Electron Dance
22Sep/1716

Atari Video Computer Soul, Part Two

I've been revisiting the games on my old Atari VCS. The first part was posted a couple of weeks ago.

atari-cartridge-boxes-2

The Atari VCS had a few alternative controllers: paddles, driving controllers and keyboard controllers.

The paddle controllers were based on potentiometers, effectively giant knobs that players turned between two extremes. The driving controllers looked identical to paddles except you could keep turning them without end and they were bundled with the one game they were needed for, Indy 500.

The keyboard controllers offered a matrix of buttons; they were used for just a handful of games including an educational Basic Programming, but the return on investment for the customer was low and these controllers died off early. The keyboard controllers were resurrected as a “touch pad” bundled with the VCS release of Star Raiders in 1982.

As a child, I wanted everything. We had paddles and driving controllers but never did get to experience the keyboard controller. I doubt we missed out. Good call, parents.

I’m not sure there’s much fun in emulating a paddle controller with modern hardware, so I was pleased to discover, buried amongst my VCS memorabilia, a set of working third-party paddle controllers I’d picked up in the early 90s.

Paddle Party

Early paddle game Street Racer was kind of a favourite back in the day, particularly for my younger sister. The screen is divided into two halves, and each player is tasked with dodging - or in some variations, colliding with - obstacles that rain down the screen. The paddle trigger gives the player an option to accelerate and hitting obstacles will knock you out of action temporarily. I find Street Racer to be a more zen game, one that is difficult to best if you’re too conscious of what you're doing.

atari-paddle

Paddle Controller

In 2017, this was still a hit. My younger daughter L was generally the better player, being happy to hold the accelerator down. I wonder if this is because the risk/reward ratio of faster speed is not balanced properly, that the cautious player will always lose out to the button hogger. The straight rounds where you got one point per negotiated obstacle felt like they dragged a little, but the number cruncher variation was turbo-charged and exciting: players could rapidly reach the game ending score of 99.

However, Street Racer is a little cold as a competitive game because the two players do not interact, walled off into their own private space, two single player games running side by side. The same cannot be said of Video Olympics, which was an attempt to eke as much mileage out of the Pong concept as possible. (Pippin Barr took up the challenge in PONGS, which Gregg and I explored in Side by Side.)

Video Olympics (Foozpong variation)

Video Olympics (Foozpong variation)

Video Olympics is still fun, although both my children were dreadful at it, partly because the paddles exhibited some jitter. Once I introduced them to the wobble variation, where the paddle trigger can make the ball wobble during flight, the chance of anyone hitting the ball dropped to near zero.

I’d have loved to try out the volleyball variation, in which the ball reacts to gravity, but the controls were beyond them for one reason: jumping. The paddle triggers allow the players to “jump” but the jump is instantaneous, so you have these hilarious moments where the player’s paddle, which was about to receive the ball, suddenly teleports above the ball with a click of the trigger, causing the ball to fall into the void below. I recall the volleyball matches were particularly tense.

atari-video-olympics-volleyball

Video Olympics instructions excerpt

Aside from ye olde controller jitter, another problem was the paddle dead zone. Your avatar would follow the movement of the paddle until it hit a boundary at the edge of the screen and then simply stop. However, you could still keep turning the controller through this dead zone. The player is then unclear how far they have to turn back to get out of the dead zone and get the avatar moving again… and this can really mess with your game. Ancient muscle memory reminded me to keep turning the controller out of the dead zone ahead of any ball or obstacle, but my children kept getting mired in it. I’m not exactly sure why the dead zones exist - I have two theories - but they are a more obvious defect today than they were at the dawn of videogames.

Breakout was another paddle game, the classic game of knocking bricks out of a wall using a bat and a ball. However, Breakout suffers from design defects that have been fixed in modern iterations of the concept. Its principle problem is the endgame, where it takes forever to mow down the last few bricks because aiming the ball at such small targets is an art that few people master. For example, I enjoyed the frantic and satisfying Shatter (Sidhe Interactive, 2009) which gives the player the ability to suck and blow the ball to improve accuracy. We didn’t hang around Breakout for long because the two-player option was just two players taking turns. It was fun for the curiosity value, but I’d rather fire up Shatter.

Historically, our favourite Breakout variant on the VCS was on a different cartridge: Circus Atari in which the “ball” is a pair of clowns bouncing on a see-saw popping balloons. It similarly suffers from Breakout's endgame problem and arguably demands even finer precision from the player to land the clowns on the end of the see-saw to be able to reach the balloons at all. My, the popping of the balloons always felt good, though. Unfortunately, my Circus cartridge had perished so my children never got the chance to try it out. I fear it would have been frustrating like Breakout usually is.

circus-atari

Circus Atari

More of a Good Thing

Returning to joysticks, there were a few other two-player titles we explored.

Pelé’s Soccer is a football game featuring a pitch larger than the screen and the football “team” is three sprites in rigid triangular formation. We originally knew this as Pelé’s Championship Soccer and it feels more like a wargame, with the players trying to push the front line - the ball - further into enemy territory. My daughter did not get a feel for the controls so we didn’t hang around.

Dodge ‘Em proved to popular, the VCS interpretation of a forgotten arcade game called Head On (Sega, 1979). In Dodge ’Em you drive a car around the maze vacuuming up dots while avoiding the crash car. Yes, this is a dot-eating game that was out before Pac-Man (Namco, 1980). The controls are what make Dodge ‘Em interesting, because you can only control your speed and change lane - you can’t turn around. It makes for a game that feels claustrophobic and tense, requiring great reflexes to make it through all three levels.

Dodge 'Em

Dodge 'Em

The masterstroke of Dodge ‘Em is allowing the computer-controlled crash car to be played by a human, turning this into the kind of multiplayer that’s really personal. My children played this a lot and it turned out my younger daughter was the better player of the two. This was still great fun with shouts every time someone’s car was taken out of commission.

I’d have liked to put on Air Sea Battle and Combat, which we’d dabbled with previously on the Stella emulator, but I only had them available for the real console via the 32-in-1 cartridge which requires you to, unbelievably, switch the machine on and off repeatedly to change which game is active. No, sir, I am not risking frequent power spikes through this old hardware. That’s how our original Atari VCS got toasted, rapidly cycling the power trying to play a defective Street Racer cartridge one last time before we sold the console (and we couldn't after that).

At the time I did not realise that many of the VCS titles were just clones of arcade games, because I hadn’t seen many of the originals. Air Sea Battle was a clone of Anti-Aircraft (Atari, 1975) and improved upon it, simply because the VCS hardware was far more advanced. It’s just a shooting gallery with a few PvP modes and unlike Street Racer, players share the same playfield so there’s often a race to get bullets to the high scoring targets first. I have strong nostalgia for Air Sea Battle and my children did have fun with it on the emulator, but it is too mundane for modern times; there are better multiplayer shooty experiences to spend time with.

Combat was based on Tank (Kee Games, 1974) and Jet Fighter (Atari, 1975) offering up a smorgasbord of PvP battles involving tanks and planes. Combat was also bundled with the console itself, so many owners became familiar with this cartridge. My son found the game hilarious and tense but the tank controls (turn/advance) were too tricky for my daughter who can only deal with cardinal controls at her age.

Combat

Combat

And that brought into focus another issue. Modern button-porn controllers are completely unsuitable for children of younger ages simply because they're too big. Despite the ancient Atari joystick being large it was possible for small children to get their mitts around it. In contrast, gamepads need to be held between the hands and expect your fingers to reach the thumbstick and buttons - which is a tall ask for tiny fingers. In addition, controllers effectively define what games are possible so having lots of buttons encourages developers to make use of them, which also tests younger children (my son is old enough to deal with many buttons, my daughter is just getting there).

We also tried Asteroids which was a big favourite when I was younger but compared to modern alternatives it feels a little dull. You just shoot rocks, again and again, a genre that would be championed by No Man’s Sky (Hello Games, 2016) three decades later. Sure, the odd enemy UFO pops up, but it doesn’t seem a worthwhile investment of time in the face of modern gaming.

And as we shifted towards games that came out later in VCS history, it became clear the trajectory towards single-player had some peculiar effects.

Technology That Doesn’t Age

My daughter was excellent at earlier, simple single-player games like Activision's Keystone Capers or Imagic's scrolling shooter Subterranea. I think my son could have got into the excellent VCS port of Missile Command if he were a little older. But as the console aged, its cartridges were having to compete with better, more advanced systems, so the VCS games become more sophisticated in response.

Unfortunately, what you get is a series of shonky single-player games that do not stand up today. Dark Chambers is a poor version of hack-and-slash Gauntlet (Atari, 1985) where creatures are often waiting just in front of you as you head into a new room. Fatal Run talks about a dangerous race across a post-apocalyptic Earth but is a rather narrow experience, the same drive repeated again and again and again. Battlezone, meh, where are the vector graphics? Doug Neubauer, famous for the original 3D space dogfighter Star Raiders (Atari, 1979), made a couple of other titles for the VCS, Solaris and Radar Lock. Both want to be exciting dogfights in the vein of Star Raiders but the 2600 confines these experiences and they become forgettable today. The Atari Pac-Man port is probably one of the worst but, really, who spends their time talking up Pac-Man today? Who wants to play that?

Pac-Man

Pac-Man

I felt embarrassed to show these titles to my children and didn't linger on them too much. Atari's increasing focus on single player made the console look like an old man pretending he can still groove with the cool kids (basically, textbook me). The VCS had undeniable longevity and Atari was still creating new cartridges in 1990, a world where 16-bit computers had already existed for half a decade, the Sega Megadrive was a thing and the SNES was launching. But Atari's attempts to do more with the limited hardware of the VCS in its final years merely exposed its limitations with games that looked dated as they hit the market.

It is the earliest titles that still shine, the ones that rely less on graphics and complexity and more on the tech that didn't age: people. AI algorithms get shown up by subsequent work and what constitutes game design constantly evolves. Single-player games are more vulnerable to the cruel progress of time but fun multiplayer games do not age, because people are always people. While Chris Lampton rightly pointed out in the comments here that it is difficult to justify spending time mowing through waves of identical Space Invaders, it worked for my children because they played together - and that kind of experience is timeless.

What I discovered was the soul of the Atari Video Computer System was human. It always was and still is.

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Comments (16) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Of the few VCS games I’ve got it’s the multi-player ones that are still actually fun. I admire Vanguard and the technical achievements of Return of the Jedi: Death Star Battle, but when it comes down to it Combat is the one that gets most enjoyed (although I’ve a soft spot for Space War too).

  2. Space War is my father’s favourite VCS title. Unfortunately, I was not good at it when we had the VCS and was generally slaughtered, difficulty switches notwithstanding. Spaceship control is probably beyond my children’s abilities at this point so I haven’t exposed them to it via Stella.

    (I didn’t talk about the boxes here, but the boxes still induce little bursts of nostalgic b pleasure.)

  3. Have to disagree about Solaris. There’s still some magic there. The less said about the VCS port of Star Raiders the better. That’s a stinker.

    Cheers
    Charlie

  4. Hey Charlie! I tried Solaris and I felt the shooting just wasn’t there for me. I’m not sure if the shooting was there for me when I actually played it first time back in 1991 or whatever, but the VCS was all the gaming I had at that time. I did enjoy playing Solaris but found it punishing, I also seemed to come up against this bug where I could never get out of a particular corner of the map. What is it about Solaris you find fun today?

  5. I don’t mind the shooting. It picks up when you get to the cobra ships. First few screens are a bit slow.

    I think i like the variety of levels/planets/corridors and all the weird warps and stuff. once you work out the screens aren’t logically connected it’s much more interesting to explore, managing your health/scanners and working out a path that includes enough enemy planets to destroy (and get an extra life!) so you can get further into the game.

    I don’t prefer it to the original A8 version of Star Raiders, but this was more evolved than that one in terms of what you could do i guess.

    I never finished it, but youtube shows me i got to the last screen. The cobra ships are pretty mean there.

    Also, i’m pretty sure that planet you visit that ends up trapping you in the corner is a trap!

  6. I will say I’d love to have seen Neubauer make a new Star Raiders game on the Atari home computers in the vein of Solaris. I saw some of the unreleased Star Raiders II on YouTube but that just look like Star Raiders with a few extra bits. Solaris is the closest we get to Star Raiders II. It’s a lot more involving and complicated.

    But I just don’t think I could get anyone of the current generation to devote time to Solaris when you could just play, I don’t know, any modern dogfight sim? I’d like to say “maybe I should go play it again” to see if I can get close to finishing it (especially with the helping hand of an emulator “quicksave”) but I’ve having fun playing ECHO and Rogue Islands this last week…

  7. Yeah, you’re probably right. I’ve seen folks get into the original Star Raiders though, but maybe that just because it’s magic?

    Cheers
    Charlie

  8. The mention of vector graphics in Battlezone caused a Proustian rush of memory that my brother had a Vectrex. Those were not very common, were they? I remember Mine Storm and Spinball (had to research the names) and I think another game that was sort of like the Death Star run in Star Wars? We had to put overlays on the screen for half the graphics and all the color! It was not quite so clear to my young self why vector graphics were such a big deal, though maybe a video game machine that you could play in your room was.

  9. With Battlezone, it was amazing at the time because it looked like some real 3D. The VCS version downgrades to raster graphics (although it didn’t hold Doom back). Plus, raster graphics worked very well for Novagen’s Encounter! for home computers – an awesome Battlezone clone although the transition between levels is a crime against gaming.

    The Battlezone aesthetic in the arcade was very important to how that game felt, of course, looking through the periscope (what the hell do you call the equivalent on a tank).

    There was also arcade Asteroids too!

  10. Star Island was another, if I have the name right.

  11. Now that I think of it the Death Star run-ish game, name of Starhawk, was real 3D of a sort. My younger self should have some respect.

    Also from its Wikipedia article it was some kind of covert white supremacist propaganda. “According to the Vectrex manual, the story involves ‘protecting your comrades from alien ships trying to infiltrate your culture’ and ‘defending the sovereignty of your planet,'” mah gawd.

  12. At least in that era no one took a blind bit of notice of “story veneer” in games at that time… although no one can ignore the presentation of Custer’s Last Stand. When I first heard about that game, many years later, I thought it was a joke.

  13. Oh I’m sure it was something some random person threw together in fifteen seconds without thinking. Mostly interesting to see what phrases pop out when some random person throws something together in fifteen seconds without thinking.

    …although no one took a blind bit of notice of “story-veneer,” what are you saying? What about the comic book that came with Yar’s Revenge? I can still tell you that the safe zone stripe down the middle of the screen is the remnant of a planet that the Qworp (possibly not its name) blew up, though I’m not sure why it disappears on higher levels.

    More seriously, there’s Missile Command. Check this for a semi-ludic take on the background (you have to enable Flash).

  14. Dammit I can never get the apostrophe in Yars’ Revenge right. But the Yar is the spaceship! Why shouldn’t the apostrophe be before the S. Also that thing you have to kill is the Qotile, apparently.

    New comment, new link: The Qotile Ultimatum.

  15. Hi Matt, sorry for leaving this so long. Paying attention to story was not the norm. The Atari Superman game is ahead of its time – it starts off with a Half-Life style slice of story that you witness. But generally console games at this level were not really about story.

    It’s like that article which makes fun of the box art because they don’t represent the contents. It reads more into the history and refurbishes what actually happened.


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