Well, now we’re getting somewhere.
Space Panic may not quite embody all the features we associate with platform games — you know things like jumping, and platforms — but you can definitely see the genre taking shape here. With its side-scrolling perspective, Space Panic begins to incorporate important fundamentals. The unnamed space panicker moves freely on the horizontal axis, while his vertical motion is more encumbered: He climbs ladders strictly as a means of traveling between the stages different levels, and he can’t perform any actions to counter enemy movements while climbing.
It’s the panicker’s interactions with the maze-roaming monsters that really bring things into focus, as they incorporate an awareness of gravity and height. Your sole defense against the space creatures bounding through the maze of ladders is to dig a hole in the floor that will trap a monster if it passes over that space, then smash the monster with a shovel to send it careening through the hole to its death. At higher difficulty levels, you actually need to create multiple holes aligned across several tiers and smash the monsters through several levels at once.
If this sounds remarkably similar to Lode Runner, well, I think it’s pretty safe to assume Doug Smith had Space Panic on his mind as he programmed his game. And if those monsters roaming through the maze look remarkably similar to Pac-Man‘s ghosts, well… I have no explanation for that. Both Space Panic and Pac-Man arrived at roughly the same time (1980), but information on precise dates of arcade machine debuts is almost impossible to come by. I have no idea if the two games launched at roughly the same time, or if there’s enough space between the two that one could have been influenced by the other.
Not that it really matters. Pac-Man has gone down in the annals of history whereas Space Panic wallows in obscurity, because Pac-Man looked better and was far more accessible. Space Panic feels like a relic of the ’70s (never mind that color arcade hardware had debuted only the year before), with simplistic visuals and clumsy controls. And it’s almost unreasonably hard — once you have to send enemies through multiple holes, the going gets really difficult. Nevertheless, it deserves admiration for being first to the table with a lot of elements that would become standard in video games for years to come. Donkey Kong, Lode Runner, even Dig Dug owe a debt to Universal’s Space Panic.
(And for the record, that’s Universal as in “UPL,” not as in “Universal/Vivideni.” Not that this makes any difference.)