The Atari 2600 singlehandedly introduced home video games to the masses. A new book by ExtremeTech Editor-in-Chief Jamie Lendino shows how today’s game industry can be traced entirely to this seminal 1977 console.
The first time I ever played video games—before even arcade games like Asteroids and Pac-Man—was on the Atari 2600. My parents purchased the game console for me in 1979 when I was six, and in doing so completely changed the course of my life. I didn’t become a game designer, but I began a lifelong love of technology—not just for gaming, but for the computer industry in general. And I still play 2600 games on occasion, even today.
I knew I had to write a book about this thing.
I’m not the first to do so. But I wanted to write a book that not only celebrates the games, the highs, and the lows of this late-1970s and early-1980s console, but to do so with a closer eye on how it influenced the fledgling game industry—why this console in particular (which wasn’t even first) is responsible for so much of what we consider the norm today. That can be hard to see sometimes given the 2600’s incredibly simplistic graphics and sound. And what possible link it could have to, say, Far Cry 5 or Detroit: Become Human? But there is a story there, and in highlighting more than 90 of the best cartridges for the 2600—nearly all of which I owned and played to death around time of their release—I show why and how this happened.
An Atari 2600 “Heavy Sixer.”
In a world of resurgent enthusiasm for old-school gaming, where we may now even see a return (at least in spirit) of the Atari VCS, and where Atari Flashbacks and 2600 emulators are almost everywhere, the time seems right. Well over a year in the making, Adventure: The Atari 2600 at the Dawn of Console Gaming, published by Ziff Davis (ExtremeTech’s parent company), is now shipping on Amazon. Here’s a free book excerpt; I hope you enjoy it.
Adventure: The Atari 2600 at the Dawn of Console Gaming
by Jamie Lendino
Ziff Davis LLC
Grand Prix (Activision, March 1982)
The next few games we’ll discuss further illustrate the quality improvements upstart third-party developers delivered, in comparison with Atari, which had clearly become too comfortable in its lead position. First up is Activision’s Grand Prix, which in hindsight was a bit of an odd way to design a racer. It’s a side-scroller on rails that runs from left to right, and is what racing enthusiasts call a time trial. Although other computer-controlled cars are on the track, you’re racing against the clock, not them, and you don’t earn any points or increase your position on track for passing them.
Gameplay oddities aside, the oversized Formula One cars are wonderfully detailed, with brilliant use of color and animated spinning tires. The shaded color objects were the centerpiece of the design, as programmer David Crane said in a 1984 interview. “When I developed the capability for doing a large multicolored object on the [2600’s] screen, the capability fitted the pattern of the top view of a Grand Prix race car, so I made a racing game out of it.” Getting the opposing cars to appear and disappear properly as they entered and exited the screen also presented a problem, as the 2600’s lack of a frame buffer came into play again. The way TIA works, the 2600 would normally just make the car sprite begin to reappear on the opposite side of the screen as it disappeared from one side. To solve this issue, Crane ended up storing small “slices” of the car in ROM, and in real time the game drew whatever portions of the car were required to reach the edge of the screen. The effect is smooth and impossible to detect while playing.
The car accelerates over a fairly long period of time, and steps through simulated gears. Eventually it reaches a maximum speed and engine note, and you just travel along at that until you brake, crash into another car, or reach the finish line. As the manual points out, you don’t have to worry about cars coming back and passing you again, even if you crash. Once you pass them, they’re gone from the race.
Figure 5.2: An endless runner with wheels, Grand Prix demonstrated the 2600’s graphics prowess.
The four game variations in Grand Prix are named after famous courses that resonate with racing fans (Watkins Glen, Brands Hatch, Le Mans, and Monaco). The courses bear no resemblance to the real ones; each game variation is simply longer and harder than the last. The tree-lined courses are just patterns of vehicles that appear on screen. Whenever you play a particular game variation, you see the same cars at the same times (unless you crash, which disrupts the pattern momentarily). The higher three variations include bridges, which you have to quickly steer onto or risk crashing. During gameplay, you get a warning in the form of a series of oil slicks that a bridge is coming up soon.
Although Atari’s Indy 500 set the bar early for home racing games on the 2600, Grand Prix demonstrated you could do one with a scrolling course and much better graphics. This game set the stage for more ambitious offerings the following year. And several decades later, people play games like this on their phones. We just call titles like Super Mario Run (a side-scroller) and Temple Run (3D-perspective) “endless runners,” as they have running characters instead of cars.
Activision soon became the template for other competing third-party 2600 developers. In 1981, Atari’s marketing vice president and a group of developers, including the programmers for Asteroids and Space Invaders on the console, started a company called Imagic. The company had a total of nine employees at the outset. Its name was derived from the words “imagination” and “magic”—two key components of every cartridge the company planned to release. Imagic games were known for their high quality, distinctive chrome boxes and labels, and trapezoidal cartridge edges. As with Activision, most Imagic games were solid efforts with an incredible amount of polish and were well worth purchasing.
Although Imagic technically became the second third-party developer for the 2600, the company’s first game didn’t arrive until March 1982. Another company, Games by Apollo, beat it to the punch by starting up in October 1981 and delivering its first (mediocre) game, Skeet Shoot, before the end of the year.
But when that first Imagic game did arrive, everyone noticed.
Demon Attack (Imagic, March 1982)
At first glance, the visually striking Demon Attack looks kind of like a copy of the arcade game Phoenix, at least without the mothership screen (something it does gain in the Intellivision port). But the game comes into its own the more you play it. You’re stuck on the planet Krybor. Birdlike demons dart around and shoot clusters of lasers down toward you at the bottom of the screen. Your goal is to shoot the demons all out of the sky, wave after wave.
The playfield is mostly black, with a graded blue surface of the planet along the bottom of the screen. A pulsing, beating sound plays in the background. It increases in pitch the further you get into each level, only to pause and then start over with the next wave. The demons themselves are drawn beautifully, with finely detailed, colorful designs that are well animated and change from wave to wave. Every time you complete a wave, you get an extra life, to a maximum of six.
Figure 5.3: Rob Fulop’s first game post-Atari, Demon Attack delivered fast, frenetic action.
On later waves, the demons divide in two when shot, and are worth double the points. You can shoot the smaller demons, or just wait—eventually each one swoops down toward your laser cannon, back and forth until it reaches the bottom of the screen, at which point it disappears from the playfield. Shoot it while it’s diving and you get quadruple points. In the later stages, demons also shoot longer, faster clusters of lasers at your cannon.
The game is for one or two players, though there’s a cooperative mode that lets you take turns against the same waves of demons. There are also variations of the game that let you shoot faster lasers, as well as tracer shots that you can steer into the demons. After 84 waves, the game ends with a blank screen, though reportedly a later run of this cartridge eliminates that and lets you play indefinitely. If I were still nine years old, I could probably take a couple of days out of summer and see if this is true. I am no longer nine years old.
Demon Attack was one of Imagic’s first three games, along with Trick Shot and Star Voyager. Rob Fulop, originally of Atari fame and one of Imagic’s four founders, programmed Demon Attack. In November 1982, Atari sued Imagic because of Demon Attack’s similarity to Phoenix, the home rights of which Atari had purchased from Centuri. The case was eventually settled. Billboard magazine listed Demon Attack as one of the 10 best-selling games of 1982. It was also Imagic’s best-selling title, and Electronic Games magazine awarded it Game of the Year.
“The trick to the Demon Attack graphics was it was the first game to use my Scotch-taped/rubber-banded dedicated 2600 sprite animation authoring tool that ran on the Atari 800,” Fulop said in 1993. “The first time Michael Becker made a little test animation and we ran Bob Smith’s utility that successfully squirted his saved sprite data straight into the Demon Attack assembly code and it looked the same on the  as it did on the 800 was HUGE! Before that day, all 2600 graphics ever seen were made using a #2 pencil, a sheet of graph paper, a lot of erasing, and a list of hex codes that were then retyped into the source assembly code, typically introducing a minimum of two pixel errors per eight-by-eight graphic stamp.”
Although you can draw a line from Space Invaders to just about any game like this, Demon Attack combines that with elements of Galaga and Phoenix, with a beautiful look and superb gameplay all its own.
- Jim Bartimo, “Q&A: David Crane,” InfoWorld, March 12, 1984, 84.
- Montfort and Bogost, Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System, 106-7.
- Berlin, Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age, 278.
- Herman, Phoenix IV: The History of the Videogame Industry, 81.
- Herman, 81.
- “Atari Sues Imagic on Copyright Issue,” The New York Times, November 30, 1982.
Jamie Lendino is the Editor-in-Chief of ExtremeTech. His first book, Breakout: How Atari 8-Bit Computers Defined a Generation, is also available from Amazon.
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