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As far as I'm concerned, Tempest is the best arcade game ever.

I'm not certain where I first played it, but I have a good guess. When we (my parents' family) originally moved to Boulder, back in 1978, there used to be movies at the planetarium. I remember seeing Attack of the Killer Tomatoes there, and maybe also The Blob. Anyway, when we'd go, we'd go out and get dinner first, usually at this little falafel shop nearby. To me it was a mysterious and exotic place … narrow, not well lit, down in the part of town where all the college students hung out, and of course it had all these strange foods I'd never heard of. And, connected to it, and even less well lit, was a little arcade. You can guess the rest. I saw the game, with its crisp graphics, simple controls, and slanted case that encouraged you to lean into it, and no doubt bugged my parents until they gave me some quarters.

After that, I played it at just about every opportunity. But, as the years passed, the opportunities became fewer and fewer, until finally I couldn't find the game anywhere. So, that was the end of that. There were versions for computers, even for the Apple II, but none of them came close to the original … none, that is, until just a few years ago, when an official conversion was released for the PC. Since then, I have been playing again, and having a wonderful time. The conversion has the same problem all the others had, that there's nothing quite like a knob control, but it does a good job of making the game playable with a mouse. And, if you're interested, I think it is still available at discount bins everywhere.

How playable is the conversion? On the arcade game, I could get to somewhere in the first few black levels; now, on the conversion, I can do slightly better, and get to level 70 (the sixth black level). So, the mouse control is not exactly holding me back. Actually, I suspect it is holding me back just a little … in general, when I go back to a game after a long period of time, I can do a lot better than before, and here I'd expect to do even better than that, because I have learned so many new things. Anyway, it's a good conversion, I have no complaints.

That's with the default settings, by the way. With the easiest settings (minimum difficulty, maximum lives, and a bonus life every 10,000 points) I've been able to get to level 91 and score 1,008,068 points.

I'm not sure why Tempest is so appealing to me. I certainly like that it's abstract. There are no street gangs, or sports cars, or whatnot, nothing that connects to the real world. I guess you could say it's symbolic, or even mathematical.

I also like that it messes with my perception of time. If you've been playing on a high level, and go back to a low one, it is an amazing experience—exactly like bullet time in The Matrix, but real. It's also a lot like the experience of driving at 80 mph and then having to slow down to 55, but better, because you're less limited by mass and inertia.

I used to think of Tempest as a pure test of reflexes, but nowadays I'm not so sure that's true. Reflexes figure into it, of course, but so do ideas, and that's a good thing. I've pretty well exhausted what I can do with reflexes, but I think there may still be a few diminishing returns to be gained with ideas, maybe even enough to get me to level 99 one day.

A few months ago, I got it into my head that I should write down everything I know about Tempest, and that's what I've tried to do here. Actually, that's not true. I've left out some things that don't interest me, like the rules for scoring, and some things that are hard to describe, like the nice vector font. But, everything I know about playing the game is here.

It is amazing how much there is to know about this simple, abstract game.



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@ June (2003)