Meteors, a clone of Atari's 1979 hit Asteroids, was released in 1981, and more than 30 years after developer Amusement World prevailed in a copyright-infringement lawsuit filed by Atari, the son of Amusement World's late CEO found a working arcade cabinet of the clone.
Atari sued Amusement World in 1981 after discovering the five-person studio's game Meteors resembled Asteroids in numerous ways, including the basic concept of using a spaceship's weapons to destroy space rocks and enemy ships while dodging those rocks and the projectiles fired by the ships. A notable difference is that Meteors is in color, while Asteroids is not.
In the lawsuit, which Atari filed in U.S. District Court in Maryland, the company charged that Meteors was "substantially similar" to Asteroids and sought a legal remedy. The court agreed with Atari in principle: "It seems clear that [Amusement World] based [its] game on [Atari's] copyrighted game; to put it bluntly, [Amusement World took [Atari's] idea," said the opinion from Judge Joseph Young.
However, the court decided that Meteors' similarities to Asteroids were permissible under copyright law, holding that only an idea's distinct form of expression — not the idea itself — can be copyrighted. Specifically, the court found most of the similarities between the two games to be "unavoidable" in the design of a video game in the genre of "a spaceship combatting space rocks," and focused on the differences instead.
"The Court finds that the ordinary player would regard the aesthetic appeal of these two games as quite different," the ruling said.
Eric Holniker, the son of Amusement World CEO Stephen Holniker — who passed away in October 2012 — runs a video game store called Save Point in Westminster, Md. He recently found an arcade cabinet of Meteors and plugged it in to see what would happen. As seen in the video above, the cabinet still works, even after more than 30 years and 16,000 quarters spent on the machine.
Holniker also reflected on the history of Meteors in the video. He described playing a clone of Asteroids on Windows in the mid-1990s at the age of 6 or 7. "My dad didn't tell me about Meteors until I was maybe 15 or 16. But I remember him walking by me when I was playing this clone," he said, "and he would just [chuckle] every time."