Lost Arcade Classics


By Kyle Snyder <hojoarcade36 %at% yahoo %dot% com>
April 29, 2009

There is a famous saying… “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”. Initially penned by English author Charles Caleb Colton in the early 19th century, and repeated frequently ever since, the quote and its concept have become integral parts of our lexicon as a result.

For instance, you could say that…

Aaron Spelling’s “Dynasty” should have flattered “Dallas” creator David Jacobs. Both shows portrayed the drama and intrigue of ridiculously wealthy oil families, and both were wildly successful prime time soap operas.

Similarly, the guys from .38 Special should feel flattered that The Offspring’s 1999 modern rock hit “She’s Got Issues” comes across as a punkified rendition of their own ‘81 classic “Hold On Loosely”.

Of course, it’s highly unlikely that Colton could have foreseen prime-time soap operas, alternative pop punk, or for that matter, video games, much less this month’s Lost Arcade Classic subject, but nevertheless, his quote is clearly applicable here. Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce, Slither.

Slither is a shoot-em-up in which the player has to exterminate all the critters infesting a desert landscape, dotted with tufts of grass and a couple of large rock outcroppings.

To accomplish this task, the player mans a mobile “blaster”, which can fire either above or below, but never in both directions simultaneously. Dual sets of two fire buttons each (marked with an up arrow or a down arrow) are positioned to either side of a centrally located trackball.

Red racers, coachwhips, cobras, corals, kings and others populate this arid environment. Okay, perhaps that’s my overactive imagination talking there. These snakes are clearly rattlers, as evidenced by the little rattles on their tails, and a cool “rattling” audio effect heard throughout the game. Each successive attack wave brings forth snakes of a different color, in hues of blueish-grey, black, red, and purple.

When a snake contacts an obstacle, such as a clump of grass, a rock, or even another rattler, it turns at a right angle away from its prior heading. Occasionally, when space is tight, a snake will slither through grass instead of changing direction. If a section of the screen becomes particularly infested with serpents, those in the center of the mass will slow down, and the ones on the outer edges will quickly turn away to allow the group to dissipate. Rattlers never overlap their own bodies, nor do they overlap other snakes.

Blasting a snake in the middle of its body causes it to split into two smaller serpents, each as deadly as its “parent”. If the head or tail of a snake is blasted, the animal remains in one piece, yet gets a little shorter. Eventually it’ll be whittled down enough so that a final blast kills it for good.

Initially, snakes cruise the desert rather aimlessly, showing very little interest in the player. As his score increases, they begin to show more aggression, homing in on the blaster. When aggressive, the rattlers can climb over rocks and nearly double their speed. All serpents, no matter their length, color, or speed, are always deadly if they contact the player’s blaster.

A bonus timer at the top of the screen initiates the attack waves. If the player exterminates all the snakes in a wave before the bonus runs out, the next wave begins, and the remaining bonus points are added to the player’s score. However, if any snakes remain when the timer expires (counts down to zero), no bonus is awarded, the next wave of serpents joins those already on the screen, and the bonus clock begins anew.

The effect is that the player is under a continuous and relentless attack. The only break the player receives is during the few seconds following the blaster’s demise, when a jaunty jingle is played while the level restarts.

Now, although rattlers are the predominant inhabitants, two other species do exist in this desolate environment.

Pterodactyls fly over the sandy landscape in very erratic patterns. They enter either side of the screen on their way to the opposite edge, where they will exit if not blasted in the interim. Often these prehistoric avians will hover in one spot before rapidly dipping down into the lower reaches of the playfield (or alternately, climbing into the upper areas), catching the player completely unaware. Luckily, the pterosaur never backtracks, so if you slip behind him, you’ll be safe. Zapping him adds 250, 500, 750, or 1000 points to the player’s score.

So, instead of taking place in futuristic times (which would account for the fancy-schmancy mobile blaster), it appears that the game actually takes place in the Mesozoic era! Okay, since snakes existed in prehistoric times, we’ll run with that. Perhaps our blaster is a time traveler.

Supporting the prehistoric theme is the final denizen of the desert, a red bipedal creature with a curled tail and white wings on its back. It looks like a red Tyrannosaurus Rex… albeit with wings… which would make it completely at home sharing a desert with rattlers and pterodactyls. However, the sales flyer identifies this creature as a “mutant gorilla”. Wait a minute. Um, okay. Sure. Why not.

These mutant gorillas… no… I can’t do it… not in good conscience. I’m going to call them T-Rexs.

These T-Rexs travel in either a horizontal or angled path across the screen, leaving clumps of grass in their wake. The beasts need to be blasted quickly, as the grass they plant can effectively bisect the screen, costing the player wasted time in clearing a path through the foliage. Like the pterosaurs, a bonus of 250, 500, 750, or 1000 points is added if these dinosaurs are gunned down.

They pose an additional threat however. If a T-Rex contacts a snake, the serpent’s body becomes invisible, rendering only its glowing yellow eyes detectable to the player. These invisible rattlers can easily maneuver undetected into the blaster’s area, posing an additional threat. Shooting an invisible serpent causes it to “reappear” again, so keep blasting if you see those snake eyes approaching!

By now, the similarities to Atari’s Centipede should be readily apparent. Substitute the rattlers, grass clumps, pterodactyls, and T-Rexs for the centipedes, mushrooms, spiders, and fleas, and you’ve pretty much got the essence of Slither.

But what makes Slither notable is the new elements it introduces to the formula. The bonus timer adds a point-increasing strategy not present in the earlier title. The invisible snakes and the spastic flight of the pterodactyl add a frantic feeling of danger. Additionally, the blaster’s dual-directional firing capability, coupled with increased maneuverability (the blaster can move anywhere on the screen, except through grass or a rock) affords the Slither player greater offensive and defensive options than in Centipede.

The game has more of a claustrophobic feel than Atari’s classic. Since the rattlers exhibit more of an erratic homing instinct, it’s very easy for the player to get trapped between grass clumps and swarming snakes. The player can only watch as the serpents gather around, drawing closer and closer, constricting the blaster’s movement, until the inevitable happens. I’m reminded of a similar feeling of futility found when encountering the “spiral death trap” of Taito’s Qix.

Slither’s graphics are a step above those in Centipede. The main characters are simplistic sprites, but the desert landscape is attractively realized with craggy rocks, tall mesas and plateaus, tan and red sands, and a clever feature called “dawn to dusk”, which approximates the passage of time by changing the color of the sun and the sky whenever a new attack wave rolls out.

The game begins during the morning hours, showcasing a bright yellow sun (and “sunstreaks”) across a turquoise sky. Next is a mid-day color scheme, with a solid pale blue sky and no sun or streaks. The next attack wave takes place during dusk, with an orange sun against a reddish orange sky, and finally, we end up at nighttime, featuring a black sky with dark purple streaks and, curiously enough, a dark purple “sun”. I like to think that the purple sun actually represents the “new moon”. After this nighttime wave, the cycle begins with dawn again. Just like in real life!

It’s a cool effect, and one that was only attempted by a few other games of the era (Sega’s Turbo features a “sunset” at some advanced levels, and Stern’s Rescue features both day and night scenes), but Slither also cheats a bit. The “sun” never moves. It’s always positioned in the upper left of the screen.

This makes the “passage of time” effect a little shaky when the sun rises and sets over the same place on the horizon. The game program just changes the sky’s two color values whenever a new wave rolls out, and the daytime color scheme is achieved by setting the sun, the streaks, and the sky itself to be the same shade of light blue, creating the illusion of a solid blue daytime sky. Still, it’s a novel effect, and the nighttime level is especially creepy. The snakes are pitch-black against purple sand, and only their yellow eyes are easily visible. The mesas at the top of the screen add to the desolate feeling of the desert, and the swarming snakes really convey a claustrophobic feeling when they advance on the blaster.

The audio effects feature a nice “rattling” sound effect for the snakes, a muffled roar for the T-Rex (or, if you prefer, the “mutant gorilla”), and an undulating tone for the flight of the pterodactyl. The jingle that plays when a reserve blaster begins a level is a bouncy little ditty as well.

Unlike most Lost Arcade Classic subjects, Slither actually appeared on home televisions. It was released in 1983 as the pack-in cartridge for the Colecovision’s Roller Controller trackball. (Remember when game system peripherals came with pack-in games? Yeah, me too.) Coleco’s version was the only home port of this obscure game.

Destron/GDI out of Chicago, Illinois, released Slither in July 1982. Although it’s curious to note that the cabinet only displays the GDI logo, while the game flyer displays the full company name. GDI’s only other title, the cold war slide-and-shoot Red Alert, was released a few months prior in late 1981.

Century II, whom licensed the game to GDI for manufacturer as a dedicated upright and cocktail machine, created the actual Slither game program.

Despite the similar company names, Century II does not appear to have any affiliation with Century Electronics (Hunchback, Super Bike), or Centuri (Phoenix, Vanguard). It’s likely that Slither was Century II’s only product. After Slither’s release, Destron/GDI and Century II both disappeared into obscurity.

It’s certain that Slither would not exist in its current form (or at all) had Centipede not preceded it. But to classify Slither as a complete knock-off does it a disservice. I like to think it as… an extension of Atari’s original title.

So, in returning to Colton’s famous quote, should Atari have been flattered that Destron/GDI imitated Centipede so closely? Knowing what we now know about the litigious nature of Atari during that era (remember the KC Munchkin case?), I imagine they were not pleased. Nevertheless, Slither offers players an interesting variant on a successful theme, while creating its own unique look and feel. Make sure to pay it a visit in the Colton Wing of the museum of the Lost Arcade Classic.