If I told you that there was a 1980′s arcade video game called “Meteors” you would look at me like I’m crazy. If you guessed it’s an clone of Atari’s classic Asteroids, you’d be 100% correct. Not many people know this, but this particular coin-operated arcade game stood at the center of a lawsuit aimed by Atari at competitor Amusement World.
Most of you are probably like, “Well okay, it’s an old coin-op game. Is it worth mad money or what? What’s the big deal about it?” The big deal is not the machine itself, but the court case revolving around it (and it’s more important than you know). Back in the day, a man named Stephen Holniker saw Asteroids for the first time ever and said to himself, “Y’know what? I can do better!” So through his company Amusement World he created a game called “Meteors”. Atari took Amusement World to court claiming copyright infringement on their popular game and sought an injunction.
The court ruling stated that Asteroids and Meteors were not similar games due to the fact that the two games represent different interpretations of the idea of a game in which the player shoots at rocks with a spaceship.
While the ruling did acknowledge that the two titles had several similarities, it also noted that the two games shared a handful of differences. For example: Meteors was in color, had texture shading, a real background, and the ship had rapid fire. With respect to the similarities, the court noted that this was inevitable, given that there is only so much you can do with the concept of a spaceship blowing up rocks.
Without this ruling or a ruling in favor of Atari, so many games you know and love would simply not exist.
From the perspective of video game history, Meteors may not offer very much interest, but from the perspective of IP litigation, it’s an important example. It offers an early concrete decision on the idea/expression dichotomy in games and sets the precedent for the industry.
However because Amusement World was still a smaller company, the court fees and battle took a toll on the company and not many of the machines were able to be produced. Recently though, my friend Eric Holniker (the son of Amusement World CEO Stephen Holniker and game creator) unearthed one of a very few Meteors cabinets still remaining and was able to get it up and running once again. It always brings a tear to my eye when history like this is unearthed and found to be preserved.
We were also able to speak to Eric and ask him some questions about how he came across the machine.
Substance TV : Hey Eric, how did you even come across the machine in the first place? I know you have a HUGE collection of machines, but how and where did you find the Meteors?
Eric : I found the machine about a year ago this time (before MAGFest) in my dad’s warehouse. For years we would see the marquee hiding behind rows and rows of Video Poker cabinets. After discussing it with my dad last year we decided to take it to MAGFest, under the condition that he went along. He didn’t get a chance to attend MAG 10, so we left the machine at his shop. He pulled it out of the warehouse area and left it near the lift. It stayed there until shortly after he passed away. My mom called me up a few weeks ago to ask me if I wanted the game in the store. (they were in the process of cleaning out the shop) Of course I said yes, but had to scramble to make space for it and didn’t get a chance to clean it out or even plug it in.
Substance TV : I was really stoked when I saw the machine in your store for the first time, but I remember not seeing it powered on at first. Did it work when you got your hands on it and if not how hard was the restore?
Eric : I was really afraid to plug it in. One night when Charles (Charles Lohr is a genius with computer hardware and another good friend) was here (like two weeks ago now) we decided it would be a good idea to record a blurb about the machine’s history for him to put up on his YouTube channel. (it’s filled with some interesting tech stuff) I kept talking about it until the video wound up becoming a bit more than a blurb, and I figured it was time to plug it in for kicks.
Substance TV : Did your father get to design any other games?
Eric : After the Atari lawsuit my dad stopped working on video arcades and specialized in video poker machines. He worked on them until the day he passed. Right now “Amusement World” is in limbo – the entire shop – (along with the ability to manufacture arcade cabinets) and I’m not sure what we’re ever going to be able to do with it since I’ve already got my hands full.
For those attending MAGFest this year, you can play this amazing piece of history while you’re there, but if you sadly cannot attend, the game will be running in Eric’s store “The Save Point” at 400 N Center Street #155 Westminster, Maryland 21157.