is an arcade
video game first released by Gottlieb
in 1982, which was later officially ported to the Atari 2600
and distributed by Parker Brothers
. Featuring early raster graphics and originally using trackball
controls, the main aim of the game is to prevent a nuclear reactor core from going into critical meltdown by overheating, whilst avoiding alternative waves of magnetism or being hit by enemy radioactive particles. The game was well known in arcades due to its loud, explosive and heart-pounding music and sound effects, meaning that Reactor arcade cabinets
were usually positioned close to the entrance of an arcade as a means of attempting to attract potential players to enter.
The box of the Atari 2600 version of Reactor states that the player represents a small spaceship which is trapped inside a giant nuclear reactor slowly approaching critical meltdown. The player controls the ship, which can move around within the octagonal nuclear reactor. At the centre is the core itself, which slowly expands to fill more of the reactor as time progresses. Furthermore, the core also exhibits a gravitational pull against the player’s ship, which must be countered in order to remain alive. The player must avoid touching either the walls or the reactor core, which will destroy the ship otherwise. Ship movement is achieved via the trackball (or joystick on the Atari 2600 version), which could be rolled quickly in a certain direction as a means of avoiding the nuclear core’s gravity. Furthermore, the reactor chamber is filled with a variety of enemy radioactive particles, which float around the core, often rebounding off walls and each other, but normally actively seeking to destroy the player’s ship by knocking it off-course. Occasionally, a Boss particle will appear, which can break into smaller particles if and when destroyed.
The object of the game is to avoid the reactor walls, core and enemy particles whilst achieving the highest score possible. The player is able to collide with enemy particles, which can be used to destroy the reactor control rods in order to shrink the size of the core. Playing can take an exceedingly delicate and steady hand. Instead of moving the ship in a horizontal or vertical fashion, as is the case with most video games, the existence of gravity means that the ship will usually spin in a circular fashion around the core, if controlled correctly. At the same time, enemy radioactive particles can become highly charged and aggressive, making it increasingly difficult not to be destroyed against the walls of the reactor. The gravitational effect the core exudes meant that playing a game of Reactor could be extremely tiring, given the energy expelled in rolling the trackball. Thus, it is sometimes considered one of the first arcade video games which can feel rather similar to a sport.
If accelerated at the correct interval, the player’s ship should orbit the reactor slowly, with enough forward momentum to prevent it from either falling into the core, or from touching the walls. Decoy ships can be placed to lure radioactive particles, or to collide with them in order to rebuff them into the control rods, the core, or one of two bonus chambers, which can contain trapped particles for a period of time. If the primary button was pressed, the player could initiate high power mode. The benefit of this was that it would provide a greater deflection of enemy particles from the ship, with the downside that the ship itself would also suffer greater deflection when hit. In order to provide some assistance to the task of surviving, the player is given a limited supply of decoys to use. The secondary button could place a decoy which would attract particles to it, and thus tempt them inside a bonus chamber for extra points, or push them into destroying a reactor control rod. They could also be deflected directly into the reactor walls and destroyed in that fashion. If a row of reactor rods was successfully destroyed, the player is rewarded with an extra decoy, as well as having the reactor core shrink back to its original starting size.
The time limit on the game is imposed by the growing reactor core, which can severely limit the useable space in which the player can manoeuvre the ship. It is important to note that a game of Reactor can never end with the reactor core actually melting down. Instead, the decreasing space ramps up the difficulty of the game, until eventually there is no room left in which to move the ship safely. For example, after the first wave of radioactive particles is dealt with, the reactor core can change into a spiral formation, taking up a much greater space and therefore making the game more difficult.
Reactor was originally developed by Tim Skelly, who was previously both a designer and programmer for Cinematronics from 1978 until 1981. Whilst at Cinematronics, Skelly had designed a number of popular vector graphic action games, including Rip-Off and Space Hawk. Reactor was the first game he developed while working as an independent software contractor for Gottlieb. Afterward he went on to design two more games, Insector and Screw Loose, but neither was ever released. Reactor is the first game to ever feature a developer’s name on the title screen, setting the precident for all other games to follow.
A version of Reactor was released for the Atari 2600, also in 1982. Developed and published by Parker Brothers, this version featured a few minor differences to the arcade version. The largest change was that the ship’s energy shield was always on, whilst in arcades it had to be activated. Controls could be either a joystick or a trackball, although the manual included in the game box only specified the use of the joystick. Console difficulty switches could alter the sensitivity of the ship’s movement via the joystick, in order to mimic the more delicate arcade controls. The game also lacked any voice over, removed the choice to start with seven lives, and the counter which recorded the bonus score was not displayed. Further, the bonus score could only reach a maximum level, after which any bonus points scored would simply be added to the player’s main score. The 2600 version also contained a bug which caused collision detection to not function correctly close to the bonus chambers.
A version of Reactor was also licensed and developed for the Intellivision, but it was never commercially released.
The current World Record score for the original arcade version of Reactor is 448,833 Points, which was achieved by Ed Flores from Santa Maria, California under referee verification on 2nd January, 1983.
The music for Reactor has become something of a cult icon in recent years, since the game's speakers were oringally mounted inside the marquee of the cabinet, providing a loud and reverberating experience for anyone who happened to be standing close by. Furthermore, the Atari 2600 box art has received much praise for its beautifully bright but simple use of colours depicting a large explosion, which are very reminiscient of Pop Art.