How have I never known of this game?

Source // Wikipedia

"Centipede?" I ask myself. "That's gotta be an early version of Snake, right?"

Oh how wrong I was. Though Centipede does feature long, thin creatures that look a bit like snakes, they're called centipede's here... and they do move a little like the snake in Snake. A bit. I'm clutching at straws here, delaying the fact that this game was so far off my video game history radar that you'd need to invent whatever the successor to radio is just to give me a chance at coming across it.

The entry in 1001 Video Games mentions that Centipede is the game to bring female players into video games, and upon reading that I thought 'ok'. The 'huh's only sounded upon reading that it involves centipede herding and pest control in a garden.

You play as... a character, possibly a garden gnome or elf, who can fire upon a centipede, damaging it to creating point scoring mushrooms which then affect how the rest of the centipede moves around the garden.

Simple, really.

Fun Times

It may not look like a space shooter, but Centipede sure borrows from them. The Atari 2600 is all that is available to me, and it's basic in its visuals to say the least. I am a block, the mushrooms are smaller bricks, the centipede is blobby... it's enough to see what is what, and that's about it.

But it controls smoothly, it's responsive, it's quick. The arcade original used a trackball for movement, so your gnomes head would slide across the black garden wherever you wanted, shooting all the way.

The centipede moves across the screen until it hits an obstacle, be it a mushroom or the wall, then bounces off it, progresses down and moves the other way. Rinse and repeat, your video game skills know what to do here, destroy all before they destroy you at the bottom.

But here, shooting a blob/centipede part turns it into a brick/mushroom, which then adds a new obstacle for the rest of the blobs/centipede to bounce off. You can shoot these mushroom bricks to get them out of the way, or leave them and see what happens. Funnels, in my case.

The turkey shaped thing there is worth bonus points, the mushroom bricks score points after the round is over, it's all brightly coloured fun.


What the hell. I can move up and down too?

Yes. That trackball should have given it away. Unlike many space shooters of the day, this garden gunfight allows you to move around a limited section of the screen in any direction, such that you can move above any centipede parts that reach the bottom, multiply, then come back up the screen, where you can then sink back to the bottom and shoot them the second time around.

Genius. Really. It's perhaps bad form or costly to your score to do so, but I was too stunned to care. I can move up and down a little bit! I am easily amused.

Final Word

Games that catch you by surprise are great. Simple to get games that catch you by surprise and then hold your attention are all the more worthy of a 'great' - a 'fantastic', even. Centipede is fantastic. 

Thanks to its gameplay, it has stood the test of time and is playable in a variety of places, including the Internet, from the comfort of your office cubicle. Though I found that version harder. Good to confirm I was a gnome though.

Go and play Centipede for five minutes, then look at the clock to see if it captured you for a few minutes more.

Fun Facts

The world record for Centipede in tournament conditions is an eye pleasing 7,111,111 points. Developer Dona Bailey would be proud that record was set twenty years after Centipede's release, I'm sure.

Centipede, developed by Atari, Inc., first published in 1981.
Versions played: Atari 2600, 1982, via emulation.
Atari Arcade (Adobe Flash/HTML5)