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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.