The basic gameplay of Spacewar! involves two armed spaceships called "the needle" and "the wedge" attempting to shoot one another while maneuvering in the gravity well of a star. The ships fire missiles that are unaffected by gravity (due to a lack of processing time). Each ship has a limited number of missiles and a limited supply of fuel. Each player controls one of the ships, and must attempt to simultaneously shoot at the other ship and avoid colliding with the star. The hyperspace feature can be used as a last-ditch means to evade enemy missiles, but the reentry from hyperspace would occur at a random location and there is an increasing probability of the ship exploding with each use.
Player controls include clockwise and counterclockwise rotation, thrust, fire, and hyperspace. Initially these were controlled using the front-panel test switches, with four switches for each player, but these proved to wear out very quickly under normal gameplay, and the location of the switches left one player off to one side of the CRT display and visually disadvantaged as a result. Most sites used custom control boxes wired into the same switches, although joysticks and other inputs were also used.
Several optional features were controlled by sense switches on the console:
- no star (and thus no gravity)
- enable angular momentum
- disable background starfield
- the "Winds of Space"- a warping factor on trajectories that require the pilot to make careful adjustments every time they move.
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