The second big game for Atari in 1981 was Tempest. Originally designed by Missile Command designer, Dave Theurer as a 3D version of Space Invaders, it ended up being a 3rd person, 3D battle around the edges of increasing more intricate geometrically shaped proving grounds.
“I came in one day and all of a sudden he had this round tube with these things coming up it. I said, ‘What the heck is that Dave?’ He said, ‘I don’t know. Aliens from the center of the Earth? I don’t know.’ I think he said something about having had a dream about it. I said, ‘How does it work?’ He said, ‘I don’t know. They’re coming up around the edge of this thing and you’re trying to blow them away.’ He just sort of started out with this concept and took it from there. I can see why he would say that Tempest was certainly his proudest achievement. He worked extremely hard on that. It’s pure creation from his own brain.”
-Rich Adam on Dave Theurer designing Tempest
Tempest included a knob-style paddle controller to move the player’s avatar around the rim of each geometrically designed level. It also used Atari’s newest color vector generator (‘Color-Quadrascan’) and the vector Math Box to create 3D visuals that had previously never been seen in the arcades. The combination of great graphics, fast action, and innovative game design created a superb hit for Atari. The game was so hypnotic that some players would go into a trance-like “zone” state while playing, shutting-out everything else around them.
“Tempest controls were good enough to where once you learned how to manipulate them you could almost become one with the machine. That is, a good Tempest player gets to spin that knob and do the firing in the right time and get into sync with the machine or get into a rhythm. I don’t know exactly what to call it, but you were so close to the action that part of you entered the experience. You forgot about what was going on around you and you were just there.”
Tempest sold about 30,000 units, only 8,000 more than Asteroids Deluxe, however the greatest gain was not in numbers but in mind-share. With Tempest, Atari looked like a company moving forward, not one that was reaching back to old hits for inspiration. The teenagers and older game players who had grown-up on Pong and Space Invaders now craved more challenging and thrilling gaming experiences, and with Tempest, Atari was in the position to deliver.
“Tempest was hardcore, I mean HARDCORE. Some kids were intimidated by it. I recall that all the ‘heavy metal’ guys stood around the machine and would not let anyone else play. It was bad scene when they were in the arcade. However, when no one else was around, I’d always feed it a quarter or two. The game was mesmerizing to play”
-Anonymous Atari Fan