Howard Scott Warshaw: Once Upon Atari

I’m about halfway through Once Upon Atari: How I Made History By Killing an Industry by Howard Scott Warshaw, and loving it.

Howard Scott Warshaw, if you didn’t know, was a programmer for Atari in the early 80s. He worked in their console division, where he developed the games Yar’s Revenge, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial for the Atari 2600. These were groundbreaking games on the most popular home console of its day, and accomplished many “firsts”.

In 1983, the video game market suddenly collapsed, due to a combination of a multitude of factors, but at the time Warshaw’s E.T. was often given blame for causing what came to be known as the “Great Crash of ’83’. E.T. has often been referred to as “the worst video game of all time” but that is quite unfair to the game, which pushed the limits of the Atari 2600 hardware, and while not perfect, was by no means a bad game — although it was drastically over-produced by Atari, leading to a huge amount of unsold inventory, which hurt the company’s bottom line. Warshaw was given 5 weeks to develop the game, a feat thought by his managers to be impossible given that most Atari 2600 games took about 6 months to develop.

This is all well known and chronicled history for video game fans. Warshaw to his credit has been remarkably accessible and open about his story for some time, and has given numerous interviews over the years. He’s even been known to appear on the Atari Age facebook page and comment once in a while. He’s truly a legend of the industry, and a wonderful, brilliant human being. This book details his story, how he came to work for Atari, what went on there during his tenure (confirming a lot of the oft-retold stories about the workplace culture), and how he faced the indignity of being cast as the creator of the “worst game of all time”.

Warshaw left Atari and went on to become a licensed psychotherapist and has helped people like himself, who worked in the high tech field to deal with the immense pressures that they’re put under to be creative, be correct, and deliver products that will make billions of dollars for themselves or their shareholders.

I haven’t gotten to that part of the book yet, but from what I already know of his story, his approach to dealing with failure, or at least the perception that he had been responsible in large part for a massive and very public failure of what had just a year prior been the fastest growing company in the history of the world, is remarkable as it is instructive. He has embraced the label, but adds to it that his Yar’s Revenge is often cited as one of the best video games on the Atari, thus giving him the rightful claim to having the greatest range of any game developer. Turning a negative into a badge of pride, he has faced the critics, rebutted them with not just clever rhetoric, but also facts, figures, and sound reasoning, and provides us an example of how “failure” often isn’t failure, that perceptions matter, that what you tell yourself matters, and that above all it does not define us — we have the power, if we choose to use it, to define ourselves.

Warshaw’s writing style is accessible, not overly technical, candid, often quite humorous, warm and insightful. Reading his book makes me admire him even more than I did, and grateful for the handful of times that he’s Liked something that I’ve said on the Atari Age facebook page, and most of all, thankful for the many hours I spent as a young child engaging with, and enthralled by, his digital creations.

https://newonceuponatari.hswarshaw.com/

“Life as a Bokoblin” BOTW mock-documentary suggests deeper gameplay possibilities

I absolutely love this beautifully produced fake documentary that was published last week.

Imagine the gameplay possibilities. In BOTW, all we can really do with Bokoblins is kill them or ignore them. Occasionally there are encounters where we run into Bokoblins harassing some Hylian travelers or hunting animals. These encounters have their purpose — they allow Link to rescue the Hylians and do something heroic, while the hunting parties provide a demonstration to the player that hunting is possible activity that they could participate in themselves in the game.

But these encounters are somewhat limited and shallow. They don’t build and develop to anything greater. They hint at what could be, however, and I find the possibilities tantalizing.

This video shows potential for a much greater depth possible in the game. If you unlock the “monster shop” Fang and Bone, operated by the creepy, nocturnal Kilton, you can buy monster themed items, including a mask. These masks can be used to fool enemies of the type that the mask is of that you are one of them, allowing you to encounter them without having to fight them. The items from Fang and Bone are not really crucial to completing the game — in fact, they’re completely unnecessary. And in my run through the game, I encountered the shop very late in my exploration of Hyrule, and thus had accumulated so much power that the shop seemed almost pointless. I didn’t need disguises at this point — I was already comfortable hunting down Lynels and Dragons. So I did not explore these possibilities and discover this area of the game very much at all. Clearly, I missed out on some enjoyable, amusing bokoblin antics by not diving into this aspect of the game more.

As I played through Breath of the Wild, I often felt guilty about killing the Bokoblin enemies. They’re almost cute, they’re almost not really dangerous, and it’s clear from their scripted idle behavior that they have a tight-knit tribal culture.

They hunt, they sit around their camp fires, they cook, they dance, they sleep. Sure, they don’t differentiate between people and prey animals as much as we’d prefer, and Bokoblins might get nasty if they detect a threat, but can you blame them? They’re just trying to survive. Why can’t we just get along?

A problem I have with Breath of the Wild is that for being a vast game, it’s depth doesn’t really match its breadth, and thus the game begins to feel repetitive after a certain point. You usually encounter Bokoblins in camps, and they’re pretty much all the same. There’s a camp fire, a few bokoblins sitting about, maybe a cave or some other shelter, a couple of watch towers. You can approach pretty closely and they mostly won’t notice you. And when you grow tired with scouting about the edge of their range of vision, you can pretty much run up at any point and straight up murder them through button mashing without much risk.

They don’t fight very well — your attacks almost never miss, almost always disrupt them, and if you’re just full-on aggressive with them, you can keep them reeling and beat on them repeatedly until they die, which doesn’t usually take very long. Conversely, their attacks aren’t too strong, usually have a big windup that telegraphs to you that you need to either dodge or interdict with a pre-emptive counter attack of your own, and if they do hit you, they will hurt a bit, but you’ll probably be able to shrug it off and hit back and gain the upper hand.

I like bokoblins, and I think they have a lot of potential, but I just don’t find them as interesting as they could have been if they’d been developed a bit more. It seems like a shame, because it feels like a considerable amount of work went into developing them to the point that they were. They exhibit a lot of different behaviors and it gives them personality. The bokoblin documentary shows this quite well. But there’s not that much that you can really do with them, or need to do with them, beyond slaughtering them whenever you encounter them.

This video, though, shows a glimpse of what could have been. Imagine if there were alternatives to fighting that were not just viable, but interesting, rewarding, and even necessary.

Imagine if you could help an injured or trapped bokoblin, and gain its trust.

Imagine if you could approach a camp of freezing, starving bokoblins, and if you approached with your weapons un-equipped, they didn’t immediately regard you as a threat, and if you approached them with your hand outstretched, holding a food item, they would tentatively approach and you could give them the food and then they’d be grateful.

What could they then offer you? Might they trade with you for something that they own, or guard? Might they show you a secret, or allow safe passage through a difficult to get to part of the map? Might you learn how to co-exist peacefully, and put an end to the age-old conflict once the evil Ganon is finally defeated? Might you become an honorary member of their hunting band, and gain allies who come to your aid later when you’re ambushed by another band of hostiles?

I’ve been playing video games for nearly four decades now, and as games become more realistic and immersive, I find myself wanting that reality to offer me solutions to conflicts other than violence and destruction.

I don’t want to be misunderstood in saying this. During my whole life, there has been a pushback against violence in video games. I like videogames, and I like violent videogames. I like shooting everything on the screen, and games where you do nothing but destroy and fight never ending waves of enemies. I just have played enough of them.

I think game designers can challenge themselves, advance the state of the art, and delight players by providing different challenges and different solutions to problems apart from straightforward brute force. And to be fair, Breath of the Wild does this, quite a bit more than most games. It’s just that most of these alternative approaches apply themselves to the games physics puzzles than to dealing with foes. When it comes to foes, you basically can fight, run away, or avoid. The combat system does offer a lot of variety. But what if you encountered foes and didn’t have to fight or sneak? What if you could bribe, negotiate, deceive, trade?

In the late 1990s, games like Thief received critical acclaim because they tried something different — rather than killing everything in the game to overcome challenges, what about using stealth and trickery to avoid violent confrontation that is designed to be impossible to overcome? Nearly 25 years later, I want still more options.

Even in the original Legend of Zelda, we didn’t always fight enemy creatures. Moblins were an overworld enemy who hurled spears at us, and our options were to fight or avoid. But not all of them behaved as enemies.

Legend of Zelda - It's a secret to everybody
Even in the original Legend of Zelda, some monsters weren’t hostile.

And who could forget the hungry Goriya from Level 7, who cannot be fought, only placated with food?

The hungry Goriya from Legend of Zelda's 7th dungeon
Another early hint at the possibility of non-violent challenges, the hungry Goriya from Legend of Zelda’s 7th dungeon, who can only be defeated by an offering of food.

There are encounters in Breath of the Wild where Link can give an NPC food or another item, so this sort of interaction with bokoblins wouldn’t be unprecedented, and indeed would have seemed fitting and natural, and a callback to earlier Zelda adventures.

I have a feeling that we’ll get to see such complex, multifaceted interactions in games eventually, and probably we don’t have too much longer to wait for it.

PlayTech sells YoYoGames, GameMaker to Opera

Five years ago, YoYoGames was acquired by PlayTech. Today, I see the news that they have sold the company off for a loss of about $6.4M. Update: It’s come to light that the new owner is Opera.

It was a $16.4M purchase in 2015, and during this time they put a ton of development into GMS 2, released it, and so it’s a bit concerning that this hasn’t resulted in YoYoGames becoming a more valuable property.

On the other hand, I can well understand it. In the past several years, I have never felt comfortable with the new GMS 2.x UI. I find it awkward, unintuitive, ugly, and frustrating to use compared to the GMS 1.4 and earlier versions that I learned first. And at the same time, competing technologies like Unity 3D, Unreal Engine, and Godot been strong competition.

From a coding standpoint, there’s no question that the GML programming language has gotten better and better as YoYoGames continued to develop it.

From a UX standpoint, it’s been a crapshoot. The UI has some nominal improvements, but overall I feel like they changed too much too fast, and I could never get used to it. I spend way more time looking for the feature I want to use, and then wondering why it doesn’t work the way I think it should, and it completely kills my productivity and along with it my desire to work with the tool.

In fact, it’s a big part of why I haven’t done much game development in the last year, and have mostly dropped out of the pursuit.

I hope the new owner does better and continues to make improvements with GameMaker. It was very good at its original intended purpose of making it easy for game developers who are not primarily programmers to create simple 2-D games.

Many amazing games have been built with GameMaker over the last 22 years, which shows clearly the merit of putting simple, usable tools into the hands of creators who wouldn’t know where to begin with tools intended for professional programmers. Hopefully even more will be made in the years go come.

It will be interesting to see what the new owner does with the property. I want to see a product like GameMaker continue to serve the market it has traditionally done well with, while offering features that make it viable for professional game developers as a first rate tool.

Playing REDDER (Anna Anthropy) in 2020

Usually we hate to forget things. But one of the best things about being able to forget is that you can have a cherished experienced again as though for the first time.

REDDER was a game by indie game developer Anna Anthropy and first released on the web in 2010. I played it for the first time not long after, and it remains to this day one of my favorite puzzle platform games. Few games have made me want to design my own games as much as REDDER, and that’s perhaps the highest compliment I can think of to give it.

I’ve re-played it multiple times since then, and always enjoy it so much.

This year is the first year that Adobe has ended support for Flash, the technology that REDDER was originally built on. I have written previously on the impending death of Flash, and what that means for tens of thousands of video games that were built with it during its 25+ year history.

I feared that this would result in a vast, rich cultural legacy becoming more and more inaccessible. I still fear that. Adobe didn’t just drop support for Flash, didn’t just cease continuing development of it. They pulled the plug. Browsers stopped supporting it, so now in order to run Flash objects in a browser, one needs to keep an outdated browser. This of course has its own problems, and very few people will continue do do it. Moreover, as the userbase moves into a post-flash browser-scape, web hosts will over time have less and less incentive to continue hosting legacy Flash experiences, and in time perhaps the only ones that will persist will be deliberate historical preservation efforts.

That’s a damn shame, because REDDER belongs in the Smithsonian, or the Library of Congress, or both.

Fortunately, Anna Anthropy has re-packaged Redder, in a desktop OS format that wraps a Flash player into stand-alone application, and allows it to be enjoyed on Windows and Mac OS X. It is available for $5 on itch.io, and is worth every penny.

What a beautiful thing it is that I can forget this game just enough to be able to come back to it and experience it again, re-discovering the solutions to the maze and helping my little space explorer friend in their quest to collect all the diamonds to replenish his stranded spaceship.

The platforming is basic. You move, you jump, that’s it. There’s no wall jumps, no edge hanging, no coyote time, it’s pure basic simple. There’s no shooting, no destroying enemies. Your only tools are your brain, to figure out how to get past obstacles and get to where you need to go, and your agility, to accomplish the task. There are save points, to make the deadly obstacles a lot less annoying. There are switches to flip, which toggle special colored platforms into and out of existence, which serve as doors and platforms that block your way or create bridges to access deeper reaches of the world or traverse deadly obstacles to add an element of risk to the challenges you’ll face. When one type is on, the other type is off. And together they serve as the building block of the platform puzzles you’ll need to solve to win the game.

As you progress through the game, the graphics and music begin to glitch. It’s subtle at first, a tile here and there, and it adds an element of mystery to the game. As you continue to collect diamonds, the glitching increases, until, near the end the entire game is out of control with random tile animations. When the final diamond is collected, the entire facade is stripped bare, and everything turns into raw collision boxes, color coded — a clean, pure visual language.

At the end of the game, visuals stripped bare, at last we can behold the simple beauty of REDDER.

There are only three types of hazard in the game: patrolling robots, which traverse horizontally and are deadly to touch but never react to your presence in any other way; “drip guns”, which shoot deadly pellets that you must duck, jump, or otherwise avoid with good timing, and electrical fields which don’t move and must be avoided.

For all its simplicity, the game provides an engaging challenge to find your way through the complex, maze-like alien world, and collect all 27 diamonds.

One thing I love about REDDER is that there are no locks. You start out with all your powers, and apart from the switch platforms that are the only real puzzles blocking your progress, there’s nothing preventing you from doing anything, going anywhere that you can go in the game, from start to finish.

What I love about this is that this forces the design to challenge you in ways other than “oh if you get the item, you can get past this”. This comes down to understanding the map — the twisting, interconnected pathways connecting the grid of screens that comprise the world of REDDER, how platforms and switches relate to one another, flipping switches in the correct order to allow passage, and having a modest desgree of skill to master the timing and agility needed to make the jumps and avoid the dangers.

It’s a casual play — I would call the vibe relaxing. The music is soothing and evokes a spirit of exploration and puzzle solving. The game provides a fun challenge without relying on fear, anxiety, or frustration. Toward the end of the game, as the graphics and background music become increasingly glitch-ified, the game does start to produce a bit of anxiety. If you’re playing the game late at night, it can almost feel like your lack of sleep is to blame for the game’s breaking down. I really like this. To me it is the “something extra” that gives the game a memorable mystery, a question left unanswered, which both frees and empowers the player to come up with their own explanation, should they choose to.

Additionally there are three secret hidden rooms off-map. These serve no purpose other than to delight you for finding them, and perhaps provide a clue or an auteur’s signature.

BORR
ROB?
OWOR

It seems there have been a few changes from the original in this version. I don’t remember these secret rooms having these messages — a web search reveals that the original REDDER had secret rooms with the words “ANNA” “TRAP” and “PART”. TRAP and PART are of course pairs that make a palindrome, and ANNA is a palindrome, and REDDER is a palindrome. There’s something up with palindromes in this game.

But I don’t know what ROB? OWOR and BORR mean. It makes me wonder what else may have changed, and why the changes were made.

Insert Coin Bally/Midway/Williams Documentary

A few years ago, I backed a Kickstarter project to produce Insert Coin, a documentary of Bally/Midway games. The project finally delivered, and so far it looks like it’s been worth the wait. Luminaries from the arcade industry of the 80s and 90s, Eugene Jarvis, John Tobias and Ed Boone, and others give interviews talking about the development of classic titles from Defender to Mortal Kombat. If you’re a fan of these games, it’s well worth checking it out.

“Atari VCS” launches

“Atari” has finally shipped a physical product to its Indiegogo backers.

I didn’t back the campaign, because I didn’t have faith in the company calling itself “Atari” these days to deliver value. One of the backers received theirs already and has published an unboxing/review on YouTube.

And there’s a lot of rough edges. The controllers work differently, depending on whether they’re connected via USB cable or by Bluetooth? Hitches in the e-commerce experience, getting double charged for a failed download? You have to pay for Atari Vault Vol 2, a collection of 30+ year old games? Browser accounts aren’t properly connected to the local user? Really? I wish I could say I am surprised.

The launch library is, as expected, sparse and uninspiring, offering nothing new beyond a warmed-over Missile Command remake. I haven’t seen the new Missile Command in detail — it looks OK, I guess — but having participated in numerous game jams, and knowing the original Missile Command, I know enough to say that a Missile Command reboot could be tackled with a game jam’s worth of effort — in other words, 2-3 people, 1 weekend, bam, playable new Missile Command game. Realistically, to be completely generous, a game like that could be developed in a month or so.

“Atari” have spent $3 million and 3 years creating a cool-looking case and joystick for a commodity PC that runs a Free OS and have developed a front-end for it that could be used to deliver new original games, first-party exclusives, if Atari had them. but all they currently offer is Google Chrome browser, Netflix, and a couple bundles of emulated games that have been available for 30+ years, and absolutely don’t need a new console to deliver them.

Legend of Zelda Overworld Randomizer

Another awesome Legend of Zelda romhack, this one by Garret Bright. This one is an overworld randomizer.

It takes the rom file for the original Legend of Zelda (not included), and replaces the original overworld map with a completely new map. The new maps are randomly generated by a seed function, and the seed value always generates the same map, so if you find one that you find especially interesting, you can easily share it with your friends, without copyright violations, by sharing the seed.

Hyrule #25325045

The randomized overworlds seem to be well designed, for a randomized generator, in that they feel like they are following similar design principles that are evident in the original game, meaning that the maps are playable, and feel like they are broken up into zones, much like the original. It doesn’t just take the existing overworld screens and re-arrange them, it creates new tile layouts for novel overworld screens that have never been seen before, and stitches them together to create a coherent overworld consisting of distinct zones.

But, curiously, some design rules that are present in the original game, are not followed in the randomizer. For instance, in the original, most dungeon entrances have a single enemy roaming around outside, but in the randomized maps, this does not seem to be the rule. Also, enemy placement seems to be less concerned about starting Link in a part of the world that is far away from the more powerful monsters. You can expect to start on a screen with the cave to the Wooden Sword, but you may find yourself surrounded by blue Leevers, Peahats, and Moblins sooner than you’d expect to run into them in the original. And the trick where leaving a single enemy on each overworld screen prevents the screen from re-spawning enemies again doesn’t seem to work any more.

I’ve always wanted to see more games made with the original LoZ engine, so this is probably one of the best things ever. Now I can play unique Legend of Zelda games for the rest of my natural lifespan. If only there was something that created new dungeon maps and new items as well. Perhaps we’ll get something like that one day. Until then, I’ll be burning every bush, and blowing up every rock, until I find every secret there is to find in a virtually limitless multiverse of alternative Hyrules.

If anyone needs me, I’ll be in world 25325045.

You can download the overworld randomizer at bitbucket.org.

Atari Age 2020 Pre-Order

Atari Age, the fan-operated homebrew operation that holds the most legitimate claim to the legacy of Atari-that-was, has opened up pre-orders for a new batch of games for the Atari 2600, 5200, 7800, and 400/800/XE systems, and even the Atari Jaguar.

Zoo Keeper - Champ Games - Atari 2600
Zoo Keeper (2021, Champ Games) – Atari 2600

I’m most excited about Zoo Keeper, a faithful port of the early 80’s arcade classic to the 2600 developed by Champ Games — who have been killing it with their talented Atari 2600 ports of classic arcade games like Galaga and the upcoming Robotron 2084 — and Ninjish Guy in Low-Res World, a homebrew platformer for the 2600 in the vein of Super Meat Boy. I’ve been looking forward to playing a 2600 homage to one of my top early 80’s arcade classics Zoo Keeper for quite some time.

Ninjish Guy - Atari 2600
Ninjish Guy in Low Res World

Also-worth-a-look releases are Deepstone Catacomb, a zelda-like adventure game, which looks really well done for an Atari 2600 title. Venture Reloaded, another early dungeon crawler, finally does justice to the classic arcade game Venture, should appeal to fans of the original.

Deepstone Catacombs - Atari 2600
Deepstone Catacomb

Fans of the maze genre should find Hugo Hunt and Robot City to their liking. Dare Devil shows off some impressive chiptune chops and parachuting action reminiscent of classic games like Frogger, Freeway, and of course Sky Diver. But it appears to be an update or direct sequel to 1983 release, Parachute. Cannon Head Clash is a really fun-looking 2p artillery duel with destructive terrain and frantic action. If you enjoyed games like Outlaw/Gunslinger, and Combat on the 2600, this is one to check out. It’s even available for SECAM60 television sets, which is amazingly rare for a homebrew. Avalanche should appeal to fans of Activision’s classic paddle game, Kaboom! Tower of Rubble features fantastic audio, and super-slick animation and platform-edge hanging action as you struggle to stay atop a crumbling tower of falling blocks.

All of these new games show that the Atari 2600, released now 43 years ago back in 1977, still has many extra lives nearly half a century later, and nearly three decades after the last Atari 2600 rolled off the assembly line. The dedication of the programmers who pull off these minor miracles to their craft is astounding. The fact is that every produced by the homebrew community these days are among the best ever released on their platform. While the prices might seem steep at $40-50 apiece, the games are produced by hand in small batches, and are every bit as professionally presented as the best games produced by top industry developers during the system’s heyday. If you’re a fan of the system and still have working hardware hooked up in your house, they are absolutely worth their price.

I haven’t even looked at the titles for the other systems yet, because my budget frankly can’t take it. Just about every game I have looked at looks like a game worth playing, with most of them being must-buys.