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Game Design Essentials: 20 Atari Games

May 30, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 14 of 23 Next

Tetris (Atari Games)
Original design by Alexey Pajitnov, developed by Kelly Turner, Norm Avellar and Ed Logg

Many companies have tried their hand at a port of Tetris. In arcades, the ports that get the most buzz include those by Sega and Arika. Yet there remains much to recommend Atari's port of the game, long the standard in U.S. arcades, for its inventive special features like advancing lines, appearing blocks, and pre-existing stack levels.

Its excellent music, Russian dance animations, and other touches like using high score names as levels are also appealing. Tengen's fabled NES version of Tetris, generally superior to Nintendo's but chased off of shelves by the courts, was based off of Atari's arcade game.

Now, Atari Tetris is not flawless. The joystick control lacks the sharpness that most Tetris ports have and that makes the game more difficult at later levels, which keeps the difficulty up since the game's speed never gets as fast as other versions. But it's a solid port, with plenty of charm and interesting variations on the game on higher levels that vary it a bit without turning it into a game removed from the Tetris concept.

Some more recent Tetris games try to hook players by drilling deeper into the game's concept, especially Akira's Tetris: The Grand Master, a move which helped to attract hardcore players. Yet Tetris is a populist game, one that lots of people play who could care less about 20G or standardized piece rotations.

Because of this, I consider this the definitive arcade Tetris, even in the face of modern revisions like The Grand Master, for while that series is well thought-out, and commendable for breathing more life than one might think possible with such a simple concept, they are still games which geek out a bit too much about the idea of Tetris. It was originally a very casual kind of game, played by everyone, and Atari's Tetris is a casual kind of arcade game.

One interesting thing about the game... watch the game demonstration in attract mode and it becomes obvious that the game doesn't demonstrate play using pre-recorded inputs, but actually contains a capable computer Tetris player. They needed this because one of the boards used for attract mode contains the initials of the top scoring player in blocks, so in order to depict realistic play they needed a program capable of responding to varied situations.

Article Start Previous Page 14 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.