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Game Design Essentials: 20 Atari Games

May 30, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 23 Next

As far as the [arcade] industry itself goes it had become -- and still is -- severely polarized. The only titles that were succeeding were SSJPK fighting games -- Side-Scrolling, Jump-Punch-Kick -- a very few sports titles, and high-tech driving titles. The market had become completely indifferent to innovation in game design.

It seemed that all our management wanted to see in development was whatever was currently earning money. For so many years Atari had led the industry in innovation by constantly looking forward. Now we weren't even looking over our shoulders, we were struggling to climb on a tired bandwagon.

-- Ed Rotberg, speaking around 1996, in James Hague's book Halcyon Days: Interviews with Classic Computer and Video Game Programmers

What happened to the Atari fanboys? Nintendo and Sega have theirs, Blizzard and Bungie too, Square and Enix, Capcom and SNK. Yet Atari Games, in its heyday, produced some of the most brilliant arcade game designs the world has ever seen. Unique and idiosyncratic, at its best it made games the likes of which no one else could. Later, it is sad to say, it produced games that no one else would want to.

Some people rave about Nintendo; how its designers come up with new ideas so often, about its fearlessness in taking risks with unconventional designs, and how it reinvents its franchises endlessly.

But even Nintendo has never been as original, as brilliant, as determined to design what developers think best regardless of what management, critics, and eventually, even players might have to say, as was Atari Games in its heyday. A trip through Atari's classic arcade game catalog is like a course in game design all by itself.

A World of Ideas

Arguably, this was the company that kept the spirit of classic arcades alive the longest -- as late as the early '90s. Even now, the company-which-calls-itself-Atari -- which should not be confused with the company this article is devoted to -- shills out the memory of the former arcade powerhouse with GBA and DS ports of classic-era games.

Many of Atari's games were the targets of unequaled numbers of home adaptations. Rampart has over a dozen, and no one knows how many versions of Breakout are out there, considering how shareware authors have adopted and colonized the idea -- not to mention Taito, and Arkanoid.

Atari, particularly the arcade division that split off from the company in the '80s rechristened "Atari Games," seemed restless with ideas. A game where players race marbles through a world of grid lines? Float innertubes down fantastic rivers? Defend castles with walls and cannons? Skateboard while chased by bees? Deliver newspapers?

While the company also had its share of less-than-memorable ideas (Pit-Fighter, Thunderjaws, Batman, most games after 1991), it is easy to overlook such missteps when the company also gave us Tempest. And at its best, Atari Games seemed almost embarrassingly creative.

Other companies could deliver with the absurd premise once in a while (what the hell was Namco smoking when it released Phozon?), but Atari used to do it all the time. At least, Atari didn't stop doing it in 1986. It released an update of Breakout the same year Capcom started selling Street Fighter II. I consider this to be unspeakably awesome, but it should be understood that most players at the time would have disagreed with me.

Article Start Page 1 of 23 Next

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Arseny Lebedev
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Oh man! And I wanted to make a list like this for myself for ages! Thanks!

Brandon Sheffield
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very good read - I do wonder about the inclusion of Batman merely as an example of something Atari did wrong - there are certainly enough of those! This could've easily been substituted for Defender. Anyway, not that this should be on the list, but I quite liked Fire Truck, and think it had some rather innovative ideas itself.

The speed was unparalleled for 1978, and featured two steering wheels, as it was meant to be played with one player controlling the front, and another at the back. Unfortunately the game is completely broken if you just play the back end, as the computer will drive the front flawlessly for you, and you have more time to adjust if you're in back, but still, it was pretty neat for the time. I also quite liked how the game would reverse image polarity when you reached a certain point - everything black became white. Goooood times.

Andrew norton
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Intriguing list. This article has made me aware of the games designed from Atari, and not just the game consoles.

Jeff Zugale
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Aw man. No WONDER I spent all that money on Gauntlet! And most of a day with the console port version trying to get to the end. There's no end??

Heh heh heh... good one, Ed & Atari. Good one. I hope you're enjoying the fancy car I must have bought for you. :)

Gregg Tavares
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Great article. I loved many of these games.

There were a few of mistakes I thought that should be corrected.

Asteroids was not the first game to have controls where a ship had left/right buttons and thrusted in the direction the ship was facing. That belongs to what many consider the first video game, Space Wars which was released in the arcade by Cinematronic and pre-dates Asteroids by several years in creation and at least a year in the arcades.

Tramil was not responsible for the Atari 8bit systems. He was at Commodore, making Atari's competitor at the time. He may have been around for a few of the last models.

Also, where did you get the info that Marble Madness used the POKEY chip for its sound? Having programmed the POKEY for many years I would never have guessed it could make those sounds, at least not unassisted.

John Leffingwell
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Gregg Tavares is right about the Atari 8-bit computers, although the Tramiels did release the 8-bit XE series during their tenure with Atari using cases stylized after their 16-bit Atari ST line of computers.

And Gregg's suspicions are correct: Marble Madness did not use POKEY for sound. That duty was handled by a Yamaha YM2151, the sound chip developed for Yamaha's line of DX synthesizer keyboards. Atari's Marble Madness was the first arcade game to use it.

There is some confusion about Space Wars. Cinematronic's Space Wars was released in 1977, two years before Asteroids. It was inspired by the 1962 DEC PDP-1 computer game Spacewar!, which is sometimes credited as the first video game or graphical computer game (although it missed that honor by decade). Spacewar! was never a coin-op, but another game that was inspired by it was, and it was the first. It was called Computer Space, and like Asteroids, had Spacewar!-like controls. It was released in 1971 and was created by future Atari founders Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney.

In the interest of fairness, I'll mention that the very, very first coin-op video game was another Spacewar! inspired game called The Galaxy Game. It was released two months before Computer Space. Only one them was ever made, and at 10 cents a play on $20,000 worth of hardware, it could never be economically viable, so I'm not sure it should be considered a legitimate coin-op.

Christian Nutt
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The text doesn't actually say that Asteroids is the first game to use that control methodology (as far as I can read) which may be limited, even at 10:30 on a Monday morning. I don't doubt that it was the primary influence on a number of games that came later, given its massive success, though I suppose it's hard to argue that for certain, yeah?

Deleted the bit about POKEY being responsible for MM's sounds.

Thanks for the tips.

Lewis Pulsipher
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"I find it interesting, in games of Gauntlet I've had with other people in the past few years, that their interest tends to survive only until the point where they learn there is no ending. Times have certainly changed." This is indeed a generational difference. Older people normally play video games to enjoy the journey; younger ones to "beat the game", and many of them don't mind using codes or other tactics that the older folks regard as unfair or "cheating".

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The physics-game element of Asteroids had a precedent in Spacewar! too.

John Leffingwell
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In his 2011 GDC Classic Game Postmortem talk for Marble Madness, Mark Cerny revealed that Qwak (1982) was the first game he made for Atari. Although Atari was pleased with the way it looked, it was not considered fun enough to be released -- a typical fate for first games.

One of Qwak's innovations was a version with a touch-screen interface. After the failure of Qwak to see release, it was Cerny's initial plan to use this interface for Marble Madness. This was at a time when the game resembled miniature golf. Later, when the game design shifted to racing, the unique motorized trackball interface was envisioned. As intriguing an idea as the motorized trackball was, the concept was abandoned because Atari's hardware engineers were unable to produce a system of motorized support rods that would make adequate contact with the ball.

One final detail from the article that I'll expand upon here the "extended play" mechanic of Marble Madness. In his talk, Mark Cerny specifically points to Pole Position for its inspiration.

The talk is highly recommended and can be viewed for free on the GDC Vault should you wish to seek it out.