Category: Atari

Atari Age announces final sale of homebrew arcade ports

Copyright, Trademark, abandoned properties, lawyers.

Who knows what the details are? Not me, that’s for sure.

Games that were popular in the arcades in the early 1980s were often ported to home consoles of the day, but often did not receive the best treatment at the time.

For many reasons.

Primarily hardware limitations. Home systems of the day could not be as powerful as more expensive, dedicated hardware developed to play a specific arcade game.

But also budget and time constraints. Games were a business and development costs were constrained by expected returns. It would have made no sense to spend more money making a game than it could have been expected to bring in. Games were made to deadline, and often had to cut corners to meet them.

If they were too late to market, their popularity in the arcade could have waned, resulting in poor sales, missed opportunities.

Partly, to avoid cannibalizing arcade revenue (the logic being if the home game was just as good as the arcade, players would buy the home game and stop going to arcades.

The homebrew scene which has kept old systems alive long past the date at which official support ended has no such constraints. Game development is a passion project, a hobby, and an art before it is a business. Developers take as long as they need to perfect a game, and no reason to fear undercutting arcade revenue.

And system limitations can be overcome with additional hardware inside the cartridge, and advanced programming techniques that have been discovered in the decades since the system first became available.

So homebrew ports of arcade games did something that couldn’t be done commercially, often for games that had been abandoned by their intellectual property owners.

The success of this long tail aftermarket scene has rekindled interest in classic gaming, though, and nostalgic re-boots of old brands have brought about a change in the market. These games, once small enough to fly under the radar and escape the notice of rights holders legal departments, have become legally risky ventures.

I can only presume, but this seems to be the reason why Atari Age has announced that they are going to remove many titles from their store. The last chance sale on remaining inventory will end on July 23, after which these games will no longer be available through Atari Age, likely forever.

Atari Age proprietor Albert Yarusso has stated that he will be focusing on publishing original games and games for which licensing can be procured. “It’s possible some of these can come back, but it will take some time to do the legwork. I wholeheartedly encourage developers to create new games that aren’t encumbered, or to ask me in advance regarding projects that might be derived from others’ work.”

This would seemingly put an end to my hopes for a cartridge release of the beyond amazing Pac-Man 8k project, which I’ve been watching for about a decade, and was apparently very nearly ready to publish. Beyond that, there were many other work-in-progress projects that looked amazing but will probably now only be developed as ROM files, with no cartridge release, if development continues with them at all: Xevious, 1942, Lunar Lander, Elevator Action, and others.

This is a very sad thing indeed. But lawyers gonna lawyer. Copyrights don’t expire fast enough, and Trademarks can be lost if not enforced, and that’s what happens. Hobbywork homages be damned.

I love to see the original works that homebrew developers make, maybe even more than revivals of old arcade games that never got a proper treatment on the home systems. But seeing a modern homebrew remake compared to an official release of an original game from 40 years ago, being able to see how much progress had been made in the art of programming in those intervening years, was always such a treat, and a true thrill.

Mr. Run and Jump Special Edition teasers: why so much flicker?

Mr. Run and Jump is an upcoming game by the company calling itself “Atari” these days.

As I’ve mentioned previously, it will be a modern game released on Steam, Nintendo Switch, XBox, and PlayStation. And also there will be an Atari 2600 cartridge release of a Mr. Run and Jump Special Edition, which will run on native hardware, and I presume there will be a ROM for use with emulators, whether official or not. If we ignore the homebrew scene, which has been cranking out small batches of physical cartridges for years, and Audacity Games’ Circus Convoy, released in 2021, this will be the first “official” commercial release of an Atari 2600 game since 1990, a span of 33 years.

I’m interested in both editions, but clearly the modern version will be better, with the Atari 2600 special edition version being something of a “de-make”.

The pre-order page has a short video loop showing the Atari 2600 game in action, which I’ve embedded below because I wish to make fair use comment on it for purposes of criticism and review.

Namely, I have to ask about the insane amount of flicker in this video. The number of objects on the screen looks to me well within the 2600’s capability to display without flicker.

The 2600 had two hardware sprites, Player 1 and Player 2, a Ball sprite, and two Missile sprites, as well as background graphics. These screens show, at most, 3-4 objects, and they flicker a ton, even when they’re not drawn on the same horizontal row. Typically, sprites would need to flicker when one of the hardware sprite resources needed to be drawn in two locations on the same row, and would therefore have to alternate, drawing in each position every other frame.

The 2600 was a notoriously difficult to program machine due to its architecture and very tiny hardware limits, but I would have thought that for the graphics shown in the video, flicker-free rendering should have been possible. Or am I wrong? It doesn’t look to me like there’s a reason to want these objects to deliberately blink, so I don’t think it’s a deliberate choice on the part of the programmer.

Certainly, other games have been made for the 2600 which draw more objects on the screen without this much flicker. Even back in the original day, games like Space Invaders and Berzerk drew many sprites on the screen without such drastic flicker. And more recently games packed with additional hardware in the cartridge from publishers like Champ Games have shown that the limits of the stock 2600 hardware can be circumvented with some clever engineering and programming.

It makes me wonder whether the “Atari” people really know what they’re doing when it comes to finding people who are capable of getting the most out of the 2600. Based on what we see in the demo video, it doesn’t look like they’re on the same level of the best contemporary “homebrew” developers. So will the game really be worth the $60 pre-order? Or is much of that “value” to be perceived as the nostalgia and novelty for a physical media game for a 46 year old console? Time will tell.

The modern version of the game does look really nice, with the neon vector graphics style that Atari’s recent “recharged” games have been known for, and gameplay that reminds me of indie darling Super Meat Boy from 2010.

Atari’s Mr. Run and Jump looks like a step in the right direction

One of the frequent criticisms I’ve offered of the company calling itself Atari these days is that they should have focused on developing new games rather than trying to launch a console. I’ve always wished them success, but have been skeptical about their strategy, and their execution on the AtariBox project left a lot to be desired.

That said, I am fair-minded, and will say when Atari does something right.

And it looks like they may have something, with their newest game, Mr. Run and Jump.

It’s a super mario style platformer, done in Atari’s “reloaded” style neon colored wireframe vector graphics. At first glance it does admittedly look a bit derivative of Mario, and a Mario clone isn’t likely to win over a lot of gamers. On the other hand Nintendo’s formula with Mario platformers has been tried and true for going on 40 years now, and Atari has been floundering for most of the past 40 years, so imitating Nintendo is hardly the worst approach they could arguably take with their game design.

The thing with Mario games is that while they’re always quality, they do rely on a bunch of traditions and conventions that are pretty established, and deviating from them can be problematic. So to truly break free of these conventions, it is a good idea to start over with new worldbuilding and introduce new characters, so that the “rules” are not in conflict with previously established “canon” that will offend purists, or just not be what people were expecting, and thus be rejected when there’s actually nothing wrong with taking a new approach. So maybe Atari can do something interesting and innovative with platformers with a new property like Mr. Run and Jump.

Does Mr. Run and Jump accomplish that? That remains to be seen. It’s difficult to do better at a run and jump platforming game than Nintendo has already done. On the other hand, if you’re going to imitate something, you might as well try to imitate the best there is.

Bottom line: it looks cool, and I’d give it a try.

Xanthiom: an Atari 2600 demake, homage to Metroid

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.


Strike Zone Bowling 2nd beta

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.

Corrected lane arrows for a more authentic experience.

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?

The visually shrinking ball really adds to the feeling of depth.

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.

Berzerk: Bad Box Cover Art

This is the cover artwork for the Atari 2600 video game, Berzerk.

When I was a kid, I never understood this image.

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.

Remembering Kool-Aid Man (Atari 2600)

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.

125 points? That doesn’t seem like all that much.

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 people saying this game sucks might have been speaking literally.

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.

Check out that cinematic cutscene! Oh yeah!

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.

Even in death, the power-ups make you invincible.

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.

Strike Zone Bowling homebrew for Atari 2600 beta is amazing

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:

I love this shifty-eyed shoe rental guy. With the mustache and red hat, he kindof reminds me of someone…
The main action happens on this screen, which gives a convincingly realistic representation of a real bowling alley.
Celebration screen animations for strikes and spares take the game to a new level.
You can even select your bowler’s gender.
After the game, depending on your score, you can hang out by the restrooms, the snack bar, pool hall, or video arcade.
When you get “in the zone” it becomes easier to hit strikes and get a higher score.
Anybody got a quarter?

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.

Atari teases SwordQuest: AirWorld ahead of 50th Anniversary Collection release.

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.