With my first full week of school completed and my work week over with, I felt the urge to scout out some local game stores Friday night, hoping to pick up some new, cheap games that my friend and I could play in our competition. Goal accomplished. I returned home with nearly a dozen titles and only out twenty bucks. This type of activity used to be a common routine of mine – how else could I have accumulated a collection of 1,000+ games? I haven’t done it in a long time, and it was very fun. My friend and I had a good time driving around and discussing the finer points of classic (and sometime not so classic) video games. I was very pleased with my haul; I picked up a handful of games that are either well-regarded or interesting to me and I spent less than twenty dollars, I’d call that a success.
Billed as Nintendo’s first video board game, the Rare developed NES game Anticipation has become one of my go-to multiplayer games since I stumbled upon it at a local game store. I was immediately drawn and disgusted by the game’s dated box art and expected little but was surprised to discover an entertaining multiplayer competition.
Like most board games, in Anticipation players are represented by little figurines. The goal is to correctly guess what the game is drawing and do so on each of the game’s three levels; the winner is the one who completes all three levels first. This can become tricky because the game requires a correct answer from four different themes before moving on to the next level. When it comes down to needing a correct answer from that last theme, it’s not uncommon to go on a lengthy dry spell where landing on the needed space is annoyingly elusive.
When advancement became elusive, I found that I could initiate a level of strategy that emphasized a risk and reward principle. Buzzing in when the dice roll would work out favorably allowed others to buzz in before me, but if they were stumped, I had the opportunity to roll the dice so I’d land on the theme I needed. When all players realize this strategy, the bluffing and screwing of your competition becomes part of the fun.
Of the many games of Anticipation that I’ve played, I’ve noticed that the backend tends to drag on as the drawings get tougher and inevitably, someone requires that last theme to advance or win. Sometimes, I’d rather just turn the game off then sit through a potentially laborious dry spell where no one makes any progress, but for the most part, Anticipation is good fun.
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.
School’s back in session! This will be my final semester no less. Discounting the fact that I will continue taking classes in the future, but likely at a lessened pace. My courses this semester will prove to be
entertaining useful. I’m enrolled in Investments, Auditing, Retirement Planning and Employee Benefits, and Business Policy which acts as my capstone course, requiring me to use all that I have learned to succeed. Truth be told, I’m pretty happy to be back in school. I’ll miss my free time no doubt, but school presents the opportunity to learn something new and develop skills and practices that can be reused in the future; plus, it’s a positive avenue to focus my attention on. Looking forward earning my Bachelor’s!
My Sunday started out great with nice weather presenting the first opportunity in a month to play disc golf in sub-hundred degree weather and I took it. Afterwards I had breakfast with my grandmother and parents and that was nice.
I completed Luigi’s Mansion last week and that was a fun game. Now I’d like to start Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, but I’m fearful I won’t have a lot of time to play it with school beginning in a week. I think I will though, especially now that trophies have been patched into it. Great timing. I also popped in Super Smash Bros. Brawl thanks to my friend’s recent discussions about PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale. I started unlocking things and realized I have a ton of stuff left to unlock so I might play that in a passing manner for a week or two.
After winning a mansion in a contest he didn’t enter, Luigi invites his brother to check out his new digs. After getting lost on his way, Luigi eventually arrives to discover the mansion is packed with ghosts and they’ve captured Mario. The ensuing evening highlights how Luigi’s love for his brother overcomes his lack of confidence. All told though, Luigi’s night is full of mild laughs and humorous encounters rather than deep frights.
To combat the ghosts, Luigi utilizes the Poltergust 3000 – a special vacuum designed by Luigi’s most recent acquaintance, Professor Elvin Gadd. This vacuum sucks in the undead inhabitants and when Luigi returns to the safety of Gadd’s shack outside the mansion, the professor seals the ghosts in portraits. Capturing ghosts was initially a frustrating endeavor but with practice it became easier, but it never felt “just right.” Navigating the mansion was occasionally a laborious affair as well.
The mansion is quite large and it’s full of distinct rooms that are inhabited by similarly distinct ghosts. The mansion was broke up into areas which were capped off with a boss fight against a more menacing foe. Luigi’s Mansion was fairly straightforward, but there were a few times where I wasn’t sure what I needed to do to progress. Also, backtracking was a massive part of the game. Towards the middle of the game, when the number of unexplored rooms was dwindling, I’d usually have to traverse multiple floors in a convoluted fashion to move on.
The problems I had with Luigi’s Mansion were minor, but were annoying nonetheless. Its gameplay also wasn’t so fantastic as to redeem these annoyances. I felt like my time with Luigi’s Mansion was worthwhile though. It was a very positive, humorous adventure that has me interested in its upcoming sequel.
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>.
These past few days, as I’ve been researching the Atari 2600 games I’m writing about, I’ve really gotten into the stories and developers behind them. Information about the stories behind their development are fairly prevalent and this information is helping me to develop a real appreciation for the platform. I’m reaching the point where I almost want to research all of the 2600 games I have.
I don’t know if I’ll follow through on that though because watching the Olympics has been consuming more of my time than I’d anticipated. This is the first Olympics that I’ve actually payed attention to and I’m enjoying it, especially beach volleyball. In other Olympic news, my friend and I are nearing the halfway mark with the NES. We got a couple gameplay sessions in this past week and played a variety of games. Most notable games from last week: Dr. Mario, Dragon Warrior, Duck Hunt, and Final Fantasy.
Dragster for the Atari 2600 – it’s a drag racing video game designed by David Crane and published by Activision way back in 1980. Burning through the gears and completing a quarter mile as quickly as possible is the aim of the game and with a friend, the few seconds that are spent on a single race stretch into a half hour trying to figure out the optimal shifting pattern while not blowing an engine.
It’s my favorite game on the Atari 2600 partly because it’s so fast. As soon as a race is done, it’s a flick of the joystick and the next race is already counting down. Races already last under twenty seconds but this quick reset makes the proposition of just one more race all the more compelling.
However, being able to get back into the game quickly wouldn’t matter if the underlying gameplay wasn’t enjoyable, and Dragster’s is. The risk/reward gameplay associated with shifting is easy to learn, tough to master, and flexible enough to allow experimentation. It’s not like shifting a daily driver though, unless you’re the type to rev each gear up to the redline, drop the clutch, up shift, and slam on the gas pedal. If so, I need not explain further. Perhaps I should mention that blowing the engine is quite easy and has been the cause of many of my losses.
Like Vin Diesel’s mantra from The Fast and the Furious, playing Dragster is like living your life a quarter mile at a time. It’s fast and fun, but before you know it, time has passed you by.