A day ago, a video of an Atari 2600 homebrew for a Metroid de-make was posted on Reddit. I’m used to seeing these types of post and then losing track of the project as nothing happens for months or years. But this developer, MathanGames is working very quickly, it looks like in Batari Basic, and has already released a ROM.
The first two releases had a vertical jitter bug that gave the game a feeling like you were playing in a world prone to frequent earthquakes, which made jumping gaps somewhat dicey, but the 3rd build seems to have eliminated this defect, and is more playable. To hopefully avoid copyright/trademark infringement problems from the notoriously litigious Nintendo, the project has been renamed Xanthiom.
The game is not really attempting to port Metroid, exactly, but there’s a many familiar features: missiles,energy tanks, jump boots, wave beam, varia suit all make appearances. But there’s no morph ball, no bombs, no vertical shooting, no ice beam, and no screw attack. The starting world feels like Brinstar, and is joined by elevator pad to an area that seems to be Norfair, but the map layout is different, so it’s only very loosely based on Metroid, more homage than port.
Still, you’ll find doors to shoot, red doors require a missile, of course. A few of the enemies from Metroid also appear: Zoomers, Rippers, Rio,, and Skree. Even the mini-bosses, Ridley and Kraid, even a fake Ridley.. or is that a Space Pirate? Sadly, no Mother Brain, no Metroids (unless I haven’t found them yet.)
There’s no musical score, but there are sound effects for shooting and getting hit.
Controls are pretty awkward; it feels like the jump mechanics could use some polish. And some of enemies don’t collide with the backgrounds, so pass right through walls.
I love it. I’m hoping that the developer continues with this project, adding more to it, because what’s here already shows a great deal of promise, and I love playing NES de-makes on Atari 2600.
Altogether, this has a feel similar to Princess Rescue, but I think it feels better. Not terribly challenging, unless you count the rather awkward jumping, but you’ll enjoy playing through it in 20 or 30 minutes.
The guys developing Strike Zone Bowling accepted some of my feedback and released a 2nd Beta recently. I just played it, and these are minor improvements but polish is everything once you have the core game defined, and these definitely improve the game.
They fixed the arrows on the lane, so that they are drawn like a real bowling lane.
They also added a scaling effect so that the ball shrinks slightly as it moves down the alley, adding to the faux 3D effect. I guess you’d call this a 2D perspective game, rather than a 3D game?
Anyway, I had only the tiniest part in these improvements, but I DID suggest them and they DID implement them, and that makes me feel fantastic. It’s already a gift that these homebrew developers are giving the Atari community new games to play 45 years on after the 2600 was new. These tiny little changes are almost like a personalized gift to me. Thanks to easmith and kevinmos3 for their excellent work on this game.
This is the cover artwork for the Atari 2600 video game, Berzerk.
The illustration shows the human protagonist blasting a robot, caught in mid-explosion.
I could not recognize the robot’s anatomy, due to the way it’s clipped by the frame of the image, and the weird low angle and rear point of view.
To my eye, it looked like I was looking at the head of some insect-like robot, with its mandible coming apart, showering electronic sparks and fire, and the large round feature looking to me like huge compound bug eyes.
It’s actually the robot’s arm, and that thing that looks like a visor coming out over the nose between the two eyes is just some kind of weird mechanical shoulder joint.
I don’t know why they chose this particular image for the cover art, but I always regarded it as poorly chosen — visually confusing, and not very effective as a composition.
Maybe if they had framed the image a bit less close-up, so you could see the whole robot, and have more of an idea of what it was, it could have worked. Not having the robot’s head in frame, really messes with your perception of the image, and the ambiguous shoulder joint that looks enough like a head that it can confuse you into not seeing the image correctly, is a bad choice for the cover.
It’s still not as bad as the cover for Mega Man. Although, I actually like the cover art for Mega Man, and I think Mega Man had a better composition, albeit poorer rendering.
Kool-Aid Man was one of those games that was an attempt to cash in on the popularity of the Atari 2600. Released in 1983, the year of the Crash. As an 8 year old kid, the Crash didn’t mean much to me, other than that games got insanely cheap that year, as a glut of unwanted video games were liquidated by retailers for pennies on the dollar.
The Koo-Aid Man video game was initially a special offer only game. To get a copy, you had to send in proof-of-purchases for Kool-Aid, and wait several weeks for the cartridge to arrive by mail. I don’t remember how many points you had to send in, but we drank a ton of kool-aid in my house, and one day our copy arrived.
I found this scanned image of a print ad from some comic book on the web, and it says you could send in either 125 Kool-Aid Proof of Purchase points, or 30 points + $10. I think each packet of Kool Aid drink mix powder was worth a single point, and mixed like a gallon of Kool Aid. So it really was a TON of Kool Aid we had to drink to earn this game.
People will tell you this game sucked, but I liked it. The game was fun, if simple game. The premise of the game is that there’s this swimming pool full of water, that you, Kool-Aid Man, have to protect from these creatures called Thirsties. Thirsties are… well, they’re thirsty, and they want to drink up all the water in the swimming pool. If that happens, the swimming pool won’t be fun anymore, and everyone’s day will be ruined. But you’re Kool-Aid Man, your job is to quench people’s thirst. So you can save the day by quenching the Thirsties’ thirst, thereby saving the swimming pool for the swimmers. Now, if only someone could fix that huge hole in the wall…
The game consists in rounds lasting 60 seconds, and if you can clear all the Thirsties in the level before this time elapses, you’ll get bonus points for the remaining time, and then start a new level with higher difficulty provided by the Thirsties moving faster than before.
You spend most of your time dodging moving Thirsties. When a Thirsty drinks it stops to extend a long straw to the water in the pool. This is when it is vulnerable. Hitting Thirsties when they are drinking eliminates the Thirsty, and gives you some points. Colliding with a free-roaming Thirsty, or into one of the edges of the screen, will cause you to bounce out of control, giving the Thirsties time to drink more pool water.
You can buy yourself a few seconds of invincibility by grabbing ingredients of Kool-Aid: Water, Sugar, and Kool-Aid Mix. Grabbing these changes you into a bigger pitcher of Kool-Aid and makes you invulnerable while a tune plays, and also adds some water back to the pool. Mercifully, you can still knock out a drinking Thirsty if you careen into it while out of control, and if you luck into a power-up it renders you invulnerable, instantly returning control back to you. The fire button does nothing in this game, which is a rare thing.
If you play the game enough, you may notice that the Thirsties behavior is not random — the Thirsties always stop to drink at the same time, in the same order. By learning the pattern, you can gain an advantage over the game and get a better score, which makes the game somehow both more and less re-playable. More because learning the pattern could lead to developing strategies to get through the level while losing less of the water, less because if the game is always the same every time you play it, that can get boring. I only noticed this when I went back to re-play the game to write this review, when I was a kid it seemed like each new game was random, and I never caught on to the pattern.
Unlike most Atari 2600 games, Kool-Aid Man starts a new game immediately upon turning the console on. To give you a second or two to get ready, there’s a sweet intro screen, which features a full-screen animation of Kool-Aid Man crashing through a wall around a typical suburban backyard. The invincibility tune plays, and then the game starts without any delay.
It seemed to me that the game programmers were a little sloppy by making the game work like this. It always made me anxious to know that I had to start playing the game immediately upon turning on the console.
When the game ends, the screen background goes dark, and you lose control over Kool-Aid Man, and the score stops increasing. But the Thirsties continue to fly around, and every time they crash into Kool-Aid Man, he’s sent careening around, bonking off of the walls and other Thirsties, forever.
And while it was funny to watch the defeated Kool-Aid Man bouncing around forever, the noise from this going on non-stop was pretty annoying, and tended to make you want to turn the game off as soon as your game was over unless you were going to immediately start a new game.
Overall, the game was a good test of skill and reflexes, had tight controls, decent balance, and a tough challenge curve. On the other hand, it got old fast, because there was nothing new after the first screen, the game immediately presented everything it had to offer.
Playing the Atari 2600 as much as I did as a kid, I never thought that its graphical capabilities were amazing. I could see arcade games from 19879-82, and tell that the Atari 2600 wasn’t capable of the same graphics, even if I didn’t really know why. It just seemed to make sense that a bigger machine that probably cost a lot more and only did one thing would be capable of doing it better than a smaller, less expensive machine that didn’t take up as much space and could do seemingly anything.
Comparing arcade ports to the 2600, we knew to expect that the graphics wouldn’t be as good, but usually the gameplay was just as good, if not better. It seemed like the difficulty was tuned to be a little bit more fun, a little less punishing, on the home console. And that made sense, too. In the arcade, the business model was to suck quarters out of pockets as quickly as possible, and that meant high difficulty, while at home they wanted you to enjoy playing the game for extended periods, so that you would want to seek out more games to buy.
Some arcade ports were more disappointing than others, and that was usually due to ROM space limitations preventing full featured ports. It might be a missing level, or it might be some other compromise, something they had to leave out because they couldn’t fit everything in. Sometimes it was limitations imposed by the single-button joystick being unable to replicate all the control options on the arcade cabinet.
A game like Strike Zone Bowling, a work-in-progress homebrew game for the Atari 2600, would have blown our young minds back then. It’s still fantastic now. Look at these screen captures:
The developer of this game has brilliantly worked within the 2600’s limitations. If you know how the 2600 draws graphics, it’s easy to see that. The 2600 does not have a screen buffer, so it draws its graphics to the display in real-time. That is, while the electron beam of the television is traversing the screen to excite the phosphors of the cathode ray tube, the Atari 2600 is sending data out the video cable to generate the signal the TV turns into a picture, generating it just in time. Sprite objects, stored in the ROM data on the cartridge as 1-bit bitmaps, are drawn one horizontal row at a time, and between each row the programmer can do clever things like change the drawing color, change the scale, mirror the image, and draw duplicates. The hardware can only draw two sprites to the screen, but if the programmer wants, they can reposition those sprites during draw time, and change the bitmap data used to draw them, to create the effect of more than two sprites. The hardware also supports the ability to draw two additional “missile” objects and a “ball” — but with even more limitations. And finally, the hardware can support drawing background graphics, meaning a background color plus a playfield. The playfield graphics are lower-resolution than the sprites for Player 1 and Player 2. And that’s it.
These limitations make the Atari much better at drawing graphics that are composed of vertically stacked rows of horizontal data.
You’ve come a long way, baby
We had a commercially-released Bowling game for the 2600 — it was called Bowling. And it was, if you can believe it, good.
Fun to play, decently challenging, especially if you were trying to score above 200, the 1978 Bowling game was perfectly acceptable, and well within expectations for what a video game was at the time. And 45 years later, Strike Zone Bowling absolutely blows it away.
If you look at the screen of Bowling, we can see that the developer was working “against the grain” when it came to drawing the screen. The player, ball, and pin graphics are all in the same horizontal row, and this necessitates use of the available hardware sprites on each row. It seems that the playfield graphics aren’t used here, and that the sprites are used to draw the scores for each player, the on-screen bowler, and and the bowling ball, while the pins and gutters might be drawn using the “missile” or “ball” graphics — to know for sure, we’d need to decompile the ROM and read the assembly code.
The designer of Bowling made the decision that because bowling alley lanes are long and narrow, using the longer horizontal axis of the TV screen’s 4:3 display made the most sense.
This new Strike Zone Bowling takes a more sophisticated approach, and presents the game from the bowler’s POV, or rather from behind the back of the bowler, looking down the lane. Use of perspective and foreshortening enables the full length of the alley to be compressed visually to fit in the screen. By doing this, the programmer is able to use row-by-row color changes to give an enhanced illusion of depth, creating a 3D-like effect. This also has the benefit of having fewer objects to draw at each horizontal row, meaning that the hardware sprites, missiles, and balls, can all be used together to create composite images that are composed of more colors than would otherwise be possible.
The game is also a lot larger, 32KB of ROM as opposed to the 2KB of the 1978 Bowling. This additional space is used to create a more full experience of going to a bowling alley, renting shoes, celebrating strikes and spares, and chilling out after the game by the pool table or at an arcade game. This gives the game more narrative elements and almost a story as opposed to simply simulating the game of bowling, it aims to simulate the total experience of going to a bowling alley.
As amazing as this beta is, it could be even better. The bowler is always right-handed, but it seems like it could be fairly simple to add left-handed bowlers by mirroring the graphics and the controls. Graphically, the ball could scale slightly smaller as it moves further away from the bowler, to create a better simulation of 3D. The title screen music is a bit basic, and could be improved. That’s about it. There could be additional controls and simulation for ball weight and velocity, but I think it would take away from the simplicity of the game, and it doesn’t really need those things to feel complete and like a good challenge.
As is, the game is already a solid A-level effort.
40 years after the final game in the SwordQuest series was canceled, Atari is finally about to release the long-forgotten AirWorld chapter.
A teaser video showing gameplay shows that the game appears to be keeping with the style of the first three chapters, EarthWorld, FireWorld, and WaterWorld. Whether that’s good or not is debatable, but the gameplay does look like it’s a little better than the entries that preceded it, and I do have to give Digital Eclipse a lot of credit for keeping the style of the Atari 2600’s crude system limitations.
The Swordquest games were rather cryptic and not all that enjoyable to play, and not exactly worth the time to play them today, apart from as a historical curiosity, but were part of a massive contest held by Atari in the early 1980s, which helped them to attain a legendary status.
Apparently it goes on sale November 11th, as part of the Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration collection, on “all major platforms”. I take it to mean that there will not be a cartridge version of the game playable on the original Atari VCS hardware.
The company that calls itself Atari these days is releasing the fourth and final game in the SwordQuest series, as part of the brand’s 50th Anniversary Celebration. Atari was founded in 1972 by Nolan Bushnell, Al Alcorn, and Ted Dabny, making 2022 the 50th anniversary of the brand’s existence.
The SwordQuest series was an ambitious, ahead of its time, puzzle/quest game, intricately tied into a real-world contest to solve each game. The first three games in the series: EarthWorld, FireWorld, and WaterWorld were released, but the final game, AirWorld, was never developed and was canceled amid the 1983 video game crash.
Each game was packaged with a comic book which told the story and held hidden clues which the player would follow while playing the game to try to discover the secret. Players who solved the puzzle were entered into a contest where they could real jewel-encrusted gold prizes, worth $25,000 according to Atari: a scepter, a crown, and a cup. I think the plan for the fourth prize was a sword, but like the game you’d need to beat for a chance to win it, it was never made.
The games were very cryptic, and would have been suitable for older (teenage and up) gamers. As a 7 year old, I didn’t really understand what was going on in these games, but spent hours wandering around, trying to collect the objects from the rooms to figure out what they did, and what you were supposed to do in the game, but never really understood that the game required the comic books in order to solve the real puzzles and beat the game. You controlled a man who ran around a top-down “overworld” which consisted of mostly empty rooms with doorways to each of the cardinal directions. The only difference between the overworld rooms was their color, and sometimes items that were found there. Many of the rooms had a challenge that you had to overcome before you could enter. This challenge consisted of one of a selection of mini-games where you had to evade obstacles in order to pass from one side of the screen to the other. Typically if you fail the challenge, you get knocked back and have to start over, or you can give up and back out. EarthWorld, FireWorld, and WaterWorld had color schemes and graphical themes corresponding to their respective elements, as well as tie-ins with things like the Zodiac.
The mini-games were challenging enough, and were fun enough, when they weren’t infuriatingly unfair.
EarthWorld and FireWorld are very common, but WaterWorld is a rare cartridge. It was produced in limited numbers and I think it was only available by mail order or some kind of limited time special order offer. A friend had a copy, which I was fortunate to be able to play when I as a kid, and I never realized that it was so rare. As a result WaterWorld is an expensive collector’s item, although as a game it’s not really any better than the other two, which, apart from their contest allure to win real-world gold prizes, are not really great games by modern standards, barely worth replaying now.
Not much is known about AirWorld yet, but we can expect it will likely be similar in format as the first three, but perhaps more refined, than the other SwordQuest games. We do know that it will play on the 2600, and that it was not a re-discovered unreleased game, but was developed only recently. I’m actually curious to see what it’s like, and looking forward to playing it, just to be able to complete it. A re-issue of WaterWorld that I could buy at a reasonable price would be nice, but Atari’s re-releases of 2600 games have been priced at $100, which is about what a loose copy of WaterWorld is worth. There’s no word as yet on whether there will be a new contest with a big-ticket gold prize, but I’m not holding my breath.
When finally released, SwordQuest AirWorld will set a record for the longest time between initial announcement and release — about 40 years — beating Metroid: Dread (16 years) and Duke Nukem Forever (15 years) by over a decade. (Of the three Duke Nukem Forever was supposedly under continual development, and was never canceled, making it the longest continual game development project.)
The new titles hit the Atari Age store for pre-order yesterday, 12/31. Included in the release this year are two Champ Games arcade ports for the Atari 2600: LadyBug and the much-anticipated RobotWar: 2684.
The new store listings don’t have video clips as yet, and I think videos really help you to decide what to buy, but I’m aware that at least some of these games have had demo or beta romfiles available for a long time, and if you want to try them before you buy physical cartridges, you can seek them out.
Knight Guy in Low-Res World – Castle Days and Game of the Bear look like fun puzzle platformers in a similar style. I’ve played Game of the Bear, the platform action reminds me of Terry Cavanaugh’s Don’t Look Back, which I loved playing about 10 years ago. Cavanaugh’s game was made in Flash, which hasn’t been supported in current browsers since Adobe retired Flash in 2020. Wizard’s Dungeon looks like an action RPG in the vein of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons on the Intellivision.
I haven’t looked closely at the rest of the list, but the titles mentioned above looked the most interesting to me.
Unfortunately, prices are up this year. Atari Age games listed between $25-40 for many years, but this year they’re more like $45-60. This is unfortunate, but I don’t think it’s gouging — there have been chip shortages, and inflation has been high since the pandemic disrupted the world economy. As well, Atari Age has invested in producing new plastic shells for cartridges, rather than cannibalizing them from old games. New games for modern consoles tend to run around $60, and often less than that, so to pay that much for new homebrew releases on obsolete consoles is really something only for the most die-hard fans of classic gaming to afford.
Today, Atari launched a new website, AtariXP.com. And with it, pre-orders for newly manufactured Atari 2600 cartridges, with a promise of more to come.
It looks like Atari is looking to tap into the long, long tail of the original VCS system. So far, they are offering three titles: Aquaventure, Saboteur, and Yars’ Return, in standard ($49.95) and collectors ($149.95) editions.
The about page on the new website says that they intend to release games in the following categories:
Games that were completed but never received an official release, or were only released in very limited quantities.
Games for which physical media has become extremely rare, and therefore hard to find.
A wide variety of classic games that would benefit from small improvements to graphic rendering on modern devices and the smoothness and accuracy of controls. These games will be carefully ‘reconditioned’ and then re-released.
It will be interesting to see what these improvements might be for the “reconditioned” games. One wonders whether they might also plan to release unfinished prototypes, similarly finalized. We might then get to see a SwordQuest: Air World.
It will be interesting as well to see how well these sell. The homebrew scene has been pricing games at around $25-35 for cartridge and manual, and some more premium titles have been priced north of $40, but whether gamers are willing to go to $50 and beyond for new manufactured Atari cartridges is an open question. The pricing on the collector editions seems beyond what most enthusiasts are willing to pay, but I see this as actually a good thing, since it will keep the collectors variants rare enough to be actually worth collecting, and may be enough to keep speculators out of the market entirely.
Of course, if Atari is releasing new cartridges for the 40+ year old console, it would only be fitting for them to manufacture new consoles to play them on as well, and new joystick and paddle controllers as well. Given the age of the newest manufactured Atari 2600 consoles is now nearly 30 years old, it would be nice if enthusiasts for the old system had the option to buy new hardware that can play the old games.
Obviously, we’ve had a steady diet of Flashback systems for many years, but a console with a cartridge slot would be much better.
A re-specced Atari 2600 that outputs HDMI and has an SD card reader slot in addition to the old-school cartridge slot, and USB ports in addition to the DB9 controller ports would be really appealing. In fact, that’s almost exactly what I had hoped for when Atari first announced their plans for the AtariBox back in 2017.
Of course, with Atari’s track record over the past few years… decades, really, I can’t say I’m quite on board with this yet. It is, after all, a pre-order launch, and with a thin catalog of just 3 titles. Aquaventure has never been officially released before, but the prototype ROM has been available through emulator for many years. Yars’ Return was featured on one of AtGames’ Flashback consoles years ago. And Saboteur was renown Atari designer-programmer Howard Scott Warshaw’s final Atari game, never officially released. These titles definitely have appeal to fans of the classic system, and assuming that Atari can deliver on pre-orders, and follow up with additional releases with equal or greater appeal, this could bode well for Atari fans. While Atari still isn’t actually offering anything new that hasn’t been seen before, being packaged on actual cartridges as an official release is at least something. The “reconditioned” games might be really interesting.
There have been numerous embarrassing errors with Atari’s announcement.
Images on the AtariXP website were mixed up, creating confusion as to what was included in the standard cartridge package vs. the collector’s edition.
Originally, the AtariXP website had attributed all three of the games announced to Howard Scott Warshaw. Warshaw clarified yesterday that the only game he had anything to do with of these three is Saboteur. Saboteur was his fourth and final project when he worked for Atari, and was never officially released. It was also re-skinned to be an A-Team licensed tie-in to the hit 80’s TV show.
Washaw did not work on Aquaventure in any capacity, and while he did create Yars’ Revenge, he had nothing to do with Yars’ Return, which is a romhack of Yars’ Revenge, created by Curt Vendel, and was first released commercially on the Atari Flashback 2 console, way back in 2005.
Warshaw also mentioned that he is currently working on his own sequel to Yars’ Revenge, and it’s unclear whether he has the legal rights to the IP to entitle him to do so, or if not, how he intends to work with the rights holder to do it. Normally, in the homebrew scene creators are often flying under the radar, technically in violation of IP rights to trademarks and copyrights, but often the rights holders ignore these projects, or tolerate them. In some cases, though, there have been takedowns — Nintendo being particularly vigilant about protecting its IP.
In this case, Warshaw has a strong connection to the IP in question, as he was the original creator of Yars’ Revenge, but the IP remains owned by Atari. Presumably, Atari would relish an opportunity to publish a legitimate sequel by the originator of the property, but whether there is any agreement or intention to work together on this project is unclear.