Food Fight Frenzy

I am frankly amazed that this is happening, that the company now calling itself Atari seems to be on a streak of good, or at least interesting, decisions, but in addition to releasing Atari 50 and buying Digital Eclipse, they’re making updated versions of classic Atari (and Stern) arcade games, and an upcoming release of theirs is a personal favorite of mine: Food Fight!

It isn’t even their only recent sequel to it they’ve made; another would be the also-upcoming FPS Food Fight: Culinary Combat for the (current) VCS. But that seems to be an inspired-by game with cartoony 3D graphics; this looks much closer to the arcade original, and made by people with a deep love for it.

I don’t know what’s inspired their warming up this particular old property, but Food Fight was a fine game that was sabotaged mostly by the classic US arcade crash. Charley Chuck is a kid out to eat a giant ice cream cone before it melts, but out to stop him are four chefs. Scattered through each level though are piles of food that can be thrown, by either Charley or the chefs.

Like the cone that’s Charley’s goal, the original Food Fight drips with character. There are so many clever touches, especially for a game from 1983. Charley’s large eyes look in the direction he moves; the analog joystick registers many more directions than the standard digital 8-way joysticks in common use at the time. The named chefs have different personalities, along similar lines as Pac-Man’s ghosts. Each kind of food has different properties when thrown. Charley smiles when things are going well, and bears a more neutral expression when they aren’t. Charley can bring along one piece of food from a previous level. If a particularly clever move is pulled off, the game will call for an instant replay. The level select screen lists a flavor for each ice cream cone, with higher levels having dual flavors.

This is how Food Fight played in arcades (7 minutes):

The new game supports up to four players around a cocktail table form factor, in a last-kid-standing scenario. Instead of just flinging food at the chefs, the other players are also viable targets.

The original Food Fight was one of the last arcade projects of early independent game developer GCC, who designed games for other companies to publish. They also made Ms. Pac-Man and Quantum, and they also designed the Atari 7800 console and many of the arcade ports that were made for it.

Here’s is Arcade Heroes’ post on Food Fight Frenzy. Arcade Heroes also did a nine minute video talking about the game’s creation, and the changing climate at Atari that resulted in its creation being greenlit, and that shows off the gameplay, which looks very faithful to the original!

People who want to hear quite a bit more about this upcoming release can watch/listen to episode 140 of the Youtube/podcast series Indie Arcade Wave (36 minutes).

MobyGames Offering “Pro” Membership

It’s a bit upsetting to see that MobyGames is going a bit more for-profit, and now offers a trail Pro membership account. Usually this kind of move means fewer features and a degraded experience for those not sending in their dimes. The trial rate is $5 a month, which seems both high ($60 a year?) and low (how much revenue will this bring in given the small number of people with a paying need for MobyGames information?).

MobyGames has long been a useful resource for game research and images, but was recently bought by Atari, which is not the same as the old Atari, although as time passes that distinction becomes slowly less relevant? The company calling itself Activision has slightly more continuity with the Activision that was founded by ex-Atari developers to sell VCS/2600 games, but very little of it remains I’m sure, and they passed through a phase where they had renamed themselves Mediagenic, which worked out badly. The CEO that pulled Activision out of their nosedive, as it turns out, is Bobby Kotlick. There’s a name that’s been in the news lately and on which I will not comment at this time!

So, it seems inescapable that Atari is behind this move by MobyGames, to try to get the site to pay for itself. I honestly don’t think there’s much of a market for these features unless they make the site downright painful to use for free users, and how many people are willing to pay for full MobyGames access? When people (myself included!) contributed to MobyGames all those years, did they know they were merely building up Value for later Purchase? Will this turn into yet another Gracenote situation? Does anyone now remember what Gracenote did?

Well, this is speculation on my part. Nothing necessarily means MobyGames will soon be ruined. But it is a pattern that’s happened many times before, so let us keep our eyes open. At the very least, it seems like a ripe opportunity for someone to create a new game cataloging site. Me? No no, it can’t be me, I’m sorry, my brain is too full of things, and I have this terrible pain in all the diodes down my left side….

Oldweb: Remembering ionpool.net

The World Wide Web is now over thirty years old. In that time, more content has vanished from it than remains now, but some of it can still be dredged up from the shadowy archives of the Wayback Machine. This is the latest chapter in our never-ending search to find the cool gaming stuff that time forgot….

It used to be that the internet was full of thousands of tiny sites. Many of them might only have gotten a few visits a year, if that, but they were there, quietly and earnestly providing a resource for people who might be looking for it.

One of these sites was ionpool.net, which used to host a listing of classic gaming information. Here it is from its last archived version on the Wayback Machine from December 29, 2020. There’s a lot of links there, and the nature of the Wayback is, unless I check every one of those links, I can’t be sure if any of them will work. The few I’ve tried do, which is something at least.

ionpool.net in 2013, this is just the beginning of the list

There’s a lot of interesting documents there, presented in the classic List Of Tiny Links format. There’s far more there than I can summarize in a simple throwaway daily blog post like this one, but I particular point out to KLAX In Three Lessons, a series of Usenet posts written by Lyle Rains of Atari Games himself. In fact, those posts are so interesting that I might call them out in a later post….

Back to ionpool.net. The thing that saddens me is that the site still exists, but instead of providing the information that it helpfully offered back in 2013, now it’s just a black page with a graphic reading “END OF LINE.” This:

I can understand that even the slight resources necessary to preserve a website can, over time, become onerous. But I’d think it would be an equivalent cost to host an image like that, instead of leaving the old content up indefinitely. It was largely text files anyway.

Ah well. There is still the Wayback Machine, after all, slow and incomplete as it might be and difficult to sort through like it is. I can’t help but think that we should have more alternatives, though. The Internet Archive is not forever either.

Figuring Out Yars’ Revenge Code From Its Graphics

What is Set Side B about? We talk about old arcade and NES games, Nintendo things, weird gaming-related videos, ancient MMORPGs, and other weird and idiosyncratic things largely as they inspire us, much as how beta particles and gamma rays inspire random atoms as they pass through them, causing mutations and cancers along the way. (Alpha particles are too bulky to pass through, but that’s really just highly energetic ionized helium anyway!)

One foundational aspect of what we choose to highlight, though, are the extremely technical things, and wow, in that regard today’s link delivers. The brilliant Youtube channel Retro Game Mechanics Explained, which appears here semi-frequently, did a video on the Atari VCS/2600 game Yars’ Revenge that has to be seen to be believed, if not always quite understood.

It’s been random floating game knowledge for a while that the “Neutral Zone” area in Yars’, a flashing and coruscating band of lights that serves as something of a safe zone for the player’s bug, was the direct result of reading the game’s own code out of memory translated and displayed on screen. After all, machine language opcodes are just data, and the VCS has such a hugely limited address space that any reuse of that data is helpful.

RGME went through the graphics displayed on-screen and tried to see how much of the game’s code could be pieced together using it. The answer was, a fair bit, but not all. The process is really the most interesting part about it. Here it is:

Of particular note, the top comment on the video (because it got pinned there by RGME) is from Yars’ Revenge creator Howard Scott Warshaw himself!

In passing, let me just comment for a moment on what a weird phenomenon Yars’ Revenge is? It’s the best-selling original (non-port or license) piece of software for the old Atari. It’s such a weird artifact. It’s not a traditional style of game design. It’s got atmosphere, and strangely evocative sound. And it has that odd easter egg that can just outright end your game if you’re not careful. It really feels like an object of its time, that couldn’t have both come about and be as popular as it was in any other age. It didn’t inspire many imitators. But, it did come about, and it was popular, and I’m glad that’s true.

I watch this video and I wonder that it seems targeted so directly at me personally, that I wonder if anyone else might enjoy it at all. But then I look at its view count and see it’s approaching 200 thousand in around two weeks, so someone else out there must like it too. So: please watch the video, if you care about bits and bytes, opcodes and operands, and Exclusive-Ors. Or want to learn about those things. If neither is true for you, I’m sure there’ll be something more to your tastes tomorrow.

Reverse Engineering Game Code from the Neutral Zone in Yar’s Revenge (Youtube, 41 minutes)

PatmanQC on Atari’s Escape From the Planet of the Robot Monsters

Escape From the Plant of the Robot Monsters (I’m just going to call it Escape Etc. from here) is a game I’ve always been curious about.

It’s weird to think now about the time frame of Atari arcade games. 1972 saw Pong; 1979 was Asteroids, signalling a new direction for Atari in arcades; 1984 was Marble Madness, their first post-crash hit; then, 1991 was Street Fighter II and the start of the fighting game craze, forcing Atari to change direction yet again. They would have some hits from there (like Primal Rage and Area 51), but nothing with real cultural staying power until the era of Gauntlet Legends and San Francisco Rush.

Escape Etc. I don’t think did badly, but it wasn’t a huge hit. You can kind of get an idea of the popularity of one of Atari’s arcade games by how many ports it got. APB, for example, Dave Theurer’s last game at Atari, only got Lynx and European home computer ports, while Rampart (John Salwitz and Dave Ralston’s last game, if we’re noting such things) got a ton of ports to lots of platforms. Escape Etc. didn’t even get a Lynx port, although one had been planned.

This isn’t an Arcade Mermaid post, just another link to a Youtube video review. It’s done in an old style, without a lot of flash, but there’s good things about that too, and the information is both interesting and thorough.

More information on Escape Etc. can be found in this post from Vintage Arcade Gal. It’s text!

The History of Escape from the Planet of the Robot Monsters – Arcade documentary (Youtube, 27 minutes)

Page 6 Public Domain Atari ST Archives

Quick intro this time, because I don’t really know much about the Atari ST, but there’s a huge trove of public domain software for it from the archives of Page 6, as well as magazine archives!

Now that’s what a website should look like!

Page 6: Atari ST software collectionmagazine archives

Atari Archives Covers VCS Pac-Man

This is a big one. Youtube channel Atari Archives usually makes videos that average around 16 minutes in length, with the occasional entry that goes up to twenty or, once in a while, even thirty minutes. Their entry on Atari VCS/2600 Pac-Man, the infamous title that many claim destroyed the video game market in the US in 1983, goes for 38 minutes. (Their side episode on the Bally Astrocade is 48 minutes long, but it covers the history of an entire platform.)

The video’s states a thing that I have long suspected: Atari 2600 Pac-Man did not itself destroy the game console industry. I also don’t think the other prime suspect, Atari E.T., did it.

If you pressed me, I’d think that both may have been contributing factors, but only as part of a larger trend: stores shelves were inundated with a flood of games at the time, as lots of companies jumped heedlessly into the software market. The opportunity created by Activision, which was famously founded by Atari programmers upset by how they were treated there, which established in court that it was legal for competitors to make their own software for a company’s system, was soon taken advantage of by dozens of other outfits. For every Activision and Imagic, however, there were a bevy of Apollos and Froggos, whose mostly terrible games, in that pre-Internet era, looked about as good to a typical buyer.

Plus, I think there was an element of the bursting of a fad at that time. The success of the Atari 2600 was possibly unsustainable. Even the widely ridiculed VCS port of Pac-Man sold over seven million copies, a sales record that wouldn’t be matched until the middle of the NES’s life.

For more information on the game, and its many other contemporary ports, I refer you to the video.

Atari Archives: Episode 66, Pac-Man (38 minutes)

Chris Trotter’s History of Atari

The Atari brand has been in so many hands, and been used for so many things (including, most recently, NFTs and hotels) that making sense of it all is maddening. Christ Trotter on the atomicpoet Pleroma instance made a fairly lengthy series of posts laying it all out that, to my eyes, is accurate. He may actually know more about their history than I do, although pride makes me loathe to admit it!

The whole thread is useful, but here’s the first post on it, presented as screenshot because WordPress doesn’t yet support embedding that kind of thing directly. I don’t know why it’s so blurry, that seems to be WordPress again.

Chris Trotter’s Capsule History of Atari (atomicpoet.org, a Pleroma instance)

M.U.L.E. Turns 40

Dani Bunten’s classic economic simulation M.U.L.E. is one of the all-time greats, still fairly obscure even among people who know and talk about video and computer games, but hugely influential. Wikipedia tells us that Shigeru Miyamoto considers it an influence on the Pikmin games (although other than in theme I really don’t see it).

There are three current ways to play M.U.L.E. One is Planet M.U.L.E., an official port sponsored by Ozark Softscape, which is several years old, and I was certain I had posted here about before. It’s a proper update with new graphics and a lot of character. A thing about M.U.L.E. is that the original versions were intricately designed in a lot of ways, not just in game rules but the little details. The way the phase ending noise speeds up, the exact difficulty of catching a Wampus, the speeds with which players walk through terrain, the many details of auctions, even the time it takes to outfit a mule and leave/enter town, it’s all finely calculated. You can tell that Dani cared deeply about the game, and it’s a polished as any game I’ve ever seen, and that’s the old 8-bit computer versions. Planet M.U.L.E. isn’t as polished, but it’s still very nice, and you can tell its makers thought hard about it. It offers both local and online play.

Sadly, Planet M.U.L.E. seems to be on life support. While games can still be played, and the automated best player posts still go up on its blog, it’s not gotten an update in years, and it’s even possible they’ve lost the source code.

One legacy of Planet M.U.L.E. is a wonderful Youtube video they made that explains the game and how to play. It’s a great introduction:

M.U.L.E. Returns was a mobile port. It has a website, that’s still around, but apparently none of those versions are available. It’s got a page for a Steam version, but it’s not available despite the original game being released in 2013. The site claims it may come back some day, but it cannot be purchased currently.

Then there’s the new roboanimal on the block, M.U.L.E. Online, which is on itch.io for a very reasonable $5. It has the blessing of Ozark Softscape, and is a near match for the Atari 800 version. You won’t get any improved graphics or sound here, but you will get a game that copies the original very closely, which is perfectly fine in my opinion. It offers local single and multiplayer, as well as internet-based online play. They also promote a board game version of M.U.L.E, which I’ve long wanted to try!

Or there’s emulation. Back in college I played M.U.L.E. with roommates via an Atari 800 emulator burnt to a Dreamcast disk, a great way to play if you have the system, controllers and means to construct the disk because the Dreamcast has four controller ports. (M.U.L.E. is by far at its best when you have four people playing.) The Commdore 64 and IBM PC versions were also made by Dani and the others at Ozark Softscape. The C64 port is close to the Atari 8-bit version. I don’t know about the DOS PC version. I can say that the NES version made by Mindscape is a terrible version, while sadly possibly the most-played because of the great popularity of the NES. If you tried that version and wondered what the fuss is about, you should seek out the Atari 8-bit version and play it before writing off the game entirely.

World Of Mule is a fansite dedicated to M.U.L.E. in all its forms. For its 40th anniversary, they’ve published a long retrospective on the game, its history and the new versions. (That’s where the above image comes from.) It’s a fitting tribute to one of the most influential computer games ever made.

Long ago, on primordial wiki-like site everything2.com, I personally wrote a long examination and play guide to M.U.L.E. While my writing style back then was pretty crazy, I think the information holds up. If you have an interest, you may want to take a look.


Planet Mule ($0, Windows, Mac and Linux)

M.U.L.E. Returns (versions currently unavailable)

M.U.L.E. Online (itch.io, Windows, Mac and Linux, $5)

World of M.U.L.E. (carpeludum.com)

M.U.L.E. The Board Game (boardgamegeek item page)

Romhack Thursday: Race Drivin’ using the SA-1

On Romhack Thursdays, we bring you interesting finds from the world of game modifications.

Edit the Frog is back, with a new romhack! And this one’s really amazing.

We’ve mentioned before Vitor Vilela’s hacks that retro a SA-1 (“Super Accelerator”) into SNES games that suffered from slowdown. So far he’s done it with five games: Super Mario World, Gradius III (which really needed it), Contra III: The Alien Wars and Super R-Type. The fifth is the most amazing so far: Race Drivin’.

When the original Hard Drivin’ came to arcades it was pretty incredible, the first 3D racing game that didn’t use scanline tricks to display its track, that rendered it using an actual polygonal 3D engine. It used special custom hardware to make its track and physics possible. Race Drivin’ was less revolutionary, but only because the ground had been broken for it.

It was exactly the worst kind of game to be ported to the Super Nintendo’s infamously underpowered hardware, a 16-bit variant of the venerable 6502 running at about 3.5 mHz, just a bit over twice the speed of the NES. Even from the start, the SNES used in-card accelerators and co-processors to help complex games run: even though launch title Pilotwings made heavy use of the SNES’s “mode 7” graphics to display the game world, it still needed a DSP chip to help it with calculation.

https://github.com/VitorVilela7/SA1-Root/tree/master/Race-DrivinRace Drivin’ doesn’t use any accelerator, despite being one of the games most sorely in need of one. Asking a SNES to perform up to the custom mathbox chips in the arcade game was ludicrous, and so SNES Race Drivin’ is looked down upon by many, and probably unjustly: the coding is perfectly all right, it was just asking too much of the system.

Even with a SA-1 you’d think that Race Drivin’ on SNES couldn’t measure up, but Vitor’s hack does quite a respectable job! The SA-1 is essentially a second of the same kind of chip that runs the SNES, with a number of extra features bundled in. It also has some faster memory included on-die, and runs at triple the frame rate. Imagine if this had come out at the time: the SNES game is less than two years older than the arcade version! An SA-1-powered version that matched the arcade so closely back then would have astounded. I see that in a few places on the Super Stunt Track, it drops to 12 FPS instead of the 30 it holds at elsewhere, but it’s still damn slick.

Here is one of Vitor’s side-by-side comparison videos, demonstrating the old version (on the left) and the upgraded hack (on the right):

SA-1 Root: Race Drivin’ (github)

AKKA ARRH on Steam!

Please pardon our lack of a romhack review this week. It’s not always easy to find a good hack to review out of the tens of thousands that are floating around out there. In the meantime, classic remakes are kind of like romhacks, right?

Those who have been following us for the (gosh) nearly one year we’ve been in operation will have picked up on the fact that we love classic Atari. Especially we love classic Atari prototypes. In my humble opinion, Atari treated the output of their stable of brilliant creators with almost a dismissive attitude.

Developers would make a game completely from scratch, spend months working on every aspect of it, handtooling the assembly code, sometimes for hardware platforms that were created specifically to run it, devote their lives for a time to this project, test it in-house, get reactions, modify it, get it running, get approval to make cabinets and put it out on location test, then have all that work get destroyed. Oh well! Back to the drawing board. That’s what happened to AKKA ARRH.

As awesome a title screen as there ever has been!

The only record of all of that effort might end up being those few prototype cabinets put out on test and in the hands of the original developers, and the files in the Atari archives, which were pretty much left out to rot when the company was shut down, and would have been lost to us except for a few people who searched their dumpsters looking to preserve them.

Because of the value of those tiny number of cabinets, collectors guard them zealously, which puts them at cross purposes with the people trying to release the files and get them working in MAME. Two such stories lately have been the prototype for Marble Madness II, which we talked about last year, and AKKA ARRH. (Which, I think, is still one of the best game names I’ve ever heard. It’s fun to say!)

AKKA ARRH’s history is a long story. Long lost except for a few cabinets, somehow, we’re still not sure how, the code got dumped and leaked on the internet. However it happened, that event seems to have uncorked the bubble, with rights-holder Atari (not the same company as the old Atari) commissioning a full remake from Llamasoft and Jeff Minter, the creator of Tempest 2000 and probably the person best keeping alive the spirit of classic arcade gaming.

Minter’s remake of AKKA ARRH is now on Steam. It’s kinda pricey at $19.99, but it looks g r e a t, as you should be able to tell from the trailer below. An emulation of the original arcade game is also in the Atari 50th Anniversary Celebration package from Digital Eclipse, available on Steam and lots of other platforms, which costs more but also gets you many more games, and documentaries and flyers and lots of other plat*.

Seeing that little TM symbol after the logo is oddly heartening. It’s so nice to see this game given a full release, even if only digitally. It’s been a long journey. Welcome home, AKKA ARRH.

* Lately I’ve been chafing against the limits of language. Please excuse my made-up words, I’m kind of sick of having to turn to the same old synonyms, once again, at the moment. You should know what I mean by context here.

Sundry Sunday: Commercial for Atari Mario Bros.

We love weird old game commercials from before (or in this case during) the crash, before games and game ads began skew quite so much towards the stereotypical tastes of teenage males, and before companies like Nintendo became such jealous guardians of their products.

And just look at all the effort that must have gone into this commercial! This isn’t just people sitting in front of a TV raving about a game, these actors are wearing costumes and running from puppet creatures on an actual set! And this may well be the first human actor to ever portray Luigi in front of a camera (he may look like Mario with his color scheme, but his hat says Luigi, and he’s calling Mario for help). It even calls back to the theme song of Car 54 Where Are You. It’s a shame that the game couldn’t possibly have moved enough units to justify this production.