DALL-E mini… legit or cheat?

DALL-E mini is a scaled down implementation of DALL-E, a neural net AI that can create novel images based on natural language instructions. I’ve been having fun trying it out.

I like pugs, so I have told DALL-E mini to make me a lot of pug pictures of various types. A lot of the results look at least halfway decent.

The twitter account @weirddalle posts a lot of “good” (amusing) DALL-E results. Most of which I think are safe to say are novel creations, not something you would expect to find many (if any) examples from a google image search (although, who knows, the internet is a really big, really weird space).

And then I asked DALL-E mini for “a great big pug” and the mystique unraveled for me. I could recognize a lot of familiar pug photos from Google’s image search results page. I tried to go to google to find them, but the current results it gives me are a bit different; I’d guess that the images in the screen cap of DALL-E, below, would have been the top hits for “pug” in Google Image search several years ago.

The four in the upper right corner look especially familiar to me, as though I’ve seen those four images in that arrangement many times before (as I believe I have from searching Google for images of pugs many times.) I feel very confident that I have seen images very close to all nine of them before. Of course now, in 2022, if I search google for images of pugs, I get different results. But I’ve been a frequent searcher of pug pictures for 20 years, and I’m pretty confident that perhaps 5 or 10 years ago, most of the above 9 images were first-page results in Google Images for “pug”.

So, this makes me wonder, is DALL-E merely a sophisticated plagiarist? Is it simply taking images from Google and running some filters on them? For a very generic, simple query, it seems like the answer might be “maybe.”

DALL-E’s source code is available on github, which should make answering this question somewhat easy for someone who has expertise in the programming language and in AI. But I probably don’t have much hope of understanding it myself if I try to read it. I can program a little bit, sure, but I have no experience in writing neural net code.

My guess is that DALL-E does some natural language parsing to guess at the intent of the query, tokenizes the full query to break it up into parts that it can use to search for images, very likely using Google Image search. Then it (randomly? algorithmically?) selects some of those images, and does some kind of edge detection to break down the image’s composition into recognizable objects. We’ve been training AI to do image recognition by solving captchas for a while, although most of that seems to be to help create an AI that can drive a car. But DALL-E has to recognize whatever elements form the Google Image Search results match the token in the query string. Once it does so, it “steals” that element out of the original Google image, and combines it with other recognizable objects from other images from other parts of the tokenized query string, compositing them algorithmically into a new composition, and then as a final touch it may apply one of several photoshop filters on the image to give it the appearance of a photograph, painting, drawing, or what have you.

These results can be impressive, or they can be a total failure. Often they’re close to being “good”, suggesting a composition for an actually-good image that would satisfy the original query, but only if you don’t look at it too closely, because if you do, you just see a blurred mess. But perhaps if DALL-E were given more resources, more data, or more time, it might make these images cleaner and better than it does.

(Mind you, I’m not saying using the set of data that is Google Image Search results is the cheating part. Obviously, the AI needs to have data about the world in order to apply its neural net logic to. But there’s a difference between analyzing billions of images and using that analysis to come up with rules for creating new images based on a natural language text query, and simply selecting an image result that matches the query and applying a filter to it to disguise it as a new image, and then call it a day.)

So, when you give DALL-E very little to work with, such as a single keyword, does it just give you an entire, recognizable image from Google Image search results, with a filter applied to it.

Is it all just smoke-and-mirrors?

I guess all of AI is, to a greater or lesser degree, “just smoke and mirrors” — depending on how well you understand smoke and mirrors. But the question I’m trying to ask really is “just how simple or sophisticated are these smoke and mirrors?” If it is easy to deduce the AI’s “reasoning method” then maybe it’s too simple, and we might regard it as “phony” AI. But if, on the other hand, we can be fooled (“convinced”) that the AI did something that requires “real intelligence” to accomplish, then it is “sophisticated”.

I really enjoy playing around with DALL-E mini and seeing what it can do. It is delightful when it gives good results to a query.

For example:

DALL-E: A group of pugs having a tea party
DALL-E: “A world war one doughboy who is a capybara” didn’t quite work, but I’m giving them points for trying. I wanted an anthropomorphic capybara in a WWI uniform. Perhaps I should have asked more specifically.
DALL-E: “Pugs at the last supper”
DALL-E: Pug Da Vinci
I think DALL-E gets Da Vinci pretty well. The Puga Lisa?
I like these so much.
DALL-E doesn’t do a bad Klimt, either.
DALL-E, a beautiful stained glass window of a pug
DALL-E, a mosaic tile floor depicting a pug

I would proudly hang any of these cubist pug paintings in my house.

I think this puggy spilled the paint before he could get his portrait finished.

Please don’t do this

I got this email today…

To:
Webmaster

Name:
Dean

Email:
[redacted]

Subject:
Dungeons and DoomKnights

Message:
Hello friend! I saw your posts about Dungeons and Doomknights and I
was wondering if you could send me a copy of the rom?

I know this is a bit blunt however I can’t find a digital copy of the
game anywhere including for purchase. I am a really big fan of the
creators and would really love a chance to play the game. Thank you!

I replied:

Hello, Dean,

I’m not at liberty to share the ROM. It is a copyrighted work.

You may purchase it from Hero Mart, however: https://www.heromart.com/products/copy-of-dungeons-doomknights-retro-edition

If you’re a big fan of the creators, you should want for them to be paid for their work.  This will enable them to create more games for you to enjoy.  $14 is not a lot of money to pay for a game such as this.

You’re welcome,

–Chris


I think ripping ROMs and sharing ROM files for abandonware titles is an ethically very-light-grey area, and would like to see copyright law revised to make it fully legal. But please do not hurt developers, particularly small indie and homebrew developers, by asking around for ROMs for recently released commercial products.

It’s one thing if the creator/rights holder releases the game for free, it’s quite another to go about asking reviewers for an unauthorized copy. If you understood how much effort was taken to create the work you’re seeking, you would appreciate how little they are asking for a legit copy.

I love Free/open source software, but not everything is. And that’s OK.

Respect creators. By paying them.

Update

“Dean” wrote back to me, to let me know that he tried to purchase the ROM from Hero Mart, at the link I provided, and the purchase failed. He wrote to their customer support and they confirmed that the ROM is no longer for sale, and Hero Mart have since taken the item off their site.

I do think it’s unfortunate that they chose to discontinue sale of the game so quickly. I can’t understand why they would want to do that. It’s their choice, but to me it runs counter to the spirit of the homebrew community, which is trying to keep old systems alive. 

Dungeons and DoomKnights

Dungeons and DoomKnights, a new NES release in 2022, dropped last week. I didn’t kickstart it, but I did pre-order it about a month ago. Unlike just about every other thing I’ve pre-ordered in the last 10 years, this one arrived quickly — not two years later than announced, but just a few weeks after I paid for it.

I put about an hour into it today. I haven’t gotten very far yet, but I’ve made a little bit of progress. So far, I’ve managed to lose and re-gain my Axe, collect two Heart Containers, and befriend an attack Pomeranian, who can reach some areas that I can’t fit into.

I’m not entirely sure what else I’m supposed to do, or where I’m supposed to go next. The level design is non-linear, allows backtracking (to an extent), and doesn’t give you a lot of indication about what you’re supposed to do, or where you’re supposed to go next (although there’s some tantalizing spots where you can see an area that you can’t get to due to some obstacle, and the primary challenge of the game seems to be to find objects that will grant you an ability that you can use to clear the obstacle to get to the next area.

I’ve managed to find two keys, and there’s been a few switches that you can flip to open doors as well. It’s that sort of game. So you have to experiment and figure things out. Oddly, there doesn’t seem to be a pause feature, nor are there any functions to the start or select buttons.

My impressions so far are that it’s decent, if not great. I find the controls feel on the stiff side, not necessarily a good thing. Your primary attack is an overhead axe smash, which can hit slightly behind, above, and in front of you, as the axe passes through its arc. You don’t have a lot of range with it, meaning any time you’re close enough to hit an enemy, it’s also pretty close to you, and if you’re not careful you’re likely to blunder into it and take some damage. Due to the stiff controls, it usually seems like you should have been avoided most of the damage, if only they controls were a bit more fluid. Also, if you’re approaching from above, your attack hitbox will put you at a disadvantage, and so far I haven’t found too many solutions to compensate for this weakness.

Enemy AI is very rudimentary, but very much on par with what you’d expect from a NES game. Enemies basically move around in a simple pattern, not really reacting to your presence. They don’t sense your presence, and don’t deliberately attack you, they just follow a looped set of actions and if you’re in the way, you’ll take damage. Accordingly, although there’s enemies pretty much on every screen, they’re not terribly interesting or challenging to deal with. Certainly they’re no worse than many other games from the original NES era.

The game has a lot of nostalgic cultural references and callbacks to the NES, for laughs. It’s pretty cheesy, but if you grew up in the 80s, you’ll probably appreciate and understand most if not all of the references.

On the plus side, the graphics are really great. For a NES game, they did a excellent job of creating good looking pixel art for the background tiles and character sprites, using the palette limitations of the NES to good effect to create a legible visual language that is fairly easy to pick up. At times you can be fooled by what’s dangerous when touched and what you need to walk up to to talk to, though. And some of the entrances to caves can be a little bit non-obvious – basically if you see a big black hole in the wall, it’s a doorway, unless it’s not. Usually it is though. This was probably more obvious back in the day, but more recent retro games made for modern platforms tend to be a little less ambiguous.

Dungeons and DoomKnights was built with NESMaker, and (as far as I’m aware) it’s the first NESMaker game I’ve played. If you liked games like Wizards & Warriors or Rygar this is probably a worthy pick-up. You can purchase it, while it lasts, at their web site.

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Some thoughts on the design of Mini Metro

I picked up Mini Metro about a week ago. I know it’s been around a few years, but I never claimed to be trendy.

I like the aesthetic and the mechanics of the game. It’s relaxing to play, yet gets hectic and overwhelming. It’s a fairly unique concept for a game, so it gets innovation and originality points. It’s a math-y game, but it presents the math intuitively and concretely, using shape and color and quantities that you have to eyeball, rather than representing quantities with numbers. There are various rates at which things happen, things that place demand on your resources, and you have to come up with a system that effectively utilizes those resources and balances demand. It requires a bit of strategy and some cleverness, and you can pause it, take your time, and think, or count and measure, or whatever you need to do to figure out your strategy. You have to understand how the rules work, and there is complexity in the ways the rules combine, but the rules are relatively simple taken individually, and they are introduced one at a time in a way that makes them easy to learn.

I don’t think it’s perfect, but it’s a pretty good game concept. Obviously, it’s been successful and popular.

But I think about ways I might improve its design.

What I don’t like about it is that there’s a little too much randomness in the spawning of the station points. Depending on how those play out, you can get totally screwed and have no possible way of managing the problems the game presents you. I feel like a better game design would always ensure that there was a solution that a sufficiently talented player could come up with, but that seeing the solution and implementing it would be the things that are difficult. It’s fine for the game to present a difficult challenge, and more difficult as the game progresses, but they shouldn’t be impossible.

So, for example, spawning a cluster of 6-10 Circle stations with no other types of stations in the region is an unfair situation. The spawning code should either not do this, or there should be ways to consolidate/erase multiple stations into a super-station. The game does give you Interchange stations, which have more capacity and speed than a basic station, but it only upgrades one existing station, and can’t be used to consolidate several nearby stations of the same type into one. I think it would be way more interesting if you could upgrade one station, and then all basic stations of the same shape within a certain radius of the new interchange would de-spawn, consolidating their traffic into the Interchange.
But I think the way I’d prefer to solve the problem would be to put the Station spawning in the player’s hands, not have it be done automatically by the game.

So my proposal would be that **passengers** would appear throughout the city, with a destination in mind (indicated by their shape). They have a limited walking distance that they are capable of traveling before they get tired and irritated. Irritated pedestrians change color and vibrate to indicate they are tired and unhappy. They will walk toward the nearest station, and try to travel to the closest station that matches their shape.

To make them happy, you can build a station near enough to them that they will walk to it, and then you can connect stations with your rail systems to take them efficiently to their destinations. You can spawn an unlimited number of stations (hmmm, perhaps), but you have limited resources in terms of rail lines, cars, carriages, bridges, and tunnels to connect them.

The passenger spawning is out of the player’s control, that part is provided by the game as the challenge, and the player can strategically build stations of the type desired, at the point desired. Maybe the player should be constrained by having to choose how many of which shape station is available to them, or something like that.

The other thing that I see with the game is that, at some point the game just decides to flood you with passengers until you die. Usually somewhere around the 1200-2000 passenger mark, the game just cranks up the generation of more passengers, attempting to overwhelm the player and force the game to a conclusion. Again, I think it’s better to give the player challenges that are possible. Maybe it gets harder and harder to keep up with the challenge, but there should always be a way to do it.

(I accept that it could be there is, and that it only seems like the game becomes impossible because I’m locked in to the design choices I made, and if I tore everything down and re-designed, maybe there’d be a way to create a more efficient system with the same resources available to me that could handle the new volume of traffic. But it doesn’t seem that way to me — even on Endless and Creative modes, where I have no constraints on the resources available to me to build the system, no matter how many lines and cars I throw at the problem, the population will always scale to a point where there’s always overcrowded stations.)

One thing I like about the game is that they don’t have an in-game currency that you earn by transporting passengers and use to spend on improvements for your transit system. I think if the game had that, it would be too much like a Sim-style game, and I think removing a concept of money, and de-coupling a potential feedback loop of performance income improvement more performance helps to keep the game simple — and I like that.

I wonder about that, and why the designer of the game decided on that. Because it’s inconceivable that they wouldn’t have considered every completed trip being converted into in-game money that would be spendable on more rail lines, trams, carriages, etc.

And they must have considered that, and then discarded the idea. I wonder why they decided it and what pros/cons they weighed to make that decision.

Making Minesweeper

I haven’t done any game development in years. My enthusiasm for game development took a big hit after I struggled to get used to the changes to the IDE that came when GameMaker Studio went from 1.4 to 2.0. I still don’t like the GMS 2 UI, for many reasons. The GMS 1.4 IDE had plenty of UX issues itself, but I thought that YoYoGames threw out too much when they did their ground-up rewrite of the IDE for the 2.x version. A more incremental UX transition from 1.x to 2.x would have been better.

GameMaker 2 is definitely improved over 1 in many other ways and obviously is the way forward for anyone who wants to work in GameMaker. But GameMaker is still rather limited in certain ways that I’ve always found annoying, and so I had the choice: stick with it, switch to something else, or quit.

I opted to quit. After spending nearly 10 years working in GM8 and then GMS1, I didn’t want to start over learning a new tool, and even switching from GMS1 to GMS2 felt enough like learning a new tool that I didn’t want to do that either.

Having taken all that time off, though, I realize that I still have a desire to make games, provided the experience is itself enjoyable more than it is painful.

In 2020, during pandemic lockdown, out of boredom I made a Snake clone in GameMaker, called Tangle, and it made me happy.

The other day, I was feeling nostalgic for the old built-in Windows game Minesweeper, and discovered that it is not included with Windows 10. You can install a version of Minesweeper from the Microsoft Store for free, and so I tried it, but I hated it. They added all this needless tutorial crap to it that tries to teach you how to play minesweeper by telling you how to do every little thing — stuff that’s easy to figure out on your own, and more enjoyable and rewarding to figure out on your own.

There was a fad in game design over the last 10-20 years to build the manual into the game, in the form of tutorials that told you about how every feature in the game works and how to do every single thing. This is a great idea in theory, but in execution they often prove more annoying than useful. There’s so much built-in gamer knowledge that any experienced player will bring to a new game, from the hundreds of games they’re already familiar with. Such conventional knowledge is just tedious to explicitly spell out for a player.

As well, putting up signposts for every single mechanic is insulting to the player’s intelligence. It’s really more delightful to discover things through exploration and experimentation than it to have the experience of someone holding your hand and telling you when and how to interact with every single thing in the world.

At the same time, in a lot of games I find that I can get frustrated when I can’t figure out how to do something, and I spend a long time trying to figure it out, and it’s not obvious how to “do the thing”. Often the game world is dressed up to look like a realistic world that is full of things we’re familiar with, and we bring assumptions and expectations about those things with us. When we see a chair, we think “I know what that is”. In many games, a chair is just a tile that you can’t interact with, that serves to convey to the player that they’re indoors in a furnished room that has a chair. But there’s nothing to do with the chair. You can’t sit on it. You can’t pick it up and use it to tame a lion. You can’t set it on fire. You can’t break it over someone’s head like a pro wrestler. You can’t move it next to the shelf so you can stand on it and get an object on the top. It’s just a tile that you can’t walk over and have to walk around.

And that’s bullshit. Because it creates the expectation of useless or limited usability in the other objects in the world. You see another object in the game, a chest. You know you can open the chest and find a treasure. You know some chests are locked, and some are trapped or trigger encounters. But even though the chest looks like it is made of wood, you can’t break it up and put the pieces into the fireplace, or set a fire and use it to signal an ally far away on the map, or keep yourself warm in a cold zone.

Games like Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild amazed us with the greatly broadened scope of things you could do with nearly every object in the game world that you could see. But that amazement was a break in expectation from what decades of more limited games had trained us to know about interactive game worlds.

Minesweeper is super simple and abstract — about as far away from BOTW as you can get. You can figure out how to play it in a few seconds by clicking. There’s no need for a tutorial mode with achievements to track the things the game explicitly taught you to do. You just go directly to the game play, and you figure it out, all on your own. This makes you feel smarter, empowered, and like the game respects your intelligence. The Microsoft Store version of Minesweeper treats you like a baby, insultingly trying to be helpful and explaining things to you that you already knew, or could have figured out faster without their “help”.

It turns out that the OG minesweeper is available for download if you google for it, and you can still run it on modern day Windows. I don’t know how legal it is to download, but it ain’t like anyone’s making a fortune pirating minesweeper, a game that was given away for free for over a decade with every install of Windows.

So I downloaded it and played it and, you know, it’s just minesweeper, but as I was playing it I was appreciating the design of it, the simplicity, the clear logic that it communicates to the user through its iconography. And I have to say, minesweeper, though utterly commonplace, is really well designed as a game.

I thought, “what the hell” and decided to try to make it myself. I just wanted to see if, A) I could do it, and B) if I could find the experience enjoyable.

It turns out, I could.

I fired up GMS1.4, still installed on my PC, because I didn’t feel like being frustrated by the lack of familiarity with where all the controls in the GMS2 IDE are, and how they all look familiar yet work subtly differently.

Minesweeper is really, really simple. You have a grid of cells. Apart from edge cells, each cell has 8 neighbors. A cell can either have a mine in it or be empty. An empty cell is safe to click on, and doing so reveals how many mines there are among the eight neighbors. You can then use this information to deduce the locations of mines. Once you are sure of a mine’s location, you can right-click the cell to mark it with a flag. This makes the cell safe, because you cannot accidentally set off a mine in a cell that has been flagged. You proceed to traverse the entire minefield, until you have identified and marked all of the mines correctly. If you make a mistake, and click a cell containing a mine, you lose the game. When you lose the game, the entire minefield is revealed, and if you mistakenly flagged any empty cells, those flags are marked with a red X to indicate your error; also the mine you clicked on to end the game is drawn with a red background to indicate it blew up.

There’s a bit more to it than that: a timer, which is used to rank players based on how quickly they can complete the game; a scoreboard of high scores; also the first click in the game is always “free” — the position of the mines is determined after the opening move is played, so that the first cell the player clicks on can always be empty, and thus you always have a chance to win the game — there are no unfair first-move deaths. Finally, there are three different levels of play: beginner, intermediate, advanced, with grids of increasing size and more mines to find at the higher difficulties.

I went with the simplest approach I could think of to build the core features. I didn’t bother with the high score, the timer, or the dashboard at the top of the window. I just implemented a mine cell object, a controller object to handle global state and data, and put most of the logic in the cell object. There’s no actual grid data structure; the mines are simply laid out to create a grid, and each mine cell only needs to be aware of its surrounding eight cells, so that’s all they do. The checks for this don’t care if they’re edge or corner cases, either. They check all 8 positions where a cell could be, and check to see there is one; if so, it checks to see if it is empty or a mine, and if it’s a mine it counts the neighbor and adds it to its tally.

When the game starts, every cell is empty, but when you make your first move, the cell you picked is cleared, and the rest of the mine cells that comprise the field randomly determines whether it contains a mine or not, and the state of the minefield is thereby determined. Thereafter, when you click a cell, if you release the button while the mouse is still over the cell, you trigger the sweep script, which will reveal whether there was a mine or not; if not, the cell will reveal how many mines are in its neighboring cells. If you mouse outside of the cell after clicking on it, and then release the mouse button, the mine cell will not trigger. This allows you to think about the move you are about to make while the mouse button is down, and if you decide that you want to take the move back, you can.

If you click in an empty cell that has 0 neighbors with mines, something special happens. Since the game is telling you that all of the neighbors are safe to clear, it does this for you automatically, saving you the time it would take to clear each neighbor manually. To do this, we check when this condition exists, and if there are 0 neighbors for the current cell, we call the “sweep” function for the eight neighbors. This “sweep” function checks each of the 8 neighbors in the same way, so that if any of them also has zero neighbors with a mine, then all of those neighbors are cleared automatically as well. This results in potentially large areas of the filed being cleared by a single click, and is probably the most fun part of the game.

The game conveys all of its information to the user graphically, through sprites. I created one sprite resource, containing the different states for a mine cell: untouched, cleared, mine, flag, and for the number of neighbors containing a mine. Most of my time spent in development was taken up by drawing the sprites. I wanted to get the colors accurate to classic Minesweeper, and but I didn’t otherwise concern myself too much with exact pixel accuracy or font accuracy. Due to my rusty pixeling skills, it took me a bit before I figured out a good workflow that would enable me to create individual images that had consistently centered positioning and sizing. I ended up deciding on 32×32 pixels for my cell size. This enabled me to create attractive, classic-looking cell graphics.

I did the drawing work in paint.net, in a single 32×32 pixel image with one layer for each sub-image in my sprite. The bottom layer had the grey background and outlining needed to convey a sense of bevel and shadow to create the illusion that the un-cleared cells have a raised tile on them. Within these, I drew very rudimentary flag and mine images, and using the text tool I created labeled numbers for the neighbor counts, colored them accurately. Then I imported the graphic into GameMaker and ordered the sub-images in the sprite in such a way to make the coding as convenient as possible.

Coding took the least amount of time out of everything. It was all pretty easy. The only complexity about the code had to do with some order-of-execution details that I worked through at the game start, because I have each cell determining whether it has a mine in it sequentially, and then I have to have each mine check its neighbors for the presence of a mine, in order to count them. Since the counting can’t start until all the cells determine whether they contain a mine, the neighbor counts don’t take place on the first step of game execution.

I also took a lot of time debugging a logic error that I created for myself unwittingly when I tried to code the recursive checking for neighbors that takes place when the player sweeps through a cell having zero neighboring mine cells. This was tricky because I was using the sprite sub-image to contain state information, which made a lot of sense because the sub-images directly convey this information. But there was one case where there was a state ambiguity: when you left click on an un-checked cell, the sub-image briefly switches to the sub-image I used for the cleared cells, because this gives the appearance of the cell being clicked like a button. When the player releases the left mouse button is when the game checks for mines, and then in the event of a zero-neighbor cell, the recursive check that happens used the sprite sub-image to confirm the state of the cell before doing further checking. Because the neighbor cells aren’t clicked on, they don’t switch from the unchecked sub-image to the cleared sub-image, and thus fail the logic test to see if the sweep check should continue, and thus nothing would happen; the if statment would follow a false branch that would stop the recursion from happening.

I had to sleep on the problem but when I woke up I immediately knew what the problem was and what I needed to do to fix it, which is my absolute favorite way to debug my coding mistakes. The only reason this took me so long to debug was that I assumed the cause of the problem was elsewhere in the code, and I tried everything else I could think of first before giving up and going to bed. But then again, if I didn’t do that, I probably wouldn’t have woken up with the answer in my head.

So now I have a fully functional core minesweeper engine. I don’t have the dashboard, timer, high scores, or variable difficulty levels, but what I have will serve as a good base to add those features.

My little minesweeper.

I enjoyed making it.

Atari publishes new IP: Kombinera

Atari has published a new game, called Kombinera. It looks decent — an action-puzzle game where you need to combine five different colored balls into one. Atari did not develop the game; that work was done by outside developers Graphite Lab and Joystick. My initial impression is that it looks like an indie game, and in fact visually it reminds me a lot of 140. Another reviewer said that the game had a platformer vibe reminiscent of VVVVVV — which certainly sounds like a good thing.

Kombinera is available on Steam. Which, is on the one hand good, because it means you don’t need to go out and buy a VCS console in order to play it, but also puzzling, because why did Atari bother with all the trouble of launching a console when they’re clearly not intending to support it by selling platform-exclusive titles?

As critical of Atari as I’ve been over the past several years, it’s good to see them putting out new IP, even if they’re not developing it internally. So, cautiously, this seems like a step in the right direction for the company.

UserWay: Accessibility powerup

Today I discovered UserWay in use on a website I was browsing. I was impressed at the user-configurable accessibility options. I looked into it a bit and found that it’s available as a WordPress plugin, and so I have installed the free version of it. It took less than ten minutes to set up, and most of that time was just reading. I think it’s a great addition to the site. I love that it’s that easy to add accessibility options to any website.

The Accessibility menu is a new feature of this site.

To use it, click on the Accessibility button at bottom left. If you do use it, I’d like to hear from you. Let me know how it works for you, good or bad.

The UserWay menu gives you a bunch of options for customizing your experience with the website to make it easier to use for your specific needs.

Failure to launch, failure to thrive

What can we learn from Ouya, Atari VCS, and Intellivision Amico?

The videogame industry is highly competitive and cuthroat. There is a glut of competition. The market is vast. Games are everywhere. You can play them on your desktop or laptop computer. You can play them on a gaming console attached to your TV. You can play them on your tablet or smartphone. You can play them on a handheld device. You can play them in a web browser.

The big players: Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft, Valve (Steam) all own hardware or distribution platforms. If you want to be a big player, you must own a platform.

Establishing a new platform that can compete in this market is incredibly difficult, and even big players with ultra-deep pockets can fail to establish a foothold. Atari and Sega couldn’t keep up and fell by the wayside. Apple and Google (Stadia) couldn’t get established and haven’t managed to build significant marketshare, but remain relevant to some degree due to the Apple App Store and Google Play Store with their vast catalogs of 3rd party mobile apps and games.

Most of the companies that have risen to the level of a top tier player in the market were either early innovators (Atari, Sega, Nintendo) who entered the market at a time when there was little to no competition and literally grew the industry up from nothing, or were already successful giant companies that could sink billions of dollars into R&D and operate at a loss for years in order to build marketshare in the gaming segment while operating profitably in other divisions (Sony, Microsoft).

There’s little to no room for also-rans. Tiny players can exist, but they don’t have a hope of cracking the “Big Three”. The best they can hope for is to establish themselves as niche players. AtGames, Hyperkin, and so forth produce clone systems for obsolete consoles that have exited the main market but still have healthy followings from large, established fan bases that will always be there.

On the side there’s some third party players who produce accessories and sometimes they can venture into creating actual consoles, although they tend to clone old systems. Semi-hobbyist and boutique projects (retroUSB AVS, Analogue, CollectorVision Phoenix, 8bitdo, Retrofighters) can be viable businesses, if they’re run right and can deliver products on time that are of acceptable quality and provide value to the consumer. Often these enterprises establish themselves first by making official accessories for the major console systems — controllers, carrying cases, and the like — and once they have a manufacturing and supply chain solution established, at some point they might try to expand by doing their own R&D to produce something beyond that.

Companies that fail tend to follow a pattern:

  • An idea or concept is announced, often a rebirth of some old, idle IP
  • They start trying to raise money, awareness, and support, by taking pre-orders and/or doing crowdfunding, but the fund raising goals are well under what would be required for a new platform to have any hope of becoming established as a big player. Nonetheless, the people behind the project push on.
  • Then they get to work developing the thing they described in their concept
  • Delays happen
  • The thing eventually releases (or doesn’t) after much acrimony, disappointment, and diminished expectations
  • If a product does get launched, it fails to meet expectations, doesn’t thrive in the market, the company fails, or drops support, and the product becomes irrelevant.

Ideas can be good and still fail. It takes more than a good idea for a thing to succeed.

A few million dollars raised, a few thousand backers, is not enough to support a new platform. It just isn’t. You need to sell at least a few million units at a minimum, and real success doesn’t come until you can sell tens of millions of units.

Ouya (2012-2019)

Ouya raised over $8 million in crowdfunding through kickstarter, which at the time was a record for crowdfunding. They had nearly 64,000 backers. Who knows how much money they raised through other means. But they didn’t have anywhere near the numbers they needed to succeed. Still, they “succeeded” in exceeding their crowdfunding goal (by over 8x), they “succeeded” in developing their console and controllers, getting them manufactured, and delivered them to backers. But that still wasn’t enough for Ouya to succeed as a new platform. They struggled to grow, they failed to gain marketshare, weren’t able to profit with their business model, ran out of money, and went out of business, went through acquisitions, the new owners tried to turn it around and still couldn’t, and today it doesn’t exist.

Ouya had no pre-existing market and didn’t try to leverage any old, defunct brands that had nostalgic mindshare. They didn’t necessarily need to, but it would have helped.

They had some problems with their controller hardware, but that could have been overcome had the company had deep enough pockets to stand by their products even if it meant taking a loss initially.

Ouya didn’t do enough to develop a library of first party/exclusive titles that would have given customers a reason to buy Ouya rather than another console. This was a strategic error. They thought they could court indie developers, who, at the time, faced high barriers to entry to get their games onto the platforms controlled by Big Gaming. At the time, though, this was already starting to change: mobile app stores, web gaming portals like Armor Games, Kongregate, Newgrounds, and the like, Steam Greenlight were all established to one degree or another, and providing indie developers with opportunities to bring games to an audience.

Soon the even the major players began to notice indie developers, court the best of them, and eventually the best indies found ways to get onto the big platforms, where they could make the big money.

Ouya’s approach was to lower the barrier of entry for everyone, including lowering the cost for consumers to “free to try” for everything, and it turns out to make a lot of money selling games, you need to sell games for money, ideally for a profit. Ouya couldn’t figure out how to do this, and even then, they weren’t the ones making the vast majority of the games that could be played on the Ouya, so they were putting in a ton of investment into creating a platform that they were not positioning themselves to monetize very effectively, while attracting indie game developers of any skill level indiscriminately to publish games of any quality onto the Ouya marketplace, where it was up to the individual consumer to try to find games that were worth buying, and then didn’t give them enough reason to buy them, and conditioned customers to believe that games should be far cheaper than was really viable to sustain their developers or the platform.

The business model seemed like it made sense, given that it followed the familiar example of countless early internet startups that gave a lot away for free, operating in the red while living off startup investor funding. It was a gold rush strategy that rewarded a lucky few, who were in the right place at the right time and figured out how to strike it rich, and was far from guaranteed of success — it was high risk, high reward. Sadly the risks didn’t pan out, and the reward never materialized.

Still, Ouya was one of the most successful and most promising of these failures.

Retro VGS/Colecovision Chameleon (2015-2016)

Some projects are out and out scams. The Colecovision Chameleon was one such.

Chameleon was supposed to be a throwback to old-school cartridge based consoles, a rejection of the “release when promised, even if incomplete, and fix everything you couldn’t deliver with 0-day patches” model that too many developer studios had come to rely on because of project management that couldn’t deliver projects on time or on budget because creative productions like video games simply aren’t software engineering projects. Publishers couldn’t accept “it’s done when it’s done”, forcing developers to ship on deadline regardless of quality or completeness, and customers hated buying a much-anticipated game to find out that it sucked, or that you had to wait hours to download gigabytes of patch files to play it. Players were buying discs with outdated, obsolete, broken software, as a sort of token that would entitle them to a digital download of a 1.1 release that should have been the 1.0. Rather than simply switching to digital distribution, Chameleon’s pitch was to go back to cartridges; cartridges couldn’t be updated, so had to be complete before they shipped. Hey, it sounded good at the time.

Chameleon was so-called because it was going to have adapters that allowed you to play old existing cartridges from any game system, making the Chameleon “look like” whatever hardware was originally supposed to run those games — hence the name Chameleon. That’s not a terrible idea — imagine a multi-core FPGA system with a bunch of different cartridge ports capable of reading games from every conceivable system you could ask for, that could output HDMI and let you play your favorite games on a modern HDTV. That’d be awesome, right?

It was all smoke and mirrors. They didn’t have the rights to the Coleco trademark secured, and they tried to fool the public with an early mock-up of their hardware that was in reality a Super NES stuffed inside of a modded Atari Jaguar case. Nevertheless, they managed to fool a few people for a short time, taking some people for a little money. There’s little or no evidence the project ever had any real R&D or concept to it. It was all just mockups. People were fooled, and once the deception was uncovered, people were pissed.

I mention it despite the Chameleon not being a genuine effort, in order to underscore the point that consumers shouldn’t be pre-ordering products. Pre-ordering games was a thing for one reason: fear of missing out (FOMO). At the height of the NES’s popularity, 1987-88, a chip shortage made it difficult to find games in stock on store shelves. People scrambled to buy when they could find them, which sent demand through the roof. This was great for business and Nintendo to this day seems to like to size supply to demand in such a way that they can brag about selling out, and FOMO can persuade hungry fans to pay full retail, and use pre-ordering to feel secure that they will be able to get a copy of the next release in their favorite game franchise when it comes out.

There’s absolutely no reason to pre-order games if there’s no shortage. For digital download distribution, there will never be a shortage. You can buy whenever you want, and you can play wait and see, putting your money down only on games that deliver the quality and fun that you expect. You don’t have to take a gamble on a pre-order and wait months (or years) hoping there’s no delays and that the game is actually as good as the hype.

There’s absolutely no reason to pre-order games if there’s no shortage. You don’t have to take a gamble on a pre-order and wait months (or years) hoping there’s no delays and that the game is actually as good as the hype.

Chameleon promised everything and delivered nothing. But a lot of the ideas that were part of its pitch were things that appealed to gamers who weren’t happy with the status quo at the time, and felt nostalgia for how games used to be.

It’s possible that the people behind the Chameleon didn’t set out to defraud the public, and that they really wanted to develop the concept. But it was so under-developed at the time that they pitched it, they had no working model, nor did they truly have the capability to design a working model. It was basically just an idea. An idea that seemed cool and exciting. Imagine: being able to play all your favorite old games in their original format on a new console attached to a modern TV, that can also play new games with classic flavor, delivered in the way those old games you loved were, without the perceived downsides of modern games. In reality, it’s a long way to go from a cool idea to a prototype, and the people behind the Chameleon weren’t capable of delivering that, but they maintained a charade of it for as long as they could. Perhaps they were hoping they could get real hardware engineers interested in working with them, but it didn’t pan out.

Disappointment with underwhelming games is bad enough. Outright deception and scams a la the Coleco Chameleon is terrible. At that point, people should have wised up, and many of them did. The public had been so conditioned by Nintendo and Sony’s successful products that they forgot that they probably weren’t the first kid on their block to buy a NES or a Playstation. They wanted to be the first kid on their block to own a Chameleon, even though the developers of it had nowhere near the reputation or resources of a Nintendo or Sony.

The lesson: don’t buy into something just because it sounds cool. Buy a real product, not an idea. If the hot new thing is destined to be a success, you’ll have no problem buying it. If you buy it the moment you hear about it, without seeing if it’ll prove to be a success, you have a much greater likelihood of buying into a failure. Don’t waste your money.

But as P.T. Barnun said, there’s a sucker born every minute. So this story goes on…

Atari VCS (2017- )

Initially Atari was mysterious about their AtariBox concept. It was all image and brand. This generated a lot of interest. It might have worked had they had a product ready to go, to follow up quickly on the interest their early marketing efforts had generated.

Sadly, they teased a little, waited, then teased a little more, then waited, then eventually they announced a concept for what AtariBox was. Renamed Atari VCS, reusing the original name of the first Atari home gaming console, they had a great looking design for the system, which beautifully recalled the aesthetic of the original woodgrained CX2600 system.

But it took Atari over 3 years to develop a manufacturable version of this case, put low-end commodity PC hardware into it, set up a graphical UI shell and store for downloadable games for the system, arrange some third-party deals and ship it to the retail channel. At the same time, they should have been developing games for this system, and they did work on a few, but all of it was underwhelming. Mostly you can play old games that have been available for years through other platforms on the Atari VCS.

Atari claims a library of thousands of games for the VCS through providing gaming marketplace apps for Google Stadia, Luna, nVidia GeForce Now, XBox Game Streaming, AntStream Arcade, and AirConsole, and… so what? These are all available on any Windows PC, which you already have, and probably has better hardware specs. And these aren’t free subscriptions bundled with the VCS, these are add-ons that you have to pay extra for. So why do you need a VCS, then? This is like picking the dandelions that happened to grow in your yard and calling it a garden salad. Technically it is. But you didn’t have to buy a house to make yourself a dandelion salad.

This is like picking the dandelions that happened to grow in your backyard and calling it a garden salad. Technically it is. But you didn’t have to buy a house to make yourself a dandelion salad.

There are a handful of new titles, some third-party games that aren’t great and are available on other platforms as well, and as for the first-party content, they’re all warmed-over remakes of old classic Atari games which they brand as “recharged”. Mostly this means a re-skinning, updated graphics, and the original game play, which, while classic and solid, doesn’t offer anything innovative or novel. Just a slightly more polished version of some 40 year old arcade IP with some neon glowing wireframe vector graphics.

Other games they used to hype the project (Tempest 4K) were released on the major platforms years before the VCS was ready to ship. Atari outright lied about its relationship with the Tempest 4K developer and implied that it would be a launch title and exclusive, when none of that was true. A total embarrassment. Tempest, originally an Atari classic IP, should have been an exclusive, and a launch title. But (wisely) the developers of Tempest 4K put it out when it was ready, on platforms that existed at the time, and made money.

That left Atari with nothing, and when the VCS went to market, Tempest 4K would be a 2-year old, non-exclusive game. And guess what? You still can’t buy Tempest 4K for the VCS. It’s a Windows/XBox/PS4 game. (Which means you can sort of play Tempest 4K on an Atari VCS, if you boot it in PC mode and run Windows. You’re kidding, right?) Even if Tempest 4K had been an Atari VCS exclusive, I’m not sure that Tempest has enough draw to it to make it a killer app that would have sold consoles. Like, Tempest is a cool game for 1981, but it’s no Mario or Zelda. Nowhere near.

The VCS has been out for a little over a year now, and while it at least exists today, it is hardly compelling.

The best parts of the Atari VCS were the joystick hardware and the “recharged” games. Atari could have put all of its effort into developing these, put them out on existing platforms in 2017-2018, and built from there. Instead, they tried to build themselves a platform which would give them power to be masters of their own fate (or something) but really just made it harder for them to bring a product to market.

It’s pretty clear they never intended to go toe-to-toe with the big platforms of Nintendo, Sega, Microsoft, and they’ve always said as much. They certainly never had the capability to do so. But what then is the point of having a low-end non-competitive platform that doesn’t offer anything unique or exclusive? Atari have no real answer to this. They’ll tell you it’s a “hybrid” console that you can also boot into “PC Mode” and use as a Windows or Linux computer, but so what? Everyone has 2-3 old PCs sitting around that they can install Linux or Windows on. Probably with better specs than the VCS, or cheaper, or both.

After years of delays, people starting to question whether the project was legitimate or a scam, Atari finally launched the VCS, and it was pathetic. It felt incomplete, like a homework assignment by a kid who procrastinated until the morning the project was due, and tried to con the teacher into accepting something they were scribbling on in the minutes between classes.

Atari’s main problems were having insufficient resources to match their ambition, combined with a complete lack of strategy and planning, and half-assed execution. They hyped their project before it was even a project. If they had developed the product quietly and then launched it within a few months of their initial hype announcements, and had a launch library of new, exclusive games that leveraged their classic trademarks and provided novel and innovative gameplay experiences on par with what Pac-Man Championship Edition was to Pac-Man, or what Yacht Club Games is to the NES, it could have been a completely different story. As it is, Atari VCS has been a disappointment. Atari does have a wealth of IP that they could do something with if they had the resources and talent behind it, but instead they wasted years trying to sell a budget PC to sell games they didn’t have yet.

Intellivision Amico (2018- )

In October 2018, a group owning the Intellivision trademark lead by Tommy Tallarico announced the Amico, a relaunch of the Intellivision brand that would embrace retro-style gaming and provide simpler, family oriented gams for all ages at a budget price point. Their four word pitch: Simple, Affordable, Family, Fun.

They had a lot of good ideas: all games that would run on the system would be exclusives, that you couldn’t get anywhere else. The games would be super cheap, there would be no hidden costs like in-app purchases or DLC, and they would be designed with couch multiplayer in mind, and provide balanced play so that players of different skill levels from toddler to great grandma could get in on the action and still have fun and feel challenged. The target market was families with young children, and parents (or grandparents) who remembered the original Intellivision system from 1979.

Similar to the pitch of the Coleco Chameleon, Intellivision pitched that the present-day game industry had gone astray in so many ways, and lost sight of what we used to love about video games. This meant that a return to classic roots would tap into a latent market of everyday people who want to play casual “fun” games, and couldn’t get into big budget “hard core” games that require hundreds of hours of focused play and high skill to beat. They promised to eschew violence and adult themes, and everything would be 2D only, aiming at an all-ages family friendly audience.

In short, their vision differentiated them from existing platforms enough that it seemed like they might have a shot at finding underserved markets. The announced price point was a budget bargain $150-180, with games costing under $10. Additionally, all games were to be Intellivision exclusives.

Unlike the frauds behind the Chameleon, the people involved with Intellivision appeared to have legitimate pedigree and full ownership of the Intellivision trademark. They had physical demo units early on, and a few teaser trailers of games in various stages of development. The controllers were unique, intriguing, and paid homage to the original Intellivision controllers. It looked like they were serious, capable, and had a clear concept of what they were going to build, unlike Atari which mostly focused on superficial case design, logos, 3D model mockups, and branding.

The Amico had a unifying vision and a market strategy. It even appeared that they were already pretty far along with physical prototypes of their system, which included a unique and interesting controller design.

The controller gave Amico the opportunity to make games with unique player interaction, with motion controls, a touch screen, as well as a classic Intellivision-style thumb disc. The thumb disc was a slightly controversial and perhaps questionable design choice, considering that the original Intellivision controller wasn’t necessarily great. But it tied the Amico to its predecessor in a way that a D-pad couldn’t. It wasn’t yet-another standard, off the shelf dual-stick gamepad. It made the Amico unlike any other console. Who knew, maybe it would turn out to be strong selling point, like the Nintendo Wiimote.

You could, in a pinch, even use an Android smartphone as a controller by installing an Amico app on it, as well. So instantly you could add 3rd and 4th players to the game cheaply, without having to buy additional official controllers. Maybe not with all the features of the official control, but would provide at least something.

Intellivision issued an early release of the Amico app, which wasn’t actually the controller app, but rather a demo of a re-imagined Moon Patrol that you could play on your smartphone, without any Amico hardware. It wasn’t much of a game, but it really existed, and gave the project legitimacy. It seemed like they had the hardware ready to go, or nearly so, and just needed to complete some games to provide a decent launch library, manufacture them, and get them into stores.

Over time, though, the project seemed to stall. The COVID-19 pandemic lead to economic disruption and supply chains stalled. The electronics industry was disrupted by chip shortages, the effects of which rippled through the economy and were widely felt by many industries.

With Amico development, not much happened for months on end, deadlines slipped, news announcements appeared to be using recycled footage and showed little to no actual progress. Worse, it appeared that some of the games they demoed were using stolen graphical assets. Tommy Tallarico leapt into action with excuses and damage control. The graphics were placeholder, not final, and so on. Some of this might have been legitimate, but a lot of it was suspect. Tallarico’s personality rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, and his tendencies to get into petty internet wars with minor “influencers” on forums or social media didn’t look good.

Today, the future of Intellivision appears to be in doubt. Tallarico has just been replaced as CEO, and there’s a lot of concern among the community following the project that the delays may prove fatal as cost overruns and lack of revenue due to not having a product to sell will doom the console, which never had much of a chance of becoming a major player alongside the likes of Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony, but might have been viable as a B-grade market alternative.

Lessons

  1. Startups shouldn’t launch platforms as their first product.
  2. It takes billions of dollars and vast resources to develop and launch a successful platform. Only a mature, thriving company can properly support a console and bring it to market.
  3. Even then the chances are good that it will fail in the market.
  4. History shows that at most there is room for 2-3 successful platforms.
  5. If you can’t knock out Nintendo, Microsoft, or Sony, you’re going to fail. Google failed.
  6. Hitting a crowdfunding goal is not success. It’s a very early step along the road.
  7. Success means in 5-7 years, you have enough profits that you can self-fund R&D for your next generation console without having to crowdfund or court investors.
  8. The best time to launch a new console is 5-7 years after the successful launch of your previous console.
  9. The best time to announce a new console is within weeks of retail launch, and not more than 1 year ahead of time.
  10. If you can’t take money and ship immediately after your announce your product, you’re probably going to ship late and disappoint a lot of people after they spend a lot of time hyping themselves up to a point where nothing can possibly meet their expectations and dreams.
  11. Don’t let them dream too long, give them a reality. Or when you deliver your real console, it will reality-check their dreams and inevitably lead to dissatisfied customers. Those who once sang your praises will suddenly call for your head.
  12. It takes longer than you think to develop a console. It takes longer than that to manufacture and distribute that console.
  13. Don’t try to combine pitching to investors and marketing to customers. Crowdfunding is not the way.
  14. If you don’t have a previous console in your past, perhaps consider not trying to develop a platform. Develop other things — games, controllers, accessories. Perhaps in time you can gain experience from doing these things that can allow you to develop a console.
  15. If you have a vast, successful business with R&D, manufacturing, distribution, logistics, software development, marketing, and customer support all figured out, and sufficient reserves and revenues that can afford to pour billions of dollars for several years without realizing a profit, you might have a chance of developing your own console platform. If you’re not sure, ask yourself: do you have a lot in common with Microsoft, Sony, Google, or Apple?
  16. If you can’t do something unique and better than what already exists, why are you even bothering? If you want to make games, make games. Pick any of the existing platforms, or all of them.

Copyright, contractual obligations screw Ms. Pac Man out of existence

Ms. Pac Man has an interesting history.

Pac-Man, the original game, was developed by Namco in Japan, and distributed by Midway in the United States, and was a massive, massive hit — the most popular arcade game of its day, and still one of the most popular arcade games of all time.

The videogame industry was different 40 years ago than it is today, and video games were still new enough that a lot of the intellectual property rights weren’t yet established in law, leading to unsettled (and often unasked) questions.

As a result, there was a sub-industry of third-party mod kits for arcade games, which gave arcade proprietors a way to renew interest in older games that had waned in popularity. It wasn’t illegal to modify an arcade cabinet that you owned, and so over time kits were developed by third parties to do just that.

One of the companies producing these hardware mod kits, named GCC, hacked Pac Man to create an unofficial “sequel”. To avoid trademark infringement, they named it “Crazy Otto” at first, but that wasn’t enough to avoid a lawsuit. In the end, a settlement between GCC and Namco turned Crazy Otto into an official sequel which became Ms. Pac Man.

GCC’s contract entitled them to royalties on each Ms. Pac Man cabinet manufactured or sold by Midway-Namco. Ms. Pac Man was a smash hit, just as popular as the original Pac Man. Everyone got rich and everyone way happy.

Ms. Pac Man went on to have a long life, and has been ported, re-packaged, and re-released on many platforms over the years, but GCC’s contract entitled them to royalties only from “coin-op cabinets”. Twenty-five years later, new cabinets were produced for the anniversary, and hybrid Galaga/Ms. Pac Man cabinets were a popular sight in bars in the mid-2000s.

By this time, the executives now running Namco had forgotten about the contract with GCC, who reminded them of it by suing for their royalties. Namco paid what they owed, and weaseled out of paying on arcade cabinets made for home use, which didn’t have coin slots, since the contract wording specified “coin-op cabinets” (which was simply what arcade machines were called at the time the contract was signed). And then, to avoid ever having to pay another royalty to GCC again, Namco wrote the Ms. Pac-Man character out of the picture, replacing her with other female pac-man characters such as “Pac-Girl” and “Pac-Marie”. Thereafter, future Ms. Pac-Man re-releases only came out on platforms not covered by the GCC contract, so Namco wouldn’t have to pay the royalties.

It just goes to show the level of sheer greed that companies have when it comes to paying creators and ownership of intellectual property. If the company can make money without having to pay the creators, they will do that. Granted, GCC wasn’t producing an authorized work, and this could have colored the relationship. But considering how much money Ms. Pac Man earned for everyone over the years, you’d think that those profits could go a long way toward smoothing over any rough spots in the relationship. Apparently not.

GCC later sold their ownership rights to Ms. Pac-Man to AtGames. If they had instead sold to Midway-Namco, this might never have been an issue. But because of how things worked out, one of the most iconic videogame characters of the 80s golden age of the arcade is basically sidelined indefinitely. Because contested or jointly owned intellectual property rights are that much of a legal pain to negotiate around that it’s better to just kill the property and make no money from it at all than to try to work out agreements for sharing revenues. How sad.

Atari Age releases new crop of homebrews for 2022

The new titles hit the Atari Age store for pre-order yesterday, 12/31. Included in the release this year are two Champ Games arcade ports for the Atari 2600: LadyBug and the much-anticipated RobotWar: 2684.

The new store listings don’t have video clips as yet, and I think videos really help you to decide what to buy, but I’m aware that at least some of these games have had demo or beta romfiles available for a long time, and if you want to try them before you buy physical cartridges, you can seek them out.

Knight Guy in Low-Res World – Castle Days and Game of the Bear look like fun puzzle platformers in a similar style. I’ve played Game of the Bear, the platform action reminds me of Terry Cavanaugh’s Don’t Look Back, which I loved playing about 10 years ago. Cavanaugh’s game was made in Flash, which hasn’t been supported in current browsers since Adobe retired Flash in 2020. Wizard’s Dungeon looks like an action RPG in the vein of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons on the Intellivision.

I haven’t looked closely at the rest of the list, but the titles mentioned above looked the most interesting to me.

Unfortunately, prices are up this year. Atari Age games listed between $25-40 for many years, but this year they’re more like $45-60. This is unfortunate, but I don’t think it’s gouging — there have been chip shortages, and inflation has been high since the pandemic disrupted the world economy. As well, Atari Age has invested in producing new plastic shells for cartridges, rather than cannibalizing them from old games. New games for modern consoles tend to run around $60, and often less than that, so to pay that much for new homebrew releases on obsolete consoles is really something only for the most die-hard fans of classic gaming to afford.