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.
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?
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.
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:
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.