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.

Arcade Attack Podcast: Ed Rotberg Interview

The podcast Arcade Attack interviews former Atari designer and programmer Ed Rotberg, creator of Battlezone! His introduction identifies him as the creator of the first FPS. Is he? I do not know for sure, but it seems awfully plausible. I think it’s a little distasteful identifying him by his connection to a genre that, when he created Battlezone in 1980, wouldn’t even exist for a decade yet. Rotberg’s accomplishment feels more profound than that, but Battlezone is definitely foundational!

Arcade Attack: Ed Rotberg interview (an hour 16 minutes)

News 12/28/22: ASCII Dwarves, eShop Shutdowns, Ecco the Dolphin

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

Computer issues kept me from filing last week’s report. That is the reason. It is not true that I got so drunk at a Globmas Party that my chemical composition was 50% alcohol. Don’t listen to those rumors! Let us begin.

Image from PCGamesN

Dwarf Fortress’ Steam Edition is still the toast of the gaming blogoglobe! A recent update lets you use the original version’s ASCII graphics instead of the high-falutin’ new pixel art skin. So proclaimeth Ian Boudreau at PCGamesN!

It’s funny. Corbin Davenport writes an article at How-To Geek titled Atari’s New Gaming Console Isn’t Dead Yet. But it’s URL is: https://www.howtogeek.com/855757/ataris-new-gaming-console-is-dead/ Don’t you love how URL slugs can reveal a piece’s working title? The article itself is more about how it’s mostly dead, so someone call Miracle Max.

Gavin Lane at NintendoLife discusses the upcoming shutdown of the 3DS and WiiU eShops. You haven’t been able to add funds for a while through the stores, although you could still add them using the Switch’s shop then use that money to buy there. The piece mentions that Nintendo has been almost anxious to close the shops, due to poor sales of the WiiU. You’ll still be able to download purchased software… for a while.

Also at NintendoLife, Liam Doolan interviews a couple of people at Wayforward about River City Girls 2! It turns out that planning began almost immediately after RCG1 wrapped up.

Tom Ivan. Video Games Chronicle. Microsoft and Activision have filed responses to the FTC complaint about their merger being anti-competitive. Creatures of my species are capable of merging together into one blobby whole, which is admittedly quite fun on a boring Saturday night, but none of us are corporations that control massive segments of the console gaming market!

Related, Jezz Corden of Windows Central reports that Microsoft is claiming that Sony’s influence will prevent four specific games from ever reaching the Xbox console platform: Final Fantasy VII Remake, Final Fantasy 16 (shouldn’t that be XVI?), Silent Hill 2 Remake, and Bloodborne.

And finally, at The Ringer, M.D. Rodrigues writes a long piece about the legacy of the Sega Genesis Ecco the Dolphin games.

News 12/15/22

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

Scott Stein at CNet (they’re still around) says his favorite gadget of the year was the Playdate.

Wes Fenlon at PC Gamer says that Tarn and Zach Adams, have become millionaires from the Steam release of Dwarf Fortress. Earth blogger John Harris, a.k.a. rodneylives, says they’ve communicated with Tarn several times, including a couple of interviews at Game Developer (formerly Gamasutra), and that this could not have happened to nicer people. The article notes that, despite the windfall, they’re being cautious with the money. Steam DF was made specifically because the brothers need healthcare, and whatever long tail DF has is pretty much it, since they aren’t making a sequel or expansion pack.

Image from Mobygames

At Inverse, Mo Mozuch describes the accomplishments of Carol Shaw, creator of Activision’s Atari VCS hit River Raid, one of the first vertically-scrolling shooters, and early woman pioneer in gamedev.

Rock Paper Shotgun’s C.J. Wheeler tells of a situation where the developer and publisher of The Outbound Ghost are feuding, which resulted in the game being temporarily pulled from Steam. Lead dev Conrad Grindheim has accused publisher Digerati of unethical practices, and Digerati claims to have been “blindsided” by the accusations.

Anthony Wood at IGN has a piece noting that, while Sonic Frontiers certainly has vocal detractors, that hasn’t stopped it from selling 2.5 million copies!

Image from PC Gamer

There is a great article on PC Gamer from Corwin Hayward about controversy with a certain extremely rare mount in World of Warcraft that, due to a couple of bugs, became extremely unrare among a small base of players for a short while. It’s a primer about the way the game’s loot system has been perceived and exploited for over a decade, and how it finally resulted in the relaxing of a whole category of ultrarare mounts. The article is long but very rewarding!

NPG’s Megan Lim speaks with Atari founder Nolan Bushnell on 50 years of Pong. Bushnell’s always been a bit of a huckster figure, but I’m glad he’s still kicking and talking with folk.

Scott McCree at Nintendo Life has a review of River City Girls 2 from favorite developer Wayforward! His premise is that it’s great, but ultimately not really differentiated from the original that much?

News 12/8/22: Akka Arrh, Steam Dwarf Fortress, Sexy Game Flyers

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

Hello blobs! Welcome again to our recognizable brand of snarky response to gaming media which I am given to understand has not been seen anywhere else over the past 30 years of the internet! I’m so original! Let’s get started….

Image from Lost Media Wiki. To think, until recently there were only three Akka Arrh units in existence, jealously guarded by their owners, and now, it has its own official website and Steam page.

Well it looks like Atari had the same idea we did regarding putting some of its neglected prototypes out there! Not only has their classic-era unproduced game AKKA ARRH (it’s fun to say!) playable in the Atari 50th Anniversary collection, but W. Shanklin at Engadget tells us it’s getting a remake! One quib with the article though, it says it didn’t get made because it was too hard, but playing it in the Anniversary collection I got rather a few waves in, on my first try? They got Jeff Minter on board for the remake, so you know it’ll be A. great, B. trippy, and C. have cheeky ungulates in there somewhere!

Keith Stuart at the Guardian visited Play Leisure, a UK company that refurbishes and resells classic arcade machines! It’s always nice when we here at Set Side B can link to a Real Publication, something that gets pressed in ink onto paper, that may have a shelf life, and not be purchased by Ziff-Davis and then rapidly shut down.

At PC Gamer, Ted Litchfield mentions surprise at learning that Bungie’s first three FPSes have been available free on the internet for over a decade. I am sure that the free availability of the Marathon games is something that was once generally known about. You remember Marathon, right? Back when Bungie only produced games for Macs? It HAPPENED, honest!

PC Gamer additional item! Joshua Wolens mentions that the Steam version of Dwarf Fortress hit its two-month sales goal in 24 hours! It couldn’t have happened to a nicer elaborate dwarf death simulator! Let’s spin the Wheel of Mortality, it could come up Goblins, Vampires, Forgotten Beasts, Were-Things, Demons, Fluid Physics, or Dwarf Psychosis!

Stay classy, Konami.

Zoey Handley at Destructoid sparks a dozen internet flamewars with their article listing the 5 best N64 games! Guess what you think they’ll be. My guesses are Mario 64, Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, Star Fox 64 and, oh, Mario Party. The answers: Majora and Star Fox, but then they chose Ogre Battle 64, Banjo-Kazooie, and F-Zero X. Which, yes they’re good, but over Ocarina? (Well honestly I think Ocarina of Time is a little overrated, but it’s usually a safe bet? Oh well, to the next item.)

This is the game that the estate of Edgar Rice Burroughs sued maker Taito over, because they claimed ownership over the concept of the nearly naked jungle guy. The nearly naked jungle girl depicted in the flyer above was not a factor.

Truly, there is no demographic out there more vulnerable to the marketing wiles of the sexy poster babe than middle-aged male business owners, and the arcade industry has long known this. Rare Historical Photos has a collection of arcade flyers, 90% of which feature variations of the scantly-clad promo lady. Konami’s U.S. division in particular made a lot of use out of them. Those ladies look like they do all their shopping at Girls’s Costume Warehouse.

And Sorrel Ker-Jung at Destructoid reminds us that we don’t have to care about the “Game Awards.” They don’t even have a catchy name like the Oscars, Emmys or Tonys. I wouldn’t even trust them to come up with a good name, because it’d probably be something hamfisted and too-obvious, like the “Miyamoto,” or the “Wright.” Bah!

News 12/1/22: DABLOONS

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

Quite a bit to get through today! Pull up a florb and moop for a bit!

Luke Plunkett at Kotaku informs us of Nintendo pulling support from the third-party tournament Smash World Tour, leaving them in a gigantic financial hole. This will severely harm tournaments’ willingness to trust Nintendo in the future, and the esports scene around future Nintendo products. Nintendo’s response at the end is especially frustrating, claiming they did not request any events be cancelled while still denying SWT a license, forcing them to cancel anyway.

Benj Edwards at Ars Technica: an AI from Nvidia can play Minecraft now, performing tasks based on text prompts. Congrats, you’ve invented a 10-year-old!

Image from Wario 64’s Twitter feed

After our initial post, I’ve purposely been trying not to talk up the Super Mario Bros. movie, but I do think this post from Ryan Leson at IGN is of interest, about Shigeru Miyamoto noting that Donkey Kong’s been a bit redesigned for the movie, still recognizably the Rare-made version of the character, but with some adjustments to more resemble the original version.

Here’s Rich Stanton at PC Gamer on the effort to preserve a Ridge Racer Full Scale, a version of the arcade game that featured an actual car chassis the player would sit it, had triple ultra-wide display, and cost operators $250,000. Very few were sold, and it’s possible only one survives, which was in Blackpool. After an arcade museum sought to purchase it, but refused when they learned of damage to the frame, it was thought lost, but although the physical structure of the unit has not been salvageable, the car portion and the hardware have been saved, and its code dumped. More can be read at Arcade Blogger.

Yep! I’m old.

Richael Watts at Rock Paper Shotgun has a piece up on Dabloontok, an RPG-ish thing a bunch of people are doing on TikTok, involving cat videos trading an imaginary currency called “dabloons.” This isn’t imaginary in the sense of crptocurrency, or indeed all money when you think about it; this is really imaginary. How many you have is completely on the honor system. Participants use it to “trade” with these cats, and they can also be “stolen” by them. The whole thing seems pretty silly overall, but it’s entertaining to learn about!

And at Engadget, I. Bonifacic remarks upon Pong turning 50 years old. Yeah, that number isn’t getting any smaller. It’s a useful retrospective, although I take issue with them saying that without Pong Nintendo would not exist. Nintendo is over a century old, originally making playing cards. What is more likely is they wouldn’t exist as we know them today-they may not have gotten into video games at all. (By the way, they make traditional Japanese game playing equipment too, like go boards!)

Romhack Thursday: Astro Smash ‘N’ Blast!

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

Most of the things we post here are game hacks. That is, something that has been modified from a published game. Hacking games is not illegal, but the process that some people usually use to obtain the roms themselves may be somewhat questionable. Well not for the subject of this week’s article: it’s 100% homebrew, created from scratch and unencumbered by such considerations! It runs on NES hardware (or an NES emulator), but technically speaking what we have here is more of an indie game on classic console hardware more than a hack.

It’s also an unusual subject for a 2022 indie game. You’ll find all kinds of hacks to, say, put silly characters into Super Mario Bros., but a remake of an Intellivision game, and one with an Atari port that is very much its equal, and porting those games to the NES-that’s unusual enough to merit discussion, even if the game itself is very simple.

Astrosmash! (with the exclamation point) was a very popular game for the Intellivision. I heard it was originally intended to be an Asteroids-style game, with rocks that split into pieces when shot, but turned out to be interesting translated to a Space Invaders-style missile base game, where your ship is stuck to the bottom of the screen shooting at targets falling from above. Astroblast! was released by M-Network (Mattel’s label for publishing games for competing systems), and was a very similar game for the Atari VCS/2600, but actually improved on the original in two ways: it can be played with either the joystick or paddle controller. It’s the only game for the VCS like that! Both control schemes are fun, although experts can probably play much better with the paddle, due to both its faster and more precise movement. And, it’s extremely fast! The sheer pace of the VCS Astroblast is so much greater than the Intellivision Astrosmash that it kind of demonstrates why VCS games tend to be more engaging than Intellivision games: it wastes no time with an easy ramp up in difficulty, but starts faster than almost any other game, and only gets harder from there. It’s simply exhilarating!

The way it works is like this. Rocks, Pulsars and Spinners fall from the sky, and your ship tries to shoot them before they hit the ground. You get points for shooting things, but lose points for things that get past you. Rocks come in two sizes (smaller ones have higher point values), but only kill you if they hit you. Big rocks break apart into small rocks when stuck. Pulsars home in on you as they fall, which makes it more likely they’ll hit you, but also means they’re easier to shoot. The most dangerous items plummeting towards you though, by far, are the Spinners. You must shoot Spinners, you don’t just lose points if one lands but a life. Small Spinners are your greatest enemy, since they’re also hard to hit. There’s also UFOs that harass you, which pass by horizontally and drop bombs on you.

Here is a short game of Astroblast, to give you a sense of how it works. Notice how fast it is. Know that this is nowhere near as fast as it gets. It is my kind of game:

As you score gets higher, the background color changes, and the game gets faster. You get extra lives every 1,000 points, and you start with ten, far more generous than most arcade-style skill tests from that time, but you need all those lives because you’re constantly dying. Difficulty is determined by score, the more points you have the faster it gets. Because you lose points as well as gain them, and because the speed is balanced right at the edge of human reaction time, players tend to play until they reach a difficulty score boundary, where only nearly-inhuman focus, and lots of practice, can push you beyond it. Astroblast will push your playing skills to the very limits.

Astro Smash ‘N’ Blast is an homage to these two games. It takes the same form, your ship at the bottom shoots upwards at an endless wave of plummeting targets, Rocks, Pulsars and Spinners. (There are no UFOs in this version.) There’s fewer things falling, but the game is a bit more precise about hitting small targets. Pressing the Select button turns on autofire, which you’ll probably want to use, to avoid compressing your thumb tissue into a singularity with rapid frantic tapping.

Rocks don’t split in two in this version, but otherwise it plays a lot like VCS Astroblast. Small Spinners are particularly difficult targets to hit, and must be aimed at precisely.

This version takes on a bit of inspiration from Pac-Man CE, in that in addition to having limited lives, you have a time limit. You can earn extra time by hitting +30 second targets that pass by horizontally, and you can regain hits on your ship by hitting passing 1UPs. These are the only bonuses; unlike the originals, you don’t get extra ships from points at all. Although the game ends if you run out of time, chances are great that you’re going to lose all five of your lives before then.

As in Astrosmash/blast, as you ascend to tougher difficulties, the screen’s background color changes. You probably won’t see the later levels though without a lot of practice. Astro Smash ‘N’ Blast offers a level of challenge rarely seen in most games. I prefer games like this, with a strong element of chaos, to more typical modern examples of high challenge, like bullet hell shooters and rhythm games. I think the essence of the super fast video game is in randomness, not memorizing levels and playing them almost by rote but in reacting instantly to dynamic situations, and that’s why I like all the Astro-style games.

I am left wondering what inspired Double Z to look to old Intellivision and Atari games for inspiration. They were released when I was a small child; had Double Z even been born yet when the Astro games were on store shelves? For whatever reason they made it, I am glad they did. Games like this don’t come around often any more, and I intend to put in some solid practice on it.

Astro Smash ‘N’ Blast, for NES (romhacking.net)

How David Crane Got Good Music Out Of The Atari VCS For Pitfall II

Back in 2013, David Crane chimed in on a thread about Pitfall II. The Atari VCS (a.k.a. 2600) was not known for the quality of its music. For sound effects, especially noise effects like blasts and booms, it was fine, but its TIA chip didn’t have the frequency resolution to produce every musical note precisely, meaning some of it notes would sound a bit off.

Pitfall II’s music, some of the best on the system in the classic era

There was technically a way to produce almost arbitrary waveforms, though like many techniques on the system it was processor-intensive. It involved changing the volume on one of its sound channels in real time to simulate the waveform of the sound you wanted to make. That was fine so long as you didn’t need the processor to do anything else, and sadly, on the VCS, just displaying graphics relied heavily on the processor.

Pitfall II, VCS/2600 version. Image from Mobygames.

David Crane managed to get decent polyphonic music out of the VCS by using Pitfall II’s DPC chip, which Crane created himself, as a co-processor that figured out the right values to set the volume to produce the mixed waveform for the music at a specific time, which the machine’s overworked 6507 CPU could then read and send to the right volume register in the TIA every scanline. The process is explained (to the understanding of a sufficiently technical frame of mind) here. I think I understand it myself!

The fact that David Crane is still around, and so willing to discuss the many tricks he came up with to make his games, is a great blessing, as is the existence of the AtariAge forums themselves, which are a trove of classic gaming information.

Nowadays this technique has been refined and utilized in homebrew cartridge productions. A particular standout is the music from Champ Games’ version of Mappy, which is frankly amazing. Check it out:

Atari Games Email Archive

Posted to Metafilter by Going to Maine, it’s definitely the kind of thing of interest to me and probably our readers. A link is a link, no matter where it came from. This site is an archive of messages made by Jed Margolin from the Atari Games corporate email server, from July 11, 1983 to when he left the company on September 15, 1992.

Particularly, read the last message from this post on the end of the U.S. arcade boom, of which this is an excerpt:

Atari Email Archive

Note: we saw the Nintendo Direct with the trailer for the (newer) Super Mario Bros. movie, but there’s not really to comment on? Maybe we’ll talk about it later, when we’ve learned more.

Video: Reconstructing an Arcade Centipede

This is really well outside the realm of simple repair, as the video demonstrates, the machine is basically totaled. There’s no monitor! The power supply is obviously kaput! They get it working though. HAPPY END!

The repair process was involved enough that they did a separate video for fixing the board itself.

Joe’s Classic Video Games: Repairing a Completely Destroyed ATARI Centipede Arcade Game From 1980, Will It Run? (45 minutes)

How we Repair an Atari Centipede Arcade Game PCB With Minimal Test Tools – Simple Schematic Theory (49 minutes)

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.