Category: games

Atari homebrew legend Nukey Shay, 54, killed in tragic accident

Kurt Howe, known as Nukey Shay in the Atari homebrew developer scene, died last year at age 54, as a result of a tragic accident on Feb 5, 2020, when he was hit by a car while crossing the street in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His loss came as a shock to the Atari Age community as it was discovered over a year later, announced by Albert Yarusso today.

Nukey was a 20 year Atari Age forum contributor, very active in the homebrew and romhacking scene, and a 6502 ASM guru who helped numerous developers with their projects. One of the most knowledgeable active Atari 2600 programmers on the planet, his death mirrors that of Nintendo’s Gunpei Yokoi, a major contributor to Metroid, Kid Icarus, and the original Game Boy handheld, who died in 1997 at age 56 under similar circumstances.

My own Superman romhacks were only possible because Nukey decompiled the ROM and annotated the source code, and shared his work with the world, which made it easy for me to re-arrange the map to create alternative Metropolises. Nukey’s contributions are far too numerous to list succinctly, but his loss is deeply felt by all in the Atari homebrew community.

Mega Man’s box art

The box art for the North American release of the original Mega Man is notorious. Behold its glory:

So bad, it’s good.

Much has been written about it over the years, but not by me, so I wanted to go on the record for enthusiastically loving this artwork. And not in any kind of ironic or sarcastic way, either.

The story goes that when Capcom was getting ready to release Mega Man in the North America market, the American side of the company didn’t want to go with Capcom’s Japanese style artwork, which had a cartoony, cute, kid-friendly anime look to it.

“Ew, anime. How can we sell it to American children?!”

Now, there’s really nothing at all wrong with the Japanese artwork, and as it turns out, American kids love Japanese cartoons. Even if the art style looks like it would appeal more to very young children, I’m not sure that it would have turned off older children. But, looking to appeal to 12-16 year old American boys, Capcom USA probably wanted something with more muscle and scowl.

The story goes, Capcom US rushed a replacement, giving the artist assigned to do the work like a day to turn it around, and the artist had never seen the actual game, and only had a vague idea of what it was about. But none of that excuses the apparent lack of artistic skill displayed by the guy who whipped out the colored pencils and drew this proportionless, perspective-free monstrosity.

The people at Capcom must have a good sense of humor about the whole thing, because over the years they’ve embraced “bad box art Mega Man” and paid homage to it numerous times. And that’s exactly the right attitude to have about it. Today, it’s remembered and talked about far more than the cover art for any other game.

I didn’t hear about Mega Man until after Mega Man 2 came out, in 1988. But Mega Man 2 almost didn’t happen. The original didn’t sell very well in the States (I wonder why?) and the sequel only got produced because the developers believed in it so much that they snuck it into their spare time, working on it when they could, without formal approval from their bosses.

Mega Man 2 is one of the best games ever released on the NES, and was an absolute blockbuster when it came out. I read the full-length review in Nintendo Power magazine, and immediately knew that this was a game to buy. It was definitely my favorite game after I played through it. It was incredible: great music, huge graphics, challenging and fun.

Being a sequel, I also sought out the original. I found a copy at my local Toys R Us a few weeks later, and bought it. I looked at the box art, and thought it looked awful, but I didn’t let that dissuade me from paying for it, because I knew how awesome MM2 was. I didn’t expect it to be quite as good, but if it was only half as good as Mega Man 2, it would still be worth the money. Spoiler: it was.

I didn’t understand why Capcom would have chose this art, this art style. It didn’t make good business sense — I’m sure the poor cover art must have hurt sales. It looked like a crude piece of fan art drawn by a small child. And that’s what I actually thought it was, for a long time. But how could there be fan art for something brand new that hadn’t been seen by any fans yet? Could it have been a reissue done as some sort of contest for the fans?

Maybe it was just one of the guys who worked on the game had a young kid who drew it as a picture of what daddy does at work all day. And daddy was so proud of what his little boy had done, he couldn’t not put it on the cover.

I didn’t find out the true story until many years later. But over time, I grew to love the terrible box art. To me, it signified Capcom’s confidence in what was inside the box, that they were willing to use such a bad drawing for the cover art. Like Princess Leia said to Han Solo: “You came in that thing? You’re even braver than I thought!”

“Nice. Come on. We’re gonna go fight Guts Man.”

Unlike so many other video game companies that dressed up their low-quality on-screen graphics with a fanciful, professionally done painting, here was Capcom saying, in essence: “Look, we don’t care what you think about the cover. This game will blow your socks off, and tear you a new one. We put 100% of our budget into the game, and had fuckall left over for the box art — deal with it. You’ll thank us as soon as you plug it in and hit the power button.”

Capcom realized that, ideally, your box art-to-game-graphics ratio should be the inverse of this.

The video games I played filled me with enthusiasm and excitement, and it inspired me to want to design games of my own. And since I had very little idea of how a computer program worked at the time, most of my game ideas were conceptual drawings with captions explaining what was going on and how it was all supposed to work. I appreciated the box art from Mega Man, in part perhaps because it gave me hope that I could do it too.

Capcom seemed to be telling me: “You have passion and an idea? That’s all you need! Make it happen!”

A life lesson, to be sure.

Appreciating Phoenix on Atari 2600

Phoenix, Atari 2600, 1982

Phoenix was a hit arcade game in 1980-81 before being ported to the Atari 2600 the following year. A vertical fixed shooter in the tradition of Space Invaders, Phoenix was an evolution of the Space Invaders concept, which added a number of innovations: enemy variety, swooping enemies, regenerating enemies, shields, and a mothership boss — one of the first boss battles in video gaming.

The game consists of five waves, which repeat in a cycle. In the first four stages, you face waves of bird-like enemy space aliens. The first two waves consist of smaller enemies who bear some resemblance to their Space Invaders forebearers, in that they march across the screen in a tight, grid-like formation. But these enemies will break out of their formation and swoop down low to dive bomb the player, and then fly back up again.

The second wave features a larger number of enemies, and for some reason the player is afforded rapid fire on this stage only. On all other stages, you have to press the fire button every time you want to shoot, but on the 2nd wave alone, you can hold the fire button down and it will fire automatically.

Wave 3

The next two waves, three and four, feature larger bird-like enemies, which can be killed by scoring a direct hit on their body. An off-center hit will clip one of their wings, which will regenerate after a few seconds if the body isn’t quickly finished off first. These larger bird aliens fly from side to side, not in formation, and change altitude occasionally, and swoop low to touch the ground. It seems that touching the ground is what triggers their regenerative powers, but in addition to that, as they get this low they also pose a threat to the player, who will be destroyed if they collide. In the arcade, these regenerating enemies start out as eggs, which hatch and grow before your eyes to become full-grown birds, but on the Atari 2600 port this is simplified, and the egg phase of their life cycle is omitted.

Wave 5: The Phoenix Mothership. Videogaming’s first boss fight?

The fifth wave is the mothership: a huge, saucer-like ship that fills most of the screen. The boss is destroyed by shooting its commander, who sits in the center near the top of the ship. The bottom of the ship must be chipped away first, to expose the pilot’s cockpit. The rim of the saucer rotates, creating a revolving barrier that must be shot through. This takes time, during which the saucer slowly descends, dropping bombs all the while. As the mothership sinks lower, the reaction time afforded to the player to dodge these shots diminishes, making it increasingly difficult to stay alive. Judicious use of the shield and rapid fire button mashing is the way to survive.

My favored technique to defeat the mothership is to activate shields the moment the wave begins, and fire as rapidly as possible to blow through the shielding in front of the pilot, then as soon as the shield drops, I swing over to the left edge of the ship, where the shielding is thin, and blast away at the rotating rim. The body of the mothership tapers upward toward the outer edge of the ship, giving you a few more pixels of breathing room to react to incoming fire, which is very important. By being at the edge of the ship, you can always escape to safety by dodging left, completely out from under the ship’s breadth, and thus out of its reach. After shooting away the rotating rim, I wait for a clear moment when the mothership isn’t dropping many bombs, and then move back to the center, hit the shields again, and blast away until one of my shots manages to hit the pilot and destroy the ship.

In the arcade, the mothership was also protected by a fleet of escort birds, of the type from the first two stages, but on the Atari 2600 there wasn’t enough computing power to handle all that action, so they are left out, and you face the mothership one-on-one.

Then the cycle begins anew, much like the legend of the mythological phoenix going through death and rebirth.

Phoenix featured three distinct background tracks. Not full songs, these are just simple loops. The first two stages use an electronic wail or warble which somehow evokes bird-ness. The second two stages employ a loop with a swooping pitch from high to low, which evokes and reinforces the swooping motion of the diving birds. The mothership music is a more robotic, mechanical beeping that evokes classic sci-fi movie soundtracks of what space sounds like — beeping, echoing, un-melodious.

The shield adds a dimension of strategy to the gameplay. Using the shield involves a set of trade-offs. In exchange for temporary invulnerability, you cannot move. Further, the shield lasts a fixed amount of time, about 1.5 seconds, and thereafter cannot be used again until it recharges. There’s always a certain amount of luck involved with using the shield — because you’re immobile while it is up, and cannot control when it goes down, the timing of enemy fire can put one of their missiles right in front of you just as the shield goes down, without no time to move out of the way. Thus, while shields can bail you out of a jam, it can sometimes result in a mere delay of the inevitable. In addition to protecting you from the enemy’s shots, your shield will destroy enemies if they touch it, making it an essential offensive weapon for close engagements. When the enemies are very low, it’s too dangerous to take them on without the shield, as their shots cannot be dodged, and they can also crash into you. Thus, despite its slight drawbacks, learning how to use the shield effectively will help you to avoid deaths and last longer into the game.

Legacy

Phoenix is still as good as it ever was, but I don’t think it has aged as well as some of its contemporaries in the shooter genre. It’s primary drawbacks being that it gets pretty repetitive, and that this is accompanied by very little increase in difficulty after you’ve run through it the first cycle. There’s a nearly imperceptible increase in enemy aggression, but it isn’t much more than the initial cycle, and doesn’t seem to increase beyond that. The game awards a single bonus life, at 5000 points, otherwise this game would be easy to play indefinitely. Back in the day, my best scores on this game were around 135,000. While the game is generally pretty easy, accidental deaths are still tough to avoid completely.

It’s worthwhile to point to as an example of the evolutionary path shooters took, and was a noteworthy step forward in the emerging genre of fixed shooters.

Thematically, I liked Phoenix quite a bit. The theme ties in with the phoenix of legend, with its cycle of death and rebirth, giving the game a mythic quality that most video games seldom aspired to have. This gave the game an intangible quality that made it seem like more to me than perhaps it really was. I think this shows the power of narrative, and how even just a tiny bit of storytelling underlying the basic gameplay can enhance the player’s perception and reception of a game.

Google Doodle celebrating the 2020-1 Olympic Games is one for the ages

One of the best Google Doodles I’ve enjoyed in the whole of recorded history was released recently in honor of the 2020 Olympic games in Japan, which were postponed 1 year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The doodle is an HTML5 game that feels distinctly nintendo-esque. You play as Lucky Cat, who visits Champion Island to play in games and do good deeds for the island’s inhabitants, who are all anthropomorphic animals. The game pays direct homage to the sort of fetch quest and minigames found in action/adventure/RPG games for the GameBoy, with a distinct Zelda/Link’s Awakening feel to much of it, perhaps mixed with a bit of pokemon. Of course, the entire thing celebrates many aspects of Japanese culture, both traditional and modern.

The graphics are in a 16-bit SNES style and the cut scenes are done in an anime style. Overall the minigames are not super challenging, but are fun and enjoyable as light entertainment, although the mountain climbing gave me some trouble due to the time limit to complete the courses.

I played through the entire thing and thoroughly enjoyed it.

100%!

“Retro” gaming

I like video games, old and new. But I had more time to play video games when I was younger, and so I like the games that I spent the most time with the best, because they are most familiar to me. So I mostly like old games.

I also like new games that evoke the feeling of playing the old games that I liked.

There’s a lot of talk about “retro gaming” in the gamer communities I follow, and a recurring topic of conversation is to ask what the definition of “retro” is.

Usually people have some guideline, like “anything older than 10 (or 20, or some other arbitrary cutoff age) years old is retro”. Or sometimes they’ll refer to retro as anything that ran on an 8-bit or 16-bit processor. Then there’s a bit of discussion about console generations, about the transition from EEPROM cartridges to optical media, CD-ROM to DVD-ROM, and then the more recent transition away from optical media to solid state and digital download. People attempt to draw circles around the different features in order to define some set of characteristics that define retro.

I believe that these discussions are misguided.

Retro isn’t a thing that something becomes when it gets sufficiently old.

Rather, retro is when someone, in the present, does something in an outdated or obsolete way, creating something in the style of something that is now old.

Atari was state of the art. NES was state of the art. SNES was state of the art. N64 was state of the art. Sony Playstation was state of the art. The Wii was state of the art. Even if it wasn’t using cutting edge technology — Nintendo has a history of using less expensive, less impressive hardware than Sony/Microsoft, but is nonetheless state of the art in its current generation.

A game programmed to run natively on the Switch, but that looks and feels like a NES game, like Shovel Knight, is retro. The original Super Mario Bros. will never be retro — it is old, not retro. Super Mario 35, Nintendo’s 35th anniversary celebration that re-imagines the original SMB, is retro. An indie game written in for PCs that evokes the look and feel of a game that could have been implemented on the hardware of a generation or two ago, is retro.

Retro is something new made to resemble or evoke something old.

Audacity Games

Today, David Crane, Garry Kitchen, and Dan Kitchen announced their new company, Audacity Games, a venture aimed at the niche market of retro gaming. They plan to release new games on physical cartridge for still-popular vintage game systems such as the Atari 2600.

This seems crazy at first blush.  The Atari 2600 ceased manufacturing in 1993.  Yet millions of working consoles still exist, and there’s a strong community of enthusiastic fans. Every year, homebrew developers continue to release new games for the system, and it seems that if anything this has been growing in recent years rather than tailing off.

While no new hardware has been manufactured in decades, companies like AtGames and Hyperkin have also helped to keep interest in the old consoles alive by manufacturing compatible new hardware.  And of course, there’s also emulation software. 

Audacity have only a bare stub of a website at the moment, with a press release and no actual game titles announced at this time.  Audacity joins other existing companies and communities around the retro gaming community:  Atari Age, CollectorVision, RetroUSB, romhacking.net, game-tech.us, Retro Fighters, Retrotainment Games, Champ Games 8bitdo, Good Deal Games, MorphCat Games, and others. Most if not all of these are tiny sole proprietorship small businesses, but together they show that there is still considerable residual interest in classic gaming consoles, enough to sustain development of new games.

Update: Audacity has announced their first two titles, Circus Convoy and Casey’s Gold. What I like about this announcement is that it came out within a day or two of the announcement of the new company.  What I also like about this is that these games are coming soon — this isn’t a crowdfunding pitch for a game that might get released in 2-5 years; these are games that are ready to go and will be released in the very near future.

The announced price is on the steep side — at $60, they’re targeting a price point that competes with first party Nintendo releases. I’m skeptical that these games will sell well at that price. The homebrew market tends to price games at $30-40 for physical copies, with ROM downloads often available for use with emulators for free. So it’ll be interesting to see how these titles do on launch.  Perhaps the star cachet of the Crane and Kitchen names, the quality of the games, and the novelty of the enterprise will carry the day.

Howard Scott Warshaw: Once Upon Atari

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

https://newonceuponatari.hswarshaw.com/

Playing REDDER (Anna Anthropy) in 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BORR
ROB?
OWOR

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

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

“Atari VCS” launches

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

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

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

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

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