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18Jun/080

Atari Nerd Chronicles: Kenny Brown and The Atari 400

When Kenny Brown moved to Manhattan Beach in 1980 from Philadelphia PA and started 5th grade in my class with Ms. Nash, I did not like him at all. The Dodgers were playing to win the National League West that year, and Kenny could do nothing but root for the Phillies as they thwarted L.A. every chance they got. The Dodgers failed to win anything, while the Phillies advanced toward and ultimately won the World Series. I was a huge Dodger fan. I knew every name of every dodger player, their place in the line-up , their batting average, their ERA and everything in between. Seeing the Dodgers go down so hard was one thing, but having a guy in class who actively danced on their grave was quite another. For most of the Fall of 1980 I simply could not stand to be around Kenny Brown.

However, one day near the beginning of Winter break, Kenny brought a game to school and asked Mrs. Nash if he could play it with other kids in the class when we had free time. Since Mrs Nash just so happened to be the best teacher ever, she happily agreed, and Kenny went looking for players. Kenny came by my desk and asked if I would like to try the game. Even though I was not fond of  Kenny Brown, there was no way I would pass-up playing a game in class. No teacher had ever let us play anything more than Scrabble Jr., and this game looked nothing like that at all. The cover of the box featured and elaborately designed scaly beast breathing fire at a warrior deflecting it with a shield. The title on the box read:

Dungeons And Dragons

A Fantasy Adventure Game

I had never seen anything like it before. Along with myself, Kenny enlisted Barney Hedges and we started a game during recess. The game had no board of any kind, just a couple rule books and a set of 5 oddly shaped dice. Kenny told us that he would be the Dungeon Master, which meant he would not play the game, but rather, guide us through it. Barney and I both created "Fighter" characters, which took most of the free time that day, so we did not get to actually playing the game until the next. As the Dungeon Master, Kenny led Barney and I through a quest in a set of caves. In our first session, we fought rats and mold, discovered copper, silver and gold pieces, and mapped out several rooms in the cave before we were forced to stop playing and get to our school work. That same day we played at recess, and during our free-time in the afternoon. By the end of the day, there was nothing else I wanted to do but play D&D. That night I had trouble sleeping. I spent the entire time trying to figure out ways to play better and discover more in the short time we had at school. I was completely hooked from that day on, and I tried to play with Kenny as much as possible. I forgot all about the Dodgers and the Phillies and our friendship was built on the shoulders of D&D, which led to other common interests like Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy and Steve Martin's Let's Get Small. We continued playing D&D off and on for the better part of the year. When Barney quit playing, we found other players in my brother and Scott Johnson. When summer rolled around we stopped and promised to restart in the fall.

Sometime after 6th grade began, Kenny and his mom moved to an apartment near Foster A. Begg Jr. High. so they could be closer to the new school we all had to attend. While Jeff and I lived right next to Pennekamp Elementary, we were about a mile from the new school, which meant we found ourselves with a long trek home every day after classes ended. One of those days early on, Kenny invited to his house instead of walking home, and thus began a sequence of events that changed my life.  Since Kenny lived alone with his mom, we essentially had the place to ourselves. If we weren't such geeks, I'm sure we could have found much more nefarious ways to spent a few unsupervised hours alone in the early 80's, but all we wanted to do was play games. I suppose we could have started to play D&D again, but it never happened. Instead we focused our attention around something that was even more fascinating than Half-Orcs and Magic Missiles: Kenny's Atari 400 computer. I'm not sure how Kenny got his 400, but since he was a latch-key kid who lived with his mom, I always figured the computer was served as a replacement for...something. No matter why he had it, Kenny was fiercely proud of his computer. However, unlike some other kids I knew who had home computers, he was not overly protective of it, so he let Jeff and I use it as much as we wanted.   I had been completely wrong about Kenny Brown when he arrived in the 5th grade.   At the beginning of Jr. High, not only did I want to associate with him, but he was fast becoming one of our best friends.

The first game Kenny showed us on the 400 was Star Raiders. I could not believe that this amazing game could be played on a home computer. It was a tactical, yet action-oriented space battle against the Zylon invaders. The first person 3D space battles were like playing the movie Star Wars on a TV screen. Star Raiders was one of the first games for the Atari 8-bit computer line, and it was so amazing in it's time that Atari sold 10's of 1000's of 8-bit computers on the strength of it alone. Another great game Kenny let us play was Caverns Of Mars, a a smooth scrolling, vertical space shooter. Mars was another mind-blowing game unlike any I had ever seen on a computer or home video game system. It even rivaled anything in the arcades at the time. The graphics were so crisp and the explosions so satisfying that the game was difficult to stop playing.

The two hours of our first visit to Kenny's went very quickly, and Jeff and I could not wait to return. The chance came a couple weeks later when Kenny told us that he had bought a brand-new game that was like Donkey Kong and Pac-Man combined. Since those games were the kings of the arcade at the time, Jeff and I were anxious to see what this game might be. It was difficult to imagine just what a cross between Donkey Kong and Pac-Man might look like, but the day at school move very slowly as we waited for 3:00 and our chance to play Kenny Brown's Atari 400 again. 

When we got to Kenny's house after school, he pulled out the new game, a Wico joystick, and started playing. It was named Miner 2049er by Big Five Software and it became our obsession for months to come.

Min er 2049er

In the game you played the "miner" who had to run, jump, and transport his way through each level. The game looked like Donkey Kong, in that it was a platformer, but the added element was the need to walk over every platform to pick-up the "mine ore", which gave it the added Pac-Man element. The most amazing thing about the game was that it had 10 very different, very difficult, full-color levels, each with different elements and features (ladders, transformers, elevators, cannons, etc.). At a time when even the best arcade games had just one level (Pac-Man) or maybe four (Donkey Kong), 10 levels made Miner 2049er seem like the best, most elaborate arcade game ever made. Kenny had already mastered most of the game, but it took Jeff and I much longer to get through much of it, simply because we had to wait for stolen minutes at Kenny's house to play. Jeff and I obsessed over this game for months, trading ideas on how to defeat each level and try to match Kenny's prowess. There was a time with Miner 2049er when I thought it was the best game ever made, and the best game that ever would be made. This did not last very long, as Kenny had another surprise up his sleeve that would change my view of home computers, and specifically the Atari 400, forever. One afternoon At Kenny's house, when Jeff and I expected to play Miner 2049er, Star Raiders or Caverns Of Mars, Kenny instead took out a computer magazine named Antic and started to read it. At first, Jeff and I had no idea what he was doing. However, after a couple minutes, Kenny showed us what he was looking at. Besides ads and news about new products, Antic had a section of the magazine dedicated to program listings. In particular, game program listings. What this meant was that if you spent the time to type-in the program listing, and was able to do it perfectly, at the end of the process you would have new game to play.

Kenny plugged a Basic cartridge into his Atari 400, and sat down to start typing. Even though Jeff and I had some experience programming on the Apple IIe, Kenny was a much better at typing than us and he took full control of the machine. Jeff read out-loud the lines of code to Kenny, and he transcribed them into the 400. It was painstaking process, but after about 2 hours the listing was complete. Kenny typed "run", and we marveled at what was on the screen. The game was not very elaborate, (it was a simple maze/chase game named something like "Money Bags") but the time and energy we put into making it come to life made it worth much more than the end result. At one point one of us thought that the scoring in the game was not quite correct. Kenny stopped the game, and listed the code on the screen. He used the arrow keys to edit the line of code that controlled the score, and doubled the value, then ran the game again and wracked up amazing scores. This was a "light-bulb switching" moment for me. All of a sudden I realized that not only could we use the BASIC language to play other people's games, but if we had ideas about how to make them better, we could easily make them a reality. A whole world opened up to me at that moment and I knew, some day, some way, some how, I would became a computer game programmer. Kenny's friendship and openness to allow Jeff and I into his world for many afternoons from 1981-1983 made this possible. It was something I would never forget. 

As we continued through Foster A. Begg we met other a few other kids with similar interests. Kenny told us all about "Hell Night" in Philadelphia, which was the day before Halloween when all the kids played nasty pranks on each other. We tried to start the same tradition in our town by holding a scavenger hunt every Halloween that included, among other things, traffic cones, barricades and street signs. By 8th grade there was a whole group of us that played role playing games, watched weird movies, played video games and loved computers. We were all pretty much big geeks, even though we didn't realize it at the time. Back then there was just all this new cool stuff, and we really liked it. For Christmas 1983, Jeff and I received our own Atari 800 computer. It was amazing to finally have one of our own, but it is also meant that we spent a lot less time at Kenny's apartment with his Atari 400. As well, Kenny had started hanging out with a couple of our other friends, both of whose parents were either divorced, or were getting divorced. As Kenny grew older he must have needed support from people going through the same stuff he was going through, and the two-parent home life of the Fulton's (no matter how explosive it might have been in reality) was simply not compatible. We were still friendly, but by 8th grade graduation we hardly saw each other outside of school.

After Jr. high School, in 1984 Kenny Brown made a sudden change. I'm not sure if it was always in him, or something he suddenly just decided to do. Within the first year of High School, he tried to forge a brand new persona for himself. He shed most of his geek friends like Jeff and I, and went out for the football team. Since Kenny was about 6'2" and weighed about 150, he was built for football. He made the team, and within a year had completely re-invented himself. Kenny left most of his geek stuff behind (at least in public), started hanging out with a new group of people and never looked back. I recall he even caught the winning touch-down pass in one of the rare games in which our team was victorious. Even though we never hung-out any longer, I still secretly rooted for my old friend on the football field and within the halls of Mira Costa High School. Sure, anyone who was once one of "us" but was able to re-imagine himself as one of "them" should have been suspect. However, Kenny was never mean or cruel, and never tried to prove himself by being an ass to his old friends to impress his new ones. He was just a good guy who made good for himself. Still, it was not easy to lose another friend in much the same way it had happened for many years prior. The good news was that Jeff and I, being twins, always had each other to fall-back upon. In time, we forged our own in-roads in the social fabric of high-school. However, I always wished we could have found a way to remain friends with Kenny Brown. In time, I'm embarrassed to admit that I sort forgot he had ever existed, or at the very least, put him out of my mind. I suppose,as far I was concerned, Kenny Brown had forgotten us, and we had, in-turn, returned the service. The D&D and the Atari 400 became merely shadows of time in the past when kids were friends with each other for no better reason than just because we could be.

Years later, long after we had left high school and were much of our way through college, I came home back to my parents house to find a note on the kitchen table attached to a package. I opened the package first, and found a couple Atari ST games from Epyx inside, including their version of Battleship. I was baffled about where they had come from. I picked up the note, written by my sister. It said that Kenny Brown had stopped by and left the games for Jeff and I. I was astounded. I had not even thought about Kenny Brown for years, yet he had managed to not only stop by our house, but leave some gifts as well. I called a couple people to see if they knew about Kenny being in-town, or what he was doing, but my inquiries went no where. As it turned out, it was the last I ever heard from Kenny Brown. I'm still not sure what Kenny meant by leaving us the games, or if he really meant anything at all. However, it's not the act that is important, it is the way it is received. In my mind, the gesture was Kenny Brown telling us that indeed, he had not forgotten that we were once friends and once shared the wonder of the home computer age together. In turn since that day, I have never forgotten Kenny Brown, my introduction to D&D, or the time we spent at his apartment exploring the wonders of the Atari 400.

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