15 November 2007

Atari, Adventure, and when to ignore your boss

    Somebody get this freakin' duck away from me!
      Strong Bad

Last week Brenda Tremblay reported that the Atari 2600 game console was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame. As a "Nationally Ranked Kaboom Champion," she was pulling for the Atari. It was my first choice as well, but not because of Kaboom. My preferred game is Adventure.

I love Adventure. I played it constantly, searching for and recovering the Chalice too many times to count. To this day I know my way around the various castles, rooms, mazes, and catacombs. I never cared that the dragons looked more like ducks and the sword was just an arrow. It was fun and addictive.

The game was created by Warren Robinett, and it is groundbreaking in many ways. Game elements we take for granted now, like a multi-screen world and objects you can pick up, were unprecedented back then. It is also the first example of truly autonomous entities moving throughout the game on their own, regardless of what you are doing. Left unattended, the bat will fly through the game moving stuff around forever. That Robinett could fit this on 4096 bytes of ROM and run it with only 128 bytes of RAM is a programming achievement in and of itself. (To put it in perspective, that's about 0.0004% of what the cheapest Dell comes with by default.)

There is great story behind its inception. Here's how Robinett tells it in one of several interviews:

I started in May 1978 and worked like a madman for a month. My boss, George Simcock, heard what I was working on and didn't think I could do it within the 2600 resources and told me not to do it. However I ignored him and had a prototype with screen to screen movement and dragons chasing you after a month of hacking.

There is another great story that lead to what is considered the first "easter egg." Although each game was typically written by one person, Atari did not give the creator any credit. Robinett decided he wanted to sign his work, so he found a way to sneak his signature in. He added a hidden object to the game, a 1x1 pixel dot that gives the player access to a secret room. In the room is the following text: "Created by Warren Robinett." This remained a secret long after the game's release. By the time Atari found out what he did, it was too late to change the game and he had already quit.

I have an original Atari 2600 "heavy sixer" with the six switches on the front, but the last time I tried it didn't work. Maybe I should get it out and see if I can get it working again. Then I'll be back searching once more for the elusive Chalice.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Funny how maps get into your head - even maps of imaginary places. Years ago, I dreamed of an on-line mud game I was playing. I walked around thinking about it, seeing real trees like the trees in another world and thinking in fragments of text from the game. "Don is here." "A smurf is here." The power of fiction! - Brenda