Electron Dance

Electron Dance Highlights


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.


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.

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Atari Video Computer Soul, Part One

This is an appendix to the Where We Came From series, suggested by Eversion developer @zarawesome.


In the beginning, there was the arcade.

In the arcade, you would find a platoon of brash, noisy cabinets, screaming over each other and pleading for your silver. They were more seductive than the penny fountains, one-armed bandits and claw machines, these coin-hungry bastards that understood addiction all too well. Sometimes it was better to find a forgotten machine alone in a café, with less competition from the environment; it could be what it was intended to be.

But the expense of an arcade lifestyle meant a console was destined to find a place in our homes and become our first videogame soul. For most, this was the Atari Video Computer System, known today as the Atari 2600. In 1980 my parents bought one and it was always referred to as "the Atari" until we sold virtually all our cartridges two years later to fund the purchase of an Atari 800 home computer. Then it became forever known as the VCS. I still think of it as the VCS.

We moved house recently and one of the boxes pulled out of storage contained the VCS. It wasn’t the original woodgrain VCS from my childhood but the later cheap-looking version, sometimes dubbed the Atari 2600 Jr., produced when Atari thought slapping their shitty silver branding on a thin plastic slate was the epitome of cool. This was a machine I'd bought in my student days when I wanted to recapture those past, ancient glories.

I decided to put the VCS through its paces again and see if the games were still fun - and what my children would make of them. In an era of Minecraft and Angry Birds, could square blocks still entrance? And would the machine even turn on?

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The First Open World, Part Three

This is the concluding part of The First Open World in which we discuss the true nature of Mercenary, the ending and its legacy.


Because Mercenary could conceivably play for ever, there is a save gameplay facility. A winning situation should also be saved, as this will give beneficial entry into "Mercenary II".

– Mercenary: Escape from Targ instructions

Mercenary is a game cleaved into two.

The city and the underground represent its two sides that maintain an uneasy coexistence. The surface has been drained of function, whereas its underground maze game is saturated with it. It's as if a true, borderless open world cannot support anything resembling player agency.

With Woakes' predilection for challenging the player with opaque systems, perhaps it was destined that Mercenary's approach to the open world would eventually fail as a commercial model.

But that view is short-sighted and misunderstands what Mercenary is.   

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The First Open World, Part Two

This is the second part of The First Open World.


Computer & Video Games Magazine #45 (July 1985)

Technically, Mercenary: Escape from Targ (Novagen Software, 1985) was not the first open world. That title probably goes to Ultima (Richard Garriott, 1981) like the Wikipedia entry for “open world” currently suggests. But Mercenary stands alone as representing the open world sandboxes that are big business today. This is why it was critically acclaimed and jumped from the Atari 8-bit to practically every other home computer at the time, even the ZX Spectrum which I had believed too underpowered to support it.

But lest we get too wrapped up in golden age nostalgia, let's cut some of the crap here. Mercenary did not deliver on all the promises Novagen sold to the gaming public.    

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The First Open World, Part One

This is an appendix to the Where We Came From series.


For Mercenary, author Paul Woakes, has created what can only be described as a world simulator. The first release using this technique is sub-titled "Escape From Targ".

– Mercenary: Escape from Targ instructions

Paul Woakes’ debut title on the Atari 8-bit home computer was a tense and memorable re-imagining of Battlezone (Atari, 1980) called Encounter! (Novagen Software, 1984), using vibrant raster graphics instead of the flickering green wireframes of the Atari arcade original. It quickly became a favourite for Atari owners who liked their action games to be fast and responsive.

From A.N.A.L.O.G Magazine #20 (July 1984)

From A.N.A.L.O.G Magazine #20 (July 1984)

Shortly after, hints of Woakes’ followup title began to seep into the news sections of computer magazines. What could Atari owners expect next from a developer whose first title had conquered the action genre?

A first-person 3D open world offering intrigue and complete freedom to explore a planet.

In 1985.  

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Cat’s Away Chronicles IV

The fourth of a five-part video series. This time I hunt down Pippin Barr. He who hath made Epic Sax Game, Let's Play: Ancient Greek Punishment and The Artist Is Present.

Joel and Pippin in a park

Warning, this video contains two guys talking in a relaxed manner in a park. And:

  • Why did Pippin Barr start making games?
  • Was the whirlwind of media attention for The Artist Is Present delightful or damaging?
  • "I don't like working with other people" is a quote I will totally use out of context
  • I call out Pippin's games as "absurdist masochism" - he nods
  • I call Pippin's games "jokes" - he nods
  • I say his games have no win condition - Pippin stops nodding
  • Is making games more fun than playing them?
  • Schafer vs Hofmeier deathmatch

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This Link Drag Is Unexpected

I don't intend to make a habit of this. I don't like to make posts out of single links. Then again, I did say I didn't like to write retro articles either...

Matt Sakey - also known as Steerpike, the Fearful Overlord of Tap-Repeatedly - writes a monthly column for the IGDA called Culture Clash. This month he chose to write about The Last Dream. What elates me is that it's clear he saw the article for what it was - a sad, wistful sigh and a backward glance over the shoulder at childhood, now disappearing over the horizon. Someone else felt exactly the same pain I'd attempted to put into words.

Go read either "Every Day Is Kids Day" at Tap or the IGDA.

[it came to pass long ago...]



The Last Dream

This is the final article in the Where We Came From series.

[Blurred picture of a small boy]

"When you finally go back to your old hometown, you find it wasn't the old home you missed but your childhood." (Sam Ewing, 1992)

*                     *                     *

I was obsessed with video games during the first decade of my life. I remember having many dreams that ended up at a video game arcade; it was a particular place that my dream-self knew well, although it did not exist in the waking world. I never really played much there, as I usually woke up pretty quickly after I grabbed the controls of one of the machines. It was more about the signature of the arcade than its function, a perfect amalgamation of every arcade I'd ever visited.

But, in time, this place eventually slipped out of my dreams and I forgot all about it.

Years later, I dreamt of a beaten-up old building, all peeling paint and boarded-up windows, holding court on a strange disconnected island in a sea of wild grass. I explored inside with a friend and found some dilapidated, broken arcade cabinets. I realised that this was that old dream arcade.

I had been given one last chance to say goodbye.

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Nothing To Lose

This is the fourteenth article in the Where We Came From series.

During a trip to the coast, the Harbour Master clan spent a couple of days roaming Camber Sands beach near Rye. While we were down there, I spotted an amusement arcade perched on the edge of one of the beach car parks.

[picture of amusement arcade, doors are padlocked]

The last arcade I'd wandered through was probably on Brighton Pier about five years ago but whilst the arcade roar kindled feelings of nostalgia, the coin-ops of old had largely been replaced with gambling machines and dancing games. I still hoped to come across some arcade which retained working 80s favourites like Phoenix, Defender or Battlezone.

The beach arcade was closed but I kept an eye on it, waiting for the chance to nose around whatever machines were on offer. I have such strong arcade memories from my single digit years: blazing batteries of screens in dark, enclosed places where ten pence pieces went to die.

Then I saw the sign.

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Changing Lives: David Fox – Part 2

This is the thirteenth article in the Where We Came From series.

Annie and David Fox

Two weeks ago, Electron Dance looked at the birth of Lucasfilm Games and their first title, Rescue on Fractalus! designed by David Fox. Fox is most likely remembered for his graphic adventure Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders (1988) although he also contributed to Maniac Mansion (1987) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Graphic Adventure (1989).

Electron Dance recently caught up with David to chat about his Lucasfilm days. Last week, we discussed the growth of the Games Group and the development of Rescue. This week, we talk about Lucasfilm Games moving into graphic adventures, why David left LucasArts and what he has really been trying to accomplish for the last thirty years.

Towards LucasArts

HM: So after the first few titles, Lucasfilm Games began concentrating on graphic adventures and military sims. I think this was around 1985. Ron Gilbert, who had started out with the group converting Koronis Rift to the Commodore 64, hit his stride re-inventing the graphic adventure format. His work had a major impact on the genre, didn't it?

Yes, I'd say! I think it let them become much more mainstream and potentially removed at least one area of frustration while playing an adventure game – guess the parser. You at least knew what the objects were on the screen, and what verbs you could use to build sentences. What was left, hopefully, was using logic to figure out what combinations to use.

But on the other side of the coin it meant you could often slog your way through a graphic adventure by trying every possible combination of verbs and objects until something worked... that's not fun.

If trial and error is the only way to solve a puzzle in one of these games, then I think the designers probably failed in designing the game properly. I've definitely been guilty of this. You want to lead the player just enough so they have the sudden cognition about how to solve the puzzle and move forward. Not force them to numbly try all possibilities.

The Ah Hah moment is the grand prize.

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