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Inside the rise and fall of Atari

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During the first months of 1982, it was more and more common to see electronic stores, toy stores, and discounts of discounted varieties selling 2,600 games. This was before Electronics Shop, Software Etc., and later, GameStop . Most of the time, you bought games from stores that sold other electronic products, such as Sears or Consumer Distributors. Toys & R & # 39; Us was a great seller of 2600 games. To buy one, you need to get a piece of paper in the alley Atari bring it to the cashier, pay, and then wait at a collection window behind the crates registers.

Everyone had a favorite store in their childhood; here is a story about one of mine. A popular "destination" in South Brooklyn is Kings Plaza, a giant two-storey indoor mall (for Brooklyn) with about 100 stores. My mother and my grandmother were greedy shoppers there. To go to the mall of our house, it was about 10 minutes by car. So once a week or so, we all went there. The best part for me was when we went inside via its U Avenue entrance instead of Flatbush Avenue side. Do not ask me what happened in this decision each time; I guess it depended on the stores my mom wanted to visit. All I knew was that the side of U Avenue had this circular gazebo about 50 feet from the entrance. The name has disappeared from memory. I remember that it was kind of a catch-all for things like magazines, camera films and other random things.

But the most important things were the Atari cartridges. There were dozens of colorful Atari play boxes across the wall behind the counter. When we walked up to the cashier window, there was often a row of new Atari games across the top too. Sometimes we left without a new cartridge, and sometimes I got one. But we always stopped and watched, and it was the highlight of my trip to the mall each time.

For one reason or another, I remember that the guy behind the counter gave me a hard time someday. I've bought one of Atari's own cartridges – I do not remember which ones, but I'm pretty sure it was Defender or Berzerk – who came up with a number of ################################################################################ Atari Force, DC's comic strip. I said that I was excited to have it. The guy m got a dirty look and said, "Are you buying a new Atari cartridge just for a comic?" I was too shy to argue with him, even though he was wrong and I wanted the cartridge. I do not remember what my mother said, or if she even heard it. Being too shy to protest, I took my game sheepishly and we both moved away.

Mattel started having trouble with his Intellivision once the company tried to diversify sports games. Because Mattel could not license for Atari, Nintendo, or Sega properties, he was instead making his own translations of popular arcade games. Many looked better than what you would find on the 2600, but eventually played more slowly thanks to Intellivision 's slow processor. Astrosmash, a kind of hybrid of asteroids and space invaders, may be the most successful, where asteroids, spaceships and other objects have fallen from the sky and have become progressively more difficult. A little less successful were games like Space Armada (a Space Invaders knock-off).

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Mattel also added voice synthesis – something that was raging at the time – to Intellivision through an additional extension module called Intellivoice. But only a few key games provided voice capability: Space Spartans, Bomb Squad, B-17 Bomber (all three were launch titles), and later, Tron: Solar Sailer. The high cost of Intellivoice, the lack of a really irresistible game and the poor sound quality of the set meant that it was a thing that Atari n & # 39; There was no need to find a way to respond with the 2600.

These events made it easier for Atari to get away from Mattel in the market, and he did – but not without a huge self-inflicted wound. A lot of new 2600 games arrived in the early part of 1982. Many important releases came in this period and those that followed, and we will come back to it shortly. But there was one in particular that all the story arc of the platform was balancing and then fracturing. It was more than a turning point; its repercussions have reverberated in the gaming industry, and to date, it stands as one of the key events that eventually took place in Atari.

The biggest upsetting event for the 2600s – and Atari himself – was the release of his Pac-Man cartridge. I can still feel the overwhelming disappointment even now. So many of my friends and I were looking forward to this release. We had talked about it all the time in elementary school. Pac-Man was simply the most exciting thing in arcades, and we dreamed of playing at home as much as we wanted. The two year wait for Atari to release the 2600 cartridge seemed like forever. Retailers also bought in the hype. Toy stores fought for inventory, JC Penney and Kmart bought big with Sears and advertised on TV, and even local pharmacies started storing the game. And yet, this that we have … was not correct.

Almost everyone knows how Pac-Man is supposed to work, but just in case: You swallow points to earn points while avoiding four ghosts. Eat a pellet of power, and you can flip the tables over the ghosts, chase them and eat them. Whenever you do it, the ghost's "eyes" return to the center of the screen and the ghost regenerates. Eat all the dots and power pellets on the screen, and you move on to the next, which becomes harder. Periodically, a fruit appears in the center of the screen. You can eat it for bonus points, and the type of fruit indicates where you are (cherry, strawberry, orange, etc.).

But this is not the game that the owners of Atari 2600 have seen. After gaining the rights of the game from Namco, [Atari Atari gave programmer Tod Frye just five weeks to complete the conversion. The company had learned from its previous mistakes and promised Frye a royalty on each cartridge manufactured (not sold), which was an improvement. But that was another mistake. The fee plus the hasty calendar meant Frye made money even though the game was not up to par, and so Frye had the incentive to finish it anyway. Atari also demanded that the game only contain 4 KB, like the old 2600 cartridges, rather than the new 8 KB size that was becoming increasingly common at this stage. This profit-driven limitation has heavily influenced the way Frye approached the game's design. To top it all off, Atari has set a colossal failure by producing some 12 million cartridges, while it's not a big deal. There were only 10 million of the 2600 consoles in circulation at the time. The company was convinced that not only would each existing 2600 owner buy the game, but that 2 million new customers would buy the console itself just for that cartridge.

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We all know how it happened. The instruction manual sets the tone for early arcade differences. The game is now set in "Mazeland". You eat video wafers instead of dots. Each time you complete a chart, you get an extra life. The manual says that you also earn points by eating power pills, ghosts and "vitamins". Something is really wrong.

Pac-Man himself always looks to the right or left, even when he goes up or down. Video wafers are long and rectangular instead of small square dots. Fruits do not appear periodically in the center of the screen. Instead, you get the vitamin mentioned above, a clear placeholder for what would have been the real fruit if there had been more time to do it properly. The vitamin always looks the same and is always worth 100 points, instead of increasing as you clear the levels. The rest of the score is much lower than in the arcade. By engulfing the four ghosts, they total only 300 points, and each video tag is worth only one point.

Ghosts have huge amounts of flicker, and they all look and behave identically, instead of having different colors, distinct personalities and eyes that are pointing in the right direction. The flicker was there for a reason. Frye used it to draw the four ghosts in successive frames with a single graphical sprite register, and drew Pac-Man to each frame using the other graphical sprite register. The 2600's TIA chip syncs with an NTSC television image 60 times per second, so you end up seeing a solid Pac-Man, maze, and video wafers (I can still tap "video wafers" with a straight face ), but the ghosts are each lit only a quarter of the time. The phosphorescent glow of a tube takes a little time to fade, and your eye takes a little time to release a preserved image, but the end result is that flicker is still pretty visible.

It gets worse. The grumpy and jovial sound effects are weird, and the theme song is reduced to four dissonant chords. (Oddly enough, these sounds have resurfaced in some movies over the next 20 years and were a default reference for sound designers working in post-production.) The Horizontally Extended Labyrinth has nothing to do with sound. arcade, and the escape routes are up and down instead of the sides. The walls of the labyrinth are not even blue; they are orange, with a blue background, because it was reported that Atari had a policy that only space games could have black backgrounds (!). At this point, do not even ask about the absence of intermission.

One of Frye's mistakes is to make Pac-Man a two-player game. "Tod used a lot of memory just by following where each player had stopped with points eaten, power pellets and scores," writes Goldberg and Vendel in Atari Inc .: Business is Fun. Years later, when Frye looked at the code for the most faithful of the 2600 Ms. Pac-Man, he saw that programmers were "able to use a lot more memory for graphics because that's a one player game. "

Interestingly, the game itself is still playable. Once you have spent the initial huge disappointment and you have played it on its own merits, Pac-Man offers you a decent experience. It's still "Pac-Man", although it gives a rough approximation of the real thing as if it were seen and played through a straw. It 's worth playing today for nostalgia – after all, many of us have played this cartridge to death, because that was our case – and certainly as a historical curiosity for those who were not there for the golden age of arcades.

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Many Atari 2600 fans got activated on the platform – and Atari in general – after the release of Pac-Man. Although the company still had a lot of great games and some of the best were yet to come, the betrayal was immediate and real and colored forever what the public thought of Atari. The release of the Pac-Man cartridge has not reduced the influence of the 2600 on the gaming industry by any means; We will visit many more innovations and developments from now on. But the 2600 conversion of Pac-Man has given the nascent game industry its first model to botch a major title. It was the largest version that the Atari 2600 had and would ever see, and the company spoiled it as hard as possible. It was New Coke before New Coke.

The next games we will discuss later illustrate the quality improvements made by third-party developers, compared to Atari, who had clearly become too comfortable in his leadership position. First and foremost, it's the Activision Grand Prix which, in retrospect, was a bit strange to design a runner . It's a side-scroller on rails that goes from left to right, and that's what race fans call a time trial. Although other computer controlled cars are on the track, you are racing against the clock, not them, and you do not win any points or increase your position to overtake them.

The quirks of the gameplay aside, the oversized Formula 1 cars are wonderfully detailed, with brilliant use of color and animated spinning tires. The shaded colored objects were the centerpiece of the design, as programmer David Crane told an interview in 1984. "When I developed the ability to make a large multicolored object on the screen [2600's] the capacity matched the model of the top view of a Grand Prix race car, so I did a racing game. " Getting the opposing cars to appear and disappear properly as they came in and out of the screen also presented a problem, while the lack of a 2600 frame buffer came back into play. How TIA works, the 2600 would normally make the sprite of the car start to reappear on the opposite side of the screen while it disappeared on one side. To solve this problem, Crane ended up storing small "slices" of the car in the ROM, and in real time, the game drew all the parts of the car needed to reach the edge of the screen. The effect is smooth and impossible to detect when playing.

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The car accelerates over a fairly long period of time and goes through simulated gears. Finally, it reaches a maximum speed and a motor rating, and you just travel along until you brake, crash into another car, or reach the finish line. As the manual highlights, you do not have to worry about cars coming back and overtaking you, even if you crash. Once you pass them, they left the race.

The four variants of the Grand Prix are named after famous courses that attract the attention of racing fans (Watkins Glen, Brands Hatch, Le Mans and Monaco). The courses have no resemblance to the real ones; each game variation is simply longer and harder than the previous one. Tree-lined courses are just vehicle models that appear on the screen. Whenever you play a particular game variant, you see the same cars at the same time (unless you crash, which momentarily disrupts the model). The three highest variations include bridges, which you must quickly steer or risk crashing. During the game, you get a warning in the form of a series of oil slicks that a bridge arrives soon.

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Although Atari's Indy 500 set the bar earlier for home runs on the 2600s, Grand Prix demonstrated that you could make one with a scrolling course and much better graphics. This game paved the way for more ambitious offers the following year. And many decades later, people are playing games like this on their phones. We simply call titles like Super Mario Run (a side scroll) and Temple Run (3D-perspective) "endless runners" because they have characters running instead of cars.

Activision quickly became the model for other 2600 third-party competing developers. In 1981, the Vice President of Marketing Atari and a group of developers, including programmers for Asteroids and Space Invaders on the console, created a company called Imagic. The company had a total of nine employees at the start. His name was derived from the words "imagination" and "magic" – two key components of each cartridge that the company planned to launch. 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 worth buying.

Although Imagic technically became the second-tier developer for the 2600s, the company's first game only came in March 1982. Another company, Games by Apollo, on beat the shot by starting in October 1981 and delivering his first (mediocre) game, Skeet Shoot, before the end of the year.

But when the first Imagic game arrived, everyone noticed.

At first glance, the visually striking Demon Attack looks a bit like a copy of the Phoenix arcade game, at least without the tanker screen (something that he wins in the port of Intellivision). But the game makes sense, the more you play. You are stuck on the planet Krybor. Bird-like demons rush towards you and shoot groups of lasers down the screen. Your goal is to shoot demons all out of the sky, wave after wave.

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The playing field is mostly black, with a gradual blue surface of the planet at the bottom of the screen. A pulsating and beating sound plays in the background. It increases in height as you progress in each level, only to pause and then start again with the next wave. The demons themselves are beautifully drawn, with finely detailed and colorful designs that are well animated and change from one wave to the next. Whenever you complete a wave, you get an extra life, up to a maximum of six.

On later waves, the demons divide into two firing and are worth double the points. You can shoot the smallest demons, or just wait. Eventually, each of them will descend to your laser cannon, back and forth until it reaches the bottom of the screen, and will disappear from the playing field. Shoot while diving and you get quad points. In later stages, demons also shoot longer and faster laser groups on your cannon.

The game is for one or two players, although there is a cooperative mode that allows you to relay against the same waves of demons. There are also variations of the game that allow you to shoot faster lasers, as well as tracer shots that you can direct into the demons. After 84 waves, the game ends with an empty screen, although a later race of this cartridge eliminates it and lets you play indefinitely. If I had another nine years, I could probably take a few days in the summer to see if that is true. I'm nine years old.

Demon Attack was one of the first three games of Imagic, with Trick Shot and Star Voyager. Rob Fulop, a native of Atari fame and one of the four founders of Imagic, has programmed Demon Attack. In November 1982, Atari sued Imagic for Demon Attack's resemblance to Phoenix, which Atari had purchased from Centuri. The case was finally settled. Billboard magazine ranked Demon Attack among the top 10 best-selling games of 1982. It was also the best-selling title of Imagic, and the Electronic Games magazine awarded it the title of the game. 39; year.

"The trick for Demon Attack's graphics was that it was the first game to use my 2600 sprite animation creation tool dedicated to tape / tape that was running on the Atari 800, "said Fulop in 1993." The first time Michael Becker did a little test animation and we ran the utility Bob Smith who managed to inject its sprite data saved directly into the assembly code Demon Attack and the same on the [2600] as on the 800 was HUGE! Before that day, all 2600 graphics ever seen were made using a pencil # 2, a graph paper sheet, a lot of erasure, and a list of hexadecimal codes that were then retyped into the source code, introducing a minimum of two pixel errors per eight by eight graphic pad. "

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Although you can draw a Space Invaders line to any game like this, Demon Attack combines this with elements from Galaga and Phoenix, with a superb look and superb gameplay.

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A decisive moment in the history of the video game, David Crane's Pitfall! As a Pitfall Harry, your goal is to run into the jungle and collect 32 treasures: money bags, silver bullion, gold bullion and diamond rings, d & rsquo; A value of 2000 to 5000 points each. Jump and catch the vines, and hover over the lakes, quicksand and alligators, with a Tarzan-style scream. You can stumble on a rolling ball or fall into a hole, which will moor you a few points. Every time you fall into quicksand or a tar pit, drown in a lake, burned in a fire or devoured by an alligator or scorpion, you lose a life. When that happens, you start the next one by dropping trees on the left side of the screen to keep playing.

Pushing the joystick to the left or right, Pitfall Harry runs. He picks up a treasure automatically. Holding the stick in both directions while pressing the button will make it jump, either on an obstacle or on a vine that is swinging (running in the vineyard without jumping, it works too). Push down while swinging to let the vine go. You can also push up or down to climb ladders.

In an incredible programming feat, the game contains 255 screens, with the 32 treasures scattered across them. The world loops once you reach the last screen. Although Adventure was the pioneer of the multiroom map on the 2600, Pitfall! was a considerably larger design. Crane fit the game into the same 4KB ROM as adventure. But rather than storing all 255 screens as part of the ROM – which would not be fit – Crane's solution was not to store the world in ROM at all. Instead, the world is generated by the code, the same way every time. This is similar to games like Rogue, but even then, the game generates the world and then stores it during the game. Trap! generates each screen through an algorithm, using a counter that increments in a pseudo-random sequence that is nonetheless consistent and can be advanced or retracted. The 8 bits of each number in the count sequence define how the card looks. Bits 0 to 2 are object patterns, bits 3 to 5 are ground patterns, bits 6 and 7 cover the trees, and bit 7 also affects the subterranean pattern. In this way, the world is generated in the same way every time. When you leave a screen, you always end up on the same screen.

"The game was a jewel, a perfect world incised in a simple [4KB] code," writes Nick Montfort in 2001 in Supercade: A Visual History of the Age of Video Game, 1971-1984.

You get a total of three lives, and Crane points out in the manual that you have to use certain underpasses (which pass three screens forward instead of one) to complete the game on time. The inclusion of two levels on the screen – above and below ground, with scales that connect them – makes the game an official platform game. And the game even gives you a say where to go and what path to take to get there. Pitfall Harry is gently animated, and the vines offer a real swing feeling, even though the game is in 2D.

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The game's 20-minute timer, which approximates the 22-minute duration of a standard half-hour TV show, marked a milestone in console play. It was much longer than most arcade games and even cartridges like Adventure, which you could complete in minutes. The extra length allows a more in-depth game.

"The games of the early 80's used mostly inanimate objects as main characters," said Crane in an interview in 2011. "Rarely there would be a person, but even these were not completely I wanted to create a game character that could run, jump, climb and interact with a world on the screen. "Crane spent the next few years tinkering with the idea before to finally arrive at Pitfall! "[After] only about 10 minutes ago I had a sketch of a man running on a path through the jungle collecting treasures. Then, after "only" 1000 hours of drawing and pixel programming, Pitfall Harry came to life. "

Crane said that he had already exceeded the ROM's 4-KB limit and returned there several times for hundreds of hours. Just before his release, he was asked to add extra lives. "Now I had to add a display to show the number of your remaining lives, and I had to bring in a new character when a new life was used." The latter was easy, said Crane, because Pitfall Harry could already fall and stop when he hit the ground. Crane just dropped out behind the tree cover. "For the indicator" Lives ", I added vertical pointing marks to the timer display.This was probably only 24 bytes, and with 20 hours overtime of "compression" of the code, I could integrate it. "

Trap! It could not have been timed more perfectly, since Raiders of the Lost Ark was the biggest film of the previous year. The cartridge delivered the goods; it became the best-selling home video game of 1982 and is often credited as the game that launched the platform genre. Trap! held first place on the Billboard board for 64 consecutive weeks. "The refined graphic sense of the Activision design team greatly enriches the Pitfall! Experience," wrote the Electronic Games magazine in January 1983, about the awarding of the Best Adventure Videogame cartridge. "It's a video game as complex as you'll find anywhere … watching Harry swing through a quicksand pit on a fine vine while crocodiles frantically jiggle their jaws in a futile effort to snatch a little leg-of-hero snack. The adventures of video games are everything. "The influence of Pitfall! is impossible to overestimate. From Super Mario Bros. at Prince of Persia at Tomb Raider, it was the beginning of something huge.