After publishing part 2 of this series, I played my grid map romhack a few times, and I think it’s rather good. I don’t know that I would say that I prefer it over the original map, but this is certainly a viable alternative map.
After a few playthroughs, I notice a few things:
The helicopter moves bridge pieces away from the Bridge screen much more frequently. In the original, once you’ve placed a piece at the Bridge screen, the helicopter would only rarely remove it.
The helicopter seems to move pieces from their starting screen much sooner, as well.
I like both of these differences; they make the game more challenging, and I think, more fun. You really feel like you need to race the helicopter to complete the bridge task. But I think it’s worth experimenting with the map to see if there’s a way to restore the original design intent, by reducing the number of paths into the Bridge screen. It occurs to me that an easy way to do this is to make the two screens above and below the Bridge screen connect to each other, rather than to the Bridge screen. So the Bridge will exit vertically to those screens, but reversing course will skip over the Bridge, but still place you near the Bridge; players would need to figure out that they are “around the corner” from the Bridge in this map, which is potentially disorienting, but should be less of a problem than the original map, which puts you clear across into the middle of the other end of the city.
I do think that this map has a few peculiarities that make it sub-optimal.
Some of the subway entrances are right next to their exits. There’s little point in a subway trip that results in you re-emerging on the overworld map one screen over from where you started. For example, the Red subway entrance is one screen away from two of its exits, due to being on the top left corner of the grid, and the wrapping effect. The Blue and Yellow subway entrances are about optimally located relative to their exit screens, and the Green subway entrance is directly above one of its exit screens.
It’s possible to remedy this by moving the subway entrances around, or by changing their exits to more useful screens for this map layout. I was reluctant to try this, because I wanted to keep the changes that I am making to the maps minimal, but it seems that these changes are necessary for the good of the game.
Another thing that strikes me is that I didn’t need to remove one screen from the overworld in order to have even rows. 21 = 3 x 7, so I could have made an overworld map of 3 rows of 7 screens. This might make the subways more useful, since it would make it easier to place the subway exits such that they are 3-4 screens from their entrances.
A 7×3 grid will allow all 21 overworld screens to be included in the new map. Again, I went to an image editor and re-arranged the screens to make a layout, then visually reviewed and analyzed the map for playabiltiy concerns, and made tweaks.
My first iteration of this was to lay the screens out in the original map’s horizontal sequence, and see how that would play. That map looks like this:
Without actually playing it, it’s easy to miss things, but I can see that this map has a few potential issues:
The bridge pieces starting screens are all on the west end of the map, and are nearby the Bridge screen.
The Phonebooth, Bridge, and Jail are all on the bottom row, which makes the bottom row feel too important, and the top row feel unimportant.
The “critical path” relationships in the original map are broken in this map. This may not be a problem per se, but it will make the new map feel less familiar to experienced players.
Otherwise, I think the map looks pretty decent. I’m not sure how I feel about the potential issues I mention above.
I do think that the Bridge should be the center piece of the map, so I shifted rows and columns in order to make it so, but the rooms are still in the original order, using the horizontal progression from the original map.
It’s interesting how shifting things around can change perspectives on things. With this view, I’m able to notice different things:
Now all the “important” screens (Jail, Bridge, Phonebooth, Daily Planet, and all but one of the bridge pieces) are on the west end of town.
But balancing that, all the subway entrances are on the East end of town.
Subway exits are somewhat evenly distributed, but there’s a few interesting things to point out: The Red subway exits all line up in a column at the far west edge of the map, while the Yellow subway exits are all distributed across the top row. The Green subway exits follow a diagonal from the northwest corner of the map, moving southeast. And the Blue subway exits are scattered about as far from each other as they could be.
Shifting the screens changes the loopback point at the top right, and as a result the screen that normally is to the left of the Phonebooth screen no longer is. Which, despite what I thought when I first decided to shift the screens to put the bridge in the center of the map, does fundamentally change the map. Then I realize… I did it wrong!
I can’t just grab the top row and move it to the bottom, and then slice the right couple of columns and move it to the left. That will not preserve the horizontal order of the screens. To do that, I need to grab the top-right screen, move it to the bottom left, and then let all the other screens shift right by one, snaking around. This approach gives this result:
Overall, it’s actually very similar to the first two iterations. It’s literally the same horizontal sequence as the first iteration, but it’s not all that different from the second iteration, either; the “important” screens are still mostly to the west, the subway entrances are still mostly to the east. I think the subway exits are a bit better distributed than in iteration 2.
The vertical path is quite different. I think this map will run slower, due to the placement of the Jail in the corner of the map, and its distance from most of the subway entrances, and the Phonebooth/Bridge screens. There might yet be some quick paths that will become apparent through repeated play, but for now I feel that the map feels disorienting because the Jail isn’t north of the Yellow subway entrance screen any longer, and I struggle to locate it as a result.
Certainly there are many other possible arrangements for the overworld map, and I haven’t even begun to re-design the subway. But I think this is enough to satisfy my curiosity, at least for the time being. I may come back and revisit this further if I feel a need to after playing the maps I already created more extensively.
There’s much more to do in a hack of Superman, as well. I would like to figure out how to randomize the starting places of the bridge pieces, for example. I would also be interested in figuring out how to put up a hard barrier around the outer edge of the map, rather than having the map wrap around at the edges. But these projects, if I ever attempt them, will have to wait until I have a deeper understanding of 6502 assembly.
For the second alternative map, I needed to carefully re-organize the screens to put them into a grid.
There are 21 overworld screens, and so I will use a 5×4 grid, omitting one of the overworld screens, since there can be only 20 screens in a 5×4 grid.
Selecting the right screen to omit is important. The removed screen must not be:
A subway entrance
A subway exit
The phonebooth, bridge, or jail screen
A bridge piece start screen
One of my goals with this redesign is to keep the layout of the screens reasonably familiar to players of the original game. This is a formidable task, and technically impossible since I am changing the layout, but my goal is to make the changes minimal, and to preserve as much of the critical paths through the map as possible.
But just as important, I want the redesigned map to be balanced and fun to play.
To achieve this, I want the subway entrances and exits to be distributed about the map, and not clustered together too much.
There are 11 unique subway exits, and 5 subway entrances (counting the Daily Planet), so 16 of these screens have something to do with the subway system, and another three are the Jail, the Daily Planet, the Phonebooth, and the Bridge screen. (Both the Daily Planet and the Jail are also subway exit screens, so are already counted among the 16 overworld screens that are related to the subway system, but adding the Phonebooth and Bridge brings the total of “must keep” screens to 18, leaving just 3 redundant screens for possible removal.) I didn’t realize how tight the map design is until I noticed this.
After considering the matter for a bit, I decided that this screen would be the one to go:
But I just as well I could have picked this one:
Or this one:
I note that the three “dispensable” screens all have a similar color scheme to them, green and white, and wonder if there’s something being communicated through a visual language here, or if it’s just a coincidence… there are two other green/light grey screens, the Yellow Subway entrance, and the screen above the Jail, which is one of the bridge piece starting rooms. So… probably just a coincidence, then.
At the edges of the overworld grid, the map will wrap around to the next row or column. As an experiment, I think I’ll also create a variation where the map will wrap around to the same row or column, but I think this variation will only be playable on Easy difficulty — because, when Superman is struck by kryptonite, he will be stuck in the current row of the overworld map, and if Lois Lane isn’t present on that row, he’ll be unable to get revived until she wanders in, or the helicopter brings her, which could take ages, and would be unfair.
I take a picture of the overworld, cut out each room, and put it into an image editor and move them around until I have them arranged in a 4×5 grid that I think will be satisfactory. I end up needing to move things around a good bit to achieve this, but I think I managed to do it while still preserving some of the critical relationships between certain rooms.
Here’s what I ended up with:
Here’s the original map for comparison:
So you can see, there’s a bit of re-shuffling that I had to do in order to balance the map out, and many of the vertical and horizontal connections are different in the new map.
The major changes are:
The one-way vertical boundaries for the Phone Booth and Bridge screens are two-way.
One screen is removed from the overworld, to allow for an even grid.
The Phonebooth and Bridge screens are in the center of the map. (Although, since the edges of the map still wrap, center/edge is all relative.)
The important non-changes are:
The subway system exits are all to the same screens as before. (But, due to the shuffling of these screens relative to one another on the overworld, this does still mean there’s some significant differences. The key exits to get to the Daily Planet and Jail screens are the same as in the original, though. And several of the subway exits now get you close to the Bridge screen.)
The bridge pieces are still found on the same screens as they were in the original. I didn’t try to re-locate them. (Sometime, I’d like to introduce randomization into their starting positions, and see how that plays.)
Now that I had the design determined, I had to hack the rom to make the changes for real. To do this, I went through the original code and noted the names of each screen, and figured out from the boundary change code the correct addresses for each room, and mapped them together. This was straightforward, if a bit tedious, but fortunately the map is small.
One thing I noticed as I coded the new map connections was that there’s a peculiarity at the top-right and bottom-left corners of the map, due to the way the rows and columns wrap; if you’re in the top-right screen, going up or right will both take you to the bottom-left screen; and if you’re in the bottom-left screen, going down or left will take you to the top-right screen. This doesn’t make sense, unless you understand the way the overworld wraps. If you get to the end of a row or column, continuing in that direction wraps you around to the next row or column, and at the very end of all the rows and columns, it wraps you around to the opposite corner, and so the top-right and bottom-left screens are connected to each other in two directions.
I have only played through this map once, and mostly just to test that everything was connected properly. I think it’s a viable, and interesting variation, but I wouldn’t call it better than the original. Certainly, due to the re-positioning of the screens, the quick path to the bridge pieces isn’t as short as in the original map, which means speed running potential for this map is reduced. Beyond that, the Phonebooth and Bridge screens are not low-traffic screens any more, meaning that you’ll often find gangsters on these screens, and the helicopter may find bridge pieces that you’ve left at the Bridge site more readily, which will again make it more challenging as the helicopter removes them again.
You can download the entire collection of romhacks here:
So for the first alternative map, I will just make the Up screen the same as the Right screen, and the Down screen the same as the Left screen. This means that there will only be the Horizontal progression through the map, and that Up/Right will be “forward” and Down/Left will be “backward” through this progression.
I playtested this, and found that it works exactly as intended. The map is far simpler to navigate, and getting lost is now virtually impossible. Fly up/right to go forward, down/left to go backward, and all overworld screens appear in order. The confusing one-way vertical borders on the Phonebooth and Bridge screens are eliminated.
The downside of this is that traversing the overworld map is slower, since there are no shortcuts to be gained by using cornering techniques. You still can rapidly advance two screens in the horizontal map sequence by going diagonal from near the corner, transitioning on both the vertical and horizontal edge transitions. But compared to the original, where a vertical transition would typically advance you between three and five screens in the horizontal sequence, it’s much slower, and offers no real opportunities for useful shortcuts.
The only real shortcuts possible are via the subway system, which I left unmodified. Despite playing this game over nearly four decades, I’ve never bothered to memorize the subway in its entirety — there’s little reason to. The only exits of real importance are the ones that go to the Jail and Daily Planet. But with this map, knowing the rest of the exits is potentially more valuable, because it can get you to the other side of the overworld in less time than any other method. It may be interesting to study the exits and try to figure out alternate layouts that might make the map more interesting by providing additional useful shortcuts.
I can reliably win Superman typically in 1:30, +/- 15 seconds, but this variant took me 3:04 to win on my first play. I’m sure faster times are possible. The gangsters seemed to be bunched up more, and rounding them up preoccupied me at first, leading to the helicopter moving bridge pieces away, which I think happened earlier than normal. But because the map is essentially a two-dimensional line, finding the helicopter was trivial, making any challenge increase by the bridge pieces moving around quite minimal.
My impression is that this alternative map might have made the game more playable for very young players, ages 3-5, and as an “easy” version for beginning players, much like Superman‘s sibling Adventure offered players Game 1 with a simplified map. But overall, the simpler map makes the game less interesting and less challenging to play. But if you’re interested in the game’s design, playing this variant to see why it’s less interesting is… well, an interesting exercise. I invite you to download it and play it for yourself and make up your own mind. If you do, please drop a comment and let me know what you think.
My next Superman romhack will present the overworld map as a grid.
Open World is an art exhibit of contemporary art influenced by video games. The Open World Arcade is a one-day event, to be held on December 7th, 2019, from 11 AM – 5 PM. Games presented in the arcade are judged by a panel of museum staff and video game professionals based on novelty, professional polish, aesthetics, quality of game experience and “wow factor.”
My game Ancient Technologies was an homage to the “ancient” technology of videogaming’s past, and re-creates the experience of setting up an Atari 2600 video game system. If you “win” the challenge of setting up the system correctly, your reward is that you get to play a somewhat faithful re-creation of the game Asteroids.
I created the Ancient Technologies in about 25 hours using GameMaker Studio, Stella, and Audacity. The Asteroids game that you play inside of Ancient Technologies is a simulation, not emulated. I used graphic and audio samples generated by Stella to create the simulation. I also sampled pixel art renderings of the Atari 2600 six-switch console and joystick created by pixel artists, and a partner provided the TV image, while I created the background of the living room. The simulation is a reasonably faithful re-creation of Asteroids’ gameplay, and feels pretty authentic in many respects, although it is not completely accurate. Most notably, it is missing the UFO and Satellite enemies, which I ran out of time to implement in the game.
I have seen some of Champ’s other Atari 2600 homebrew projects, and they’re very impressive. They did a version of Scramble which is virtually indistinguisable from the arcade, which is an incredibly impressive accomplishment on hardware as limited as the Atari 2600.
Galaga is a classic arcade game, one of the most successful of its era, and can still be found in bars and arcades all over. It was one of my favorite arcade games as a kid, and I’ll still drop a quarter in one when I find one and have some time to kill.
I owned the Atari 7800 port of Galaga, and was glad I could play a version of it at home, even if it wasn’t quite exactly the same experience as playing the arcade version. What Champ has come up with, from what I can see in their video, it appears it feels closer to the arcade than the 7800 port, although the graphics are slightly inferior to the 7800 version.
Here’s a preview video showing the game in action and talking about some of the technical details:
As a Galaga fan, I really want a copy. As a game developer, I’m impressed with the effort and execution it takes to get a game looking and playing this good on such limited hardware. It simply shouldn’t be possible on an Atari VCS, which only has 5 hardware sprites plus backgrounds, and nowhere near enough CPU or memory to handle all the complex movement that is required to accurately re-create a Galaga experience.
How do they do it? Well, I asked them. And they were nice enough to answer: they build a cartridge with an ARM CPU in it, and it augments the Atari’s built-in hardware, and this is how they’re able to create games that are vastly superior to what should normally be possible with the 2600 console alone.
My response to this was disappointment, and I said as much. But I think it came off the wrong way and more than one person jumped on me for saying something negative about what is otherwise an exciting project for fans of the Atari and of Galaga. No one was particularly brutal toward me, but the creators behind the project were a bit nicer than their fans, and engaged with me and we had an interesting conversation on the philosophy of homebrew, and how their technology works. I want to thank them for that, and for creating such great games for the Atari 2600 in 2019, and keeping the system alive more than 40 years after it launched. I have a copy of Scramble and am really looking forward to playing Galaga and Zookeeper (another favorite classic arcade game) when they’re ready.
So, first things first, from a gamer’s standpoint, the only thing that truly matters is the game experience itself. It doesn’t matter what technology is inside of it, or how amazing, complicated, or messy the engineering is. The only thing that matters is the experience you have when you play the game. If it’s fun, if it’s polished, it’s a good game. End of story. And that’s exactly why I’m excited about buying a copy of this when it’s ready for release.
Now, as to my disappointment. At first I thought I was seeing something impossible, and I was really keen to hear how they had managed it. The solution of adding an ARM to the system architecture of the VCS is fine, nothing wrong with it. But it’s not amazing. My disappointment was from the vantage point of the programmer, who was mind-boggled at how this team had managed to get so much performance out of a 6507 CPU backed by 128 bytes of RAM. Well, they didn’t. They bolted on a 70 MHz ARM CPU, and got it to talk to the rest of the system, and while that also requires some neat engineering, it’s not magical in the way that somehow figuring out how to get 3x Zilog Z80’s worth of performance (which is what powered the original arcade Galaga machines) out of a MOS 6507.
That’s really all I meant by what I said. I don’t consider it “cheating” to augment the console hardware by packing in additional chips on the ROM cartridge circuit board. This was done back in the day, and was very necessary in order to extend the life of the Atari. All cartridge-based consoles that had a market life of more than a few years needed to use such tricks in order to keep their hardware competitive and relevant as computer technology doubled in speed every year.
The only real difference is that these augmentations were done using chips that were comparable (or at least within 1 generation) of the capability of the original hardware. They truly did augment the system. Whereas, with a 32-bit ARM CPU, you really could build a system around that chip alone, and do more than you could by interfacing it to a 40-year old Atari system architecture that forces it to slow down and work within the constraints of its design. I mean, with a 70MHz 32-bit ARM CPU, it should be possible to do an arcade-perfect emulation of the original arcade hardware, or if not then to certainly come much closer to that than what you can get by running the I/O and video drawing through an Atari VCS. So, rather than the ARM augmenting the Atari, the Atari is kindof bringing down the ARM. This doesn’t matter if you’re nostalgic for the Atari and like the feel of a CX40 joystick in your hands and the crude graphical style just barely possible with the 6507-driven TIA. If you don’t know or don’t care about the engineering, it just looks and feels like the best damn Galaga port you could imagine, running on an Atari 2600, and actually quite a bit better looking than anything you would have thought possible if you did know the system’s capabilities.
But really, it’s almost all due to the ARM chip’s capabilities, which are many times the power of the rest of the system.
I suppose one could take an Atari 2600 controller, put a wifi chip in it, and have it interface with Google’s Stadia console-in-the-cloud, and run Assassin’s Creed, downsampled and graphically degraded, through the Atari, as well. And… actually hell yes, that would be cool as fuck. I want to buy that too. But it’s a different kind of cool to hook an Atari up to a cloud supercomputer platform than it would be to somehow squeeze Assassin’s Creed into 4 KB of ROM, if that were even possible.
If he had somehow teleported the Statue of Liberty, and then brought it back, or if he had somehow made the Statue of Liberty disappear, how awesome would that have been? Whether by real “magic” or by some super-advanced technology that no one else had yet heard of, that would have been beyond amazing. It would have changed the world we lived in, in untold ways. But it didn’t. He just set up some elaborate rotating stage, hid everything behind curtains for over an hour while everything was being moved into position.
Eight year old me was captivated by the idea of a giant statue disappearing and reappearing, whether through magical or advanced technological means. A couple years later, though, I was old enough to realize it wasn’t “real” magic, and that it was some kind of “cheap” trick (well, relative to the cost of really doing it, anyway), and wasn’t as impressive as I had thought, and as a kid you really hate being lied to, you hate being fooled. It makes you feel embarrassed and dumb, and you want to hide the fact that you ever thought it was cool.
So for a long time after that, I kindof had this grudge against David Copperfield, and stage magic, and whenever I’d see someone pulling off some sleight of hand or optical illusion trick, I’d get annoyed and impatiently insist that magic is bullshit, and refuse to be impressed by it, because I wasn’t some fool. For maybe a year or two, I had believed that we were on the cusp of a Star Trek-promised future, with instant teleportation, or at least invisibility shields. That would have been so cool. But no, we didn’t get that.
Well, now that I’m 43, I’m back to being impressed at how convincing an optical illusion David Copperfield could create with just some lights, scaffolding, cranes, and a rotating stage that moved slowly and gently enough that an entire audience didn’t notice they were moving. Even if the entire trick required the cameras filming it to be positioned just right. That still took some serious engineering effort, and even for as limited as the result was as compared to true invisibility or teleportation, when you realize all the work and planning that had to go into it, that’s still pretty damn impressive — just in a different direction completely than I had been (mis)lead in the first place.
So this is what I meant by “disappointed” when I found out that Champ Games puts an ARM CPU in a cartridge and through some impressive engineering hacks gets it to talk in sync with the console and run a game that blows most other Atari 2600 cartridges away. Sure, the game is impressive and it’s certainly going to be fun to play. On the other hand, a ARM CPU is in a different “weight class” from a typical ROM cartridge with perhaps a little extra RAM or a sound chip soldered onto the board. This isn’t to take anything away from the experience of the game, or the technical wizardry required to build it.
But it’s a bit like putting a 1000cc engine into a go kart and then winning a go kart race with it against a bunch of stock go karts. It’s still a pretty cool project to put a 1000cc engine in a go kart, but when you find out that’s why that kart was so much faster than the others, it’s hard not to be a little disappointed that the secret wasn’t some method of suping up a 50cc lawnmower engine to get the performance of the 1000cc engine. And then you realize that the chassis of the go kart really limits how much performance you can actually get out of that 1000cc engine, compared to something engineered to get the most out of it, like, say a state of the art motorcycle chassis, transmission, wheels, etc. And then the super kart seems, well, it seems pretty fun still, but kinda wasteful of the potential of that engine.
When it comes to chip enhanced ROM cartridges, I think it’s fair to say that, at least from an engineering standpoint, once you get to the point where the enhancement hardware is not only more capable than the console itself, but is actually held back by the restrictions imposed by having to interface with the console, such that you’re exceeding the console’s limits, but not able to push the expansion hardware anywhere close to its limits, you’re at a cutoff point. While it’s entirely possible to create an awesome game experience this way, you’re really at a point where you’re well beyond the capabilities of the console, and the console is holding you back. At that point, you might as well engineer a new system.
The only practical reason not to engineer a new system would be if the existing install base for the obsolete console is still a viable market; the work it takes to establish such an install base with a next-generation system is considerable. But this is a business consideration, not an engineering consideration. And business considerations aren’t less legitimate than engineering considerations, but obviously businesses do at some point make the decision to roll out a new generation of console hardware. Which is why we’ve had several of those in the intervening 40 years.
And of course, there’s nothing wrong with doing it “just to do it”, in the way mountaineers climb the tallest mountain they can find “because it’s there”.
Update: ROMs for Galaga are now available for download.
The Atari VCS was not known for its audio capabilities, yet it had a distinctive sound all its own, thanks to the chip known as the TIA, or Television Interface Adaptor. The sounds it was capable of making were pretty primitive, and mostly harsh. Buzzes, rumbles, and static dominate its sound palette, adequate for crudely simulating the sound of explosions, gunshots, running machinery, and things like wind and crashing waves. It was capable of making some bleeps and pew-pew laser sounds, too.
The majority of the games released for the Atari 2600 did not have proper background music. BGM didn’t come into its own until Nintendo released the NES in the US, about 8 years later. Most games were so limited in their ROM size that they simply could not include proper background music, although many games included at least a short looping audio background, or introductory music. Later cartridges sometimes overcame these limitations by including additional sound chips, such as the POKEY sound chip.
Pitfall II: Lost Caverns
Perhaps the best audio of any Atari 2600 game, and certainly the best at the time of its release. Pitfall II contained a full soundtrack, with dynamic changes to the background music, which changed in response to in-game events such as finding a treasure or touching an enemy. This was a true innovation and seemed years ahead of its time.
Music is a key mechanic in this early platform adventure game. During the search for the Flame Spirit — a mostly-invisible, flickering entity that you must find in order to appease the Skull Spirit who guards the Crown that is the object of your quest — a musical score plays, and its volume is a key to finding the Flame Spirit. The song gets louder as you get closer to it.
Later, when you obtain the crown, a chiptune arrangement of Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King plays, which creates tension and excitement as you now have to race to the top of the mountain with the Crown.
Moon Patrol featured a full background music track, one of the earliest games to do so.
Has a background music track.
Contained a musical interlude between levels that was based on the bass line from the band’s hit single, Don’t Stop Believing.
Features musical interludes between levels and during certain game events. The musical pieces are digital arrangements of classical music pieces.
Another game which had one of the earliest background music tracks. The music responds to the events in-game, in a few ways: if you stop moving, the music will sortof pause and play a somewhat annoying tone that is intended to get you to move again; if you die, the music interrupts and plays a death music; when the level is down to the last enemy, the music speeds up. The Atari 2600 port does a reasonably good job of re-creating the music on the Atari’s much more limited audio hardware.
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Adapted the theme music by John Williams from the movie.
E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
The title screen features a tune adapted from the movie theme.
The song Popeye the Sailor Man is played when you grab the spinach power-up, and signifies the length of time that the power-up is in effect, giving you the strength to beat Bluto.
JS Bach’s Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor made this arcade tunnel shooter especially memorable. The Atari 2600 port adapts this music for the more-limited console hardware, but does a surprisingly good job with it, considering these limitations.
A musical introduction kicks off the game.
An adaptation of the Kingsmen’s Louie, Louie is featured on the title screen and throughout the game.
Frogger uses 3 or 4 different tunes for its background music, and they are catchy.
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
If you avoid getting hit for a length of time, the Star Wars theme music plays, signifying that the Force is with you, and that you are temporarily invulnerable.
Stargate uses audio for cues to alert the player of off-screen actions. When a Lander (enemy) captures a human, a “yelping” sound is heard to alert the player that they are in need of rescue. The player can use the radar scope at the top of the screen to spot the Lander who has a human, and fly to their location to attempt the rescue. If the player is nearby the Stargate and flies into it, they will be teleported to the location of a human in danger, if there is one.
Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator
ST:SOS plays a few notes that will be familiar to viewers of the TV series.
Yar’s Revenge doesn’t feature a background music track, but does have a throbbing, pulsating hum, and a great explosion sound effect, both of which contribute significantly to the mood.
Adventure is commonly regarded as one of the best games on the Atari 2600, and is certainly a top original title for the console. Out of all the games released for the system, this one stands out as being the one that best represents what was unique to the system.
A great introduction
It’s also a fantastic example of game design, with a built-in tutorial. Super Mario Bros has been recognized as having an excellent introductory level for teaching the fundamental concepts of the game, but Adventure did this just as well a good five+ years earlier, with game variation 1. Intended to be an easy difficulty version of the game, suitable for young children, it also works as a way to introduce the gameplay basics to new players of any age.
In Game 1, you start out in front of the Gold Castle, right in front of the gate.
This communicates to the player that this is your home base. The castle is locked, but the Gold Key is conveniently right there on the screen. Since the key and the castle are the same color, this communicates a strong clue that the key must unlock the castle. Since there’s an item in the starting room, and that item is usable in that very room, every basic element of the game is present on the first screen, so the player has the opportunity to learn the game immediately, before they start wandering and get lost.
If the player grabs the key and opens the castle, very likely they will enter inside, where they will find the Sword. The player may drop the Key by pressing the button, but more likely will run to the Sword and pick it up, and in so doing discover that picking up one item drops an already-held item. Either way, the player learns an important aspect of the core mechanic of the game, carrying an item.
This rewards the player for exploring, and for solving a simple puzzle with one of the objects found in the Adventure world.
If the player doesn’t enter the castle, regardless of which direction they explore, they will run into one of the two dragons: left, and they will encounter the Yellow dragon, and right, they will run into the Green dragon.
Without the sword, either encounter forces the player to run away, or be eaten — unless the player is carrying the Gold Key, in which case the Yellow dragon will flee from him.
Whichever is the case, something unique and different happens — thus demonstrating to the player that the inventory of items found in the game each change the game in distinct ways.
This is enough to encourage the player to experiment with each item they find in the game, in order to discover all the possibilities. But some of the most interesting special item properties in the game are introduced right away.
If the player has the sword, what happens will depend on the difficulty switch position, and the orientation that the sword is held.
If the right difficulty switch is set to A, dragons will flee from the Sword. If set to B, the dragons attack the player fearlessly.
If the player is positioned such that the sword is between him and the dragon, the outcome is almost certain victory for the player as the charging dragon runs straight into the sword and dies. Thus, the game teaches the player how to kill dragons in a basic, direct way.
Otherwise, the combat can get exciting, as the player must dodge and move to touch the dragon with the Sword.
It’s also possible that the first-time player may press the fire button, thinking this is necessary to use the sword for attack; if so, they will discover that the button serves only to drop the currently held item, and now they will be defenseless! They may need to run away, or dodge around the dragon, and in so doing, may discover that the sword can kill dragons with a touch, regardless of whether the sword is in the player’s hand or not.
In other variations, roaming dragons can and will often randomly encounter the player, coming at him from any angle, and this is good practice for such situations.
Again, the game design subtly hints the player toward the more exciting combat — the Sword sprite is always positioned with the hilt to the left, blade to the right. Despite the fact that the player can pick up the Sword (or any of the items) from any direction, most new players will instinctively grab the sword by the hilt-end, which will put the player in front of the sword when they encounter either dragon, making for a more challenging and more interesting combat.
If the right Difficulty switch is set to A, dragons flee from the Sword. Otherwise, they will directly charge the player. If the player is carrying the sword on the side the dragon approaches from, the combat is usually over quickly, as the dragon impales itself on the sword, and is slain.
But if the dragon flees, the player will have a much harder time slaying it — it will take a bit of luck for the player to enter the room positioned in such a way to have a chance at reaching the dragon with the Sword before it runs away. It’s very difficult to do this. One tactic that is effective is to walk near the edge of the screen, such that the Sword is actually off the edge of the screen, then wait for the dragon to approach near, and then attack.
If the player encounters the Green dragon, they will find the Black Key, which the dragon guards. The dragon guards the key, which is positioned on the left side of the screen, so will always charge the player from the left when the player enters the room from the top of the screen.
If the player runs away, the Green dragon will not give chase, as it is programmed to guard the black key, and will stay on the same screen as the key. This gives the player the ability to flee and return to the room repeatedly, and try several approaches to dealing with the dragon.
If the player grabs the Black key before running off, he will be pursued by the dragon.
If the player encounters the Yellow dragon first, the dragon will chase the player from screen to screen, as the dragon does not have an item to guard. But if the player happens to be carrying the Gold Key, this will scare the Yellow dragon off. If the player has entered the castle and grabbed the Sword, the Yellow dragon will approach the player at a slow, deliberate pace, and attempt to eat the Player. If the player is grabbing the sword by its “hilt” side, the player will be to the left of the sword, and this will cause the dragon to trigger its bite attack before it runs into the sword and becomes slain. Thus, the player will learn a) how the dragon moves and attacks, b) that the dragon is temporarily invincible while it in its bite attack mode, but also temporarily fixed in place, and c) that the dragon is dispatched by the Sword by touching it.
If the player is grabbing the sword from its right side, he may slay the dragon directly, without triggering its attack; in this way the player discovers that the sword is lethal regardless of its orientation. Later, the player may discover that the sword is always lethal to dragons, even if it is not in the player’s hand! This is perhaps surprising, but it is highly useful knowledge once discovered, as the player may run around the sword while carrying another object, and lure a pursuing dragon to run into the sword, killing itself.
Once both dragons are dead, the game is easily winnable. The player simply has to take the Black Key to the Black Castle, unlock it, retrieve the Chalice, and bring it back to the Gold Castle, and the game is over.
In order to do that, however, the player must first solve the blue labyrinth. The labyrinth is illogical — it is comprised of 6 screens of interlocking passages which cannot be mapped onto a Euclidean plane.
When you try, certain pathways overlap others, creating a bizarre, confusing maze. The maze is actually fairly easy to traverse, but how the different screens connect to each other don’t quite make sense — space here is warped, somehow.
There are several pathways through the labyrinth, but only one will take you to the Black Castle; the rest all reach dead ends.
However, due to the placement of the Bridge, there’s a second possible way through the labyrinth. In the first room of the Blue Labyrinth, there are four branching paths: left is the true path through the Labyrinth; right is the secret Bridge shortcut, and the middle two paths loop around to connect to each other, returning the player to the start of the maze.
So, regardless of the direction chosen by the Player, they’ll either a) quickly loop back to the start of the labyrinth, where they can start over without a lot of frustration or risk of getting hopelessly lost, b) go left and make their way through the labyrinth to discover the Black Castle, or c) go right and discover the Bridge shortcut, and a shorter path through the Labyrinth to the Black Castle.
This again shows good design, by demonstrating to the player a) how the Bridge functions, and b) a reward that shows how the Bridge can provide an advantage to the Player, thus demonstrating its value. It’s likely that the player will inadvertently touch the Bridge as they pass over the wall, and thus discover that the Bridge may be picked up like any other object, and that its portability makes it even more useful.
When the Player discovers the Black Castle, they’ll probably know immediately what the Black Key is for, and if they don’t have it with them, will know from their experience in the first screen that they will need to go back to retrieve the Black Key in order to proceed. If the player has yet to encounter the black key, their previous experience with the Gold Castle will have taught them that this Castle must also have a Key that will open its gate, found somewhere.
Upon unlocking the Black Castle, the Player enters into a room where they discover the Magnet. It’s common for players to drop the key upon entering the castle, perhaps in order to retreat and grab the Sword, which they may have also brought with them, just in case there is another dragon to fight — and if they do drop the key, they’ll immediately discover what the Magnet does: attract other objects.
The Player may pick up the Magnet and interact with it, dragging it around as it slowly attracts the key to follow it about the room. This invites the Player to see what else the Magnet will attract. (It works on all the other items in the game, but not the dragons or the Bat.)
When the player proceeds to the last room of the Black Castle, they’ll find the Chalice. From here, all they need to do is bring it back to the Gold Castle, and they win the game. There’s nothing in the game to tell the player that they need to do this, but it is provided in the written instructions pamphlet that comes with the game.
Otherwise, the purpose and use of the Chalice is mysterious. The Chalice is unlike the other items in the game, in that its color flashes and shimmers. This makes the Chalice stand out as a special object, and probably more likely for the player to pick it up, even if they skipped reading the instructions and don’t know what to do with it. Since it flashes a golden color, that may be enough of a clue to the player that they should bring it to the Gold Castle, as they did with the Gold Key.
Once the player knows what to do, they can complete Game 1 in a minute or less. Even without knowing what to do, it’s likely that a first time player can complete the quest in just a few minutes.
The tightness and self-teaching design of Game 1 of Adventure is nothing short of impressive. Considering how early this game came out in the life of the system, the degree of refinement present in the level design is amazing. As obvious and intuitive as the placement of the objects and dragons is, we must recognize that these were the result of deliberate design choices, and that any other arrangement would have made the introductory level of the game less inviting, less intuitive, and less fun.
Game Variations 2 and 3 introduce the player to a larger world, with a third castle (White), and two Catacombs (in the Black Castle, and en route to the White Castle). The White Castle itself adds another Maze, and in total the world has about doubled in size.
The Epic Quest
Game 2 is the canonical full Adventure experience. You have to visit every castle and use every item in order to complete the quest. This game introduces the Bat, which appears on the start screen, and swipes the Sword which appears where the Gold Key was in Game 1.
The timing here is tight enough that it must have been deliberate — try as you might, there’s no way to beat the Bat to the Sword. It will get there just barely ahead of you no matter how fast you can get there.
Another thing about this introductory encounter: the Bat continues in a straight line, continuing to wrap from bottom to top of the screen in an endless cycle, which lasts until the Player either leaves the room, or touches the Bat or the Sword.
Because the Player has learned the value of the Sword, very likely they will try to grab it and fight the Bat for control of it. The screen wrapping behavior of this initial encounter invites and practically guarantees that this will happen. The Bat is programmed to win these contests, thwarting and frustrating the player.
This teaches the player everything they need to know about the Bat, immediately: the Bat steals the item you need.
Best case, you can grab the Bat, and carry it with the sword until the Bat either drops the sword, or picks up another item. If the player does manage to grab the Bat, capturing it, sometimes it can struggle free, often at the wrong time.
Going to the right, where in Game 1 you found the Green dragon guarding the Black Key, you’ll encounter the Catacombs that lead to the White Castle. In the Catacombs, you’ll find the Yellow Key, the Bridge, and in the room South of the White Castle, the Magnet. The Green Dragon is wandering nearby, and will likely encounter the Player in a situation where the Bat has dropped the Sword, and picked up one of the other items.
If you’re lucky, you may dispatch the Green Dragon in the catacombs without much trouble, but it’s just as likely that you’ll get stuck in the catacombs without the Sword, which is very dangerous — especially prior to learning how to navigate the catacombs. If you can, kill the Green Dragon as quickly as possible, but if you lose the sword, try to grab the Gold Key and run for it so you can at least get the Gold Castle open. The Green Dragon will always guard the Magnet or the Black Key, so you can use the Magnet to “trade” for the Gold Key so he’ll ignore you while you run to the Gold Castle and unlock it.
The White key is found in the Blue Labyrinth along the path to the Black Castle, and inside the White Castle is the Yellow Dragon, and the Black Key. If you’re new to Game 2, you’ll probably head up the familiar path to the Black Castle, and discover the White Key here.
You’ll need to run with the White Key to unlock the White Castle, then come back with the Sword so that you can face the Yellow Dragon and slay it. If you can, once you open the Gold Castle, go back and grab the other items in the game and bring them to the Gold Castle. The Bat does not enter the Gold Castle ordinarily (he will only be found there if you grab him and drag him there yourself) so anything you store in the Gold Castle is generally safe from the Bat randomly picking it up and moving it somewhere.
If you can, put the Sword in the Gold castle for safekeeping, and then go unlock the White Castle, run back to retrieve the Sword, and return to the White Castle and slay the Yellow Dragon. The White Castle’s maze is divided into two interlocking sections. To get to where the Black Key is, you’ll need the Bridge.
Once you have the Black key, you’re ready to take on the final challenge. Take the key to unlock the castle, then return to the White Castle and grab the Sword, and return to the Black castle. You’re about to face the Red Dragon, who is the fastest and fiercest of them all. He guards the Chalice in the catacombs of the Black Castle. All you have to do is kill him and take the Chalice. Fighting this dragon in the tight confines of the catacomb is tricky, but not too difficult. Just keep the Sword between you and the Dragon.
Once the Dragon is defeated, there’s nothing left to threaten you; run back to the Gold Castle with the Chalice and win the game.
The way this variation is laid out guarantees the player will take the longest path through the game, and experience all of it. It’s well designed from that standpoint. The Bat’s mischief can greatly lengthen the time taken to complete this quest. It’s very common for the Bat to grab the item you need right when you are about to use it, and leave you with something you don’t need, or even bring a live Dragon to eat you! If you’re accustomed to the layout of Game 1, you’ll probably spend a lot of time exploring the Blue Labyrinth, where you’ll find nothing of value, only dead ends. But by exploring the new catacombs area, you’ll quickly find most of the items in the game, and it’s just the chance interactions with the Bat, and the risk of being caught without the Sword when a Dragon draws near that can lengthen the game.
The randomness of the Bat makes Game 2 somewhat different each time you play, but the initial position of the items is always the same, and the order in which you must unlock the castles always is the same. So playing this variant repeatedly doesn’t offer a lot of replay value. Even so, the random element introduced by the Bat still gives this variation a decent amount of replayability.
The Random Remix
Game 3 randomizes the starting position of every item in the game. There are a few constraints, of course: no key can be locked in its own castle (although, there is a bug, by which the Gold key can sometimes start out locked in the Gold Castle, rendering the game unwinnable), the Chalice never can start in the Gold Castle, but otherwise everything is random. It can happen that you start out getting attacked by all three Dragons immediately, with no Sword in sight to save you. You’ll have to explore everywhere and anywhere to find the Chalice, and the items needed to get to it.
This is my favorite variation of the game. It’s the most replayable, because every time you play you’ll have to figure out where things are and which ones are needed in order to unlock the Gold Castle and retrieve the Chalice — the only two things in the game that you must do to win. Everything else is optional. And due to that fact, it’s often possible to complete the quest more quickly than is possible in Game 2.
Once the Dragons are killed, the Player is safe. This frees him to explore the game and experiment. The Bat can get annoying, but it’s fairly easy to grab it, run to one of the castles, and lock it inside.
At this point, Adventure becomes a sandbox game. You can play around with the items and figure out all kinds of things to do with them. Mainly this means playing around with the Bridge and Magnet. The Bridge may be placed at various walls, and you can even try to use it to cross the boundary of a room that is normally blocked by a solid wall. This sort of, almost works — you can see into an adjacent room this way, but not quite enter into it.
It’s an interesting discovery that you can carry the Bat into a castle, run out quickly, locking the gate behind you, and never have to see the Bat again. The insight that characters can’t exit a locked castle may be learned by the fact that in Game 2, the Yellow Dragon never appears in the game until you unlock the White Castle. Since that is the case, the Yellow Dragon must have been confined in the White Castle. Might this work with the Bat also? It does!
It’s interesting that the designer took the time to make the castle gates both open and close. It would have been simpler and easier to make the key-open event a one-time thing, and for the gate to remain forever after open. But doing this would have made the keys one-time use items, with no further purpose once used. Being able to control the gates and lock things in castles makes the game more interesting, by giving the player an additional way to interact with and control the game world.
It’s also possible to gain this insight by locking a Key in its own Castle. It’s possible! To do this, you need to touch the open castle gate with your Key, which causes the gate to lower. If you drop the key in the doorway, as the gate lowers, the Key will disappear, apparently into the castle. Now behind the locked gate, the key and anything else inside that castle is forever locked, inaccessible to the player evermore. (This can render the game unwinnable.)
Experimentation is at the heart of what makes Adventure special.
Eventually, through much trial and error, but more likely through reading about it or being shown by someone who knows, you may discover the famous Easter Egg, the hidden room with the Dot, which is used to access a secret room where the author’s name is hidden.
Items with purpose
One of the great aspects of Adventure is how full of purpose every item and character in the game is. The items in the game give the player the capability to do anything they might need to do, and give the game’s design a sense of completeness. There’s nothing missing, and nothing obvious to add.
Keys unlock Castles, and there is one key per Castle. They give the player something to find and something to do in order to access parts of the map that are locked when the game begins. They give the Dragons something to guard (or flee): The Yellow dragon runs from the Gold key; the Green dragon guards the Black key, and the Red dragon will guard the White key.
The Dragons exist to create danger and tension for the player, something to dread, to fear, to overcome, and defeat. They make Adventure be a game about more than simply exploring.
The Bat exists to give the game randomness that makes the game world feel “alive” as the Bat randomly moves items around the world, which would otherwise only move if the Player moved them. The Bat is a mischievous and frustrating enemy, who cannot be killed, but may be dealt with by locking it in a castle. The Bat makes the Dragons more dangerous while they’re alive, since it can take the Sword or bring a Dragon at an inopportune time. But the Bat’s randomness also means that it can sometimes aid the player, by taking a threatening Dragon away, or dropping a needed item that the player had trouble finding. This redeems the frustrating aspect of the Bat, to a degree, and makes it an entertaining character.
The Sword gives the player a way to defeat the dragons.
The Magnet gives the player a way to grab items that are stuck in walls, or otherwise inaccessible, making it much less likely that the player will get stuck in an unwinnable situation due to a trapped object that they cannot reach.
The Bridge serves a similar purpose to the Magnet, in that the Bridge can enable to Player to get around dead Dragons that may block narrow paths. But the Bridge also has several specific purposes: A) To enable a short-cut to the Black Castle by Bridging over the dead-end of the right branch of the Blue Labyrinth; B) access the inner chamber of the White Castle maze, necessary to complete the quest in Game 2; C) to reach the hidden room in the Black Castle labyrinth, where the Dot is hidden, necessary to unlock the now-legendary easter egg and find the secret screen with the creator credits.
The Chalice gives the player a goal, and something to do to give the game an ending. The existence of the Chalice makes the game about more than merely exploring, more than merely slaying dragons. It gives the player a quest and a purpose, a way to win, and an ending to the game.
Speculating on a Sequel
Adventure has been a frequent target of homage for homebrew and hacks and indie game developers. I don’t know how many projects I’ve seen over the years that took direct inspriation from Adventure, but I can recall a Quake mod from 2002, and unofficial sequels for the Atari 5200 and Atari Flashback system, a pair of homebrews called Evil Magician Returns and Evil Magician Returns 2, and certainly others too obscure for me to find with a quick search.
I’ve played some of them, and of those that I have played, I have found them to be lacking in some way — they just don’t feel as good as the original, for various reasons. Either they offer more of the same, without offering enough new, or they attempt to update the graphics in ways that spoil the utter simplicity of the original graphics. The graphics weren’t really the point of the original — the Player is represented by a simple square pixel, after all — and so I would like to see a sequel that focuses on gameplay, but retains the graphical style and overall feel of the original, but adds new items and new areas to explore.
Making it my own
I think anyone who loved the original has probably thought about what they’d want in a sequel. So in that spirit, here’s my proposal for how I would extend the original game. Perhaps I’ll try to program it at some point.
My idea is more like a “Game 4” variation of the original than it is an Adventure II. A “Game 5” variation would be a randomized version of the game with all of the elements from Game 4, much as Game 3 is a randomized version of Game 2.
Here’s what I would add:
There are three empty rooms in the area (Marked 1, 2, 3 in the map below) where the White Castle is found:These feel like unfinished, purposeless rooms in Adventure. This is where I would extend the world map. I would replace these empty rooms with entrances to new mazes that lead the player to new areas of the game. Perhaps I’d have all three entrances lead to three inter-twined mazes, which require the use of the bridge to go between them. The Brown Key would be hidden somewhere in this new maze. The exact details of the maze aren’t shown, but the maze would occupy the empty region shown in the map detail below, with the new Brown Castle somewhere in there, perhaps where indicated… but possibly not.
I’d add at least one new castle, but probably just one, found at the other end of one of the mazes. The existing castles are White, Black, and Gold; the new castle would be some new color. Which color? It should be a color that is possible with the Atari 2600, and not already in use as a Castle or Dragon color, or a color that is close to one of those colors. This rules out Green and Red, Yellow, Black, and White. Probably a good color for a fourth castle would be Blue, or Brown.
I’d add a new Dragon. The existing Dragons are Red, Yellow, Green. The new dragon should be a color that is possible with the Atari 2600, and not already in use as a background or Dragon color. This rules out: Black, White, Gold, Yellow, Green, Red, and Blue. I’d also avoid Purple, since that’s the color of the Bridge.
The trick with the colors is that the Atari 2600 can only produce 128 distinct colors in NTSC, as shown by this chart. While the RGB color space isn’t exactly gamut compatible with what the Atari 2600’s TIA chip generated, this is close enough for our purposes. There are only 16 hues to choose from, and we don’t want to pick something too close to what’s already in use. This may not be exact, but my best guess as to which colors are already reserved in Adventure is as follows: There’s a lot of possible colors still available, but many of them are too light or don’t contrast well enough. But a purple, green, aqua, or brown would seem to be the best candidates. Brown seems like a good choice for a Castle, or Blue, while an aqua or orange shade seems like the best choice for a Dragon.
Spider (New Character). The spider’s purpose is to create Webs. Like the Bat, the Spider is black. The Spider cannot be killed. Can he be picked up and carried? I haven’t decided — probably not, just to make him different from the Bat. The Spider lurks in the Brown Castle, spinning webs inside, making the catacombs inside the Brown Castle more challenging to get through. When the Brown Castle is unlocked, the Spider is set free, and can roam about the rest of the world.
Webs are obstacles which slow the player down, but do not block him. Webs will stick fast to any Object in the game, so that they cannot be moved, will not be attracted by the Magnet. When the Player is holding the Sword, he can cut through the Webs, so moves at normal speed. Cutting the web destroys it, freeing up any trapped objects so that they can once again be picked up and carried, or moved by the magnet. Dragons ignore Webs, and are not impeded by them. The Bat can pick up a web and move it to another part of the world. The Bridge can be used to navigate over webs without being slowed down.
New item: The Torch. The Torch serves to light up catacombs areas, making them easier to see in when present. It can also be used to destroy Webs, by touching them. The Torch will destroy Webs whether or not the Player is holding it, and the Torch will light up a catacomb maze whether or not the Player is holding it. The Bat may pick up the Torch. The Torch is found in one of the new maze areas in the game. This maze area is very dark, and has the shortest catacomb sight radius yet, when the Torch isn’t present.
Anyhow, this idea isn’t quite fully formed, particularly in terms of the map. But as a general sketch of a concept for an extended “variation 4” game, I think it’s got potential. I think the Torch and Spider give the game new features that have purpose, without wrecking the balance of the existing items.
Who knows if I’ll develop it — it’d definitely be a challenge to build.
RetroN 77 is a conveniently packaged, aesthetically attractive $70 box that allows you to play (many, but not all) Atari 2600 cartridges on a HDTV set, or play ROMs for Atari 2600 games off a microSD card, powered by Stella, the most popular emulator for the Atari 2600.
HDMI output is cool, for ease of connecting to modern TVs, and for image quality. But that’s really the only truly good thing about this. And it’s no better than running Stella on a PC.
The other things I liked about this when I first heard of it: the cartridge slot, and the DB9 joystick ports, (which are the same as on the original system, allowing for play with original controllers). But both of these features are compromised — many games will not play on cartridge in the RetroN 77, and the included joystick is, while a nice design that feels comfortable in the hand and includes ambidextrous buttons, is fragile and too clicky in use. Fortunately those original controllers can be plugged into the RetroN 77 and work, but they still should have did better with the included joystick. And frustratingly, Hyperkin knew it, and yet they still shipped this product.
Also worth mentioning, the system offers saving and restoring your game state at the press of a button. But the button is located on the console, where it’s less than easy to reach, not on the controller, where it would have made more sense (although, to be fair, I don’t see how they could have done this while preserving compatibility with the original DB9 controller port, and I definitely would not want to give that feature up just to have easier access to a save/restore button.) But the worst thing about the Save and Restore buttons is that they’re identical to each other, and to the adjacent “game select” and “game reset” buttons. If you want to save your game, you must quickly hit the correct button, and if you screw up and hit any of the other buttons, you’ll either restore a previously saved gamestate, or reset the game, both of which will be ruinous to your current progress. So this feature is just not very well thought out, and not very useful. Also, the RetroN 77 can only save ONE gamestate per game cartridge or ROM file, making this feature extremely limited. This is sad, because the included SD card has a 128MB capacity, and the entire Atari 2600 library will fit easily into less than 2MB, meaning that the memory card potentially has room for virtually infinite save files. So none of that extra space will ever be put to good use. All they had to do was add a menu to the Load button so that you would have to choose which save file to reload, or delete, and it could have been so much more.
RetroN 77 may be worthwhile to own — if you just want to take something simple out of the box, plug it in and go, with no software setup and configuration and have it simple and just work, except of course for the many games it doesn’t support on the cartridge slot. But ultimately it will not satisfy a serious gamer who wants to play his entire library of Atari 2600 games.
Even so, I’m glad that a company is at least trying to make something like this. The original hardware won’t last forever. I just wish that the execution were better.
Let’s get into the details.
System isn’t instantly on when you flip the power switch to ON. There’s a several second delay, long enough to make you wonder if the thing isn’t broken. Every time.
Way old version of Stella running on this thing.
Stella is a great emulator, and even this old version is very good. But emulation just isn’t as cool as ‘real hardware’ or an FPGA implementation of real hardware. In this case, it’s because the RetroN doesn’t REALLY play the game that you plugged into the cartridge slot; it copies the ROM off the cartridge and temporarily loads it and runs it in Stella, but for some reason (maybe because the Stella version is old?) it’s not capable of running cartridges that have extra processor chips in them.
Doesn’t support many games on the cartridge slot (basically, any of the later cartridges that packed extra chips to extend the capabilities of the obsolescent Atari 2600: Pitfall II, Mountain King, etc.) Update: A Retron 77 user has created a public list of tested games. It would have been nice if Hyperkin could have created this list, themselves, at least for the majority of games, rather than leaving it to users to figure it out for ourselves.
The joystick feel could be better, and durability is unacceptable. Everyone is reporting that the joystick breaks mere hours into playing with the system. Hyperkin acknowledged this is a known issue and promised to replace broken controllers, and to release a re-engineered controller that will be more robust. But why didn’t they just wait and release when it was ready? This shitty joystick will do nothing for Hyperkin’s reputation or to sell the system.
They really should have made a modern paddle controller, since original paddles are so fragile and need reconditioning in order to avoid jitter and work properly. Update: Hyperkin now sells a controller called the Ranger, which incorporates paddle features, although it seems that they are decent, but not great.
System should remember the aspect ratio mode it was last in rather than default to 16:9.
Button layout for the console switches could have been better (ie, more like the original Atari 2600 6-switch model’s layout, same type of switches would have been so cool).
Limited number of “slots” for ROMs on the SD card (this is supposed to be fixed in a future firmware update) but it was a deliberate design choice on Hyperkin’s part to limit the number of ROMs that can be displayed in the SDcard menu, and that’s weak.
But this is a Hyperkin product, so what did you expect? Right?
If you have any PC or Mac built in the last 20 years or so, or a Raspberry Pi, and hook it up to a decent monitor, buy a Stelladaptor and plug in an original CX40 joystick, you do not need the RetroN77 — unless you are a completist or enjoy being disappointed.
If you have original working hardware, you may not need the RetroN77, either, depending on if your HDTV can handle the video output, or you can mod your console, or if you still have an old NTSC CRT TV that works.
There’s hope Hyperkin can salvage this with a firmware update that updates Stella to the latest release available, ship replacement controllers that aren’t fragile, but even so it’d be better to hope this sells well enough for them to maybe bother with a “deluxe” 2.0 system that is FPGA-based and addresses the issues I listed above (and supports 5200, 8-bit, and 7800 games!)
But really, it would have been much better if Hyperkin had waited and worked out these issues and released the product when it was ready, rather than push something out to hit the 7/7 release date.
(Did anyone ACTUALLY care that the RetroN 77 was officially released on 7/7?)
No. No one did. Except the marketing department at Hyperkin.
It was pretty nice of them to include a 128 MB SD card with the unit, fwiw.
I will revisit the recommendation once Hyperkin are shipping the improved joysticks they’ve promised, and once they’ve released a firmware update, or some firmware hacks are available to give a better user experience. When a firmware update is available, it will be found here. But as is, out of the box this is a device that feels like it needed more development and refinement before it should have been considered for release.
And if you just gotta have a quantifiable rating…
5-star rating: 2/5 stars Grade: C-
I’d give the RetroN 77 a full star or letter grade better rating if/when they replace the fragile joystick, and another letter grade if/when they release a modern paddle controller. The actual console is not bad, for what it is, but when you understand it as a simple dedicated Stella box, running a rather outdated version of Stella, it becomes much less compelling, particularly with the current limitation of the number of ROMs on SD card that it will display in its UI, and the compatibility issues with various games on cartridge. It’s just not good enough to make me recommend it over downloading Stella, plus as many ROMs as you care to find, and playing them on a PC hooked up to a HDTV, using a Stelladaptor with authentic controllers.
Today, UK news source The Register published an article on the new Atari VCS, formerly known as the AtariBox. I refuse to call it the VCS, because that name is already in use, so I’ll just stick to calling it the AtariBox, to avoid confusion.
I love the URL for the story. “Atari Lempty Box” has such a nice ring to it. Like a French existentialist “L’empty Box” that smokes cigarettes in Parisian cafes, complaining bitterly about the meaninglessness of life.
The Atari fan communities that I follow on Atari Age and Facebook have been roasting this system for months. There’s so much to signal that this is going to be a disaster. The biggest is the lack of any hard information about hardware specs, developers, games, capabilities, etc. What has been announced is either vague or very uninspiring.
And now this article. After months of feeble, empty pre-launch hype, and an aborted attempt at a crowdfunded pre-order, “Atari” shows up at GDC 2018 with an inert piece of plastic shaped like their new console, and no new information. The CNet article at least explains why — according to Atari, they couldn’t agree on the controller, and ended up rethinking the whole project, which is why they canceled their crowdfunding campaign last year, and why they still don’t have a lot to show for themselves yet. But that’s still not a very good sign.
Putting aside the obvious con job that this is turning out to be, let’s look at why AtariBox is such a bad idea. Let’s take a look at AtariBox’s selling points:
OMG the case! It has real wood grain! An Atari Logo! And lights!
By far, the biggest selling point that Atari have presented was the attractive design of the case. It looks nice, I’ll give it that.
But that’s it. It has an Atari logo on it, and real wood grain. I’m pretty sure the original Atari used fake wood grain. The hardware inside the case is what matters, though, and we still know nothing about that, other than some very vague mention that it’s going to be AMD-based.
It looks like an original woodgrain Atari 2600 was crossbred with an old cable TV channel selector boxes they used to have in the 80s.
I’ll grant it does look nice. But, I don’t really care that it looks nice. When I play a game console, I’m looking at the screen, not the case. I play the console for the games it can run, not for its brand. A game company creates a good brand by consistently creating great games.
Focus on the games. AtariBox has revealed almost nothing about the games it will run. Over a year of hyping the new console. That’s troubling.
We’re teased that they’re talking to developers about creating new games based on classic Atari IP. We’re told that AtariBox will run hundreds of “old games”. We’re told it will run “new games” too. We’re told it will cost ~$300, so we don’t expect it to be capable of running cutting edge games, at least not at high framerates with all the bells and whistles.
It runs Linux!
Nothing against Linux, I love open source software. It’s a good choice. But so what? In 2018, anything can run Linux. It’s not a big deal.
The real selling point of a game console isn’t the OS, it’s the Games.
IT’S THE GAMES, STUPID.
A nice Atari-themed desktop environment would be cool, but inherently whatever they build to run on Linux could be run on any other hardware running a build of Linux compiled for that hardware. Thanks to the GPL, Atari is required to make available the source code for this Linux build.
Like, I could take a commodity AMD PC, slap AtariBox’s Linux distro on it, and then I could run the same software on it.
But perhaps they’ll keep their applications that run on top of the Linux layer proprietary. (Of course they will, who am I kidding?)
In that case, what do I care that they made use of some open source stuff? As an open source proponent, I like when open source propagates and begets more open source. Open source being leveraged as a platform from which unfree software is sold isn’t exciting if you’re attracted to the openness aspect of the system.
It streams video as well as plays video games!
Yeah? So does my TV. So does my phone. So does my car. So does everything.
This is 2018. Streaming video over the internet is not amazing anymore, it’s basic. And just like how every home appliance in the 1980s had to have a digital clock, which no one cared about, because they already had a dozen appliances that all had digital clocks built into them, not including it would be weird because everything has it.
But do you need to buy another thing that streams video?
No, you don’t.
It plays old games AND new games!
I like old games. I’m glad new devices can play old games. If you didn’t have that, old games would die off. So I’m glad there are new devices that can play old games.
But here’s the thing: This is another solved problem. We have Stella. In fact, it’s pretty much guaranteed that the old games that you can play on an AtariBox will be played through Stella. After all, why would they bother to develop a competing system to run Atari games, when Stella is stable, mature, open source, and amazing?
It’s remotely conceivable that rather than emulating the Atari 2600 in software, they could have their hardware include an FPGA implementation of the Atari 2600 hardware, which would be pretty cool, since it would be that much closer to the original hardware, and could perhaps do things that Stella can’t do. But I can’t think of anything that Stella can’t do. I’m sure Stella must not be 100% perfect, because nothing is, but I have been using it since at least 1996, so 22 years, and it was pretty damn good even back then, and I couldn’t tell you something that I wished it did, but doesn’t do as well as I want it to. Granted, I’m not a hard core user who deeply groks the hardware it emulates and can discern imperceptible differences between original hardware vs. emulator. It’s possible that there’s something Stella can’t do, or can’t do well, that would make an FPGA Atari worth it.
But it’s probably useless to speculate about it, because it’s all but given that the AtariBox isn’t going to be an FPGA system.
Even if it was, AtariBox almost certainly won’t be selling you every ROM ever released. No single entity, not even Atari, owns the IP rights to the entire Atari 2600 library. At best, they’ll be offering a good chunk of the total library. And granted, out of the 700+ titles developed for the Atari 2600, a huge proportion of them are not good enough that anyone is going to miss them. Still, the entire library is under a megabyte. So what the hell, you might as well include everything.
But this is where “abandonware” (software “piracy” of “dead” systems) shines.
(Of course, Atari never died, if people never stopped playing it, did it?)
But it did exit the market, and that’s what I mean by a “dead system”. Even notwithstanding a brilliant homebrew community continuing to publish new titles for the system, I still think it’s reasonable to consider the Atari 2600 dead, and not just dead, but long dead.
Once it was no longer viable to sell in the mass retail market and sustain a company, if our copyright laws were just, old obsolete games should have been ceded to the public domain, say abandonware proponents.
Of course, legally, that never happened.
And so, year after year, we see various attempts at re-incarnating Atari’s classic library of games. This never really stopped happening. NES killed Atari, but many classic titles of the Atari era have NES ports. And SNES. And anthology collections on every generation of game console since then, until now.
See what I’m getting at? Why do we need an AtariBox to “bring back” the classics, when this stuff has never gone away?
But the thing is, these commercial repackagings that we get re-sold again and again, are always inferior to what you can get if you aren’t encumbered by intellectual property laws and can treat 30-40 year old software as having entered into the public domain. Go to a ROM site, download 700+ Atari 2600 ROMs in one click, unzip, launch Stella. You’re good to go.
I like new games, too! But there’s no shortage of platforms to play them on already! What does AtariBox offer that’s new or different from XBox, Playstation, Switch, PC, Android, iOS? What could it offer? The company calling itself “Atari” doesn’t have the deep pockets of Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, Apple, Google.
Exclusives? Nobody wants to be exclusive on the smallest upstart competitor’s box. Successful games that people want to play are generally ported to as many platforms as possible.
Nintendo doesn’t port their first-party titles to Xbox and PlayStation, but that’s because they’re very well established, and well-heeled, and they can afford to. That’s what it’s like when you never went bankrupt.
Atari has some very iconic, classic IP, which they could conceivably bring back, but it’s not nearly as attractive as Nintendo’s A-list. Tempest 4000 looks pretty cool, but Tempest is not Mario, Zelda, or Metroid caliber, not even close.
Various incarnations of Atari already have re-packaged and licensed that IP to anyone and everyone over the last 20+ years. They could try to create some brand new titles inspired by their old IP, and keep it reserved as exclusive content to help sell their platform. This is probably what I would be most interested in. Not playing “new games” from a couple years ago, like Skyrim or Hotline Miami on AtariBox, but playing an all-new Pitfall! that looks and feels like the Atari 2600 game, and just has some more to it. Give it to the guy who did Spelunky, maybe. Let him see what he can do with it. Or maybe bring back David Crane if you can get him, and see what he can come up with now.
But the thing is, if those games are any good, they would sell far better, wider, and more copies if they were made available on every platform. We learned this a few years ago from Ouya. Ouya courted indie developers, but indies released anywhere and everywhere they could, and in the end no one gave a shit about Ouya.
The AtariBox hardware is all but certain to be less powerful than the XBox One, PS4, or even the Switch. So it’s not going to play cutting edge new games, but will play “new-ish” games from 2-5 years ago that we’ve already seen and played through. Why would we want to buy them again, just to play them on a box with a Fuji logo on it?
As much as I would love for there to be a viable Atari console in 2018, I just don’t see what possible niche they could occupy that would work for them well enough to enable the company to compete in today’s market.