Orphaned Computers & Game Systems

Vol. II, Issue 9    April 1999

VCS Programs That Don't Exist -- But Should!

by Chris Federico and Adam Trionfo

An enormous amount of games is available for the Atari 2600 VCS, but most of these are mediocre in terms of game play. One doesn't mind a round or two of Super Breakout, but it can wear thin rather quickly. Numerous games have evolved over the years that take the basic ideas expand upon them, or add new twists. Not all of these games are better than the originals, but many are. This isn't a bad reflection on the VCS or the original games, but it does confirm that improvements can be made.

There is already modern activity in VCS programming circles. However, only a very small amount of this is work on new games. What we've mainly seen are proof-of-concept demos. These introduce new ideas to the VCS. The programmers who create these are having loads of fun; they are also contributing a wealth of resources to the VCS community. But why not work these efforts into actual games?

There is already proof that this can be done, for new VCS games have appeared over the last few years. The Internet newsgroups are doing a fine job at getting people in contact with one another. What we're going to do is to offer our ideas about software that the VCS could have -- perfectly possible utilities and games.

Every game genre for the VCS has already been visited in one way or another. But some of these games only scratch the surface of what can be done on the console. Some games could use updates, others deserve sequels, and some titles from other platforms could be ported; but best of all would be entirely new games.

There is other work that can be done with the VCS besides creating new games. What about programming languages? BASIC already exists for the VCS, but in such a crippled form so as to be unusable. It's possible to create a version of compiled BASIC that doesn't run on the VCS at all, but creates executable VCS files. The files could then be transported to the VCS via the SuperCharger or an EPROM (erasable/programmable ROM) cartridge. BASIC would not be as flexible as Assembly, but it would allow non-Assembly programmers to dabble with the VCS. If this could be done with BASIC, than it could also be done with other languages, like C. For anyone wondering how this would be possible, it is the same idea as a cross-assembler (such as DASM), which is an assembler that runs on one platform but creates executables for another.

There are utilities that are also needed that could help with the creation of VCS titles. One useful utility is called Stella-Graph. Created using Visual BASIC 4, it is much like the old-school sprite generators on the C64 or Atari 8-bit. Stella-Graph is quite useful now, but it is very limited and could use an improved user interface. For instance, as it now runs, every bit must be turned on using the mouse to click a check- box. This takes completely too much time and is quite annoying. Besides an improved sprite generator, a host of other utilities could be created. How about any one of these: color manipulator, fast assembly keypad routine, musical-tone generator (like Sound X, but running on a non-VCS machine) or VCS Linux kernel (kidding)?

The reason the 2600 was such a successful machine in the first place, of course, had nothing to do with utilities that helped users create games for it. It concerned the games themselves. So what new games could we old-style fans come up with to retain excitement for our beloved machine? To be on par with Atari's best late releases (or most of Activision's, Imagic's or Parker Brothers' titles), the ideas would have to be pretty remarkable, while at the same time comprising realistic limits so that they could shine within the restricted capabilities of the VCS. How about Kill the Bad Pac-Man? Seriously: It would offer a humorous perspective on a universal 2600 complaint while providing an entertaining contest. The player wanders around a Robotron-style area, and he can't shoot any Pac-Men that actually look like the hero of the arcade original. He can only shoot the very few who look like the protagonist in the 1982 home version.

This concept draws a bit from Demons to Diamonds, in which you can only shoot certain characters unless you want to inadvertently create more bad guys; so it could conceivably be called Demons to Diamonds II: Kill the Guy With the Eye. If you shoot a non-2600 character, he could turn into an even worse foe who kills you immediately: say, an Intellivision controller. The children's variation could make it easier to spot the 2600 Pac-Men: They'd flicker outrageously. Killing the correct characters, of course, would result in that sharp DUNT sound that you get for eating a "wafer" in the '82 home game.

Adventure II is long overdue (twenty years in January, in fact). All that we long-time Adventure players want is a game with the same graphics, mechanics and characters, but in a kingdom that's, say, ten times the size of the original. Could you imagine? Well, it's possible! If advancements in the understanding of 2600 coding loopholes haven't created the accommodation for something like this in a 4K space, then bank-switching would easily house an Adventure sequel of this magnitude. Imagine additional castles: maybe blue, purple and green. And two extra dragons: Hansel and Gretel.

Rob Fulop could have a seat at his old desk and add power-ups and other such Galaga-type extras to his original concept to create Demon Attack II, and Parker Brothers could license the rights to the game version of Independence Day. Or are we getting too caught-up in the possibilities? Well, why not? Caught-up is fun! Try it, and you just might find the motivation to help start another fruitful VCS era!

Any one of these games or utilities could be created. The question is -- are there any programmers out there who are willing to take up the challenge? We'll continue to use our 2600s either way. We hope, though, that there is a group of people willing to help carry the Atari torch. Are you one of them? -- AJT and CF