Again, thanks to everyone who mailed in pictures and entered the contest. Although the contest is over, if you would still like to submit pictures for Robb’s game, you can continue to e-mail them to me and I will make sure he gets them.
On Monday of this week I announced a contest in which all you had to do to enter was take a picture of yourself from either the waist up or the shoulders up and mail it to me for a chance to win fifty bucks. On Monday I had six people enter. On Tuesday I had three people enter. On Wednesday and Thursday I had 0 people enter. Ah, the short attention spans we have all SQUIRREL!
Seriously though, today is the last day to submit your photo to me. Your photo will be used as a character’s photo in Robb Sherwin’s upcoming work of Interactive Fiction, Cyberganked. Your name will also be entered into a random drawing to win a $50 gift card. If you need more specifics about the type of pictures or characters you can re-read my original announcement.
I can’t imagine why more people haven’t sent in a photo. Here are the reasons why (in my head), and my answers to them.
“I am not very photogenic.”
Some of the characters in Robb’s new game include “man on street corner” and “girl in restaurant.” Surely you fit the bill for those. No costumes necessary for those!
“I feel stupid having my picture taken.”
I did too. It lasts about 30 seconds. And, unless you show them, nobody in real life who knows you will ever see your picture in this game. Your real name will not appear in the game next to your picture.
“I hate gift cards and money. I have no use for $50.”
Throw the gift card into the drawer under your microwave and re-gift it.
“Robb probably already has all the pictures he needs.”
Robb most definitely does not already have all the pictures he needs, otherwise I wouldn’t have launched this contest. Robb has dozens of characters he wants to implement and dozens more he would like to. He is even creating new characters based on some of the photos that have been received so far.
“I don’t want to be a bad guy in Robb’s game.”
Not all the photos will be used for enemies. Some will be used for good guys. Some will be used for neutral characters. Some will be used for background characters.
Those are all the excuses I can think of. What are you waiting for?
My very good friend Robb Sherwin is working on a new computer game, titled Cyberganked. It’s a text adventure (er, Interactive Fiction) game that takes place a few years in the future. In his game, Robb wants to include pictures of random people, and that’s where we come in. Anyone who e-mails me a usable picture by midnight this coming Friday will be entered into a drawing to win a $50 Amazon Gift Card. Are you interested in having your picture appear in a computer game and possibly winning $50? If so, keep reading for details!
I’ve talked about Interactive Fiction several times in the past — they’re the games that require players to type in commands like GO WEST and TALK TO GUY instead of using a joystick to interact with them. And yes, people still write these types of games! But not all works of interactive fiction are limited to strictly displaying text. Robb’s games also typically contain still pictures to accompany the text. In these games, a person typing ENTER CAR would then see a picture of the inside of a car displayed. If you type TALK TO JILL, you might see a picture of Jill.
Each year, interactive fiction games go head to head at the Xyzzy Awards (pronounced “zizzy”). In 2011, Robb’s most recent game (Cryptozookeeper) won Best Game, Best Writing, Best Setting, Best NPCs and Best Individual NPC. In a recent review of Cryptozookeeper, long time interactive fiction enthusiast Jacek Pudlo referred to Robb as “Shakespeare” when compared to some other contemporary authors of interactive fiction (if, one assumes, Shakespeare talked like a sailor.)
In Robb’s current game in progress, riots have broken out in the streets after everyone’s internet access has been cut off. For an early proof of concept test of Cyberganked, Robb asked me to send him a picture. In the demo I play a mercenary, so for my picture I I threw on a coat and a hat and a pair of sunglasses and sent him the following picture:
In this game, this is how I appear:
Here are a couple of other characters that appear in the game’s early demo:
Don’t worry about dressing up in a costume. According to Robb, he needs pictures for (at least) the following classes in his game: Adrenaline Junkie, Burglar, Carny, Communist, Crack Addict, Embalmer, Homewrecker, Illiterate Polish Web Forum Troll, Mall security guard, Motorcyclist, Mountain Climber, Nurse, Policeman / Policewoman, Private Detective, Programmer, Prohibition Advocate, Racecar Driver, Surfer, Swordsman/ Swordswoman, Whig, Wikipedia Admin.
So, what do you need to do to appear in Robb Sherwin’s next computer game and have a chance at winning a $50 Amazon Gift Card? It’s simple!
01. Take somewhere between 1 and 5 digital pictures of yourself. The best pictures will be of you from the waist up, although pictures from the shoulder will also be accepted. If you only take one picture, have a “neutral” look on your face. If you send in more than one, you can try a few different expressions. (Happy? Mad? Insane?) Pictures taken in front of a plain wall will make it easier to cut your picture out in Photoshop, but if that’s not possible, don’t worry about it. (Both I and Rob are pretty handy with Photoshop.) The main colors in the game will be red, blue, purple, black, and white, so if you can wear one of those colors, that’s a plus. If not, again, it may get digitally changed later.
02. E-mail the pictures to me. If you don’t know my e-mail address, click here. To be eligible for the drawing, pictures must be received by midnight on Friday, January 12, 2013.
03. In either the subject or body of your e-mail, please include the phrase, “Robb Sherwin has the right to use this picture/these pictures in in his game.” Please, only send pictures that you have the rights to.
04. Robb needs both men and women to appear in his game. If you would like, you can also send in pictures of your significant other as well. If you do, I will enter each one of your names in the drawing. What a great way to double your odds of winning!
05. Everyone who submits a photo has the option of having their name appear in the game’s credits. If you would like your name to appear in the game’s credits, let me know how you would like your name to appear. It might be your real name. It might be your online alias. You might not want your name to appear in the credit. Whatever you want is okay — just let me know.
On Saturday, January 13th, I will wake up and add everybody’s name into a big spreadsheet. Each line will have a unique number. If you sent in pictures of your significant other (or a friend, or whatever), each person will get their own line and own number. After that is done I will use an as-of-yet-undetermined random number generator to select the winner. This process will be recorded and uploaded to YouTube. After the video has been uploaded to YouTube, a link to the video will be posted on robohara.com to announce the winner.
When the game is finally released, each person who mailed me a picture will receive an e-mail containing a link where the game can be downloaded for free. Additionally, I will create a photo gallery where you can go online and find the final version of your picture, in case you don’t want to play through the game just to see it. Other than that single e-mail, your e-mail address will not be used for anything else. I will not share them. I will not post them. I will not sell them. I will not spam you with e-mails. I won’t even give them to Robb. The goal of this contest is not to harvest people’s e-mail addresses; it’s to collect usable pictures for Robb’s new game. That’s it.
I think I’ve covered all the bases here. If you have any questions, feel free to e-mail me. Otherwise, I look forward to seeing your pictures. Good luck!
(EDIT: The Amazon Gift Card has not yet been purchased. If you would like a gift card to some other online store, we can discuss that as well.)
Episode 118 of You Don’t Know Flack has just been released! Episode 118 is all about the iCade, the ThinkGeek/Ion mini-arcade cabinet for tablet gaming. The name implies that it only works with the iPad, but did you know the iCade works with Android tablets as well? You didn’t? Find out what else you didn’t know about the iCade in this episode!
Also, if you’re on Facebook, I just added a page for You Don’t Know Flack. The link is here: https://www.facebook.com/YouDontKnowFlack?fref=ts. By liking that page you’ll get notifications about the podcasts before anybody else. If RSS is your thing, podcast.robohara.com has its own RSS feed as well. Additionally, new episodes are announced here at robohara.com too. I guess the point is, there are many ways to be notified of new episodes.
Wednesday night for Mason’s birthday, Susan, the kids and I attended the Thunder vs. Hornets game. From the moment we found our seats and sat down I knew there were going to be problems. The people sitting directly behind us were already drunk and being loud and belligerent. This was 20 minutes before tip off.
You know you’re going to be dealing with obnoxious drunks when they shout “USA YEAH MAN WOO!” during the opening prayer, which is exactly what happened. A few minutes into the game, the two guys directly behind us began shouting “DE-FENSE! DE-FENSE!” That is a perfectly acceptable thing to do when your team — or any team, really — is on defense. It’s moronic to do so when the home team is shooting free throws. Later, during one of the timeouts, the Redneck Duo discussed whether or not they could hit a player from there with their hunting bow. The longer the game went on, the louder these two got.
At the end of the first quarter, one of the guys left to go buy three beers even though the venue is only supposed to sell you two at a time. When he returned, he told the stranger next to him how he had defeated the system by buying two beers, setting them down, getting back in line, and buying a third. When he returned to buy the third beer, the vendor said, “damn, that was fast!” When his other buddy returned behind us, he told him how he had defeated the system by buying two beers, setting them down, getting back in line, and buying a third. When he returned to buy the third beer, the vendor said, “damn, that was fast!” Then when his girlfriend returned to her seat, he told her how he had defeated the system by buying two beers, setting them down, getting back in line, and buying a third. When he returned to buy the third beer, the vendor said, “damn, that was fast!” During the third telling of the story, we all chimed in and did the punch line with him — “damn, that was fast!” Annoying.
Right after those three beers is then the f-bombs started. F this game, F the Hornets, F everybody. I finally turned around and told them to watch the F-bombs. Then they returned to yelling “DE-FENSE! DE-FENSE!” and whistling so loud that every time they did it Morgan would jump and plug her ears with her fingers. Don’t get me wrong; I have no problem with people enjoying a game, but a modicum of self-control in public is expected. Shortly after asking them to refrain from using the F-word, I heard them say, “F them, we paid our $10!”
When Susan had had enough she texted guest services. At the beginning of every game, fans are told that if someone is being unruly, you can text a number and they will send someone over to address the issue. So she did, and the response she got back was, “go find an usher.” This was during the middle of the second quarter and we were sitting in seats 14, 15, 16 and 17 in the nosebleed section. Finding an usher is not the easiest thing to do at that point.
And so with about a minute left in the first half, we decided to leave. For the record, this is when *I* began dropping f-bombs, out of the range of my children’s ears (I hope). When I stood up and turned around … let’s just say, words were exchanged. The drunker of the two told me what he thought about me and I told him what I was about to do to him. After a long stare down Susan began pulling me in one direction and this drunk buffoon continued yelling about his “19 and 0 record,” which could have only referred to cow tipping.
Out in the hallway Susan found a vendor and complained about the people to him. The man said he couldn’t leave his station, but began actively looking for an usher. We had already received that advice, via text. After 5 minutes of standing around, we did eventually find an usher, who asked where the group was sitting. Susan then asked if we could be relocated somewhere else and the usher shook his head no. And then we left, with one kid (Morgan) confused and the other one crying because we had just left the game on his birthday. On the way home we stopped by Cold Stone Creamery and had some ice cream. When that didn’t cheer him up, we stopped by GameStop and bought him a copy of NBA2K13 for the PS3. Thank god that cheered him up because I was about to go broke.
When CiCi’s Pizza first opened their doors they charged $2.99 for their all you can eat pizza buffet. What I dislike most about CiCi’s isn’t their pizza (although it can be pretty bad) — it’s being around people that can only afford $2.99 pizza. (It really is the dearth of humanity.) I now feel the same way about the nosebleed section at Chesapeake Arena. The problem with buying $10 tickets is that you end up sitting by people who can only afford $10 tickets. (At our last game, it was a row of Hispanic kids who spent half the game kicking our chairs, and the other half kicking me in the head.) It’s a shame because I don’t think you should have to expect to put up with things like that. I don’t think that “comes with the territory” just because you bought cheaper seats.
Susan sent a follow up message to the Thunder organization, so we’ll see what if anything comes of that. We have tickets to three more games and we’re debating on whether to hang on to them or sell them. I’d rather buy one or two pairs of semi-expensive tickets next year than half a dozen pairs of cheap ones and have to deal with this again. Unacceptable.
This morning on Facebook one of my friends forwarded me the link to a news story on MSN.com. The story is about video games as financial investments, and references the current auction of an Air Raid cartridge which is currently selling for $20,000. I wrote a bit about the last Air Raid cart found, which sold for $36k. That’s not really the story here.
When I clicked on the link, I saw something familiar — a picture of my old game room!
Here is a link to the article. It’s always surprising to see a picture of the inside of your house on the internet, especially when the picture is almost 10 years old.
In 2004, an AP reporter interviewed me in regards to a story about retro games making a comeback. After interviewing me over the phone, the AP sent a photographer out to the house and shot some pictures. That led to this story, which again, ran in 2004. The picture MSN used in this morning’s article was recycled from that 2004 photo shoot.
It’s a little hard to tell because of the angle, and things are definitely messier in this shot, but here are the same shelves about a year later. As you can see I ended up painting the shelves black. The walls remained green.
This weekend marked the 9th annual Oklahoma Video Game Expo (OVGE) in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I attended the first show in 2003 as a spectator, but have participated as a presenter (almost) every year since then.
Along for the ride this year were my friends Robb and Steve, who I previously mentioned flew in from Colorado and New York (respectively) to attend the show. Robb Sherwin is, among other things, the author of the award winning interactive fiction game Cryptozookeeper. Steve and Robb have known each other since the BBS days.
Photo by Brandon Staggs
Since our local NBA team (the Oklahoma City Thunder) are currently in the NBA Finals, I decided to go with a basketball theme this year.
Due to a slight table misconfiguration I only ended up with one table instead of two this year, but we made it work by just cramming everything together and leaving a few things under the table. From left to right we had my NES playing Double Dribble, my (blue development) PlayStation running NBA Showtime, and my Commodore 64 running a couple of different games, including One on One and Street Sports Basketball. I wouldn’t say I had the most popular table at the convention, but lots of sports fans stopped by to play a few quick games of basketball. At the table I also had a playlist of basketball-related songs and sports anthems going throughout the day, playing songs like “Basketball Jones,” “We Will Rock You,” and of course the parody song “Beard Like Harden.” I apologize to the people across the aisle from me who got bombarded with this music all day long.
Along with all the console and computer games available to buy and play, there were also several pinball machines and arcade games set up to play at the show. These are machines that are brought in by private owners and set up for people to play for free all day long. They’re a great hit every year and really add to the show.
Besides games, there were a lot of other game-related items on display and up for sale, including these animation cells over at Drew Stone’s table. I probably should have bought one of these when I had the chance.
Photo by Earl Green
You may notice that I’ve had to borrow a few photos from my friends Brandon and Earl for this post. That’s because, before I knew it, the show was winding down. I only got out from behind my table a few times, and when I got home I found I had only taken a dozen or so photographs … so I went to Facebook and borrowed a few from other people. I added the ones I took to my photo album of the show along with theirs, renaming them to give them proper credit.
Photo by Earl Green
Photo by Earl Green
Although OVGE is pretty console gaming-centric, Ed Martin brought another giant stack of retro Apple computer hardware, along with an impressive spread of classic boxed text adventures.
Several local groups and websites were on hand this year, including Nintendo Okie who did a live podcast from the show. They did a decent job of capturing some of the in-show action going on throughout the day.
Brandon Staggs also uploaded this video of OVGE 2012 to YouTube. He did a great job of capturing all of the booths there. You can catch my basketball-themed table just after the 2:30 mark.
Thanks to everybody who came out to OVGE this year and everyone who stopped by and said hey. Next year will be the 10th anniversary of OVGE, and I know people are already talking about what they will be bringing to next year’s show. I know I am!
The 9th Annual (wow!) Oklahoma Video Game Expo (OVGE) will take place this Saturday in Tulsa, Oklahoma. As always, I and some friends will have a table set up and once again the entire hall will be filled with people buying, selling, and playing video games.
At my table this year, I will be joined by two friends: award-winning Interactive Fiction author Robb “Ice Cream Jonsey” Sherwin, and the creator of the infamous remote controlled phone video, Steve “Aardvark” Davis. Additionally, I will be sharing a bit of table space with Charles “Ubikuberalles” Pearson, who will be showing off some of his game-related creations.
To attend this show, Sherwin is flying in from Denver, Colorado; Davis, from New York; and Pearson, from Albuquerque, New Mexico. If you enjoy old video games and live closer to Tulsa, Oklahoma than any of those guys, you should make an attempt to be there.
Anyone who hasn’t been to one or is on the fence about attending can check out my photo albums. I have pictures of the shows going back to the first year (2003).
Here’s a picture of my table from last year, where Sherwin, my friend Jeff, and I ran a table dedicated to text adventures. At the show we had text adventures running on a Commodore 64, an Apple II, an Amiga, a DOS machine, an ancient portable TRS-80, and even an iPad.
Speaking of my buddy Jeff, he has since moved out of state and won’t be able to attend this year’s show. While Jeff tries to stay behind the scenes, he is the one that keeps me organized and makes stuff happen. For the past five years, Jeff has been the one who helped me watch my table when I had to run to the bathroom or free me up when I was mingling with visitors, who helped me set up and break down my displays, and keep things running smoothly. Jeff has been an integral part of my displays for the past five years, and will sorely be missed. I will be pouring out a bottle of Croyn Royal Black on the ground in honor of his absence. (I would never actually do that; Jeff would kill me for wasting good Crown like that!)
I passed on the opportunity to have dinner with Robb Sherwin back in 2007 when the two of us were (separately) attending the Classic Gaming Expo in Las Vegas. “He’s funny, you’re funny, come have dinner with us,” said mutual friend Jason Scott. Unfortunately I already had plans to visit the Pinball Hall of Fame with other friends of mine that evening, so I had to decline the offer. Their pack of nerds went one way, my pack of nerds went another, and fate was postponed for a couple of years.
Since then, Sherwin and I became mutual fans of each another’s work. He purchased my book Commodork and gave it glowing review. I, in turn, fell in love with Sherwin’s writing style, both in his text adventures and on his multiple websites. In June of 2010 while visiting Denver, I was able to swing by Sherwin’s place and check out his collection of arcade games; earlier this summer while visiting the Oklahoma Video Game Expo, he was able to check out mine. Along with our mutual love of classic arcade games, we also share common interests in old computers, video games, and of course, text adventures.
Summary: Robb Sherwin and I know one other. If you’re looking for a completely neutral and unbiased review of Cryptozookeeper, this may not be the one for you. (That being said, I’ll still be writing it.)
And now, on with the review.
Like most gamers, I drifted away from the world of text adventures around the time graphics, sound and joysticks were invented. I played my share of text-based games in the early 1980s, but quickly moved on to “the graphical stuff” and didn’t revisit the genre until my interest was re-piqued by Jason Scott’s documentary Get Lamp.
There’s a reason the genre tends to identify with the more modern term “Interactive Fiction” versus the classic label of “Text Adventure”: Cryptozookeeper is roughly 600 megabytes in size, mostly due to the game’s graphics and 70-song soundtrack. To put that in perspective, the entire text of the Bible is 1.2 megabytes. (For the Devil sends the Beast with wrath, because he knows his downloads are short.) The game’s interface consists of four windows: a picture of who you’re talking to, a picture of where you’re at, a status update window, and the game’s text. Each of these windows are constantly changing depending on who you’re focused on and where you are, giving you a visual glimpse into the twisted world around you. This is not your father’s text adventure, in more ways than one.
In Cryptozookeeper players become William Ezekiel Vest, a man stuck in swarthy Christmas City, a town that’s part-nightmare, part-dark comedy. Things here are a little sick, a little twisted, and a little goofy in this place where the X-Files meets Nightmare on Elm Street: Part 3. In the game’s first location, players must solve a puzzle involving a dog named Puzzle. Assuming you outwit Igor Cytserz’s killer mutt, you’ll be gifted a vial of alien marrow from which DNA can be extracted. This package sets in motion a series of events in which Vest meets, interacts, and travels with multiple NPCs, traversing the city to find and collect DNA samples, all while solving classic IF puzzles along the way.
Midway through the game, Crypto morphs into a Monster Rancher-style game in which cryptids (creatures unknown to modern science) are created by mixing and matching your previously discovered DNA samples. Players have the freedom to create whatever kind and how ever many cryptids they want. Players will then spend time pitting these cryptids against other cryptids in order to level them up in order to finally face … well, I don’t know because I’m still leveling them up. But I’ll bet it’ll be a humdinger of a battle when I get there. While the battling cryptids contain varying attributes, the battles are mostly luck-based and randomly decided (I just had my Bigfoot unceremoniously defeated by an Aardvark). Fortunately your cryptids never truly “die” — instead they end up back at the pen, where they recuperate after a bit of resting.
The dialogue system used within Crypto is interesting in that the game-related topics each NPC knows about appear in color. (“I see you brought some DNA with you.”) The Tads.org article on NPC conversations refers to this style as “hyperlinked replies”. The advantage of hyperlinked replies is, you’ll never walk away from an NPC without gaining all the knowledge you are supposed to receive. (Typing “Topics PERSON” will list any you missed.) The disadvantage of this style is, conversations quickly become a laundry list of topics to be checked off until none remain. To be honest I’ve played all the major IF conversational styles (“free form”, “menu driven”, and “hyperlinked”) and they all have advantages and disadvantages. While free form conversations feel the most interactive, they leave the most to chance (and can lead players down a slippery “guess the noun” slope).The other two don’t allow for as much freedom; then again, they don’t allow for as much floundering around, either. As an author, I can appreciate forced dialogue systems for no other fact than I would hate to waste exposition (or worse, a great joke) on dark nooks and crannies that players may never encounter. Worse yet, put a game-advancing tidbit in there and watch your players’ progress grind to a halt.
Like all of Robb Sherwin’s games, the world of and characters within Christmas City is a conglomeration of pop culture references and technobabble. Sherwin entertains as earnestly as he offends. There are jokes about baseball and stigmata and trolls who edit Wikipedia entries. Not every joke sticks and I doubt everyone will get all the references (I know I missed some), but the ones I did get made me laugh. As with his previous games, Sherwin’s strong suit continues to be his writing.
If there’s any downside to Cryptozookeeper it’s that parts of it are insanely hard. I struggled with some of the puzzles for days, which, in all honesty, could be more of a reflection on my relative inexperience and re-introduction to text-based games than on the game. Some of the puzzles took me days to solve, and at least one side-plot involving an exorcism (I can’t tell if solving it was integral to “beating” the game yet or not) I can honestly say I have would never, ever solved on my own. This particular puzzle boils down to coming up with a single word, which I ultimately came up with after pleading with the author via e-mail. Cryptozookeeper may be enjoyed by beginning gamers, but it probably won’t be defeated by one.
From the text to the puzzles, Cryptozookeeper is a challenging game. It’s a game that engages players on multiple cylinders. I’m guessing the subject matter, language, and puzzles may not strike a nerve with all IF gamers, but for the ones it does, Cryptozookeeper is a guaranteed good time.
My parents brought home our first home Pong console in the fall of 1977, shortly after I turned four-years-old. The following year we upgraded to a Magnavox Odyssey 2, and in 1979 we purchased an Atari 2600. I have literally been playing video games my entire life; I’m a grown up gamer that grew up gaming. I’ve watched the video game technology grow and expand infinitely, back from its humble monochrome roots in the late 1970s to the hi-definition graphics, digital surround sound audio, and online multi-player gaming experiences we take for granted today.
When you’ve been around as long as I have, it’s impossible not to compare and contrast the new with the old. As a technical kind of guy this often plays itself out in numbers. Comparing the processing power and storage capacity of today’s modern marvels to the systems of yesteryear results in some mind-blowing revelations. I once downloaded a zip file that contained the ROMs of every Atari 2600 game known at that time. The file was 3 megabytes in size. A complete archive of every official US Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) is slightly larger at just over 100 megabytes. Realizing that I have enough memory to store complete copies of the Atari 2600, NES, SNES and Sega Genesis game libraries on my phone reminds us of how far we’ve come in the couple of decades. In the year 2000, I had a Nokia cell phone that was capable of playing a port of Snake (an arcade game from 1976). Ten years later, I bought an iPhone that plays Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 (THPS2).
Cramming a skateboarding game originally designed to play on the Sony PlayStation into an iPhone requires a level of technical wizardry that is impressive, but not surprising. If you really want to understand what technical wizardry is — if you really want to learn about a world where every byte (nay, bit!) counted, you’ll need to go back almost 30 years to the Atari 2600 platform. While it is indeed impressive that in 2010 Activision was able to render a three-dimensional world in which you can maneuver a virtual Tony Hawk around in, it is more impressive to me that in 1982 Activision released Pitfall!, a game that contained 32 treasures spread across 255 unique rooms containing varying combinations tar pits, water holes, quicksand, rolling logs, campfires, snapping crocodiles, scorpions and swinging vines … all in 4k worth of code.
If that last fact made your jaw drop, or caused you to smile, or sent chills down your spine, or got any sort of physical reaction out of you at all … then Racing the Beam is for you.
Written by Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost, Racing the Beam chronicles (in technical depth) the development of six seminal Atari 2600 games: Combat, Adventure, Pac-Man, Yars’ Revenge, Pitfall!, and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. With the development of each game, readers are exposed to the capabilities (read: limitations) of the Atari 2600 platform. From a hardware perspective the 2600 was developed to play variations of Combat and Pong, and only contained the ability to render five moving objects (two players, two bullets, one ball) at a time, and had 128 bytes of RAM in which to do it. The random, colorful explosions in Yars’ Revenge and the smooth, parallax scrolling in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back become all the more impressive in that context. In order to perform some of those complicated tasks, programmers found themselves literally racing the television’s electron beam down the television display.
Each game discussed within the book marks a milestone in the life of the Atari 2600, whether it’s the evolution of text adventures into a graphical environment (Adventure), the birth of movie licensed-games (Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back), or the genre of arcade-to-console conversions (Pac-Man). None of these games were developed within a vacuum, and the book does a good job of encapsulating not only the technical achievements of each game, but also the historical context in which they were developed. The chapter about Yars’ Revenge, for example, talks about the game’s roots as a port of Star Castle, and compares and contrasts the game with Atari’s Asteroids. The game’s Easter Egg, the code used for the seemingly random level-ending explosions, and its unique sonic landscape are all discussed in detail.
At multiple times throughout the book, Racing the Beam reminds us that these classic games weren’t compiled by teams of skilled programmers, but rather were labors of love, quite often imagined, developed, and programmed by a single individual. While general concepts and technical knowledge was passed along between programmers, because of the way these games were designed it was difficult to recycle and/or share specific code among projects. The concept of having different people work on graphics, sound, and gameplay mechanics would not come to pass for a few more years. The book does a good job of introducing us to these men behind the keyboards.
Racing the Beam is not always an easy read. While the anecdotes and memories documented within are both interesting and informative, the book occasionally delves deep into the technical hows-and-whys involved in producing these games. I encountered some conversational hurdles as I waded through information regarding Atari’s TIA chip (the 2600’s sound and graphics chip), clock cycles and horizontal and vertical blanks — interesting Jeopardy material to be sure, but definitely deeper reading than your average light-hearted romp down retrospective lane.
Upon finishing this book you will never again look at the background trees in Pitfall or Pac-Man’s flashing ghosts in the same way. While not an encapsulating history of the Atari 2600 itself, Racing the Beam does an excellent job of explaining the demonstrating the hurdles and limitations early programmers had to overcome in order to create great video games.
(One final thought: this review contains almost 6,000 characters, approximately 2,000 more than any of the Atari 2600 games dissected in Racing the Beam. Food for thought.)