Retro Game Guy

It's the 1980's again!


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Tempest is a 1981 arcade game developed by Atari.  Dave Theurer, a senior programmer at Atari, was trying to develop a 3D game similar to Space Invaders, but ran into a whole host of problems.  Supposedly, Dave had a dream about monsters coming out of a hole in the ground, which gave him the idea for what became Tempest.  The technology used in the Tempest arcade systems included Atari’s (then new) QuadraScan color vector generator, a 6502 CPU, and two Pokey chips for sound and I/O.

The QuadraScan technology allowed Dave to generate 3D ‘tubes’ that form the ‘playing field’ for Tempest.  The goal of the game is to use your ‘Zapper’ to shoot as many enemies and last as long as possible.  The enemies, which appear at different levels, include:

  • Flippers-the most common, appear at level one
  • Flipper tankers-which split into two flippers when hit, appear at level three
  • Spikers-they built green spike that can kill you when you warp to a new level, appear at level four
  • Fuseballs-who zip up and down the channels, appear at level eleven
  • Fuseball tankers- which split into two fuseballs when hit, appear at level thirty-three
  • Pulsars-who electrify the channels, appear at level seventeen
  • Pulsar tankers- which split into two pulsars when hit, appear at level forty-one

There are a total of 99 levels in Tempest, with the first sixteen having unique geometric shapes.  They then repeat, with varied color schemes and increasing difficulty, as the game advances.  In additional to an unlimited supply of ammunition for your ‘Zapper’, you also get a ‘Super Zapper’ which can be used twice in each level.  The first time that the Super Zapper is used, it will destroy all enemies on the playing field.  The second time, it only destroys one, random, enemy.  When all enemies are destroyed, you will ‘warp’ through to the next level.  Tempest is also one of the first arcade games to let your pick your starting level.

Tempest was a monster hit for the Atari coin-op division and it was ported to many platforms of the day including the BBC Micro, the ZX Spectrum, and the Atari ST.  Ports were also planned and partially developed for the Atari 2600 and 5200 game consoles, but, until recently, were never released.

Tempest at Funspot

Tempest at Funspot

2600 Version…

Carla Meninsky developed the 2600 version which was planned to be released in 1983, but was never finished.  The 2600 version plays with a similar concept to the arcade version, but the graphics are crude and the playing field is two dimensional.  In her 2600 port, Carla did manage to include four enemies:  Flippers, Flipper Tankers, Pulsars, and Fuseballs.  Tempest was included as one of the games on the Flashback 4 (November 2012), so now it has been ‘officially’ released.  I wanted to like the 2600 version of Tempest, but, honestly, it is pretty horrible.  Graphics and 2D playing field aside, the control and collision detection are terrible.  In fairness to Carla (who also programmed Warlords…an awesome 2600 game), she never had the chance to finish Tempest for 2600 and I am not sure why AtGames included it on the FB4.  You can read more about the 2600 version of Tempest here.

Another Tempest like game, 3D Genesis, was developed for the 2600 by Videosoft.  Although practically complete, it too was not released until recently.  Videosoft managed to create a better, if not perfect, 3D effect on the 2600.  If you have a 2600 and like Tempest, you should take a look at 3D Genesis here.

5200 Version…

Keithen Hayenga, who programmed RealSports Baseball for the 5200, volunteered to develop the 5200 version of Tempest.  Keithen worked closely with Dave Theurer and was able to use some of the same code as Dave had used on the arcade version.  This was possible, since the 5200 also has a 6502 CPU and a Pokey chip for sound and I/O.  This would make the sound and play of the 5200 version nearly the same as the arcade.  Since the arcade units used vector graphics, there was only so much of the code that Keithen could use as the 5200 needed bit mapped graphics.  Like the 2600 version, the 5200 version of Tempest was planned for release in 1983 and is featured as ‘coming soon’ in most of Atari’s advertising and catalogs in 1983.  A 5200 (and 2600) Tempest box was shown in the 1984 movie ‘Cloak and Dagger’.  Like most software projects, the development of Tempest ran behind schedule and came to a stop when Warner sold Atari in 1984 and let go most of the game programmers.

For years, there was speculation, but no copy or prototype of Tempest for the 5200 surfaced until 1999.  That copy was a version that was approximately fifty percent complete and attempts were made to finish the game, but with only limited success.  Ken Van Mersbergen made the effort to track down Keithen in 2002 and they located a more advanced copy of the Tempest source code.  Ken and Dennis Debro worked on the game, but never quite had the time to finish it.  George Reese is credited with somehow sparking Keithen to contact Ken about finishing Tempest.  With the efforts of Ken, Dennis, and Keithen, after nearly thirty years, a finished version of Tempest for the Atari 5200 SuperSystem was made available for sale by AtariAge at the Portland Retro Gaming Expo in September 2012.  Of course the story doesn’t end there.  Shortly after the expo, bugs were discovered in the Trak-ball control of the game, so back went the programmers to fix the bugs.  Finally, in the past week, Tempest has been released with a beautiful reproduction box, a twelve page manual (in full color), and a cool cart label.  The manual (which has had a life of its own), includes three pages on the history of the game.

Tempest for the 5200 does not disappoint.  Other than not being able to render vector graphics, the SuperSystem demonstrates its ability to be a ‘personal arcade system’ and Tempest rocks on the 5200.  Since the sounds and game tables are the same as the arcade version, it is hard to imagine how it could get any better.  Control with the 5200’s analog joystick is solid and, although I prefer the joystick, it also plays well with the Trak-ball.  I did find that in later rounds, you have really work to avoid the spikes when using the joystick.  This is definitely easier to do with the Trak-ball.  All of the arcade levels and features are present, including the ability to pick your starting level.  There is really not much else that can be said other than it is nearly arcade perfect!

A huge thank you needs to go out to Keithen, Ken, and Dennis for their programming work to finally bring this arcade classic home.  Thanks also to Michael Kosaka for his graphics work and to George Reese and David Exton for their work on the box, manual, and label for this game.  Finally, a big thanks to Al Yarusso for all that he does at AtariAge and for his work to program, solder, and assemble all of the Tempest carts.  At best, a few hundred (or maybe a thousand) copies of Tempest will be sold, so there is no big money being made here.  In an era of overpaid celebrities and sports stars, it is really nice to see people do something to make other people’s lives more enjoyable.

If you have a 5200, get over to AtariAge and order yourself a copy of this classic game.  It may have taken thirty years to be completed, but you should not wait another minute to get your copy!

Wild for Tempest!

Wild for Tempest!


One thought on “Tempest…

  1. Hey, thanks for the comprehensive and still compact history of 5200 Tempest. I was fortunate in meeting with Keithen in 2004 at CGE San Jose (awesome show!) and he was jazzed to see a working, albeit incomplete, version of his game. There’s a nice interview with him on Good Deal Games, a few year back. Yours truly interviewing Keithen, and maybe it was that interview that kept the fire burning a bit. Ken Van Mersbergen and I cobbled together his story for box and manual history (I just learned his history got scrambled a bit in the manual). Lots of folks helped get Tempest finished. Imagine my surprise to find my comments and picture inside the manual with Keithen!
    Keep up the good work, Retro Game Guy!
    Best Regards
    G. Reese

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