I played a little bit of Centipede at the Silverball Retro Arcade in Asbury Park this past weekend, and I remembered seeing something online about the manual for the Atari 2600 version having a crazy back story. The game, introduced in 1981, resembles Space Invaders, in that you control a gun (or something like it) near the bottom of the screen, and you have to shoot stuff above you. In this case, your targets are bugs in a field of mushrooms. In addition to the centipede, whose segments have to be destroyed individually, there’s also a flea, a spider, and a scorpion. The flea can create more mushrooms, the spider jumps around the screen, and the scorpion can poison mushrooms. When a centipede touches a toadstool, it charges right for you. It’s a fairly simple premise, but that didn’t stop someone from coming up with a story about it. Arcade games never had much in the way of stories, because they didn’t need them, and it wasn’t like people wanted to stand around and read while trying to play one. I believe Donkey Kong was one of the first to have a story, which is interesting in retrospect as Shigeru Miyamoto is now known for favoring a focus on gameplay over story.
On the other hand, home console releases tended to add explanation to the instructions. I have to say I was always fascinated by that kind of thing, but some of these early stories are only vaguely related to the games.
In this case, a game about exterminating insects became a fantasy tale of an elf with a magic wand, which he uses to make the giant bugs in the mushroom patch disappear. The shooter in the arcade version looks kind of like a snake head, while on the Atari it’s just a box, so I guess they figured it could be just about anything. There was even a comic packaged with the Atari game that went into much more detail. Oliver, the smallest person in a village of elves, is friends with a bunch of bugs. That is, until a wizard starts creating toadstools in the village, and hypnotizes the bugs into helping him.
The idea of the bad guy’s minions being controlled by hypnosis is surprisingly common, appearing in the first two Super Mario Land games, among others.
The separated centipede segments moving around on their own reminds me of what Kamek did to Wiggler in Paper Mario: Sticker Star. Maybe that’s where they got the idea.
Later console releases replaced the elf with an entomologist, Lord Motley Bugnut. Okay, I suppose an elf could be an entomologist, but it’s not the case here. And your weapon is a Bug Blaster instead of a wand. I’ve also seen mentions of more recent Centipede games going with a post-apocalyptic science fiction story instead. What I wonder is whether Motley Bugnut knows Motley Bossblob.
The obvious choice for a follow-up to Centipede was Millipede, described in one manual as “cousins to the famed Centipede.”
Zoologically, they belonged to the same subphylum, Myriapoda. The names of neither insect are exactly accurate. Centipedes can have more than a hundred legs, but never EXACTLY one hundred, as each has an odd number of pairs. Millipedes have been known to have up to 750. And centipedes are probably more dangerous, as they’re more likely to be carnivorous, and millipedes aren’t venomous. I once saw a video of a centipede eating a bat. But anyway, Millipede, introduced in 1982, brings back the jumping spiders, and introduces beetles, mosquitoes, bees, inchworms, dragonflies, and earwigs. I have a memory from childhood of my mom talking about seeing a Millipede cabinet and talking about the enemies in it. We had earwigs in our yard, and they were pretty creepy. That’s all I remember, but it stuck with me. There was a fantasy story associated with this game, too. A young man refused to inherit his father’s throne, and after the king died, he turned bugs into vicious monsters to attack him. He fights back with a bow and arrow.
The projectiles in the arcade game are arrow-shaped, but it also has DDT bombs, which I’m not sure fit with the mystical aesthetic.