A reader had asked for help identifying a particular arcade game from the early 80s and what they were describing sounded a lot like Williams’ 1982 hit, Sinistar, an incredibly awesome game that wasn’t only a tough challenge but also talked a lot of trash. Literally. And it mercilessly backed it all up.
Sinistar was the kind of “arcade hard” that a number of gamers today complain modern games are missing. At the same time, at least back in those days, arcade games often had to be tough in order to cycle players — and their tokens/quarters — on a regular basis. It was a war for pocket change and arcade games often won by sheer attrition, coldly calculating the next odds further and further into their favor steadily ratcheting up the challenge. And Sinistar was one of those games that did it a little too well.
But it did a lot of things that made it compelling. For one, it had speech. Not just garbled, muffled speech. It had a digital voice dripping with villainy occasionally taunting the player throughout the game, spoken by its titular bad guy, Sinistar. The goal was simple — destroy him. Getting to that point, though, was a lot harder.
Gameplay felt like Asteroids hopped up on adrenaline sped up by several factors with a boss fight thrown in. The player, as a tiny ship in the center of the screen, was free to move around this space sandbox and blast flying red bad guys, flying turret “warrior” saucers, and the many asteroids that were around. Shooting the asteroids “mined” glowing crystals that floated off and collecting one gave the player one Sinibomb, the only weapon that could hurt Sinistar who was also being built somewhere in the area.
Collecting as many crystals to build up an arsenal of Sinibombs was the main purpose of this part of the game as well as in trying to simply survive the “warrior” enemies that are actually gunning for them. Players could even stumble on the construction site where Sinistar was being built and try to damage what was there with a well placed Sinibomb, but the weapons only ‘floated’ in space — they didn’t shoot out at enemies. The only way to ‘fight’ Sinistar effectively was to fill up your Sinibomb arsenal as quickly as possible in order to get ready for Sinistar’s return which he would gleefully announce with the iconic words “Beware, I live!”.
Sinistar was fast. He zipped across the screen at ridiculously fast speeds. He hounded you. He chased you down. Your ship’s puny laser cannon couldn’t stop him. Asteroids wouldn’t get in the way of his jaws from turning your ship, if he caught up with you, into a crunchy snack exploding between them. Only by luring him behind you and dropping Sinibombs into space like so many nuclear-tipped breadcrumbs would he finally roar his death instead of yours.
Once blown up, it was time to warp to the next zone with more asteroids, more warriors, and a more complete Sinistar giving you even less time to collect Sinibombs. And the chase would begin in earnest once more. I could only make it as far as two or three stages before losing all of my lives to this beast. But he’d always taunt me back into trying again.
Sinistar was a notable technical gem in Williams’ crown. The arcade king started out with pinballs and eventually moved into arcade games, licensing and distributing a number of iconic classics such as Namco’s Pac-Man and Taito’s Space Invaders. They also had a stable of their own hits — Joust, Defender, and Robotron: 2084 — but their bread and butter continued to be pinball machines and later, slots which proved to be a wise move for their later business.
But Sinistar introduced a number of first-ofs for the company including a special 49-way joystick for an incredible degree of control, the company’s first “cockpit” cab, and their first video game with speech. The cockpit cab also had stereo sound built in. The project was also led by a number of familiar names that gamers may remember today from other venues — Noah Falstein (Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis), Sam Dicker (if you heard the exploding sound effect in Defender as your ship was wrecked, he was the guy behind it and many others), John Newcomer (Joust), artist Jack Haeger (he became the art and graphics director at Commodore-Amiga), RJ Mical (he eventually went to 3DO, but he did all the neat special effects that celebrated your demise in Sinistar), Richard Witt, Michael Metz, and John Doremus’ voice as Sinistar.
Unfortunately, the game wasn’t the kind of smash hit that its other arcade offerings were, though it sold ‘well’ according to an interview that Noah Falstein wrote up for this Sinistar shrine. Arcades had experienced a slight downturn during the Video Game Crash that demolished consoles in the West, but Sinistar’s exceptionally tough difficulty could also have been another factor that scared players away.
Despite that, Sinistar made an incredible impression on audiences since then. The voice clips recorded for the game, the taunts that haunted players’ reflexes (and mine) were quoted in all sorts of media since then from World of Warcraft, musical in 2009, and Team Fortress 2’s Heavy Weapons guy. A few clones were even made of the game in the 90s and a chase-cam remake was even released in 1999 and published by THQ taking the game into 3D graphics.
Even though it wasn’t a huge, coin crunching hit in the arcades, Sinistar has proven to be as durable as its villain. Even today, the challenge and the chilling scares drummed up by Sinistar’s taunts easily hold up and is definitely worth playing if you can find it. Players can find this sinister title lurking in Williams Arcade’s Greatest Hits collection for the PS1, emulated via MAME, or its own cab at a retro-arcade, ready to mock a new generation of players into challenging his hunger.