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Game design evolution during the cartridge era of consoles

Someone asked a question on the AtariAge facebook community:

For those of you that grew up on the 2600, you know that the system was constantly improving.

Did you ever look for any benchmarks in games, improvements that let you know the “next big step” had occurred?

For me, I always thought that games with any sort of text were huge back in the day (like the Activision logo at the bottom of the screen), as were multi-segmented, multi-colored humanoids in games (such as Pitfall Harry).

This became very important for playground bragging rights as the Intellivision became more and more popular and us VCS acolytes had to ‘defend’ our system.

As a kid, were there any big “steps” you guys used to look for in your 2600 games to know Atari had reached its next level?

This is an interesting question.

I got an Atari 2600 when I was in first grade, in 1981. By that time the console had been out for 4 years already. We played it until the Atari 7800 came out, in 1986, but then switched over to NES, about a year later.

There wasn’t much in the way of a “bragging rights” war on the playground where I grew up.

Most kids who had any video game system at all had an Atari 2600, and we were happy to have them. I think many of us didn’t have anything (apart from arcade coin-ops) to compare with. I knew one or perhaps two family friends who had an Intellivision, and one family friend who had a Colecovision. I knew a lot of kids who didn’t have any videogame console at home. And I knew a few kids who had a home computer of some type (PC, Apple ][, Commodore 64, Atari 8-bit).

And some kids just had those little handheld LED games made by companies like Coleco, that weren’t quite videogames, but pretended to be.

We played all of them, although the LED handhelds were obviously inferior, and we grew tired of them quickly. Everyone just thought that video games were cool and fun, and we didn’t pay much attention at all to whether one system had better graphics. It was enough that it existed at all, and if it was available, we played it as much as we could.

The Intellivision households had a console that offered better graphics, but had awkward controllers and a smaller library. Colecovision had the Atari 2600 adapter and slightly less awkward controls compared to the INTV, but still a far cry from the simple, rugged Atari 2600 joystick. It also had a 10-second delay when booting, which we found annoying. We maybe noticed that the graphics were a bit better, but overall it didn’t matter as much as you might think. Graphics were important, but gameplay was by far the most important quality.

And of course we were well aware that the original arcade game always had much better graphics than an Atari 2600 port of the same title. That was understood, to be expected, and forgiven, most of the time (Pac Man and Donkey Kong not so much). But also the arcade games were harder, and were designed to suck quarters out of our pocket, while Atari games were designed to be challenging without being too frustrating, and to give hours of enjoyable play.

Bottom line: If a game was fun, it didn’t matter if it didn’t have the best graphics, but a game with amazing graphics that wasn’t fun to play was something we looked down upon. This has always been true, and always will.

Since the 2600 had been out a few years before my family got ours, I wasn’t all that aware of the release date of different games. Games existed, and when I learned about them for the first time I wasn’t even thinking about whether the game had just come out, or if it had been out for a while, and I had only just heard of it. Games existed; they just were.

I paid a bit more attention to publishers, and liked games by Atari, Activision, Imagic, and M-Network, and Parker Bros. the most. But even the publisher didn’t matter so much as the quality of the game. I would play anything and everything I could get my hands on, and continued to play what I liked, and returned to re-play games that I enjoyed frequently.

That said, we did take note of certain games that seemed to evolve through sequels, such as Pac Man > Ms. Pac Man > Junior Pac Man, Defender > Stargate, and Pitfall > Pitfall II.

Sure, some games did have poorer graphics, or simpler play, or just sucked, but aside from the direct sequels where it was obvious, we weren’t all that aware that one game was older or newer, or that one game had extra chips inside the cartridge that enhanced the circuitry inside the console. That was something that I learned about much later, when I was old enough to appreciate the technology and understand it a bit better.

But for the most part I didn’t think of game technology improving over time, I just thought “Hey this game is better” or “They really packed a lot into this game” or “This game is very sophisticated compared to that game.” In other words, to me it felt more either a design choice to make a game more or less sophisticated, or a matter of the developer’s skill or work ethic to make a game better or worse, than what the technology allowed.

It only became apparent to me that newer hardware could do stuff that simply wasn’t possible on older hardware when the Atari 5200 came out. I don’t remember when I first played the 5200, but my cousin had one, and I got to play on it a number of times when we’d go over to visit. He was the only kid I knew who had one, and its graphics were amazing compared to the 2600, but again the library was limited and the controllers weren’t as good as the 2600’s joystick. We speculated at the time that the 5200 games could have better graphics because the cartridges were physically bulkier, but the reality was this had nothing to do with it. Although, reinforcing this errant belief, NES cartridges also were bulkier, and had better quality games overall. We would have been very surprised back in the day to see just how much empty space was inside those plastic shells.

It still didn’t occur to me that there could be extra chips inside certain carts that made them capable of more sophisticated graphics and game play within the Atari 2600 library. It was certainly one of the factors that enabled a popular, older 2600 to continue to stay relevant in the market years after newer consoles had been introduced. But it wasn’t like we knew why the games that came out in 1982-84 often had better graphics than games that came out in 1977-81; we just knew they were good games and it seemed like maybe the developers were getting better at making them as time went on, but it wasn’t like the best of the old games weren’t still great. And there was certainly a lot of titles that were released on the 2600 late in its life cycle that were inferior to games that had been released years earlier. What was possible continued to improve over time, but actual quality varied quite a bit over the life span of the system, and seemed to have more to do with how much the developer cared (or had budget for) than with the year the game was produced in.

When the 7800 came out, we felt that it was the best Atari to have, as it had backward compatibility with the old 2600 library (that was still every bit worth playing) plus decent joysticks (at least they centered automatically!)

Of course when the NES came out, it was obvious immediately that it was a quantum leap over even the 7800, due to its vastly superior sound capability, which allowed all games to have a musical soundtrack to it that could not be equaled on any Atari console. At first I didn’t care for the NES gamepad, which didn’t have a joystick, but instead featured this odd thumb-cross we didn’t yet know to call a D-pad, which at first I found very uncomfortable and even painful to use, although my hands quickly adapted and got used to it. Again, the quality of the game play was what hooked me and got me to play through the hand cramps and blisters until my hands developed the stamina to hold the uncomfortable little rectangle. NES games didn’t just offer superior graphics and music, but more sophisticated types of play, where exploring and adventure became the dominant style of play, ascending to on par with twitchy hand-eye coordination skill and action. When the NES came out, everyone knew that a new age had dawned, and that the venerable Atari was obsolete. Most of us moved on, but a few never forgot.

Updated: 2017-Mar-28 — 8:17 am

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