I learned today that I will be a speaker at GDEX 2019 in Columbus, OH, which will take place Oct. 11-13. This will be my first talk given at the conference. The talk will be entitled, Lost in Metropolis: Designing an interesting space with minimal resources in Superman (Atari, 1979).
I’ll post more information on this exciting development when I have it.
Atari gamer Marc Gallo has found a secret hidden Null Room in the game Superman (Atari, 1979). Accessed via direct manipulation of memory addresses in emulation, the room does not appear to be accessible through normal gameplay.
I believe this “room” is really just a memory location intended to store objects when they are off-screen, which can be displayed as a “room” in the game, but isn’t meant to be.
It’s interesting to me since I spent considerable time playing this game, and wrote an article some time ago, about the central role that the map and movement plays in the design of the game.
One of my favorite games on the Atari 2600 is Superman (1979), designed by John Dunn, and based on the program code from Adventure by Warren Robinett. This game has stayed with me to this day as one of my favorite games. I started playing it again recently, and began thinking about the different aspects of it that make it such an enjoyable game to play again, even 35 years after its release.
While it might appear to be a very basic game to a modern eye, in its day Superman had many innovative features. I won’t give it a full review here, but the one that I find most interesting is the game map. The world of Superman is much larger than most contemporary games of the era, most of which took place on a single, non-scrolling screen. The way the Superman’s map is laid out is confusing and non-intuitive, making the game very difficult for a new player, but once you start to gain a sense of how the different screens that make up the city are variously interconnected, it becomes possible to navigate very quickly through a number of methods which can be memorized with some effort and repetition. First-time players can take 15, even 30 minutes and up to win, while an experienced player who is familiar with navigation can often beat the game in under 2 minutes.
Tools: Paint.NET, and a 16×16 canvas, displayed at max zoom (3200%). Pixels were input using the Pencil, using the trackpad of my laptop. Nothing fancy at all!
After I felt satisfied with my work, I created an enlarged version at 512x512px, to make it a little easier to see.
I used a total of five colors: Yellow, blue, red, pink, black.
I started out just drawing a stick man in black. Once I had a basic figure, I started coloring in pants, picked blue for blue jeans, but then decided that the blue looked like a good Superman blue, so I decided to turn it into Superman.
Originally the drawing was more symmetrical, and seemed to be facing you. I shifted the neck over to the left one pixel, and (later, when I got to it) drew the S-shield off-center. Because the body is only 3px wide, I found it was especially important to allow myself to not be constrained by symmetry. Right-facing Superman hints at a three-dimensional appearance, as though we’re viewing him in 3/4 profile. It’s a tiny, but crucial detail, and shows just how little is needed to suggest dimension.
After deciding to turn the figure into Superman, I picked a red for the waist.
I drew the cape last. Since it uses the same red as the waist, I had a little bit of a problem where the cape touched the waist, causing them to blend together and the shapes became lost. To fix this, I added hands at the end of the arms — the left hand provides separation between the cape and the waist. Originally I was just going to leave the arms all blue, and not worry about hands, but having them proved very, er, handy, and enabled me to solve this problem.
Superman normally has red boots. I didn’t think they were necessary, and so didn’t bother to draw them. Just to test my guess, I tried making the bottom two pixels of each leg the same red as the cape and waist. I didn’t like it. I think keeping the legs a solid unit is more important than adding in the “detail” of the red boots.
Use this basic figure as the basis of other superheroes and see how many I can pull off in the 16×16 format.
Create animations for this figure, using as few frames as possible, to convey actions like: jumping, running, flight, fighting.
You might think that is as minimal as you can get and still have a recognizable superman, but in fact you’d be wrong. One of my favorite Atari 2600 games was an inspiration to the drawing above. Here’s a sprite of Superman in flight (enlarged) that I swiped from Google image search. This is also just 16x10px… but…
Just three colors: Pink, blue, red. No hair, no S-shield, yet still you can tell who it is. A masterpiece of minimalism.