This unusual arcade game came out in 1982 from Gottlieb who were one of the grand old pinball machine masters having made them since the 1930’s. In the early 80s, they began dabbling in arcade video games and Reactor was one of the results thanks to Tim Skelly who worked for nine months of the game that started out as “Ram-It”.
Skelly was already a veteran of the arcade scene when he worked on Reactor having been responsible for vector graphic hits like 1980’s Star Castle. His brainstorm, according to this archived article, was in turning the idea of a shooting game on its head by making the player the projectile instead. From that point on, he added in additional features like the expanding core and the other particles.
Surprisingly, the game initially tested pretty badly which worried Skelly and Gottlieb. Arcade games in test locations lived or died according to how well they would do. Arcade operators, who bought the machines, were making an investment that they hoped to recoup, so if a game doesn’t test well, it’s often a death sentence for it. But Gottlieb stuck with it and the second time around, it did well enough to earn a place in the arcades.
Instead of a joystick, Reactor used a rollerball control — a ball set in the console’s counter — that the player spun to move their ‘vehicle’ onscreen in the direction the ball was spun in. Spinning the ball also determined how quickly you could move in a certain direction allowing for a bit of fine control or dramatic shifts in motion. It was certainly different from using a standard ‘stick, but it lent itself nicely over to the odd setting that the game challenged the player with.
In Reactor, you controlled a small diamond shaped ship in a large, enclosed space. At its heart was the reactor core which slowly expanded, filling that space and making life cramped for you. Nuclear “particles” would enter and try to bump you into the walls to destroy you before you could do the same thing to them. More advanced particles would also enter in later stages like leptons and neutrinos with added challenges such as splitting up into more particles to make things tougher.
The player had to destroy a quota of the particles as quickly as possible while the reactor’s growing core squeezed the play space even smaller. “Coolant” rods were along two of the walls and bumping particles into them could “cool” the core down, shrinking it. There were also small chambers off of the main one where the player could bump particles into and they also had a limited number of decoys they could use to creatively lure them over to where they wanted them to go.
The game also boasted computer speech, great sound effects, and a neat rock music like cue for doing well. It also made for an interesting challenge for high score champions, although not everyone thought the game was great. Apparently it was neat enough to earn a port over to the Atari VCS by Parker Bros. which was actually not half bad and did a great job translating the rollerball motion control over to the joystick.
Tim Skelly was later hired as art director for STI (Sega Technical Institute) and worked on Sonic 2 before eventually heading over to Microsoft researching 3D graphic interfaces for desktops in the 90s. He then apparently quietly left and disappeared into relative obscurity…or a quiet semi-retirement.
Although it didn’t shake up the arcade scene as some of its peers did, Reactor remains one of those quirky, beep boop zoom titles that personified the flashing lights and electronica of the arcades. Its raster graphics made an impression as you walked by and the bumper car mentality of its challenge created a unique experience for players. Wherever Tim Skelly may be, someone out there is still popping particles and racing against time to the electric beats of Reactor.