Tag: Atari

RAMless Pong for Atari 2600

In contrast to the amazing Galaga port to the Atari 2600 that I discussed in a previous post, here is an amazing accomplishment: a full implementation of Pong in 1kb of ROM, which uses 0 bytes of RAM at runtime.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of an old computer system being hacked in such a way that its program doesn’t use any RAM. Several years ago, I saw a talk by someone who had done something similar on the Commodore 64. They eschewed storing any data in RAM by using the CPU registers and directly accessing other hardware components such as the controller ports, and were able to make a working program that used no RAM at all.

It’s truly amazing what can be done under such constraints.

I think, in appreciating the accomplishment of projects like this, it’s easier to understand my relative “disappointment” in learning that Champ Games had used a 32-bit, 70MHz ARM CPU in their Galaga cartridge to augment the VCS system, rather than figured out some way to get the game to run on stock (or minimally extended, as some later contemporary releases for the VCS were) hardware.

I regret that it sounded as though I thought that the game itself was disappointing — far from it, it’s amazing, easily one of the best ports of an arcade game to the platform that’s ever been produced. And the technical accomplishment of getting the ARM CPU to mesh with the much slower Atari hardware is likewise amazing, in a different way. But knowing what’s possible to do with zero RAM, for a moment I thought that just maybe someone had figured out a way to squeeze all that performance and graphics into a standard Atari cartridge.

But really, there’s no reason to judge one of these projects as superior to the other. They should both be appreciated. One accomplishes something through extreme minimalism, and is beautiful in that way. The other accomplishes something through an extraordinary joining of old and new technology, and is beautiful in its own right.

AtariBox joystick and gamepad designs updated

Atari announced updated designs for their joystick and gamepad peripherals for the AtariBox (now called the Atari VCS) today.  Allegedly, these are about to go into production soon, but are still subject to change and are not final.

I have to admit, I do like the design of the joystick, and wouldn’t mind owning one if they ever do get manufactured, assuming they will work with generic PC systems and aren’t tied exclusively to the AtariBox console.  

One neat thing about the joystick that they revealed is that the stick will rotate, enabling play of paddle type Atari games.  This answers a long standing question I’d had about whether/how the new system might support paddle games.  I don’t know that this will feel as good as the old-school paddled did in their day, but it’s good that they’re at least supporting them.  As well, it means that spinning stick arcade games, like the Ikari Warriors series of top-down run-n-gun games, might be decent to play with a stick like this.

The joystick will also have rumble and LED lighting features. Wireless, it will be powered by lithium ion battery, with a life of about 15 hours per charge. No word on how easily replaced the battery pack will be, or if replacement batteries will be available. I wouldn’t count on it, although of course it should be possible to hack them and replace with any third party battery of the correct spec, which is what I imagine owners will have to do once these things are a few years old and no longer can hold a charge.

The gamepad, I’m less interested in, as it seems less special, not different enough from an XBox gamepad to be worth buying.  Since Xbox gamepads are already very good, the AtariBox gamepad would need to outshine it in some way to be worth my attention. I haven’t seen any indication that it might.

If these start shipping, and the initial reviews are good, I’d order a pair, but I’m still wary enough about the reputation for the current company using Atari trademark that I don’t want to go in on a preorder. 

Atari VCS hardware refresh announcement… lol

So, Atari… remember them?

Yeah, they’re still at it. After about a year of relative silence from the VCS project, the other day they made a Big Announcement, which is that they are delaying the project to late 2019.

Surprise! No, not really. Everyone pretty much called this before they finished their initial round of crowdfunding.

But, so as to be able to spin this delay as a positive thing, they are changing the hardware specs to a more powerful system. Still not world beating hardware by any means, not that it ever needed to be. And more is always better, I guess. But I don’t think the actual hardware is all that relevant to this product. Really, it’s just taking a commodity small form factor AMD64 architecture system, and putting it in a nice looking case that evokes the classic, original Atari VCS. Basically, Atari can place an order with AMD to produce the boards and chips, and install them in custom designed cases that they can pay an injection mold company to manufacture, and pay someone else to assemble them.

Atari’s real job is to focus on the software, the operating system, user environment, and the games. Especially the games. And their announcement was, again, suspiciously silent on these topics.

We know the OS will be a linux distribution, with some kind of customized desktop environment designed to provide a good user experience as a game console.

We know that they will include some emulator(s) to enable playing of classic Atari-era games. We know that there are already dozens of platforms that already do this, so while it’s nice, and to be expected, it doesn’t seem to me that this is a compelling reason for anyone to buy an Atari VCS. Atari Classics have been repackaged and resold on every platform for decades, since the NES and Game Boy. While keeping these games around and still available is great, if you already have them on an older system, Atari have to do something extra-special to make them compelling to consumers to make them want to buy them again, like online leaderboards, social media integration, video streaming integration, something. And we’ve heard nothing about it for about two years since they made their crowdfunding goal.

We know that Atari wants to provide modern reinterpretations of classic Atari games. Apart from Tempest 4K, we haven’t heard anything. And Tempest 4K is already out, and has been for about a year now, on the PlayStation 4 and other platforms. Non-exclusive updated classics will not move units. Why would anyone spend $300 on yet another console when they can just buy the game for a console they already own?

We also know they’re supposed to be shipping modern reinterpretations of the classic Atari CX40 joystick, a modern-looking gamepad with Atari aesthetics, and (one would hope, but I have yet to see anything about this) some kind of paddle controller, but there’s been no mention of these either.

So, another year has gone by, and Atari just announces that they’re revising the hardware specs, before they even got the original hardware specs out the door. And we still have no idea what’s going to run on this system, beyond vague “It will run Linux” and barely anything, really next to nothing, about the actual games. Which is the whole reason anyone buys a game console, to play the games.

This is sad, and exactly what I expected from the beginning.

I would have really enjoyed a resurgent Atari with new games based on classic IPs, too.

Adventure (Atari, 1979) appreciated

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.

Advanced Adventures

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.

Here, the Player is carrying the Bat, who is carrying the Bridge, just after the Player killed the Green Dragon with the Sword. With so many objects on the screen, they flicker, so this is a composite image of several screen captures.

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.

To get the Black Key, you need the Bridge, and the insight that the maze is larger than it seems.
The Black Key is well-hidden inside the inner chamber of the White Castle maze.

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.

Screwing Around

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:Adventure MapThese 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.Adventure-Variation 4 Detail
  • 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.
    Atari 2600 NTSC paletteThere 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 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.
  • Web WebWebs 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.
  • TorchNew 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.

The Debt We All Owe to Emulation

Emulation is a broad topic within computer science. This article is specifically about emulation of video games.  There are many other purposes to which emulation may be applied as well, and it’s important not to lose sight of that.  Emulation is a general purpose tool, not merely a tool for piracy.

Old video games have become valuable to collectors in recent years. My generation grew up with video games, and much as the previous generation valued comic books and baseball cards from their youth to the point where they became worth serious money in the 1980s and 1990s, antique videogames have similarly grown in value.

It wasn’t always thus. For a good couple of decades, old videogames were considered obsolete junk. No one wanted them (except maybe a few very geeky people such as myself.) Mostly when a new system hit the market, people forgot about the old generation and within a year or two they weren’t available in the retail channel anymore, or were perhaps on clearance in dollar bins.

Importantly, the manufacturers didn’t continue to manufacture old generation hardware.  Although it became cheaper and cheaper to do so, there still wasn’t enough demand in old systems to keep them viable in the face of new competition. More to the point, manufacturers would have been competing against themselves.  And when trying to recoup the cost of major R&D budgets that produced that next generation, they wanted (and needed) the market to be focused exclusively on that new system. Keeping the old generation system alive would have cannibalized sales, and hurt profitability, and this would have stalled the progress of innovation.

We saw this with Atari. The 2600 was the system that broke through into nearly half of American households in the late 70’s and early 80’s. At the time, it wasn’t obvious to the general public that there was going to be a new generation every several years as Moore’s Law continued to work its magic to enable cheaper, more powerful computing technology.  Internally, Atari struggled with releasing their next generation system, the 5200. With tens of millions of 2600 consoles already in homes, the revenue stream represented by cartridge sales for the established console was too important for Atari to walk away from it. The 5200 wasn’t backward compatible (although an adapter for 2600 games existed) and Atari felt that the average consumer might feel alienated and abandoned if they had to go out and buy a new, expensive console.  As a result, Atari kept the 2600 alive an incredible 15 years, finally stopping production in 1992.  The 5200, launched in 1982, was hampered by a variety of factors, and never had the same level of success — it was expensive, lacked backwards-compatibility, the library was mostly the same titles as were available on the 2600, only with better graphics, the controllers were delicate analog joysticks that annoyingly didn’t automatically re-center, it contended in the market with rivals Coleco and Mattel, and then the 1983 crash of the North American market cut short its heyday.

The business data was always very clear on this. With video games, what was hot today was gone a few weeks or months later, or in the case of smash hits, maybe a year. New product constantly distracted and replaced old product, with a few notable exceptions such as Pac Man and Donkey Kong, most video games didn’t have staying power in the market.

Obviously, that’s not to say that old games started sucking and were no longer fun to play. They didn’t. But their enduring appeal didn’t translate into sustainable marketability.  And that’s why successful games spawn franchises of endless sequels and a multiverse of linked-IP titles. And the old constantly gave way to the new. And the business always wanted the market to be focused on the new, because that’s where sales were.  (But yet, in other market segments, they keep making chess sets, decks of cards, balls, copies of popular board games that have been enjoyed for generations, such as Monopoly, etc.) For some reason, the prevailing wisdom was you couldn’t sell a videogame that everyone had already bought.

Well, until recently. A little over a decade ago, Nintendo introduced the Virtual Console on Wii, and started selling us games that they had made in the 1980s and 1990s.  And we bought them. In many cases, we bought them again. For some, it may have been the first time.

Even that wasn’t a completely new thing.  Every console has had classic games ported to it.  Atari has continually re-packaged its greatest hits into collections that have been sold on just about every console and platform that has been released since the original system exited the market. Virtually every big game developer has done it as well: Activision, Sega, SNK, Midway, Namco, and on and on.

And what made that possible?

Emulation.

Without emulation, putting an old game on a new system would have meant porting it, essentially re-writing the game from scratch. And ports were never capable of being entirely faithful to the original. There’s always differences, often substantial, to the point that the nostalgic value of a port is never quite there.  It’s not like playing the original.  You can never go home again.

But with emulation,  you could. Emulators were magic. With an emulator, a new machine could be made to work nearly exactly like some older machine with a completely different architecture, and run software for that older machine without further modification, and the results would be virtually indistinguishable from that software running on original hardware.  

The old systems may burn  out and break down.  The factory could stop making them and shift production to other, more profitable, more in demand product lines. But as long as someone could write an emulator to work on modern machines, old games could live, in theory forever.

Game companies, mostly, did not want that. Especially if there wasn’t some way to make money from it. And once full retail priced sales for a game, or generation of games, stopped being feasible, game companies dropped the product line entirely. Their expectation as the buying public would follow on to the next new thing, and that’s where the industry wanted all focus.  

So game emulation, in its earliest incarnation, was an unauthorized, underground enterprise, a labor of love by gamers desperate to keep the games they loved from disappearing entirely, as they surely would have without their efforts.

And what good is an emulator without something to run on it? This is where ROM dumps come into play. Anyone can tell you that emulation isn’t illegal, doesn’t violate any copyright or patent or trademark law. But ROMs, those are a different story. Copyright law is clear enough about making unauthorized copies of copyrighted works for distribution and especially for profit. There are limited provisions for making copies of works for personal use, of a copyrighted work which you own a copy of, for archival/backup purposes, for academic purposes, for criticism and review purposes, for time shifting and platform shifting, and so on.

Archival/backup purposes fit the context of ROM dumping best, but even so, technically this is a personal use right, meaning that in theory (to my knowledge this has not been tested in the courts) a person could legally dump the ROM of a game that they personally own, for use as a backup, and use an emulator for platform shifting that work onto a new platform.  But that’s a personal copy — they still don’t have any right to distribute that.  And even if my copy of Super Mario Bros. 2 is exactly the same as the copy that someone else already dumped for their own personal use, I can’t (legally) take a shortcut and make a copy of their dump; I have to produce my own.  Which takes time, effort, equipment, expertise, and the vast majority of people do not have that, nor do they have the inclination. So people did the only reasonable thing there was to do: they shared copies of existing ROM dumps. And yes, this meant that many people obtained copies of ROMs that they didn’t own an original copy of. And this was copyright violation.

And yet, for a long time, there still wasn’t enough value in emulation for the rightful intellectual property rights holder to have incentive to do anything about this situation.  And so, as a result, the Abadonware movement began, and the underground emulation scene grew and grew and grew.

You can go to a bookstore today and buy a new copy of a book written hundreds of years ago.  At least, certain ones.  You can’t go to a retail store and buy a new copy of a video game produced 40 years ago.  Not most of them. Sure, today there’s now a few exceptions, if you want to count systems like the Atari Flashback or NES Classic.

But — these systems only cover a small fraction of the catalog of titles that were released for those systems.

And — those systems are only possible because of emulation.  They’re dedicated emulation boxes. That’s right.

For $60, you can buy a tiny selection of really great games, and through the magic of emulation, play them on a modern HDTV. Much of the work that made that possible was pioneered, for free, by enthusiasts and hobbyists who made it their mission to preserve the past and ensure that some game that they loved would be available forever.  For free.

And more than just preserving the popular hits of yesterday, the emulation scene also provided equal attention to games that virtually no one had played, and even fewer people care about, or even knew about.  Rare games that hadn’t performed well on retail release, but were nonetheless good games, have gotten a second wind and rebirth, in large part because someone in the emulation scene ripped a copy of it, and distributed it for free so that thousands of people could experience it.  Games like Little Samson, a NES rarity that sells for thousands of dollars for an authentic copy, could not be experienced by the vast majority of people, without a ROM dump and an emulator.  And probably the black market distribution of this ROM is what helped make people aware of it, to create the demand that gave rise to the premium price that the original now commands.

Companies like Nintendo didn’t want you to play their old games, at one time, for a long time.  But now that the emulation scene proved that those games did have lasting appeal and historic value, now Nintendo would like to sell you those games again. And because they can, they seek to destroy the underground movement that showed it was viable and created the technology that made it possible.

I find this incredibly sad, aggravating, and tragic. I may have a personal collection of physical cartridges in my gaming library, but I certainly couldn’t replace them at today’s prices if they were lost.  And that hardware’s not going to last forever.

Copyright used to have a limited term, and this would have made things a lot easier for the emulation movement to happen in a completely legal way. But over the years, large companies have continually altered intellectual property laws — always to their benefit, never for the public good — to secure a perpetual right to works, robbing the public domain of a rich future. 

Robbing the public.

Robbing all of  us.

Hyperkin now taking Retron77 pre-orders, shipping in July

As if to show Atari how it’s done when a real company develops a real product, Hyperkin announced today that they’re now taking pre-orders for their Retron77 console.  The $69.99 retro-console is expected to start shipping to customers on July 7, 2018.

Hyperkin Retron77

While the Retron77 doesn’t promise to usher in an era of newAtari games, it looks like it will be pretty awesome for a few important reasons:

  • It actually exists,
  • it’s shipping in less than a month,
  • it’s reasonably inexpensive,
  • 720p over HDMI,
  • real cartridge slot for playing actual Atari 2600 cartridges,
  • real controller ports for using your favorite vintage controller,
  • and a nice-looking joystick that features an often-requested feature: an ambidextrous fire button!

I had heard rumors about a year ago that Retron77 would be an FPGA-based implementation of the Atari 2600, but it’s not stated in the product description on their website whether this is so, or if it will rely on emulation.  If it does use emulation, it’s my hope that the system will prove to be hackable to emulate other systems, such as the Atari 5200 or 7800.  But I would be more excited by a FPGA-based system due to the fidelity to the original hardware made possible by FPGA technology.

Other Retron consoles by Hyperkin have been spotty, with problems ranging from terrible controllers to poor emulation quality to violating open source software licenses, so it remains to be seen if the Retron77 will be worth buying. But their more recent offerings have been better, and they seem to have hit all the right notes with this one. I’m looking forward to having one that I can test with soon.

Either way, it is a real product, and will ship in less than a month, and for under $100. By contrast, the AtariBox may come out in about a year, for $300, with unknown developers lined up to release unknown new titles at launch.

Update

Youtube videogamer Metal Jesus has posted a review of the Retron77, providing more details.  The most important revelations:

  1. System plays the games via emulation, using Stella, which Hyperkin properly licensed for the product.
  2. Lag is minimal, nearly imperceptible.
  3. Retron 77 does have a SD card slot, as rumored.
  4. Not all games can be played via the cartridge slot (notably, Pitfall II) for some reason, but if you have a ROM you can put it on an SD card. However…
  5. Retron’s GUI for the SD card menu limits you to seeing only 20 ROMs, max.  According to Hyperkin it’s a measure intended to curb piracy, and the feature is intended to allow users to play the occasional homebrew game. This explanation makes no sense, because homebrew games are also copyrighted (although many homebrew developers put their ROMs out for free download for the benefit of the community), and also available on cartridge in many cases (though per point 4, above, they may not play through the cartridge slot…)  This is really limiting and annoying, and will be one of the first things hackers will want to fix.  With a game catalog of over 700 games, it would be the preferred way to play games — particularly given the apparent failings of playing every game through the cartridge slot, not to mention the difficulty of getting 40 year old EEPROM carts to read.  Update: I’ve read that Hyperkin have reversed course on the limit, and have decided to remove the restriction.  Hooray!
  6. The joystick in the review unit broke, apparently it is fragile. But, Hyperkin say they are aware of this issue and already have a more robust version of this controller that will be included with the production model, and they will replace any that break.
  7. Metal Jesus echoes a sentiment expressed by many: that a multi-system Retron that covers Atari/Intellivision/Colecovision or early 8-bit computers would be a must-buy.

John Hancock’s review shows more extensive testing, reveals additional shortcomings: Grand Prix driving controller not supported, Harmony Cart and homebrew carts not supported (but this isn’t such a big deal, considering you can load ROMs onto the SD card).

Is the AtariBox fake?

Editor’s note: [I’m calling Atari’s new VCS “AtariBox” to differentiate it from the original 1977 Atari VCS (2600)]

Last night, Youtube Gaming channel RGT85 broke news that a developer of Tempest 4000 made public statements which cast doubt on whether the AtariBox is real. There is a discussion thread on Reddit with additional information and speculation.

A year ago, news circulated that Tempest creator Jeff Minter had reconciled with Atari on a dispute over the rights to Tempest, and that he was going to work with them to bring Tempest 4000 to the AtariBox. But according to Llamasoft developer Ivan Zorzin, Tempest 4000 has been in development for PC, XBox, and Playstation 4 platforms, and he knows nothing of any development of a version for AtariBox. According to Zorzin, Atari’s use of footage of Tempest 4000 is not footage of it running on an AtariBox.

At this point, I can only regard these as rumors, but it is definitely a concern that the Tempest 4000 developer and Atari aren’t on the same page. Since the AtariBox hardware is commodity PC hardware, it’s feasible that Atari could have run a Windows build of Tempest 4000 on Windows on AtariBox hardware, or in WINE on Linux on AtariBox hardware. Or it could well be that the footage is not from a running AtariBox at all.

This calls into question whether Atari even have an actual, working prototype yet. Earlier this year at GDC, they did not. Their case was only a mock-up. The case designs that they’ve shown look good, but for the longest time Atari only showed renderings of 3D models of the case. More recently, they seem to have produced a physical example of the case, and supposedly it has working hardware inside it, but these new revelations cast even that into doubt.

When Atari launched their crowdfunding campaign on IndieGogo, they published specifications for the system, but I’m not aware of anyone reporting that they’ve seen an actual working AtariBox. It would not surprise me if they haven’t started manufacturing them as yet, but are running the internal hardware inside of generic cases, and if that were the case it wouldn’t worry me too greatly, provided that they had confidence that the final product case would work from an engineering standpoint (for thermal dissipation, RF shielding, etc).

Atari have been promoting the IndieGoGo campaign heavily, bragging about having raised $2.7 million from over 10000 backers in 8 days, but the rate of buy-in has slowed dramatically — the first 24 hours saw $2 million of that come in. This sounds like a lot of money, but it’s paltry. A real console launch from Microsoft or Sony takes about a billion dollars to do. Manufacturing needs millions of units in order to have a hope of being profitable. 10,000 backers is tiny. Obviously, more customers may line up to buy an AtariBox once it’s actually available, but if their initial manufacturing batch is only in the tens of thousands, there’s no way Atari will make enough money on it to create a viable brand ecosystem for developers to create new games for it.

The worst thing about this (if AtariBox is indeed real and actually ships on time) is that if Tempest 4000 isn’t really an AtariBox exclusive, then once again we have zero first party exclusive launch titles for the console.

It’s shameful if today’s “Atari” are perpetrating a fraud on consumers, exploiting the good will and nostalgia for the real Atari brand that the current company owns the rights to. If this does turn out to be a massive hoax, I can only hope that it doesn’t destroy the Atari name forever, and that the guilty parties are prosecuted and punished. It might be fitting for Atari’s brand to be dissolved in such a situation, and given to reputable and responsible people to curate. People such as Albert Yarusso of AtariAge.com, who have created a niche cottage industry around homebrew development of new Atari carts would be more deserving of ownership of the brand.

Update: According to Hardcore Gamer, Ivan Zorzin has now confirmed that Tempest 4000 will have an AtariBox port. If this is indeed true, it’s amazing if Zorzin continues to be an employee of Llamasoft after the damage to Atari’s reputation as a result of the confusion his original post sparked.  Regardless of whether T4K is going to be a launch title or not, there’s still plenty of good reason to remain skeptical of Atari’s claims for the system, and even if Atari delivers fully on all of their promises, the system will have its work cut out for it to carve a niche out of the current videogame market.  Atari will need everything to go completely flawlessly and better than expected if is to have any hope of lasting success.

If I could design the AtariBox…

Atari’s crowdfunding campaign for the AtariBox (or VCS, as they’ve taken to calling it) is underway and has reached the $2.5 million mark, with 25 days left in its IndieGoGo campaign.

My initial interest in the new console has been dimmed by the lack of concrete information about what it would be and what games would be available for it.

We now have some of that information, at least in terms of hardware specs. But we still haven’t seen much in the way of a list of new game titles that will be accompanying the launch. AtariBox will not be compelling enough to gamers if it does not offer a library of exclusive new game titles that are fun to play, and not available on existing platforms.

I’m not opposed to the idea of a new Atari console at all; done right, I think it could be great. The concept of a neo-retro game console is appealing. Atari’s approach is to use emulation to deliver the retro, and commodity x64 hardware to provide the modern.

The problem with this is that the specs aren’t impressive to modern gamers, and this amounts to a “me too” approach that will not provide Atari a means to differentiate themselves in the market. History has shown that the home console market can support at best 3 major competitors, and it’s unthinkable that a rebooted Atari can knock any of the established Big 3 out of the market.

Home consoles are dominated by Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo. Desktop gaming is dominated by Windows. Mobile device gaming is dominated by Google and Apple. I’m very doubtful that nostalgia alone can give Atari the leverage it needs to re-enter the market. Not when Atari’s IP has already been re-packaged and sold on every available platform to be launched since the NES.

And we still don’t really know what new games will be launched on the console.

Atari needs to deliver something unique. And it has to be good.

Here’s what I’d do, if I were Atari.

Best Legacy

To properly honor Atari’s legacy platforms, I would include FPGA implementations of the Atari 2600, 5200, 7800, and 8-bit computer line. FPGA implementation of original hardware is the best way to provide the most authentic experience of Atari’s legacy. It would quiet objections of “But I can already run an emulator!” The state of emulation is very, very good, but an FPGA would be the ultimate.

I don’t think it would be too difficult to implement, either. The Atari 7800 was backward-compatible with the 2600, and achieved this by including the complete 2600 system in its hardware design. So by implementing an FPGA-based 7800, you get the 2600 as well. The Atari 5200 was essentially an Atari 8-bit computer, stripped down to remove the disk drives and keyboard to make it a dedicated gaming console. So a FPGA solution for the 5200/8-bit computers can share a lot of common components as well. Make both FPGAs a superset of the hardware needed to support the largest system, while keeping compatibile with all systems.

We can’t forget about Atari Coin-op’s legacy. Here, there’s too many unique system architectures to be able to re-implement each of them in an FPGA, so here I think we can accept emulation.

It would be neat if Atari would sell actual arcade cabinets that you can dock an AtariBox into, and use it to drive a more authentic arcade experience for those who have the budget and floor space for it. Modular, interchangeable control decks that can plug into the cabinet and provide the exact control set and layouts for classic arcade games would be amazing. Even just selling kits or blueprints to enable enterprising hobbyists to build-their-own cabinets to an Atari-defined standard would be great.

For less well-heeled fans of the arade, the AtariBox could still be played through a normal TV, with a gamepad-type controller adapting to each Coin-op title as best it can.

What legacy game titles should be included?

Ideally, all of them, of course. First party, third party, everything.

Copyright won’t allow that, of course. But it would be great if the entire Atari library, including third party releases, could be included.

But undoutedly, any list of essential games for Atari consoles would include games published by third parties, and they deserve to be included. The rights to these games would be a nightmare to properly secure. Personally, I’m in favor of expiring copyright on old computer software much earlier than the law currently does. A 10 or 12 year copyright, non-renewable, is more than reasonable. It’s just a dream, but then this entire post is just a dream.

I suppose if we had to accept a curated list of game titles, I wouldn’t miss the terrible games, but I don’t know that everyone can agree on what’s terrible. Since the size on disk for these games is tiny, there’s no technical reason not to include everything.

While I’m thinking about it, I also want the ability to install my own ROMs. Hacks and homebrews are a part of the Atari ecosystem, and should be embraced by the new console. Installing them should be as simple as copying the files to a directory.

Along with the ROM images, customers should expect high-quality digital copies of the manuals, original box art, etc. Since this is a fully modern console, why not develop a robust social community around each game title, as well? Online high score leaderboards, discussion forums, built-in streamcasting support, the works. The community integration features would make owning an AtariBox a must even for gamers who already own all the original hardware.

What peripherals devices should be supported?

This is a tougher question. I’m inclined to want every port and connector to be replicated on the new box, so that the old devices can be plugged in and work, since it’s unlikely that Atari would ever resume manufacturing all of them. But that’s highly impractical, and cost-prohibitive.

Perhaps some kind of USB-to-legacy port adapters could be produced, so that the console itself can have just a small number of USB ports, and any legacy hardware can be routed through it.

Better would be modern production of updated classic designs. I really like Atari’s new take on the CX-40 joystick, and I wish they’d also produce a modern paddle controller as well.

Retro Modern

I really don’t want to play Skyrim or PUBG on an AtariBox. If I want to play modern games, I already have plenty of systems to do that. If it can do it on the AtariBox, then fine, whatever, but I don’t care.

Oyua tried to court Indie game developers, hoping that an open platform with low barrier to entry would be attractive. This approach had merit, but utlimately failed, and so I don’t endorse Atari taking the same approach.

I think it’s interesting and worth a sidebar to examine why Ouya failed.  There were more reasons than what I’ll go into here, but I think these are the ones that are most relevant to Atari in 2018.

First, Ouya tried to market itself as an indie-friendly console, that was easy to develop and publish for.  Every Ouya was a devkit.  The thing was, Ouya came at a time when it had already become incredibly easy for indie game developers to publish games. This wasn’t true several years previous to Ouya’s launch, but it was true by the time Ouya hit the market, and is even more true today. Maybe consoles were still hard to develop and publish on in 2012, but in the PC and mobile space, self-publishing has been very easy, and that’s where indie developers had thrived.

It still remains difficult, however, for indie developers to publish games that are financial successes.  There are a tiny number of notable successes where indie games have made their developers wealthy.  Most developers struggle to make enough money to cover development and operating expenses. Designing and making a very good game is still fairly difficult, but publishing it is comparatively easy. But it’s not enough to simply publish a very good game. You have to know how to market it. A lone indie developer has an almost impossible time doing it all well enough to stand out among thousands of games being released every year.  Many newly released games drown in a maelstrom of other new releases, failing to secure the attention they perhaps deserved.

Second, Ouya didn’t provide indies with a compelling reason to release their games exclusively on Ouya, and the lack of exclusive titles gave gamers little reason to pay attention to Ouya. Ouya started with a lot of crowdfunding hype, but tiny marketshare, and it needed to grow marketshare quickly to be viable.  But they lacked first-party games, and this was a major mistake.  Ouya failed to command market attention, didn’t build marketshare, and thus wasn’t attractive as a market for third party game developers to target with exclusives. It could run games that already ran on other platforms.  But it wasn’t particularly powerful, so couldn’t play everything.  Atari seems to be doing exactly the same thing with AtariBox.

Ouya was based on Android, which in turn was based on Linux, so game developers who wanted to reach the widest possible market were better off developing games for Android which has hundreds of millions of devices, or Linux.  AtariBox is also based on Linux. Ouya lacked the deep pockets that would have been needed to pay developers for exclusive rights to a game, so Ouya never had a “killer app” that would compel gamers to buy Ouya.

Until I see them announce some exclusive new first-party titles, I see the same happening to Atari. Atari can and must learn from this if it wants the AtariBox to be successful, and I haven’t yet seen indication that it has.

The AtariBox we’re getting from Atari is just a nice looking x86/64 system, meaning it’s generic PC hardware that can play games developed to run on this hardware, which means potentially a very large library of pre-existing games. But pre-existing games aren’t enough to compel users to buy a new device. It’s good for developers because they don’t really have to do much to make a game run on the AtariBox, but it’s bad for AtariBox because the same games can be compiled to run on Xbox One, or Playstation 4, or Nintendo Switch, or Windows, or Android, or iOS, and people already own those.

What I would have liked from Atari would be imaginative interpretations of what could have been, if Atari had stayed in business.

In the early 80’s, the differences between different systems were much more apparent. A game might be developed and released on Atari 2600, 5200, ColecoVision, IntelliVision, Oddyssey2, Commodore 64, Apple ][, and IBM PC, ZX Spectrum, MSX, etc. but it would be written from scratch, or ported to each specific hardware architecture, each of which had its own distinct capabilities and limitations. Limitations which, especially for the more primitive sysetms, gave all games for that system a somewhat distinct appearance. This meant that, even if you had never seen a particular game before, you could look at a screen shot for a game and have a pretty good chance of being able to guess what system it was running on.

With today’s computers, and their 64-bit, multi-core, multi-gigaHertz CPUs, multiple gigabytes of RAM and Terabytes of Storage, 32-bit color and 1080P or 4K resolution, there is nearly limitless capability, but barely any constraints. Game developers are free to make games that look like anything. But yet they mostly make games that look the same — only, the constraint is the market success of whatever the best selling games are — design tends to converge on the look of the top AAA titles.

Those constraints that the old systems had often served to inspire creativity, out of necessity to work around the limitations of tiny, slow systems. In recent years, “fantasy consoles” such as the PICO-8 have turned back to this idea that small systems with harsh constraints can inspire creativity while achieving a greater unity of aesthetic.

It would be very cool if Atari embraced this, by designing a “fantasy console” to run neo-retro Atari games on. This fantasy console could be a virtual machine, and run on commodity hardware, which would help keep costs down and also give the AtariBox capabilities where and when it needs them — for things like media streaming and so forth.

I think that Atari could design a flexible fantasy console, with soft constraints that are configurable, to be managed by the game developer, who could relax them by degrees to simulate hardware constraints that would have been in place in 1977, or 1982, or 1984, etc. A configurable fantasy console could impose limitations such as: number of sprites that can be drawn to the screen, number of colors per sprite, number of colors displayed simultaneously in one frame, number and type of sound channels, specific color palettes available to the graphics system, amount of memory available to the game program, and on and on.

This would give AtariBox games a specific flavor, and make its games look and feel distinctly unique from the current modern-day look.

We won’t be getting any of that, but I think it’s an interesting idea. And there’s no reason Atari couldn’t give us a neo-retro fantasy console to develop for and run exclusively on the AtariBox hardware, without changing anything else about how they’re doing the actual AtariBox.

The way to attract developers to create exclusive titles for the AtariBox is simple: Pay them, and respect them. I doubt that Atari has the pocket book for this, but if they could pay indie developers say, six figure salaries, and/or royalties, to create unique and exclusive games for an AtariBox fantasy console, I’d be very excited — both as a gamer and as a developer. The current industry is incredibly competitive and harsh, and the way it treats developers is not sustainable.

What about the GAMES?

The most important thing about the AtariBox, as with any game console ever released, is the games it plays.  AtariBox must have good, unique, exclusive games that excite the market and make people feel compelled to own the console, or it will be a flop.

I can’t answer the question, “what do people want?”  But I can say, if AtariBox’s new games are just the same modern titles that are available on existing consoles, it will not excite the market or compel buyers.

I can better answer the question “what do I want?”

I don’t really want Atari to try to do modern AAA games with old classic IP.  You can easily envision Atari putting a Pitfall Harry skin over Lara Croft Tomb Raider, or making “Combat 2018” as a Call of Duty/Medal of Honor/Battlefield FPS.  I don’t want more of the same, “me too” games like that.

What I would rather have is new games that continue the aesthetic and style of the early 80’s Atari. That’s the main reason I suggest AtariBox use a “fantasy console” approach, to constrain developers to those limits.  There isn’t really a word for it — I guess retro is it — but if you can imagine what Steampunk did for science fiction based on an 1890s world, I’d like AtariBox to do for videogames based on a 1980s world.  I want games that answer questions like: “What would Pitfall 3 have been like, if they’d done it on the 7800?” “What kind of games could have been made for an Atari with 1 megabyte cartridges and 128 kilobytes of RAM?”

Games like Solaroids and Rashlander would be right at home on a console like this.  Pac Man: Championship Edition, which came out over a decade ago on Xbox 360, would also be a natural fit for this console.  (I bought my Xbox 360 solely because of Pac Man CE.) These titles already exist though, and that kindof begs the question of why the AtariBox is even needed.  Retro games already exist, and exist on multiple modern platforms.

But I do think AtariBox would be best off targeting the market that wants to play that kind of game.  Atari has trademarks that they can reboot, and if they do it the retro way, rather than trying to bring them up to date, with the right talent behind it, it could be awesome.  As AtariBox exclusive titles, it could make the system a success.  And without them, I don’t see how it can be.

Atari launches IndiGoGo pre-order for AtariBox (VCS)

Atari’s crowdfunding campaign for the AtariBox (VCS) launched earlier today. [Editor’s Note: I am refusing to call it the VCS in order to avoid polluting the namespace with the original Atari VCS, launched in 1977.] With a fundraising goal of just $100k, by 10AM they had already exceeded their funding goal by almost 8x. $100,000 is barely one full-time employee salary for a project like this.

Despite the lack of detailed information about what the AtariBox is, and the loud skepticism of most of the gamer community, it seems that thousands of suckers are eagerly lining up to pre-order a videogame console that Atari don’t plan to release until mid-2019.

The announced specs for this system are more than adequate to serve as an emulation box for vintage 80’s game systems, but that’s hardly surprising, considering that emulation of the Atari 2600 has been around for at least 22 years (Stella was released in 1996, when computers were considered fast if they had 133Mhz CPU and 16 MB of RAM. The MOS 6507 CPU that drove the Atari 2600 had a 1Mhz CPU and could access up to 128 bytes of on-board RAM. That’s bytes, not kilobytes.) But as to its “modern” gaming capabilties, thehardware specs of the AtariBox is about on par with a high end gaming PC from 2006 (4GB RAM, 32GB onboard storage). The AMD Bristol Ridge CPU and Radeon R7 GPU — I would have to assume based on Atari’s form factor this will be an R7 240 — are obviously more current, but still old (AMD’s Bristol Ridge was launched in 2016, so still pretty current, but the Radeon R7 line dates from 2014, and is decidedly midrange and budget at a sub-$100 pricepoint today).

It appears that coincident with the launch of the pre-order, Atari is also, only just now, starting to work out a process for game developers to submit titles to Atari for publishing on the AtariBox platform. This gives the console a distinctly OUYA-like feel. I liked the idea of a console that was open to publishing for any indie developer, but in practice this strategy proved unsuccessful as Ouya attempted it, with hordes of low-quality shovelware published to the system by developers who weren’t yet ready for prime time.

AtariBox Developers Announcement... This seems rather vague and "to be determined" for getting third-party developers on board, and they're ALREADY taking pre-orders?

This seems rather vague and “to be determined” for getting third-party developers on board, and they’re ALREADY taking pre-orders?

This gives me the feeling that Atari have no real clue about how to successfully launch a console in 2018.

Still, you can pre-order just the controllers, and I do kindof like the design of Atari’s contemporary take on the classic CX10/CX40 joystick. If the build quality is good, and if it will work with any PC over USB or Bluetooth, then it might be worthwhile to get one. But putting $$$ down on a pre-order and then waiting at least year for it, if they are able to launch on time, is definitely a gamble.

Beyond that, I can’t recommend pre-ordering anything. Wait for launch, and see whether Atari has any decent first-party launch titles supporting the AtariBox, and if there are any killer exclusive titles that make the console a must-own device. It seems unlikely to me — pretty much any game developer wants to maximize sales, and you do that by publishing to any and every platform that you can, not by going exclusive. Exclusive titles tend to happen only when the owner of the platform wants to pay the developer a mountain of cash to keep the title exclusive. Think Microsoft buying Bungie in order to keep Halo exclusive on the XBox. I haven’t seen any indication from Atari that they have the inclination or the deep pockets to do this.

AtariBox/VCS smells like vapor, poop

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.

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2018/03/22/atari_lempty_box/

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.

Lol. OK. Here’s CNet’s slightly more forgiving coverage.

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:

  1. 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.
    Atari 2600

    +

    Image result for 80s cable tv box

    =

    AtariBox
    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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. It plays old games AND new games!

    Old 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.

    New games:

    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.