Game Design Essentials: 20 Atari Games
May 30, 2008 Page 2 of 23
Atari Games' Signature Elements
Highly ingenious core play mechanics. These tend to be clever and unique, even while other arcade games were starting to become genrefied. Atari did release some genre titles, Pit Fighter in particular, but until 1992 the company never seemed to be quite comfortable with it. Most of those games are relatively obscure today, although Area 51 has shown itself to have legs.
An emphasis on procedural content as opposed to hard content. Atari was more likely to give the player algorithmically modified, changeable levels than hard-coded sequences. Gauntlet gives players different levels from a pre-made set every game, and manipulates food power-ups depending on game difficulty, average score per coin, and number of players.
While it always goes through the same general areas, Toobin's level order and layout can be quite different depending on which forks are taken. Skull & Crossbones shortens levels on easier difficulties. Atari Tetris uses the high score initials as preset blocks late in the game.
Level warps for skilled players. Many games feature these. Sometimes these are offered as a choice at the start of the game, like the wave selectors in Tempest and Star Wars or the score selector in Millipede, but some games would build the warps into the game itself, or even hide them.
Crystal Castles' warps are hidden places in certain levels. 720 Degrees and Rampart have a simple novice/advanced selection. Klax has two kinds of warps: the basic selection kind which appears often in the game, and "secret warps" which are activated by performing a special trick. S.T.U.N. Runner has secret routes in its levels that lead to warps. Gauntlet and Gauntlet II have them, Toobin' has them, even Tetris has them -- they are everywhere.
Distinctive sound. The venerable POKEY I/O and sound chip was used by Atari for much of its history. Used in arcade systems and 8-bit computers alike, like MOS/Commodore's SID chip it has a characteristic sound sought after by chiptune musicians.
The Atari font. This all-capital, 16x16 pixel, monospace serif font began seeing use around the time of Marble Madness, where it's used for the timer and high score entry letters, and appeared in many Atari games from then on. Since Atari Games differ so much from each other it helped to give the company's output a distinctive look.
It makes appearances in games as late as Gauntlet Legends (1998) and Dark Legacy (2001). It was pervasive enough that, even if the game contains no visible use of the font, if one were to go into the operator settings of a 1984-1991 Atari arcade machine and page through them, one would invariably run into the font after a few button presses.
The Atari Bell. Used nearly universally, for a while, as a credit insertion notification, again starting around the time of Marble Madness. It is not identical between games; Marble Madness uses a different bell than Gauntlet.
Per-credit scoring. For games that allow unlimited continues and that don't reset score after a continuation, it is strange, but Atari Games is the only major game developer to make frequent use per-credit score tables. By this time arcade games had already begun moving towards play-to-win instead of play-for-score, but for games that care about score this is a great concept.
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