Editorial | 3/30/2012 at 11:11 AM

Co-Op Classics: Seawolf II

The very first co-op "survival mode" game

Last summer, I had the opportunity to spend some time at the magnificent arcade at the Cedar Point amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio. You may recall a video walkthrough I made of the experience. One of my personal highlights from the arcade visit was seeing all the old electromechanical games that were on the floor. These games were the direct predecessors to video games, and though they are primitive from a certain perspective, the intricate mechanisms and ingenious gameplay methods they exemplify are wonderful in their own right.

One of the most popular electromechanical (EM) games of the late 60s and early 70s was Periscope. This gem was developed by a little company that you might possibly have heard of: Sega. Decades before the Genesis and Sonic, Sega entered the gaming business with an EM game that put players in the role of a submarine gunner, launching torpedoes at ships. Their first game, Periscope, was a smash hit across the globe. It was the first EM game to cost a quarter; this of course became the standard for arcade games for many years.

Periscope had a striking presence in the arcade. It was huge, with open glass sides that allowed spectators to watch the action. A realistic periscope was the controller, with a fire button on the right handle. Lights and electronic sounds, as well as the sweet cabinet art, added to the appeal. As with most successes, Periscope had a large influence on the arcade industry as a whole.

By 1976, the first true video games were in arcades across the world. But alongside Pong, Racer, and Gun Fight, the old EM games were still attracting interest. In many ways, the EM games were superior to the primitive capabilities of video games from the era. Midway, undoubtedly inspired by Periscope, combined many of that earlier game’s features with a video screen, and Seawolf was born.

Sharing its name with a naval defense missile, Seawolf was a hybrid game of sorts. Though it was technically a video game, many of its features were EM in origin. A fancy cabinet, dominated by a periscope controller, drew the prospective player’s eye. Lights in the periscope gave feedback on hits and informed gunners about missiles remaining. The game screen itself was a simple black and white field, covered by a blue overlay to give a more ocean-like appearance. Players shot torpedoes at ships travelling on the surface, aiming for a high score in the time limit. The integration of EM and video components made Seawolf a modest success, selling over 10,000 units.

At this stage in early video game history, technology moved at a lightning fast pace. Each new game that was released brought some new innovation, like the microprocessor, force feedback, or vector graphics. Seawolf II, released just two years after the original, included one such new technology: a color display. No longer was a color film overlay needed; several different blue hues gave the playfield a sense of depth. Red and yellow boats stood out nicely for targeting.

Like Periscope and the first Seawolf, Seawolf II had a visually appealing cabinet. Since the graphics of early video games weren't exactly immersive, the art style of the cabinet was very important. Anything that would add to the experience kept players engaged, and thus spending more money. Seawolf II had a rich blue color scheme, with a depiction of aircraft carrier, lined up perfectly in targeting sights, splashed across the sidepanels. Mock display screens, dials, and switches on the marquee and bezel helped create the illusion of actually being inside a submarine. 

Even with the color display, and the clever cabinet design, Seawolf II’s greatest innovation was the addition of a second player. Two or even four player games weren’t unheard of; Pong variants had allowed more players for several years. But typically a multiplayer game was directly competitive. Players were on opposite teams, or shooting one another, or racing around a track in furious competition. Seawolf II allowed two players to work against a common enemy. Two separate periscopes allowed the undersea partners to shoot torpedoes independently of one another. Standing right next to a buddy, leaned over the periscope, shooting enemy boats down together, must have felt very cooperative indeed.

One might argue that the scoring, kept individually, made the game competitive. The enemy boats never fired back, though the minefield across midfield did add some challenge to the experience. Once the time limit was over, one player could have scored more than the other. In one sense, this is competitive, but not nearly as much as shooting your buddy in the face, or crossing the finish line first. While Seawolf II might not meet the strict definition of co-op we use for games today, we’ll certainly make an exception for a game from the infancy of the video game era.

Seawolf II might be the earliest co-op game in our database; the only other game from the 1978 list is Fire Truck, and I've been unable to discover which of the two came first. Either way, Seawolf II has a greater legacy, being a natural evolution of the periscope-based amusement game concept. Adding a second player to a game, without direct competition between the two, was a milestone in cooperative gaming. The next time you play Firefight, Horde, or some other survival mode with individual player scoring, think back to Seawolf II, where the concept began.