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Bitten by a Black Widow

Vector monitor games tend to get arcade game collectors all hot and bothered. The crisp images vector games create are not faithfully reproducible on standard CRT or modern LED monitors. There is a especially unique and cool atmosphere to a vector game, especially color vector that is unlike any other gaming experience. Atari invested in vector technology and development heavily in the golden era of arcade games. Many Atari classics such as Asteroids, Battlezone, and Tempest use these X/Y monitor systems to great success. Vector allowed not just bold colors and sharp lines, but a higher quality of animation (even if it was mostly wireframes) compared to standard raster monitor games of the time period. The downside to vector was the games could be hard to keep running reliably, and were difficult to convert to newer games since the unique monitors could only be used for vector games.

In 1982 Atari in house development for arcade games had a bit of a rough year, with most of Atari's hits being from licensed games from other companies (Such as Dig Dug, Kangaroo, and Pole Position). Check out my documentary on Liberator if you want a deeper dive into this issue. One of Atari's less than well received in house developed games for 1982 was Gravitar. Gravitar was designed to be a challenging "players game" in the vein of offerings from Atari's competitor Williams (such as Defender or Robotron: 2084). Atari had huge hopes for the game, anticipating it to be the next arcade smash hit. These hopes faded however, when Gravitar would only end up selling 5,427 copies. Players didn't like it, citing the hard difficulty... and operators were stuck with an underperforming game with a strange monitor... enter Black Widow.

Black Widow is a neat combination of the themes from two Williams games; Robotron and Bubbles. Much like Robotron, you fight a army of enemies from all directions using two joysticks one to control the movement of your character, and another for firing direction. Instead of robots to fight and people to save in a dystopian future, you fight evil bugs on your spider web and collect bonus "$". Some enemies will lay eggs, which you need to push off the web before they hatch, others will emit a large shock field which can destroy you. Some sections of the web become blocked so you have to run around them, sort of like the barriers in Star Castle by Cinematronics. Finally, there is even a bonus round much like in Galaga or Gyruss. The game is fun, fast, full of great animation, and clever theming. It was also released as a fix for all those unhappy Gravitar customers.

Black Widow was sold in two ways, either as a conversion kit for Gravitar machines or as a dedicated machine from Atari. The dedicated machines however, were just factory conversions of unsold Gravitar machines. Side art was simply applied over the old Gravitar artwork, and even the Black Widow PCB's are just modified Gravitar PCB's with a sticker over the old Gravitar logo. Atari officially lists the production of Black Widow at 1550, but it is unclear if that is factory converted games or conversion kits or both combined. This puts Black Widow as possibly the second rarest vector game Atari ever made behind Major Havoc and possibly a bit more rare than Red Baron.

The girl who drives with you for 6 hours to get a game, you marry that girl.

This Black Widow is a Atari factory conversion, owned by the previous owner since 1993. Other than the control panel overlay it is all original, and even included an extra set of NOS side art which I don't plan on using anytime soon. The monitor did have the popular LV2000 add-on installed at some point, but looks amazing with none of the odd ball vector behavior that sometimes frustrates vector owners. The game is a bit dusty but otherwise in fantastic shape. You can see a bit of the Gravitar artwork peeking though a torn off piece on the left side of the game side.

Black Widow never had an official home release back in the early 80's, but is a staple on modern "best of" collections from Atari for modern systems. As a kid I don't recall ever seeing a Black Widow game until the late 90's during a traveling arcade game retrospective came to Washington D.C. It's an impressive hidden gem from Atari and really hits all the hallmarks of a classic game from this era... it's easy to learn, but hard to master. I'm excited to have another vector classic in my collection!

- Cassandra

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