Years before CD-ROMs became the “go to” format for game developers, laser-based disc systems made a splash in the arcades in the early 80s. The animated antics of Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace roll off the tongue whenever arcade talk turns back to the innovative technology that was once touted to “save arcades” from creeping obsolescence. It would also pave the way for the endless port spam of titles like Mad Dog McCree.
But despite the poster-child effect that Don Bluth’s slick animation style created for laserdisc games, they weren’t the first to deliver larger-than-life experiences using the cutting edge tech.
From what I’ve been able to dig up, that honor would go to Quarter Horse from Electro Sport in 1982. This dual monitor cabinet allowed players to bet on horses using the bottom screen and then watch the race as live footage was streamed from a laserdisc to the top monitor in full color. The illusion of watching your pick actually go out and race to win (or lose) would convince more than a few developers of the possibilities. Developers like Sega over in Japan.
The game they would come up with, Astron Belt, hit Japanese arcades in 1983. I remember seeing this in arcades here in North America some time after that, though it had to compete against the likes of Dragon’s Lair further muddling perceptions back then of who was first. But Astron Belt still had that strange attraction because of its use of live video and sprites.
Sega used the laserdisc setup to stream video to the screen such as ships flying at you, screen-filling special effects, canyons, and space battles.
A lot of it was also ripped off from a number of movies. If you had seen Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan the year before in ’82, you’d probably be feeling a sense of deja vu whenever you watched the attraction feature which used a clip from the Genesis Device demonstration (the exploding white digital splashes) and the warp blur of the Enterprise. There was even a closeup fly through of the USS Reliant which was apparently the alien “boss” battleship at the end. Apparently, copyright restrictions were either loose enough to allow it or the copyright holders just didn’t care enough to go after Sega — which is not something anyone could expect today.
Game-wise, Astron Belt allowed the player to control a sprite drawn space ship seen from behind in third-person, moving it about the screen white shooting at the video clip ships. Lasers would be randomly generated to shoot back allowing the player a bit more control over their actions than the linear “choose your path” approach of other laserdisc based games such as Dragon’s Lair.
The problem with Astron Belt seemed to be that it banked more on its use of live video than actual gameplay to woo players to feed tokens to it. It also seemed to throw the clips up seemingly at random. Simply shooting blindly seemed to elicit the same results (a gigantic explosion) as if I were actually trying to shoot enemy vessels.
It also had to go up against Dragon’s Lair whose Don Bluth level production values owned the arcade scene’s laserdisc crowd compared to Astron Belt’s minimalist gloss and cribbed clips. As for ports, it only found its way to the MSX computer which was incredibly popular in Japan.
Yet Astron Belt demonstrated the kind of hardware ingenuity that Sega would be renowned for in the arcades and come to rely on when it began betting on living rooms a few years later. It might not have been the first, and would be overshadowed by its flamboyantly animated rivals, but it was an innovative step forward in taking the tech from simply betting and watching a horse race to shooting up space aliens against a backdrop of titanic explosions.