During the heyday of the arcade game in the early 1980s, video game companies cranked out clones of popular titles, in the hopes that lightning might strike twice. 1979's Asteroids was a smash hit, one of the greatest video games ever, and thus it spawned all manner of copycats and sequels. Atari released an official sequel in 1980, Asteroids Deluxe. This added a few graphic tweaks but is mainly famous for being incredibly difficult. Asteroids Deluxe didn't sell well, so Atari followed up in 1982 with Space Duel. This game may not be a sequel in name, but improves upon the hallowed Asteroids formula in unique and entertaining ways, enabling it to stand on its own as a Co-Op Classic.
If you ever have the opportunity to see a Space Duel in the wild, the first thing you will notice is the art on the cabinet. It is incredible. It may not be as iconic as the foreboding Centipede, or the Cold War inspired Missile Command, but it is still glorious in its own right. Starships reminiscent of Star Wars' Y-Wings soar in outer space, with a colorful comic book style galaxy pulsing in the distance. The control panel itself wouldn't look out of place in Star Trek, adding to the feel that you are truly piloting a spaceship yourself. Much of the experience in vintage arcade games came from physical elements like these; it just can't be recreated in emulation.
Another attribute of Space Duel that is difficult to replicate: color vector graphics. Vector graphics, used most notably in Asteroids and Lunar Lander, have a unique look due to the specialized hardware used for the display. The glowing effect is magnificent, and even more so in color! Space Duel was one of the first color vector games, released right around the same time as Tempest, another timeless classic. The stark contrast between the inky black background and the neon rainbow shine of the graphics truly left an impression on players.
Better than the art or the graphics, however, was the addition of co-op. Multiplayer was very scarce in arcades at the time, and even more rare were games with cooperative elements. Space Duel went beyond just adding in co-op, and gave players multiple options that allowed them to tailor their co-op as they saw fit. Upon plunking in a few quarters, the game select screen was displayed, as shown on the next page.
As you can see, there are two different ways for two players to enjoy the game together. The top left option is for simultaneous, free roaming play. In this mode, both the red and green ships are autonomous, and can fly around the screen however they like. So how does friendly fire work? Let's say red accidentally tags green with a shot; green doesn't lose a life, but their ship blinks and reappears somewhere else. Not quite as co-op as disabling friendly fire entirely, but an interesting compromise, nonetheless.
Space Duel also fixes one of the biggest issues with simultaneous multiplayer games in general: what happens when your buddy has plenty of lives left, but you die early? In many games, even those developed far later than 1982, you are simply out of luck and forced to watch. In Space Duel, as long as one player has a life remaining, the other player always respawns. The only drawback is the respawning player has a damaged ship, which is slower to fire, turn, and thrust. It's an elegant solution to a problem, once that many more games should have taken inspiration from.
So what about the other 2 player mode, with the yellow line connecting the ships? The connecting line, known as a fuse, is like a lifeline between the two players. While they can still thrust, fire, and use shields on their own, they are affected by the other player's choices. This makes for some interesting moments, to say the least. So why is the line between the ships called a fuse? When one player dies, the line begins to burn away, like a fuse on dynamite, until the other player explodes too! You might wonder why you'd ever play in fuse mode, as there are many disadvantages. The primary reason is shields. Both players have far more shield energy available when playing in connected mode, which allows them to stay alive longer. Fuse mode is certainly an amusing and unique twist to the genre.
Space Duel is an interesting game from many different perspectives. Color vector graphic games are few in number, to begin with, and the incredible cabinet artwork makes it even more appealing to collectors. It also has a unique place in the history of cooperative games, with not one, but two modes that allow players to work together. While it may not have the name recognition of its predecessors, Space Duel eclipses them both in many ways. It is a great example of a very early Co-Op Classic.