Best Games - Centipede
I usually try to steer clear of the classics. Those games that are universally loved. Pillars of the art form. Games like Pac-Man, The Legend of Zelda, Castlevania Symphony of the Night. It’s not that they aren’t up there on the list with the best games. It’s just that those games, the classics, have been discussed so often and dissected so thoroughly that there isn’t a lot of mystery left to them. The whys and hows of their lasting quality is fairly well understood by folks who study games. If I’m going to write about the hundreds, maybe thousands, of games that can be held up as properly wonderful, I may as well choose some that deserve a little extra attention.
Centipede is an exception to the rule. Centipede is rightly credited as not only one of the best games of the 80’s but as one of the best videogames of all time. It’s fast, engaging, and beautiful. So why write about it? Why repeat what anyone who follows videogames has read many times before? There is a unique core to the design of Centipede that I don’t think gets talked or written about enough and it deserves praise.
Centipede is all about the player.
The usual factoids on the design of Centipede center around the choices of Dona Bailey, one of the first women programming arcade games during the formative years of the industry. The vibrant, shifting, pastel colour palette, and the fantastical garden setting are applauded. Centipede is noted for its universal appeal, attracting male and female players equally. Maybe the colors or the rollerball control play some part in the success of Centipede, but I think there is something much more fundamental at play here.
Centipede is all about the player.
Centipede is, like a lot of the games of its era, an evolution of Space Invaders. You sit at the bottom of the screen and shoot directly up at enemies cascading down. That is the challenge you must overcome. Here is the difference. In Space Invaders and most of the games like it when the enemies reach the bottom of the screen the game is over. You lose. There is a limited amount of time that you are able to play unless you actively assail the enemy. The enemies in Centipede can reach the bottom and they just turn around and start heading back up. Your player character has a limited band that it must stay in near the bottom of the screen but other than that your movement is unrestricted. You can move side to side, up and down, and even on smooth diagonals. Any way you can roll the ball controller, you can move. After it hits the bottom, the centipede will also stay in this band, moving back and forth and stepping up or down with each turn. You don’t have to shoot the centipede. You can dodge forever, never shooting, or you can choose to shoot the mushrooms scattered across the playfield. The game is very difficult and it becomes faster and more difficult as time wears on, but you don’t have to fight. You get to choose when and how you fight.
As you play, there are enemies that add new mushrooms to the screen but you can decide which ones you would like to shoot and remove or leave where they are. You can mold the random playfield to your advantage. You decide.
Where most of the Space Invaders derivatives test your ability to dismantle orderly columns of enemies before time runs out, Centipede presents chaos and variability that you get to decide how to deal with. You can organize the chaos into manageable groups and lines, or you can let the chaos expand and deal with the oncoming assault on a case by case basis. You can also choose not to shoot, waiting for precisely selected moments to attack.
Centipede is one of the best games of all time, but it has less to do with the color palette and more to do with how it treat the player. Playing Centipede, you get to choose what happens next.