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Speak, Atari

How the 2600 forged the home video game future.

The Atari 2600

Born in the early 1970s, I’ve experienced only a few world-changing events along the lines of the automobile, the telephone, and the television. Sure, I was around the campus computer cluster when NCSA Mosaic was installed in 1994, but the Internet didn’t make a grand entrance. (The UC Museum of Paleontology, a prominent early Web site, was only so interesting.) The World Wide Web doesn’t compare with 1981, when my brother and I got an Atari 2600 for Christmas. Before Atari, no video games at home. After Atari, video games all the time. Males of a certain age will regale you with tales of long mornings roping cattle in Stampede and the distinctive thumb cramp that the joystick delivered. But enough nostalgia for now. Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost, two professors of media studies, have written a book, Racing the Beam, that approaches the beloved machine from a new angle: What was it like to program for the Atari 2600?

Examining the Atari 2600 as a device built of microprocessors, ROM, and I/O ports lets us glean a new lesson from its rise and fall: Simple, flexible machines make great gaming platforms because they inspire unexpected uses of the hardware. The potential downside of flexibility is the loss of quality control. The “North American video game crash of 1983” is partly attributed to the glut of cartridges for the 2600—consumers at the mall couldn’t tell what was good or bad. Yet, as Montfort and Bogost write, the quirks and rudimentary nature of the 2600’s hardware offered unanticipated ways to innovate on the platform and allowed for games as enjoyable as River Raid, as mockable as E.T., and as execrable as the “adult” Custer’s Revenge.

Atari founder Nolan Bushnell had an ideal background to start a video game company. He was an electrical engineer who had worked as a barker for carnival games like the one in which you throw the ball in the basket to win an enormous stuffed animal, except you never do, unless you are a little girl whom the operator lets win in order to attract new marks. In the early ‘70s, Bushnell struggled to make a “tavern-grade” adaptation of Spacewar!, a game that ran on a minicomputer at his university and displayed graphics on an oscilloscope. In the early ‘70s, the tavern (otherwise known as the bar) was the place for video games, which were seen as offshoots of darts and pool and served the same purpose of keeping people around to eat and drink. Bushnell’s game, named Computer Space, never took off, but it did have a brush with history: When the first Pongunit was installed in a Sunnyvale, Calif., tavern, Computer Spacewas in the place already.

Pongwent on to worldwide fame and success, and Bushnell saw an opening by targeting kids and families. Atari developed a device called Home Pong that was sold exclusively through Sears. It did well, but how many Home Pongsdid a home need? The next idea was to develop a machine that could play many games. Atari could sell the device almost at cost and make money on the cartridges. With these goals, Atari began work on the Atari Video Computer System. (The VCS would be renamed the 2600 when the Atari 5200 debuted in 1982.) The machine had a cheap processor and a shockingly small amount of RAM—128 bytes—even for the time. But the result was low price. In 1977, an Apple II cost $1,298, while Atari sold the VCS for $199.

Bushnell left Atari in 1978 and went on to realize his vision of combining the carnival and the arcade by founding Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatres. (A must-read for the curious: Anna Prior’s Wall Street Journal article on what might account for the weird amount of violence at the chain.) Meanwhile, Atari changed living-room history. The VCS hardware was tailored to bring two popular coin-op games into the home: Tankand Pong. On the Atari, Tankwas rejiggered as Combat, the cartridge that came with Atari units. Even back in the day, Combatwas a letdown, only slightly less boring than Basic Math.

Montfort and Bogost, though, explain why Combat doesn’t deserve my scorn. It was the testing ground for many fundamental Atari programming techniques, and the VCS’s hardware led to the peculiarities of the game. The horizontal symmetry of the mazes or “playfields” were encouraged by the processor, for example, and once you had programmed the basic “tank vs. tank” scenario, the Atari’s configuration made it easy to add variations such as “tank Pong,” in which you could bounce shots off the walls, and the surreal “invisible tank,” in which the tanks appeared only when firing or when hit. It’s these kinds of insights that form the basis of what the authors call platform studies, analyzing how a computing platforms “constrain, shape, and support the creative work that is done on them.”

The bigger, more headache-inducing Atari programming challenge was dealing with the TV. The cathode ray tube screens of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s used an electron gun that drew individual scan lines on the screen. To create something as simple as a tank or a pong paddle, Atari programmers had to choreograph an intricate timing dance between their code and the electron beam. The most basic accomplishments on the 2600 could take months of solo work. The famous programmer of Adventure, Warren Robinett, describes the process of developing a cartridge as essentially a form of folk art:

In those old far-off days, each game for the 2600 was done entirely by one person, the programmer, who conceived the game concept, wrote the program, did the graphics—drawn first on graph paper and converted by hand to hexadecimal—and did the sounds.

Robinett was inspired to create Adventure by an earlier text adventure game also called Adventure, which was in turn inspired by a love of cave exploring. Robinett’s Adventurepopularized the now-common convention of screen-to-screen movement through a virtual space. It also made early strides in avatars and collision-detection (determining when one object hits another), basic aspects of video gaming. Most famously, Robinett programmed one of the first Easter eggs—a hidden dot gave access to a secret room which displayed the words “Created by Warren Robinett.”

The Easter egg, says Robinett, “was a signature, like at the bottom of a painting.” Atari discovered his handiwork after a 15-year-old player wrote the company a letter, but the egg remained because it was too expensive for Atari to make a new ROM mask. (Will that then-15-year-old player please identify him or herself and take a bow? Various sources suggest “a gamer in Utah.”)

Montfort and Bogost go on to devote chapters to four other key titles in Atari history: Pac-Man, Yars’ Revenge, Pitfall!, and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. The most significant of these is Pitfall!, produced by Activision in 1982. That company was started by a group of star Atari programmers who realized that the games they had anonymously programmed on their $20K salaries were responsible for 60 percent of the company’s $100 million in cartridge sales for one year. Activision prided itself on decent-sounding sounds and aesthetic detail, such as the tree limbs in the Pitfall!jungle canopy—a pride that strained the limits of the Atari’s native capabilities. They also started to work in teams, while giving the lead programmer prominent credit. That explains the tag line of this vintage TV ad for Pitfall!, which informs us that the game was “designed by David Crane.”

The end came in 1983. A lot of us started playing games on home computers. A bunch of big-time cartridges, like the infamous E.T., were huge busts, and retailers became gun-shy about ordering more titles and sent the ones they had on the shelves back. The returns bankrupted third-party game developers and fueled an industry consensus that video games were a fad—a toy whose time had passed. In two years, Nintendo would prove everyone very wrong. The arrival of the Nintendo Entertainment System would embed Nintendo games in the memories of a new generation, just as Atari’s had already done. Using Montfort and Bogost’s intellectual model, an enlightening book could be written about how the design of the NES hardware affected game development on that machine.

What still amazes me, in spite of my scholarly concerns here, is the nostalgic punch of early video games—how transporting the blocky sounds and sights can be. Thanks to the hard work of my fellow travelers, all of these memories are a click away. Firing up a game of Frogger, I can almost smell the mildew on my basement floor. A game like Raiders of the Lost Ark really did immerse you in the manner of a good Encyclopedia Brown story. Getting caught in the balloons of Circus Atari was like a nitrous hit. And I defy you to find a more haunting sound than the collapse of a doomed city in Missile Command.


If you discovered the secret room in Adventure by yourself, not when it was published in a gaming magazine, send me an e-mail  and stake your claim to a place in history. (Update, March 11, 2008: Although I haven’t heard from the “gamer in Utah,” who first wrote a letter to Atari about the Easter egg in Adventure, I’ve heard from several people who found the dot and the secret room on their own. There were rumors of a “bonus” or “endgame” for Adventure, and the dot was discoverable because of a quirk in the game that caused a room to flash when there were more than two objects in it. For the complete scenario, watch the unveiling of the Easter egg here. Thanks to all to who pointed this out.) If you have questions about what it was like to work at Atari as a kid, e-mail Slate’s John Dickerson.