An Appreciation of Atari’s Black Widow
Even with the crash looming around the corner, the golden age of arcade games was still booming in 1982. A quick survey of the releases for that year shows many major and medium-level classics that are still played and fondly remembered today. Q*Bert, Donkey Kong Junior, Moon Patrol, Dig Dug, BurgerTime, Tron, and others competed for quarters (or tokens, depending on where you played). As with any other year in arcade game history, there were quite a few hidden gems that slipped through the cracks for one reason or another. One of these unheralded gems is Atari’s Black Widow.
Programmed and designed by Bruce Merritt, the game hit arcades in early 1983, and quickly began attracting crowds.
The gameplay works like this: You, as the eponymous black widow, must defend your web against a variety of insect enemies, such as mosquitoes, beetles, and hornets. To clear each round, you must eliminate the invading bugs. When you shoot the enemies, they leave behind money (represented as $ symbols) that you can collect for points. You can also pick up grubsteaks for additional points (in denominations of 50, 100, 250, and 500) Eggs also pop up on your web, but you must push these off immediately or else they’ll grow and hatch into new bugs. Much like Robotron: 2084 you take control of two joysticks: the left for moving your black widow, the right for directional shooting.
One of the unique aspects of the golden age of arcade games is that even when the popular titles spawned similar games, their successors usually incorporated different gameplay tactics to make them stand out from their inspirations. This is very much the case with Black Widow.
Whereas Robotron: 2084 features relentless carnage and enemies that confront the player from the beginning of each stage, Atari’s Black Widow has the enemies come in various groups so as not to totally overwhelm the player. One particular enemy, the thunderbug, must be dealt with cautiously, since it releases a chain reaction upon being shot that will kill the player if contact is made. This forces you to keep a respectful distance when aiming for the thunderbug so as not to get caught in the explosion.
So what makes Black Widow so much fun to play?
It’s fast-paced but never too overwhelming. So, those arcade rats who never quite warmed up to the more intense action of Robotron may prefer Black Widow for this reason alone. As mentioned earlier, with Black Widow you don’t swarmed with enemies right off the bat, but rather in different groups.
Of course, the quantity of bugs per group will increase as you clear each wave, but at least you’ll have time to react to each enemy and learn their pattern. The color vector graphics have that minimalist appeal that more-or-less depict the various creatures realistically, as opposed to more colorful, fantastical designs seen in games like Lady Bug. One interesting obstacle that’ll keep you on your toes is the differently colored sections of the web that change sporadically. Although your web mostly stays blue, you’ll occasionally see lines turn either green (meaning you can pass through them) or red (meaning you can’t go through and will have to find another way out).
Strangely enough, all units produced and released by Atari were conversions of other, less popular titles like Gravitar and Space Duel. In all, Atari managed to move 1,550 units of Black Widow for $995 a pop to arcades and other spots where coin-op arcade games could be stationed for play.
Despite the 1982 copyright notice, Black Widow was released in February 1983, according to BW’s entry on the arcade-history database (Available at Arcade History). No home ports were made for the Atari video game consoles and computers (Even though its inspiration got an Atari 5200 version that replicated the dual-joystick action) although a few Atari arcade compilations have included Black Widow.
Those of you looking to find Atari’s Black Widow in the wild should be aware that it’s not an easy game to find, sadly. The Aurcade database currently lists 0 public locations that have Black Widow available for play (FYI: The Pinball Wizard Arcade, which I recently covered, is one of them!). The hunt is worth it, though, as this game provides a different spin on the Robotron theme and has typically eye-catching marquee and side artwork to gander upon. And the best part is, you won’t need a can of Raid to get rid of these bugs!
Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t share this neat clip of Black Widow being played. Enjoy!