A childhood fantasy (almost) realized: 100 Atari games in my pocket

Owners of 1980s technology intellectual property are in an unenviable position. Their IP has very little value beyond historical significance or nostalgia. No one (well, I hope no one) is going to use an Apple IIe computer for serious productivity work these days, but that doesn’t diminish its importance in computing history, nor the strong positive memories its once loyal users may still hold onto.

There are few properties from the ’80s whose value is more purely historical and nostalgic than those bearing the brand of Atari. Sure, there’s still a company today named Atari, and it still makes modern video games for modern consoles, but this Atari shares only its name with the hallowed institution founded in Sunnyvale, California in 1972. The name and all of the properties that go with it have been sold and re-sold and re-re-sold so many times over the intervening years that any minute connection to the past, beyond the games themselves, has been lost.

So, what is a modern company that owns all of this (relatively speaking) useless IP to do? Trying to cash in on it is obvious, but doing it right is a huge challenge. The biggest hurdle is the very historical significance and nostalgia that give these games any lingering value in the first place. The only people who are really going to want to play Combat or Yars’ Revenge or — ah-hem — Math Gran Prix on an iPhone are people who either owned (and played the hell out of) these games as kids 30 years ago, or their kids, who harbor a morbid curiosity about this old crap their parents like for some reason. In order to satisfy these customers, the company that now calls itself Atari needs to achieve perfection in recreating the experience people remember. Not just the graphics and the sounds and the program mechanics of the games, but the feel… the essence of what it meant to play video games in the days when Ronald Reagan was president, pastels were popular in men’s fashion, and MTV still showed music videos.

Yesterday Atari released Atari’s Greatest Hits as a universal app for iOS devices. (To the non-nerd[s] in my audience: that means the same app works on iPhone/iPod touch and iPad.) The game comes free with arcade Pong, and 99 other classic (and not-so-classic, but… well… old) Atari games, both from the arcades and for the Atari 2600 VCS, available as in-app purchases. The games are sold in packs of four for 99 cents, or the entire set can be downloaded for $14.99. Let’s be serious: anyone who cares about this at all should just get it over with and download the works, immediately.

So did Atari live up to my unrealistic expectations? Read on after the screenshot gallery to find out.

First impressions

It’s clear from the moment you load Atari’s Greatest Hits on your iPhone or iPad that a great deal of attention and care went into putting this package together. And yet, it just doesn’t quite hit the mark. The graphic design of the menu interface bears plenty of superficial nods to the vintage Atari experience: plenty of use of Bauhaus font (the font Atari used with the original 7 cartridges released with the Atari VCS in 1977), lots of browns and oranges, and of course the carousel navigation that uses the original cabinet and/or game box art to help you select a game to play. But despite fonts and colors, this doesn’t look ’80s, and it certainly doesn’t sound ’80s. The entire time you’re on the menu, loud 21st century techno music booms from your speaker. To be fair, I like this kind of music, and the music they chose is decent. But it’s a distracting anachronism.

I compare this to the Williams Pinball Collection that came out a few years ago on the modern consoles. Its interface looks like an arcade, with the pinball tables lined up along the wall, and over the din of a dozen pinball machines blasts licensed ’80s popular music. (The song that stands out for me is the quite-possibly-perfect Loverboy hit “Workin’ for the Weekend.”) This is what I would have liked (if not downright expected) in a properly executed Atari collection.

Lamentations about “what could have been” aside, it is truly great to see the original game box art and arcade cabinets on the menu, and the menu itself is intuitive and fun to navigate. And it’s great that each game also includes a full high-resolution scan of the original instruction manual, which also explains why a collection of 100 games, most of which were only about 4 KB each on the original cartridges, could add up to a 68 MB download on iOS.

The sound and the fury

There was almost no question for me which game I would try first: Yars’ Revenge. I logged hundreds of hours (sometimes in a single game, it seemed) playing this game in the ’80s, long past the date when I should have moved on to the NES or PC games. Any true Atari retro experience needs to deliver a perfect rendition of Yars’ Revenge for me to consider it a success.

I started the game, picked my favorite game variation (Game 6), and then… WHAAAAA!!! Playing the game on my iPad, I was assaulted by hideous distorted grinding noises. I tried a few other games and confirmed that all of the 2600 games had horribly distorted sound. (It also didn’t help that Yars’ Revenge gets most of its intensity from a constant droning buzz, making this quite possibly the worst game I could begin this experience with.)

Fortunately, later in the evening I loaded the game onto my iPhone 3GS, and found absolutely no sound issues with the 2600 games, even Yars’ Revenge. So I’m not sure if this is a general issue with the game on the iPad, or if it was an isolated problem that could have been resolved with a reboot. I’ll follow up on that when I know more.

Playing the game

With my worries about sound allayed, I was able to focus my attention on the quality of the game experience. All of the games are presented in a relatively small area of the screen, with ample space above and below devoted to on-screen controls. There have been some complaints in App Store reviews about the games not using the full display, but I think those complaints are misguided. These Atari games in their original form were so low-res that even when shrunk down to a little less than half the size of an iPhone screen, they’re still easily viewable. Plus, displaying the games in full-screen mode would mean you’d need to obscure part of the display with your fingers in order to control the game. Unacceptable.

The developers and designers who worked on this collection put considerable thought into translating the original game controls to on-screen counterparts that do not necessarily mimic the original feel, but that usually (but not always) contribute to a satisfying game experience.

A good pair of games to consider in reviewing the merits of these control systems are the arcade versions of Asteroids and Tempest. Both games translate quite well to the iOS experience. They look fantastic (all of the vector games, in particular, come through well here), and are just as fun to play as ever. With Tempest, the original control mechanism was a flywheel-like spinner. That is replaced with a thumbwheel that reminds me of the volume controls on old transistor radios. It’s way different from the original control, but it feels surprisingly natural and it’s very easy to adapt to this type of play.

Asteroids, on the other hand, does not benefit from this new alternate control mechanism, at least for the way I like to play the game. (I should probably note that I own an actual Asteroids cocktail table, so I’m very accustomed to the arcade controls.) The default control mechanism is a combination rotate/thrust “disc,” not unlike the disc controller on an old Intellivision. (Intellivision controls on an Atari game? Blasphemy!) Some people may prefer this, but I found it absolutely unusable, mainly because of my preferred Asteroids playing style: I don’t thrust all over the screen. I stay in one spot and just rotate, and I move around only when absolutely necessary. The disc control makes it nearly impossible, for me at least, to rotate without thrusting. Luckily, Asteroids (and apparently most of the arcade games, though I haven’t tried them all yet) offers multiple control schemes, including the original arcade-style five-button configuration. This worked well for me on the iPad, but I didn’t try it yet on the iPhone, and I imagine size could be an issue there, not to mention just holding the iPhone while fiddling with five on-screen buttons at the bottom of the display.

A few other miscellaneous game notes:

No licensed games. This was a no-brainer for me, but apparently (based on reviews on the App Store) it’s confusing to some users. This collection only consists of games Atari owns the rights to. That means games that were licensed for the original Atari 2600 won’t show up here, not even if Atari developed those games. You won’t find arcade classics like Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Defender or Berzerk, and you won’t find licensed movie properties like Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark or E.T. And you definitely won’t find games that were originally released by other game companies like Activision, Imagic or Parker Brothers. Although… one wonders. Atari licensed Pitfall! and River Raid from Activision for inclusion on the plug-and-play Atari Flashback 2 console a few years back. Maybe a similar license could be in the works. It wouldn’t be difficult for Atari to offer additional in-app purchases of more games in the future.

I think the funniest instance of licensing issues popping up here though is the matter of Pong Sports. Back in the ’80s Atari manufactured the 2600 and a number of its games under special branding for sale at Sears stores, and there were three Sears exclusive titles (Steeplechase, Submarine Commander and Stellar Track), all of which are included here. And then there’s Pong Sports. Atari released this game as Video Olympics, and sold it as Pong Sports in Sears stores. But here it’s called Pong Sports, presumably because they couldn’t get the rights to use the word “Olympics” this time around.

Unreleased and homebrew games. If you’re not a hardcore Atari fanatic, you probably don’t realize that in recent years a number of unreleased prototype games have come to light as downloadable ROMs to play in computer-based Atari 2600 emulation software. And a rabid homebrew community has developed as well, creating brand new games for the system. This collection includes a few of these prototype and homebrew games, such as the Atari 2600 version of Tempest and an unreleased game called Save Mary. I find it funny that Atari had to, of course, come up with box art for these games for the menu interface, and they went with some really low-quality homemade art for most of them. But Save Mary is the weirdest… it uses the cover art that originally went with the Atari 2600 BASIC Programming cartridge.

It’s also funny… and probably an intentional joke… that for these games, the manual scans that are displayed are not for the games (since they don’t have instruction manuals) but for the Atari 2600 console itself. Somewhat of an Easter egg, I think.

God (or is it the devil?) is in the details

Atari got a lot of things right with this collection, but there is definitely room for improvement. Here are a few things that come to mind, some of which I’ve already mentioned.

License some great ’80s music for the menu. The aforementioned Loverboy hit would certainly be great, but really just about any music that was in heavy rotation on MTV circa 1983 would work. Personally I’d love to hear plenty of Duran Duran and Men at Work.

Alternate control schemes for the 2600 titles. Here’s the one thing that I think would make the biggest difference in creating an authentic Atari 2600 experience: position the on-screen controls to better mimic the feeling of holding an old CX-40 joystick. The space is already there; they’d just need to rearrange the controls. Move the fire button to the upper left where the pause button is; move the d-pad to the lower right where the fire button is; and move the pause button to the lower right where the d-pad is. Holding a square-ish device in the left hand and pressing a button with one’s left thumb while using one’s right hand to control movement is the natural way of the Atari 2600 experience. Ideally the d-pad would be tweaked a bit as well… it’s a little too restrictive feeling. A lot of iOS games with a virtual d-pad allow you to place your thumb anywhere in a general region of the screen and that instantly becomes the “zero” position of the d-pad. I suspect (or at least hope) that, given the nature of iOS apps, Atari will continue to refine the controls in future updates.

Better “cabinet art.” I have to be honest… I can live with the graphic design of the main menus, but the graphics framing the game itself while in play are downright ugly. Better to have it look like an actual vintage TV set like VH1′s (yes, VH1′s) Intellivision collection for iOS. And I’d prefer that the on-screen buttons look exactly like the real buttons on the arcade cabinets and console controllers, without the unnecessary added visual junk. It also seems like they phoned in the design of the on-screen slider for the paddle-based games. (Why doesn’t it at least look like the control they developed for Tempest?)

Final thoughts

I could nitpick details only an OCD Atari junkie will notice, much less care about, but in the end there’s only one thing I can say about this collection. Back in the early days of the App Store, Atari released a few of its classic arcade games as standalone apps, each consisting of both the original and a new version with modernized graphics and sound: Centipede, Super Breakout, Missile Command. Then they disappeared, and were gone for ages. A month or two ago, they reappeared, but with only the modernized portions. For ages I’ve been speculating that Atari had a massive collection app in the works, and finally yesterday it arrived. I was absolutely giddy. And while it will probably never fully live up to my expectations, it’s damn close. I’ve dreamed ever since I first got my Atari 2600 console in 1982, when I was 8 years old, that one day I’d be able to carry the experience around in my pocket. And now I can… almost. It’s not perfect, and it couldn’t be. But I’ll take it anyway.

Limitations inspire design

What makes great design? Why did design seem to take such a wrong turn in the ’80s and ’90s? What has prompted a partial resurgence of “great” design in recent years? And why am I asking all of these highly subjective questions?

My fascination with design first took hold in the early ’80s, and was largely attributable (along with my love of technology) to my experiences with the Atari 2600. I became obsessed with package design and logos, and I also became obsessed with the art of low-resolution, pixilated on-screen graphics.

My interest in “current” video games tapered off as the ’90s wore on, especially when the 3D polygon-based era began. All the new games just seemed ugly and stupid, even though, in an obvious way, they were more complex and more graphically detailed than the Atari games I loved as a child. Simultaneously, my fascination with logos and package design waned as both seemed to just get more obnoxious and overloaded with swooshes and swirls and gradients and shadows and beveled edges and all of the other excesses technological advances made possible.

I’ve wondered for a while what it was about blocky, bitmapped video game graphics that I found so aesthetically appealing. And, in much the same way, what it was about package design from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s that just seemed so right to me, even though they were a lot simpler, and made using much cruder technology, than what was happening in the “now.”

Finally, I realized it was limitations that were the key to the great designs I admired so much. The designers were up against strict limits to what was possible. Mastering these earlier, more difficult techniques required years of practice and experience. And butting up against those limits to produce something of quality required real creativity. This realization led me to the axiom:

Great design happens when designers’ creativity exceeds the limitations of the technologies they use.

Once I understood this, suddenly it made sense to me why so many of the low-budget shareware games I’d seen for the Mac over the years looked and felt like crap to me, even though on a surface level they were clearly more advanced than those old Atari games: it’s easy to create a game on a modern computer, using modern graphics software and object-oriented programming languages. You don’t have to have any particular skill or knowledge to do so. But, because it’s so easy to do passably, it’s much harder to do really well.

Pitfall! and Super Mario 64: Yes, strangely, I really do prefer the one on the left.

Atari 2600 programmers needed an immense amount of knowledge of the intricacies of the system, and the tricks to exploit its extremely limited, but quirky, technical capabilities. You didn’t get into programming games for the Atari 2600 unless you knew what you were doing. Well, OK… there was plenty of shovelware in the system’s later years, but the ratio of good to crap was much higher among the 700 or so games released during that system’s lifetime than it is for the tens of thousands of mostly worthless games currently available for the iPhone.

So then, what is it that has caused — to some extent — “great” design to re-emerge in recent years, even as technology has advanced even faster than before? I suspect it’s due to a reawakening among designers to the merits of the earlier ways of doing things. Letterpress, for instance, has experienced a massive resurgence of popularity lately. “Retro” design is popping up everywhere. Perhaps it’s just that the hipsters are taking over the world, but I think this renewed awareness of what made mid-century design so great has led to designers re-imposing those limitations on themselves. Technology has advanced far enough now that there’s almost nothing that can’t be done, including recreating the limitations of earlier analog technologies in the digital realm. Think of things like Hipstamatic for the iPhone: it takes your iPhone’s digital photos and makes them look like something from an old point-and-shoot camera from the ’60s. Or look at the background design on Web Designer Wall, a visual style that saw a surge in popularity about a year ago but that’s inspired by watercolor and ink techniques that were especially popular in the ’60s. Or look at video games like The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker (among others) that brought a cel-shaded animation style to 3D polygon-based video game design.

These are just a few examples off the top of my head of modern designers imposing limitations on themselves to inspire their designs, now that technology no longer forces those limits directly. If you can do anything, it’s hard to do anything well. It’s too easy to get lazy or to simply lack direction and focus. In the past, technological barriers forced designers to focus. Now, they have to do it for themselves. Fortunately, that’s starting to happen.

Holy. Freakin’. Crap.

I love Panic, Inc. They make two of my indispensable web developer software tools: Transmit and Coda. And they have a great attitude. Their founder is a cool guy. And now, to top all of that off… they’re Atari freaks.

Oh man. I love this. I have a few quibbles with some of the details of their fake screenshots — things that aren’t actually possible (as far as I know) with the technical limitations of the Atari 2600. But it’s no matter. I absolutely love this stuff… it’s even better than the Venture Bros. Season 3 DVD art. Check it out:

Panic Atari art

Best Google Doodle yet

If you’re a regular user of Google, you probably know that Google likes to occasionally honor historical events by changing its logo for a day, in a way that symbolizes the event it’s honoring.

These are usually interesting (if for no other reason than simply what events the Google team deems worthy of their recognition), and sometimes quite artistic. But today’s Google Doodle is probably my favorite yet.

You see, today is the 25th anniversary of Tetris, one of the most iconic video games of all time.

And here’s the doodle:

Google Doodle: Tetris

SimCity for iPhone: ASOD (Advisor Screen of Death)

I was ecstatic when I discovered SimCity for iPhone. It is, without a doubt, the best “deep” game for the iPhone that I’ve encountered. (Stuff like Bejeweled is great too, but they’re in a completely different league.)

I have long been a fan of the SimCity series. I haven’t really played SimCity 4 much, mainly because it seems that with each new version, Maxis EA gives the Mac version less and less attention. Or, more accurately, they give MacKiev even less time and a stingier budget to do the port from the PC version. So, it’s bloated and sluggish and slow. But for me, SimCity 3000 was great, and that is the edition that was the basis for the iPhone version.

I love it. It is unbelievable that they could pull off something like this on the iPhone, but they did it. Mostly. It’s great, but it’s buggy.

The worst bug I’ve encountered, twice now, happens occasionally when clicking one of the advisor links in the news ticker at the bottom of the screen. What you get is… ugh… this:

Sim City Advisor Screen of Death (ASOD)

In the spirit of the classic Windows 95 BSOD, I’m calling this bug the ASOD: Advisor Screen of Death. I have no experience with iPhone programming, but I suspect that the text you see is the variable names or some kind of parsed placeholder text where the actual advisor message is supposed to appear. Unfortunately, not only is the text not being properly loaded, the actions for the buttons aren’t, either, meaning that once this appears, there’s no way to make it go away… at least, no way other than clicking the iPhone’s Home button, which does a fine job of returning you to the home screen… but it quits SimCity in the process, and if you hadn’t saved in, say, the entire amount of time you had just been playing the game, it can be incredibly frustrating.

So… if you like SimCity and you own an iPhone or iPod Touch, by all means, buy this game. You will enjoy it immensely. Just remember two things:

1. Save. Often.
2. Think twice. Skip advice. (Or at least approach your advisors through the “…” menu instead of the ticker.)

Update: A few other bugs, or at least flaws, I’ve noticed: the city’s population seems to fluctuate wildly from month to month, with no logical explanation; demand for the different zones seems to bear no relation whatsoever to the tax rates for those zones, but almost seems to just follow an arbitrary pattern of ebb and flow; and the budget numbers do not adjust month-to-month, making it really hard to track current revenue levels. Maybe this last one is the same in the computer version too, but the budget seems to require a lot more close attention on the iPhone.

A great video review of what makes the new Prince of Persia game so unique

A former coworker tipped me off to this video, originally posted here. It’s a video review of the author’s choice for “game of the year,” and it’s not what you might think.

Well, OK. I know you’ve read the title of this post. So yes, it’s probably exactly what you might think. He makes a compelling case for what is so unique and revolutionary about this game.

As I mentioned in a recent post, I got Prince of Persia from my parents for Christmas and have been playing it for the past few days. I’ve gradually been coming to realize on my own what this reviewer is talking about.

At first I was kind of shocked (and a little disappointed) when I realized that you couldn’t die in the game. Too easy! I thought. But I have had many game experiences in the past like what he describes, where if you screw up you have to start over at the beginning of the level. Extremely frustrating. With Prince of Persia, I was initially somewhat put off by the discovery of this “no death” policy, but as I played on I realized that the developers built in the proper challenges and rewards in other ways.

When you’re battling a boss for instance, when you do something that would have caused you to die in another game, in the few moments while you’re being rescued by the princess who accompanies you on the adventure, the boss regains some of its energy. So, in other words, you do still get “punished” — it will now take longer to beat the boss — but you’re never thrown completely out of the experience and forced to repeat your steps again and again until you just happen to get it right.

That’s the thing that’s really revolutionary about this game: it allows you to keep on with the necessary trial and error until you learn what to do, not in a pathetically easy way, but in a non-frustrating way. You still have to figure out what to do, and develop skill with certain maneuvers, or you’ll never get past certain obstacles. But unlike with other games that force you to go back to well before the point where you’re currently stuck, and then repeat several minutes of things you’ve already done, you can just keep at it until you get it right. Imagine having to do that “repeat several minutes” thing 10 or 15 times when you’re up against a challenge you’re particularly struggling with, and you’ll see why I’ve left so many games unfinished. And I’m an “experienced gamer!” Sort of.

And now back to our usual inanity

If you’re getting tired of my political rants, my dissing of Sarah Palin, my man-crush on Barack Obama, then welcome back to business as usual here at room34.com.

Three words: Ho. Ly. Crap. Although I played my fair share of Super Mario Bros. in the late ’80s, I was too old for the Saturday morning cartoons. But now my son isn’t, and they’re selling them on DVD at Target.

I always enjoyed the little quasi-calypso ditty that accompanied Mario’s journeys in the Mushroom Kingdom, but until now I never realized there were words.

Do the Mario!
Swing your arms
From side to side
Come on it’s time to go!
Do the Mario!

Take one step
And then again
Let’s do the Mario!
All together now!

You got it!
It’s the Mario!

Do the Mario!
Swing your arms
From side to side
Come on it’s time to go!
Do the Mario!

Take one step
And then again
Let’s do the Mario!
All together now!

Come on now!
Juuuust like thaaaaat!