Tag: homebrew

Boulderdash by Andrew Davie

Boulderdash was a classic early 80s videogame. I remember seeing advertisements for it, but I don’t think I ever had a chance to play it. It was available on many platforms, and for some reason I think it was more popular on personal computers of the day (DOS, Apple ][, Commodore, Atari, Amiga) than it was on consoles.

Andrew Davie is a programming legend in the Atari homebrew scene. For the past year-plus, he has been developing a Boulderdash remake on the Atari 2600 that is incredible. It runs on a stock system, no special hardware mods needed, thanks to an ARM chip in the cartridge. That ARM chip is a significant power boost to the processing capabilities of the system, so really the console is just relaying controller input to the computer inside the cartridge, which uses the VCS’s Television Interface Adapter (TIA) chip to draw to the screen. The results are far beyond the normal capabilities of the 1977-vintage hardware. And the program does things that you have to see to believe. If you run this game next to a 2k launch title like Combat or Slot Racers, you wouldn’t believe that it’s running on the same exact hardware. It’s a 32kb ROM, as compared to the 2kb or 4kb of most Atari 2600 games.

Davie has announced through his website that he has obtained permission from the owners of the Boulderdash IP to release just 100 individually serialized copies of the game ROM will be produced, and they are not redistributable — this means that one may not legally obtain the ROM from anyone other than Andrew Davie, who is giving them away for free, but only for 100 lucky Atari fans. This is a must-have for an Atari collector.

It’s my hope that the Demo will be followed up by a full version of the game, hopefully in unlimited quantities. Nothing has been announced formally, but the “demo” label implies that there should be more to come. But it’s possible that the Demo may be all that he will be authorized to release.

The graphics are higher resolution than the 2600 is normally capable of displaying, very detailed, more objects on the screen, more colors, it has music, animation, parallax scrolling, asymmetrical playfields, everything that you would not expect to be possible with the stock Atari 2600 hardware. It’s literally incredible.

Reacting to Homebrewer responses to AtariAge discontinuing ports

Recently, Atari Age announced that it would no longer sell IP-encumbered products in its store, and would be putting those titles that they planned to discontinue on sale through July 23 of this year.

The Zero Page Homebrew people recently put out a collection of statements by the various luminary developers in the Homebrew scene, and posted them on Facebook as well as covered the news on their video stream.

I have a lot of things to say about this stuff. So, in the spirit of copyright infringement for the common good, I’ve “stolen” the images of each developer’s statements, and offer my reaction to them below. I am nobody special, I just happen to care.

It’s good to see that Champ Games intends to continue developing original games and may pursue licensing rights for ports.

It’s unfortunately a bit naive of Champ Games to announce that they plan to continue to sell ROMs of their IP-encumbered ports. The ROM files are just as subject to IP infringement liability as a physical cartridge is.

I’m reading between the lines a bit, but it seems like Atari Age’s decision to discontinue these games is a pre-emptive effort on their part to limit their legal liability in the event they get sued, and not necessarily a result of any specific takedown effort on the part of the rights holders.

The thing about this is, Atari Age have been operating in this grey market area for many years, and ceasing operations doesn’t absolve them of liability for past transgressions. In principle, the rights holders could go after Atari Age and its affiliates, partners, etc. at any time.

In fact, Atari Age did have to take down Princess Rescue, an Atari 2600 de-make of Super Mario Bros, due to legal action from Nintendo, who are notoriously litigious and vigorous when it comes to protecting their IP.

Legal action can take many forms, from a simple “cease and desist” action to out-of-court settlements, to civil lawsuits to settle tort claims, to criminal charges that could result in fines, imprisonment, etc. There may be statutes of limitations, and a rights holder may or may not wish to take action to protect its IP. Without explicit permission, there’s always the risk that one day some IP holder will wake up and take notice, or decide that “now’s the time” and take action. This hangs like a sword of Damocles over the head of Atari Age and anyone else who chooses to ignore the legal risks of using IP without permission.

Atari Age have managed to operate for many years at a small scale, but the longer they continue to do so, the greater the chances of some IP owner taking notice and taking action. Given the potential liabilities, such action could very easily result in a complete shutdown of all operations, even for fully original works, simply because the IP owner could conceivably be awarded a judgement so large that the infinger is forced into bankruptcy, or due to a legal injunction.

This is true whether you sell or simply give away the works you’re infringing on.

So it does make sense for Atari Age to recognize these risks do exist, and rational for them to want to limit and minimize their exposure.

So the safest way forward would be to completely purge the all infringing material from the store and the website. Leaving IP infringing ROMs available for sale or free download still carries with it risk.

This is unfortunate, and it would seem desirable for the laws to change to somehow be more accommodating for public domain and free use/fair use involving abandoned or inactive IP. But changing the law takes a lot of effort, and we can’t expect that it will happen any time soon, if ever.

So the existing “proper channels” of seeking permission is really the only practical way forward. And even that is very difficult, making it practically out of the reach of many would-be developers, and if the IP owner says “no” there’s basically no recourse available.

Mogno’s statement alludes to the possibility of implementing the rules of a game (which are not copyrightable) to create a new/original work. In other words, a clone game. Conceivably, if you wanted to make a game exactly like Burger Time, you could make the same game but make it about something else, say making Tacos or Pizza, and give it a safe title that couldn’t be construed as diluting the Burger Time trademark or brand, something like Tacomania perhaps. This approach can work to a greater or lesser extent, but it almost never feels as satisfying as playing the “real thing”. That is to say, the trademarked name, characters, etc. all do have real value and contribute to the desirability of the game, and taking these elements out does take something away from the game.

Many of the homebrew port projects have chosen to “soft clone” a game, by making a game that looks and plays as close to the original as possible, but has a title which “parodies” the original, or is a “take-off” of the original title: eg, Qyx is a clone of Qix; RubyQ is a clone of Q*Bert; Galagon is a clone of Galaga; Robot War: 2684 is a clone of Robotron: 2084; etc. How much this actually affords any legal sanctuary for the clone developers is rather dubious, and would need to be tested in courts. Even if the defendants were to win in court, the costs of defending yourself in court is best avoided. Homebrew developers don’t have the legal resources to stand up to corporate legal teams with deep pockets.

Whether you call these games clones, ports, remakes, or de-makes, homebrew games that use unauthorized IP without seeking license are labors of love crafted by hobbyists and shared with the world in homage to a product that could not feasibly be brought to market as a traditional business venture. Many games adapted by homebrewers were never ported to the Atari 2600 at all, or if a port did get an official release back in the day, the homebrew scene can often produce a version of considerably higher quality.

Over time, these homage projects by hobbyists grew in scope and ambition, to the point where people were producing physical cartridges at a level of quality and presentation that rivaled the best professional efforts of real businesses.

This unfortunately blurs the lines between what might be considered “fan” projects and what would more appropriately concern a legal department of some rights holder of some dormant IP that they might feel needs to be protected lest they lose it.

The internet likewise removes many barriers, making it possible for communities to develop who have a common interest in sharing works, for these operations to scale, and to become easy to find — both by other developers and fans as well as IP owners and their lawyers — and easier to scale.

But rather than calling these games “ports” or “clones” or “ripoffs”, I’d like to advocate for calling them “covers”. Much like one musician will “cover” a song written by another artist, creating a new version of the song that has its own distinct merit as a work of art, we can have multiple game developers “covering” the classics, creating their own unique spin in their own signature style. This is something I would very much like to see embraced and encouraged in the video game world. The founders of Activision, the first third party game developer, thought of themselves as “rock stars” who wanted their names to become as famous as their games. Given that real rock stars often cover each others’ songs, I think it’s a great metaphor to extend to the video game industry.

Let developers cover other developers. Let developers remix and sample old games. Let artists do art with video games. Intellectual Property law needs to evolve to recognize the legitimacy of these long-standing and established traditions, and provide for their protection as part of “fair use”.

Games and art existed long before intellectual property law. There are many games which exist in the public domain today. Classic games like Chess, checkers, card games, etc. all can be made by anyone.

Anyone can paint a painting of a subject, interpreting it in their unique way and putting their unique spin or style to it. In many ways, the re-creation of a videogame, especially porting it to a different hardware platform, is an act of creation analogous to an artist painting their own version of some subject.

It is only human to wish to have the freedom to create such artwork. An idea for a game can be created in any number of unique ways, interpreted differently by different creators. And just as some subjects have been painted countless times by thousands of artists, software developers often have the same creative urge to express themselves by creating their own version of some video game. The difference is that video games tend to be commercial properties that are owned by corporations who want to protect their limited monopoly right granted to them by copyright and trademark laws. This stifles and stymies a would-be developer from creating their version of Pac Man or Tetris or Mario in a way that an artist is never restricted from creating their version of a bowl of fruit or Christ on the cross. But a game programmer yearns for the same freedom as the artist.

It would be nice if somehow we could have it, and exercise it without injury to some business that would be able to respond seeking legal remedy. Sadly there is very little to no such safe space for this sort of art to exist.

Squatters rights is a legal concept which says, in essence, that abandoned property can be claimed by someone who takes it.

We could really use something akin to this concept for video games.

There’s a movement to recognize abandonware rights, an idea that if a piece of software is released and sold for a time, and then is discontinued and no longer sold, that the public still has an interest in obtaining and using a copy of the software, indefinitely. This happens much sooner than the expiration of copyright, though, leaving “abandoned” products in a gray area where they cannot be legally obtained by a market that has interest in them, other than to obtain an existing (ie used) copy that was produced when the product was actively being brought to market by its owner.

Abandonware would cover the public’s interest to move video game works into the public domain once they exit the “First Market” (eg, when they are discontinued, perhaps after a certain period during which the original owner has declined to bring them back to the market) so that the public can continue to produce copies of the work in order to meet demand beyond what the “Secondary Market” (eg, used game stores, flea markets) is capable of satisfying.

But we also should lobby for legal protection for developers who would like to make their own version of their favorite game, or to create a version of that game for a system it was never officially released on, or to create variants on a theme introduced by a game, or to “remix”, or to tinker in other ways, such as bug fixes, “cheats”, and other “hacks”.

It’s not to say that the original creator or rights holder should stop having all rights afforded them under IP law, but that the balance currently favors them too much, and for far too long.

When I was in school, I learned that in the pre-industrialized world there was a system of apprentice and masters, of guilds, and so forth, and that was how knowledge of the trades and useful arts was handed down through generations. An apprentice artist would often be required to create an exact copy of a masterpiece painting, whether as part of their training, or to create duplicates of important works so that they could be enjoyed more widely. This was in a time before photography, before telecommunications, so the only way to copy a painting was by hand, and to do it required great skill to match the technique used in creating the original to a faithful degree so fine that it took an expert to know the difference between the original work and the copy.

I think a lot of programmers, game designers, and developers have an instinct to want to do something similar with video games, to be able not to copy them in the trivial way afforded by binary data systems supporting digital file copying, but to look at the original and learn the techniques of the master and attempt to replicate them faithfully to the best of their ability.

We like to do this as much as we like to work on our own ideas. Howard Scott Warshaw’s point that creating is very different from copying is of course valid, but both are legitimate pursuits for a creator. Some of us are very good at ports, while lacking the design skills to create new original works. But we should not devalue porting because of that, and we should not prohibit all ports that are not explicitly authorized by some “rightful owner”. For a time, certainly, the rights of the creator should prevail. But after some time, a limited time, the works should enter into the public domain. The current length of copyright for software, particularly video games, was adapted from print media, when it should have been modified to better suit the different nature of digital platforms.

To the extent that some in the homebrew scene will continue, with renewed focus on more new original works, that’s of course welcome and great.

But I would think that most people working on a new idea will want to explore it on a newer platform. There are homebrew projects to create original works for obsolete systems, and there always have been.

But if you were going to create something new and original, unless you wanted to take on the challenge of the additional constraints imposed by developing for outdated hardware with severely limited resources, you’d probably target modern platforms. So a lot of new/original development energy tends to be pointed at modern platforms.

Yet there’s an undeniable appeal to creating games for older systems — particularly taking some favorite, old game, that was developed contemporary to some old system, but never for that system, and “fill in the gap” by putting out a version ported to that system that had never existed previously, like Galaga or Robotron 2084, or were very poorly done, such as Pac Man, or a sequel to a great game like Pitfall or Adventure.

Another fun challenge for a developer is be to take a Sega Genesis game (such as Sonic the Hedgehog) and see if you can capture its essence and replicate it on a game console that predated it by something like a dozen years. Whether you have permission to use Sonic or not, that’s a fantastic challenge, and to develop such a game for private enjoyment, while not getting to share it with the world is a bit like running in the Boston Marathon without any spectators being allowed to partake in the excitement of the day.

Could Chris Spry have developed Zippy the Porcupine (the Sonic the Hedgehog Atari2600 de-make) privately and allowed the obscurity and anonymity shield him from Sega lawyers? Certainly. But wasn’t the public nature of the product something that enriched everyone who learned of its existence, or got to play it?

No marathon runner who runs today is the original messenger from Greek antiquity who ran to the city of Marathon with important news… But we don’t hold that against them, do we? And we who stand streetside observing the spectacle of this event are enriched by it, even though the first Marathon runner is long dead and doesn’t get any royalties from it.

I’ve already touched on these points, above. The “last chance” sale is a kindness to the fans who have kept obsolete video gaming platforms alive for decades after they exited the market. But it’s not free of legal liability, and could in fact expose Atari Age to greater risk due to the attention the sale is getting, the increased awareness of the topic of the homebrew scene and of its intersection with IP law.

It’s a bit arbitrary where the line is to be drawn with respect to what’s a liability that needs to go, and what isn’t. Why isn’t Medieval Mayhem and Space Rocks a part of the sale? Medieval Mayhem was an Atari coin-op game for the arcade, back in the 80s. How is an unauthorized remake of it on the 2600 it not IP-encumbered? Space Rocks is just a really well done port of Asteroids, surely it assumes some non-zero amount of risk as well.

DeCrezenzo is a titan of the homebrew scene, and if he is indeed leaving due to this, it is truly a sad thing. If there was a Hall of Fame for homebrew developers, he’d be a charter member. He’s had a long “career” in the scene, with many, many contributions, so even if he simply retired, he’ll have at least left behind a monumental legacy… of games which sadly will no longer be made due to the legal realities that encumber this hobby.

If there’s a positive thing to be taken away from this, it’s that there are developers who will continue to remain in the scene, and will shift their focus to developing new game ideas. This is exiting.

As much as we like the familiar games we know, that never existed on a home console, or were never done justice in their official home port, there’s still tremendous potential in the system — even 45 years after its release, and 30 years on from its official exit from the primary marketplace.

That’s nothing short of remarkable, and if the new original games that we’re sure to see in the coming years stack up as well as the remakes and ports that we were fortunate to get to experience, the future is as bright as ever for fans, enthusiasts, and collectors of classic gaming consoles.

Long live the Atari 2600. And long live Atari Age!

Atari Age announces final sale of homebrew arcade ports

Copyright, Trademark, abandoned properties, lawyers.

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

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

For many reasons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Xanthiom: an Atari 2600 demake, homage to Metroid

A day ago, a video of an Atari 2600 homebrew for a Metroid de-make was posted on Reddit. I’m used to seeing these types of post and then losing track of the project as nothing happens for months or years. But this developer, MathanGames is working very quickly, it looks like in Batari Basic, and has already released a ROM.

The first two releases had a vertical jitter bug that gave the game a feeling like you were playing in a world prone to frequent earthquakes, which made jumping gaps somewhat dicey, but the 3rd build seems to have eliminated this defect, and is more playable. To hopefully avoid copyright/trademark infringement problems from the notoriously litigious Nintendo, the project has been renamed Xanthiom.

The game is not really attempting to port Metroid, exactly, but there’s a many familiar features: missiles,energy tanks, jump boots, wave beam, varia suit all make appearances. But there’s no morph ball, no bombs, no vertical shooting, no ice beam, and no screw attack. The starting world feels like Brinstar, and is joined by elevator pad to an area that seems to be Norfair, but the map layout is different, so it’s only very loosely based on Metroid, more homage than port.

Still, you’ll find doors to shoot, red doors require a missile, of course. A few of the enemies from Metroid also appear: Zoomers, Rippers, Rio,, and Skree. Even the mini-bosses, Ridley and Kraid, even a fake Ridley.. or is that a Space Pirate? Sadly, no Mother Brain, no Metroids (unless I haven’t found them yet.)

There’s no musical score, but there are sound effects for shooting and getting hit.

Controls are pretty awkward; it feels like the jump mechanics could use some polish. And some of enemies don’t collide with the backgrounds, so pass right through walls.

I love it. I’m hoping that the developer continues with this project, adding more to it, because what’s here already shows a great deal of promise, and I love playing NES de-makes on Atari 2600.

Altogether, this has a feel similar to Princess Rescue, but I think it feels better. Not terribly challenging, unless you count the rather awkward jumping, but you’ll enjoy playing through it in 20 or 30 minutes.


Strike Zone Bowling 2nd beta

The guys developing Strike Zone Bowling accepted some of my feedback and released a 2nd Beta recently. I just played it, and these are minor improvements but polish is everything once you have the core game defined, and these definitely improve the game.

They fixed the arrows on the lane, so that they are drawn like a real bowling lane.

Corrected lane arrows for a more authentic experience.

They also added a scaling effect so that the ball shrinks slightly as it moves down the alley, adding to the faux 3D effect. I guess you’d call this a 2D perspective game, rather than a 3D game?

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

Anyway, I had only the tiniest part in these improvements, but I DID suggest them and they DID implement them, and that makes me feel fantastic. It’s already a gift that these homebrew developers are giving the Atari community new games to play 45 years on after the 2600 was new. These tiny little changes are almost like a personalized gift to me. Thanks to easmith and kevinmos3 for their excellent work on this game.

Strike Zone Bowling homebrew for Atari 2600 beta is amazing

Playing the Atari 2600 as much as I did as a kid, I never thought that its graphical capabilities were amazing. I could see arcade games from 19879-82, and tell that the Atari 2600 wasn’t capable of the same graphics, even if I didn’t really know why. It just seemed to make sense that a bigger machine that probably cost a lot more and only did one thing would be capable of doing it better than a smaller, less expensive machine that didn’t take up as much space and could do seemingly anything.

Comparing arcade ports to the 2600, we knew to expect that the graphics wouldn’t be as good, but usually the gameplay was just as good, if not better. It seemed like the difficulty was tuned to be a little bit more fun, a little less punishing, on the home console. And that made sense, too. In the arcade, the business model was to suck quarters out of pockets as quickly as possible, and that meant high difficulty, while at home they wanted you to enjoy playing the game for extended periods, so that you would want to seek out more games to buy.

Some arcade ports were more disappointing than others, and that was usually due to ROM space limitations preventing full featured ports. It might be a missing level, or it might be some other compromise, something they had to leave out because they couldn’t fit everything in. Sometimes it was limitations imposed by the single-button joystick being unable to replicate all the control options on the arcade cabinet.

A game like Strike Zone Bowling, a work-in-progress homebrew game for the Atari 2600, would have blown our young minds back then. It’s still fantastic now. Look at these screen captures:

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

The developer of this game has brilliantly worked within the 2600’s limitations. If you know how the 2600 draws graphics, it’s easy to see that. The 2600 does not have a screen buffer, so it draws its graphics to the display in real-time. That is, while the electron beam of the television is traversing the screen to excite the phosphors of the cathode ray tube, the Atari 2600 is sending data out the video cable to generate the signal the TV turns into a picture, generating it just in time. Sprite objects, stored in the ROM data on the cartridge as 1-bit bitmaps, are drawn one horizontal row at a time, and between each row the programmer can do clever things like change the drawing color, change the scale, mirror the image, and draw duplicates. The hardware can only draw two sprites to the screen, but if the programmer wants, they can reposition those sprites during draw time, and change the bitmap data used to draw them, to create the effect of more than two sprites. The hardware also supports the ability to draw two additional “missile” objects and a “ball” — but with even more limitations. And finally, the hardware can support drawing background graphics, meaning a background color plus a playfield. The playfield graphics are lower-resolution than the sprites for Player 1 and Player 2. And that’s it.

These limitations make the Atari much better at drawing graphics that are composed of vertically stacked rows of horizontal data.

You’ve come a long way, baby

We had a commercially-released Bowling game for the 2600 — it was called Bowling. And it was, if you can believe it, good.

Fun to play, decently challenging, especially if you were trying to score above 200, the 1978 Bowling game was perfectly acceptable, and well within expectations for what a video game was at the time. And 45 years later, Strike Zone Bowling absolutely blows it away.

If you look at the screen of Bowling, we can see that the developer was working “against the grain” when it came to drawing the screen. The player, ball, and pin graphics are all in the same horizontal row, and this necessitates use of the available hardware sprites on each row. It seems that the playfield graphics aren’t used here, and that the sprites are used to draw the scores for each player, the on-screen bowler, and and the bowling ball, while the pins and gutters might be drawn using the “missile” or “ball” graphics — to know for sure, we’d need to decompile the ROM and read the assembly code.

The designer of Bowling made the decision that because bowling alley lanes are long and narrow, using the longer horizontal axis of the TV screen’s 4:3 display made the most sense.

This new Strike Zone Bowling takes a more sophisticated approach, and presents the game from the bowler’s POV, or rather from behind the back of the bowler, looking down the lane. Use of perspective and foreshortening enables the full length of the alley to be compressed visually to fit in the screen. By doing this, the programmer is able to use row-by-row color changes to give an enhanced illusion of depth, creating a 3D-like effect. This also has the benefit of having fewer objects to draw at each horizontal row, meaning that the hardware sprites, missiles, and balls, can all be used together to create composite images that are composed of more colors than would otherwise be possible.

The game is also a lot larger, 32KB of ROM as opposed to the 2KB of the 1978 Bowling. This additional space is used to create a more full experience of going to a bowling alley, renting shoes, celebrating strikes and spares, and chilling out after the game by the pool table or at an arcade game. This gives the game more narrative elements and almost a story as opposed to simply simulating the game of bowling, it aims to simulate the total experience of going to a bowling alley.

As amazing as this beta is, it could be even better. The bowler is always right-handed, but it seems like it could be fairly simple to add left-handed bowlers by mirroring the graphics and the controls. Graphically, the ball could scale slightly smaller as it moves further away from the bowler, to create a better simulation of 3D. The title screen music is a bit basic, and could be improved. That’s about it. There could be additional controls and simulation for ball weight and velocity, but I think it would take away from the simplicity of the game, and it doesn’t really need those things to feel complete and like a good challenge.

As is, the game is already a solid A-level effort.

Atari Age 2020 Pre-Order

Atari Age, the fan-operated homebrew operation that holds the most legitimate claim to the legacy of Atari-that-was, has opened up pre-orders for a new batch of games for the Atari 2600, 5200, 7800, and 400/800/XE systems, and even the Atari Jaguar.

Zoo Keeper - Champ Games - Atari 2600
Zoo Keeper (2021, Champ Games) – Atari 2600

I’m most excited about Zoo Keeper, a faithful port of the early 80’s arcade classic to the 2600 developed by Champ Games — who have been killing it with their talented Atari 2600 ports of classic arcade games like Galaga and the upcoming Robotron 2084 — and Ninjish Guy in Low-Res World, a homebrew platformer for the 2600 in the vein of Super Meat Boy. I’ve been looking forward to playing a 2600 homage to one of my top early 80’s arcade classics Zoo Keeper for quite some time.

Ninjish Guy - Atari 2600
Ninjish Guy in Low Res World

Also-worth-a-look releases are Deepstone Catacomb, a zelda-like adventure game, which looks really well done for an Atari 2600 title. Venture Reloaded, another early dungeon crawler, finally does justice to the classic arcade game Venture, should appeal to fans of the original.

Deepstone Catacombs - Atari 2600
Deepstone Catacomb

Fans of the maze genre should find Hugo Hunt and Robot City to their liking. Dare Devil shows off some impressive chiptune chops and parachuting action reminiscent of classic games like Frogger, Freeway, and of course Sky Diver. But it appears to be an update or direct sequel to 1983 release, Parachute. Cannon Head Clash is a really fun-looking 2p artillery duel with destructive terrain and frantic action. If you enjoyed games like Outlaw/Gunslinger, and Combat on the 2600, this is one to check out. It’s even available for SECAM60 television sets, which is amazingly rare for a homebrew. Avalanche should appeal to fans of Activision’s classic paddle game, Kaboom! Tower of Rubble features fantastic audio, and super-slick animation and platform-edge hanging action as you struggle to stay atop a crumbling tower of falling blocks.

All of these new games show that the Atari 2600, released now 43 years ago back in 1977, still has many extra lives nearly half a century later, and nearly three decades after the last Atari 2600 rolled off the assembly line. The dedication of the programmers who pull off these minor miracles to their craft is astounding. The fact is that every produced by the homebrew community these days are among the best ever released on their platform. While the prices might seem steep at $40-50 apiece, the games are produced by hand in small batches, and are every bit as professionally presented as the best games produced by top industry developers during the system’s heyday. If you’re a fan of the system and still have working hardware hooked up in your house, they are absolutely worth their price.

I haven’t even looked at the titles for the other systems yet, because my budget frankly can’t take it. Just about every game I have looked at looks like a game worth playing, with most of them being must-buys.

Homebrew hacks

Galaga, Champ Games, and enhanced cartridges

Champ Games announced a new project, an Atari 2600 port of Galaga.

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.

Galaga (Champ Games, Atari 2600) title screen
Galaga (Champ Games) title screen
Galaga bugs flying in from the left at the start of a wave.
The motion of the incoming wave is stunning!
Galaga fighter capture
Fighter capture looks impressive!

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.

I thought about how to express this properly, and the best analogy I could come up with is the stage magician David Copperfield. In 1983, David Copperfield performed a magic act where he made the Statue of Liberty “disappear”. Of course, he didn’t really make it disappear. It was an optical illusion done with misdirection, a rotating stage, and some very bright lights.

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.