Retro Game Guy

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Hardware Happenings…

2014 is the 30th anniversary of the Atari 7800’s release and there are some amazing things happening…

AtariAge member CPUWIZ has been busy developing new cartridge boards for 7800 games. He has developed a board that can hold up to 1MB of memory, which will allow for some amazing new games to be developed.  He has also teamed up with RevEng (another AtariAge member) to develop some cool multi-carts for the 7800’s.  One of these has a new bankswitching scheme to allow 8 128K games to live on the same cart.  He has also gotten the green light from Bob ‘PacManPlus’ DeCrescenzo to develop a limited edition multi-cart with 8 of Bob’s 7800 ‘homebrew’ games on it.

Curt Vendel has been working on the Atari 7800 expansion module for over three years and hopes to release it soon.  This expansion module contains both Pokey and Yamaha audio chips, expanded memory, and high score keeping.  At the Portland Retro Game Expo last October, AtariAge had one of Curt’s prototype units in operation showing off the unit’s capabilities.  It was amazing to hear the difference that Pokey sound made for Donkey Kong!

Fred ‘Batari’ Qimby has also been hard at work on a new SD multi-cart for the 7800.  Previously known as the H2, Fred’s new cart will now be called the Concerto cart and he hopes to have it ready by the Portland Retro Game Expo this fall.  Fred hopes to be able to have the Concerto be able to host and play any 2600 or 7800 game on an Atari 7800.

With all of these new hardware developments, 2014 may shape up to be the best ever for the Atari 7800.  Amazing for a 30 year old system!

Flashback Fever…

ATGames will be releasing the Atari Flashback 5 in October.  Hardware wise, it is expected to be similar to the Flashback 4 with wireless controllers.  This time around, it will have 100 games built in.  The final game list has not yet be released, but let’s hope it now also includes games like Berzerk, Defender, and Midnight Magic!

ATGames has also announced that they will produce both an Intellivison and ColecoVison Flashback unit.  Both of these units with feature 60 built in games and overlays for the controllers, but the game list has not yet been released.  It is probably not likely, due to Nintendo’s licensing practices, but the ColecoVison Flashback with Donkey Kong built in would be killer!

As soon as more is know about the details of these Flashback units, I will be sure to post an update!

@Atarigameguy


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Atari Retro-game Happenings…

It is hard to believe that in 2014, multiple new games for the Atari systems are under development.  Here is just some of the current game news…

2600…

There are several outstanding games in the works for the 2600.  A couple of the most notable are Star Castle Arcade and Stay Frosty 2.  These two games are complete and will be released as soon as enough cart boards are available for a production run.  Several other homebrew games are also in the works including Circus AtariAge, Frantic,  and Zippy the Porcupine.

5200…

Just after I posted my last blog about Caverns of Mars, two developers (Paul Lay & Aking) converted Caverns of Mars 2 and 3 to the 5200.  Caverns of Mars 2 is a side scroller very similar to Scramble and lots of fun to play on the 5200.  Caverns of Mars 3 (Phobos) is very similar to the original game, but with improved graphics.  If you are a C of M fan, then you should head over to AtariAge and check out these 8-bit conversions!

Speaking of 8-bit conversions, Paul and Aking have converted more than dozen 8-bit games to the 5200 in the past few weeks.  In addition to Caverns 2 and 3, they have converted titles such as Ant-Eater, Bacterion, and Pooyan.   Thanks to Paul, Aking, and a few others, 2014 is turning out to be a banner year for the 5200!

7800…

Master 7800 programmer Bob ‘Pac-Man Plus’ DeCrescenzo has recently completed Astro Blaster and is now working on a port of KC Munchkin.   Bob plans to make a cart run of Astro Blaster as well as a run of ‘Bentley Bear: Crystal Quest’ in the next few weeks.

Donkey Kong…

2014 may go down as the year of Donkey Kong for Atari Systems.  Perry Thuente has recently completed one of the most accurate ports of Donkey Kong (Donkey Kong XM) for any home system.  He spent months updating the 7800 version to be as arcade accurate as possible.   His version has all four screens (only three were included originally) and Pokey sound (requiring the soon to be released 7800 expansion module (XM)).   Perry has been busy assembling over 100 carts and may also release a Pokey cart version that will run without the XM.

No less than two different 2600 versions of Donkey Kong (Donkey Kong Arcade and Donkey Kong VCS) are under development.  Both versions are absolutely amazing and totally blow away the original version for the 2600.  It is absolutely amazing to see what can be done with the venerable 2600!

Wow…

It is hard to believe that so many great games for the Atari 8-bit game systems are going to be available in 2014…it seems like the 2600, 5200, and 7800 will live on for many years to come!

@Atarigameguy


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Caverns of Mars…

Caverns of Mars is a fairly unique gem in the Atari game library.  It was developed in 1981 by Greg Christensen for the Atari 8-bit computer line.  Greg was a high school senior when he wrote Caverns and sent it to the Atari Program Exchange (APX).  APX was a division of Atari that was set up to sell programs developed by others for Atari’s 8-bit line.  Caverns won the 1981 APX game contest and was released by Atari in cartridge, cassette, and floppy disk formats.

Caverns is similar to Scramble, except the action is vertical, rather than horizontal.  The idea of the game is that Martians are surrounding Terra IV (your planet) and you must defeat the Martian forces by sabotaging their defense system.  The goal of Caverns is to guide your ship to the bottom of the cavern, while avoiding enemy fire and laser gates.   There are four types of enemies that you can shoot to gain points:  transmitters, creon rockets, pyxias rockets, and space mines.  You can also shoot fuel tanks, which will give you additional fuel.  If you are good enough to navigate your way to the bottom of the cavern, you must land on the fusion bomb, activate it, and escape from the cave before it explodes!

5200 version…

The Atari 5200’s design is similar to an Atari 8-bit computer, except that its memory is limited and some memory locations are mapped in different locations.  Thus, it has been possible to port over a number of 8- bit games to the 5200.  Steven Tucker has developed a multi-cart for the 5200 and he has also ported over a number of 8-bit games, including Caverns of Mars.

The 5200 version is available to be played in Steven’s multi-cart or may be purchased in cartridge format.  Caverns plays well on the 5200 and control on a standard 5200 joystick is not too bad.  Although not as easy to control as a digital joystick, after some practice, Caverns is fun to play.  If you are a fan of Scramble or like space themed games, you will enjoy Caverns on the 5200.

Caverns of Mars for the Atari 8-bit/5200

Caverns of Mars for the Atari 8-bit/5200

Flashback 2 version…

Caverns of Mars was included as one of the forty-two games on the Atari Flashback 2.  This version was probably a prototype that Atari developed for the 2600, but never released as there is no credit to any programmer in the Flashback 2 manual.  Although the graphics are simplified and there is quite a bit of flicker, Caverns is fun to play on the Flashback 2.  In fact, the rapid fire capability in this version, makes the game a little easier to play and, thus, a little less frustrating for beginners.

2600 version…

In 2006, John Champeau, released a 2600 version of Caverns which he titled ‘Conquest of Mars’.  This is an excellent port featuring improved graphics over the Flashback version and little to no flicker.  While the graphics overall are not quite as good as the original 8-bit version, they are very well done for a 2600 game.  The gameplay is also intact and had this been released by Atari back in the 80’s, it would have been a monster hit for the 2600.  John keeps the laser torpedo fire rate similar to the original 8-bit version, so his Caverns is more challenging to play than the Flashback version.  On the other hand, control with a standard Atari joystick, is much better than with the 5200’s analog version.

Conquest of Mars for the Atari 2600/7800

Conquest of Mars for the Atari 2600/7800

7800 version…

Sadly, no 7800 version of Caverns has been developed, but John’s 2600 version plays perfectly on the 7800.  With recent advances in cart boards for the 7800, maybe someone will develop a 7800 version that will be able to improve on the original.

Overall thoughts…

Conquest of Mars is an outstanding game that can be played on Atari’s entire 8-bit line of computers and game systems.  It may take a little searching to find a copy of the computer version, but the 2600 and 5200 versions are readily available and, at about $30 a copy, are, relatively, affordable.  As mentioned above, anyone who likes Scramble, Super Cobra, or space themed games, will love Caverns.  All of the versions of Caverns are fun to play and worth having in your collection!

@Atarigameguy


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Kangaroo…

Kangaroo is a 1982 arcade game developed by Sun Electronics and distributed by Atari.  The game is similar in play to Donkey Kong (as I am sure was intended by Sun) with a Kangaroo as the main character and monkey’s as the antagonists.  The goal of Kangaroo is to score as many points as possible by collecting fruits and ‘punching’ the monkeys.  The monkeys are diabolical and will throw or drop apples and apple cores at the kangaroo.  If an apple hits your Kangaroo, you will lose a life and have to start over at the bottom of the screen.   You can advance to the next screen (and score some bonus points) by rescuing joey at the top of the screen.  You can also score additional points by ringing the bell, which will regenerate the fruits.

The arcade units of Kangaroo ran on a Zilog Z80 microprocessor with a General Instruments AY8910 sound generator.  Kangaroo was ported to the Atari 2600, the Atari 5200, and a version was developed for the Atari 8-bit computer line, but never officially released.

Although Kangaroo was only a modest hit in the arcades, Kangaroo was featured on the CBS Saturday Supercade cartoon lineup in 1984.

2600 version…

In 1983, Atari released Kangaroo for the 2600.  Given the limitations of the 2600 back in the eighties, Kangaroo is a pretty good port.  The graphics, although monochrome, are pretty well done and the flicker found in many 2600 games is minimal.  Kangaroo for the 2600 has solid control with a standard CX-40 joystick and the 2600 version features three of the arcade’s four levels.  Given the limitations of the 2600’s TIA chip, the sound for Kangaroo is also pretty well done.   Kangaroo for the 2600 is not an easy game to play and it is surprising addictive….you will find yourself hitting the reset switch over and over!

5200 version…

The 5200 version of Kangaroo was also released in 1983 and is a solid arcade port.  The graphics are well done, but still mostly monochrome.  The 5200 version does feature all four levels of the arcade version and the sound is also well done, but not substantially better than the 2600 version.  Control with the standard 5200 joystick takes a little practice, but Kangaroo does not suffer from the control problems that many 5200 games have.  One strange thing about Kangaroo for the 5200 is that there is not any ‘game over’ message.  When you have lost your last life, the game just stops.  The first couple of times that I played it, I thought that the game just froze.  Even the 2600 version at least takes you back to the start screen.

Kangaroo for the 5200

Kangaroo for the 5200

7800 & 8-bit versions…

Sadly, no 7800 version of Kangaroo was ever developed for the 7800.  For the Atari 8-bit computer line, the 5200 version has been ported over and is available to be played.

Overall thoughts…

If you like Donkey Kong, you will also like Kangaroo.  Both the 2600 and 5200 versions are inexpensive, easy to come by, and fun to play.  If you have a 2600 or 5200, you should pick up a copy of Kangaroo.  Hopefully, one of the 7800 programmers will develop a 7800 version.  With the latest advances in cart boards for the 7800, it should be possible to produce a near arcade perfect port.  Also, with the advances in cart technology for the 2600, I would not be surprised to see one of the 2600 programmers develop a more arcade perfect version for the trusty old VCS!

@Atarigameguy


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The Portland Retro Gaming Expo…

In October, I had the opportunity to attend the Portland Retro Gaming Expo (PRGE) in Portland Oregon.  This year the expo was held downtown at the Oregon Expo Center.  The expo center is a huge facility and can host multiple events at the same time.  In fact, I almost attended a used book show that was also being hosted by the Expo Center at the same time by mistake!

I wasn’t  sure what to expect as this was the first retro game show that I had attended.   This show was well organized and had an estimated attendance of 4000.  Part of the 60,000 square foot area was called the ‘Super Arcade’ and numerous vintage arcade machines that were available to be played.  About two thirds of the floor space was available for vendors.  It seemed to me that the vast majority of the of items for sale were for the NES and SNES with only a small amount of Atari items.

One booth where there was plenty of Atari games to be had was the AtariAge booth.  I had volunteered to help out with the booth which game me the opportunity to meet a number of folks from the AtariAge forum.  AtariAge released four new games at the PRGE, including Space Rocks, Frenzy, Ixion, and Seaweed Assault.  Darrell Spice, the designer of Space Rocks was on hand and signed carts for anyone who asked.

Games at the AtariAge booth

Games at the AtariAge booth

My favorite Atari system is the 7800 as it has great graphics (for an 8-bit system) and plays most 2600 games.  What surprised me at the show was the passion for the Atari 2600.  Perhaps this is because so many were sold (over 30 million) that virtually everyone had or had a friend that had one.  Despite the improved games and graphics on the 7800, the 2600 is still the king of Atari 8-bit game systems!

Prototype XM with Bentley Bear for the 7800

Prototype XM with Bentley Bear for the 7800

Another aspect of the PRGE are the workshops.  I was able to attend a couple of these and it was really cool to see and hear from Atari veterans (gods?) like David Crane (Pitfall), Bob Smith (Moonsweeper), and Gary Kitchen (Donkey Kong).   The stories that they are able to tell about the early days at Atari, Activision, and Imagic are really amazing!

If you are a retro game fan and are able to make it to Portland, a visit to the PRGE is a must see.  The PRGE is usually held in late September or early October.  For more information, click here.


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Berzerk and Frenzy…

Berzerk…

Berzerk is a 1980 video game developed by Stern Electronics of Chicago.  Supposedly Alan McNeil, the designer of Berzerk, had a dream about a black and white video game involving fighting robots.  During the development of Berzerk, Defender was released and the decision was made to release Berzerk in color instead of B&W.  A few early units were, supposedly, released in B&W with color overlays.   The color units were produced in two distinct batches with the second batch having more variety in the colors of the robots and the number of bullets that they fire.  The Berzerk arcade systems are based around a Z80 CPU and it is one of the first video games to feature speech synthesis.  This may not seem like a big deal in 2013, but it was really amazing in 1980.  The first time anyone played Berzerk, they had to be amazed to hear the game talk to them!

Berzerk at Funspot

Berzerk at Funspot

Gameplay…

The concept of Berzerk is pretty simple…the player is a humanoid in a maze with a bunch of killer robots.  To survive, you must shoot the robots before they shoot you.  You also have to avoid running into the robots, the electrified walls, and Evil Otto.  Evil Otto adds a significant amount of complexity to the game as you must avoid him as you can not kill him.  Alan supposedly named Evil Otto after the security chief at a previous employer.  The robots in Berzerk are not the ‘sharpest tools in the shed’ as they have a tendency to kill themselves by running into the walls or each other.  Although the concept of the game is simple,  players would find themselves putting quarter after quarter into the game.   Berzerk was the first popular ‘shoot em up’ video game and all of today’s popular shooter games can trace their roots back to 1980.  Berzerk was ported to the Vectrex and the Atari 2600 and 5200 consoles.

Frenzy…

In 1982, Stern followed up Berzerk with Frenzy.  Frenzy was similar, but a little more difficult than Berzerk.  There are several key differences between Berzerk and Frenzy.  In Frenzy:

  • The walls are not electrified
  • Portions of the walls can be shot through, other parts ‘reflect’ bullets
  • The humanoid will not die if he comes into contact with a robot
  • Crazy Otto can be shot and ‘temporarily’ killed
  • Every fourth screen, there are interactive maze elements

At least in Frenzy, it is possible to kill Evil Otto.  Frenzy was ported to the Colecovision, but not to any Atari home consoles.

2600 Version…

The 2600 version of Berzerk was released in 1982 and was a smash hit.  Berzerk’s simple graphics were faithfully replicated on the 2600 and the game play was almost identical to the arcade.  Atari included 12 variations including ones with and without Evil Otto, non-shooting Robots, and even one where Evil Otto can be shot and will disappear for a few seconds.  I fondly remember playing Berzerk over and  over on my Sears Video Arcade (Atari 2600) in the early 80′s.  It is a fantastic game and there was something cool about the green label and box.  There was one big thing missing, however, from Atari’s 2600 version…voice synthesis.  Back in 1982, most of us figured that this just could not be done on a 2600.

In 2002, Mike Mika proved this wrong when he developed an improved version of Berzerk featuring voice synthesis.  In ‘Berzerk Voice Enhanced‘, Mike also improved the graphics to make them more closely resemble the arcade.  At various points in Mike’s version you will hear ‘intruder alert!’, ‘chicken, fight like a robot’, and ‘humanoid must not escape’.   Berzerk is a great game for the 2600, but Berzerk VE is an outstanding game that belongs in every 2600 collection!

5200 Version…

The 5200 version of Berzerk was released in 1983 and became an instant classic.  Like its 2600 cousin, the 5200 version faithfully replicates the arcade graphics and game play.  The 5200 version takes it to the next level, however, and features full voice synthesis.  Mike’s Berzerk VE for the 2600 is pretty awesome, but the 5200 version is one step better.  The voice synthesis is tied to the game play so that when Evil Otto is about to appear, you will hear ‘intruder alert!’.  The 5200 port is one of the best arcade conversions in the 5200 library and belongs in every 5200 collection.  The only thing missing is a coin slot and ‘coins detected in pocket’.

7800 Version…

Sadly, no 7800 version of Berzerk was developed.  Until this week, 7800 fans had to settle for playing the 2600 version of Berzerk or Berzerk VE on their 7800.  This coming weekend, at the Portland Retro Gaming Expo, everything changes as Berzerk/Frenzy will be released for the 7800 by AtariAge.  The latest game(s) from 7800 master programmer Bob ‘PacManPlus’ DeCrescenzo, will be released with a full color box and eight page manual.  Bob has managed to pack both Berzerk and Frenzy into a single 48K, non-bank switched cart.  Even more amazingly, the games feature voice synthesis for an authentic, arcade quality experience.  If that wasn’t good enough, Bob includes two player versions of the games as well.  Having tested the latest release candidate for these two games, I can say that Bob has done a fantastic job!  For those lucky enough to be in Portland this weekend, be sure to pick up a copy for your collection.  For those of you who can’t make it to Portland, don’t worry, Berzerk/Frenzy will soon be available in the AtariAge store.

Berzerk for the 7800

Berzerk for the 7800

One really cool note that I should add is that Alan McNeil was an adviser on this project and assisted Bob with tips and ideas for the games.  Thus, Bob’s 7800 versions are as close to the arcade originals as possible, given the constraints of the 7800.

Frenzy for the 7800

Frenzy for the 7800

Overall thoughts..

Berzerk is now available for all three Atari systems and there is no bad version.  If you have a 2600, go for the Voice Enhanced version as the voice really makes this game.  The 5200 version is one of that console’s best arcade ports and belongs in every library.  For 7800 fans, Bob’s Berzerk/Frenzy is destined to become another classic that fills a void in that console’s library.  No matter which console you have, Berzerk belongs in your collection.  If you are lucky enough to have a 7800, you will absolutely want to get a copy of Bob’s new game!

Wild for Berzerk!

Wild for Berzerk!

@Atarigameguy


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The Atari 5200…

I wrote about Atari 8-bit game systems back in February…today, I will expand a little on the 5200…

Released by Atari in 1982, the 5200 was intended to compete with the Intelivision system, but also ended up being Atari’s answer to the Colecovision.  Atari had attempted to develop a system to replace the 2600, called the 3200 (based on a 10-Bit CPU).  This system was difficult to program and was cancelled.  Needing a solution in a hurry, Atari took the design of the their 400/800 computers and made that the base of the 5200.  The 5200 has unique controllers with a keypad and analog, non self-centering, joysticks.  These controllers are notorious for failing and contributed to the limited success of the 5200.  The other limiting factor was that it was not backwards compatible with the 2600.  Eventually an adapter was released, but it did not work with early versions of the 5200.  This is too bad as the 5200 is actually a pretty awesome game machine and has arcade quality graphics and sound.

The 5200 is powered by 6502 8-bit CPU running at 1.79 Mhz.  It has 16 KB of ram and 2 KB of rom and can accept cartridges up to 32 KB without bankswitching.  The 5200 also includes a Pokey chip that allows for 4 channel sound.  Two different models of the 5200 were released.  The early models had 4 joystick ports and a ‘high tech’ RF switch box.  Later models had two joystick ports and a standard RF switch box.  A few games (such as Pitfall) only work with the 4 port version and the 2600 adapter only works with 2 port versions and a few late release 4 port units.  A total of about 1 million 5200′s were sold between 1982 and 1984, when the system was discontinued.

The 5200 was not a commercial success for Atari and is typically rated low against other home consoles.  Atari certainly made some marketing blunders, such as making Super Breakout the pack in game for the system (later, they would change it to Pac-man), and by not making it backward compatible with 2600 games.  The controllers and their failure rate were also a major issue.  The engineers at Atari developed better, self centering controllers and separate paddle controllers, but these never made it out the door before the system was cancelled.  The amazing 5200 track-ball controller did, however, make it into production as well as the 2600 adapter.

In order to review 5200 games for this blog, I purchased a 4 port 5200, a couple of Best Electronics second generation rebuilt controllers, and a trackball.  In the past few months, I have really come to enjoy my 5200!  Back in the 80’s, the knock on the 5200 was that the games were just the same old arcade ports such as Dig Dug, Galaxian, and Kangaroo.  Today, these arcade ports are the strength of the 5200’s library.  The 5200 controllers are still analog and non self-centering, but the issues with excessive failures have been mostly solved with upgrades from the folks at Best Electronics.  The 5200 track ball is relatively easy to find and typically sells for under $40.  Several awesome arcade ports such as Missile Command, Centipede, and Space Invaders are coded to take advantage of the trackball controller.  The difference in playing these games with the joystick versus the trackball is significant.

Centipede for the 5200

Centipede for the 5200

Although there have been a few great homebrew games developed for the 5200, there are not nearly as many as for the 2600 or 7800.  the ones that have been released such as Adventure II, Tempest, and Castle Crisis are all really amazing additions to the 5200 library.  Also, many complete or nearly complete prototypes that have been released such as Millipede, Jr. Pac-man, and Xevious  fill out holes in the 5200’s library.  Finally, many 8-bit games such as Caverns of Mars, Donkey Kong, and Demon Attack have been converted to run on the 5200.  The 5200’s official library was only 69 games, but homebrews, prototypes, and conversions, take the 5200’s library to over 200 games today!

It is a shame that Atari cancelled the 5200, after only two years on the market, and it is almost criminal that they held back several completed games.  It is also too bad the the updated, self centering controllers never made it into production.  However, if you really like 80’s arcade classics, playing games like Centipede (with the 5200 trackball) is about as close as you are going to get without finding a real arcade machine.  The Atari 5200 is a pretty awesome game system and, if you have previously discounted it, you should give it a second look!

@Atarigameguy