Editorial | 12/30/2011 at 3:03 PM

Co-Op Classics: Rip Off

A co-op gem from the dawn of the video game era

One of my greatest pleasures is reading about the classic arcade titles from the Golden Age of video games, from the late 1970s to the early 1980s. Unfortunately, cooperative gameplay, which we love so much here at Co-Optimus, was largely absent from games of this time period. In the latter half of the 80s, the co-op floodgates would open, but before then, teamwork was incredibly rare. Today, we'll look at a very early and unique example of co-op, from way back in 1980: Rip Off.

By today's standards, Rip Off has a bare-bones presentation. The simple, yet elegant graphics, luminous white on inky black, are not exactly impressive by any means. But vector graphics, like those in Rip Off and more famous games like Asteroids, have a certain look to them that is both pleasant to view and difficult to replicate, even on modern displays. Greatly enhancing the aesthetic appearance of the game was the monitor overlay, with a rocky planet's surface before a dark starfield, as well as the exciting tank battle vividly portrayed on the sideart.

Despite it's unusual name, Rip Off was not about bad financial transactions, but instead was based on a very common theme, science fiction. Players drove futuristic tanks, tasked with protecting a central collection of triangle-shaped fuel canisters. Wave after wave of pirate tanks would descend on the fuel, traveling two or three at a time, in order to steal them. Early waves of pirates were slow and stupid, heading straight for the fuel, but subsequent thieves were lightning fast, often working together to trick the players. When the entire collection of fuel cells was "ripped off", the game would end.

Rip Off has several characteristics that set it apart from other games of the time. One unusual attribute was that there were no lives, as such. The player's tank would destroyed when it collided with another tank, or was hit by a pirate tank's short range laser. But after a brief delay, tanks would respawn and the player could get right back into the action. Instead of lives, the limiting factor was the number of fuel tanks remaining. Once the last canister was stolen, it was game over. This unlimited supply of tanks even affected strategy; players could intentionally collide with pirate tanks, kamikaze style, in addition to shooting them with long range weapons. Who would have thought that abusing a respawn mechanic could happen in a game released in 1980?

The enemy AI was perhaps Rip Off's most innovative feature. Intelligent enemies were almost non-existent in arcade games from the time. The alien attackers in Space Invaders moved in easily predictable patterns, with only a speed increase to up the challenge. The titular space rocks in Asteroids displayed no intelligence whatsoever, relying on strength of numbers to defeat the player. Rip Off's pirate tanks had a robust set of instructions that governed their behavior.

Tim Skelly was the designer and programmer of Rip Off, and has presented online the various methods he used to give the enemy tanks a high level of intelligence. This AI was one of the earliest examples of flocking behavior ever used in a video game. Apart from being impressive from a programming standpoint, this AI made the pirate tanks notoriously difficult to avoid, especially when the game's speed picked up after a few levels.

Best of all, Rip Off allowed two players to defend the fuel canisters at the same time, in cooperation. Most multiplayer games at the time forced players to take turns playing. Simultaneous multiplayer would have been unique enough, but allowing both players to team up to defeat computer-controlled enemies was brand new. (Fire Truck, an earlier co-op game, didn't have any enemies to speak of.) The original inspiration for cooperative gameplay in Rip Off was revealed by Skelly in an interview.

At the time, I was in a relationship with a disc jockey in Kansas City. The station she worked for was part of a large chain that periodically issued huge market research papers for the affiliates. Someone writing one of these papers had inexplicably determined that young people at that time were interested in "cooperation rather than competition." I always take market research with a ton of salt, but it did spark the idea of having the two players work towards the same goal.

Perhaps the Cold War fears of the time made young people tend towards cooperation rather than conflict. A separate high score list for team play, where both players shared a total score, promoted the feeling of cooperation in Rip Off.

Of course, co-op would go on to become a major feature in video games in the future. More than 1800 co-op games are in our database today, and that number will surely grow as we find more hidden gems from the past and new co-op titles are released every month. Rip Off was among the first titles to embrace teamwork and collaboration in gameplay. Its impressive AI was certainly influential, and the "protect the fuel" gameplay hook is much like the survival modes common in many games today. The hundreds of co-op titles that followed Rip Off owe much to this fine example of a Co-Op Classic.