I spent much of last weekend attempting to get a multi-player games started with someone, anyone, on the internet. It was not a game of Star Wars Battlefront, or Words With Friends, or even Clash Royale.
It was a game of Atari 2600/VCS Basic Math.
Let me back-up a bit.
Basic Math was released as part of a new Steam-only, PC-only release from Atari named Atari Vault. When Atari Vault was released last Friday, my initial reaction was negative. While it includes 100 games (18 coin-ops, 82 Atari 2600/VCS games), they are pretty much the same games Atari has been publishing for the past 2 decades.
My thoughts ran like this: “Why do they always release the same old batch of unlicensed 2600 titles and arcade games?”
Atari has a rich history that goes far beyond what we’ve seen in past titles like Atari:80 Classic Games and Atari Anthology.
“Where are the 5200, 7800, Lynx and Jaguar games? Why can’t Atari let people try the 8-bit computer version of ‘Star Raiders’, once called the best computer game ever made, or judge for themselves if ‘doing the math’ would have helped the Jaguar succeed?”
” Where are the odd an wonderful coin-ops from the 70’s and early 1980’s? Where is Shark Jaws, one of the first violent coin-ops? What about X’s and O’s Atari Football or Food Fight? Where are the licensed coin-ops like Pole Position and Did Dug? Where is the remarkable Rick Mauer designed Space Invaders for the VCS, the game that arguably jump-started the console era?”
” Where is the Star Wars coin-op, maybe the best golden age video game ever produced?”
To me the Atari story cannot be told unless people can play the whole history of Atari. They need to the play VCS/2600 versions of E.T. and Pac-Man and judge for themselves whether they are “the worst games ever made” (hint: they are not).
However, I’m a bonafide Atari Nerd, so there is no way I would pass-up this collection. I also love Steam, as it has revolutionized my enjoyment of PC games. Atari Vault was developed by Code Mystics, who have been involved in many emulated retro collections over the years, so I knew there was a pedigree of knowledge and quality to back-up the title.
When I was searching through the games list in Atari Vault, I noticed one named Basic Math that I vaguely recall playing at my friend’s house in 1978, the first time I played an Atari 2600. It was one of the first games that Atari produced with the original VCS in 1977. I had not thought about Basic Math (also known as Fun With Numbers) in almost 4 decades.
As I recalled, all you did was use the joystick to answer simple math problems. I maybe played it once, because even back then, I was not easily amused by educational video games. It had to feel like an arcade game or I was out.
However, the interface for Basic Math was intriguing. The 3D box spun in-place pleasingly. The interface and visuals developer Code Mystics created for Atari Vault are very well-done. I felt them tugging me gently back to a specific time and place in my childhood, which I suppose is the goal in a nostalgia product like Atari Vault. They made me want to “open” the box and see what was inside.
Then I saw that there was a [Multiplayer] button on the interface for the game. Multiplayer Basic Math?
“What could that be?” I thought.
And right then then my quest started . An almost day-long adventure to find someone, anyone, to play a multi-player game of Atari Vault Basic Math with me.
When I clicked the [Multplayer] butting in Atari Vault I was presented with a screen that looked like this.
At first I assumed that this was the specific “lobby” for Basic Math. I was not surprised that there were no other people in there. Why would anyone else besides myself, someone who had a just hair’s width of nostalgia for the game Basic Math because I played in once 38 years ago, even consider playing a multi-player version of the game?
I clicked the [Host] button assuming it would start a multi-player version of Basic Math, but instead it took me to this screen:
It dawned on me that the previous screen was the lobby for EVERY multi-player game, not just Basic Math. And there were none listed, which meant no none was trying play anything in Atari Vault.
That was not encouraging at all.
I clicked the [Match] button on the interface, and a little icon appeared in the top-right corner of the screen which I assumed meant a had requested a game.
Then I waited.
At some point I decided to “live-tweet” my quest, something I’ve heard all the kids are doing these days with their flip-phones and PDAs. My quest quickly turned from instant gratification into something else entirely.
— Steve Fulton (@fultonbot) March 26, 201
I started a multi-player game in Atari Vault and waited. No one came.
Instead I decided to try Street Racer. There is a variation in that game named “Number Cruncher” that I recalled from having my own Atari VCS in 1981. I loved that game. It’s all about eating numbers and not crashing into them. what could be better than that? As a bonus, it felt “math” related which seemed appropriate wile on my Basic Math quest.
I got a bite! However the multi-player game never started, and it appeared like the options were for Space War, a game I had tried earlier in the day. So I kept trying.
I never got a real game started, which was a disappointment. pulled back and tried a different game that might attract more players: Outlaw.
Outlaw! was one of my all-time favorites Atari 2600/VCS games. The bouncing shots combines with the destructible environments made for a very pleasing head-to-head shooting game. The multi-player version did not disappoint. The only issue I noticed occurred when the game ended. Sure, I “believe” I won 10-7, but I could not be actually sure since at the exact moment my final shot collided with the other player, the game abruptly sent me back to the multi-player select screen. There was no final score, no ability to rematch, nothing. It was like I had taken P.T. Barnum up on his offer of the Great Egress with nothing to show for my efforts. However, fat off my multi-player success, and went ahead and tried to start another game of Street Racer :Number Cruncher.
It worked! I got game going and I beat my opponent handily. I was pretty sure it was because they didn’t know that you could hold the fire button down to speed up. Number Cruncher was okay, but I really wanted to see what Basic Math was all about. So I tried again
— Steve Fulton (@fultonbot) March 26, 2016
I waited around for someone to accept my offer of a game of multi-player game of Basic Math. It’s a weird slog to wait for a another player in Atari Vault. You basically start a “Match” style game, and wait. There is zero indication of how many people are online, what games are being played, etc. It could be a 30 second wait, it could be all-day. So I decided to quit and eat breakfast.
I had no plans of returning and trying again that day.
But I could not stop thinking about Basic Math. As I ate my breakfast, I could escape from the idea that a game Basic Math could be started and played in Atari Vault. What did that mean? What kind of multi-player experience could that be? With all the intellectual property Atari must own, why would they have chosen Basic Math as one of the games to feature in this package? Furthermore, why would they feature it as a multi-player game? Was it just a small piece of shovelware in a 100 game collection? Was it an oversight to include it? Was there something brilliant and wonderful hiding inside that virtual Atari cartridge box that I missed in the 70s? I had to find out. So I started to tweet vigorously to see if I could get someone to take the bait and try one game with me.
— Steve Fulton (@fultonbot) March 26, 2016
Not sure why I said that I’d never played before. I was desperate I guess, trying not to scare away any potential players who thought I was some kind of 1st grade math shark. At that point I looked up some math facts and decided to tweet those to make it more interesting while I waited.
— Steve Fulton (@fultonbot) March 26, 2016
Then it happened. Either all my tweeting got my match noticed, or someone named “sharpcarlos” happened upon my game request, but either way, I was in. However, when we got to the options screen, everything was blank. I desperately tried to click the options and when nothing worked, I pressed the [Start] button, but it was to no avail.
The game never started, sharpcarlos got bored (I imagine) and left the game.
I then attempted to get another match started for about an hour. In the mean time, I posted more facts.
— Steve Fulton (@fultonbot) March 26, 2016
I tried Haiku.
And when I finally got another 2nd game started, the results were even worse.
— Steve Fulton (@fultonbot) March 26, 2016
I tried another math fact, and restarted the game.
I paused my quest for Basic Math for a bit, so I could play a bunch of different Atari VCS two-player games to see if anyone was interested. The results were good.
I was pleasantly surprised by all the games as the multi-player aspect invigorated the games for me. In the past, when I sat down to play a collection of old Atari games , it was a very solitary experience. My kids don’t really understand why I like these old games, so I have to try to enjoy them on the fumes of nostalgia and nuance. Many times I just sample the games for few seconds, and then quit, and try another.
However, online-multiplayer required me to actually sit through an entire game. It made me try to recall the muscle memory of playing against an actual human. As I played these games, the primitive graphics and sounds melted away, and I was left with the basic thrill of competition. I had to gauge the angles in Combat Tank-Pong in real-time. I had to use “English” at the correct moment to get a trike in Bowling. I had to press the button just the right amount of time to make shot in Basketball.
It was an epiphany.
Suddenly it was 1978 and I was in 3rd grade again. All these years I had been searching for something by playing all these retro collections, but I could never put my finger on it. I thought it was basic nostalgia, but that never felt satisfying enough to be true.
Instead, what I was searching for “a reason”, or more specifically “the reason” I played in the first place. The multi-player games forced me to swim through the nostalgia haze I thought I wanted, and reach something unexpected.
The old Atari adage was “easy to learn difficult to master”.
I never thought about that phrase much, but as I was slowly getting excited about playing these online multi-player Atari VCS games again, it jumped to the forefront of my mind.
I loved these games as a kid because I could learn to master them. Yes, the skills were very simple, but video games as a whole concept were very new too. I didn’t need complex missions or intricate puzzles, it was enough to have simple interfaces with a few basic skills to learn and exploit.
However, in the ensuing years I’d forgotten all of that. As games got more and more complex, so did my need to to master that complexity. The old Atari 2600/VCS games felt tired and old when compared to Atari 8-bit computer games, NES games, Sega Genesis games, PC games, Playstation games, etc. etc. etc.
Replaying those old single player Atari VCS game (like Breakout and Yar’s Revenge) was okay, but I’d played so many better games in-between that I was fighting through those experiences to get back to what I once felt for the old games. It was very tough to break through.
But the instant multi-player VCS game started, I was forced to try to recall nuances of play that were so important when I first played those games in my friends bedroom, or in the living room next to my brother. The muscle-memory returned. The surge of mastery flowed through my body. Win or lose, I wanted more, and more.
And damn it, I was having fun again.
The experience spurred new ideas about the meaning Atari Vault could take-on beyond the games that were included in this first version.
What could Atari do with other games that were not once multi-player but could be added in later collections? For instance, could the Basic Programming cartridge be used to teach software developers how to work together to write programs (even if the result was simply printing “Hello World” down the screen 20 times in s for:next loop)?
My head was spinning with ideas. I was sucked-in. I wanted to play more. But then I recalled my original quest for the day had not been fulfilled.
I stilled needed to play a game of Basic Math with someone. So I tried again.
With my morning free-time exhausted, I took a long break. I had a wedding to attend plus a wife and kids to stop ignoring. However, I planned to return to Atari Vault in the afternoon to continue my quest.
It was not until the last afternoon when I had another chance at Atari Vault
Still no one bit, so I tried a couple more games. I checked the multi-player list and someone was advertising match for Space Duel, so I took it.
Space Duel was the real Atari sequel to Asteroids after Asteroids deluxe. It featured an option for two players to fight together using tethered ships. It an exercise in team-work that should be used to help married couple work out issues. It requires team-work and shared strategy. It’s also hella-fun. It was another great discovery in the Atari Vault package.
After playing Space Duel, I thought of another two-player game I loved as a kid: Sky Diver. I started game and waited.
After no bites on Sky Driver, I returned to my original roots (of the day anyway) and pushed for multi-player game of Basic Math. I was going to do this. I tweeted loud and fast, hoping to win over someone who might want to finally get a game going.
— Steve Fulton (@fultonbot) March 27, 2016
And then it happened. Before I could hit strike three, I actually managed to start a multi-player game of Basic Math.
But It was for nothing.
The game started and it was just me answering math problems.
I rushed through them, hoping my multi-player partner would get a chance to play after me, but they quit mid-game, and I was thrust back to the game select screen.
My moment of triumph fell completely to pieces.
Furthermore, I was so excited to see the game start, I actually stopped a conversation in mid-sentence with my wife to jump into the game. She was not amused, and I apologized profusely afterwards. How could I expect her to understand why it was so important to finally get a game going? How could I expect her to understand the crushing disappointment I felt in the results?
I started to research the game by looking at the instruction manual offered inside Atari Vault
No where in the instructions did it mention a two-player version of the game.
I had imagined maybe a split screen where players tried to beat each other at timed math facts, but there was nothing. I then decided to check the back of the box, which is where most Atari 2600 games described how many players could enjoy the game at the same time.
Duh. It was there for me to see all along. The game is for one player.
But then why would Atari and Code Mystics offer it up as multi-player game? Why would a game even start in multi-player mode? It was obviously an oversight on their part. While trying to offer as much content in the package as possible, they inadvertently put a game in the multiplayer section that was not multi-player. Something else struck me as I read through the pages of the Basic Math instructions and looking at the box: how much I loved those old Atari game packages. The box art, the weight and feeling of cartridge inside the box, the pages of the booklet that could unfold the mysteries of the game I was holding in my hands. With past Atari game collections, I never really paid any mind to the boxes and instructions in their digital form. They were low-res, and/or snatched directly from the images on AtariAge.com However, in Atari Vault they are lovingly recreated and/or digitized as new and gorgeous assets. Furthermore, I actually had to use them in my quest to find out what went wrong with Basic Math, which made them even more important. I felt warm feeling rush over me. This was the true nostalgia I was looking for. I blanket of old thoughts and feeling to to hide inside of. I may have wanted to “master” the games, but the virtual materials that came with the game gave me the full experience of nuance and nostalgia I didn’t know I was looking for. I finished the night with a few more tweets and few more games. I came up with a couple ideas for Atari Vault in the future, and tried to wind down after a complex day of feelings and emotions all centered on Atari VCS games.
Atari Vault has some issues. I wish it had a bigger mix of Atari games, it’s hard to get a multi-player game started, games end abruptly, and there are few odd bugs when it comes to which games are offered, in which modes, and how they are controlled. I can understand why those things exist. It’s a low-budget game produced by a company that, by all rights, is just a shell of the old Atari, trying to stay afloat any way they can. The Basic Math multiplayer bug in particular is weird, It’s something they should fix, but not it’s altogether terrible effort. In fact it’s a good start. Atari and Code Mystics should take the core multi-player features and expand on them make it great package. After playing these games, especially the multi-player versions, and finally discovering what I liked about them in the first place, I can truly say Atari Vault is something Atari fans should experience for themselves. At least for me, even with all the ups and downs of spending an entire Saturday trying to get a particular game started in multi-player mode, it was quite a wonderful experience to be had.