The Happy Accidents That Led To The Arcade Classic ‘Centipede’

In the early days of the video arcade, Atari’s Centipede was a giant. Released in 1980 and famed for its early use of a trackball and its unique pastel color palette, the game forces players to ward off incoming hoards of bugs while pesky mushrooms get in the way. It’s the sort of fast-twitch arcade classic that punishes mistakes and puts even the best players’ skills to the test. It was also co-designed by a woman—an exceptionally rare feature for a game of that era. 

I spoke to Dona Bailey, who co-designed the game at Atari with Ed Logg, about how she stumbled onto some of the game’s most lasting and memorable innovations.

When I was first programming Centipede, I had a steep learning curve as a programmer because it was my first game when I started at Atari in June 1980. I had two years of 6502 assembly language programming experience from working to program car engines at GM Delco in Santa Barbara, California, but I had to work hard to learn how to transfer my GM experience to game programming at Atari.

Screenshot: Centipede

The 1980 arcade game ‘Centipede’ was known for its pastel color palette.

How The Game Got Its Trackball

On
Centipede, I needed to be able to write code and then test it vigorously on the development game. I was struggling to quickly learn how to make a game, and I was frustrated because the
Centipede development game had first been set up with buttons for controls. I had never played a video game that used buttons, and I hated the effort of playing with the buttons. I hated playing that way, plus I was terrible at it. I spent all my playing time thinking about what my hands were doing—so much so that I could not enjoy looking at the game or reacting to the game.

Luckily, the software manager at Atari noticed my frustration with the buttons and recognized that we should try different controls. We next tried a joystick, but it didn’t give the smooth responsiveness I was hoping for. I could play better and easier with the joystick, but it still wasn’t what I wanted. The same manager suggested that we should use the mini-trackball Atari had developed recently, and I instantly loved the effortless swooping and gliding that the mini-trackball offered. The mini-trackball was the right controller for me.

I view that experience as a happy accident because I did not know how to ask for help with what was bothering me. I knew I was terrible at using the buttons, but I thought it was just my problem and I should work harder to learn how to use them. I did not know what the alternatives were, and I did not know how, at that point, to make my case for an alternative. I’m lucky that Atari’s software manager was a good observer and a good problem solver.

How Centipede Got Its Unique Color Palette
Centipede‘s use of a differently tweaked color palette came much later in the development of the game. One morning in 1981, I was working on some code in the lab at the game development cabinet. Centipede‘s technician needed to make one quick adjustment to the game for some reason, and he asked me if he could take the game, cabinet and all, away from me to do what he needed. This is the only time I remember our technician borrowing the game from me while I was working, so I was patiently waiting for him to finish and give the game back to me. Our technician was behind the back of the game cabinet, and I was in front of the cabinet, watching the changes that were cycling through on the screen as he worked. Suddenly, the regular primary colors on the screen changed to hot and vivid pastel colors I had never seen before, and I made a yip of approval and asked our technician to keep those colors. I could hardly wait to work with the new colors that day, and I felt lucky that I was in the right place to notice an improvement that added no extra costs and used no extra space.

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