Atari “recharged” will it be warmed over or hot?

Atari just announced some actual new game titles this week. Well, “new” in the sense that they are “recharged” versions of classic Atari games: Breakout, Centipede, Black Widow, and Missile Command. That’s sort of new, right?

We’ve seen Breakout demoed for a while, but these others I haven’t heard about previously. They all feature vector-like wireframe graphics in neon colors that evoke vectorscan CRT graphics, much like the classic hit Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved. I like the aesthetic.

It’s nice to have something interesting coming out of Atari after years of underwhelming-to-disappointing announcements regarding the VCS console project. It’s really good to finally see something new offered, this is what I would have wanted to see a lot sooner.

Curiously, these Recharged titles are not VCS exclusives — they are all available on Steam, the Epic Games store, Switch, XBox Series X/S, and Playstation 4+5. While I think this approach makes the most business sense — you want to put games in all markets to sell the most copies and maximize revenue, it seemingly undermines the “true believer” customers who invested in the VCS crowdfunding, only to find that they could have just bought the games on any other platform. I’m unclear but it may be that they will be available on the VCS sooner, but even if that’s the case, getting the games a few weeks earlier on a relatively expensive, less powerful hardware platform still doesn’t sell the VCS to me very strongly.

I’m most interested in the Black Widow: Recharged game, as this is the least well known classic Atari title out of the four, and therefore has the most potential to offer as a reboot.

I’ve been pretty critical of Atari for the past few years as the disappointments with the delays and inadequacies of the VCS have mounted, so it’s really nice to finally see something happening that looks like it might actually be cool.

Weirdly, although I’ve seen announcements from various videogame news sites about these titles, Atari’s own website looks like it’s only pushing Centipede: Recharged at the moment. Where’s the other games? Are they holding back so they can focus on each one at a time? Or is the Atari Recharged site just that hard to navigate?

Fibonacci 8 Tartan

In 2015, I created the Fibonacci7 Tartan.

I’ve revisited the concept, and today I give you Fibonacci8. Update 10/12/2021: it has now been officially registered.

The Fibonacci 8 colors as a Golden Spiral

By making the sett of the tartan design asymmetrical, I was able to extend to the 8th number in the sequence, and added a 5th color to the pattern, a natural ecru white.

The Fibonacci 8 tartan sett. You can see the proportions of the spiral in the square regions running diagonally from top left to bottom right.

I tried each of the original four colors for the 8th number, and I thought red and green had the some appeal, yellow was interesting, and blue wouldn’t work because it was the 7th number, and I didn’t want to re-order the first 7 colors. But in the end I decided that adding a new color would give the tartan better balance. Each number in the sequence is roughly as big as the previous numbers in the series combined in the early part of the sequence, so after the first 5 numbers, repeating colors really changes the balance, with the color of the last number dominating. So going with a new, and neutral, color for the 8th value in the series works well.

I like starting with yellow as the starting number, symbolizing the start of the golden spiral, and then not using it again, in order to keep it special and to give the eye a visual anchor to where the pattern begins.

I’m very happy with the resulting design.

Atari homebrew legend Nukey Shay, 54, killed in tragic accident

Kurt Howe, known as Nukey Shay in the Atari homebrew developer scene, died last year at age 54, as a result of a tragic accident on Feb 5, 2020, when he was hit by a car while crossing the street in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His loss came as a shock to the Atari Age community as it was discovered over a year later, announced by Albert Yarusso today.

Nukey was a 20 year Atari Age forum contributor, very active in the homebrew and romhacking scene, and a 6502 ASM guru who helped numerous developers with their projects. One of the most knowledgeable active Atari 2600 programmers on the planet, his death mirrors that of Nintendo’s Gunpei Yokoi, a major contributor to Metroid, Kid Icarus, and the original Game Boy handheld, who died in 1997 at age 56 under similar circumstances.

My own Superman romhacks were only possible because Nukey decompiled the ROM and annotated the source code, and shared his work with the world, which made it easy for me to re-arrange the map to create alternative Metropolises. Nukey’s contributions are far too numerous to list succinctly, but his loss is deeply felt by all in the Atari homebrew community.

Mega Man’s box art

The box art for the North American release of the original Mega Man is notorious. Behold its glory:

So bad, it’s good.

Much has been written about it over the years, but not by me, so I wanted to go on the record for enthusiastically loving this artwork. And not in any kind of ironic or sarcastic way, either.

The story goes that when Capcom was getting ready to release Mega Man in the North America market, the American side of the company didn’t want to go with Capcom’s Japanese style artwork, which had a cartoony, cute, kid-friendly anime look to it.

“Ew, anime. How can we sell it to American children?!”

Now, there’s really nothing at all wrong with the Japanese artwork, and as it turns out, American kids love Japanese cartoons. Even if the art style looks like it would appeal more to very young children, I’m not sure that it would have turned off older children. But, looking to appeal to 12-16 year old American boys, Capcom USA probably wanted something with more muscle and scowl.

The story goes, Capcom US rushed a replacement, giving the artist assigned to do the work like a day to turn it around, and the artist had never seen the actual game, and only had a vague idea of what it was about. But none of that excuses the apparent lack of artistic skill displayed by the guy who whipped out the colored pencils and drew this proportionless, perspective-free monstrosity.

The people at Capcom must have a good sense of humor about the whole thing, because over the years they’ve embraced “bad box art Mega Man” and paid homage to it numerous times. And that’s exactly the right attitude to have about it. Today, it’s remembered and talked about far more than the cover art for any other game.

I didn’t hear about Mega Man until after Mega Man 2 came out, in 1988. But Mega Man 2 almost didn’t happen. The original didn’t sell very well in the States (I wonder why?) and the sequel only got produced because the developers believed in it so much that they snuck it into their spare time, working on it when they could, without formal approval from their bosses.

Mega Man 2 is one of the best games ever released on the NES, and was an absolute blockbuster when it came out. I read the full-length review in Nintendo Power magazine, and immediately knew that this was a game to buy. It was definitely my favorite game after I played through it. It was incredible: great music, huge graphics, challenging and fun.

Being a sequel, I also sought out the original. I found a copy at my local Toys R Us a few weeks later, and bought it. I looked at the box art, and thought it looked awful, but I didn’t let that dissuade me from paying for it, because I knew how awesome MM2 was. I didn’t expect it to be quite as good, but if it was only half as good as Mega Man 2, it would still be worth the money. Spoiler: it was.

I didn’t understand why Capcom would have chose this art, this art style. It didn’t make good business sense — I’m sure the poor cover art must have hurt sales. It looked like a crude piece of fan art drawn by a small child. And that’s what I actually thought it was, for a long time. But how could there be fan art for something brand new that hadn’t been seen by any fans yet? Could it have been a reissue done as some sort of contest for the fans?

Maybe it was just one of the guys who worked on the game had a young kid who drew it as a picture of what daddy does at work all day. And daddy was so proud of what his little boy had done, he couldn’t not put it on the cover.

I didn’t find out the true story until many years later. But over time, I grew to love the terrible box art. To me, it signified Capcom’s confidence in what was inside the box, that they were willing to use such a bad drawing for the cover art. Like Princess Leia said to Han Solo: “You came in that thing? You’re even braver than I thought!”

“Nice. Come on. We’re gonna go fight Guts Man.”

Unlike so many other video game companies that dressed up their low-quality on-screen graphics with a fanciful, professionally done painting, here was Capcom saying, in essence: “Look, we don’t care what you think about the cover. This game will blow your socks off, and tear you a new one. We put 100% of our budget into the game, and had fuckall left over for the box art — deal with it. You’ll thank us as soon as you plug it in and hit the power button.”

Capcom realized that, ideally, your box art-to-game-graphics ratio should be the inverse of this.

The video games I played filled me with enthusiasm and excitement, and it inspired me to want to design games of my own. And since I had very little idea of how a computer program worked at the time, most of my game ideas were conceptual drawings with captions explaining what was going on and how it was all supposed to work. I appreciated the box art from Mega Man, in part perhaps because it gave me hope that I could do it too.

Capcom seemed to be telling me: “You have passion and an idea? That’s all you need! Make it happen!”

A life lesson, to be sure.

Appreciating Phoenix on Atari 2600

Phoenix, Atari 2600, 1982

Phoenix was a hit arcade game in 1980-81 before being ported to the Atari 2600 the following year. A vertical fixed shooter in the tradition of Space Invaders, Phoenix was an evolution of the Space Invaders concept, which added a number of innovations: enemy variety, swooping enemies, regenerating enemies, shields, and a mothership boss — one of the first boss battles in video gaming.

The game consists of five waves, which repeat in a cycle. In the first four stages, you face waves of bird-like enemy space aliens. The first two waves consist of smaller enemies who bear some resemblance to their Space Invaders forebearers, in that they march across the screen in a tight, grid-like formation. But these enemies will break out of their formation and swoop down low to dive bomb the player, and then fly back up again.

The second wave features a larger number of enemies, and for some reason the player is afforded rapid fire on this stage only. On all other stages, you have to press the fire button every time you want to shoot, but on the 2nd wave alone, you can hold the fire button down and it will fire automatically.

Wave 3

The next two waves, three and four, feature larger bird-like enemies, which can be killed by scoring a direct hit on their body. An off-center hit will clip one of their wings, which will regenerate after a few seconds if the body isn’t quickly finished off first. These larger bird aliens fly from side to side, not in formation, and change altitude occasionally, and swoop low to touch the ground. It seems that touching the ground is what triggers their regenerative powers, but in addition to that, as they get this low they also pose a threat to the player, who will be destroyed if they collide. In the arcade, these regenerating enemies start out as eggs, which hatch and grow before your eyes to become full-grown birds, but on the Atari 2600 port this is simplified, and the egg phase of their life cycle is omitted.

Wave 5: The Phoenix Mothership. Videogaming’s first boss fight?

The fifth wave is the mothership: a huge, saucer-like ship that fills most of the screen. The boss is destroyed by shooting its commander, who sits in the center near the top of the ship. The bottom of the ship must be chipped away first, to expose the pilot’s cockpit. The rim of the saucer rotates, creating a revolving barrier that must be shot through. This takes time, during which the saucer slowly descends, dropping bombs all the while. As the mothership sinks lower, the reaction time afforded to the player to dodge these shots diminishes, making it increasingly difficult to stay alive. Judicious use of the shield and rapid fire button mashing is the way to survive.

My favored technique to defeat the mothership is to activate shields the moment the wave begins, and fire as rapidly as possible to blow through the shielding in front of the pilot, then as soon as the shield drops, I swing over to the left edge of the ship, where the shielding is thin, and blast away at the rotating rim. The body of the mothership tapers upward toward the outer edge of the ship, giving you a few more pixels of breathing room to react to incoming fire, which is very important. By being at the edge of the ship, you can always escape to safety by dodging left, completely out from under the ship’s breadth, and thus out of its reach. After shooting away the rotating rim, I wait for a clear moment when the mothership isn’t dropping many bombs, and then move back to the center, hit the shields again, and blast away until one of my shots manages to hit the pilot and destroy the ship.

In the arcade, the mothership was also protected by a fleet of escort birds, of the type from the first two stages, but on the Atari 2600 there wasn’t enough computing power to handle all that action, so they are left out, and you face the mothership one-on-one.

Then the cycle begins anew, much like the legend of the mythological phoenix going through death and rebirth.

Phoenix featured three distinct background tracks. Not full songs, these are just simple loops. The first two stages use an electronic wail or warble which somehow evokes bird-ness. The second two stages employ a loop with a swooping pitch from high to low, which evokes and reinforces the swooping motion of the diving birds. The mothership music is a more robotic, mechanical beeping that evokes classic sci-fi movie soundtracks of what space sounds like — beeping, echoing, un-melodious.

The shield adds a dimension of strategy to the gameplay. Using the shield involves a set of trade-offs. In exchange for temporary invulnerability, you cannot move. Further, the shield lasts a fixed amount of time, about 1.5 seconds, and thereafter cannot be used again until it recharges. There’s always a certain amount of luck involved with using the shield — because you’re immobile while it is up, and cannot control when it goes down, the timing of enemy fire can put one of their missiles right in front of you just as the shield goes down, without no time to move out of the way. Thus, while shields can bail you out of a jam, it can sometimes result in a mere delay of the inevitable. In addition to protecting you from the enemy’s shots, your shield will destroy enemies if they touch it, making it an essential offensive weapon for close engagements. When the enemies are very low, it’s too dangerous to take them on without the shield, as their shots cannot be dodged, and they can also crash into you. Thus, despite its slight drawbacks, learning how to use the shield effectively will help you to avoid deaths and last longer into the game.

Legacy

Phoenix is still as good as it ever was, but I don’t think it has aged as well as some of its contemporaries in the shooter genre. It’s primary drawbacks being that it gets pretty repetitive, and that this is accompanied by very little increase in difficulty after you’ve run through it the first cycle. There’s a nearly imperceptible increase in enemy aggression, but it isn’t much more than the initial cycle, and doesn’t seem to increase beyond that. The game awards a single bonus life, at 5000 points, otherwise this game would be easy to play indefinitely. Back in the day, my best scores on this game were around 135,000. While the game is generally pretty easy, accidental deaths are still tough to avoid completely.

It’s worthwhile to point to as an example of the evolutionary path shooters took, and was a noteworthy step forward in the emerging genre of fixed shooters.

Thematically, I liked Phoenix quite a bit. The theme ties in with the phoenix of legend, with its cycle of death and rebirth, giving the game a mythic quality that most video games seldom aspired to have. This gave the game an intangible quality that made it seem like more to me than perhaps it really was. I think this shows the power of narrative, and how even just a tiny bit of storytelling underlying the basic gameplay can enhance the player’s perception and reception of a game.

YoYoGames charging monthly subscription for Game Maker Studio

It looks like GameMaker Studio is finally going subscription-based.

Which makes total sense, and I predicted it about 5 years ago. They denied going to a subscription model at the time, because of course they did. Users at the time weren’t in favor of it, preferring perpetual licensing. But I guess everything changes when you get bought.

Of course, for development tools, everything gets stale if you don’t keep it updated, so a subscription based licensing model probably does make the most sense.

For professionals, anyway. For amateurs and hobbyists, though, it’s a lot of money to pay for a tool if you only use it occasionally. GameMaker’s bread and butter used to be the student/hobbyist/indie developer who could readily afford a one-time price of $40, then $100. Now it’s $100/year, or $9.99/mo. Which is still not that much if you use it a lot, but if you’re just not ready for that type of commitment, there’s really nothing like what GameMaker 8 once was, over a decade ago.

YoYoGames still offers a free edition, intended for student/hobbyist users, but it lacks exports, not even for Desktop OSes, so it’s of extremely limited usefulness for anyone who wants to actually build their projects in order to get feedback from peers and friends.

GameMaker Studio finally coming to Linux?

About 10 years ago, YoYoGames was talking about a Linux IDE for GameMaker Studio on their long-term roadmap. A few years passed, and the roadmap disappeared and all talk about a Linux IDE went silent. It seemed that PlayTech may have been responsible for killing the project when they bought YoYoGames.

I’d given up all hope of a GameMaker IDE on Linux long ago, but a few days ago, this article crossed my newsfeed. It looks like new YoYoGame owners Opera is developing a port, currently in beta. It appears it will be supported on Ubuntu only, but that’s better than zero Linux distros, and Ubuntu is a pretty good choice.

This would have really excited me a decade ago, and would have been the last obstacle to me completely ditching Microsoft. While better late than never, it’s still not really here yet. It sounds like the beta currently has some rather severe issues that make it less than suitable for production at this time. Hopefully this will change quickly. It will be interesting to watch and see how it goes in the coming weeks.

Google Doodle celebrating the 2020-1 Olympic Games is one for the ages

One of the best Google Doodles I’ve enjoyed in the whole of recorded history was released recently in honor of the 2020 Olympic games in Japan, which were postponed 1 year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The doodle is an HTML5 game that feels distinctly nintendo-esque. You play as Lucky Cat, who visits Champion Island to play in games and do good deeds for the island’s inhabitants, who are all anthropomorphic animals. The game pays direct homage to the sort of fetch quest and minigames found in action/adventure/RPG games for the GameBoy, with a distinct Zelda/Link’s Awakening feel to much of it, perhaps mixed with a bit of pokemon. Of course, the entire thing celebrates many aspects of Japanese culture, both traditional and modern.

The graphics are in a 16-bit SNES style and the cut scenes are done in an anime style. Overall the minigames are not super challenging, but are fun and enjoyable as light entertainment, although the mountain climbing gave me some trouble due to the time limit to complete the courses.

I played through the entire thing and thoroughly enjoyed it.

100%!

Audacity: spyware?

A couple weeks ago, I saw a news headline somewhere about how the open source software project Audacity had been compromised as spyware, and that users who are concerned about freedom and privacy should not upgrade to version 3.

This article on ArsTechnica (purports to) debunk this scare story, but I think they arrive at a bogus conclusion. The highlighted text in the screen capture of the article below shows why.

Data necessary for law enforcement is most certainly a spyware concern. Hello!

Spyware is concerned with violating users privacy, period. It doesn’t matter whether there’s a good reason for it, or if it is legally mandated. If the software is gathering information for you, not on your behalf, and reporting it to someone else not you, without your express, informed consent, it fits the definition of spyware. Period.

The “data necessary for law enforcement” category might sound good to many people. Laws are nominally good, and law enforcement must therefore also be good, right?

Sure… Except in corrupt regimes. How might they abuse this?

A better question might be: What legitimate use might they have for this?

Audacity is vague as to exactly what data is “necessary” to provide to law enforcement.

My guess is that copyright cops want some way to track Audacity users who use Audacity in violation of copyright. Of course, there’s not really a way to know if the use of a copyrighted audio file might fall under Fair Use, and Big Copyright does not care — they are the enemy of Fair Use, unconditionally. They want to protect their interests, which means, ultimately, totalitarian-level control over all media, whether they own it or not.

But in more fantastical paranoid scenarios, law enforcement could encompass nominally “anti-terrorist” technologies that can be abused to target political enemies, minorities, etc. I don’t know that this is a thing, but depending on how vague Audacity’s project maintainers are, it could conceivably be a thing. If the perceived threat is that terrorist organizations use software to create media messages, embedding tracking data in the files to identify the computers that were used to produce it, geotag via IP address the location where those computers are, etc. is feasible, at least in principle.

Moreover, there’s little to stop evil regimes from requiring that all software must include whatever data gathering they see fit, turning computers into Big Brother boxes. We may not even be all that far from that reality as it is, given what we know about state actors and non-state actors dark influence the web and on mobile device apps.

The “telemetry” data gathering that vendors use to improve their product and see how users use their products are pretty standard by now, and most people aren’t going to be impacted by that, at least not in a negative way. But it’s a door opened a crack that enables a slippery slope of “if you can collect this, we can require you to collect what we want” so in a way telemetry features is a bit of a trojan horse. But as long as developers are transparent about what they gather, and make it opt-in, I don’t really have a problem with it.

The article does mention that these alleged spyware features are only in official builds, so if you don’t want them, you can compile the project from source and they will not be there. While good, only a very small number of people will compile a software project from source for themselves.

A colleague with an interest in IT and legal issues pointed out to me that:

As I understand it a third party like Audacity DOES have to hand over records if subpoenaed by law enforcement but DOESN’T have to *create* those records if it wasn’t going to create them anyway. E.g., if cops demand the WordPress server logs that I have, I do have to hand them over. But I don’t have to have logs at all if I don’t want to.

So no, they’re doing more than they have to to comply with the law. They could just not collect the information.

I would like to know more about this WSM Group — I googled and there’s a lot of three-letter acronym organizations that use this, but the most likely one, I would guess, could be WSM Music Group, Ltd.

According to wikipedia, they’re in Hong Kong. So, China’s oppressive laws are shaping the way “Free” (libre) software used worldwide is being developed? China is a huge IP violator and (obviously) privacy violator for its citizens, and there’s plenty of examples of Chinese electronics companies (such as Lenovo, Huawei, etc.) embedding insecure backdoors and spyware out the wazoo into consumer products.

So, no, I do not feel at all assured by any of this.

A sad burrito

I got a burrito for lunch earlier.

The cashier told me $10.60. I gave her a $20 and a $1.

She tried to give me the $1 back, I said, “That’s so you can give me back a $10.”

She says “Oh” and gives me a $10.

Since she was trying to give the $1 back to me, she had already entered the amount paid as $20, and so the cash register tells her the change should be $9.40, so she starts counting out $9.40 in change.

I watch her for a couple of seconds, hoping she’ll realize her error, but she doesn’t, so I say, “You already gave me back the $10, I just need the $0.40.”

She got confused, because the cash register told her she owed me $9.40 in change on a $10.60 transaction paid for by a $20. She tried to think about it for a minute, then pulled out her cell phone and ran the calculation on her calculator app.

She ran it twice, and it took like 3 minutes, and I just stood there patiently, waiting for her to catch up. I could have browbeat her with an explanation of how $21 – 10.6 != 10 + 9.4, but instead, I just let her do her thing with the calculator, and she got there, all on her own. Good for her.

I didn’t get angry about it, as it is easy to get angry about someone who derps on a simple math problem, but I am realizing that it’s better not to react that way. I’ve heard this same story told a thousand times, and the teller almost always is telling a “kids these days” story, implying how doomed we are because math education has failed, and hoo boy the new generation coming up sure is frightfully dumb.

The reality is, though, that while math education could be done in better ways, people will always make mistakes now and then, and it’s actually not that big of a deal, nearly all of the time. The times when it could be a big deal, usually those mistakes get caught before they end up causing a big deal.

Math’s important, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t feel like blowing up at someone over my impatience of not getting the coins quickly enough so I can go devour my food.

And don’t get me wrong, I’m not some enlightened buddha-saint, either. I get plenty angry enough all the time as it is, but someone making a simple mistake isn’t something to get angry about; I reserve it now for malicious people, who fortunately seem to exist mostly online. But there’s a fuckton of them, and being angry at them takes enough of my time as it is.

So for this cashier, I just let her take the time she needed. She finally realized what I had been trying to tell her, and I joked and said, “I would have kept it, but you probably would have gotten fired.”

She thanked me for being honest and gave me the $0.40.

I walked away and realized that my alignment must be drifting more toward Lawful good.

But really it’s just that I don’t need $9 that badly that I’d watch someone make a mistake in my favor that could lose them their job.

Then I got back in my car, and read the news about Dan Kaminsky, and had to eat a really sad burrito.

Dan was so smart, probably every day of his life he probably felt like I felt like with the cashier a few minutes ago, dealing with computer programmers who made stupid math mistakes that could cost them their job.

I almost called them “computer programmer idiots” in that last sentence, but I went back and edited that out.

The programmers aren’t idiots either, but when you see the same mistakes enough times, it can try your patience and make you wonder what it would take to get the message through to everyone so you could never have to see that mistake made again.

I didn’t know Dan all that well, but we both spoke at the same conference once. He was friends with a lot of my hacker friends who I’ve met in the infosec sphere. He had an absolutely stirling reputation for both brilliance and kindness, and from watching the talks he gave, he was an incredible human being. The world will be less safe without him.

I’m sorry I didn’t know you any better than I did, Dan. You did a lot with your life, and the stories I’m reading now from your friends say even more about the person you were. Thank you for being that person.