In the late 1970s, a brief video game arms race occurred, as companies scrambled to see who could be the first to develop voice synthesis for the arcade. Speech synthesis takes a lot of processor muscle, relatively speaking, so it was no mean feat to add it to a game. Game companies assumed that the novelty of a talking video game would ensure an instant hit, maybe another Space Invaders, so the race was on.
In 1980, the Taito company came up with Stratovox.
There is some controversy as to which video game first incorporated speech. Some have claimed Berzerk, others have voted for Wizard of Wor or even Gorf. It is likely that Stratovox is the actual holder of this dubious honor. The speech synthesis in this game was achieved by a 1.5 MHz chip which runs about half the speed of the Z80 chip that is the engine for the rest of the game. The voice is limited to four short and very distorted phrases. Even at the time, the result was a bit underwhelming.
Stratovox is a straight bottom-shooter style game, seemingly based on Galaxian. The "outer space with moving stars" background features a dark blue cratered surface at the bottom (where you are, presumably), and a big, green planet on the right margin of the screen. At the upper left, a small fleet of crescent-shaped space ships wait to attack. Along the right edge of the screen, somewhat overlapping the big planet, is a column of little red stick figures. At the bottom of the screen is a small red rocketship-shaped base which the player can move from back and forth and fire single shots at the aliens.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to protect your little human colonists (or whatever they are meant to be) from the crescent UFOs. The alien ships come at you singly, or in groups of three or six (in a triangular formation). As they meander toward your colonists, they drop bombs to destroy your little red laser base. If they reach the humans, they will snatch one of the little stickmen and the machine will utter “Help me!” The bad guys then make their way back to their sinister lair. If the player manages to ice the bad guys and save the human, a congratulatory “Very good!” is heard, or sometimes, an ominous “We’ll be back.” It is one of the many slightly weird effects that the humans and the aliens have the exact same voice. It leads to the surreal condition of a voice which begs for help, then threatens to come back to get you.
The alien ships come in two varieties: red and yellow. The red ones are worth 100 points and the yellow ones are worth 50. I can not tell that there is any difference in speed or smarts, only that there are fewer of the high-point ships.
At the end of each attack wave, the number of remaining humans is totaled and the player gets a bonus for this. This scoring strategy was used to somewhat more interesting effect in the later Williams classic Defender. As each colonist is tallied, it raises its little stick arms and exclaims “Lucky!” Lucky indeed, little stick-man, lucky indeed.
Note that in the MAME version, the voice synthesis is not very good. Okay, if memory serves, it wasn’t much to begin with. Anyway, in MAME Stratovox, as the round ends, the little stick men sound like they are perhaps saying “Whopping!” or maybe “Walken!” As if they were perhaps calling out for Christopher Walken to come save them from these alien kidnappers.
At each level, the difficulty increases, of course, and a decent player can, in short order, wind up with multiple attack formations of fighters coming simultaneously. On the third and subsequent attack waves, Statovox gets to be pretty exciting, if a bit limited.
Apart from the implementation in MAME, I don't think that anyone ever developed a home version of Stratovox (imagine that!). The arcade machine does not seem to be a highly sought-after item for collectors of arcade games.
Fans of faster, more interesting games will likely be a bit disappointed by Stratovox’s somewhat simple, stately feel. Stratovox is not a bad game, but it is not
very sophisticated. The foes come from one part of the screen, with a single objective. Their attack formations are limited and they have about three attack patterns. Playing it is actually a pretty good time, but it would have been a far better game
if they'd foregone the quest to be the first talking video game and added some clever challenge
screens or at least varied the background
a little bit.