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!
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.
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.
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.
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)
“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.
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.
“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.
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!
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?
“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….
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!
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.)
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!
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!
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.
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!)