Atari 2600 homebrew

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Screenshot from the 2010 Atari 2600 homebrew Duck Attack!

An Atari 2600 homebrew is a homebrew video game designed for the Atari 2600 by independent developers following the discontinuation of the console in 1992. The first 2600 homebrew was written in 1995, and since then over 100 homebrew titles have been released. There is an active community of Atari 2600 homebrew developers – the largest among classic video game homebrew communities.[1]

There are several types of homebrew games, including original titles, ROM hacks of existing games, and ports of arcade games, personal computer games, and games from other consoles. Several homebrew games have received attention outside the homebrew community; some have even been featured on an Atari 2600 game anthology produced by Activision.[2]

With severe resource limitations including a mere 128 bytes of RAM and no video frame buffer, the 2600 is considered to be a difficult machine to program.[3] However, several tools, such as emulators, a high-level programming language, and a wealth of documentation, exist to assist the homebrewer.[3]

History[edit]

Screenshot from Thrust by Thomas Jentzsch (2000)

The Atari 2600 game console was introduced to the market by Atari, Inc. in 1977 as the Atari VCS, or Video Computer System.[4] Since the console's release, hundreds of different game titles, by dozens of game manufacturers, have been released for the console,[5] with the most popular titles, such as Pac-Man, Pitfall! and Missile Command, selling millions of copies each.[6] Atari 2600 consoles continued to be manufactured throughout the 1980s, but by 1992 production had ceased.[7] The last new Atari 2600 game title to be commercially released that year was Acid Drop – a puzzle game sold by Salu Ltd.[8]

The next year, hobbyist Harry Dodgson released the first homebrew cartridge, titled 7800/2600 Monitor Cartridge.[9] The cartridge was not a game, but rather a diagnostic tool that Dodgson hoped to persuade Atari Corp to market to customers interested in programming their own Atari 7800 games. As Atari no longer manufactured the keyboard controller required by the cartridge, they declined, so Dodgson decided to manufacture and market the cartridge on his own.[9]

Dodgson purchased a batch of Atari 7800 Hat Trick games at Big Lots for a dollar or less each, and cannibalized the parts to create the new monitor cartridge. He then advertised the cartridge on Usenet and in a catalog for video game store Video 61, ultimately selling around 25 cartridges. With the relatively small number of hand-made cartridges, the title is considered a rarity among homebrews.[9] The rights to the cartridge were later purchased by Video 61.[9]

In 1995 – three years after Atari's withdrawal of the 2600 from the marketplace – independent developer Ed Federmeyer released another Atari 2600 homebrew project, titled SoundX,[10] a cartridge that demonstrated the sound capabilities of the Atari 2600.[11] Federmeyer used the term "homebrew" to describe this type of hobbyist-driven development, inspired by the California Homebrew Computer Club of early computer enthusiasts that included Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.[12] Originally designing the cartridge for his own use, Federmeyer decided to gauge interest among fellow retro game enthusiasts; like Dodgson, Federmeyer advertised his creation on Usenet, ultimately receiving over 50 responses.[13] Following SoundX, Federmeyer created an unlicensed port of the game Tetris, titled Edtris 2600.[11]

Since then, over 100 homebrew games for the Atari 2600 have been released,[14] many by AtariAge, a website that features "information on game cartridges, consoles, Atari artwork and all other topics Atari".[15] Among the recently released homebrew game cartridges are the boxing game K.O. Cruiser by Devin Cook, Halo 2600 by Ed Fries, and Duck Attack! by Will Nicholes – all released at the Classic Gaming Expo in July 2010.[16] In 2012, homebrewers Thomas Jentzsch and Andrew Davie released an officially licensed 2600 port of Boulder Dash – a title they had been working on for nearly 10 years. There currently exists an active community of Atari 2600 homebrew developers.[7][17]

Types of homebrews[edit]

Screenshot of the Atari 2600 homebrew Medieval Mayhem by Darrell Spice Jr.

Many 2600 homebrews feature original concepts. SCSIcide, released by Joe Grand in 2001, is a paddle-based game (the first among homebrews)[1] in which the player acts as a hard drive read head picking up color-coded data bits as they fly past.[18] Oystron, released by Piero Cavina in 1997, is an action game in which "space oysters" are opened and pearls collected to earn ammunition.[19] Duck Attack! allows the player to battle giant, fire-breathing ducks in a quest to save the world from a mad scientist.[20]

Many 2600 homebrews are unofficial ports of arcade and PC games that were popular during the 1980s but not ported to the 2600 at the time. Lady Bug, released by John W. Champeau in 2006, is a port of Universal Games' 1981 arcade game of the same name.[21] Juno First, released by Chris Walton in 2009, is a port of a 1983 Konami arcade game;[22] and Thrust, released by Thomas Jentzsch in 2000, is a port of a 1986 computer game originally designed for the BBC Micro and later ported to the Atari 8-bit family and the Commodore 64.[23]

A popular activity among Atari 2600 enthusiasts is "hacking," in which existing ROM images are modified. Modifications typically include new graphics and game colors, but may also include more complex changes such as gameplay modifications and the ability to use a different controller (e.g. joystick or paddle) than the controller for which the game was originally designed.[24] A popular hack target is the 2600 version of Pac-Man, in which ROM hackers re-work the graphic elements to more closely resemble the arcade version.[25]

Several homebrew games have taken the basic concepts of earlier games, and expanded them with improved graphics or additional gameplay options. Examples include Warring Worms by Billy Eno (2002), which took the basic premise of Surround and added new gameplay modes, such as the ability to fire shots at the opponent;[26] and Medieval Mayhem by Darrell Spice Jr., a re-imagining of the game Warlords with enhanced graphics and additional gameplay options.[27]

Another type of 2600 homebrew is the "demake", a port from a more powerful system.[28] Recent demakes include Halo 2600, a 4 KB game inspired by the Halo series of games.[29] Halo 2600 was written by former Microsoft vice president Ed Fries, who was involved in Microsoft's acquisition of Halo creators Bungie Studios.[30] Other 2600 demakes include a Portal-inspired game titled Super 3D Portals 6 and a demo based on the Mega Man franchise.[31]

Notable homebrews[edit]

Screenshot of Euchre (aka Video Euchre) by Erik Eid, one of the Atari 2600 homebrews featured in the 2003 Activision Anthology

In 2003, Activision selected several homebrew 2600 titles for inclusion in the Game Boy Advance version of their Activision Anthology: Climber 5 by Dennis Debro (2004), Okie Dokie by Bob Colbert (1996), Skeleton+ by Eric Ball (2003), Space Treat Deluxe by Fabrizio Zavagli (2003), Vault Assault by Brian Prescott (2001), Video Euchre by Erik Eid (2002), and Oystron.[32] In 2005, SCSIcide, Oystron, Warring Worms, Skeleton+, and Marble Craze by Paul Slocum (2002) were listed as the "Best 2600 Homebrew Games" in the book Gaming Hacks: 100 Industrial-Strength Tips & Tools by Simon Carless.[18]

Medieval Mayhem has been featured in several retro-gaming tournaments.[33] Other 2600 homebrews that have received attention outside the homebrew community include Halo 2600,[34][35] Duck Attack!,[36] and A-VCS-tec Challenge by Simon Quernhorst (2006), an unofficial port of the 1981 Atari 8-bit game Aztec Challenge.[37]

Creating homebrews[edit]

The Atari 2600 is generally considered to be a very demanding programming environment, with a mere 128 bytes of RAM available without additional hardware, and no video frame buffer at all. The programmer must prepare each line of video output one at a time as it is being sent to the television. The only sprite capabilities the 2600 offers are one-dimensional 1-bit and 8-bit patterns; creating a two-dimensional object requires changing the pattern between each line of video.[3]

Creating a homebrew Atari 2600 game involves many steps: learning the system specifications, designing, writing, and testing the game, and creating the physical cartridge. Atari 2600 emulators such as Stella and z26 are often used by homebrewers to test their games as they are being developed.[1] Unlike later consoles, the Atari 2600 does not require a modchip to run homebrew cartridges; it will run any properly written program without checking for a digital signature or performing any other type of authentication.[38] It was this aspect of the hardware design that enabled third-party companies such as Activision and Imagic to develop Atari 2600 games without Atari's consent in the 1980s.[3] This led Atari to incorporate authentication features in its later console, the Atari 7800, to prevent other companies from creating and selling their own 7800 titles without Atari's permission.[38]

batari Basic[edit]

As the 2600 uses the 6507, a variant of the MOS Technology 6502 chip, as its CPU, most homebrews released are written in 6502 assembly language. However, in 2007, developer Fred X. Quimby released a compiler, "batari Basic," which allows developers to create 2600 games in BASIC, a high-level programming language.[3] Game designer and Georgia Institute of Technology associate professor Ian Bogost has used batari Basic in his classes to teach students video game concepts and history.[3] An integrated development environment (IDE), Visual batari Basic, is also available. Written by Jeff Wierer and released in 2008, it runs on Microsoft Windows and requires .NET Framework 3.0.[39][40]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b c Wen, Howard (May 20, 2004). "Inside the Homebrew Atari 2600 Scene". Archived from the original on 4 November 2010. Retrieved September 28, 2010. 
  2. ^ Carless 2005, p. 22.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Bogost & Montfort 2009.
  4. ^ "Atari VCS (Atari 2600)". A Brief History of Game Console Warfare. Business Week. Retrieved September 29, 2010. 
  5. ^ Yarusso, Albert. "Atari 2600 Companies". AtariAge. Archived from the original on 29 August 2010. Retrieved September 29, 2010. 
  6. ^ Buchanan, Levi (August 26, 2008). "Top 10 Best-Selling Atari 2600 Games". IGN. Retrieved September 29, 2010. 
  7. ^ a b Gray, Frank (July 25, 2010). "Ducks roam new game for old Atari". The Journal Gazette. Archived from the original on 30 August 2010. Retrieved August 26, 2010. 
  8. ^ Yarusso, Albert. "Companies: Salu". AtariAge. Retrieved August 26, 2010. 
  9. ^ a b c d Herman 2000, p. 2. Archived from the original on August 15, 2000. Retrieved January 22, 2012 5.
  10. ^ Yarusso, Albert. "Rarity Key Explained". AtariAge. Retrieved August 26, 2010. 
  11. ^ a b Herman 1997, p. 251.
  12. ^ Herman 2000, p. 1. Archived from the original on August 15, 2000. Retrieved January 22, 2012 5.
  13. ^ Herman 2000, p. 3. Archived from the original on August 15, 2000. Retrieved January 22, 2012 5.
  14. ^ Yarusso, Albert. "Atari 2600 Rarity Guide". AtariAge. Retrieved August 26, 2010. 
  15. ^ Caylor, Bob (August 18, 2010). "Atari revival". The News-Sentinel. Retrieved September 2, 2010. 
  16. ^ "Classic Gaming Expo: AtariAge Announces New Games for CGE". Archived from the original on 27 August 2010. Retrieved August 26, 2010. 
  17. ^ Carless 2005, p. 15: "As discussed earlier, the Atari 2600 itself has a vibrant homebrew scene oriented around such sites as Atari Age."
  18. ^ a b Carless 2005, p. 21.
  19. ^ "Atari 2600 Reviews M-O: Oystron". The Video Game Critic. Archived from the original on 5 October 2010. Retrieved September 28, 2010. 
  20. ^ McGinnis, Jeff (August 4, 2010). "Tech-savvy fans programming, developing on classic console". Toledo Free Press. Retrieved August 4, 2010. 
  21. ^ Yarusso, Albert. "Lady Bug". AtariAge. Retrieved August 26, 2010. 
  22. ^ Walton, Chris (May 6, 2008). "Juno First - Final Version (Atari 2600)". AtariAge. Retrieved August 26, 2010. 
  23. ^ Yarusso, Albert. "Thrust+ DC Edition". AtariAge. Retrieved August 26, 2010. 
  24. ^ Yarusso, Albert. "Atari 2600 Hacks". AtariAge. Archived from the original on 29 August 2010. Retrieved August 26, 2010. 
  25. ^ Yarusso, Albert. "Atari 2600 Hacks: Pac-Man". AtariAge. Retrieved August 26, 2010. 
  26. ^ Yarusso, Albert. "Warring Worms". AtariAge. Retrieved August 26, 2010. 
  27. ^ Yarusso, Albert. "Medieval Mayhem". AtariAge. Retrieved August 26, 2010. 
  28. ^ Snow, Jean (September 12, 2008). "Portal, Retrofitted for Atari 2600". Wired. Retrieved August 28, 2010. 
  29. ^ Bogost, Ian (August 1, 2010). "Halo 2600: Ed Fries demakes Halo for Atari". Archived from the original on 4 August 2010. Retrieved August 26, 2010. 
  30. ^ Bishop, Todd (January 14, 2004). "The game is over for Xbox's Ed Fries". Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Retrieved September 2, 2010. 
  31. ^ Winterhalter, Ryan (April 29, 2011). "31 Homebrew Games Worth Playing". 1UP.com. Retrieved May 10, 2011. 
  32. ^ Kohler 2005, p. 378.
  33. ^ AC tournament in Congis-sur-Thérouanne, France: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010; Eurocon 2009; Classic Gaming Expo 2010
  34. ^ Melanson, Donald (August 3, 2010). "Former Microsoft VP brings Halo to the Atari 2600". Engadget. Archived from the original on 4 August 2010. Retrieved August 5, 2010. 
  35. ^ Beschizza, Rob (August 3, 2010). "Former Microsoft VP brings Halo to the Atari 2600". Boing Boing. Archived from the original on 6 August 2010. Retrieved August 27, 2010. 
  36. ^ Duck Attack! references:
  37. ^ Doctorow, Cory (July 10, 2006). "New Atari 2600 game cartridge released". Boing Boing. Retrieved August 26, 2010. 
  38. ^ a b "The Atari 7800 ProSystem". AtariMuseum.com. Retrieved 2010-08-28. 
  39. ^ Wierer, Jeff (April 5, 2008). "Visual bB 1.0 - a new IDE for batari Basic". Archived from the original on 18 August 2010. Retrieved August 30, 2010. 
  40. ^ "Visual batari Basic Guide". Archived from the original on 27 July 2010. Retrieved August 30, 2010. 

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