Yes, yet another Activision versus Atari blog entry!
I read DoctorSpud's recently on Robot Tank and it reminded me of how this was Activision's version of Battlezone. DoctorSpud also made a comparison of how Enduro was their take on Pole Position. So I started thinking of how many times that happened. Most of us know of the lawsuit that Atari initiated against Activision and we also know that Imagic was sued over Demon Attack being close to Phoenix. I get it, they paid top dollar for a license of an arcade game and someone does a knock-off on their platform. We also have to consider where the limits are. Is every maze game a rip-off of Pac-Man?
Video Checkers (Atari, 1980) vs Checkers (Activision, 1980)
These games were even lame when they first released. Who went to the department store or TV place to buy a game and came out with Checkers? I doubt either decided to rip the other off. Checkers falls in between tic-tac-toe and the much more complex chess. It seems like someone's initiation on basic graphics, stored data in arrays, and some basic AI. Video Checkers was done by Carol Shaw who as everyone knows did the amazing River Raid and spanned the vertical scroller genre.
Verdict: Doubtful. A common game and not really a best seller for either company.
Tennis (Activision, 1981) vs Realsports Tennis (Atari, 1983)
Activision's Tennis is one of the most fun sports games on the 2600. Simple control and a good AI. Atari decided to re-do all their sports games properly with the Realsports series. Tennis was bound to be picked since it would be easier to implement a two character game and keep it pretty authentic.
Verdict: Doubtful. Atari certainly decided to do a better tennis game but the enhancements are big enough to dispute. As far as, game mechanics goes, the principles are the same but the game is not original and can only be done in a certain way.
Pole Position (Atari, 1983) vs Enduro (Activision, 1983)
Two great games. The Namco arcade game was massive and the Atari licensed version was pretty good all things considered. A good seller and very common, capturing the essence and play mechanics very well. Enduro is also an amazing game and brings up some original items. The typical scoring system implemented in most games especially Atari arcade ones, is implemented in Enduro instead as trying to last as long in the 5 day race.
Verdict: Inspired. Enduro borrowed enough from Pole Position (and possibly other games) to generate its own version but game play and objectives is different enough.
Star Raiders (Atari, 1982) vs Starmaster (Activision, 1982)
In the beginning of the video and arcade game industry, there were only so many ideas around. At the end of the day, you can only show a starship's view with a cross hair and stars in the background. These two came out in the same year, but it's certain that the 8-bit computer version Star Raiders had been seen by Alan Miller (especially since he was a former Atari employee himself).
Verdict: Inspired. Many, many similarities but it's unlikely that Starmaster was created based on Atari's 2600 version, most likely that was the Atari 400/800 version.
Space Invaders (Atari, 1978) vs Megamania (Activision, 1982)
Space Invaders was really the most important shoot-em up at the time and what made a lot of people buy the 2600 to begin with, probably their best value from the license obtained from Taito. Megamania was one of the few shoot-em ups from Activision and really the only one that matches that genre the best.
Verdict: Inspired. Megamania added a new elements such as varied enemy movement, enemy types and the energy bar to be different enough. The 3-4 years was a long enough to allow Atari to profit significantly.
Decathlon (Activision, 1983) vs Track & Field (Atari, 1983)
Two games released in time to cash into the Los Angeles 1984 Olympics. Lots of events to add some variety and the skill level centred around your ability to wiggle (or bash buttons) quickly. I mentioned it many times, I love T&F and which is why I love Decathlon.
Verdict: Coincidence. Decathlon was released in March 1983 which means it would have started development in early or mid 1982. T&F made it to stores for Xmas 1983 and the arcade version was available earlier in the same year only. Chances are both games were developed in parallel.
Defender (Atari, 1981) vs Chopper Command (Activision, 1982)
I think we can all agree that CC is the vastly superior game of these two. Atari could not have been too pleased when this came out after licensing Defender from Williams. This one of the games when I realized as a kid that these companies were copying each other.
Verdict: Ripped off. And we're much better for it since CC plays much better and is visually stunning. Gameplay is just too similar for it to be a coincidence.
Battlezone (Atari, 1983) vs Robot Tank (Activision, 1983)
Two tank games released at the same time. Battlezone had been doing its rounds in the arcade and was quite popular there. Such a unique scenario and such a similar execution. One could argue that a 1st-person Combat game could only be done in one way really.
Verdict: Ripped off. RT actually exceeds Battlezone in terms of gameplay, and it seems obvious that both came from the arcade version.
I can't fault Activision for trying to do a type of game better if they had the ideas and more importantly the ability to execute. I'm very happy that all these titles exist and that both companies defined how games should be done and laid the foundation of everything else that came after. If you come up with an original idea like Warlords, River Raid, Adventure, Pitfall, Yar's Revenge, or Keystone Kapers once in your life, then you have accomplished something very special.