Tag: video games

Intellivision Amico at T-minus 1 year

Intellivision’s revival was announced a year ago, at the 2018 Portland Retro Gaming Expo, and they’ve been fairly quiet since then. But it looks as though, unlike Atari, they have been working steadily toward product viability. They are now a year away from their announced release date, and they actually have some games in the works.

A recently posted teaser video showed a number of games, purportedly being played on Amico hardware, that look like re-skinned versions of popular early-80s classic games such as Moon Patrol, Asteroids, and others, but with modern graphics.

I’m not sure what to make of these games yet, but if they’re merely re-skins of old games, that will not be enough to make the Amico successful.

To be compelling, Amico developers need to imagine (and then realize) an alternative history. In the same way that steampunk is a retro vision of what science fiction could have been from the perspective of the 19th century worldview, Amico games should be an expression of the vision of what videogames could have been from the perspective of the late 70’s/early 80’s worldview.

This is a really difficult thing to envision correctly. There really is no one right way to do it, but its a rich space within which different designers could allow their imaginations to run wild, and come up with better or worse visions of what this alternative history might be. Really, we would not have a single alternative timeline, but rather a seeming infinity of branching alternatives.

There are several interesting main branches for this alternative future history.

Platform Steady State

Imagine that the original Intellivision never stopped production, that a new generation of computing hardware never arrived, but that games for the 1979 INTV system continued to be developed, using the same hardware, and the same constraints.

What would the games being developed in 1990, 2000, 2010 or 2020 look like for such a system? To answer that, we need look no further than the homebrew community. Or more broadly, look at the homebrew community for that generation of systems: Atari 2600, Intellivision, Colecovision. Over time, developers can become very familiar with the hardware, discover programming tricks and techniques to get the absolute most out of the system, and refine the quality of the software to its ultimate state.

Now try to envision the present day homebrew community, with the approval of copyright and trademark holders, creating authorized works. This gives us sequels to our favorite games, not just original new games, or thinly veiled “homages” or “parodies” of our favorite games.

This is one potential alternative history, and since it is one that we already have, in large part, in the form of the homebrew gamedev scene, it’s certainly viable. But it’s probably not the most interesting branch. The homebrew scene is awesome and it would be great to see it promoted on a modern platform that has mass appeal. But my hunch is that the appeal of the homebrew scene is narrow and niche. That is to say, the homebrew audience today is limited to a relatively small number of enthusiasts who have an old system that still works, and this number is most likely to dwindle as the enthusiasts die off and as the hardware breaks.

Unlimited Budget, 1979 tech

Now let’s go a bit further, and envision an Intellivision-like system that has just a little bit more capability. Not enough to put the system into a “next generation”, but more like what Intellivision could have been with an unlimited R&D budget and no compromises, subject to the limits of 1979’s tech. Whatever that tech is, it still has to fit inside a console-sized box, but it can be a no-compromises design within that box.

To properly envision this, we’d need to know the internals of the INTV rather intimately, as well as what other components were around at the time that could have been chosen for the system instead, but weren’t due to, primarily price considerations.

I don’t really have such an understanding, but imagine that we had a computer and electronics catalog from 1979, and it had all the components that went into the production of the INTV. Most likely, these parts were not the most expensive available, but the cheapest that could still do the job. Maybe in some cases they had to drop features entirely, in order to get the design to fit within a price point.

But you have unlimited budget, so you can select the top end parts, and include all the features. So maybe your CPU is speedier, maybe you have a bit more RAM, and the RAM is faster. Maybe this gives you the capability to do slightly higher resolution graphics modes, or more colors on screen from a larger palette. Maybe the IntelliVoice expansion module is built-in as standard equipment, and maybe it’s capable of speech synthesis that’s a little better. Games can have more sprites on screen without flicker, larger sprites, more animation frames, bigger levels, more items, etc.

Essentially this describes something like an “Intellivision III Plus” — the INTV3 was a backward compatible system released in 1982, which had a faster CPU, better graphics chip with double resolution capability and more sprites and colors, and yes, integrated IntelliVoice.

So this branch of alternative history more or less actually existed, but its life was cut short when Mattel canceled the INTV3 in 1983 due to the Crash. As such, we didn’t really get to see the full potential of what the INTV3 could have delivered. I’m not familiar with the homebrew community centered around the INTV3 hardware — most homebrew development focuses on more popular systems, such as the Atari 2600 or the NES, but to the extent there is one, the games it’s producing are essentially what this branch of alternative history might have looked like.

Moore’s Law Goes Linear

Let’s envision a future world wherein Moore’s Law failed early, and computers grew slightly more powerful, rather than exponentially.

Imagine that Mattel released a new system in 1983 or 84, and again in 1988, and then in 1993… and so on, until today. But rather than each generation of hardware roughly doubling in speed, memory, and so forth, the advances were merely linear. So, imagine that 40 years of integrated circuit micronization R&D results in a CPU clock speeds increasing from 1MHz to 40MHz instead of 4000 MHz. RAM increases from 2 KB to… just a few megabytes.

This is basically what personal computers were in the early-mid 1990s, only it happens 30 years later in the alternate history than it did in the real world. I had a Macintosh Centris 610 purchased in 1993, which had a 20MHz Motorola 68000 series CPU, 4MB of RAM (upgradeable to 16MB or so), and an 80 MB hard drive. A game console in the mold of the Intellivision likely wouldn’t have had a hard drive, so swap it for a cartridge slot, but let each cartridge hold ROM images of around 1-4MB on average, with maybe a spectacular, premium game topping out around 12-16MB. Graphics on my system were limited to 8-bit or 16-bit color depth, depending on resolution mode, and I think my 14″ monitor did 800×600, but maybe it was only 640×320.

If you programmed a system with specs like that at the bare metal, in assembly, dedicating the hardware fully to running the game, and not an operating system with layers of services for applications, that’s actually quite a powerful system, which would be very capable, even without hardware accelerated 3D graphics.

Keep in mind that software developers would have a very strong incentive to push hardware to its limit, and much more time to perfect performance optimization techniques for a stable hardware platform that doesn’t fall into obsolescence after 18 months. There wouldn’t be the mentality of just making software that’s good enough and shoving it out the door, and trust that next year’s computers would be powerful enough to run it acceptably. In such an alternate history, software craftsmanship would be highly advanced compared to in our world, and developers would work in low-level languages.

The thing is, I feel that a few generations advanced version of what Mattel could have evolved the Intellivision into doesn’t really feel like an Intellivision. It feels like… well, like an early 1990’s pre-PowerMac Macintosh. But it’s not really what Intellivision would need to be going with the Amico for if they wanted to tap into nostalgia for what Intellivision was in 1979-1982.

Something else then?

To do this, we need to understand the resource constraints of the Intellivision in a bit more detail, and then come up with some way to relax only one or two of them, in just such a way that it enables some new possibilities for games that are similar to the games that typified the Intellivision era, yet were just out of reach of what the console was actually capable of.

As an example, we might look at what sort of games we could have seen with twice the resolution, or an extra color per sprite, or removing the limitation on the number of sprites per horizontal scan line. Or ROMs that could be an extra 4KB in size.

Another way to think about it would be to think about ways we could augment the Intellivision by granting one capability from present day systems. For example, what sort of games could an Intellivision have played if it had always-on, low-latency network connectivity, that enabled it to connect to the internet and communicate high scores or enable online multiplayer? But (since the games are still based on EEPROM technology that is not re-writeablee) cannot apply updates or patches (other than new content). Or what would an Intellivision game look like with WSVGA resolution and thousands of sprites instead of NTSC resolution, but the same color palette?

We’d want to remember that these are not actual limitations we’re designing into the actual hardware, but rather artificial limitations we pretend to exist, accepting them as design constraints, in order to force us to come up with creative solutions for the problems that would arise in game development as a result of them, so that we could end up with games that have a distinctive flavor to their style that evokes an Intellivision aesthetic.

So summing up:

Do I want a game that plays exactly like Astrosmash, but has 4K resolution graphics, with 32-bit color depth, and the sprites look photorealistic, but it’s just a re-skin of the original Astrosmash? Nah, I’d probably rate that about a 4/10 (and the original Astrosmash is easily an 8/10). You don’t get a better game just by multiplying the graphical output.

What I would be excited about is a spiritual successor to Astrosmash, with extended play mechanics, and blocky, low-res graphics that evoke the original, but have enhanced effects, maybe some trails or motion blur, some neon glow, something like that. Something like what Tempest 2K was to Tempest.

A retro-inspired game like Geometry Wars would be a good fit for the console.

I’d also love to see a game that looks like it could have been drawn by an INTV or Atari 2600, but which is much larger in scope than what those games were capable of. Think Pitfall 3, and it looks like Pitfall I and II, but it has a larger world, more variety of obstacles and creatures, and additional play mechanics that weren’t possible on the original hardware.

Intellivision’s FAQ on Games suggests that this sort of thing is pretty well what they have in mind for the console, although what the games actually end up like obviously remains to be seen. They are looking to launch with a catalog of about 40 games, which is a respectable number of exclusive titles to start out with.

It is still a very difficult market to establish a new console in, though. Intellivision’s approach is to target a different market segment, rather than try to compete directly with Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, and Google, and this seems smart, but whether it will succeed is up to Intellivision’s execution, and the market to decide. The casual/family gaming market is already pretty well served by mobile devices, and it’s difficult to say whether the Amico will appeal enough to consumers to get them to buy enough to make it a commercial success.

Book Review: Arcade Perfect by David L. Craddock

An interesting thing happened to me few months ago.  

I was reading Shovel Knight, by David L. Craddock, published by Boss Fight Books, and thoroughly enjoying the ride, when I received an email from none other than… David L. Craddock. Craddock had found my contact info through this website, and he wanted to know if I’d be interested in reading a pre-release copy of his latest book, Arcade Perfect, and publishing a review on it.

I thought that the name sounded familiar, so I looked him up, and found that he’d written the book that was in my left hand, as I read the email on the smartphone in my right hand.  I wrote back, asking him if he was indeed one and the same.  He was.  I felt oddly watched.

Shovel Knight was a fantastic read, a detailed history of Yacht Club Games’s origins and how they came to create one of the best videogames of 2014. It was well paced, thorough,, interesting, and covered the human side of the story as well as the technical.

Of course I said yes.

I also offered to provide feedback on the manuscript, as I have helped several other authors in the past with technical review of their manuscripts. Craddock appreciated my offer and offered me an acknowledgement in his Foreward. I say this not as a brag, but for transparency’s sake, to say that this may not be a review completely free of bias, although I’ll strive for that anyway.

Arcade Perfect is a collection of histories on over a dozen popular arcade games, and the story of how they were ported to home consoles. If you’ve read Racing The Beam, or The Ultimate History of Video Games, this book will be of interest to you.

The book is long. At nearly 600 pages, it will take you a while to get through. It spans almost the entire the breadth of video gaming history, starting with Pong and going through about 2015-17. Golden age titles Pong, Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Ms. Pac Man, Missile Command, and Donkey Kong are all given treatment, as is Tetris, and the 90’s are represented by the games NBA Jam, Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Each of these games has an interesting back story of how it came to exist, and how it was brought from the arcade to home consoles. The challenges the developers faced are many. Most if not all of these games were ported to other platforms not by the original developers, but by another talented programmer or team. Oftentimes, no original project documentation was provided to the porting effort, and developers had to “interpret” the game by playing it until they knew it backwards and forwards, reverse engineering to the best of their ability, and working within the constraints of the target platform’s hardware, dealing with hard deadlines and high expectations to deliver an acceptable translation of a very popular title eagerly anticipated by a rabid consumer fanbase.

The last 150 or so pages of the book are devoted to full transcripts of the interviews that Craddock conducted with various creators who worked on the games. This is primary resource material and very nice to have in its entirety.

The book is illustrated, although in the advance copy I saw, the image layouts were still rough. I would hope that these issues will be addressed before the first edition of the book goes to print.

Arcade Perfect is available today. Follow the author on Twitter @davidlcraddok.

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.