Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Rare Arcade Game that Beat Atari in Court Unearthed

Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 21, 2012

I’d never heard of the arcade game Meteors before. It’s hardly surprising – it sounds like the game had near zero distribution, but it does have the distinction of being the winner of a landmark legal decision in a lawsuit from Atari. The problem was… this was a game that, graphically at least… seems quite superior to Asteroids in the same era that Asteroids (and its sequel) were popular in arcades. The judge ruled that Atari could not “own” a genre of video games – in this case, the space ship shooting rocks “genre.” Good thing, too, or we wouldn’t have had Sinistar and many other games. Atari could not own the idea, only the implementation — and this game was not “substantially similar” enough to warrant infringement upon the implementation.

So that’s Meteors‘ claim to fame. Otherwise, it’s just a super-obscure, super-rare title.

But then there’s this video. Like most of us, Eric Holniker had never heard of Meteors, even though his father had been the one who made it and fought (and won) against Atari. After his father’s death last year, he discovered the cabinet – perhaps the only one remaining in existence – and decided to put it into the arcade / lan center that he runs in Maryland. And then he powered it up…

You can get some more more information at Ian Bogost’s site.

But there’s likely a little more to this story. Like what happened following the lawsuit.

While the game “Meteors” may have been super-rare, there’s at least one game that looks identical which was… well, okay, also pretty dang rare but not quite as rare as Meteors. The game is Meteoroids, by Venture Line, and I’ve had it in my MAME library for years. Think I only played it once before now, but on re-playing it, it looked identical in every way except for the title screen & sequence to the game featured in this video.

It’s a raster-based arcade game, as opposed to vector-based as was Asteroids, Asteroids Deluxe, and Atari’s next Asteroids-follow-up, Space Duel. Key gameplay differences as far as I have seen are that new meteors can appear in  in real-time as you play (at the beginning, it looks like), your bullets do not “wrap” to the other side of the screen (but everything else does), and as far as I can tell there’s no hyperspace button. Oh, and on the first “board” of asteroids – er, meteors… meteoroids… ok rocks – the medium-sized rocks are destroyed when you hit them, instead of breaking into small rocks.

If I were to venture a guess… Meteors was the prototype featured in the lawsuit. Following the lawsuit, Amusement World lacked the finances to really mass-produce the game, and then licensed it / sold it to Venture Line, who then rebranded it. The one in the video does not provide a copyright notice on the title screen, which suggests that it was only a prototype and not a production machine, and perhaps this was the intention all along.

Or there’s something incorrect in the above story, but I’ll assume it’s largely correct.

Anyway, it’s an interesting piece of history. It is not a major, earth-shattering discovery, nor an incredible gem of game design that was tragically lost. But the human element is what sets it apart.

Filed Under: Biz, Retro - Comments: 4 Comments to Read

  • Albert1 said,

    So you cannot claim to own a game genre.
    This, I suppose, applies also to tower-defense games.
    Am I wrong or years ago some company patented the tower defense concept. That patent is probably null, right?

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I hadn’t heard this, but I suppose it’s entirely possible. My trust in the U.S. patent office – particularly regarding software – isn’t particularly high, but if this is true it is not being enforced, and if they tried to enforce it, it’s quite likely that that the patent would be thrown out.

    But this was actually more a case of copyright – because back in 1980 you couldn’t patent software (something I wish hadn’t changed). There were some cases where clones could be in violation for infringement, but they had to substantially imitate the “look and feel” of their competitor.

  • Aelfric said,

    Let me say, I hate, hate, HATE the current United States intellectual property regime. I think it is FAR too favorable to entrenched interest holders, and not nearly deferential enough to the idea of the public domain. That being said–wow. “Meteors” is one instance where I would actually say Atari had a point. Nolan Bushnell must have needed some extra time in the hot tub after this one.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I agree, Aelfric, on both counts. 🙂 Then again, Bushnell kinda ripped off Pong, too. And Spacewar. Funny how so many companies fight so aggressively to prevent anybody else from doing to them what they did to others…

    (That being said, I’m still something of a Bushnell fan…)