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Category: games

A quick and dirty, incomplete and opinionated history of videogames and related technologies

Pre-1977

  • The Dawn of Time.
  • Pinball and other electromechanical games of skill are already popular in arcades, carnivals, and shooting galleries. In addition to pinball tables, there are games that mimic sports like baseball, bowling, race car driving, and military-themed games based on airplanes and submarines (Persiscope, SEGA, 1965). Most of these games are coin-operated, a dime or a quarter giving a credit for play, hence the term “coin-op”. These exist alongside traditional carnival games like dunk tanks, skee ball, whack-a-mole, tests of strength, and throwing games.
  • Willie Higgenbotham’s “Tennis for Two” demo (1958), played on oscilloscope. Often cited as the first “video game”.
  • The Mainframe Age. Games programmed by and played by computer scientists at universities, and scarsely known outside their world.
  • DEC PDP series minicomputer systems (PDP-1, etc.) are sold to large universities and corporations for business and research. Programmers on these systems develop games to run on them almost from the very beginning. They are “mini” compared to older computers, which could occupy an entire building, but still are large enough to occupy several cabinet-sized racks in a room.
  • Colossal Cave Adventure, Hunt the Wumpus, and similar games, mostly text-based played on teletypes and line printers, as most computers lack video displays. Text dominates for a few years, because graphics are incredibly primitive, limited, and expensive, and because keyboards and teletypes are far more common. Today there’s some (mostly) academic debate as to whether a text-only game counts as a “video” game, but it they are clearly computer games, and represent significant branch of the history, particularly in the 70’s and 80’s.
  • Spacewar (1962) developed on the PDP-1, often cited as the first videogame.

1972-1977

  • At home:  Magnavox Odyssey, Ralph Baer‘s “Brown Box” more or less invents controllable graphics displayed on a television screen (as opposed to oscilloscope screen or computer display).
  • Atari founded, dawn of coin-op (arcade) games.  There were arcades before Atari, with electromechanical shooting and racing games, with electronic lights, bells, and mechanical levers and switches, as well as pinball tables, shooting galleries, and carnival games of skill.  But videogames were a quantum leap forward, forever changing the landscape.
  • After first developing a ripoff of Spacewar in an arcade cabinet called Computer Space (which struggles to catch on), Nolan Bushnell rips off Baer’s Brown Box off, creating Pong, and with it, Atari has its first big commercial success.
  • Many pinball companies start producing videogames as well (Bally, Williams, Midway, Gottlieb).  It is a natural expansion for them, as they are already familiar with mechanical and electronic gaming and entertainment, with decades of experience and distribution. Joining them are Japanese companies like Taito, Namco, Nintendo, and Sega.  Each produces notable successful games, but Atari leads, innovates, and dominates them all in the videogame sector of the market, eventually becoming the fastest growing company in the history of the world, becoming acquired by Warner Communications in 1976 (just prior to the launch of the Atari VCS).
  • Some other minor oddball home games, mostly pong clones and dedicated hardware (plays a single game only, not programmable/reconfigurable).
  • Atari’s first cartridge-based home console, the VCS (later renamed the 2600) released in 1977.

1977-1982

  • Sometimes referred to as “the Golden Age of Video Games” or the Atari Age.  The early 8-bit era, dominated by processors like the Zilog Z-80, MOS 6502, and Intel’s 8088/8086.
  • Space Invaders (1978) creates a coin shortage in Japan.
  • First color graphics in a coin-op arcade game, Namco’s Galaxian (1979).
  • Atari dominates in the of the arcade; coin-operated games continued to shift from mechanical or electro-mechanical (eg pinball, etc.) to fully electronic and digital.
  • At home the Atari VCS revolutionized home entertainment, tens of millions of units sold. Largely on the strength of home versions of their top coin-op titles, but many unique titles developed as original games.
  • Warner Bros. acquires Atari in 1977. Warner Bros. struggles with Atari to manage this success, and a uniquely Californian anything-goes business culture. Nolan Bushnell exits Atari. New CEO Ray Kassar takes over, immediately getting to work transforming Atari into a business and destroying much of the original culture (which was not in need of much help when it came to self-destruction, to be honest). Atari becomes the fastest growing company in the history of the world at the time.
  • Also-rans in the early home console market include: Fairchild Channel F (1976), Bally Astrocade/Professional Arcade (1977), Magnavox Odyssey2 (1978), and Vectrex (1982).
  • Later in this era, ColecoVision (1982), Mattel Intellivision (1979) rise to viable competitors to dominant Atari, but fail to unseat the king of console games. Arguably these later consoles belong to a newer generation to the Atari VCS.
  • To stay competitive, Atari releases its new 5200 console, which is hampered by poor controllers, lack of backward compatibility with VCS (an 2600 expansion module was available for the 5200, ColecoVision, and Intellivision, however) and limited library of mostly better fidelity ports of coin-op titles that already existed on the 2600 and other consoles) and soon flounders in the wake of the Crash of 1983. Atari struggles to continue supporting the new and older consoles, the massive install base for the 2600 sustaining the company through the upcoming Crash of ’83.
  • The rise of home computers: the Apple II, Commodore 64, Vic-20, Atari 400/800, the MSX, ZX Spectrum. These systems are all largely incompatible with one another, their hardware and software varying widely, but many successful games are ported to run on all of them.
  • Early personal computer games are dominated by text adventure games from companies like Infocom and Sierra On-Line.
  • Mainframe games still popular in computer labs and universities, and are now being ported to home computers, arcade, and home consoles in various ways.  The genre-spawning MUD (multi-user dungeons) the earliest ancestors to Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games, soon followed by Rogue, which spawns the rogue-like genre, including HackNethack.
  • Graphics range from primitive to very primitive, especially on business PCs (monochromeCGA and EGA graphics).

1983-85

  • The Crash.  Major downturn in the market as a glut of poor quality games causes a massive drop in demand by consumers. At the time this was misread by many to mean that videogames were a passing fad that had had their day, but really people wanted new, better games.
  • Many companies went out of business or shifted to other industries.  Out of the “Big 3” of the day (Atari, Coleco, Mattel), only Atari comes out of the Crash still in the videogames market.  The void left by Coleco and Mattel will be filled by Nintendo and Sega in short order. Atari readies its 7800 console, only to shelve it due to Warner’s sale of Atari to Jack Tramiel, owner of Commodore, who sits on the technology until years later Nintendo’s NES takes the market by storm, way too late for it to have a chance of being anything more than an also-ran system. Nintendo flirted with Atari, eyeing a partnership for a US launch of the NES as an Atari branded console, before deciding that they could do just as well if not better on their own (and they did.)
  • On the home computer front, Apple, Commodore, Atari remain strong gaming platforms, with increasing competition from generic IBM PC and PC-compatible clones.
  • Floppy disk-based software gives rise to a subculture devoted to hacking copy protection to violate copyright and distribute free copies of software, known as “warez“.  Underground BBS and FTP sites carrying warez and cracks on the rise.  Copy protection hackers start “signing” their work with “tech demos” to show off their skill at controlling the hardware, giving rise to the Demoscene, where circumventing copy protection and product activation goes by the wayside, and all focus goes into creating cool technical demos that stretch the limits of hardware to display killer graphical and audio demos, for lulz and bragging rights.

1985-1990

  • The late 8-bit era. The new “Big 3”: the venerable, obsolescent Atari 2600, NES, Sega Master System.  Atari, a distant third place by this point with its newly released 7800 home console delayed until it is too late to head off the exploding popularity of the NES, and aging 400/800/1200 line of home computers. The success of the NES effectively buries Atari and wins Nintendo a monopoly in home game consoles.
  • The golden age of the arcade has dulled to a “silver age”; arcade games are still popular, but are receding as many arcade locations go out of business, and the era of arcade games literally everywhere, including outside in front of convenience stores and gas stations, soon phases out.
  • IBM PC clones, Intel x86 and 286 hardware generations. DOS. The early years of the Apple Macintosh, still with only b&w graphics.  Pre-WWW internet consisted of things like Bulletin Board Systems (BBSes), IRC chat rooms, FTP sites, Telnet, NNTP (usenet/newsgroups), Gopher sites, etc. mostly limited to people at large universities in technical departments (comp sci, physics, math, engineering, science) and home computer enthusiasts who direct-dialed to specific systems via modem to access a specific system, rather than dial-up ISP for a gateway connection to “the internet”.
  • Virtual Reality first conceptualized, as early flight and military vehicle simulators inspire a concept of “total immersion” (where the subject can’t discern a difference between real experiences and virtual ones) as the holy grail that VR R&D will strive for.  Nothing much as far as games technology at this point, but the Atari coin-op’s 1980 3D wireframe tank simulation game Battlezone is their great-granddaddy.

1990-1995

  • Arcades still popular, but to a much lesser degree than the late 70s/early 80s; as coin op cabinets recede from literally everywhere to dedicated businesses, which are increasingly struggling as improving home console technology makes coin-op games less and less appealing value proposition by comparison. Many gamers prefer the lengthier, more complex style of play offered by home games, with puzzles and story lines, and adventure and RPG genres, simulation and strategy games gaining in popularity.
  • In the arcade mega hits Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat rejuvenate fading arcade market.  2P vs. fighter games and 4P side-scrolling beat-em-ups such as TMNT, X-Men, and The Simpsons very popular in arcades in the early 90s. Driving/sit-down vehicle games and light gun games also remain popular.
  • Movie, comic book IP licenses adaptations to videogame medium begin to increase in popularity, and fidelity to the source material. It’s increasingly common for a movie release to be accompanied by a video game version that closely follows the story, rather than just being about the character.
  • Nintendo GameBoy (1989) ushers in a golden age of handheld gaming, to be followed up in future generations by GameBoy Color (1998), GameBoy Advance (2001), DS (2004 and onward), and ultimately converging back to television-based gaming in 2017 with the Nintendo Switch. Previous portable/handheld electronic games were single-title LED-based hand held games that were barely videogames. Previous generations of handheld electronic games from the early 1890’s were insignificant (Tiger LCD games, Nintendo Game and Watch, Coleco LED based games, etc.) Atari Lynx (1989) and Sega Game Gear (1990) attempt to compete, but Nintendo dominates the market, continuing until the present day, despite efforts from others over the years such as the Nokia N-Gage, Sony PSP and Vita, WonderSwan, etc. Nintendo will dominate handheld gaming for the next 20+ years, challenged only by the rise of iOS and Android smarpthones and tablets in the mid-2000’s.
  • The 16-bit eraSNES, Sega Genesis, NEC TurboGrafx-16 home consoles in the early 90’s, giving way to Nintendo 64 and Sony Playstation in the mid-90’s.
  • Game developer SNK straddles the arcade and home console market with its NEO GEO system (1990), popular in arcades as a modular coin-op platform, but too expensive for most home gamers, with individual game cartridges selling for $350 per title.
  • Nintendo makes an infamously huge business blunder by flirting with Sony to partner in developing a CD-ROM peripheral for the SNES, and then canceling the project after Sony had committed millions in development costs.
  • Betrayed by Nintendo, and committed to its investment, Sony goes alone, and the PlayStation brand is born, creating a massive new rival with deep pockets and very mature technical and manufacturing capability.
  • Just about every hardware maker except Nintendo releases a CD-based console: Philips CD-i (1991), 3DO (a 1993 attempt at licensed standard to be manufactured by various companies), NEC TurboGrafx CD (1990), Sega CD (1991), Sega Saturn (1994). Most of these are commercial failures, enter and exit the market without much fanfare, attempting to compete with Sony PlayStation, but too expensive and too weak game libraries.
  • By the mid-90’s the 16-bit consoles give way to 32-bit consoles and computers. Bus-width captures imagination of marketing, resulting in bizarre, distorted claims about the specs and capabilities of certain systems.
  • Sega’s poorly timed hardware releases keep the company off-kilter as they continue to struggle, dropping to 3rd place in the market. Sega 32x, an expansion module for Sega Genesis, and then Sega Saturn the following year, released in 1994 and 1995, respectively. Sega struggles with the design and timing of launch for its consoles, undermining their success by designing hardware architecture that is difficult to program for, and then too quickly obsolete to recoup investment.
  • Atari’s last gasp, the Jaguar (1993), fails and Atari exits the stage, ceasing to exist as a real company.  Sony replaces it; the Big 3 now are Nintendo, Sega, Sony.  Fun fact:  Atari continued producing Atari 2600 consoles and new games right up until 1992, making it by far the longest-lived home console of all time. Atari sells off intellectual property rights which pass through various companies that attempt to cash in on the early IP by re-releasing collections of classic arcade and home console titles.
  • All the other competitors exit after a few years of insufficient sales attract little third party development, resulting in weak game catalogs.
  • 1995 marked a transition from DOS to Windows 95 and ushered in the home internet era, with ISPs like CompuServe, AOL, and Prodigy bringing dial-up access to the internet to the masses. No longer just a university/academic thing, the internet boom happens. Microsoft’s Internet Explorer web browser integrated and bundled for free with Win95 results in massive anti-trust lawsuit which Microsoft eventually wins despite clear guilt as a harmful monopoly, as a result of shifting political winds after George W. Bush narrowly defeats Al Gore in a highly controversial 2000 presidential election.
  • IBM PC: DOS continues to remain popular with gamers until about the time of Windows 98 or 2000, as it is faster, more stable, and more tune-able for getting the most performance out of the hardware for a time.  Communities of hardware enthusiasts come together online to seek the ultimate performance tweaks and secrets for getting the most out of their system, resulting in a sub-culture of “overclockers“, many of whom go on to tech careers or become hackers of one stripe or another.
  • IBM PC: Intel 386, 486, and Pentium, Pentium II, chips rapidly increase the performance and capabilities of PC-compatible hardware.  CD-ROM drives started to become standard on PC’s in the mid-90’s, giving rise to larger games with greater multimedia content, pre-rendered video, etc.  The CD-ROM game Myst (1993) is a major mover of CD-ROM drives.
  • 1996 is a major milestone year as this is when the internet became popular and started to become used by developers to distribute games. Home dialup services like Prodigy, CompuServe, and America Online bring internet access from computer labs and dorm rooms at university to the middle-class households across America.
  • On the PC, the addition of SoundBlaster soundcards and hardware-accelerated graphics increased the capability of PC games, giving rise to a new emphasis on 3D games, especially 3D first person shooters like Doom and Wolfenstein 3D, Marathon, and Duke Nukem 3D.
  • Microsoft studies Apple’s mouse-driven UI and desktop metaphor, and rips it off, releases Windows, initially a graphical shell that runs on top of DOS and is generally terrible, but runs a vast majority of business applications.  The sheer size of the PC install base makes it an attractive market for games, despite widely varying hardware specs from one PC clone manufacturer to another, and from one generation to the next.  The difficulty of programming games on such varied, yet standardized hardware means that compared to console and arcade games, PC game are mostly inferior tech-wise.  Console technology is so much more consistent in spec that developers can write code much more tightly coupled to the hardware, getting the absolute most out of the systems’ capabilities, resulting in far superior games despite the fact that console hardware generally has slower, smaller hardware specs.  It’s how you use it.
  • Apple struggles to survive, hanging in there thanks to very loyal Macintosh user base, and a truly superior user experience (although the underlying OS is still terrible), clinging to 1-5% of the personal computer market, and failing to make inroads against commodity priced generic PC-compatible hardware.  Macintosh moves from Motorola 68000-series CPU chips and NuBus architecture to IBM PowerPC based systems. Despite superior technology, they can’t get cheap enough to compete with the generic commodity PC.
  • Start of the Emulation scene, old hardware emulated in software to create a compatibility layer to enable play of software designed for older systems on newer platforms.  Emulation scene offshoots ROM hacking and homebrew game development.  (Still later in the 20-teens, game hackers will start experimenting with teaching AI to play old, emulated video games, via genetic algorithm and other machine learning techniques).

1996-2000

  • Nintendo tries to leapfrog everyone with it’s 64-bit Nintendo 64 (1996), but finishes 2nd place in sales to Sony’s 32-bit PlayStation. Nintendo sticks with cartridge format in its next-gen system , struggles to retain 3rd party developers as a result.  Many 3rd party game development studios move to support Sony PlayStation due to greater storage capability and cheaper manufacturing cost of the CD-ROM format.
  • Nintendo continues to garner a reputation for being a G-rated games company for younger children. This started with the 16-bit console wars between “family-friendly” Nintendo and the older teen/young adult market targeted by Sega, now Sony, and (later) Microsoft.
  • Demise of Sega as a hardware company, their final console the Sega Dreamcast (1999), initially to strong sales, only to be blown out of the market months later by the Sony PlayStation 2 (2000) and the Microsoft XBox (2001).
  • Emergence of the 3D First Person Shooter (FPS) genre, with games like Doom, Quake, Half-Life, and Unreal leading the way.  There were 3D first-person games before Doom, but the genre reached maturity and achieved dominance in the gaming market around this time, and has remained one of the most popular types of games ever since.
  • Apple comes as close to exiting the business as it ever will, before Steve Jobs returns from NeXT and reinvents the company with iMac, iPod, iPhone, and iPad over the next decade.  iOS platform becomes an important platform for game developers, with the App Store becoming an important distribution vehicle for indies and established studios alike.
  • Macromedia‘s Flash and Shockwave technologies make the web browser an important game platform during this time. Adobe later acquires Macromedia, in 2005.
  • Virtual Reality as a concept enters mainstream public consciousness, but remains very primitive.  Nintendo’s early VR console experiment, the Virtual Boy, is a notorious flop.  But VR as a concept gets a lot of attention from science fiction writers and Hollywood.
  • Rise of game modding scene, as game software architecture becomes more modular and therefore easier to modify and re-use. Companies develop engines that are used to drive many game releases. Game players get into the act by modifying published games, adding new life and replayability to them by creating new maps, items, in some cases entire new games, and sharing them with the online community.

2000-2006

  • Sony releases its PlayStation 2 console in 2000. Gamers camp outside of stores like Best Buy in the hopes of getting theirs before they sell out.
  • Microsoft XBox (2001) is released as Microsoft attempts to muscle their way into the industry. Microsoft was already strong as a gaming platform due to the popularity of DOS and Win9X as a gaming platform, XBox was a strategic move into creating a standardized hardware platform dedicated to gamers and home entertainment. Bulky and ugly, the initial XBox is essentially a Intel Pentium III PC with nVidia graphics, only with a gamepad as the only input, instead of a keyboard and mouse, running an OS based on Windows but stripped down in order to focus on game software. Macintosh-era AAA game developers Bungie acquired by Microsoft, who steal Halo from Apple fans and put it on the XBox.
  • Nintendo releases its first optical disk system, the Gamecube (2001), almost a decade after their original plans with the SNES fell through.
  • In the face of two competitors with very deep products and more powerful hardware, it holds its own, largely on the strength of Nintendo’s strong appeal as a first-party developer, with games like Super Mario Sunshine, Mario Kartand Metroid Prime.
  • Most internet gaming is done on PC, thanks to the emergence of widespread adoption of broadband internet in homes.
  • HDTV exists during this time but is not widely adopted yet, so consoles of the day do not yet support HDTV resolution. NTSC 480i or 480p are the best resolutions supported in this generation.
  • Consoles are still mostly not internet capable, for practical purposes, although there have been attempts throughout most of the previous generations to try to make use of networking capability in some fashion. (Even back in the early 80’s there were online services for consoles such as Intellivision PlayCable, Nintendo Broadcast System, Satellaview, Sega Mega Modem, and others, but these were too ahead of their time for most consumers to take notice of them, with very limited support for a tiny number of games, in limited markets.) This starts to change with the PS2 and XBox, but online gaming services for PlayStation Network and XBox Live will not come into their own for one more generation.
  • Rise of internet gaming and digital distribution for PC games.
  • Videogames starting to become increasingly respected by academics and critics as a valid medium/topic of academic study.
  • Valve launches its Steam platform in 2003, coinciding with the release of Half-Life 2. Steam will become a major player in marketing and digital distribution in the years ahead. Steam marks the rise of the “software as a service” business model.

2006-2012

  • The HDTV era.  Increasing popularity of HDTV enables consoles to move from NTSC TV resolutions to 720p and 1080p.
  • Home consoles: Sony PS3, Microsoft XBox 360, Nintendo Wii.  The Wii notably does not support HD resolution, but the PS3 and XBox 360 do.
  • These newer consoles are increasingly internet-integrated, many games rely on the internet to work at all, to validate the license, download updates, connect to multiplayer and social/community servers, etc.
  • Games increasingly go digital for distribution; physical media and brick-n-mortar retail decline.
  • The Wii dares to innovate with motion controls, Sony, MS follow suit half-heartedly with PS3 motion controller and Xbox Kinect. Despite the weaker hardware specs, the Wii outsells both Sony and Microsoft, regaining the market lead.
  • The mobile gaming era.  Introduction of iPhone and Android platforms, smartphones and tablets.  Rise of touch screen technology creates new input and control opportunities.
  • Rise of indie developers. At first doing direct sales through shareware business models, DIY e-commerce.  First Global Game Jam (2009), Ludum Dare (2002, but not widely popular until this period) events happen in the early part of this period, paving the way for countless other game jams to follow.
  • Curated “walled garden” marketplaces (Apple’s App Store, Google Play, Steam, etc.) welcome indie developers, early adopters who initially are rewarded, followed by hordes of also-ran developers who struggle for any attention at all, resulting in “Indypocalypse” by 2015, as shifting business models and reduced barriers to entry create business and marketing challenges that most are unprepared to face and incapable of handling.
  • Rise of Valve’s Steam service, introduced in 2003 with Half-Life 2, as an increasingly important distribution platform for AAA and indie developers alike.  Indie studios especially depend on Steam to release, distribute, and market their games. Steam Greenlight program allows indies to reach wider audiences more easily than previously possible.
  • Steve Jobs’ refusal to support Adobe Flash player on iPhone is the harbinger of death for Flash-based web content, although the end won’t come for a good decade and more.
  • Rise of “retro” style games that harken back to the 2D era and simpler styles of games, hook into gamer nostalgia.

2012-current

  • Nintendo Wii U (2012), Sony PS4 (2013), Microsoft XBox One (2013), and Nintendo Switch (2017). Wii U is a short-lived failure for Nintendo, but the lessons learned from it give rise to the hot-selling Switch. HDTV and internet now mainstream and assumed to be standard features of nearly all games.  UHD (4K) TVs exist, are already relatively inexpensive, increasingly common, and gaining support from PS4/XBone.  Nintendo continues to take a “less is more” strategy, opting for innovative design and popular IP to sell less-expensive hardware of significantly lesser capability.
  • Indypocalypse in full swing.  Humble Store introduces the Humble Bundle, pay-what-you-want business model for a bundle of popular indie titles that had already sold well. It is a viral sensation and generates millions in revenue despite the fact that you can get the bundle for free; a “beat the average price paid so far” incentive for an extended bundle does the trick.  In the mobile world, a race-to-the-bottom approach brings prices for many games to free or nearly free; revenue streams from in-game advertising, in-game purchase, “DLC” (downloadable content) packs, subscription-based licensing etc. struggle with varying success to replace revenue lost from retail sales of copies of physical media. Steam announces end of Greenlight program in 2017.
  • Nearly 100 yers old, Ralph Baer dies in 2014, marking a point at which videogame history begins shift from a period where everything can still fit within living memory to a phase where history will increasingly consist of what can be recorded and preserved.  Historical preservation efforts by Jason Scott at the Internet Archive, increasing scholarly attention by notables such as Ian Bogost, Henry Lowood, and others.
  • Maturing HTML5 technologies finally start to erode Flash marketshare, resulting in Adobe announcing in 2017 the sunset of Flash is in sight, currently slated for 2020.  Future of preservation of Flash-based games uncertain.
  • VR and AR (augmented reality) technologies start getting better, but still very niche.  Oculus Rift, Microsoft HoloLens, Google Glass, Google Cardboard, etc. Pokemon Go (2016) is an early standout augmented reality title, and briefly one of the most popular videogames of all time.

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.

Top Atari 2600 games still worth playing

I don’t like to do Top N lists, because it’s always arbitrary.  For whatever value of N you select, there’s always a game that doesn’t make the list that’s just as good as some of the others that did.  Why limit yourself?

Released in 1977, the Atari VCS turned 40 this year.  So there’s no better time to look back at the games that are still worth playing today. The VCS catalog is vast, and there were so many bad games released on it, particularly in ’82-’83, but despite its primitive, minimal hardware specs, there were many outstanding games released on the platform over its life.

These aren’t in any particular order.  I considered ranking them in terms of greatness, alphabetically, and in order of release, or grouping them by categories such as arcade ports, shooters, etc. but there’s no one way to do that.  It’s also hard to separate games that were historically significant, or first innovators, or important evolutionary steps, or have high nostalgia value, from games that are worth playing today purely for their own merits.  I guess there’s a little bit of all of that wrapped up in these recommendations.

I took a look at Wikipedia’s List of Atari 2600 Games and skimmed through it, and picked the games that in my opinion are good plays, and on that first pass, I came up with over 50 titles.  But don’t take this to be “The Top 50 Atari VCS Games”.  I’ve decided to list them alphabetically, because it’s the laziest way to do it.

This list excludes homebrews, which I really shouldn’t because some of the best games ever produced for the VCS are homebrews. But they weren’t on the wikipedia page, and this is already taking too long. But seriously, check out the homebrew scene. Some of the games that have been published in the last few years will blow away the games that we had in 1977-83.

There’s surely a few titles that didn’t make this cut that are still good plays — either games I am not familiar with, or games that I underrated.

I’m not going to try to do justice to reviewing these games in full in this article. And I think a brief description isn’t of much value, either — just go play them. But what I will do is state why I think they’re worth playing.

  1. Adventure: Adventure (1980) (Atari)The “first” (famous) easter egg. My vote for best original game on the system. I spent endless hours investigating and experimenting with the various objects in the game. See my article on Adventure for more details.
  2. Asteroids: Asteroids (1981) (Atari)An arcade classic, free flight screen-wrapping shooter with acceleration and inertia. Blast big space rocks into littler space rocks, while watching out for unfriendly UFOs. A solid arcade port of a classic, great game, with 66 variations.
  3. Astroblast: Astroblast (1982) (M Network)Basically a mashup of Asteroids and Space Invaders; a vertical shooter where you blast space rocks falling towards you from above. In Asteroids, space wraps toroidally around the edges of the screen; rocks that drift off the edge appear on the other side. In Astroblast, you lose points for rocks you fail to shoot, which can result in a negative score. In a weird way, you can think of this as analogous to the spatial wrapping in Asteroids; in Astroblast space doesn’t wrap — the score does.
  4. Berzerk: Berzerk (1982) (Atari)A fantastic, faithful port of the arcade game. Run around an endless maze, fighting mindless robots programmed to kill you, and fleeing from the invincible Evil Otto.  The only thing missing is the digitized speech.  (And there’s a homebrew for that!)
  5. Boxing: Boxing (1980) (Activision)A basic, competent sports simulation which shines in 2P. More so than most consoles, the Atari 2600 offered a lot of very good 2-player vs. games, which made it a more social console than the NES, which tended to feature long-form 1P action-adventure games.
  6. California Games: California Games (1988) (Epyx) California Games (1988) (Epyx) California Games (1988) (Epyx)Featuring a  chiptune cover of “Louie, Louie”, that and the surfing event are more than enough to make this worth playing.  But the hackey sack mini game is pretty good too. The other events include half-pipe skateboarding, and a BMX downhill run.
  7. Combat: Combat (1977) (Atari)Going all the way back to the beginning. The original pack-in title, and a very worthy 2P vs. game. Battle a friend for a two minute round with a variety of dueling tanks, bi-planes, and jets.
  8. Crystal Castles: Crystal Castles (1984) (Atari)One of the more interesting games influenced by the dot-munching Pac-Man, you control a bear as he gathers gems in a 2.5D map while avoiding a variety of whimsical baddies such as skulls, a witch, a swarm of bees, animated trees, and giant gem-eating caterpillars. The 3D-looking levels are particularly well done, considering the hardware capabilities. Elevators and tunnels are present which give the game a true 3D feel. A fantastic port of the arcade classic.
  9. Dig Dug: Dig Dug (1983) (Atari)Dig Dug was another popular game influenced by Pac-Man, but was one of he more original designs to take direct influence from the popular maze game.  In Dig Dug, the “maze” is created by the player as they dig through the dirt. Instead of energizer pills, Dig Dug is armed with an air pump that he can use to defend himself against monsters, or he can undermine a rock which can fall, crushing his enemies.
  10. Frogger: Frogger (1982) (Parker Bros)Yet another great arcade port. Hop your frog across a road and river, avoiding cars, snakes, alligators, and drowning, because for some reason frogs aren’t able to swim in this game.
  11. Frostbite: Frostbite (1983) (Activision)Similar to the more well known Q*Bert, in that you hop around on things, changing their color. In Frostbite, you jump on ice flows to collect material to build an igloo. The mechanics are quite different from Q*Bert, howeverIn a way, it reminds me of another Activision game, SeaQuest.  If SeaQuest and Frogger had a baby, it might be Frostbite.
  12. Galaxian: Galaxian (1983) (Atari)Another arcade port, what it lacks in graphics it more than makes up for with gameplay. Galaxian was a spiritual successor to Space Invaders, and followed its vertical shooter, no scrolling, waves of enemies in rows and columns formula, but added dive bombing (and, in the arcade, full color graphics). I enjoy this version of Galaxian more than the arcade, by a wide margin. Full review.
  13. Gravitar: Gravitar (1983) (Atari)A free-flight shooter similar to Asteroids, but with more complex game play involving destroying bunkers on planets. The planetary gravity adds a dimension of difficulty to the game. Watch your fuel, and take care with your inertia. It’s really challenging.
  14. Gyruss: Gyruss (1984) (Parker Bros)Another arcade port, Gyruss is a twist on the Space Invaders formula that has you shooting into a faux-3D field where sprites shrink and disappear into the distance, a bit like Tempest but without the wireframe tunnels. Like Galaga, enemy ships fly into the screen from the side/behind the player, doing acrobatics before taking up formation in the center of the screen. And like Galaga, there’s a double-shot power-up. The arcade game had an awesome soundtrack, based on Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. The VCS can’t quite replicate this, but it does have a (for the technology, decent) musical soundtrack, one of the few Atari VCS games to do so. Graphically it also lags behind the arcade original, but that’s to be expected — it’s an Atari 2600.
  15. H.E.R.O.: H.E.R.O. (1984) (Activision)Fly through caves wearing a helicopter backpack, blasting through walls and killing cave denizens with a laser in order to clear a path to rescue people who didn’t have enough sense to stay out of caves.
  16. Haunted House: Haunted House (1982) (Atari)I never played this game as a kid, because I never knew anyone who had it. But even if I did, I probably would have been too scared to play it. I’ve tried to play it recently, and couldn’t figure it out. This is one of those games where you have to read the manual in order to understand the cryptic messages the graphics and sounds are trying to convey.
  17. Joust: Joust (1983) (Atari)The original “flappy bird” game! One of the best two player games of the early arcade era, and a fantastic arcade port. Jockeys mounted on flying ostriches compete in an arena by “jousting”.  The higher lance wins the contest – the loser is a rotten egg. The 2P mode is a cooperative affair, or you can compete against each other by PVP kills.
  18. Keystone Kapers: Keystone Kapers (1983) (Activision)A proto-platformer by Activision. You play as a keystone kop, chasing a burglar through a multi-story department store full of obstacles. Jump and duck and gradually gain on the thief, hopefully catching him before he escapes.
  19. Kool-Aid Man: Kool-Aid Man (1983) (M Network)Originally, to get a copy of this game, you had to drink a huge amount of kool-aid, and send in proofs of purchases. I think it must have been available in stores as well, because this game is not as rare as it would have been otherwise. It’s a decent game to play. You play as a pitcher of kool-aid, who is guarding a swimming pool full of water which is under assault by swarms of “Thirsties” who slowly drink it up. If you collide with a “Thirsty” who isn’t drinking, it will bounce you around the screen out of control. But if you collide with a “Thirsty” that is in the act of drinking, you eliminate it, getting points and protecting that water. You can gain a few seconds of invulnerability by grabbing symbols of the ingredients for kool-aid (icons representing Water, Kool-Aid mix, and Sugar). When the swimming pool runs out of water, the game is over.  Seriously, it’s better than it sounds.
  20. Mario Bros.: Mario Bros. (1983) (Atari)A very well done arcade port. After Donkey Kong, Mario made a career shift from carpentry to plumbing, and started battling sewer turtles and collecting coins. The direct sequel to this game, Super Mario Bros. would set the industry on fire and change the world forever.
  21. Megamania: MegaMania (1982) (Activision)One of the most finely tuned shooters on the system. I’ve written extensively about it already.
  22. Missile Command: Missile Command (1981) (Atari)Near perfect arcade port. Although the arcade game featured track ball controls, this version of Missile Command plays every well with a joystick.
  23. Montezuma’s Revenge: Montezuma's Revenge (1984) (Parker Bros)A brutally unforgiving platformer with greater dimensionality than Pitfall, but not as well remembered today.
  24. Mountain King: Mountain King (1983) (CBS Electronics)An exploration quest platformer with interesting audio mechanics, not to mention what’s probably the best use of music in a game of its era. Gather diamonds, find the Flame Spirit, offer it to the Skull Spirit who guards the temple, steal the crown, and escape to the top of the mountain to become the Mountain King. Beware the terrifying giant spider in the basement. There is a glitch world hidden in the upper reaches of the sky, accessible by an impossible leap.
  25. Ms. Pac Man: Ms. Pac-Man (1982) (Atari)A far better port than Pac Man was. Homebrewers have been working on worthy Pac Man ports for the VCS for years, with extremely impressive results, but in 1982 this was as good as it got (unless you had an Atar 5200).
  26. Pete Rose Baseball: Pete Rose Baseball (1988) (Absolute)Another game to come very late in the life of the console, Pete Rose Baseball is easily the most graphically impressive baseball game on the VCS. However, looks aren’t everything. RealSports Baseball actually plays better, with better fielding and baserunning controls. But this is still worth playing just to see that it was possible to make a game on the Atari that looked like this.
  27. Phoenix: Phoenix (1982) (Atari)One of the better successors to Space Invaders, featuring one of the earliest boss battles. The other innovation present here is shields, which make you immobile but invulnerable for a few seconds. Very handy for when you were trapped in a corner by a divebombing bird, or under heavy fire from the mothership.
  28. Pitfall:Pitfall! (1982) (Activision)A run and jump action game, and a proto-platformer, Pitfall was remarkable for its time. Exploring the procedurally generated screens of a pixellated jungle in search of treasure such as bags of money, diamonds, and silver and gold ingots. A lot of the fun of this game was in seeing how far you could go, but also in discovering through repeated play that the screens in the game weren’t random, and that as you played more and more, you could map your way through the game, taking shortcuts through the underground tunnels.
  29. Pitfall II: Lost Caverns: Pitfall II (1983) (Activision)The sequel to Pitfall!, this game went beyond the side-scrolling adventure, and introduced a huge, cavernous world with vertical scrolling sections as well as horizontal. The game featured swimming and balloon-assisted flight, and new hazards such as condors, poisonous frogs, and bats. It had a musical soundtrack, and if that wasn’t advanced enough for the Atari 2600, the music was dynamically linked to the in-game action, turning sad when you got hurt, and jubilant when you grabbed a treasure. It was also one of the first video games to feature save points and instead of having “lives”, when Pitfall Harry “died” he returned to the last save point he touched, loosing points for his trouble.  Full Review.
  30. Pressure Cooker:Pressure Cooker (1983) (Activision)You’re a short order cook building hamburgers by catching ingredients flying out of boxes on the right side and adding them to burgers on the assembly line. Get the order right and drop it into the bin. Memory, concentration, and quick thinking are needed to succeed.
  31. Private Eye: Private Eye (1983) (Activision)I never played this title back in the day, but discovered it recently, decades later. It’s confusing to play, reading the manual is necessary in order to understand what’s going on, but you’re a private eye driving around a city in a car trying to solve a crime by finding clues.  The mechanics of the game are weird, you can jump your car, which is a convertible, and when your car jumps, you jump much higher, and fall back down into the car. This is required to dodge obstacles and enemies and to collect clues and other items. Figuring out how to navigate the map and understand the clues in the manual are the keys to fun in this game.
  32. Q*Bert: Q-bert (1987) (Atari)A remarkably good port of the arcade action-puzzle game. Hop on blocks arranged in a pyramid shape to change their color to the correct color to complete the level and advance, while dodging an assortment of weird enemies. To play this game correctly, you need to hold the joystick at an angle, so that the fire button is at 12 o’clock, and you’re essentially using the diagonals as up/down/left/right.
  33. Radar Lock: Radar Lock (1989) (Atari)Released late in the life of the console, in 1989, this sophisticated jet fighter simulation game takes you from the runway takeoff, to dogfighting, and even features mid-air refueling. Multiple weapons systems are activated with the 2P controller. The graphics are pretty good considering the hardware. Compared to Top Gun on the NES, or Sega’s Afterburner, this game isn’t all that impressive, but on the Atari 2600 it more than holds its own.
  34. RealSports Baseball: RealSports Baseball (1982) (Atari)An impressive simulation of the game of baseball, the first baseball game on the Atari that was a full implementation of baseball’s rules, rather than an impressionistic “interpretation” of a “baseball-like” game.  Even the infield fly rule is implemented. You can only fully appreciate this game with two players; the CPU controlled opponent in a 1-player game is nearly unbeatable.
  35. Riddle of the Sphinx: Riddle of the Sphinx (1982) (Imagic)An early questing puzzle game that demands you read the manual, loosely based on ancient Egyptian mythology.  To pass various points in the vertically scrolling world, you must find and offer the correct treasure at one of the various temples. Clues found in the instruction booklet make this a bit easier to do.  Along the way, you must fend off marauding thieves and scorpions and thirst. There were numerous items to be found, through trading with merchants or by digging in the desert sand, and these gave you various abilities.
  36. River Raid: River Raid (1982) (Activision)One of the best scrolling shooters of its day.  Continuously scrolling, procedurally-generated stages.
  37. SeaQuest: Seaquest (1983) (Activision)A great action game from Activision. You control a submarine, trying to rescue divers who are being chased by sharks you can destroy with torpedoes. Fill up your sub with 6 divers and return to the surface before you run out of oxygen. It’s very simple, but a lot of fun as the speed increases with each time you return to the surface.
  38. Secret Quest:Secret Quest (1989) (Atari)Another late title for the system, this one was designed by Nolan Bushnell himself. I never knew about this game when it was released because by the time it came out the NES was ruling the world.  Walk around a space station infested with aliens, looking for a self destruct mechanism. Your main armament is a Energy Sword, but there are other weapons as well. I’ve only played this one a little bit, but it’s clear this is a sophisticated quest game for the Atari.
  39. Solar Fox: Solar Fox (1983) (CBS Electronics)Another great arcade port. Solar Fox is like Pac Man, in that you have to pick up dots (“solar cells”) on the screen in order to advance to the next screen. But there’s no maze. You just fly around on an invisible grid, at slow or fast speed, avoiding stuff that shoots at you from the edges of the screen. And you can’t shoot back, only dodge. The challenge is to collect all the cells in the shortest amount of time possible, and there are optimal flight paths to take in order to have the best chance at doing that.
  40. Solaris:Solaris (1986) (Atari)A first person space shooter published late in the life of the console, at a point when the obsolete Atari VCS was competing against the NES. There were a lot of similar games for the Atari, but this was perhaps the best of them, with more variety and better graphics. Check out Star Raiders, Star Voyager, and Star Master if you’re a fan of the genre.
  41. Space Invaders: Space Invaders (1980) (Atari)A fantastic arcade port with over 100 variations. Clear wave after wave of invading aliens who march across the sky in lock-step formation, speeding up as their numbers dwindle.  Hit their mothership for bonus points.
  42. Spider Fighter: Spider Fighter (1982) (Activision)Extremely fast-paced shooter with extremely smooth motion that will make you twitch.
  43. Star Master:Another cockpit shooter, like Star Raiders and Star Voyager. Which one is my favorite? Which one is which?
  44. Star Raiders:Star Raiders (1982) (Atari) One of several first-person cockpit shooters, it came out the same year as Star Master, and is very similar.
  45. Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator:Star Trek - Strategic Operations Simulator (1983) (Sega)An unusual multi-view shooter with a 3D first person view combined with a top down view. The graphics are fantastic, with recognizable depictions of the USS Enterprise and Klingon Bird of Prey spacecraft, and even music from the TV show is represented.  Warp from sector to sector, fighting Klingons and protecting Federation bases. This is an outstanding shooter with depth.
  46. Star Voyager: Star Voyager (1982) (Imagic)A cockpit simulator 3D space shooter. This was about as real as it got in 1982.  See Star Raiders, Solaris, and Star Master for more of the same.
  47. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back:Star Wars - The Empire Strikes Back (1982) (Parker Bros)A very well done scrolling shooter, re-creating the battle on the ice planet of Hoth. You pilot Luke Skywalker’s snow speeder, and try to give the Rebels enough time to escape by battling Imperial AT-AT walkers. It’s a repetitive game that has an inevitable doom at the end, but the controls and sound effects are excellent, making this a worthy shooter if you like games like Defender and Stargate, definitely a must play if you’re a Star Wars fan.
  48. Stargate: Stargate (1984) (Atari)An especially faithful port of the arcade sequel to Defender, it’s one of the best rendered arcade ports on the Atari. Uses dual joystick controls, one for flight and shooting, the other for the special weapons.
  49. Superman: I’ve written extensively on Superman elsewhere, and this remains one of my favorite games on the system, and of all time.
  50. Surround: Surround (1977) (Atari)Another solid 2P vs. game with numerous variations. It’s basically a “snakes” game, where you control a pixel that draws a path that both players must avoid. Think the light cycle scene in Disney’s classic, Tron. Surround offers a number of variations to keep the action fresh.
  51. Tac-Scan: Tac-Scan (1982) (Sega)In most space shooters, you get to control one ship at a time, and a couple of reserve ships that represent your extra lives.  In Tac-Scan, you control a formation of up to 5 ships, essentially putting all of your lives in play at once. This is an arcade port, and a pretty good one, although it’s a bit simplified with fewer types of enemies.
  52. Threshold: Threshold (1982) (Tigervision)A vertical shooter often compared with Megamania as the best of the genre on the console. The enemy motion in this game is especially frustrating. Enemies will dance just out of reach of your bullets, and then kill you after embarrassing you and frustrating you with your futile attempts to connect a shot with them. Whoever programmed it is a real bastard.
  53. Warlords: Warlords (1981) (Atari)The evolutionary zenith of the pong/breakout type games.  Defend your crown by bouncing a ball away from your castle walls and into your enemy’s. Four player is the best way to play.
  54. Word Zapper: Word Zapper (1982) (U.S. Games)One of the more novel game concepts, based on spelling.  Shoot letters in a scrolling marquee to spell a word. Reflexes, spelling, and memorization are all important, particularly on the difficult random letter sequence levels. It’s more fun and more challenging than it sounds.
  55. Yar’s Revenge: Yars' Revenge (1982) (Atari)A remix of the basic concepts of Star Castle, and somewhat overrated in my opinion, but still a solid, innovative game, with outstanding audio and good graphics.

 

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.

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