Review: Centipede (1982, Atari 2600) (1987, Atari 7800), Millipede (1984, Atari 2600)

The days of the trackball

Atari's Centipede (1981, Arcade) was among the most innovative and successful games to build upon the basic concepts of Space Invaders. The player moves a small ship around the bottom of the screen with the trackball, while using the fire button to shoot at waves of enemies approaching gradually from the top of the screen.

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But the enemies in Centipede do not simply move back and forth in rows like the aliens in Space Invaders. Instead, your adversaries are the individual body segments of the eponymous stomping creature. The pieces follow the centipede's head side to side through an ever-changing arrangement of mushrooms, advancing toward the player and reversing direction whenever a mushroom is touched. The centipede splits into two or more independently moving parts when the segment connecting them is destroyed.

Mushrooms block your shots, and must be shot several times in order to destroy them. They're also created whenever you destroy a centipede segment, or when certain other enemies move through the playfield.

The player's task is to destroy the entire centipede, while defending his/her ship against the onslaught of bugs. The bouncing spiders are most prominent, but the elusive Scorpions poison the mushrooms they touch—and poisoned mushrooms cause the centipede to rush straight for the bottom of the screen, complicating matters for the player's ship!

This interaction of the centipede's dumb logic with the constantly changing layout of the mushroom patch results in enormous gameplay variety, and constitutes the chief innovation of Centipede over Space Invaders. Because the centipede's movements are more or less predictable based on the positions of the mushrooms, one learns to "read" the playfield and anticipate where the creature will move to next. This task becomes more complicated when the centipede has split into many parts, and when the player is also being pursued by the erratic spiders.

You can even create a sort of "tube" between two columns of mushrooms, and fire between them when the centipede becomes trapped. Done properly, this can quickly destroy several centipedes in a row.

I'll now consider three different home versions of Centipede to see how they stack up in terms of playability and fun.

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Centipede (1982, Atari 2600)

I never played the arcade version of Centipede more than a handful of times—by the time I was tall enough to play stand-up arcade cabinets, the arcades themselves had largely gone out of style. But the Atari 2600 home version of Centipede was a childhood favorite of mine.

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The title screen features a dancing rainbow-colored centipede and attractively shaded purple mushrooms, but the in-game graphics are extremely simple. The player, the mushrooms, and centipede pieces are just colored blobs. The spiders and other enemies show a bit more detail, though. A gradually changing color palette spices things up too.

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While a joystick isn't quite as good as a true analog trackball for this type of game, 2600 Centipede still controls well. The gameplay is fast and engaging. It seems easier to make the aforementioned "mushroom tube" in this version of the game, too.

The 2600 sound chip performs well, with distinct sound effects signalling the presence of each enemy and bullet, as well as the ominous thumping sound of the centipede's feet. The rat-a-tat of your gun and the "pop" sound the centipedes make when you explode them are highly satisfying.

Technical issues do mar the experience somewhat. The flickering common to many Atari 2600 games is a problem here, as it can interfere with visibility of enemies on the lower part of the screen—just when you are trying to avoid them most. This can lead to accidental deaths, especially when combined with the jerky movement of certain enemies. Furthermore, there's no way to tell how many more shots a mushroom will take before being destroyed—they're rendered as a little rectangle no matter what.

Centipede (1987, Atari 7800)

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The Atari 7800 version of Centipede is more polished and well-rounded, with a finer selection of difficulty levels and several multiplayer modes. The sound and graphics are greatly improved over the 2600 version. The mushrooms are nicely detailed, and break up progressively when shot; the centipede's body segments even have animated legs! And the stomping sound is fantastic.

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In the midst of all the chaos a good game of Centipede can unleash, there is no flicker whatsoever in the 7800 version, and all the enemies move very smoothly. This remedies the main problem with the 2600 version and makes 7800 Centipede one of the best games for the system.

The co-op mode lets you take two ships simultaneously into the mushroom patch, controlled by you and a friend. Your ships will obstruct one another's movement, so you have to be careful not to get jammed up as you fight together against the centipedes. It's great fun.

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Millipede (1984, Atari 2600)

Atari's Millipede represents a further logical development of Centipede. Rather than alter the base mechanics of moving and shooting, Atari have added new enemies and more interactivity to the playfield itself.

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The poisoned mushrooms from Centipede make a return here, accompanied by new elements like randomly-placed stationary DDT bombs (the explosion can destroy an entire centipede if timed correctly.)

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When destroyed, Mosquitoes and Beetles cause the mushroom patch to scroll up or down (respectively) and this will either relieve (or worsen) mushroom congestion in the player's movement area. Periodically there will be an assault wave of twenty or more flying enemies, and at times the game seems to go wild.

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The result is a manic shooter with a bit more strategy than Centipede; now there are things you don't want to shoot, and because more enemies will tend to invade the player's movement area at the bottom of the screen, the player must balance offensive and defensive play more equally than before.

Millipede is a lot of fun, and makes a good showing against the 2600 version of Centipede. It's occasionally a bit too chaotic, and suffers from the same flickering issues as Centipede, but the additional strategy elements are a breath of fresh air. Millipede makes a great companion to 7800 Centipede in any retro collection.

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Author: David O'Toole

Created: 2017-03-21 Tue 17:38

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