“I’m afraid of coaching, of writer’s classes, of writer’s magazines, of books on how to write. They give me centipede trouble – you know the yarn about the centipede who was asked how he managed all his feet? He tried to answer, stopped to think about it, and was never able to walk another step.”
-Robert A. Heinlein
You know what? Screw centipedes. Don’t give me that “Oh but they’re part of the circle of life, Red…” No, they’re not. They’re monsters.
I hate ’em. You’d probably hate them too if you were bitten by one as a child. I was just minding my own innocent business watering the orchids when a blue one crawled up my leg and bit me on the inner thigh. It felt exactly like you’d imagine it’d feel like: hideous, screaming pain. My leg swelled up like a watermelon.
A horrific experience that gave me a heavy dose of entomophobia but the incident also made me love the arcade classic Centipede. Why? Because it’s a game about shooting centipedes to death. In my lifetime I’ve cut them in half, smashed them under boots, throw them into campfires, and I even tried to drown one but nothing beats blasting them apart with 8-bit lasers.
Centipede, in case you don’t know, is a vertical non-scrolling shooter pitting a tiny fighter against an army of bugs. Centipede was developed by Atari, proving Atari can actually do something right for once, and it has seen numerous ports over the decades since its inception. Just avoid the 2600 version like you would real centipedes. It has almost zero resemblance to the original.This arcade classic is notable for several reasons. It was developed by an Ed Logg and Dona Bailey, making Centipede one of the very first games to be developed (at least in part) by a female programmer. Bailey was actually the only woman in Atari’s arcade division, both at the start and at the end of her career in that area. I think that her involvement comes across in Centipede’s stylishness. The game was also a marked difference from the space shooters typical of that time, exchanging the macro-universe for the micro. She helped prove early on that video games could be anything.
Centipede is certainly an iconic arcade game from the early 80’s, when arcades covered the face of the land like so much acne. That slick retro art is the perfect example of the style of that decade, as well. But it is also just a lot of fun to play. You know how some of them just seem like coin-eaters? Centipede honors the formula of classic arcade games without being too difficult or too incomprehensible.Playing the game on the original cabinet, you’ve only got one button to shoot with. Easy enough. The cabinet also had a built in trackball. Imagine a cue ball from billiards sunken down into the front of the machine, facing up. With your palm spinning the track ball, you could move your player character in any direction and at various speeds while playing the game. That’s different.
Honestly, I miss the trackball. It’s been a while since I’ve actually seen a Centipede arcade cabinet. I’ve recently enjoyed playing the excellent port in the Atari Flashback Classics vol.1 on PS4, but the left joystick (or conversely the d-pad) just can’t capture that same tangible sensation.
I suppose no home console can ever really fully emulate what it was like to be in an arcade surrounded by all those glittering lights and digital sounds, well-worn, time-proven hardware under your grasp.
You play the part of what looks like a minuscule spaceship at the bottom of the screen. In the artwork of Centipede’s sequel, Millipede, some kind of elfin archer is depicted. Maybe that’s what the tiny sprite is. But then why does it make a laser-beam sound when shooting? Who knows.
The game is played in successive stages where the objective is to defeated a segmented centipede which appears at the top of the screen and slowly marches toward the bottom where the player resides. Shooting any middle segment of the centipede will cause it to split into a second centipede. The monster moves horizontally until it hits either the edge of the screen or a mushroom, in which case it takes one step down and resumes its horizontal path until it reaches another obstruction. The centipede gets faster and faster as the stages wear on.
There are other bad bugs out to get you. This game will make you hate spiders even more than you most likely already do. The spiders will appear randomly from the sides of the screen and then move across your movement area in an unpredictable, zig-zagging fashion. Spiders also get much faster as you advance through the stages, so I’ve found the best place for me to leave my character is in the center of the screen away from the edges.
Fleas fall vertically downward from the top of the screen in a straight line, creating more mushrooms in their wake. The fleas can be easily avoided or shot but the mushrooms they leave behind just make it easier for the centipede to reach the bottom of the screen. Mushrooms themselves can be destroyed with your laser or spiders will sometimes eat them.
A final enemy, the scorpion, travels horizontally across the middle of the screen. It’s beyond your range of movement so it can’t directly hurt you. However, it will turn the mushrooms it contacts a different color, “poisoning’ them. Any time the centipede touches a poisoned mushroom, it will make a headlong dive toward the bottom of the screen, so it’s best to take down scorpions as quickly as possible.
The extra points from blowing up scorpions, spiders, and fleas besides of course the big bad centipede are essential, since you earn an extra life for collecting so many points. Beyond that, the game is endless so far as I know. I haven’t exactly reached that magic number of 255, but I can attest to the difficulty really ramping up quite quickly.
Centipede is still on the pop culture radar today. The segmented beast appeared in a certain movie we do not speak of starring Adam Sandler’s dead career. Also, Atari announced a while back that Centipede and Missile Command are supposed to be developed into feature films. However, this might just be another typical example of Atari baloney. IMDb shows no such movie is in the works. Maybe they realized that a gnome blasting lasers at a giant centipede is a dumb idea.
The game itself is gold, though. You can take out your frustrations on the insect world with Centipede. Not only are real life centipedes vicious killers, they’re also walking bundles of lies. Did you know they don’t actually have a hundred legs? I want a refund.
The 8-bit Review
The graphics of Centipede were meant to be visually arresting. Two thoughts here. The artwork emblazoned on the side of the cabinet was always visually arresting. As a kid, I thought that was what real centipedes really looked like. Since I didn’t want to look at any one of the fiends close enough in real life, the fanged, bug-eyed, crab-clawed, serpentine alien of Centipede filled that empty socket in my childhood entomology.
The original art is also undeniably cooler than this home version cover art…
Even though this delightfully dated art was something outside of the actual game, it was immediately enticing. I can remember vividly that the neon colors made me want to deposit my precious coins and playing Centipede for the first time, I was indeed arrested by its visuals. I thought (and still do think) that the constantly changing roster of colors between the stages is hyper-rad. Hyper Light Drifter rad. I’m glad some newer games are hearkening back to these delicious colors.
There is no music in Centipede, unless you could the brief jangle which plays when you earn an extra life. Everything else is sound effects: the pew-pew of your laser beams, the thrum of the centipede’s march, the squiggly noise of the spider’s legs, the descending sound of the flea, and the fanfare of the scorpion appearing. And that’s it. Not very robust and audio in gaming has come a long way since 1980 and Atari’s lack of quality control but trust me, this is much better than a lot of what contemporaries of Centipede offered.
You can hear all of the awesome vintage sound effects below:
I really like games like this with their simple direction, drive and controls. They don’t muck about with too many variables or narrative or gimmicks and over-complicate things. I think that’s why they were so successful. There aren’t even any powers ups of any kind in Centipede. Plus there’s some innate need in us to shoot monsters and that’s all this game is about.
One button and movement. That’s it. Doesn’t get much simpler than that. Everything else you can figure out. Probably the most confusing thing you could encounter in Centipede is the scorpion poisoning the mushrooms, causing the centipede’s death-dive. Still, even that’s causation which isn’t not to difficult to see. Challenge: 9/10
This is the balance which made arcade games great. They took an irreducibly complex system of gameplay and then steadily amped up the difficulty using only small tweaks. In the case of Centipede, that means making the bugs move faster. Yeah, there’ll be more mushrooms but you can destroy those, and the bugs still only always take one hit to kill. Instead of adding more rules, Centipede adds more demand upon basic human skill, timing, reflexes, foresight, and pattern-recognition.
Highly addicting gameplay was the word of the day for arcade games. Why would anyone spend their quarters on a game if it wasn’t fun to play and it didn’t make you want to come back for more? Centipede is no exception to the arcade platitude of addicting gameplay. Having a points system makes every round of Centipede easily quantifiable and comparable to the runs you’ve made before. Topping your best score isn’t exactly a modern philosophy for video games any more, but that doesn’t make Centipede any less replayable today.
One of the first games developed by a woman and one which helped shift the narrative away from space shooters and racers, Centipede is memorable and has largely endured the test of time. Every once in a while I get the question whether a certain “retro” game is still just as good as it was twenty or thirty years ago. In a lot of ways I think that arcade games are some of the best-enduring classics, and Centipede is one of the funnest of them all.
My Personal Grade: 9/10
Centipede is one of the cabinets I look for first in arcades, if there were still any arcades around. This is one of my favorite arcade games, and I’ve played more than several. I personally find it more enjoyable to play than Pac-Man, though it is just as addicting. Less a relic and more a portal back through time, Centipede doesn’t belong in a museum. It belongs on as many systems as possible in as many ports as possible, to be enjoyed for future posterity. I already plan this to be one of my sons’ first video games they get to play on their own. That’ll give them the skills and reflexes they need to fight back the nightmarishness of our modern corporate society!
Centipede was a game I became so familiar with, playing at least once upon every trip to Tilt, Fun Factory, or Show Biz (progenitor of Chuck E. Cheese), that it was one of the earliest games I can remember being comforting and calming. That familiarity had an early soothing effect on me, like seeing a good friend again. Weird? Or have you ever had a set of video games you liked so much that they gave you the same feeling?
This was the only time in my life I enjoyed seeing centipedes. Good job, Atari!
Aggregated Score: 7.8