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CollectorVision Phoenix: A modern, premium FPGA-based ColecoVision compatible retro console

Help CollectorVision reach their crowdfunding goal and make the Phoenix a reality!

Earlier this week, CollectorVision announced the crowdfunding campaign launch for their Phoenix console on Kickstarter. CollectorVision has in the past developed modern homebrew games for the 1982 ColecoVision videogame console, and in addition to that have partnered with OpCode games, developers of the ColecoVision Super Game Module expansion, which augments the system with more RAM and improved graphics capability.

I’m very excited about this system. ColecoVision was a great system, which died too young due to the videogame industry crash of 1983. It offered graphics nearly on par with the NES, a full year before the Famicom was released in Japan, and delivered home ports of early 80s arcade games that offered greater fidelity to the originals than was possible on the Atari 2600.

The Phoenix’s feature list is amazing: FPGA hardware implementation for 100% compatibility and fidelity with the original system, HDMI-out video, SD card slot, built-in Super Game Module and F18A enhancement hardware, 10 built-in ROMs of modern ColecoVision homebrew games, DB9 controller ports for original ColecoVision controllers, as well as SNES controller ports for compatibility with more common/comfortable SNES gamepads, and even a PS/2 keyboard connector. There’s even been talk of including an FPGA core for support of Atari 2600 games, much like the original ColecoVision’s Expansion Module 1 adapter for Atari 2600 games.

This is a dream system, and considering that, its price tag of $200 is very reasonable. Compared to the RetroUSB AVS system and the Analog Super NT, the Phoenix will fill a nice in retrogame preservation and it deserves to make its crowdfunding goal of $230,000.

To hit this goal, CollectorVision will need about 1000 backers to sign up. The kickstarter campaign is off to a somewhat slow start, however — three days into the campaign, they’ve only managed to secure $28,000 in pledges. Usually, a system like this would be fully funded in the first day, or even the first hour of the crowdfunding campaign going live. If the campaign received steady contributions every day at the level they have for the first 3 days, they would make goal, but it’s most typical for kickstarters to get most of their funding on the first few days, and the last few days. So I’m worried that they will not hit their goal. 

Perhaps retro gamers are wary of crowdfunding for yet another modern retro game console. People enthusiastically backed Ouya to the tune of $8 million dollars several years ago, and the recent AtariBox/Atari VCS crowdfunding was also successful in reaching goal, but only made $3 million dollars amid serious doubts about the current company calling itself Atari’s capabilities to deliver on what it has promised, and alleged mis-representation of their prototype hardware.

I don’t have any insider knowledge of CollectorVision, but everything I have seen from them about the Phoenix looks good, and I have faith that they care capable of delivering on their promises, if they can make their fundraising goal. Their hardware really exists, and all they need is capital for manufacturing. If you have fond memories of the ColecoVision and the early-80’s era of videogames, definitely check out the project, and consider becoming a backer.

New Phoenix console by CollectorVision announced

This week a CollectorVision released a pre-release announcement for a new videogame console, called Phoenix.

CollectorVision Phoenix
CollectorVision Phoenix conceptual drawing courtesy of CollectorVision.com

Phoenix is a Field Programmable Gate Array-based clone of the 1982 ColecoVision videogame console, featuring old-school input ports for compatibility with authentic Coleco controllers, and HDMI-output for modern HDTV sets. It promises to be 100% compatible with the entire ColecoVision library, including newer homebrew games that have been released in recent years — even those that depend on the Super Game Module expansion by OpCode Games. The Phoenix will have the SGM circuitry built in to its FPGA. The console will have a cartridge slot for plugging real ColecoVision games into, as well as a SD card slot for loading ROMs. Curiously, it will also have input ports for SNES/SFC controller, and for PS/2 keyboards.

This is an exciting development for ColecoVision fans. The system is very similar in concept to the AVS, a FPGA-based NES clone that RetroUSB released in 2016, and the Super Nt, FPGA-based SNES clone by Analogue.

The announced price point is expected to be “around $200”, so right in the same ballpark as these upgraded clone systems. As an owner of the Super Nt and AVS, I’m very happy with both systems, and so am very excited about this news.  

The ColecoVision is underappreciated in the history of videogames, as it came out just before the Crash of ’83, and was knocked out of the market after only a few short years by the NES, but Coleco still has a following even today. The system had a solid library of games which featured better graphics and sound than the Atari 2600, its main competitor, and Mattel’s Intellivision, its closest technical rival. The games were not quite as sophisticated as the action/adventure style of games that the NES introduced, but there are many standout ports of classic early 80’s arcade titles for the system — including Donkey Kong, Zaxxon, BurgerTime, Gorf, Frenzy, Pepper II, and others.

Adventure (Atari, 1979) appreciated

Adventure is commonly regarded as one of the best games on the Atari 2600, and is certainly a top original title for the console. Out of all the games released for the system, this one stands out as being the one that best represents what was unique to the system.

A great introduction

It’s also a fantastic example of game design, with a built-in tutorial. Super Mario Bros has been recognized as having an excellent introductory level for teaching the fundamental concepts of the game, but Adventure did this just as well a good five+ years earlier, with game variation 1. Intended to be an easy difficulty version of the game, suitable for young children, it also works as a way to introduce the gameplay basics to new players of any age.

In Game 1, you start out in front of the Gold Castle, right in front of the gate.

This communicates to the player that this is your home base. The castle is locked, but the Gold Key is conveniently right there on the screen. Since the key and the castle are the same color, this communicates a strong clue that the key must unlock the castle. Since there’s an item in the starting room, and that item is usable in that very room, every basic element of the game is present on the first screen, so the player has the opportunity to learn the game immediately, before they start wandering and get lost.

If the player grabs the key and opens the castle, very likely they will enter inside, where they will find the Sword. The player may drop the Key by pressing the button, but more likely will run to the Sword and pick it up, and in so doing discover that picking up one item drops an already-held item. Either way, the player learns an important aspect of the core mechanic of the game, carrying an item.

This rewards the player for exploring, and for solving a simple puzzle with one of the objects found in the Adventure world.

If the player doesn’t enter the castle, regardless of which direction they explore, they will run into one of the two dragons: left, and they will encounter the Yellow dragon, and right, they will run into the Green dragon.

Without the sword, either encounter forces the player to run away, or be eaten — unless the player is carrying the Gold Key, in which case the Yellow dragon will flee from him.

Whichever is the case, something unique and different happens — thus demonstrating to the player that the inventory of items found in the game each change the game in distinct ways.

This is enough to encourage the player to experiment with each item they find in the game, in order to discover all the possibilities. But some of the most interesting special item properties in the game are introduced right away.

If the player has the sword, what happens will depend on the difficulty switch position, and the orientation that the sword is held.

If the right difficulty switch is set to A, dragons will flee from the Sword. If set to B, the dragons attack.

If the player is positioned such that the sword is between him and the dragon, the outcome is almost certain victory for the player as the charging dragon runs straight into the sword and dies. Thus, the game teaches the player how to kill dragons in a basic, direct way.

Otherwise, the combat can get exciting, as the player must dodge and move to touch the dragon with the Sword. In other variations, roaming dragons can and will often randomly encounter the player, coming at him from any angle, and this is good practice for such situations.

Again, the game design subtly hints the player toward the more exciting combat — the Sword sprite is always positioned with the hilt to the left, blade to the right. Despite the fact that the player can pick up the Sword (or any of the items) from any direction, most new players will instinctively grab the sword by the hilt-end, which will put the player in front of the sword when they encounter either dragon, making for a more challenging and more interesting combat.

If the right Difficulty switch is set to A, dragons flee from the Sword. Otherwise, they will directly charge the player. If the player is carrying the sword on the side the dragon approaches from, the combat is usually over quickly, as the dragon impales itself on the sword, and is slain.

But if the dragon flees, the player will have a much harder time slaying it — it will take a bit of luck for the player to enter the room positioned in such a way to have a chance at reaching the dragon with the Sword before it runs away. It’s very difficult to do this. One tactic that is effective is to walk near the edge of the screen, such that the Sword is actually off the edge of the screen, then wait for the dragon to approach near, and then attack.

If the player encounters the Green dragon, they will find the Black Key, which the dragon guards. The dragon guards the key, which is positioned on the left side of the screen, so will always charge the player from the left when the player enters the room from the top of the screen.

If the player runs away, the Green dragon will not give chase, as it is programmed to guard the black key, and will stay on the same screen as the key. This gives the player the ability to flee and return to the room repeatedly, and try several approaches to dealing with the dragon.

If the player grabs the Black key before running off, he will be pursued by the dragon.

If the player encounters the Yellow dragon first, the dragon will chase the player from screen to screen, as the dragon does not have an item to guard. But if the player happens to be carrying the Gold Key, this will scare the Yellow dragon off. If the player has entered the castle and grabbed the Sword, the Yellow dragon will approach the player at a slow, deliberate pace, and attempt to eat the Player. If the player is grabbing the sword by its “hilt” side, the player will be to the left of the sword, and this will cause the dragon to trigger its bite attack before it runs into the sword and becomes slain. Thus, the player will learn a) how the dragon moves and attacks, b) that the dragon is temporarily invincible while it in its bite attack mode, but also temporarily fixed in place, and c) that the dragon is dispatched by the Sword by touching it.

If the player is grabbing the sword from its right side, he may slay the dragon directly, without triggering its attack; in this way the player discovers that the sword is lethal regardless of its orientation. Later, the player may discover that the sword is always lethal to dragons, even if it is not in the player’s hand! This is perhaps surprising, but it is highly useful knowledge once discovered, as the player may run around the sword while carrying another object, and lure a pursuing dragon to run into the sword, killing itself.

Once both dragons are dead, the game is easily winnable. The player simply has to take the Black Key to the Black Castle, unlock it, retrieve the Chalice, and bring it back to the Gold Castle, and the game is over.

In order to do that, however, the player must first solve the blue labyrinth. The labyrinth is illogical — it is comprised of 6 screens of interlocking passages which cannot be mapped onto a Euclidean plane.

When you try, certain pathways overlap others, creating a bizarre, confusing maze. The maze is actually fairly easy to traverse, but how the different screens connect to each other don’t quite make sense — space here is warped, somehow.

There are several pathways through the labyrinth, but only one will take you to the Black Castle. 

However, due to the placement of the Bridge, there’s a second possible way through the labyrinth. In the first room of the Blue Labyrinth, there are four branching paths: left is the true path through the Labyrinth; right is the secret Bridge shortcut, and the middle two paths loop around to connect to each other, returning the player to the start of the maze.

So, regardless of the direction chosen by the Player, they’ll either a) quickly loop back to the start of the labyrinth, where they can start over without a lot of frustration or risk of getting hopelessly lost, b) go left and make their way through the labyrinth to discover the Black Castle, or c) go right and discover the Bridge shortcut, and a shorter path through the Labyrinth to the Black Castle.

This again shows good design, by demonstrating to the player a) how the Bridge functions, and b) a reward that shows how the Bridge can provide an advantage to the Player, thus demonstrating its value. It’s likely that the player will inadvertently touch the Bridge as they pass over the wall, and thus discover that the Bridge may be picked up like any other object, and that its portability makes it even more useful.

When the Player discovers the Black Castle, they’ll probably know immediately what the Black Key is for, and if they don’t have it with them, will know from their experience in the first screen that they will need to go back to retrieve the Black Key in order to proceed. If the player has yet to encounter the black key, their previous experience with the Gold Castle will have taught them that this Castle must also have a Key that will open its gate, found somewhere.

Upon unlocking the Black Castle, the Player enters into a room where they discover the Magnet. It’s common for players to drop the key upon entering the castle, perhaps in order to retreat and grab the Sword, which they may have also brought with them, just in case there is another dragon to fight — and if they do drop the key, they’ll immediately discover what the Magnet does: attract other objects.

The Player may pick up the Magnet and interact with it, dragging it around as it slowly attracts the key to follow it about the room. This invites the Player to see what else the Magnet will attract. (It works on all the other items in the game, but not the dragons or the Bat.)

When the player proceeds to the last room of the Black Castle, they’ll find the Chalice. From here, all they need to do is bring it back to the Gold Castle, and they win the game. There’s nothing in the game to tell the player that they need to do this, but it is provided in the written instructions pamphlet that comes with the game.

Otherwise, the purpose and use of the Chalice is mysterious. The Chalice is unlike the other items in the game, in that its color flashes and shimmers. This makes the Chalice stand out as a special object, and probably more likely for the player to pick it up, even if they skipped reading the instructions and don’t know what to do with it. Since it flashes a golden color, that may be enough of a clue to the player that they should bring it to the Gold Castle, as they did with the Gold Key.

Once the player knows what to do, they can complete Game 1 in a minute or less. Even without knowing what to do, it’s likely that a first time player can complete the quest in just a few minutes.

The tightness and self-teaching design of Game 1 of Adventure is nothing short of impressive. Considering how early this game came out in the life of the system, the level of refinement present in the level design is amazing. As obvious and intuitive as the placement of the objects and dragons is, we must recognize that these were the result of deliberate design choices, and that any other arrangement would have made the introductory level of the game less inviting, less intuitive, and less fun.

Advanced Adventures

Game Variations 2 and 3 introduce the player to a larger world, with a third castle (White), and two Catacombs (in the Black Castle, and en route to the White Castle). The White Castle itself adds another Maze, and in total the world has about doubled in size.

The Epic Quest

Game 2 is the canonical full Adventure experience. You have to visit every castle and use every item in order to complete the quest. This game introduces the Bat, which appears on the start screen, and swipes the Sword which appears where the Gold Key was in Game 1.

The timing here is tight enough that it must have been deliberate — try as you might, there’s no way to beat the Bat to the Sword. It will get there just barely ahead of you no matter how fast you can get there. 

Another thing about this introductory encounter: the Bat continues in a straight line, continuing to wrap from bottom to top of the screen in an endless cycle, which lasts until the Player either leaves the room, or touches the Bat or the Sword. 

Because the Player has learned the value of the Sword, very likely they will try to grab it and fight the Bat for control of it. The screen wrapping behavior of this initial encounter invites and practically guarantees that this will happen. The Bat is programmed to win these contests, thwarting and frustrating the player.

This teaches the player everything they need to know about the Bat, immediately: the Bat steals the item you need.

Best case, you can grab the Bat, and carry it with the sword until the Bat either drops the sword, or picks up another item. If the player does manage to grab the Bat, capturing it, sometimes it can struggle free, often at the wrong time.

Going to the right, where in Game 1 you found the Green dragon guarding the Black Key, you’ll encounter the Catacombs that lead to the White Castle. In the Catacombs, you’ll find the Yellow Key, the Bridge, and in the room South of the White Castle, the Magnet. The Green Dragon is wandering nearby, and will likely encounter the Player in a situation where the Bat has dropped the Sword, and picked up one of the other items.

If you’re lucky, you may dispatch the Green Dragon in the catacombs without much trouble, but it’s just as likely that you’ll get stuck in the catacombs without the Sword, which is very dangerous — especially prior to learning how to navigate the catacombs. If you can, kill the Green Dragon as quickly as possible, but if you lose the sword, try to grab the Gold Key and run for it so you can at least get the Gold Castle open. The Green Dragon will always guard the Magnet or the Black Key, so you can use the Magnet to “trade” for the Gold Key so he’ll ignore you while you run to the Gold Castle and unlock it.

Here, the Player is carrying the Bat, who is carrying the Bridge, just after the Player killed the Green Dragon with the Sword. With so many objects on the screen, they flicker, so this is a composite image of several screen captures.

The White key is found in the Blue Labyrinth along the path to the Black Castle, and inside the White Castle is the Yellow Dragon, and the Black Key. If you’re new to Game 2, you’ll probably head up the familiar path to the Black Castle, and discover the White Key here.

You’ll need to run with the White Key to unlock the castle, then come back with the Sword so that you can face the Yellow Dragon and slay it. If you can, once you open the Gold Castle, go back and grab the other items in the game and bring them to the Gold Castle. The Bat does not enter the Gold Castle ordinarily (he will only be found there if you grab him and drag him there yourself) so anything you store in the Gold Castle is generally safe from the Bat randomly picking it up and moving it somewhere.

If you can, put the Sword in the Gold castle for safekeeping, and then go unlock the White Castle, run back to retrieve the Sword, and return to the White Castle and slay the Yellow Dragon. The White Castle’s maze is divided into two interlocking sections. To get to where the Black Key is, you’ll need the Bridge.

To get the Black Key, you need the Bridge, and the insight that the maze is larger than it seems.
The Black Key is well-hidden inside the inner chamber of the White Castle maze.

Once you have the Black key, you’re ready to take on the final challenge. Take the key to unlock the castle, then return to the White Castle and grab the Sword, and return to the Black castle. You’re about to face the Red Dragon, who is the fastest and fiercest of them all. He guards the Chalice in the catacombs of the Black Castle. All you have to do is kill him and take the Chalice. Fighting this dragon in the tight confines of the catacomb is tricky, but not too difficult. Just keep the Sword between you and the Dragon.

Once the Dragon is defeated, there’s nothing left to threaten you; run back to the Gold Castle with the Chalice and win the game.

The way this variation is laid out guarantees the player will take the longest path through the game, and experience all of it. It’s well designed from that standpoint. The Bat’s mischief can greatly lengthen the time taken to complete this quest. It’s very common for the Bat to grab the item you need right when you are about to use it, and leave you with something you don’t need, or even bring a live Dragon to eat you! If you’re accustomed to the layout of Game 1, you’ll probably spend a lot of time exploring the Blue Labyrinth, where you’ll find nothing of value, only dead ends. But by exploring the new catacombs area, you’ll quickly find most of the items in the game, and it’s just the chance interactions with the Bat, and the risk of being caught without the Sword when a Dragon draws near that can lengthen the game.

The randomness of the Bat makes Game 2 somewhat different each time you play, but the initial position of the items is always the same, and the order in which you must unlock the castles always is the same. So playing this variant repeatedly doesn’t offer a lot of replay value. Even so, the random element introduced by the Bat still gives this variation a decent amount of replayability.

The Random Remix

Game 3 randomizes the starting position of every item in the game. There are a few constraints, of course: no key can be locked in its own castle (although, there is a bug, by which the Gold key can sometimes start out locked in the Gold Castle, rendering the game unwinnable), the Chalice never can start in the Gold Castle, but otherwise everything is random. It can happen that you start out getting attacked by all three Dragons immediately, with no Sword in sight to save you. You’ll have to explore everywhere and anywhere to find the Chalice, and the items needed to get to it.

This is my favorite variation of the game. It’s the most replayable, because every time you play you’ll have to figure out where things are and which ones are needed in order to unlock the Gold Castle and retrieve the Chalice — the only two things in the game that you must do to win. Everything else is optional. And due to that fact, it’s often possible to complete the quest more quickly than is possible in Game 2.

Screwing Around

Once the Dragons are killed, the Player is safe. This frees him to explore the game and experiment. The Bat can get annoying, but it’s fairly easy to grab it, run to one of the castles, and lock it inside.

It’s an interesting discovery that you can carry the Bat into a castle, run out quickly, locking the gate behind you, and never have to see the Bat again. The insight may be learned by the fact that in Game 2, the Yellow Dragon never appears in the game until you unlock the White Castle. Since that is the case, the Yellow Dragon must have been confined in the White Castle. Might this work with the Bat also? It does!

It’s also possible to gain this insight by locking a Key in its own Castle. It’s possible! To do this, you need to touch the open castle gate with your Key, which causes the gate to lower. If you drop the key in the doorway, as the gate lowers, the Key will disappear, apparently into the castle. Now behind the locked gate, the key and anything else inside that castle is forever locked, inaccessible to the player evermore.

At this point, Adventure becomes a sandbox game. You can play around with the items and figure out all kinds of things to do with them. Mainly this means playing around with the Bridge and Magnet. The Bridge may be placed at various walls, and you can even try to use it to cross the boundary of a room that is normally blocked by a solid wall. This sort of, almost works — you can see into an adjacent room this way, but not quite enter into it.

Experimentation is at the heart of what makes Adventure special.

Eventually, through much trial and error, but more likely through reading about it or being shown by someone who knows, you may discover the Easter Egg, the hidden room with the Dot, which is used to access a secret room where the author’s name is hidden.

Items with purpose

One of the great aspects of Adventure is how purposeful every item and character in the game is. The items in the game give the player the capability to do anything they might need to do, and give the game’s design a sense of completeness. There’s nothing missing, and nothing obvious to add. 

Keys unlock Castles, and there is one key per Castle. They give the player something to find and something to do in order to access parts of the map that are locked when the game begins. They give the Dragons something to guard (or flee): The Yellow dragon runs from the Gold key; the Green dragon guards the Black key, and the Red dragon will guard the White key.

The Dragons exist to create danger and tension for the player, something to overcome and defeat. They make Adventure be a game about more than simply exploring.

The Bat exists to give the game randomness that makes the game world feel “alive” as the Bat randomly moves items around the world, which would otherwise only move if the Player moved them. The Bat is a mischievous and frustrating enemy, who cannot be killed, but may be dealt with by locking it in a castle. The Bat makes the Dragons more dangerous while they’re alive, since it can take the Sword or bring a Dragon at an inopportune time. But the Bat’s randomness also means that it can sometimes aid the player, by taking a threatening Dragon away, or dropping a needed item that the player had trouble finding. This redeems the frustrating aspect of the Bat, to a degree, and makes it an entertaining character.

The Sword gives the player a way to defeat the dragons.

The Magnet gives the player a way to grab items that are stuck in walls, or otherwise inaccessible, making it much less likely that the player will get stuck in an unwinnable situation due to a trapped object that they cannot reach.

The Bridge serves a similar purpose to the Magnet, in that the Bridge can enable to Player to get around dead Dragons that may block narrow paths. But the Bridge also has several specific purposes: A) To enable a short-cut to the Black Castle by Bridging over the dead-end of the right branch of the Blue Labyrinth; B) access the inner chamber of the White Castle maze, necessary to complete the quest in Game 2; C) to reach the hidden room in the Black Castle labyrinth, where the Dot is hidden, necessary to unlock the now-legendary easter egg and find the secret screen with the creator credits. 

The Chalice gives the player a goal, and something to do to give the game an ending. The existence of the Chalice makes the game about more than merely exploring, more than merely slaying dragons. It gives the player a quest and a purpose.

Speculating on a Sequel

Adventure has been a frequent target of homage for homebrew and hacks and indie game developers. I don’t know how many projects I’ve seen over the years that took direct inspriation from Adventure, but I can recall a Quake mod from 2002, and unofficial sequels for the Atari 5200 and Atari Flashback system, a pair of homebrews called Evil Magician Returns and Evil Magician Returns 2, and certainly others too obscure for me to find with a quick search.

I’ve played some of them, and of those that I have played, I have found them to be lacking in some way — they just don’t feel as good as the original, for various reasons. Either they offer more of the same, without offering enough new, or they attempt to update the graphics in ways that spoil the utter simplicity of the original graphics. The graphics weren’t really the point of the original — the Player is represented by a simple square pixel, after all — and so I would like to see a sequel that focuses on gameplay, but retains the graphical style and overall feel of the original, but adds new items and new areas to explore.

Making it my own

I think anyone who loved the original has probably thought about what they’d want in a sequel. So in that spirit, here’s my proposal for how I would extend the original game. Perhaps I’ll try to program it at some point.

My idea is more like a “Game 4” variation of the original than it is an Adventure II. A “Game 5” variation would be a randomized version of the game with all of the elements from Game 4, much as Game 3 is a randomized version of Game 2.

Here’s what I would add:

  • There are three empty rooms in the area (Marked 1, 2, 3 in the map below) where the White Castle is found:Adventure MapThese feel like unfinished, purposeless rooms in Adventure. This is where I would extend the world map. I would replace these empty rooms with entrances to new mazes that lead the player to new areas of the game. Perhaps I’d have all three entrances lead to three inter-twined mazes, which require the use of the bridge to go between them. The Brown Key would be hidden somewhere in this new maze. The exact details of the maze aren’t shown, but the maze would occupy the empty region shown in the map detail below, with the new Brown Castle somewhere in there, perhaps where indicated… but possibly not.Adventure-Variation 4 Detail
  • I’d add at least one new castle, but probably just one, found at the other end of one of the mazes. The existing castles are White, Black, and Gold, this castle would be some new color. Which color? It should be a color that is possible with the Atari 2600, and not already in use as a Castle or Dragon color, or a color that is close to one of those colors. This rules out Green and Red, Yellow, Black, and White. Probably a good color for a fourth castle would be Blue, or Brown.
  • I’d add a new Dragon. The existing Dragons are Red, Yellow, Green. The new dragon should be a color that is possible with the Atari 2600, and not already in use as a background or Dragon color. This rules out: Black, White, Gold, Yellow, Green, Red, and Blue. I’d also avoid Purple, since that’s the color of the Bridge.
  • The trick with the colors is that the Atari 2600 can only produce 128 distinct colors in NTSC, as shown by this chart. While the RGB color space isn’t exactly gamut compatible with what the Atari 2600’s TIA chip generated, this is close enough for our purposes.
    Atari 2600 NTSC paletteThere are only 16 hues to choose from, and we don’t want to pick something too close to what’s already in use. This may not be exact, but my best guess as to which colors are already reserved in Adventure is as follows:
    There’s a lot of possible colors still available, but many of them are too light or don’t contrast well enough. But a purple, green, aqua, or brown would seem to be the best candidates. Brown seems like a good choice for a Castle, or Blue, while an aqua or orange shade seems like the best choice for a Dragon.
  • Spider Spider (New Character). The spider’s purpose is to create Webs. Like the Bat, the Spider is black. The Spider cannot be killed. Can he be picked up and carried? I haven’t decided — probably not, just to make him different from the Bat. The Spider lurks in the Brown Castle, spinning webs inside, making the catacombs inside the Brown Castle more challenging to get through. When the Brown Castle is unlocked, the Spider is set free, and can roam about the rest of the world.
  • Web WebWebs are obstacles which slow the player down, but do not block him. Webs will stick fast to any Object in the game, so that they cannot be moved, will not be attracted by the Magnet. When the Player is holding the Sword, he can cut through the Webs, so moves at normal speed. Cutting the web destroys it, freeing up any trapped objects so that they can once again be picked up and carried, or moved by the magnet. Dragons ignore Webs, and are not impeded by them. The Bat can pick up a web and move it to another part of the world. The Bridge can be used to navigate over webs without being slowed down.
  • TorchNew item: The Torch. The Torch serves to light up catacombs areas, making them easier to see in when present. It can also be used to destroy Webs, by touching them. The Torch will destroy Webs whether or not the Player is holding it, and the Torch will light up a catacomb maze whether or not the Player is holding it. The Bat may pick up the Torch. The Torch is found in one of the new maze areas in the game. This maze area is very dark, and has the shortest catacomb sight radius yet, when the Torch isn’t present.

Anyhow, this idea isn’t quite fully formed, particularly in terms of the map. But as a general sketch of a concept for an extended “variation 4” game, I think it’s got potential. I think the Torch and Spider give the game new features that have purpose, without wrecking the balance of the existing items.

Who knows if I’ll develop it — it’d definitely be a challenge to build.

Pixel Art Chess Set: Communicating function through design

My five year old nephew started learning to play Chess recently, as I discovered on a visit a few weeks ago.  We played two games, and I didn’t have too much trouble beating him, but for a five year old he’s not bad. He knows all the pieces and their basic moves and their relative value.

I thought it would be fun to build a video Chess game that he could use to help learn strategy and how to see the board. So this is my latest project. I’ll be posting more about that as I work on it.

My first step was to design graphic resources. I didn’t want to spend too much time on it, just a basic “programmer art” chess set, that I could use to build the program with. Of course, it didn’t end up that way, and I’ve gone down the rabbit hole designing variations on sets of minimalist pixel art chess men. It’s too fun and fascinating not to.

My first attempt was actually rather good, I thought. I went for 16x16px representations of the classic chess pieces. I drew them very quickly, but was very pleased with my results, particularly the Knight.

I could have stopped right there, but it was so fun to make this set that I wanted to continue exploring and see if I could refine my pixeling technique further.

I decided to search the net for images of chess pieces to see what variety there was, and found a lot of examples of beautiful sets. I started to take notes and to infer design rules for chess men:

  1. Chess pieces are called “chess men” which seems antiquated and sexist, especially given that the most powerful piece in the game is the Queen.
  2. The modern standard chessmen are a design named for English chess master Howard Staunton, and have been in use only since the mid-19th century. A strength of its design is that each piece is easily distinguished from the others, making errors from mistakes in identifying a piece — a problem with other sets — unlikely. Previously, chess men of different types had a less distinct appearance from one another, and were not as standardized.
  3. In a Staunton set, the Knights are the most detailed, ornate, varied, and realistically represented pieces. 
  4. In Staunton sets, there is a standard height order: pawn, rook, knight, bishop, queen, king. (This surprised me, since Rooks are more valued in Chess I would have expected them to be taller than Bishops.)
  5. The pieces are differentiated by their tops. Each type of piece has a distinct, unambiguous shape.
  6. The body/base of the pieces have a common design, to create unity among the pieces in the set.

I tried to apply design choices to my chess set following these insights.

A follower on Twitter offered feedback that the pieces should be different heights, so I tried that. With a 16×16 pixel tile size, I could only shorten the back row pieces by 1-3 pixels.  I also tweaked the King piece by adding a few more pixels to its top, to make it a bit more distinct from the Queen, and moved the Pawn so that it wold be more centered in its square.

I do like the result:

Staunton pixel chessmen

I think my initial 16×16 Staunton set look like they’re in ALL CAPS, while this set is more “readable” by using “mixed case” heights for the pieces.

I wanted my chess game to be focused on usability and instruction. I needed each piece to be immediately recognizable, and not to convey a bunch of extraneous information to the player that has nothing to do with play mechanics. 

My next attempt was a different take altogether. I wanted the look of each piece to suggest its rules for movement. I also thought that it would be clever if the pieces communicated the rules for using them through their visual design.

I ended up being very pleased with this set as well, although I went through many more variations, particularly with the Pawn. This one also came together easily and rapidly.  When your tile size is 16×16 and you’re working in just a few colors, it’s easy to work fast.

Things I like about this set:

  1. The shape of the piece is a built-in tutorial for how the piece moves.
  2. The Pawns still have a pawn-like shape (at least the black pawns; white pawns are “upside down”).
  3. The Knight’s shape may be read as an abstraction of the horse’s head shape of the Staunton piece.

I think out of these variations, my favorites are: P9, Kn2, B3, R1, K?  I’m least certain which King I like.  I think K4 and K5 are my top two, but I also liked the idea of incorporating a crown motif into the design, to signify the King’s special property of being the King.  K1, K2 and K6 were attempts at this, but I think K1 looks too much like a Staunton Rook, unfortunately.

I wasn’t sure which of my designs to use for my final set, so  I posted my sets on Twitter and a pixel art community on Facebook. @Managore responded to my request for feedback by coming up with a set of his own design, which I quite like.

His design was retweeted and liked over 500 times, and received many positive compliments from his followers, many of whom are game developers. One of my favorite indie developers, @TerryCavanaugh, who made VVVVVV and Don’t Look Back, pointed out an physical chess set that had been designed a few years ago which incorporated the same ideas.

It’s exciting to see my idea get picked up and reworked by fellow game developers who are inspired by the concepts I am exploring. So fun! Getting that validation that what I’m working on is interesting to others is very motivating. But it’s particularly good to get some attention from developers whose work I’ve admired for years, however modest.

I’m excited about this project and look forward to working on the program. I have more design ideas that I’m looking forward to getting into soon.

The Debt We All Owe to Emulation

Emulation is a broad topic within computer science. This article is specifically about emulation of video games.  There are many other purposes to which emulation may be applied as well, and it’s important not to lose sight of that.  Emulation is a general purpose tool, not merely a tool for piracy.

Old video games have become valuable to collectors in recent years. My generation grew up with video games, and much as the previous generation valued comic books and baseball cards from their youth to the point where they became worth serious money in the 1980s and 1990s, antique videogames have similarly grown in value.

It wasn’t always thus. For a good couple of decades, old videogames were considered obsolete junk. No one wanted them (except maybe a few very geeky people such as myself.) Mostly when a new system hit the market, people forgot about the old generation and within a year or two they weren’t available in the retail channel anymore, or were perhaps on clearance in dollar bins.

Importantly, the manufacturers didn’t continue to manufacture old generation hardware.  Although it became cheaper and cheaper to do so, there still wasn’t enough demand in old systems to keep them viable in the face of new competition. More to the point, manufacturers would have been competing against themselves.  And when trying to recoup the cost of major R&D budgets that produced that next generation, they wanted (and needed) the market to be focused exclusively on that new system. Keeping the old generation system alive would have cannibalized sales, and hurt profitability, and this would have stalled the progress of innovation.

We saw this with Atari. The 2600 was the system that broke through into nearly half of American households in the late 70’s and early 80’s. At the time, it wasn’t obvious to the general public that there was going to be a new generation every several years as Moore’s Law continued to work its magic to enable cheaper, more powerful computing technology.  Internally, Atari struggled with releasing their next generation system, the 5200. With tens of millions of 2600 consoles already in homes, the revenue stream represented by cartridge sales for the established console was too important for Atari to walk away from it. The 5200 wasn’t backward compatible (although an adapter for 2600 games existed) and Atari felt that the average consumer might feel alienated and abandoned if they had to go out and buy a new, expensive console.  As a result, Atari kept the 2600 alive an incredible 15 years, finally stopping production in 1992.  The 5200, launched in 1982, was hampered by a variety of factors, and never had the same level of success — it was expensive, lacked backwards-compatibility, the library was mostly the same titles as were available on the 2600, only with better graphics, the controllers were delicate analog joysticks that annoyingly didn’t automatically re-center, it contended in the market with rivals Coleco and Mattel, and then the 1983 crash of the North American market cut short its heyday.

The business data was always very clear on this. With video games, what was hot today was gone a few weeks or months later, or in the case of smash hits, maybe a year. New product constantly distracted and replaced old product, with a few notable exceptions such as Pac Man and Donkey Kong, most video games didn’t have staying power in the market.

Obviously, that’s not to say that old games started sucking and were no longer fun to play. They didn’t. But their enduring appeal didn’t translate into sustainable marketability.  And that’s why successful games spawn franchises of endless sequels and a multiverse of linked-IP titles. And the old constantly gave way to the new. And the business always wanted the market to be focused on the new, because that’s where sales were.  (But yet, in other market segments, they keep making chess sets, decks of cards, balls, copies of popular board games that have been enjoyed for generations, such as Monopoly, etc.) For some reason, the prevailing wisdom was you couldn’t sell a videogame that everyone had already bought.

Well, until recently. A little over a decade ago, Nintendo introduced the Virtual Console on Wii, and started selling us games that they had made in the 1980s and 1990s.  And we bought them. In many cases, we bought them again. For some, it may have been the first time.

Even that wasn’t a completely new thing.  Every console has had classic games ported to it.  Atari has continually re-packaged its greatest hits into collections that have been sold on just about every console and platform that has been released since the original system exited the market. Virtually every big game developer has done it as well: Activision, Sega, SNK, Midway, Namco, and on and on.

And what made that possible?

Emulation.

Without emulation, putting an old game on a new system would have meant porting it, essentially re-writing the game from scratch. And ports were never capable of being entirely faithful to the original. There’s always differences, often substantial, to the point that the nostalgic value of a port is never quite there.  It’s not like playing the original.  You can never go home again.

But with emulation,  you could. Emulators were magic. With an emulator, a new machine could be made to work nearly exactly like some older machine with a completely different architecture, and run software for that older machine without further modification, and the results would be virtually indistinguishable from that software running on original hardware.  

The old systems may burn  out and break down.  The factory could stop making them and shift production to other, more profitable, more in demand product lines. But as long as someone could write an emulator to work on modern machines, old games could live, in theory forever.

Game companies, mostly, did not want that. Especially if there wasn’t some way to make money from it. And once full retail priced sales for a game, or generation of games, stopped being feasible, game companies dropped the product line entirely. Their expectation as the buying public would follow on to the next new thing, and that’s where the industry wanted all focus.  

So game emulation, in its earliest incarnation, was an unauthorized, underground enterprise, a labor of love by gamers desperate to keep the games they loved from disappearing entirely, as they surely would have without their efforts.

And what good is an emulator without something to run on it? This is where ROM dumps come into play. Anyone can tell you that emulation isn’t illegal, doesn’t violate any copyright or patent or trademark law. But ROMs, those are a different story. Copyright law is clear enough about making unauthorized copies of copyrighted works for distribution and especially for profit. There are limited provisions for making copies of works for personal use, of a copyrighted work which you own a copy of, for archival/backup purposes, for academic purposes, for criticism and review purposes, for time shifting and platform shifting, and so on.

Archival/backup purposes fit the context of ROM dumping best, but even so, technically this is a personal use right, meaning that in theory (to my knowledge this has not been tested in the courts) a person could legally dump the ROM of a game that they personally own, for use as a backup, and use an emulator for platform shifting that work onto a new platform.  But that’s a personal copy — they still don’t have any right to distribute that.  And even if my copy of Super Mario Bros. 2 is exactly the same as the copy that someone else already dumped for their own personal use, I can’t (legally) take a shortcut and make a copy of their dump; I have to produce my own.  Which takes time, effort, equipment, expertise, and the vast majority of people do not have that, nor do they have the inclination. So people did the only reasonable thing there was to do: they shared copies of existing ROM dumps. And yes, this meant that many people obtained copies of ROMs that they didn’t own an original copy of. And this was copyright violation.

And yet, for a long time, there still wasn’t enough value in emulation for the rightful intellectual property rights holder to have incentive to do anything about this situation.  And so, as a result, the Abadonware movement began, and the underground emulation scene grew and grew and grew.

You can go to a bookstore today and buy a new copy of a book written hundreds of years ago.  At least, certain ones.  You can’t go to a retail store and buy a new copy of a video game produced 40 years ago.  Not most of them. Sure, today there’s now a few exceptions, if you want to count systems like the Atari Flashback or NES Classic.

But — these systems only cover a small fraction of the catalog of titles that were released for those systems.

And — those systems are only possible because of emulation.  They’re dedicated emulation boxes. That’s right.

For $60, you can buy a tiny selection of really great games, and through the magic of emulation, play them on a modern HDTV. Much of the work that made that possible was pioneered, for free, by enthusiasts and hobbyists who made it their mission to preserve the past and ensure that some game that they loved would be available forever.  For free.

And more than just preserving the popular hits of yesterday, the emulation scene also provided equal attention to games that virtually no one had played, and even fewer people care about, or even knew about.  Rare games that hadn’t performed well on retail release, but were nonetheless good games, have gotten a second wind and rebirth, in large part because someone in the emulation scene ripped a copy of it, and distributed it for free so that thousands of people could experience it.  Games like Little Samson, a NES rarity that sells for thousands of dollars for an authentic copy, could not be experienced by the vast majority of people, without a ROM dump and an emulator.  And probably the black market distribution of this ROM is what helped make people aware of it, to create the demand that gave rise to the premium price that the original now commands.

Companies like Nintendo didn’t want you to play their old games, at one time, for a long time.  But now that the emulation scene proved that those games did have lasting appeal and historic value, now Nintendo would like to sell you those games again. And because they can, they seek to destroy the underground movement that showed it was viable and created the technology that made it possible.

I find this incredibly sad, aggravating, and tragic. I may have a personal collection of physical cartridges in my gaming library, but I certainly couldn’t replace them at today’s prices if they were lost.  And that hardware’s not going to last forever.

Copyright used to have a limited term, and this would have made things a lot easier for the emulation movement to happen in a completely legal way. But over the years, large companies have continually altered intellectual property laws — always to their benefit, never for the public good — to secure a perpetual right to works, robbing the public domain of a rich future. 

Robbing the public.

Robbing all of  us.

Tempest 4000 released

Bad news for AtariBox fans:  Tempest 4000 was released today.  Why is this bad for AtariBox?  Well, Tempest 4000 is the one new modern launch title that Atari has announced for the doomed console, and the game is available today on XBox One, PS4, and Windows. Anyone who’s excited to play T4K can play it now, and will not have to wait a year plus and buy a $300 console for the privilege.  Well, at least T4K is still published by Atari SA, so whatever platform you might buy it for, they’ll get some money.

Hey, Atari, congratulations on launching a product! I’m glad to see you were able to play nice with Jeff Minter and work together to put this out.

So what else does AtariBox have up its sleeve?  Any exclusive content?  A second launch title?  An Q&A article published on Medium on July 13 is the only new PR that I’ve seen from Atari SA since the close of the campaign on June 30. Atari SA remain very quiet about it, and have not put much information out since the close of their IndieGoGo campaign, which raised just short of $3M in pre-sales for the system — well short of the amount raised in 2012 on Kickstarter by Ouya, which raised over $8.5M and had 6 times as many backers, yet struggled in the market and failed to gain marketshare due to a lack of compelling exclusive content.)

Hyperkin RetroN 77 Reviewed

The 1-line review:

It could have been so much better.

In a nutshell:

Hyperkin RetroN 77

RetroN 77 is a conveniently packaged, aesthetically attractive $70 box that allows you to play (many, but not all) Atari 2600 cartridges on a HDTV set, or play ROMs for Atari 2600 games off a microSD card, powered by Stella, the most popular emulator for the Atari 2600.

HDMI output is cool, for ease of connecting to modern TVs, and for image quality. But that’s really the only truly good thing about this.  And it’s no better than running Stella on a PC.

The other things I liked about this when I first heard of it:  the cartridge slot, and the DB9 joystick ports, (which are the same as on the original system, allowing for play with original controllers).  But both of these features are compromised — many games will not play on cartridge in the RetroN 77, and the included joystick is, while a nice design that feels comfortable in the hand and includes ambidextrous buttons, is fragile and too clicky in use.  Fortunately those original controllers can be plugged into the RetroN 77 and work, but they still should have did better with the included joystick. And frustratingly, Hyperkin knew it, and yet they still shipped this product.

Also worth mentioning, the system offers saving and restoring your game state at the press of a button.  But the button is located on the console, where it’s less than easy to reach, not on the controller, where it would have made more sense (although, to be fair, I don’t see how they could have done this while preserving compatibility with the original DB9 controller port, and I definitely would not want to give that feature up just to have easier access to a save/restore button.) But the worst thing about the Save and Restore buttons is that they’re identical to each other, and to the adjacent “game select” and “game reset” buttons.  If you want to save your game, you must quickly hit the correct button, and if you screw up and hit any of the other buttons, you’ll either restore a previously saved gamestate, or reset the game, both of which will be ruinous to your current progress.  So this feature is just not very well thought out, and not very useful.  Also, the RetroN 77 can only save ONE gamestate per game cartridge or ROM file, making this feature extremely limited.  This is sad, because the included SD card has a 128MB capacity, and the entire Atari 2600 library will fit easily into less than 2MB, meaning that the memory card potentially has room for virtually infinite save files.  So none of that extra space will ever be put to good use.  All they had to do was add a menu to the Load button so that you would have to choose which save file to reload, or delete, and it could have been so much more.

RetroN 77 may be worthwhile to own — if you just want to take something simple out of the box, plug it in and go, with no software setup and configuration and have it simple and just work, except of course for the many games it doesn’t support on the cartridge slot. But ultimately it will not satisfy a serious gamer who wants to play his entire library of Atari 2600 games.

Even so, I’m glad that a company is at least trying to make something like this. The original hardware won’t last forever. I just wish that the execution were better.

Let’s get into the details.

Complaints:

  • System isn’t instantly on when you flip the power switch to ON. There’s a several second delay, long enough to make you wonder if the thing isn’t broken. Every time.
  • Way old version of Stella running on this thing.
  • Stella is a great emulator, and even this old version is very good. But emulation just isn’t as cool as ‘real hardware’ or an FPGA implementation of real hardware. In this case, it’s because the RetroN doesn’t REALLY play the game that you plugged into the cartridge slot; it copies the ROM off the cartridge and temporarily loads it and runs it in Stella, but for some reason (maybe because the Stella version is old?) it’s not capable of running cartridges that have extra processor chips in them.
  • Doesn’t support many games on the cartridge slot (basically, any of the later cartridges that packed extra chips to extend the capabilities of the obsolescent Atari 2600: Pitfall II, Mountain King, etc.) Update: A Retron 77 user has created a public list of tested games. It would have been nice if Hyperkin could have created this list, themselves, at least for the majority of games, rather than leaving it to users to figure it out for ourselves.
  • The joystick feel could be better, and durability is unacceptable. Everyone is reporting that the joystick breaks mere hours into playing with the system. Hyperkin acknowledged this is a known issue and promised to replace broken controllers, and to release a re-engineered controller that will be more robust. But why didn’t they just wait and release when it was ready? This shitty joystick will do nothing for Hyperkin’s reputation or to sell the system.
  • They really should have made a modern paddle controller, since original paddles are so fragile and need reconditioning in order to avoid jitter and work properly.
  • System should remember the aspect ratio mode it was last in rather than default to 16:9.
  • Button layout for the console switches could have been better (ie, more like the original Atari 2600 6-switch model’s layout, same type of switches would have been so cool).
  • Limited number of “slots” for ROMs on the SD card (this is supposed to be fixed in a future firmware update.)

But this is a Hyperkin product, so what did you expect?  Right?

If you have any PC or Mac built in the last 20 years or so, or a Raspberry Pi, and hook it up to a decent monitor, buy a Stelladaptor and plug in an original CX40 joystick, you do not need the RetroN77 — unless you are a completist or enjoy being disappointed.

If you have original working hardware, you may not need the RetroN77, either, depending on if your HDTV can handle the video output, or you can mod your console, or if you still have an old NTSC CRT TV that works.

There’s hope Hyperkin can salvage this with a firmware update that updates Stella to the latest release available, ship replacement controllers that aren’t fragile, but even so it’d be better to hope this sells well enough for them to maybe bother with a “deluxe” 2.0 system that is FPGA-based and addresses the issues I listed above (and supports 5200, 8-bit, and 7800 games!)

But really, it would have been much better if Hyperkin had waited and worked out these issues and released the product when it was ready, rather than push something out to hit the 7/7 release date.

(Did anyone ACTUALLY care that the RetroN 77 was officially released on 7/7?)

No.  No one did. Except the marketing department at Hyperkin.

It was pretty nice of them to include a 128 MB SD card with the unit, fwiw.

Not recommended.

I will revisit the recommendation once Hyperkin are shipping the improved joysticks they’ve promised, and once they’ve released a firmware update, or some firmware hacks are available to give a better user experience. When a firmware update is available, it will be found here. But as is, out of the box this is a device that feels like it needed more development and refinement before it should have been considered for release.

And if you just gotta have a quantifiable rating…

5-star rating: 2/5 stars
Grade: C-

I’d give the RetroN 77 a full star or letter grade better rating if/when they replace the fragile joystick, and another letter grade if/when they release a modern paddle controller.  The actual console is not bad, for what it is, but when you understand it as a simple dedicated Stella box, running a rather outdated version of Stella, it becomes much less compelling, particularly with the current limitation of the number of ROMs on SD card that it will display in its UI, and the compatibility issues with various games on cartridge.  It’s just not good enough to make me recommend it over downloading Stella, plus as many ROMs as you care to find, and playing them on a PC hooked up to a HDTV, using a Stelladaptor with authentic controllers.

Hyperkin now taking Retron77 pre-orders, shipping in July

As if to show Atari how it’s done when a real company develops a real product, Hyperkin announced today that they’re now taking pre-orders for their Retron77 console.  The $69.99 retro-console is expected to start shipping to customers on July 7, 2018.

Hyperkin Retron77

While the Retron77 doesn’t promise to usher in an era of newAtari games, it looks like it will be pretty awesome for a few important reasons:

  • It actually exists,
  • it’s shipping in less than a month,
  • it’s reasonably inexpensive,
  • 720p over HDMI,
  • real cartridge slot for playing actual Atari 2600 cartridges,
  • real controller ports for using your favorite vintage controller,
  • and a nice-looking joystick that features an often-requested feature: an ambidextrous fire button!

I had heard rumors about a year ago that Retron77 would be an FPGA-based implementation of the Atari 2600, but it’s not stated in the product description on their website whether this is so, or if it will rely on emulation.  If it does use emulation, it’s my hope that the system will prove to be hackable to emulate other systems, such as the Atari 5200 or 7800.  But I would be more excited by a FPGA-based system due to the fidelity to the original hardware made possible by FPGA technology.

Other Retron consoles by Hyperkin have been spotty, with problems ranging from terrible controllers to poor emulation quality to violating open source software licenses, so it remains to be seen if the Retron77 will be worth buying. But their more recent offerings have been better, and they seem to have hit all the right notes with this one. I’m looking forward to having one that I can test with soon.

Either way, it is a real product, and will ship in less than a month, and for under $100. By contrast, the AtariBox may come out in about a year, for $300, with unknown developers lined up to release unknown new titles at launch.

Update

Youtube videogamer Metal Jesus has posted a review of the Retron77, providing more details.  The most important revelations:

  1. System plays the games via emulation, using Stella, which Hyperkin properly licensed for the product.
  2. Lag is minimal, nearly imperceptible.
  3. Retron 77 does have a SD card slot, as rumored.
  4. Not all games can be played via the cartridge slot (notably, Pitfall II) for some reason, but if you have a ROM you can put it on an SD card. However…
  5. Retron’s GUI for the SD card menu limits you to seeing only 20 ROMs, max.  According to Hyperkin it’s a measure intended to curb piracy, and the feature is intended to allow users to play the occasional homebrew game. This explanation makes no sense, because homebrew games are also copyrighted (although many homebrew developers put their ROMs out for free download for the benefit of the community), and also available on cartridge in many cases (though per point 4, above, they may not play through the cartridge slot…)  This is really limiting and annoying, and will be one of the first things hackers will want to fix.  With a game catalog of over 700 games, it would be the preferred way to play games — particularly given the apparent failings of playing every game through the cartridge slot, not to mention the difficulty of getting 40 year old EEPROM carts to read.  Update: I’ve read that Hyperkin have reversed course on the limit, and have decided to remove the restriction.  Hooray!
  6. The joystick in the review unit broke, apparently it is fragile. But, Hyperkin say they are aware of this issue and already have a more robust version of this controller that will be included with the production model, and they will replace any that break.
  7. Metal Jesus echoes a sentiment expressed by many: that a multi-system Retron that covers Atari/Intellivision/Colecovision or early 8-bit computers would be a must-buy.

John Hancock’s review shows more extensive testing, reveals additional shortcomings: Grand Prix driving controller not supported, Harmony Cart and homebrew carts not supported (but this isn’t such a big deal, considering you can load ROMs onto the SD card).

Is the AtariBox fake?

Editor’s note: [I’m calling Atari’s new VCS “AtariBox” to differentiate it from the original 1977 Atari VCS (2600)]

Last night, Youtube Gaming channel RGT85 broke news that a developer of Tempest 4000 made public statements which cast doubt on whether the AtariBox is real. There is a discussion thread on Reddit with additional information and speculation.

A year ago, news circulated that Tempest creator Jeff Minter had reconciled with Atari on a dispute over the rights to Tempest, and that he was going to work with them to bring Tempest 4000 to the AtariBox. But according to Llamasoft developer Ivan Zorzin, Tempest 4000 has been in development for PC, XBox, and Playstation 4 platforms, and he knows nothing of any development of a version for AtariBox. According to Zorzin, Atari’s use of footage of Tempest 4000 is not footage of it running on an AtariBox.

At this point, I can only regard these as rumors, but it is definitely a concern that the Tempest 4000 developer and Atari aren’t on the same page. Since the AtariBox hardware is commodity PC hardware, it’s feasible that Atari could have run a Windows build of Tempest 4000 on Windows on AtariBox hardware, or in WINE on Linux on AtariBox hardware. Or it could well be that the footage is not from a running AtariBox at all.

This calls into question whether Atari even have an actual, working prototype yet. Earlier this year at GDC, they did not. Their case was only a mock-up. The case designs that they’ve shown look good, but for the longest time Atari only showed renderings of 3D models of the case. More recently, they seem to have produced a physical example of the case, and supposedly it has working hardware inside it, but these new revelations cast even that into doubt.

When Atari launched their crowdfunding campaign on IndieGogo, they published specifications for the system, but I’m not aware of anyone reporting that they’ve seen an actual working AtariBox. It would not surprise me if they haven’t started manufacturing them as yet, but are running the internal hardware inside of generic cases, and if that were the case it wouldn’t worry me too greatly, provided that they had confidence that the final product case would work from an engineering standpoint (for thermal dissipation, RF shielding, etc).

Atari have been promoting the IndieGoGo campaign heavily, bragging about having raised $2.7 million from over 10000 backers in 8 days, but the rate of buy-in has slowed dramatically — the first 24 hours saw $2 million of that come in. This sounds like a lot of money, but it’s paltry. A real console launch from Microsoft or Sony takes about a billion dollars to do. Manufacturing needs millions of units in order to have a hope of being profitable. 10,000 backers is tiny. Obviously, more customers may line up to buy an AtariBox once it’s actually available, but if their initial manufacturing batch is only in the tens of thousands, there’s no way Atari will make enough money on it to create a viable brand ecosystem for developers to create new games for it.

The worst thing about this (if AtariBox is indeed real and actually ships on time) is that if Tempest 4000 isn’t really an AtariBox exclusive, then once again we have zero first party exclusive launch titles for the console.

It’s shameful if today’s “Atari” are perpetrating a fraud on consumers, exploiting the good will and nostalgia for the real Atari brand that the current company owns the rights to. If this does turn out to be a massive hoax, I can only hope that it doesn’t destroy the Atari name forever, and that the guilty parties are prosecuted and punished. It might be fitting for Atari’s brand to be dissolved in such a situation, and given to reputable and responsible people to curate. People such as Albert Yarusso of AtariAge.com, who have created a niche cottage industry around homebrew development of new Atari carts would be more deserving of ownership of the brand.

Update: According to Hardcore Gamer, Ivan Zorzin has now confirmed that Tempest 4000 will have an AtariBox port. If this is indeed true, it’s amazing if Zorzin continues to be an employee of Llamasoft after the damage to Atari’s reputation as a result of the confusion his original post sparked.  Regardless of whether T4K is going to be a launch title or not, there’s still plenty of good reason to remain skeptical of Atari’s claims for the system, and even if Atari delivers fully on all of their promises, the system will have its work cut out for it to carve a niche out of the current videogame market.  Atari will need everything to go completely flawlessly and better than expected if is to have any hope of lasting success.

Steam and Censorship

A recent announcement by Valve on Steam’s community blog has created a great deal of controversy.

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this, but my inclination is that Valve is trying to do the right thing, in a situation where they cannot possibly please everyone, and prefer to be neutral and let the market sort this out, allowing gamers to play games they want to play, and developers develop games they want to develop.

I tend to agree with their stance and reasoning.  I haven’t thought about it a whole lot, and I haven’t looked into specifics of what problems have been going on within the Steam community that gave rise to this decision, so this is just a preliminary reaction.  But I like free expression, I don’t like censorship in any form.  I think people should use their discretion when it comes to what they say, and what they choose to experience as entertainment.  I want games to be as powerful a medium as film or literature, and I believe in their potential to be more powerful than either.

Obviously, there’s a lot of nuance to this — we don’t always get to choose our experiences.  Games can surprise and shock people. But I don’t believe that games should be simply light entertainment that never offends anyone.  Part of what makes art powerful is its ability to shock, offend, or even traumatize.  When an authority attempts to exercise control over ways in which it is permissible to shock, offend, and traumatize, you end up with art that is safe for the establishment and promotes the interests of the powerful, and serves to persist the status quo.  Whether that’s good or not, depends on whether your values align to that of the authority.

I believe in authority that defends the rights of individuals to speak out in ways that contradict the establishment, challenge it, and can force it to re-evaluate, change course, and reform as needed, as times and prevailing attitudes change.

Obviously, people can be and are sometimes hurt in the course of this.  This is something I think most of us try to avoid.  Even so, it happens — occasionally deliberately, but often not.  Perhaps some degree of mitigation of this is not bad.  But it is dangerous, and needs to be considered very carefully.  I’d rather allow the offensive, controversial content to exist, and surround it with robust discussion, than to prevent it from being published and distributed.

csanyk.com © 2016
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