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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 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

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

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

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

Super Greedy Ghost Grab

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

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

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

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

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

AtariBox hype, speculation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AtariBox, RetroN 77 teasers 

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

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

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

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

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

SMW persistent jailbreak hack the best of all time?

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

LD38 results for TARJECTORIES

I think this may have been my best showing to date. I’ve ranked higher in individual categories before (Bad Puppy: #70 in Humor, Alamogordo: #71 in Humor) but I think this is the best that I’ve ranked in Overall and in Fun, which are perhaps the two most important categories. I’m very happy with how the game was received by the LDJam community this time around.

Thanks to everyone who played TARJECTORIES!

ld38 results

 

Great Plays from Ludum Dare 38

Planet Desumaton – siegfriedcroes

Planet Desumation

The gif speaks for itself… Control a small small planet, picking up Asteroids into orbit, and smash them into a large “boss” planet.

Path of the Rabbit – Managore

Path of the Rabbit

A turn based tile strategy game similar to Pipe Dreams. Managore’s games are always top notch, and this is no exception.

Sticky Keys – thevaber

Sticky Keys

A really well polished typing game, with a twist. The keys keep popping off, due to some nasty creepy crawly insects that have infested the keyboard. You have to interrupt yourself and pop the key caps back on in order to keep typing.

Monolith – samlo and david-carney

A rail shooter bullet hell game where you have to lock on to your target by holding still, leaving you vulnerable to enemy fire. It’s high speed and frenetic. The art style is b/w, with what looks to be a procedurally generated fractal landscape, and a monolith that looms over the horizon, and seems to never get any closer.

TARJECTORIES – csanyk

Tarjectories by csanyk for LD48-38: A Small World

Yes that’s right! My own game, this time I think is good enough to qualify as a recommended play. It’s a casual target shooting game played on tiny planetoids that rotate, with procedurally generated levels for added replayability. Patience and accuracy are the keys to doing well. Learn to estimate the gravity and rotation speed of the planet so you can aim your shots correctly. I plan to develop this one a bit further, so stay tuned.

Antivirus – kappaixAntivirus

A nicely designed 2D top down shooter, reminiscent of classics like Gauntlet, 2D Wolfenstein, Berzerk, and Frenzy. When you die you get a fake BSOD game over screen, which adds to the fun. Battle through an area and the size scale changes, making for an interesting and novel transition mechanic.

Plutus – jason-varnell, nathan-hicks, and Apostate Games

Plutus

Hilariously written backstory makes this charming katamari-like feel special. Control the jealous planet (let’s not quibble) Pluto on a quest for revenge and ever greater mass.

Space Mailman – kepons

Space Mailman

Gorgeous but bare-bones wireframe graphics and hard core difficulty make this game tough to play. Deliver mail between planets to make money.

Flight of Claude – lyxil and colm-eccles

Flight of Claude

A beautiful, touching visual story about a baby bird and his nest mates.

Aphosis – urban-logic-games

Aphosis

Divert a doomsday rock on a collision course with Earth by attaching thrusters to stabilize its spin, then attaching a main thruster to push it away. Beautiful graphics, a fantastic musical backing, and extremely challenging game play make this one to try.

That Tiny Pea – thendash

That Tiny Pea

A fairly realistic update of the classic Lunar Lander. Land safely and you are rewarded by being able to step outside and take in the view. It’s hard!

The Life Amoebic – baby-dino-herd

The Life Amoebic

A convincing simulation of an amoeba. Control your amoeba by extending pseudopods with the mouse, and try to grab food to survive, grow, and divide. It’s pretty challenging.

Vixa – spav

Vixa

Spin the world around to dump balls into the green-lit sections and away from the red-lit sections. Green multiplies your balls, red destroys them. Lose all your balls and you’re done. Great graphics and sound, and solid game play make this one a trip to play.

Tiny World Defense – ianmorrison

Tiny World Defense

Fly your spaceship over the surface of the planet, defending it from enemies who want to shrink the planet into nothingness. There were a number of other entries in LD38 with a similar look and feel, a 3D orb-based shooter, where your shots skim over the surface of the planet. Almost like it were a newly-invented genre or something. But out of them all I think this one is probably my favorite of them.

Super Kaiju Dunk City – radmars, emarcotte, steakzzz, ninjavitis

Super Kaiju Dunk City

This is an amazing entry in the Jam category. Super polished, it’s a cross between an infinite runner and a rhythm game, where you control a basketball-dribbling Godzilla-like Kaiju creature, as you relentlessly smash through level after level of targets. I had a blast playing this, and would love to see it as a full-fledged title. There’s not much more to ask for, except maybe an epic boss battle against another Kaiju or super robot, and some kind of breath attack.


That’s all for now… I still have a lot more games left to play. As I find more “great plays” I’ll be adding them here. If you have played something that you think deserves a larger audience, post a comment below.

Until next time!

csanyk.com © 2016
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