Born of the era of space exploration, arcade classic Lunar Lander is a time capsule of a zeitgeist and a video game genre unto itself. Born in 1969 at the height of everything related to space exploration, Lunar Lander was initially a text-based game developed by Jim Storer, a high school student. It was later transformed into a graphical experience to show off the DEC GT40 graphics terminals and from there went on to become an arcade game and a full-fledged genre in its own right.
Basically the conceit of the game is quite simple: As the pilot of a lunar lander, you are tasked with safely landing your craft on the moon’s surface, avoiding rocks and valleys, using your rocket fuel to navigate you as you fly along. Once you run out of fuel you are basically at the whims of your trajectory, which could result in a crash. Modern iterations of this genre include more parameters but the basic idea remains the same – guide your craft to the surface, avoiding obstacles while you do so. The game is often called one of the most popular games of all time, with industry magazine Electronic Games noting the ubiquity of Lunar Lander clones found in 1981.
Like Missile Command, Lunar Lander captures a certain mindset and period of time in history that is almost hard for us to understand in the modern context but totally makes sense when you consider what was a big deal back then. If you wanted to sell a concept, whether it was a home appliance or a video game, attaching space or space-related things to it was one surefire way to get the market’s attention. Similarly, with the fear of imminent nuclear war around every corner, the makers of Missile Command found that anti-missile defences made for a perfect game in which the player literally defended cities from nukes. While the more conspiracy oriented around us might see this as evidence of the government’s involvement in early video games, those of us around now know that it was simply the easiest vehicle for many developers to sell a gaming concept.
And that’s what makes Lunar Lander, and indeed the whole genre it spawned, such a time capsule among arcade games. Essentially a falling platformer, Lunar Lander nonetheless uses abstract graphics and simple gameplay to simulate what is otherwise a complex maneuver. That in its purest form is the essence of video games, especially those made for modern home consoles and even more so for virtual reality applications.
Calling Lunar Lander an early simulator would be a stretch, but not too far because, indeed, the game does simulate something that many people would have been familiar with back during its heyday. But it also is an early example of gamification, the process of turning a task into a video game. Gamification is perhaps the single most pressing trend in software development outside of video games today and it basically entails transforming what would otherwise be a mundane task into a game in the belief that people perform better if it is presented in that way. We don’t know about that one way or the other, but we do know that Lunar Lander succeeded in making the tedious, dangerous task of landing a probe on the moon a fun game.