Retro Gaming Spotlight on Tempest


The 80s was a fun time for everyone. There’s so much you can entertain yourself with, like MTV, disco, skateboarding, aerobics, workout videos, video games, and arcade games. One of the popular games when you visit an arcade is Tempest.

Tempest was not just another game in the crowded arcade rooms of the era – it was a pioneer. Released in 1981 by Atari Inc., it was one of the first video games to use vector graphics, a technique that provided crisp, clean lines that seemed to leap from the screen.

This technology was not just a leap when it comes to graphical fidelity – it was a statement in an era dominated by pixelated sprites and simple 2D graphics. “Tempest” stood out with its 3D tube-like playing field, where players would navigate a claw-like spaceship, battling enemies that emerged from the depths of the geometric void.

But why learn about Tempest now, decades after its release? It’s because it’s a symbol of innovation and a reminder of the first golden age of arcade gaming. Explore the game’s origins, gameplay, and legacy here.

Origin and Development

Released in 1981 by Atari Inc., Tempest emerged as one of the most forward-thinking titles of its time. It was released during a creative boom in the video game industry, and it was later hailed as a trailblazer in the gaming world.

At its core, Tempest is a classic into-the-screen, shoot-em-up game wherein the player controls a claw-shaped “blaster” ship that moves around the outer rim of a 3D wireframe tunnel.

Tempest was the creation of Dave Theurer, an Atari employee who had already worked on titles like Missile Command. While developing the game, he created something completely different from his previous projects.

Theurer reportedly had nightmares about monsters crawling out of a hole, which inspired the game’s distinctive tube-like playing field and the enemies that emerged from within. This personal touch added a unique flavor to the game’s design, blending Theurer’s creativity with his subconscious fears.

The team at Atari, led by Theurer, wanted to create a game that was not only engaging to play but also visually striking and technologically advanced. Theurer wanted to transcend the traditional flat, 2D space, hence the inception of the game’s signature 3D perspective.

The inspiration for the game’s unique playstyle came from various sources, including the classic game Space Invaders. In fact, the game was initially meant to be a first-person remake of Space Invaders, but the early versions had many problems, so they used a new design instead.

During its early development, the game went through a few name changes. Initially, it was called “Aliens,” then it was renamed “Vortex,” before finally settling on the name “Tempest.”

Tempest came in three different arcade cabinet styles. The most familiar one is the upright cabinet, which has a unique shape, like a right triangle on top of a rectangle, and features eye-catching side art. There was also a smaller, more understated cabaret-style cabinet available, which had optional side art. Lastly, there was a cocktail-style table cabinet designed for two players to sit at each end, with the game screen flipping automatically for each player’s turn.


Tempest is a shoot-’em-up game but with a twist. The player controls a claw-like spaceship at the edge of a three-dimensional geometric playing field, often described as a “tube.” The game’s objective is to destroy enemies before they reach the player’s ship and avoid being hit by their attacks.

Players navigate their blaster ship around the edge of the tube, using the rotary control to spin it around the axis of the playing field. The firing mechanism is simple: a single button allows the player to shoot projectiles down the tube, destroying advancing enemies. The game’s pace quickens as players advance, with enemies becoming faster and more aggressive.

The blaster can also fire rapid-fire shots down individual lanes of the field, which can destroy all enemies within the same lane. It’s also equipped with a superzapper, which can destroy all enemies currently on the field. This only happens once per level, and the second use in the same level only destroys one enemy. The Superzapper recharges in between levels.


One of the innovative aspects of Tempest is its level design. It features 16 unique levels, each of them a different shape, ranging from circles to more complex patterns like spirals and waves. This variety not only adds visual interest but also introduces unique strategic challenges, as the shape of the level affects enemy movement and the player’s defensive tactics.

After all 16 levels have been played, the sequence repeats with a different color scheme and higher difficulty. After reaching stage 99, the level counter stops increasing, and the shapes for the successive levels are picked randomly.


In Tempest, enemies enter as swirling dots at the far end of the playfield and then appear one by one. The game features seven types of enemies, each with its own unique behavior. For example, Flippers try to grab the player’s blaster and pull it to the end of the playfield. Pulsars electrify their lane periodically, destroying the blaster if it’s caught there at the wrong time. Fuseballs are tricky; they move unpredictably along the lane edges, giving players just a moment to shoot them. Spikers roll toward the player and extend spikes into a lane, which can be worn down by shooting.

 From the early levels onwards, each level begins with spikes already in place at the end of the field. In advanced levels, you encounter Fuseball and Pulsar Tankers, which split into two Fuseballs or Pulsars when hit. Most enemies can fire bullets at the blaster, destroying it on contact.

Once all enemies are cleared, the player “warps” to the next level by zooming down the field and into the space beyond. During this warp, any spikes in the way must be avoided or destroyed; hitting one means redoing the warp.

Players lose a life if their blaster is destroyed or captured, and the game ends when all lives are lost. As a little bonus, players can earn extra blasters (up to six) at certain score milestones.

What Sets Its Gameplay Apart?

Compared to other arcade games of its time – which mainly featured pixelated, two-dimensional, top-down, or side-scrolling perspectives – Tempest was revolutionary. It introduced gamers to a pseudo-3D environment with unprecedented depth and complexity. This depth was not just visual; it allowed for a new kind of spatial gameplay where threats could come from multiple angles and distances.

The rotary knob was another element that set the game apart. This control method was more precise than the typical joysticks of the era, allowing for swift and smooth movement around the tube’s circumference. This enhanced the game’s responsiveness and allowed for a more immersive and engaging gaming experience.

Impact and Legacy

Tempest was not just a popular arcade game; it was a groundbreaking creation that made an impact on the video game industry. Here are the reasons why:

1. Tempestwas a pioneer on several fronts.

Tempest was one of the first games to utilize vector graphics using Atari’s Color Quadrascan vector display. Unlike the more common raster graphics of the time, vector graphics allow for smoother and more detailed images. This technology enabled Tempest to display sharp lines and dynamic shapes, which created a futuristic and immersive visual experience. 

It was also the first to let players choose their starting level, allowing the player to continue their previous game. It was also the first game to have a progressive level design, wherein the levels themselves were different rather than having the same layout and increasing difficulty.

Besides the graphics, Tempest introduced the gaming world to a new control mechanism: the rotary knob or the spinner. This control allowed players to navigate the game’s unique 3D environment with unprecedented precision and fluidity. It was a significant departure from the joysticks and buttons that were common in arcade games of that era.

2. It influenced later video and arcade games

Because of this pioneering technology, Tempest set new standards in game design and technology, influencing a generation of games that followed. Its use of vector graphics, 3D perspective, and tube-like playing field inspired other game designers to explore this technology.

Also, Tempest’s fast-paced gameplay and challenging mechanics set a precedent for arcade games that emphasized skill and reflexes. It was one of the first games to introduce a progressive level system with increasing difficulty, a feature that became a staple in many later video games.

3. It spawned sequels and remakes

The legacy of Tempest can be seen in various sequels, remakes, and games inspired by its unique gameplay. One of the most notable sequels is Tempest 2000, developed by Jeff Minter and released in 1994. This sequel stayed true to the original’s core gameplay while introducing updated graphics, new levels, and additional power-ups. Minter’s involvement in Tempest 2000 and subsequent iterations, like Tempest 3000 and TxK, demonstrate the game’s lasting influence and the respect it commands among game developers.

4. It became a pop culture fixture

Tempest has become a pop culture reference, appearing in various forms of media and entertainment over the years. The game became part of a plot thread in the 1984 film Night of the Comet. Additionally, the game was featured prominently in the music video for Rush’s 1982 song “Subdivisions.”

The game also found its way into literature, playing a pivotal role in the book Ready Player One. In this novel, the character Parzival is tasked with beating a high score on Tempest as part of the final challenge.

Tempest also made TV appearances in the series Numbers, where the character Larry Fleinhardt is seen engaging with the game, and in the TV comedy Silver Spoons, adding a touch of retro gaming nostalgia to these shows. The game also appeared in Twilight Zone: The Movie, being played by the character Anthony and later featuring its sounds when Anthony’s powers manifest fully.


From its inception as a visionary’s dream to its status as a classic arcade staple, “Tempest” has reminded us of the limitless possibilities within the realm of video gaming. It is a game that not only defined an era but also helped shape the future of gaming. The game’s influence is still felt today, evident in its enduring popularity, the ongoing reverence in gaming communities, and the inspiration it provides to contemporary game developers.

As we look back at “Tempest,” we celebrate not just a game but a milestone in the evolution of interactive entertainment, one that continues to inspire awe and admiration in the hearts of gamers around the world.

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