Sundry Sunday: Commercial For Pitfall!

Welcome to a new week! You swam through tyrannical employers, terrible social media, and a generally-appalling political situation. To help make up for it, let’s watch an old commercial for the Atari VCS game Pitfall!, and if that kid at the front looks slightly familiar, that’s only because it’s Jack Black.

The other actors in this video are also pretty interesting. Video games were considered interesting to general audiences in the U.S. before the crash. We’re still not entirely sure what changed. A lot of people point to a glut of awful games for the Atari VCS/2600, but it affected arcades too, as well as the Intellivision and ColecoVision. Video games suddenly just seemed uncool to most demographics, for some reason. In Japan, Nintendo was known to be concerned that a similar kind of thing might have happened when the Super Nintendo Entertainment System hit the U.S. market. Thankfully it didn’t.

News 7/24/22: Knockoff Internet Lego

“We scour the Earth web for indie, retro, and niche gaming news so you don’t have to, drebnar!” – your faithful reporter

At TechRadar, Jeremy Peel is set on telling us about Rogue Mage, an expansion to the Gwent card roguelite game set in the Witcher universe. Hey! Did you know there are roguelike games that don’t involve building a deck? It’s true!

At NintendoLife, Jim Norman (hey! a new guy!) informs of a blatant knockoff of beloved indie perennial Mini Metro on the Switch eShop. Boo! Hiss! Burble! Splorch! It’s like some folk on your planet were born without shame glands.

Jorge Jiminez at PC Gamer tells us the FCC is trying to get everyone in the US good internet. As a one-celled life form from a distant planet I don’t have much stake in the matter, but I can be happy for people by proxy, and do you know why? It’s because I’m not a jerk, drebnar! Glad to see the agency is trying to recover from that horrid stance against Net Neutrality back during what I understand Earth people call “the years of the carrot monster.”

Meow

At Kotaku, John Walker (another new name!) sounds a harsh note about Stray, a game that most of the internet has enthused over, by mentioning how, while it starts with you playing as a very cat-like cat, by the end you’re also playing as their robot companion a lot, and shooting things all zappy zappy, and doing a lot of video game stuff. It still doesn’t sound at all like a bad game, but just, something a bit different by the end than people may expect?

Bunches of people have been talking about the new Lego set that lets you build a plastic Atari 2600, our link to the subject is CapnRex101 at Brickset, a Lego fansite. It looks like a great model that is full of detail, although notably it retails for $240. For that price you could probably get your hands on a real VCS, although at the cost of it being actually playable, at least if you have a CRT lying around. But if you were going to go that far, you’d probably just look into getting a Flashback.

Lost Ed Logg Developed Prototype of Millipede for Famicom Found

If you dig around the forums of AtariAge, sometimes there are wonders to be found.

It’s been known for a while that three classic-era Atari arcade games were produced by HAL for the Famicom and NES: Defender II a.k.a. Stargate, Millipede, and Joust. Nicole Express recently did her typically excellent job discussing them and what makes them interesting. Such as, among other things: they use music that was later reused in NES Punch-Out!!, they are subtly different between their Famicom and NES versions, Satoru Iwata may have personally worked on them, and they were developed as part of Nintendo’s pitch to Atari to have them distribute the NES in the United States.

Something that one might overlook reading the article, however, is the news that this isn’t the only version of Millipede made for the Famicom hardware. As an in-house project at Atari Games/Tengen, Ed Logg himself implemented Millipede for it, before they discovered that the publishing rights in the US resided with the other Atari, the one that got bought by Jack Tramiel.

The source was recently found on a backup tape from Atari, and hand-assembled. The resulting rom file can be downloaded from the AtariAge thread on it. It has no sound, because that hasn’t been implemented yet, the colorful alternate palettes of the arcade version are missing, there are some bugs (I mean program bugs, not enemies), and the DDT Bomb objects hadn’t been put in yet, but a lot of the game is still there. There are even multiplayer modes, supporting up to four players playing alternating or simultaneously! It’s especially interesting since Ed Logg assisted Centipede’s creator Dona Bailey in creating the original game.

News 7/12/22: Yu-Gi-Market Contraction, Oh!

“We scour the Earth web for indie, retro, and niche gaming news so you don’t have to, drebnar!” – your faithful reporter

It’s a rare day that we get to link to the Washington Post, in this case a piece by Michael Cavna on the death of Yu-Gu-Oh! creator, mangaka Kazuki Takahashi. Hey there Michael! Bet you never thought your work would be linked by a single-celled pixel-art organism! Can you ask them to do something about their ludicrous paywall drebnar? Yu-Gi-Oh! is only tangentially part of our purview here but there have been enough video games from that series that we can probably make room for it under Retro, plus it’s published by Konami. One of my favorite facts is that the card game includes several cards that officially refer to the Gradius series, including cards of the Vic Viper and Big Core.

Elliot Williams at Hackaday challenges us: You think you know how Mario Kart works? I think so? You supply electric potential through a wire to a console loaded with some game software, which sends signals to a video screen, and you use a wired controller to interact with it. Yes, I win! His article just links to a video (see above) about how the AI drivers work. This subject has been thought of so much that there’s a patent on such drivers granted to Lyle Rains for his work back in the early days of Atari, in 1979! That it took 20 years for that to expire is a blight on the history of game programming, drebnar!

PC Gamer’s Rich Stanton tells us that Yuji Naka is still angry at Square Enix for removing him from the Balan Wonderworld project. He accurately notes that the degree of acrimony from Naka about this is unprecedented-Naka is pissed and doesn’t care who knows it. The article suggests listening to both sides here. Here at Set Side B we admit, we tend to take the word of developers over those of gigantic corporations, especially when the developer is someone of Yuji Freaking Naka’s standing! We may be wrong, and if the word comes out that we are we’ll cheerfully admit to it, but it is easy for me to believe, in Naka’s words, that Square Enix “doesn’t care about games.”

Zack Zaiezen at Kotaku writes that Take Two is going after another Grand Theft Auto modder. Boo! Hiss! News like that fills up my angry sac!

It’s a good day for linking to non-gaming sites! At CNBC, Ryan Brownie warns of a coming contraction of the games industry, partly due to it coming down off the boost caused by the pandemic, and also from bottlenecks produced by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Fixing E.T.

It’s nine years old, but I’m amazed by how few seem to know of these old projects that litter the internet, and this is one that’s definitely worth revisiting.

When people talk about reasons for the Great Game Crash of 1983 (which, it should be remembered, was mostly a crash in the U.S., other countries didn’t suffer much loss in popularity), one reason sometimes given was the lack of quality of one specific game: Howard Scott Warshaw’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, for the Atari VCS/2600. (That’s not really the point of this post. For more of this, seen the Addendum, below.)

I should emphasize that it was easy to get frustrated by E.T. Its development was rushed so that it could be in stores in time for the 1982 Christmas season. Warshaw’s previous work Yars’ Revenge was a huge hit for Atari, but its successor, Raiders of the Lost Ark, is possibly a bit too experimental. I think E.T. is a better game than Raiders, it’s easier to learn certainly, but it has some definite issues that make it very frustrating to play.

There were a number of issues, but the biggest by far was that it was extremely easy to fall into the many pits that dotted the landscape of the game’s version of Earth, and after floating up out of one, it was just as easy to immediately fall back into one again. You could fall into a pit merely from changing screens in the wrong location.

Back in 2013, a user in the AtariAge forums using the handle recompile produced a hack to fix the game’s problems, including this one. They made a page that the hack from which could be downloaded, and explained, in great technical detail, how it had been made. The result has slightly worse graphics than the original, but is much more playable, and reveals that there is a very interesting game hidden beneath the rushed product mandated by Atari’s managers. Not only is the page and his work still up now, nine years later, but so is the AtariAge thread he made.

Remember: a delayed game is eventually good, but a bad game is bad until someone with enough time, energy and technical know-how takes it upon themselves to fix it, which in E.T.‘s case was about 31 years from its release.

Addendum

Was E.T. the real reason for the U.S. crash? Honestly, I’m dubious. It’s likely a contributing factor, but a slight one. But the fact that it can’t be ruled out, and probably helped a little, makes it something that many writers can point to without much fear of contradiction. It’s the way many narratives are built.

But there were plenty of good games, by the standards of the time, to offset the fortunes of any single title. A more likely explanation was a deluge of bad games, and a market oversaturated by them produced by companies looking for a quick buck, so that unless a consumer had done their research, it was difficult to separate the worthwhile purchases from the cash grabs.

Video games had, almost overnight, turned into a billion-dollar business. For a few years, specifically 1978 to 1982, the success of arcades, and of the Atari VCS and a number of excellent games for it, tantalized a nation. For a brief period, almost everyone sold game cartridges. I remember seeing them on the racks of drug stores during that time.

Then, almost as suddenly as it had risen, it collapsed. No one knew which games were good and which were bad. Even the good ones were pretty expensive: a $30 game in 1982 was nearly $90 in today’s (2022) money. All of those stores that had jumped on the bandwagon were left with piles of unsold inventory. Console gaming died out almost completely for a few years, until the arrival of the NES, and some canny moves by Nintendo of America, resurrected the industry in the land of its birth.

BREAKING: Marble Madness II now in MAME, video on YouTube

This is not some fan game made to play like Marble Madness, but the real deal, a legendary lost prototype from the Silver Age of Atari Games! Cancelled because of the great arcade fervor at the time around fighting games, meaning little Atari released in that era performed well on test.

Word is that the rom has been released somewhere on the internet, although I do not know where. It had been known that all the surviving Marble Madness II cabinets were owned by old Atari staff or collectors who were averse to allowing the rom images to be released. Whether one of them had a change of heart or, as has been speculated with Akka Arrh, another legendary prototype, they may have been obtained through nefarious means.

Technically the rights are still owned by Warner Media, I believe. I’ve long been amazed that the current rights holders haven’t seeked out the owners of these prototypes and offered them a big payday to dump the roms and release something like a Midway Arcade Treasures 4. Sure, it’d only be a matter of time before someone broke the roms out of such a package, but they’d still sell a ton of units and the prototype owners would be properly rewarded for both maintaining their machines and for lost collector value, and importantly, the games would be out there among people who would enjoy them and be protected against further loss and obscurity.

YouTube: Marble Madness II (Atari prototype arcade game) is now playable in MAME

Homebrew Atari VCS/2600 Arcade Ports

The long-running Atari fansite AtariAge sells a number of carts that run on classic Atari VCS systems that make it do things you might not expect that system could do. Some of the most impressive of these are remakes of classic arcade games that go far beyond what was possible at the time. A number of these were developed by Champ Games. Here are links to a number of videos showing them off, although sone of the may not currently be in their store:

Galagon” – Wizard of WorZoo KeeperAvalancheScrambleSuper CobraMappy (especially this one!)

A few others, not from Champ Games: Aardvark (Anteater) – Venture ReloadedSpace Rocks (Asteroids) – Star CastlePac-ManDraconian (Bosconian)

Commodore Basic 2.0 for Other Systems

Say what you will about Commodore BASIC 2.0, the built-in programming language and makeshift shell for the Commodore 64, written by Microsoft employees and descending from code written by Bill Gates himself, it’s certainly, um, basic. Nearly everything that takes advantage of that machine’s graphics or sound features involves POKEing values into memory at various locations, requiring a programmer to memorize a long list of important numbers.

Because it doesn’t interface with the system’s unique features to any great extent, it’s a very generic version of BASIC. But this means it can be ported to other systems without tremendous effort. Fancy-pants commands don’t have to be converted to another architecture’s norms, because there aren’t any! And lots of systems used the instruction set and general capabilities of the MOS 6502, upon which the Commodore 64 is based, so now we have versions of its BASIC that work on the Nintendo Entertainment System and the Atari 800. They’re both based off of Project 64, an annotated disassembly of the C64’s BASIC and Kernal ROM code.

The NES port should be able to run on actual hardware, but you’ll need the Family Keyboard that was made to work with the Famicom’s own official BASIC to use it, which was only released in Japan.

By the way, the reason that I write BASIC in all-caps is, it’s an acronym! It stands for Beginners’ All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code.

Video: Atari Archive

Atari Archive is one of those projects that seeks to document every game released for some platform. In this case, it’s for the Atari VCS. That’s the original one, the real one, CX2600, not the one made by the company that currently wears the skin of the old Atari like a gruesome shroud.

The Atari VCS/2600 wasn’t the first programmable video game console, but it was certainly the most popular early console. (I had my own look at a few interesting examples of its software in a book of my own.)

Atari Archive is currently up to Episode 57, on Kaboom! Episodes tend to be in the 10-15 minute range, making it easy to find out about specific games in a timely fashion. Here are a few popular games to get you started:

#56: Warlords#54: Missile Command#33: Adventure#32: Space Invaders – and, of course, #1: Combat

Nicole Express: Tengen’s NES Chips

The always-wonderful retro gaming and hardware info site Nicole Express has a great post about the chips that Tengen (a subsidiary of Atari) used in their cartridges! Tengen is a special case among NES developers, in that while a Nintendo licensee they got to use their own mapper, from Namco, but went and manufactured their own ASICs when they split off from Nintendo’s licensing program. The deets are all in the article!

Nicole Express’ archives are well worth a look, which among other items hosts their article on Zaxxon and Future Spy. They have interesting games to play on their itch.io page too! Have I used enough exclamation points yet?!