Monday, December 29, 2008

Nine of my favorite Atari 2600 games and one, not so much.

Flipping channels this weekend, there were a bunch of ads and TV shows that made positive references to the Atari 2600 video game system, also known as the Atari Video Console System or VCS. I wrote games for the VCS, three of which were released to the public, but in listing my favorite games to play for the system, none of mine make the cut. Here's my list, given in alphabetical order, with some "insider info".

Title: Basketball
Company: Atari
Designer: Alan Miller

This is a nearly perfect example of what made the 2600 both great and lame. This was one of the early cartridges that had to be written in 2,048 bytes, better known as 2K. The graphics are incredibly primitive, but the game play is remarkably addictive, and it's even fun to play against the computer.

Title: Demon Attack
Company: Imagic
Designer: Rob Fulop

This style of game was either called a shoot 'em up or a slide and shoot, and for my money, Demon Attack is the best of the lot, with Steve Cartright's Megamania running a close second. Rob did a beautiful job fine tuning this game, and the "wave after challenging wave" of bad guys actually got challenging very darn early.

Title: Freeway
Company: Activision
Designer: David Crane

This one is the not so much. David Crane produced an incredible number of video game hits, but I never got into any of his game designs. This is the one I played most often, but even so, not that often. This does not keep Mr. Crane up at night, because... how shall I put this delicately? David Crane has a very healthy self-image.

One year, I was at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronic Show and was wandering the floor with Rob Fulop when we ran into David Crane. He had his usual look of superior disdain on his face as he looked at the new competition. Mario Bros. style games, known generically as platform games, were all the rage that year, and Dave turned to us and said "You know, with Pitfall, I invented the platform game."

With a look of concern, I asked, "Dave, did we forget to thank you?"

I kept a straight face. Rob laughed like a hyena.

Title: Kaboom!
Company: Activision
Designer: Larry Kaplan

The vast majority of 2600 games used the joystick as the controller, but there was a secondary controller called the paddle, which had a twisting dial and a button. It was the controller for Pong and Breakout, but my vote for best paddle game was Larry Kaplan's Kaboom! Larry had an on-again, off-again relationship with Activision, but that does not diminish the fact that his finest hour was very fine indeed.

Title: Othello™
Company: Atari
Designer: Ed Logg

There are many candidates for best designer of video games, but if I were to cast my vote for best programmer of video games, that would be Ed Logg. He only worked on the Atari 2600 a few times in his career, and most of his work was on coin-op games, like the vector graphics classic Asteroids. I give him big props for making a version of Othello™ that had a very good computer opponent at the most difficult level. Not easy to do in as little code as we were allowed. Also, making the board, which looks clunky to us today, was another great piece of clever programming.

Title: River Raid
Company: Activision
Designer: Carol Shaw

There was a coin-op game called Scramble, known as a horizontal scroller, that was released before River Raid came out, which could be called a vertical scroller. Coin-op systems, while not as limited as the home systems, were still limited, and the only difference is that when the video screen was put in a coin-op console, they could rotate the screen 90 degrees, so left-right to the viewer was actually up-down to the hardware. Be that as it may, this is the best vertical scrolling game for the system, challenging and well-tuned.

Title: Skiing
Company: Activision
Designer: Bob Whitehead

The game was as simple as can be, but the game play was still challenging, and there was a trick you had to use messing with a switch on the console to get the best possible times.

I do not have a good estimate of how many hours of my life were spent playing this game, but it probably rivals the amount of time I've taken understanding the difference between the Lebesgue integral and Riemann-Stieltjes integral.

Title: Stampede
Company: Activision
Designer: Bob Whitehead

Whatever amount of time I frittered away at Skiing, double that amount and that's the time I spent playing Stampede. I have some small pride that Bob Whitehead asked me to play test the Intellivision version, which was not as challenging as the Atari 2600 version. I know this because at a difficult level, I was able to keep playing while taking a tape out of my Walkman, turning it over and restarting it. I would never have had that much time playing the Atari.

Title: Tennis
Company: Activision
Designer: Alan Miller

The look of Tennis is much nicer than Basketball, but that improvement would still not impress modern video game players. What I would ask of them is this. Take the controls and beat the computer player. That is still a challenge and the game play is what made the best 2600 games still some of the finest video games ever developed.

Or so says an old Atari 2600 developer.

Title: Tetris™
Company: Tengen
Designer: Ed Logg

The original game of Tetris™ is the brain child of Alexey Pajitnov, a dirty, rotten, no-good Commie. The coin-op version was programmed for the company Tengen by Ed Logg, American patriot. Tengen also thought they had the right to make the video console version and Ed Logg wrote that as well, but the lawyers stepped in and put the kibosh on that, which is a shame. The screenshot here is from the Nintendo. Ed's 2600 version is another example of why I think he was the best programmer to ever get his paws on an Atari 2600 programming manual.

Yay, Flags of Many Lands! Yay, Azerbaijan!

Azerbaijan is so small on my map of Asia, I wasn't even aware it was still missing from my list. Why did an Azerbaijani stop by? Gigantic child brides!

Yes, I love to give the people what they want, because it's better to give than to receive, even on the not so major holiday alluded to in Padre Mickey's post today.


dguzman said...

I love your old-school videogame posts. This one brought back some memories. For Asteroids alone, Ed Logg deserves the "best!" label, not to mention the whole American vs. Commie version of Tetris.

Nice work, sir.

Tara Mobley said...

I remember Stampede, but just barely. I also remember having fun playing Kaboom! What a great post.

Oh, and Happy Birthday Matty!

susan s. said...

I am here from Padre's place...

Hippy Birfdei on you!

Matty Boy said...

Thanks to the old school gamers and the birfdei well wishers.

namastenancy said...

Happy Birthday to a guy who is always in his prime. Thanks for the walk down memory lane of games; I never got into these types of games. My favorites were - and still are - the city building games like Caesar and Pharaoh, more strategy and less shoot-em-up excitement.

Splotchy said...

Happy birthday, from an old school gamer!

mberenis said...

Great blog! Stop by my blog for some great free online games. No gimmics, play them right on the blog!

Post a comment and feel free to place links! :)

Karlacita! said...

Hippo Birdie Two Ewes!!

abu scooter said...

Happy Birthday, Matty!