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AtariBox update: who is Feargal Mac?

I learned more today about Feargal Mac, real name Mac Conuladh, one of the guys behind the AtariBox. And what I found out wasn’t so good.

It looks like this guy has been involved in a number of dubious crowd funded tech gizmos before. And by dubious, I mean disastrous. This guy’s LinkedIn profile reads like a character from Silicon Valley: a CEO of various incarnations of rapidly pivoting smoke/mirrors vaporware startups that promise a lot while having nothing.

If you look at Mac’s twitter profile, he still lists his website as gameband.com, one of the crowdfunded gadgets he was involved with. Here’s a screen capture that I took of the page today:

gameband.com screencap

Not quite as exciting as zombo.com, but give it time!

Based on this track record, it’s going to take a LOT of evidence and convincing to get me interested in the AtariBox. Maybe it’ll be different this time, after all people do fail, try again, and succeed, and maybe this time they’ll deliver something worth owning, but until I see some substantial evidence of this, I’m no longer interested in the system.

AtariBox: more prelaunch details emerge

According to VentureBeat, the AtariBox will cost between $250-300, be powered by AMD hardware, and run Linux. Out of the box, it will come packaged with some collection of classic games, playable via emulator, and be capable of playing “midrange” games but not the high-end AAA titles that sell on XBox and PlayStation. No word as yet how the hardware specs compare with Nintendo’s Switch, or really any specs.

According to Atari, AtariBox will be an open system, meaning the end user will be free to customize the Linux environment and install whatever software on it they like, including existing games that run on Linux. This means that games for AtariBox need not be purchased solely through a gated community marketplace, unlike similar app stores offered for Microsoft Xbox, Sony PlayStation, Apple iOS devices, and Windows 10.

As much as I love openness, this seems like a questionable business decision on the part of Atari. Those who remember history will recall that the original Atari 2600 was a huge success when launched in 1977, but eventually 3rd party software developers figured out how to make games for it, culminating in a glut of shovelware which brought the videogame industry to its low point in 1983. Atari was powerless to prevent third parties from flooding the market with crapware, nor were they able to earn revenue from any third party releases.

When Nintendo revived the North American home videogame market in 1985, they did so by launching more powerful hardware than existing previous-gen consoles, and by locking unlicensed third parties out of development with the 10NES chip.

AtariBox will do neither of these things. While the move to lock out the hardware was controversial, and resulted in Nintendo holding monopoly power until the 16-bit era — which they abused — locking out did help Nintendo to establish a level of quality control with the software that could be published for the NES. (Although, to be fair, there were still a lot of terrible NES games — but importantly they did not glut the market and result in a crash that also bankrupted companies that produced high quality games, and the licensing program enabled Nintendo to generate revenue from 3rd party games.)

The ability to play already-released games is nice, but doesn’t seem likely to drive hardware sales. Presumably if you already have games that could be installed on an AtariBox, you also already have some other device already to play them on.

In order for AtariBox to have a hope of being successful, it really needs to have some new, original games, ideally exclusive to its platform, and ideally tied to classic Atari-era properties.

To date, we’ve still seen nothing of this. 2017-style reboots of classic titles like Adventure, SwordQuest, Pitfall, Space Invaders, Crystal Castles, Dig Dug, Pac Man, Frogger, Galaxian, Tempest, and so on, might make the console attractive to old school gamers. But to be honest these old games have already been re-released, sequeled, and rebooted numerous times over the decades since they were originally released, and usually to diminishing returns, failing to capture the magic that made the original game a hit.

Nevertheless, I believe that, if done well, rebooted classics could sell enough to sustain a business. A perfect example of a well done reboot would be the outstanding Pac Man Championship Edition, released some years ago on XBox Live Arcade.

Atari cannot rely on 3rd party developer support to provide AtariBox with exclusive titles, however. There’s zero incentive for studios to produce exclusive content, and sacrifice the entire rest of the market, unless they receive a cut of hardware sales, or are otherwise compensated for the favor they’re doing for the platform. Developers want to release their games everywhere, if possible, and will release games on every platform they can afford to reach. For AtariBox to attract gamers with exclusives, they need to do first-party development.

The console looks nice, but I’ve still yet to see a compelling reason to buy one when it comes out. Atari, heed me: Announce some new games, and make sure they’re good.

We still haven’t seen the controller for the AtariBox, but I’m expecting a modern-looking gamepad rather than the traditional Atari CX40 joystick or paddles. Perhaps these will be options. Certainly the AtariBox would be smart if it had a couple of DB9 ports to accommodate original controllers. As it is, a USB-to-DB9 adapter is perhaps feasible, but not as slick as I’d like for a brand-specific console like this.

(For that matter, it’d be cool if they put a cartridge slot on it, and allowed you to either play your old games on it, or rip them as ROM files to play through emulator. Obviously that’s not a part of the physical product design, but that would have been on my wish list for such a console.)

I would also like to see emulation of games for consoles other than the Atari 2600. The Atari 5200 and 7800 are not as well known, but had some great games, and deserve to be included.

As well, classic Atari coin-op emulation would be a great idea. Real arcade games are a big part of Atari’s legacy, and deserve a showcase. An AtariBox plus authentic controller decks replicating classic arcade controls would sell.

Two things I still want even though it’s 2017

A new Super Mario Bros game set in Subcon, based on the Doki Doki Panic engine
Super Mario Bros 2

Super Mario Bros. 2, the USA release. Everyone knows the story: the Japanese SMB2 was too difficult and unfair, Howard Philips recommended that it not be released stateside, and Nintendo scrambled and put out a game called Yume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic that they re-skinned the player sprites with Mario, Luigi, Toad, and Princess Peach, and had a smash hit. A strong minority of players rank SMB2-US as their favorite entry in the main sequence of Super Mario games, and I am among them.

Perhaps because of its unique development history, there has never been a revisit to the world of Subcon, the dream world setting where SMB2 takes place. And that’s really too bad. I wish I could play a new adventure in this world. The unique mechanics of this game, adding lifting and throwing to the core running and jumping game that made the first game a success just haven’t been used again in a 2D SMB platformer. Nearly 30 years on, this feels like a tragic oversight.

Will we ever?

I’d like to think so, but I don’t think it will be any time soon. Nintendo does have a history of reviving old IP that hasn’t been touched in years. Sequels to Metroid and Kid Icarus didn’t happen for years, despite high popularity of the originals. However, it may be that there are entangling copyright issues preventing the borrowed cast of enemies from Yume Kojo, which was originally created for Fuji TV from making a return on a Nintendo platform again.

A proper NES re-port of the original Metal Gear

Metal Gear MSX title screen

Most US gamers had no way of knowing it, but the original Metal Gear was a mess on the NES. Buggy, poorly translated, and yet somehow still lovable enough to be forgiven, the NES release was perhaps good enough only because there was nothing yet to compare it to.

The true original is the MSX release. The MSX computer wasn’t even available in the USA, as far as I know. I never saw the MSX advertised for sale here, in any case. And even if it was, as an eleven year old kid, I wouldn’t have been able to buy one.

I’ve always wanted to play the original original, but it’s cost prohibitive for me to buy a rare-ish classic computer and one expensive, collectible game just for that one purpose.

Metal Gear spawned one of the great franchises of the video game industry, and clearly deserves a better port to the hardware that introduced it to the US audience. I would love to see a proper port of the original MSX game developed for the NES, even today.

Will we ever?

Unless a fan takes on the project, I highly doubt it would ever be produced as a NES cartridge. But that’s not actually completely out of the question. Fans have been producing ROMhacks and homebrew NES games for years. It would be difficult. A ROMhack of the NES Metal Gear might be the easiest approach to take, but debugging the game, re-translating it, and adding back all the missing content would require a high degree of technical knowledge and skill. It might be better to start over and re-port the MSX Metal Gear as a new project, but that would be even more difficult. But it’s not outside the realm of possibility that a highly motivated, dedicated group of fans could pull it off.

But it’s unthinkable that we’d ever see an official release from Konami, certainly not on a dead console.

Slightly more likely, Konami might release an emulated MSX version with a US translation. However, Konami and Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima parted on very bad terms after years of public feuding, making it unlikely that the parent company would ever honor the original release in such a fashion.

Mega Maker

Mega Maker

Mega Maker is to Mega Man what Mario Maker is to Mario. Except, it’s not an officially licensed Capcom product, and it’s free. Built by fans using GameMaker, it’s probably the best thing I’ve ever seen built out of GameMaker.

It’s awesome.

It’s very easy to use, and a lot of fun. Not that you really need it, but there’s a tutorial that explains everything in the editor with great style. Actually, the tutorial is very well done and I recommend using it to understand some of the finer points. But most of the point and click interface is intuitive to anyone who’s used a mouse-driven interface and knows a thing or two about Mega Man.

Mega Maker

I had my first level built and running in about ten minutes.

Unfortunately it only includes a small sample of the Mega Man resources from the first six games on the NES, but even so there’s a lot that you can do with the designer. There doesn’t seem to be any provision for designing your own enemies, bosses, or adding your own sprites or music. On the other hand, there’s zero coding needed, and it’s easy enough to use that an average grade schooler could get up and running designing levels in no time.

There’s an online community for uploading your level designs and downloading and playing the designs of other players.

So much work has gone into this, and it holds so much promise. I hope that Capcom sees fit to muzzle their legal team. If you’ve ever enjoyed a classic MM game, you really need to download this and give it a try.

“Atari” releases new images of upcoming, mysterious AtariBox console

AtariBox

As soon as I found out about it, I signed up for announcements about the AtariBox. Today, the company currently owning the rights to call itself Atari released some new images of what the console will look like. I think they look quite nice, for what it’s worth. It’s tough to say, but I’m not convinced that these are photographs — they could very well be 3D models from the mock-up phase, that have been approved for production.

AtariBox AtariBox AtariBox AtariBox

From the announcement:

Our objective is to create a new product that stays true to our heritage while appealing to both old and new fans of Atari.

Inspired by classic Atari design elements (such as the iconic use of wood, ribbed lines, and raised back); we are creating a smooth design, with ribs that flow seamlessly all around the body of the product, a front panel that can be either wood or glass, a front facing logo, indicator lights that glow through the material, and an array of new ports (HDMI, 4xUSB, SD). We intend to release two editions: a wood edition, and a black/red edition.

We know you are hungry for more details; on specs, games, features, pricing, timing etc. We’re not teasing you intentionally; we want to get this right, so we’ve opted to share things step by step as we bring Ataribox to life, and to listen closely to Atari community feedback as we do so. There are a lot of milestones, challenges and decision points in front of us in the months ahead. We’ll be giving you lots more information and status updates as we progress, and we are thrilled to have you along for the ride!

The HDMI is not a surprise, but it’s good to see that the AtariBox will use standard USB ports and an SD slot. Proprietary ports are all too common on game consoles, in order to lock consumers in to buying officially licensed peripherals at considerable markup.

What the console looks like isn’t all that important, but from what I see so far, this isn’t bad.

We still don’t know what the consoles hardware capabilities will be… but what the console’s specs are isn’t all that important, even.

What matters is what games it’ll play, and if they’re any good.

How can Atari create a unique platform for games that is simultaneously contemporary yet pays good homage to the past? It remains unknown.

Super Greedy Ghost Grab – A Cleveland Game Developers Summer Jam

Super Greedy Ghost Grab

This weekend, I took part in Cleveland Game Developers Summer Game Jam 2017. This year, I worked with a team consisting of Wally Pease, Bobby Lauer, and Colin Wolfe.

Our project, Super Greedy Ghost Grab, turned out really well. I really enjoyed working with our team, and I think everyone executed on our project extremely well. The deadline build isn’t perfect (and no game jam project ever is, so that’s not a knock on what we did). I’m very happy with what we were able to do in 48 hours.

Super Greedy Ghost Grab

The theme for the jam was announced: Identity. I didn’t have any good ideas at first, but eventually our team decided to make a game about a ghost who can “possess” things, becoming them, and assuming their identity.

At first we were going to have the ghost possessing people, but we quickly realized that the scope of such a project would be unmanageable for the time and resource constraints we would face, so we decided instead for the ghost to possess objects. To give the game a story, we decided to put the ghost in an art museum, and made the ghost an art thief, who must avoid detection by a security guard.

I came to the jam intending to work with Wally, but Bobby and Colin joined us and were very productive members of our team. We had two full-time artists (Bobby and Colin) and two programmers (Wally and me). Wally also recorded sounds and did some of the art as well. Between the two of us, he even did the bulk of the programming, laying out the main engine, player, and “possessable” art object, while I provided the “googly eye” effect for the possessed art objects, and implemented the guard, and also lent a hand with debugging, polishing, and general play testing. In addition to providing some of the art for the project, which included the Ghost and Statue sprites, and floor tiles, Bobby also did our level design. Colin contributed the guard sprite, the diamond, the vase, the paintings, and the pillars, and also touched up and organized the wall tiles. Their artwork was excellent, and they were able to produce exactly what the project needed. Everyone’s art worked well together, too, which I’m not sure how that happened, but it’s impressive that three different people working on art could come up with a consistent and seamless style.

This was my first game jam where I got to work with another programmer and shared programming duties. I found that things went very well overall. We had a few hitches when merging code, but nothing terrible. We didn’t use a formal version control system, which was part of the problem. At first we relied on Google Drive to share files between team members, but when it comes to uploading revised versions of files to Google Drive, some very strange things started to happen. Apparently when a user “deletes” a shared file on Google Drive, it remains available to the other users who have access to the shared item. Replacing the file with a newly uploaded copy doesn’t replace the original copy, and instead results in multiple versions of the same file. This created a lot of confusion at first, until I realized what was going on. At that point, we switched to using Dropbox, and handled code merging using BeyondCompare to handle comparing and moving the code files in the project .gmx. Wally and I sat side by side, which made it a reasonable way to handle merges. This worked passably well, BeyondCompare made it very easy to merge our changes. But I believe that a true version control system would have been even better.

We also were able to communicate with each other as needed, and be a second pair of eyes for each other whenever we had a “wtf?” moment. I’m really excited about working with Wally more in the future, and would be happy to have more chances to work with either Bobby or Colin again as well.

AtariBox hype, speculation

I’ve been around long enough to know how the Hype Machine works with videogame launches.

First, there’s a teaser announcement. It doesn’t tell you anything, but it’s designed to make you very curious, excited, and speculate about what it could be. The AtariBox website currently has a simple video showing the famous Atari Fuji logo, and the suggestion that a new game console is coming soon.

Next, there’s a bit more information leaked to the right media outlets; Joystiq, Kotaku, Polygon, etc. A few more bare details are leaked, but mostly as unconfirmed rumors. This creates a lot of buzz among the most dedicated followers of games. Gamers are incredibly demanding and fickle, or else ultra-apologist fanboys who will eat up (and forgive) anything. Everyone starts talking about what they hope the new product will be.

Gradually, more mainstream media starts to pick up on the story, and reporting on it. We’re at that point now.

I read the Forbes opinion. The author’s take on it is that gaming consoles have become indistinguishable from each other, there’s too much sameness between Xbox and PlayStation, so (he thinks) maybe Atari can make room for itself in the market by differentiating itself… somehow.

And it’s true. In the old days, there was a lot more variety in game consoles. The hardware developed by various big players and also-rans (alsos-ran?) was widely divergent in its engineering and capabilities, especially in terms of how they handled graphics and sound. Most systems were built around one of two chips: the MOS 6502 or the Zilog Z80, but had vastly different approaches to generating sound and drawing pixels to the TV screen, resulting in characteristics that could not be replicated by any other game console, meaning that each system necessarily had to take a unique approach to implementing a port of a given game design, resulting in vastly different experiences for the same title on various systems (when a title was even released on multiple systems, which wasn’t always a given).

But as engineers iterate, designs gradually converge on what works best. And in 2017 with the launch of the Nintendo Switch, we’re currently at the 9th generation of game consoles.

The thing is, the old consoles were different because their hardware was very different, AND because games were coded in ASM so that they could get every last bit of the very limited hardware’s capability. Neither of those is true now, nor will it ever be again. Computer hardware is extremely expensive to R&D, so open, commodity architectures that are well known to developers will be favored, leading to a convergence in hardware. Games are programmed in high-level languages so that the same code runs on multiple platforms. The result is uniformity.

No new modern console will support some non-standard resolution or unique color palette that will give their games a look uniquely its own. It’ll be 32-bit RGB color, 1080p or 4K, 60Hz or better. Controllers may vary, slightly, but the fact is if a game cant sell on multiple platforms, it won’t get developed (except by Nintendo). So having a unique controller only means you’ll secure a small segment of the market for yourself, while conceding the bulk of the market to games developed to more common/standard controllers. That’s what Nintendo’s approach has been since the Wii. And while NIntendo was successful with the Wii, they stumbled with its follow-up Wii U, and most people believe that Nintendo are only able to continue to be successful on the strength of their first-party IP that they keep exclusive to their platform.

What does that leave Atari? If they think they can go toe to toe against MS and Sony, they’re dreaming. Atari’s R&D and innovation more or less stopped in 1983, despite the last gasps the Lynx handheld and Jaguar console represented. Atari does have some strong IP in their arcade classic titles, but these have been re-released and re-hashed probably on the order of a dozen or more times already, mostly as nostalgia bundles that have been put out for every next-gen console since the SNES, occasionally as “reboots” or “sequels” that never seem to recapture the original magic.

The Ataribox *could* be a cool console, if it embraces retro. I have no interest in a 9th-Gen game system just because it happens to have the Atari name on it. What I *am* excited about is the possibility of a “what if” console, where imaginative game developers do a kind of speculative retro-future take on where 8-bit style games that Atari were known for in the 70s and 80s could have gone — a bit like what steampunk is to science fiction, the Ataribox could be to modern-retro gaming. Think an graphics processor constrained to 8-bit index color graphics, driven by a modern 3+GHz CPU with gigabytes of RAM instead of a few kilobytes, and beautiful (but limited-palette, low-fi) graphics without the sort of severe limitations such as sprites per line, etc.

That’s kind of what I hope it turns out to be. I have no idea, but that would be cool and truly different. Not just another Xbox/PS with a Fuji logo, please.

A Pitfall III that looks and feels like Pitfall I and II, but has all kinds of cool new challenges would be kind of awesome. (Of course, we already have Spelunky… but that’s just it, there’s a ton of retro-inspired modern indie games that could feel right at home on a modern retro console. A few years ago, I had high hopes that the Ouya would be that console. I still think the concept has merit, but whether it can survive and thrive in the market is largely in doubt.)

The thing is, there’s no reason to design special hardware constraints into such a system; a designer can voluntarily impose any such constraints on themselves to produce “retro style” games. That’s what we do now, when we want to.

I’m interested in seeing what the AtariBox is, but my enthusiasm is held in reserve. Why? Simply because at this point we know nothing about it, and because everything about the history of the videogame industry strongly suggests that it’s unlikely to succeed at a level needed to support a large company, and small companies tend to fail.

AtariBox, RetroN 77 teasers 

In the past few days, I’ve become aware of chatter about two potentially exciting new bits of hardware for Atari 2600 fans: Atari’s AtariBox, and Hyperkin’s RetroN 77.

Atari (well, the company who now owns Atari’s trademarks) has scant information about the AtariBox. Beyond the name, we know basically nothing about it so far.

RetroN 77 is a new console from Hyperkin, which is designed to play real Atari 2600 carts, apparently through emulation via the excellent open source Stella emulator, with real controllers, using the same ports as the original, so compatible with 3rd party Atari controllers, and outputting 1080p over HDMI.

Since I know nothing about the AtariBox yet, my early excitement is for the RetroN 77, but that could easily change. Hopefully Hyperkin will do the venerable VCS justice for the HDTV Age.

My hope for the AtariBox is that it will be a retro-inspired platform that caters to indie developers who want to make games in an old school style, that look like they could have been at home in the late 70’s/early80’s, albeit not strictly constrained by the hardware limits of that time. Think what Shovel Knight was to the NES; I’d love it if AtariBox were a platform for the equivalent of such games for the Atari 2600/5200/7800/400/800/Intellivision/Colecovision era of home videogames.

SMW persistent jailbreak hack the best of all time?

I think in terms of impressiveness, this amazing glitch exploit that allows you to permanently reprogram mods into the save data of a Super Mario World cartridge using only in-game input is right up there, neck and neck with the Apollo Moonshot missions.

I can’t even fathom how they figured this out, it’s beyond anything anyone could reasonably come up with. Impressive doesn’t begin to describe it.

 

E.T. was not the worst game of all time.

I’ve talked about this before, but today NPR covered it again.

This is a well known story in the lore of videogame history… There’s a certain amount of misconception about it.

Howard Scott Warshaw likes to talk about how E.T. has the reputation of being the worst game ever, and how between it and the highly regarded Yar’s Revenge, it gives him the greatest range of any game developer. But even he doesn’t think E.T was really the worst of all time. As he carefully states, E.T. is “the game that is widely held to be the worst video game of all time.” That’s a bit distanced from accepting that it is the worst.

It makes for a good story, and he likes to tell the story, and he’s a good storyteller, and he likes to set the record straight when he tells the story, because telling the story takes away the power of the failure to hurt him. He’s a really good sport about it, and a good guy, and was a good game developer when that’s what he was doing. He has a great attitude about failure, and it’s served him well in life. So more power to him.

Howard Scott Warshaw’s game was actually pretty good. I owned E.T. and liked it. It was ambitious, and it definitely had its share of flaws, but it was a much more complicated game than the arcade style action games that Atari was known for, and that was a problem for a lot of gamers who weren’t ready for a deeper game design and complex puzzle solving. The game was difficult, and solving the puzzles was a bit arcane, and the pits that you fall into frequently were rather annoying, but it was not the “worst game of all time” that it has been labeled as.

What it was, it was a huge commercial failure — mainly because Atari overpaid Steven Spielberg $26 million for the license rights to make an exclusive ET videogame. It was one of the better selling games for the Atari, moving 1.5 million units. Unfortunately, Atari had produced 5 million copies, vastly overestimating the market. And reviews of the game were mostly bad, in spite of the high sales. The sales came through more through name recognition and the success of the film, but once people played the game, many of them felt like it wasn’t good enough. And it was rushed. But it’s a very impressive achievement to create something as big and complex as E.T. with the tools that Warshaw had at the time, in as little time as he was given.

Atari were counting on ET to drive more console sales, and it didn’t happen. By 1983, the VCS was a 7 year old dinosaur, and badly needed a replacement. But Atari had a hard time leading the launch of the next generation of hardware, because doing so would have obsoleted their market-dominating 2600 model. They tried with the 5200, but it had several design problems, and this combined with lack of backward compatibility (they did release an adapter later) and expense made it unpopular.

At the time, there wasn’t really a precedent for the idea of computer equipment becoming obsolete in just a few years time, and so many consumers of the day felt like buying a new console every few years, particularly if their old games wouldn’t play on it, was a ripoff. They viewed electronics like a radio or television or record player, which could last for decades if cared for, and newer models could continue to play old media. And old game consoles may still work four decades on, but they are obviously obsolete and can’t play newer games, and newer machines don’t play old Atari games (other than through emulation.)

Meanwhile, Atari corporate had alienated some of their best developers, by refusing to credit them for their work on the cover of the box, or pay royalties, They left to found Activision, which opened the door to any third party releasing games for the 2600, including many fly by night operators who could barely program for the 2600, who put out horrid garbage games that glutted store shelves and gave the Atari a poorer reputation than it deserved, and resulted in the Great Crash.

It’s popular to blame ET for being the cause of the great crash of ’83, but it wasn’t.

 

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