggly noise of the spider’s legs, the descending sound of the flea, and the fanfare of the scorpion appearing. And that’s it. Not very robust and audio in gaming has come a long way since 1980 and Atari’s lack of quality control but trust me, this is much better than a lot of what contemporaries of Centipede offered.

You can hear all of the awesome vintage sound effects below:


gameplay Gameplay: 
7/10
I really like games like this with their simple direction, drive and controls. They don’t muck about with too many variables or narrative or gimmicks and over-complicate things. I think that’s why they were so successful. There aren’t even any powers ups of any kind in Centipede. Plus there’s some innate need in us to shoot monsters and that’s all this game is about.

accessibility Accessibility: 10/10
One button and movement. That’s it. Doesn’t get much simpler than that. Everything else you can figure out. Probably the most confusing thing you could encounter in Centipede is the scorpion poisoning the mushrooms, causing the centipede’s death-dive. Still, even that’s causation which isn’t not to difficult to see.5.pngdiff Challenge: 9/10
This is the balance which made arcade games great. They took an irreducibly complex system of gameplay and then steadily amped up the difficulty using only small tweaks. In the case of Centipede, that means making the bugs move faster. Yeah, there’ll be more mushrooms but you can destroy those, and the bugs still only always take one hit to kill. Instead of adding more rules, Centipede adds more demand upon basic human skill, timing, reflexes, foresight, and pattern-recognition.

replay Replayability: 10/10
Highly addicting gameplay was the word of the day for arcade games. Why would anyone spend their quarters on a game if it wasn’t fun to play and it didn’t make you want to come back for more? Centipede is no exception to the arcade platitude of addicting gameplay. Having a points system makes every round of Centipede easily quantifiable and comparable to the runs you’ve made before. Topping your best score isn’t exactly a modern philosophy for video games any more, but that doesn’t make Centipede any less replayable today.

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unique Uniqueness: 7/10497e9ddbfad5dbcb9aa3f623ca75da1b
One of the first games developed by a woman and one which helped shift the narrative away from space shooters and racers, Centipede is memorable and has largely endured the test of time. Every once in a while I get the question whether a certain “retro” game is still just as good as it was twenty or thirty years ago. In a lot of ways I think that arcade games are some of the best-enduring classics, and Centipede is one of the funnest of them all.

pgrade My Personal Grade: 9/10
Centipede is one of the cabinets I look for first in arcades, if there were still any arcades around. This is one of my favorite arcade games, and I’ve played more than several. I personally find it more enjoyable to play than Pac-Man, though it is just as addicting. Less a relic and more a portal back through time, Centipede doesn’t belong in a museum. It belongs on as many systems as possible in as many ports as possible, to be enjoyed for future posterity. I already plan this to be one of my sons’ first video games they get to play on their own. That’ll give them the skills and reflexes they need to fight back the nightmarishness of our modern corporate society!

Centipede was a game I became so familiar with, playing at least once upon every trip to Tilt, Fun Factory, or Show Biz (progenitor of Chuck E. Cheese), that it was one of the earliest games I can remember being comforting and calming. That familiarity had an early soothing effect on me, like seeing a good friend again. Weird? Or have you ever had a set of video games you liked so much that they gave you the same feeling?

This was the only time in my life I enjoyed seeing centipedes. Good job, Atari!

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Aggregated Score: 7.8

 

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31 thoughts on “Centipede (1980)

  1. Ugh that picture. I’m not a fan of insects in general and am very happy I have extremely diligent cats whom while seemingly lazy will seek and destroy any creepy crawlies. I actually don’t think centipedes are technically insects either! Since they have more than six legs, and six is the limit for that qualification. However, just looking at pictures of many legged creatures gives me the willies. I can feel them crawling on me and blech D:

    As for the game, that was a staple of my childhood!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Awesome review of an arcade classic! I’m not that big a fan of this game, but I don’t like arcade games in general. As far as cabinets go though, Centipede is one of the more entertaining ones. It gets so hectic when the Centipede gets faster. Hmm, ouch. Why does my neck suddenly feel so itchy…?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha sorry about the pic of the real centipede. Those always give me the heebeejeebs. I’m somewhat surprise to discover you don’t like arcade games in general. I don’t know who you are anymore! Jk, so why is that the case? What is your favorite arcade game, if you have one? It isn’t overlooked by me that you did say this is a classic, on which we both agree. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah, there needs to be some NSFW warning for the centipede picture. Or a NSFL warning. Not Safe For Life.

        I don’t like arcade games because I play games to beat/complete them. Generally, arcade games don’t offer that besides beat-em-ups or Gauntlet games. I’ve played them and like the feeling of being at arcades and playing them. But generally, I don’t get into them much, haha. That said, this is probably cheating, but I enjoy the Mario Kart DX and Luigi’s Mansion Arcade games. If we’re talking about REAL classic arcade games, I like the Simpsons Arcade Game. I love the show, and it was always one of the games I loved playing when I found it in the arcades. I also like Donkey Kong and Pac-Man, of course, but I get fatigued since the games don’t really go anywhere after a while. So yes, I respect classic arcade games, but I much prefer the home video game that has tangible goals. I guess that’s also why I vastly prefer single-player to multiplayer gaming.

        Liked by 1 person

        • NSFS, not safe for sanity. I hate centipedes, obvs.

          Ah I see that from the angle of the completionist why arcade games would be disliked. Due, that Simpsons arcade game is legendary. So sad I missed it during the window of time it was on PSN.

          I also prefer solo player games, so we’re still on the same page (tongue in cheek sigh of relief) but it’s time for my confession. I’ve actually never played the original Donkey Kong. o_O

          Liked by 1 person

          • I missed the window for the Simpsons Arcade game too! So sad!

            Also, you haven’t played the original Donkey Kong, you say? Hmm… Sounds like we may have to see a Donkey Kong review from you next. 😉

            Liked by 1 person

            • It is sad! Sadder still was the fact that I had planned a Father’s Day weekend with my dad where we could have time to sit down and play through the Simpsons arcade game together, but when I went to download it day-of it was missing. We ended up just watching a stupid movie and he fell asleep. So thanks, Konami, forever ruining my relationship with my dad.

              I’d love to play DK, but I’m not sure how to get a decent, accurate port of it. Right now I’ve got a SNES, N64, Wii, PS2, 3, 4, Atari 2600, NES, 3DS, and Xbox 360 so are there any good options among those? It’s not like I’ve scoured for digi-downloads or anything.

              Liked by 1 person

  3. Many a blister on the palm of my hand from that game. And you don’t know pain until your focused so intently on the screen you don’t realize it about to break.

    I loved it because there was no pattern. Much like Robotron 2084. It changed based on what you did. Good memories.

    Liked by 1 person

    • To compare Centipede to another arcade legend from recent memory, Pac-Man, it’s interesting to note the difference between the former’s random and pre-set enemy movements and the latter’s enemy “behavior”. Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

        • Yeah, video games really haven’t been around that long. I’m playing FFXV right now and it’s astounding how much the industry has changed. In many ways, I think something like Centipede offers more immediate fun as FFXV is kind of a drag at some points and DLC and fetch quests are no bueno, either, but it provides much more depth than Centipede, of course. I’m glad that these old games exist and they’re still so easy to pick up and play on tons of different systems.

          Liked by 1 person

          • It was the glory days of gaming. Or at least for me. Being a teenager with a car. I had skill back in the day. Back when you had to make that quarter last, or you went home. I can only imagine what teens today will see when they are my age. Or even what I might when I’m in my 80’s.

            Liked by 1 person

            • The future of gaming has always seemed hard to predict, and many seem to have guessed wrong, but with handhelds becoming a rarity besides Nintendo’s Switch for the next generation, I’d say we’re going to see a large step toward mobile gaming on cellphones and accompanying VR, for better or worse.

              Liked by 1 person

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