Things We’ve Learned The Hard Way #9 : Free To Play


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By Jeff D. Fulton (8bitjeff)

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Retro Atari 8-bit Computer Gaming – Arkanoid

By Jeff D. Fulton - 8bitjeff

What a pleasant surprise. Arkanoid for the Atari 8-bit computers is a very well made game.

Note: My brother Steve and I owned pretty much every Atari game system and computer until the company closed in the mid 1990's. Using emulation, I am going back though the archives of Atari computer game software and re-playing and or playing for the first time many of the games released for these computers. Most people will be familiar with the Apple, TRS-80, Timex, Amiga, C=64, Amstrad, and Spectrum versions of some of these games, but very few people (relatively speaking) have had the pleasure of playing games on the Atari computer systems. I am not going to do much comparison between the games on various platforms, but in some cases I will mention the ones I have seen or played to compare them to the Atari versions. I am exploring the Atari systems as a way to generate game ideas and promote nostalgia for systems that may not have been given a fair shake back in their day. I'm not here to say that any one system was better, but from a historical stand-point, the computer systems of Atari have not always been given the love and press they deserve. They certainly sold by the millions throughout the 80's, but coverage of them is rare today, even in Retro magazines and web sites. We can't rectify that all at once, but we can add the love of Atari computer gaming to our little slice of the infobaun.

The Atari 8-bit line of computers was first released in 1979 (the 400 and 800), and were so far ahead of other systems that they quickly became a major player in the relatively tiny world of USA hobby computer gaming. With the release of Star Raiders and countless other incredible 8-bit computer games, the system would see it's peak in popularity (in the USA) in 1982-1983. That popularity would fade as Warner Communications would blunder out the Atari 1200XL, and miss the boat entirely on the Christmas 1983 season with such a limited supply of Atari 800XL computers that people had no choice but to discover the magic of C=64 gaming (at prices well under those Atari/Warner was charging). Atari never made it back and the C=64 took over the 8-bit computer game industry almost over night. The Atari 8-bit computer line was roughly equivalent to the C=64 and used the same 6502 family of processors. The C=64, had much better music capabilities and more available sprites, but the Atari 400/800 (and later 800xl and 65/130XE and XE game systems) were built for pure speed, more colors, with hardware scrolling and a remarkable display list capability that allowed each horizontal line of the screen to be a different graphics mode (or screen). In the hands of the best developers this allowed for some awesome games. It also had 8 sprites (4 players and 4 missiles) as well as custom chips for i/o, sound/music and graphics. The same system designers would later put their skill into creating the awesome Amiga computer line using many of the same ideas. In that case, the Atari 8-bit line of computers can be seen as basically the older brother of the Amiga.

Me playing Atari 8-bit Arkanoid in the Altirra Emulator for Windows.

Up until today, I never knew this game existed for the Atari 8-bit line of computers. While it certainly is not the best 8-bit version of the game (see this video for a nice comparison of them all and decide for yourself), I really am not concerned with playground hardware wars. I'm concerned with showing what type of power could be squeezed out Atari systems in the hands of great developers. For whatever reason, this version is missing all the music of the Arcade original, but the visuals, animations, use of color and some of the sound fx are really quite extraordinary given what I was expecting when I first found this "disk" in my Atari 800 ROM archives. Pokey or even sampled versions of the arcade music might have been cut because it is rumored that this game was made to squeeze into 48K to target the entire audience of Atari 800 - 65XE owners and not leave out those with only the 48K machines. Choices like these made developing for the Atari 8-bit line difficult for coders as even though the machine was relatively powerful when compared to it's rivals, the choice to target those who had not upgraded to more ram or the newer models did not help in game to game comparisons. In any case, even though this version lacks music, it makes up for it in pure fun.

The first version of this game I played was on the Atari ST, and it was very fun. I never thought that a competent Atari 8-bit version could be created, but I have been proved wrong. Here are screen shots of levels 1-3.

Arkanoid Atari 8-bit Level 1

Arkanoid Atari 8-bit Level 1

Arkanoid Atari 8-bit Level 2

Arkanoid Atari 8-bit Level 2

Arkanoid Atari 8-bit Level 3

Arkanoid Atari 8-bit Level 3

Game Play
When playing the game via emulation, using the mouse is a must to simulate paddle action. This is easy with the Altirra emulator. The game plays fast and furious and at least the first three levels are exactly like the Atari ST versions I remember. The one gripe I have about the game is that the Laser Cannon power up will not let you fire into the left most column of bricks. This makes finishing a level difficult if you (like me) rely on that cannon to supplant your lack of "breakout" skillz.

As stated before, this game looks great, especially in comparison to some other, earlier Atari 8-bit releases. In fact, I am a little astonished at the quality given it needed to be squeezed into only 48K. Level 2 is a little hard on the eyes at first, but levels 1 and 3 look very nice. The beginning animations from other versions are missing. This detracts little from the core game play, but would have been prime playground fodder back in the day.

The game play sounds are well done, but as stated before, the lack of music from the original is a little strange. The Pokey Chip was more than capable of creating awesome chip tunes (See Mule for one of the best examples).

Tid-Bits and Extras
Steve Fulton's interview with Chris Crawford, the first SOFTWARE EVANGELIST, has a lot of information on the Atari 8-bit computers.

The Atari 8-bit Arkanoid was programmed by Mike Hutchinson for Imagine. Even though he demonstrates some very high skillz with this game, unfortunately he is not credited with any other Atari 8-bit game development.

Imagine created 3 games for the Atari 8-bit (maybe we'll get to those some time soon): Leggit! (1983), Green Beret (1986), and of course Arkanoid (1987).

The AtariMania.com page has a nice set of box art for this game.

This game is playable online via the xlatari.com Java emulator. There are no instructions on how to map keys in the emulator, and the site looks a little sketchy...

StrategyWiki.org has a nice summation of all the various home versions of Arkanoid.

Final Verdict
I was only able to play through 3 levels of this game, but using the same criteria I use when judging Atari ST games: Using all of the games I have played or seen on the system, how does this compare to the fun, and use of capabilities of the Atari 8-bit hardware: I give it a very solid 85%. If The beginning animation screens and Pokey music could have been added, then this would have been closer to 90%.


Retro Atari ST Gaming – Tempest

By Jeff D. Fulton (8bitjeff)

Atari UK released a lot of arcade conversions for the ST line of computers in the late 80's.   Many of these were packed into "gaming" bundles sold at shops all over Europe and via mail order in the USA.   I am not sure if Tempest is one such game, but it certainly looks like it could have been.

Atari ST Tempest Title Screen

Atari ST Tempest Title Screen


I remember playing many of those conversions and being left feeling pretty cold by the relative lack of quality compared to the best ST releases.  While a great programmer, with intimate knowledge of the standard 1MB ST could squeeze enough power from the machine to come close to the best Amiga releases, in the hands of just a decent 68000 coder, with no knowledge of the tricks necessary to unleash the true power of the system, competent if some-what lacking releases were the result.  One thing that is going to make our future exploration of Atari ST games (via emulation and my 1040 ST when I get it down from the attic) interesting is discovering the developers who where able to really get in and push the little 8Mhz multi-purpose machine to its limits gaming-wise.  The machine was not a multimedia power-house like the Amiga, although later STE releases would improve sound, sprites, and colors, the standard machine was enough in 1986 to make us want to get rid of our 8-bit Atari's and jump on the 16-bit bandwagon.

Here is Atari Tempest (by Paradox) being played by me in the STEEM Atari STE emulator.



Sounds and Music

The first thing I always notice with ST games are the sounds. The best developers were able to push both relatively nice chip tunes and sound effects through the relatively paltry 3-channel chip with ease. While less experience developers would usually opt for one or the other or let the user choose either sounds or music.

Tempest has just sound effects, and obviously they are not as easy to judge in an emulator as they would on a real machine, but they are sufficient here if a little lacking. Nothing extra special. There is no music at all.


The title screen is typical for ST games. Not ugly, not pretty, but better than the in-game graphics for sure.   Tempest was a vector game, and the clock speed of the ST was high enough to make vector like graphics move at a very speedy clip.  The game plays speedy like the arcade machine and looks quite nice - nothing extra-special in a Jeff Minter way was added to the game though. It looks like a straight port.


The game play

I was only able to get through three of the screens, but what I noticed was the green spikes were missing.  I might be mistaken and they don't come up on the first three screens, but I never saw any. The game play is difficult and fast, and you will need the space bar to use the Super Zapper as often as you can.


Its the little things that make a game special, and some of the arcade animation, the level select screen, and the between level animations  (floating down the tunnel) are missing from this version.  The ST certainly had the power to do this and more, so I am unsure if these were left out due to time and budget or the ability of the developer to replicate them properly.

History and tid-bits

According to the AtariMania.com, Paradox released a number of titles for the ST, including, but not limited to: Asteroids Deluxe, Bomb Jack, and Super Breakout. GameFaqs notes Paradox as having released a number of titles for both the PC and the Amiga also, starting with Warzone (Amiga) and ST Karate, both in 1986 and finishing with Cities in Motion (Australian release) in 2011.
GamesDbase.com has a really nice scan of the box cover art for the ST version of Tempest.
AtariMania.com has some collected info and more images of the box and disc for this version of Tempest.
AtariAge.com has a thread on the Atari ST Entertainment series - of which Tempest was released on.

Everyone always wants a score review for a game, so here is my first impression score. Taking all other Atari ST games I have ever played into consideration and knowing full well what the platform is capable of, I was somewhat disappointed by this version of Tempest. Now, had I purchased it in an import shop here in the USA in 1989 for $20.00, I probably would have liked it, but set it aside to play OIDS or Player Manager after a few goes. I give it a 75% out of 100, and that is purely subjective and based on pretty much nothing more than a few plays on an emulator.

If you know any more about this game, Paradox software, the Atari ST Entertainment series, etc, or have anything to add, comment on, or just want to spam your hosting company, feel free to use the comments below.

Filed under: Atari Nerd, Atari ST 1 Comment

What Was I thinking? The Existential Cognitive Dissonance Of Updating Old Code

My new blog on Gamasutra: What Was I thinking? The Existential Cognitive Dissonance Of Updating Old Code

"Updating old code, especially code I have not touched in nearly a decade is like a ride in a time machine.  A really crappy time machine that only highlights my mistakes makes me feel like an idiot."

Read the whole ugly story here.



Thing We’ve Learned The Hard Way #8: Updating Old Code

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