August 19, 2012
The Atari 2600 was host to plenty of arcade ports. None of them were able to 100% duplicate the original arcade game due to comparatively paltry processing power, but many were successful to varying degrees. Two games that well highlight the stark differences between landing on either end of the quality spectrum are Pac-Man and Galaxian. Ironically both of these titles are based on Namco arcade games.
The story behind Pac-Man’s development is an interesting one. Having previously obtained the rights to develop home versions of Namco’s arcade games, Atari sought to capitalize on the success of Pac-Man. Tod Frye, a programmer within Atari, was tasked with the game’s development, not with the most capable tools though; reportedly, rather than using a newer cartridge, one with more memory, his work was confined to the smaller cartridge to reduce manufacturing costs. This factor, along with the reduced processing power of the Atari 2600 compared to the Pac-Man arcade cabinet, compromised the game’s quality.
What Frye produced is totally playable, and resembles Pac-Man undeniably, but its differences are negatives. The maze is unchanging, the ghosts constantly flicker, they’re indistinguishable, the sound effects are grating, the game doesn’t have as good a sense of control over Pac-Man, and so on. It went on to be a great seller at the time (a whopping 7 million copies), but it’s a game that nowadays is best left for those with nostalgia or a deep interest in the medium.
Galaxian on the other hand was released a year after Pac-Man in 1983 on the newer, larger cartridge which provided more space for the programmers to work with. The improvements are night and day. Firstly, Galaxian resembles its arcade brethren to a striking degree (considering it’s a 2600 game). There’s a lot happening on-screen, the graphics are vibrant, and the action is smooth and brisk. Both games are of the score chase variety, but Galaxian is a more enjoyable experience thanks to its more appealing visuals and quality gameplay.
Now details surrounding Pac-Man’s development are well-known and easy to find, but not so with the Atari 2600 version of Galaxian. With some digging, I was able to find out that it was developed not directly by Atari, but rather by General Computer Corporation. GCC was initially a company that modded arcade games; in fact, they’re responsible for Ms. Pac-Man, not Namco! Anyways, Atari filed a lawsuit against GCC but later settled and began outsourcing projects to them.
Upon further digging I was able to determine that Mark Ackerman was the project lead for Galaxian and was assisted by Glen Parker and Tom Calderwood. Mark Ackerman also worked on the 2600 versions of Ms. Pac-Man and Moon Patrol before overseeing the development of a few Atari 7800 titles and leaving game development. Now a professor at the University of Michigan, I emailed Mr. Ackerman and got some feedback on Galaxian’s development.
Of note were a few programming tricks that resulted in a better game. Utilizing the random number generator from Donald Knuth’s The Art of Computer Programming resulted in smoother gameplay over Pac-Man. A more advanced algorithm was used to reduce the amount of flicker caused by movement – it definitely works! Lastly, Mr. Ackermen devised a way for eight characters to be displayed on screen when, technologically, the system wasn’t capable of displaying more than six. For this feat he was awarded a patent.
Bottom line is this: I wouldn’t be sad if I could only play the Atari 2600 version of Galaxian, not the case with Pac-Man.
August 6, 2012
More so than ever before, I’ve been researching the designers of the games I’m writing about. The games in question are the Atari 2600 titles I decided to highlight from my collection. I’m fascinated by the stories behind their development and the fact that they were developed either by a single person or a small team. Today I felt like highlighting Maze Craze: A Game of Cops ‘n Robbers.
Maze Craze is a game like those pencil puzzles from childhood, the ones that were mazes where you had to draw your way to the exit. The concept grows dull with no one else around, but two player races are pretty fun. Mocking the pronounced footsteps and occasional user error is part of the game’s charm. Better yet, there are multiple variations on the game that switch things up and keep the game fresh.
Richard “Rick” Mauer was the designer behind Maze Craze and according to him, he was influenced by a Fairchild Channel F game, specifically Videocart-10: Maze.   The only other video game attributed to Rick is the Atari 2600 version of Space Invaders. This game went on to sell 2 million copies and provoked a quadrupling of sales of the Atari 2600.  However, Rick reportedly only made $11,000 for his work on the game and abandoned game development. 
It’s a simple game and one that isn’t very fulfilling without someone to play with, but Maze Craze’s use of familiar maze puzzles proves to be an interesting video game.
 Hague, James. “Reminiscing from Richard Mauer.” 5 January 1999. Dadgum Games. 4 August 2012 <http://www.dadgum.com/giantlist/archive/maurer.html>.
 Videocart-10: Maze. 4 August 2012 <http://www.gamefaqs.com/channelf/927671-videocart-10-maze>.
 AgentKane, Alpha Unit and Noble Team 1. Space! List Collab:Alpha Unit, Noble Team 1, AgentKane. 1 March 2012. 5 August 2012 <http://www.screwattack.com/news/space-list-collab-alpha-unitnoble-team-1-agentkane>.
 GameSpy Staff. “#15 Atari Brings Space Invaders Home.” 21-25 July 2003. GameSpy. 4 August 2012 <http://archive.gamespy.com/articles/july03/25smartest/index12.shtml>.
July 28, 2012
When I devised the competition between my friend and I where we play every video game we collectively own, I knew witnessing the growth of the medium firsthand would be a plus. Now that we’ve played through my collection of Atari 2600 games, I’ll flood the internet with my thoughts on selected titles. I’ll begin with Asteroids.
Asteroids is a classic. Originally released as an arcade game in 1979, it’s heralded as one of the most popular and influential video games of all time. It was released for the 2600 in 1981 and while it differs from the arcade version, it’s a fun version of the game nonetheless.
I’ve never been a huge fan of the game, although this session something “clicked” and I got it. The thing that I’d been missing in all of my previous experiences with Asteroids was competition. Without another person to compete against, the game is unfulfilling, unless you’re a person who is adamant about besting a personal score.
Learning to effectively steer and thrust the spaceship is the first key to success. The spaceship’s tendency is to remain still. If I’m not pushing the thrust button, it’s not moving. So when I press it, the spaceship only moves for as long as I press it before coasting to a standstill again. Piloting this spaceship wouldn’t be of much concern were it not for the unbridled asteroids whizzing through space.
The single screen that Asteroids takes place in is chock full of the game’s namesake as well as the occasional UFO. Lucky for me, I was piloting a spaceship that was prepared for the unknown, kind of. As the spaceship is traveling in a potentially dangerous screen of space, it’s naturally equipped with weaponry. However, like modern-day NASA, I imagine the makers of this spaceship were also suffering from a reduced budget because its weaponry doesn’t outright destroy large asteroids but breaks them into smaller ones. Managing them was the second key to success. If I began haphazardly shooting, I’d rack up points quickly, but piloting around the leftover chunks of asteroids would prove to be overwhelming.
Playing a lot of simpler games has made me think deeply about video games. At their most basic level, they’re puzzles tasking us to understand their unique set of rules, adapt, and conquer them. Asteroids is so fun because of that formula. Controlling the spaceship and managing the destruction of asteroids are the two major aspects of the game, that’s really it, and with someone to compete against, it’s out of this world.
May 14, 2012
In the interest of making money, some companies resort to rebooting their classic franchises and the results are usually less than stellar. This is a common practice for Atari and its stable of classics from the 70s and 80s. Since the era of the Atari 2600 and the golden age of arcades, Atari has struggled and been in the hands of many. In the late 90s when Hasbro owned Atari, Pong, Missile Command, and Centipede were rebooted. They’ve once again fallen back on their classic lineup and last year’s Centipede: Infestation from respected developer WayForward Technologies is one of their newest reboots.
With a strong Saturday morning cartoon vibe, Centipede: Infestation is definitely skewed towards a younger audience. In between stages, stills of animation and goofy voice-acting propel the budding relationship of Max and Maisy. The young gun-for-hire and gardener live in a post-apocalyptic world devastated by giant, radiated bugs and surviving is their day-to-day goal.
Centipede: Infestation cribs from another early 80s classic: Robotron: 2084. In that game, stages were very quick and players were tasked with destroying enemies, rescuing innocents, and surviving. The common element between them is the control scheme and arena-style stages. Robotron: 2084 spawned the dual-joystick shooter that has been oh-so popular in the past handful of years.
The analog moves Max while the face buttons shoot. Shooting in four directions isn’t very fluid and it caused me to try and shoot in one direction the entire time and “walk” my weapon fire into enemies. To be fair, you can shoot diagonally as well, but it didn’t make me change my strategy.
Stages in Centipede: Infestation take place in small arenas and players help Max survive by killing enemy bugs with his gun, powerful stomp, and power-ups. Capping off stages are fateful battles with a centipede whose movements call to mind the original Centipede. Stages are short and sweet and although the shooting isn’t perfect, the dual-joystick genre is still easy enough to get into and most importantly, fun.
Reboots of classics usually aren’t successful but there are always exceptions – Pac Man Championship Edition (DX too!) comes to mind and I’ll include Galaga Legions because I like it. Centipede: Infestation isn’t the Centipede game people will remember and, while enjoyable, it’s not for me.
By the way, a dozen or so classic Atari 2600 games are available to play for free on Atari’s website.
December 13, 2011
Figuring I might have a little bit of free time on a trip to visit my girlfriend’s family, I decided to bring along my PSP and a few games. Of the games I brought, Hot Pixel received the most attention. It was developed in France by zSLide and published by Atari on October 2, 2007.
Hot Pixel is really nothing more than a WarioWare clone with an urban theme. It sticks with the idea of microgames and coasts on that idea for about an hour, the time it took me to beat the game and finish with 67% completion. The core mode is broken up into ten episodes consisting of about ten microgames as well as a boss battle. Whereas the microgames lasted a few seconds at most, the boss battles were slightly longer, like a remixed round of Breakout. This isn’t the only remixed Atari classic in the game but there aren’t that many; I wish there was there was more of an emphasis on utilizing Atari’s catalog of old games.
One feature that I thought was inventive was the addition of playlists. Hot Pixel comes preloaded with many playlists, usually with clever parameters; they can be customized too. I can’t follow up the previous paragraph with one composed of two sentences and I still want to talk about unlockables, so I will! They were lame. There doesn’t seem to be a lot and the ones I unlocked weren’t compelling enough to keep me playing to see what else there was. I was rewarded with pixels for completing games, but they weren’t used for anything. I would’ve liked to see an abundance of unlockables and a shop where pixels were spent, but that wasn’t the case.
Like Mr. Driller: Drill Spirits, Hot Pixel was satisfying for a short period of time. I didn’t dig every microgame I played, many were too similar, and I wish the game played up Atari’s past more but the game was enjoyable nonetheless. There isn’t enough of a reason for it to be a primary focus, but it’s great for a trip.