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Adventuring with Warren Robinett

One of my earliest videogaming experiences was with the classic Atari 2600 game, Adventure. A favorite of many who played on the system, this game has attained legendary status for it’s brilliant design, a technical accomplishment that pushed the Atari well beyond what its designers had intended it to be capable of, fun and replayability, inspiring a genre of adventure games, including the Legend of Zelda series, and of course becoming as known as the game to feature the first “easter egg”.

The game is still fun to play today, and remains one of my favorites to revisit. It is extremely replayable, and much of the fun that I had playing it was with investigating and experimenting. In 1981, I played this game with my brother all the time. We learned the basics in Level 1, which was a truncated version of the full game, with a smaller map and only two of the three dragons, and no bat. I moved on to Level 2, which introduced an expanded world with one more castle, a dragon, and the bat, and had all the items in prescribed locations so that the quest was the same every time, but you had to go to every castle and defeat every dragon in order to win. The new dragon, Rhindle, was so fast and aggressive that he scared my brother, who was about 4 at the time, so much that he could only watch me play. After winning Level 2 a few times, I proceeded to Level 3, wherein the item placement was randomized, making each re-play a unique experience.

One time, my older cousin came over and we were playing Adventure, and she showed me a secret room in the Black Castle, accessible only by using the Bridge, where she found a mysterious, invisible Dot, which she used to reveal the most amazing thing: the first Easter Egg: a hidden secret that revealed a message from the game’s creator!


This was how I came to know the name of Warren Robinett, who designed and programmed Adventure and became famous for being one of the first game developers to have their name known publicly.

Even before being shown the easter egg, I had spent many hours exploring and experimenting in the world of Adventure. I played not just to win the game, but to do crazy things with the objects in the game to see what might happen.

I put the Bridge in walls and used it to exit the screen and appear on another screen, where normally you couldn’t get to.

I tested putting all of the objects in one room to see if anything special would happen. I discovered that when there were too many objects in one room, the Magnet would stop working. Or the Sword would not be able to slay a live dragon. Or keys would fail to unlock the castle gate. Somehow, if there were too many objects in one place, the Atari couldn’t handle it. But I could always move, I could always pick up objects and carry them, and walls always worked (with the exception of the wall involved in revealing the Easter Egg room.)

I learned how to “break” the game in other ways. I discovered that if you dropped a key in the doorway of a castle while you were closing the gate, the gate would close in front of the key, which would disappear inside the castle, forever sealing it. I learned that if a castle’s gate was closed, if there was a dragon or the bat inside, it couldn’t get out. And I learned that unlocking a castle would release any creatures inside, and that if a dragon did not have an item to guard, it would leave and roam around, hunting me down.

I learned that while I couldn’t carry or move a dead dragon, the bat could, and I could catch and carry the bat, which allowed me to use it to move dead dragons (or live ones, which was always a risky proposition!) So then I took to using the bat to grab dragon carcasses and move them to an otherwise-empty castle, and lock everyone in there so that in the event that I got stuck and had to reset the game to get unstuck (an action which resurrects every dead character in the game, you and the dragons) the dragons would be safely contained, leaving me free to continue exploring and experimenting without interruption, for hours.

I took time to carefully explore the mazes and learn how to move through them quickly, and to get to any area in the maze that I needed to. I learned places to put the Bridge to take shortcuts. I puzzled over three empty rooms in the vicinity of the White castle, wondering what their purpose was, if they contained any hidden secrets, and how to unlock them.

Despite being pretty sure that I knew everything there was to know about Adventure, I never could say for certain that there wasn’t something that I didn’t know, and this (as well as the fun of speedrunning the game) gave me the incentive to play the game endlessly, for years. While I figured that I’d found all of its secrets, I still had questions.

Recently, I was thinking about Adventure again, and played it a few times, and did some reading about it on various websites, and stumbled upon Warren Robinett’s website. There, I learned that he is writing a book on Adventure that will be coming out in 2015! I am so excited about this. His webpage mentions that to receive updates about the book project to send him an email with the word “annotated” in the subject line, so I did. I wrote him a short note thanking him for creating such a wonderful game that I have enjoyed these many years. And I wasn’t sure if he would read it, or if he merely set up a listserve bot that would automatically subscribe me to his mail list, and maybe he’d never read my message. But a day later I had a response from Mr. Robinett in my inbox!


Holy shit! Granted, it’s a sentence long, but he read and replied! So, not wanting to be too intrusive, but curious about some of the questions I’d had about his game since forever, I wrote back and politely asked. And he responded again, short and sweet, but I’m thrilled to have corresponded with a true legend of the industry.

At any rate, here’s the excerpt from our correspondence where he answers my questions:

csanyk: I have always wondered about the empty rooms in the area outside the labyrinth near the White Castle. Apart from occasionally holding random objects, I always thought that those rooms felt like they should have had some more purpose than they did. After learning about the easter egg with the dot, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out if there wasn’t some kind of hidden secret in those rooms, and as it turned out, there wasn’t. But boy did I try everything I could think of just to make sure!

Warren Robinett: Well, you are probably aware that the game world was bigger for levels 2 and 3 than for level 1. Level 1 was for beginners, and some of the difficult stuff was intentionally left out of the game world. I regarded level 1 as being “truncated”, because I changed the room-to-room links to leave out more than half the rooms. So the two rooms you asked about had different functions in level 1 — one was the interior of the Black Castle (just a single room in level 1), and the other was where the Catacombs are in levels 2 and 3 (again, just a single dead-end room).

In level 3, the random positioning of object was supposed to put stuff in those rooms sometimes, but I made some mistakes in the random number generator, and it seems they were nearly always empty.

csanyk: If you could have had more time or more computing resources to put something in those rooms, to make a Level 4 game, what would you have populated them with? Another castle and dragon? Some type of new item? Was there something that was meant to be there, that never made it in to the game due to constraints? Or were these rooms always intended to be empty spaces?

Warren Robinett: I talk about that in my book The Annotated Adventure, which I hope to be finished with this fall.

csanyk: I discovered that if you press select until you have the option for game 3, and then pull down on controller 1, the player spawns into the game select screen and can walk about the room. Was this something that was put into the game deliberately, and if so why? How did it come about?

Warren Robinett: The game-select screen was a room. I re-purposed a room as the meta-game UI screen to save memory. I put the Man down in the corner (I thought he was totally trapped) so he wouldn’t be there to distract you. You found a way to break him free.

csanyk: As a kid, after killing the dragons, I spent hours trying to put the Bridge everywhere I could think to and see what would happen. In a few screens, there are places where you can put the bridge off the top or bottom of the screen, and use it to “break through” the bottom wall of a room that you shouldn’t be able to pass through, and end up somewhere else, only to become stuck. To me, a huge part of the game’s lasting appeal and replayability was that it seemed to invite this kind of experimentation. For example, if you go one room down and left from the Yellow Castle, and stick the bridge in the bottom wall of the screen and pass through it, you end up in the White Castle screen, stuck between the towers:

Adventure (1980) (Atari)_7

Adventure (1980) (Atari)_6

or in the room one screen down from the Gold Castle, putting the bridge in the bottom wall will warp you to the Gold Castle, again between the towers:

Adventure (1980) (Atari)_8

Adventure (1980) (Atari)_9

or from this room in the labyrinth, you can travel to the room next to where the secret is hidden — only you appear at the bottom of the room, and can’t quite break free into the room, and have to retreat back up through the bridge to get back to the labyrinth.

Adventure (1980) (Atari)_10

Adventure (1980) (Atari)_11

Warren Robinett: Every room had a link to four other rooms. No exceptions. If you could get through the wall, you could find out which room that was.

Since the Bat and Dragons could move around in different directions, there had to be a new room off each edge.

csanyk: I loved the fact that when you are eaten by a Dragon, you can still move, confined within its stomach. Also, when two dragons are on the screen, and one eats you, the second dragon will come up and eat you again, while you’re in the first dragon’s stomach. And most fun of all was if you left the game run, and the Bat would come by and pick up the dragon whose stomach you were in, and fly around with you, giving you a bizarre tour of the kingdom. The idea that the game world continued after you died was very novel.

Was that a design choice or an accident?

Warren Robinett: The thing you need to understand was that developing the game was incremental. You add some code, you fix a bug (or try). And see how it plays.

I didn’t plan for the Man to be able to wiggle after he was eaten. But when I saw, I liked it. I could have eliminated that by re-ordering some subroutine calls. But it didn’t do that.

I didn’t plan for the Bat to be able to pick up a Dragon that had eaten the Man. But I had coded each piece separately. So it just fell out of the simulation with no effort required. I liked it — it was hilarious. No way would I “fix” that.

csanyk: How did you ensure that the randomization in Game 3 would not result in the game sometimes becoming unwinnable, such as by locking the Black Key in the Gold Castle and the Gold Key in the Black Castle?

Warren Robinett: I tried to make sure each random positioning was winnable, by choosing from certain ranges of rooms for each object. But I botched it, and it DID sometimes generate unwinnable configurations.

csanyk: I think I’ve played the game enough to have seen everything you can expect to happen. I’ve seen the Bat, carrying the Sword, accidentally kill a Dragon. I’ve closed the castle gates and dropped the key inside as it was closing, locking it in forever. I’ve seen so many objects on one screen that the Sword or Magnet wouldn’t work any more. I’ve seen the Bat fly by the castle gate with a Key, opening it. I’ve worried ever since that I could get locked inside of the castle by the Bat if I left the key outside where it could grab it, but this has never happened. It doesn’t seem like objects can interact with each other unless they’re on the current screen, with the notable exception that if you hold the Magnet off the edge of a screen, you can attract objects in the next screen. And also the above-mentioned trick with the Bridge going off the top or bottom of certain screens. The amount of exploration and experimentation that I’ve done in this game, for as small as it really is, is pretty breathtaking, when I think about it. Were you ever surprised to hear from fans just how much they replayed your game? What things have players done in Adventure that surprised you?

Warren Robinett: The stuff you mention above is correct. The Bat could also pick up objects off-screen.

I am now eagerly awaiting the publication of his book later this year. So stoked!

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