12 November 2014

Lemme just # this out for a moment...[]

Those of you who read this blog (which, I know, I need to update more) are probably aware that I do most of my activity on Twitter. It's fast, simple, and I like the challenge of compressing it all into 140 characters or less. Additionally, it's fairly straightforward to get your message out there simply by adding one or more relevant hashtags to help people find you (and ping the retweet-bots).

One of the hashtags I've been seeing a lot lately has to do with a scandal. I am not going to name the scandal (for reasons I'll elaborate), but it follows the post-Nixon tradition of suffixing all such phenomena with "-gate." I'm seeing it in a good third of my Twitter feed these days, so I assume it's fairly relevant to the public consciousness (or at least to those who share a subset of my interests).  Makes sense that I should find out what it is, right?

I've tried. I've looked up articles, read opinion pieces galore, and seen enough commentary on it to make me thoroughly, completely...confused.

That's really what it is. I'm confused about what, exactly, this thing is that everyone's discussing. Here's what I've been able to gather:

(1) It has something to do with a female game developer who was accused of having relationships with journalists for a good review (which was later proven untrue), which led to a horrid campaign of harassment against her from the vast online horde of the -chans, the release of personal information,  death/assault threats, etc. The same happened to a number of other women who publicly supported her. Naturally, this led to cries of sexism.

(2) But she's the perpetrator, not the victim? Or something? I can't get a clear picture of what happened here.

(3) Then people (journalists?  bloggers?) in the industry started calling all gamers bigots and other less savory terms, using various categories of group identity rhetoric for some purpose? This is where the story seems most disjointed. Apparently there was a series of articles aimed at what they've termed "gamer culture," saying that the so-called "hardcore" gamers are all a bunch of misogynists, racists, and other -ists. How did the discussion get from an isolated case to this seemingly unrelated topic? Someone please help me find the missing link here.

(3b) The movement later responded with another hashtag, showing that it is comprised of a diverse group of people, not just the "white male" crowd.

(4) More in line with (1) and (2), because it came out that some journalists were contributing to certain game developers' fundraising campaigns, several news sites made public statements of their policies, making it clear that (at least from here on in) their contributors should not be contributing to those they're reviewing (which makes sense, to dispel any notion of bias), or if they did they need to be transparent about it.

(5) So then a groundswell of outcries against -- something? The news sites, I guess -- started using this hashtag to generate a movement. The proponents of it say that it's about "ethics in journalism." The opponents say it's about bigotry and misogyny.

But there's a problem here: both of those attempts to define what this thing is "about" are just vaguely defined concepts. A reactionary movement is not about "ethics in journalism." It is not about "bigotry and misogyny." It is about a specific event or series of events that had a specific meaning and effect. So far, the only specifics I can find show that (a) a game developer was falsely accused, then subjected to the full force of the Internet's army of faceless yrch. (b) the backlash against this assault was reacted to by outcries of sexism and by identifying it (and the contention is that the identification is incorrect) with the "gamer" culture, and (c) the counter-backlash claims that they're really interested about journalistic ethics.

Can somebody please explain to me what's really going on? How did this become a thing?

On the one hand, I believe firmly that the contention about "gamer" culture (which by they way they failed to define adequately) is horrendously out of line. What they really should have said was "can we please try to starve the torogrim? These aren't just Bill, Tom, and Bert anymore, and just exposing them to the light won't make them stop arguing." And yeah, it would make me feel a little better if I knew news sites that employed journalists to review games didn't allow them to make personal contributions to the people they reviewed. And yeah, I've believed for years now that game reviews are mostly a mutual handshake deal. That should change.

But then I just read every other thing about the proponents of this thing. It seems to have been founded in gleeful hate attacks and continued by much the same method. The voices crying "it's about ethics" seem to me to be latecomers trying to pretty-up and repurpose what they perceived to be a useful groundswell. I'm not sure that's the right tactic.

You know what?

Maybe it's just because I'm out of touch with "gamer" culture. I haven't bought a new-release game in over two years, and even then I wasn't really looking at the latest releases. I was mostly just a fighting gamer (who nonetheless played the snot out of ModNation Racers), so I didn't even I really read gaming news sites.  Especially now that I'm a retrogamer, the only time I ever visit sites like Kotaku, et al. is when I'm linked to an article that seems interesting. So maybe it's just because I'm sorta disinterested in the whole arena. Maybe. So many people I follow are talking about it that it makes me feel I should try to take a side, though.

But is anybody altogether on my side?

I dunno; I suppose. I love the #retrogaming community. We all share a passion, and we pretty much get along. Maybe one of the reasons I escaped into the retro community was just to get away from the modern morass that is current-gen video games. Just couldn't stand it anymore.

So yeah...I still can't really figure out what this whole thing is all about, and I theorize that half the people who use the now several hashtags associated with it don't really either, or they'd be able to put forward a more coherent purpose statement. If you want me to give my opinion,  it's this:

I do believe in journalistic ethics, not just in video games but in all news media. I also believe that it is indefensible to attack people's lives and livelihood because you disagree with them, or because you heard a nasty rumor.  And it is above all irresponsible and reprehensible to toss such fuel into the pits of the internet yrch and trolls who only get a sense of fulfillment in life when they are rending, tearing, gnawing, biting, hacking, burning burarum...*ahem* and otherwise causing misery for others.

Do not ask me to support either side of this "movement." I won't even reference it by name in this article or in the article's tags, because that would just put it in the same lists of search terms. Until you figure out what the sides actually are, I'll just state what I believe and leave it at that.


21 September 2014

Today, in "Retro Frustration"... []

I present the 72-pin connector for a Nintendo Entertainment System (front-loader style)...

These things are what cause so much rage, given that when they wear out, you have to load cartridges in just so to avoid the blinking screen of death (console continually resetting because the anti-bootleg chip didn't get the signal) or garbled graphics because something isn't lined up right...no amount of isopropyl alcohol and q-tips can save you when this goes bad.

This right here is actually a replacement one I got off eBay...lasted all of a month. So much for quality.

It's a real pain to have to replace these things too: you need to remove five screws to take off the top, seven screws to take off the metal shield over the cartridge slot, then six more to take off the Zero Insertion Force (ZIF) loader (the springy thing which, despite the name, actually does require a nonzero amount of force). Then you must pull up the motherboard to slide off the pin connector, then slide the new one on, then re-screw all the screws. And if you re-tighten them too tight, the loader will no longer function. 

Also, new 72-pin connectors have a ridiculously tight fit for the first week or so. Takes a firm shove to get the cartridge in and then a jaws-of-life grip to pull it out until you break it in a bit. And then the thing breaks.

Oh, the pain of the retro collector who prefers the original NES over the top-loader.  

EDIT: I should note that it is actually possible to repair these things, so long as they're not actually completely broken. But it's still a pain to take them out, do so, and replace them.


P.S. If you're interested in some awesome Top 5-style videos that also feature more Nintendo than I usually cover, check out 2MooglesGaming on their blog and YouTube.

11 September 2014

Cool Thing of the Day: Business Card Math...[]

Okay, hear me out on this one, because I know the title isn't all that exciting. But I promise that, so long as you're the right kind of geek, it's at least something that will pique you're interest and maybe occupy you for a few minutes, or hours possibly.

Warning! Incoming Math content from a former English major!

If you're offended by mathematics or by a Creative Writing major doing mathematics, feel free to skip this post.

So I work in an office. I'm not ashamed to admit it; it pays the bills and keeps me productively busy. But I get bored sometimes (especially after an eyes-bleedingly long day staring at Excel spreadsheets), so occasionally I will reach for something to recharge my brain. Often, I grab a spare sticky-note pad and sketch something (like Batman, or ninjas, or whatever), or maybe I'll grab a piece of paper and pretend I'm good at origami. Among the things handy to snatch for compulsive paper folding are business cards:

They're small, somewhat sturdy (and so stand up to repeated re-folding), and common enough that I don't feel like I'm wasting anything (plus I have a stash of my own blank ones that I made into a glue-bound notepad a while ago). So naturally, they're a common target.

I noticed something a while ago, though, which really caught the side of me that likes to mess around with math (though another side always reminds me that I never want to do math for a living): it's really easy to fold these things into equilateral triangles.

Check this out: the standard business card in the US is 2" tall by 3.5" wide. It just so turns out that this ratio is nearly perfect* for folding into 60° angles, which create equilateral triangles, and thus also for dividing into thirds.

* The ratio isn't exact. It would need to be 3.5" × ~2.02726" or ~3.464102" × 2" to be perfect, but it's certainly close enough. 

Folding Instructions

Step 1: Obtain an ordinary 2" × 3.5" business card. [/obvious] 

Step 2: Fold one corner over to the corner diagonally opposite (e.g. bottom left to top right) so that the corners touch. Try to get this as accurate as you can.

At this point, you've just made the crucial fold. If you unfold it, you'll see that the diagonal crease intersects the long edges so that the crease is ⅓ away from either end. So now you get to pick your own adventure:

If you want to fold it into thirds, go to Step 3.
If you want to make equilateral triangles, go to Step 5.

Step 3: Stick your thumbnail on one of the spots where the crease intersects a long edge and fold over at that point so that the edge meets itself (i.e. so it's not folded over at an angle).

Step 4: Now flip it all over and fold the other edge so the short edge meets the crease you made in the previous step. You may have to finagle it a bit so that it lines up (since the ratio's not completely exact).

Step 4 (alternate): Repeat Step 2 from the other side, so that there is now an X-shaped crease in the center. Then repeat Step 3 from that side. Again, also depending on how accurately you did the folds, you may have to finagle it a bit.

You're done!

Step 5: After you've done Step 3 and folded one corner over to the other, fold over the "wings" on either side, using the "top" point, which is where the two corners meet each other and one of the "bottom" points, which is where that side hits the crease, as your end points. When it folds over, the short edge of the card should go vertically down the middle and the other edge should be flush with the crease from Step 2. Repeat this step on the other side.

You're done!

Math Content

So here's what's behind this: equilateral triangles (i.e. those with all three sides the same length) have all their internal angles at 60°. When you make that first fold, you make a rough approximation of a 60° angle with the long side of the card.

More detail: You'll notice that when you finish up Step 5, the two end flaps are right triangles (meaning one angle is a 90° corner) half the size of the big ones. In fact, they're a rough approximation of a special type of right triangle, the 30-60-90 triangle. Click that link, read the Wikipedia page, then come back, if you're not familiar.

If you're like me, you've already drawn a diagram and mapped out how the different lengths relate to each other. If you're further like me, you set up some worksheet formulas (Excel or LibreOffice) to calculate side lengths for future triangles. But that's a bit beside the point.

The main math thing that has to be true for this to work is for the ratio of the long edge to the short edge of the card being 3:√3̅, or ~1.732051. So if you do the math, you'll see that the business card dimensions aren't exact, but they're pretty close.

Anyway, hope this was at least somewhat entertaining for you. I tried to add photos of me doing the folds, but my cell phone's camera refused to focus [/badexcuse].


05 September 2014

That certain kind of morning... []

My favorite kind of morning happens in late summer, when the sun is still rising early due to daylight saving time and the sun hasn't yet had its coffee. It's cool but not cold, still full of summer, and everything feels like it's just rained even if it hasn't.

There's a certain smell about it that reminds me of going to camp with my grandpa as a kid. I'd wake up in the cabin, next to which the camper had been parked, push open the door, and walk out towards where the fire had been.

It's the deep and enveloping smell of dirt and dew and gravel parting under my tennis shoes. It's the heavy blanket of mist and dampness held close about the earth: the world waking up after a long nap still hot and sticky with sweat under the bedsheets.

That smell, that perfluence of aromas and gathering of old memories, always makes me expect to see that same salamander, bright and orange, that I found underneath the camper that one morning.

Above all, it's quiet. I mean the kind of quiet that you get in the suburbs, with the shush of cars along the pavement in the distance and the neighbor's dog barking. But it still feels quiet and close and personal.

It's the kind of morning where I just want to take in as many slow, lazy breaths as I can as I swim through the thick atmosphere and feel the occasional whispering breeze sliding through my shirt sleeves, up one arm and down the other.

Just a pity those mornings only last for such a short space of time, before the world turns cold once again.


20 August 2014

The 7 Atari 2600 Games You Should Own First...[]

Hi all,

Sorry for the dearth of recent posts. I have a few that are currently in writing limbo; that you all need not wait longer, here's an entirely different post.

This may not be news to those of you who read this blog, but I recommend that everyone interested in video games acquire an Atari 2600 console. It's still my favorite system, and the one for which I've collected the most games.

The first difficult question, of course, is where to get the system. One can usually find an Atari 2600 in decent shape on sites like eBay for a decent price (considerably less than a new PS4, at least). You may also be able to find one at a flea market or garage sale for an even better price (largely because shipping costs are not involved, but also because the seller is less likely to be a retro game vendor and hence may not want as much for it). Whatever you do, I hereby challenge everyone who sees this to find and purchase an Atari 2600 (or 7800, since it's backward-compatible with the 2600).

The next question, then, concerns games. No use having the system without them, after all. Fortunately, you'll often find consoles bundled with a stack of games, typically loose carts but occasionally games with their boxes (in various states of repair).

Even so, the beginning Atari collector (especially one who, like me, was born after the golden Atari age) may be at a loss as to which games to obtain first. Here then, are my recommendations for the seven games that absolutely must be in your collection, and which you should look to obtain first.

7. Asteroids and Space Invaders

Okay, I'm cheating a bit on the first one, but these two really go hand in hand. They're the ones you expect to see, and for good reason. These are the ones that come to mind first when the Atari is mentioned. Fortunately, these are the two games you're most likely to get along with a system, even if you weren't expecting them. They seem to accumulate as if by spontaneous generation sometimes, and if you're not cautious you'll end up with a stack of each. Keep at least one of each around, though, because for all their simplicity, these games never get old.

Another thing to mention about Space Invaders in particular is its incredible amount of game variations. Most Atari games, if they have variations at all, only have around 10 or so. Space Invaders has 112; in fact, it's often labeled as "112 Tele-Games," or some variation thereof. If you just get a loose cartridge, be sure to look up the manual online to check out all the different ways you can switch-up the gameplay in this iconic classic. 

6. Joust

This is another one that never gets old, even if it does look a bit prettier on other consoles. This game is especially fun if you've got a second player to compete against (although it's 2-player in the style of Super Mario Bros., not direct versus as in Street Fighter or Combat). Take up your lance, mount your battle ostrich, and flap your way to victory! It's also fairly easy to find and hence won't cost you a lot. 

5. Centipede

This one practically defines addictive gameplay. If you happen upon an Atari Trak-Ball controller, definitely make sure this game is in your collection (along with Missile Command, but I'm already cheating on the 7 games here from the first entry). It's simple but challenging: fire away at the incoming centipede, watching out for its friends (like that irritating spider who appears every couple seconds). If you've ever played this in the arcades (lucky you), you'll know this game has incredible replay value as you try to get your high score just a bit higher (or at least to the next extra life).

4. Berzerk

Here's another one that'll have you going for hours, to the point where your hand may start to reshape itself around the joystick controller. Make your way through an endless maze, shooting robots and avoiding their shots. You'll soon get used to the controls, where you fire in the direction you're walking (diagonals take some practice).

Tip: Unless you're an absolute newbie, always play at least on Game 2, which features the menacing Evil Otto, who bounces on screen to chase you down should you take too long in a single room. Nothing adds challenge quite like a smiling time limit. He's always smiling, even as he's plotting your demise. The last thing you'll see is his smiling face...body...going through walls as if they weren't there. The fewer robots on screen, the faster he travels. Just gotta keep going.

3. Yars' Revenge

This one's another unquestioned classic, one I've mentioned at least once before on this blog. You take control of the bug-like Yar and go up against the ruthless Qotile. This one really gets challenging in the later stages, when the missile that follows you around starts to speed up, meaning you can't stay in one place for too long. It might only have two distinct stages, but the challenge is more than enough. It's also pretty common, so it shouldn't be too difficult to find or too expensive.

2. Seaquest

Finally, an Activision game on this list! Really, there are so many titles from Activision I could talk about, like Pitfall, Stampede, Kaboom!, Ice Hockey...

...but I'm limited here, and I'm trying to put in a nice variety. Seaquest is probably one of my favorite games for the Atari 2600, as anyone who's read this blog will know.

Short version: you control a yellow submarine (Beatles reference!) and must save six hapless divers per round, while avoiding sharks and enemy subs (who start to travel in twos and threes in later rounds), as well as a really annoying ship that travels along the surface to keep you from coming back up to recharge your oxygen.

So if you can only get one Activision game, get this one. If you can get two, get Pitfall....actually...can I rename this entry to Seaquest AND Pitfall?

2. Seaquest AND Pitfall!

Hey, this is my blog; I can cheat if I want.

Really, this is another expected one. If you've never heard of Pitfall, I'm sure you've seen it, or references to it. Jump across barrels and crocodiles, swing across lakes and pits, collect loot. Get this game; it's practically a requirement anyway. Tell anyone you have an Atari 2600, and they'll probably ask if you have Pitfall. Make sure you can tell them all "Yes."

1. Galaxian

Is that man playing Galaga? Nope; it's Galaxian, the game that started the whole series. This is one of the best games for the Atari 2600, without a doubt. It takes the basic formula of Space Invaders and adds the challenge of targets that fly directly at you. Remember that you can only have one bullet on screen at a time, so aim your shots well. Also, remember that you get more points for hitting an incoming enemy than one that's just keeping formation.

And whatever you do, don't get trapped in the corner. Bad idea. Keep moving, and watch for your openings to avoid getting trapped. Also remember that you can score big points by picking off the two red ships and then the white leader ship. If the challenge is too paltry, try using the Game Select switch to change your starting level. I usually start at level 9 (the highest) for the extra challenge.

So there you go...step number one is to get yourself an Atari 2600 console. Step number two is to get the games on this list. Have fun!


P.S. If you're the type who likes to watch YouTube videos and also a lot of Top 5 lists, you should totally check out my friends 2MooglesGaming. They're awesome. 

All images from AtariAge.com...they're a great resource, so I also advise checking them out regularly.

08 August 2014

...And That's BASICally It....[]

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know that I've recently been working on some programming on my Atari 800XL computer (well, both of them, since I have two). That means using BASIC, and specifically Atari BASIC.

While I learned some BASIC as a young ninja, it's been a bit of a journey so far on the Atari, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it's been a while, and I had forgotten a lot. Secondly, I never really learned all that much to begin with, being only around 10 years old at the time. And thirdly, Atari BASIC is a distinctly different flavor of BASIC from what I learned.

In any case, I recently managed to spit out a short program, which I also shared on Twitter. What I wanted was something that would spit out a specified lines of random letters/symbols either to the screen or to a printer.

Why would I want such a thing? Because reasons...Reasons I say!

Okay, I just wanted something that would (a) be a good test for my Atari 1025 dot matrix printer and (b) look cryptic to an observer, as if it were some secret code. *

So anyway...I figured I'd talk a bit about this program, my thought processes while writing it, etc. It'll be an educational column for some, especially in the area of how little I know, and I hope it'll at least be somewhat entertaining.

Disclaimer: Please do not mistake me for an expert (or even a mildly proficient) in programming. This is mostly just me playing around with forces I cannot possibly hope to comprehend.

Here's the full program:
1 ? "}":POKE 752,1
2 DIM Q$(1)
  INPUT Q$:? "}":GOTO 5
10 FOR W=1 TO 500:NEXT W:PRINT "}"
11 DIM Y$(80)
20 DIM X$(1)
25 FOR S=1 TO R
26 IF Q$="N" THEN GOTO 30
27 FOR I=1 TO 80:GOTO 40
30 FOR I=1 TO 36
40 X$=CHR$(INT(59*RND(1))+64)
50 Y$(I)=X$
70 ? Y$
90 POKE 752,0
100 END

I'm positive that this program has been written before, and better, but this is what I done wrote, and I'm sort of proud of it. By the way, wherever you see a "}" character, replace it in your mind with the "clear screen" symbol from Atari BASIC, which looks a bit like "↰."

If you're not familiar with BASIC, each line begins with a number which determines its order. Common practice is to begin with line 10 and enter new lines in multiples of 10 (or sometimes start with 100 and go in multiples of 100) so that, as needed, lines can be inserted in between others without re-numbering. That should give you a bit of an idea of the order in which some lines were added here (actually, I did re-do line 10 at least once, but you get the picture).

For those to whom this still looks like ancient Sanskrit, here's the overview: the program asks for a number of lines, and whether or not the output should go to a printer. Then it generates a line of random characters, then another, and so on until it has output the number of lines specified.  

So let's just take it line by line to see how it works:

1 ? "}":POKE 752,1 

First thing to note about this line is that "?" is a shortcut for the PRINT command, which tells the computer to print a text string. So this line first tells the computer to print a "clear screen" character, which blanks out anything on-screen at the time. The second part of the line (two commands can be on the same line if separated by a colon) is a command that directly changes a memory location — specifically, it turns off the cursor, which makes things look a bit neater.

2 DIM Q$(1)

This second line is here because of a peculiarity of Atari BASIC. While in some versions of BASIC you can just use string variables (contrasted with number variables) at will, in Atari BASIC you must first DIMension them, telling the program how many characters to allot the variable. So this line declares a string variable called Q$ which has a maximum length of 1.


These two lines are the two big questions asked at the start. First, the (invisible) cursor is moved to column 10, row 3. Then the prompt "# ROWS" is printed, followed by an input for a number variable called R (the number of rows to print).

Then it moves two lines down, to column 10, row 5 and asks the second question, whether or not to print the output to a printer. Here is where we use the string variable Q$ which we DIMensioned a couple lines ago.

Also note another peculiarity of Atari BASIC: PRINT commands must be separate from INPUT commands. On a Commodore 64, for example, I could input instead 3 POSITION 10,3 : INPUT "# ROWS";R, but not so on the Atari.

  POSITION 10,7:INPUT Q$:? "}":GOTO 5

These next few lines are partially feedback to the user and partially error handling in regards to the INPUT command on line 4. Since the user may have entered any character at the prompt, it needs to weed out anything but "Y" or "N."

First, it handles the case where the user entered "N." It moves down to row 6, tells the user that the output will not be printed, and then moves to line 10 for further instructions.

The next line is there because ATARI basic only follows an IF/THEN model for conditionals, not an IF/THEN/ELSE model. If the IF condition is true, the THEN is executed, and if not it just goes to the next line. So now the program weeds out anything that isn't a response of "Y," since any "N" responses were caught by the previous line. For all of these responses, it prints an error message, allows the user to re-input for Q$, then moves back to the first conditional statement.

If anything made it through lines 5 and 6 without triggering one of the THEN clauses, it's because the user entered "Y." So the next two lines (there was a line 7 at one point) just offer feedback and remind the user that the printer needs to be turned on.

10 FOR W=1 TO 500:NEXT W:PRINT "}"
11 DIM Y$(80)
20 DIM X$(1)

Okay, now we really get into the operations of the program. First, line 10 uses a FOR/NEXT loop, which will be talked about in a couple lines. Basically what it does is tell the computer to execute a set of commands a given number of times. In this case, though, the loop is empty, so the computer does nothing 500 times (the 1 to 500 part). This is a sort of messy way (which depends on running in Atari BASIC on an 800XL) of causing a delay, which in this case is long enough for the user to read feedback messages before the second half of the line clears the screen again. A professional would use a more precise clock, but I'm not a professional.

Lines 11 and 20 DIMension two more string variables, which are the ones that are really going to be used in the program. Y$ has a maximum length of 80, and X$ has a maximum length of 1.

25 FOR S=1 TO R
26 IF Q$="N" THEN GOTO 30
27 FOR I=1 TO 80:GOTO 40
30 FOR I=1 TO 36

Line 25 starts another FOR/NEXT loop, using the variabl R that was entered in line 3. So for R times, the program will repeat whatever comes between this statement and a line that says "NEXT S."

The next two lines toggle between two different line lengths. Atari BASIC in the standard text mode can only display 40 characters across, while a printer can do 80 characters to a line. So if the user entered "N" for Q$, the program goes to line 30, which starts a FOR/NEXT loop that repeats 36 times (because the line starts a couple of characters in) and otherwise goes to the next line down, which starts a different loop that goes to 80. The second part of line 27 skips it past line 30.

So the loop started by either line 27 or line 30 will do the same thing (for R times, because it's nested within the S loop from line 25).

40 X$=CHR$(INT(59*RND(1))+64)
50 Y$(I)=X$

Here's the real mechanism. These two lines are the repeated steps that churn out the text.

Line 40 sets the X$ string variable equal to a random character. It does this by making use of the CHR$() function, which outputs the Atari ASCII (also known as ATASCII) character with a given numeric value. It also uses the built in RND() function, which outputs a random number between 0 and 1.

Between 0 and 1? Yes, that's right. The RND() function will give you some decimal value between 0 and 1 (and never 0 or 1). So to get it to give you a range of values, you have to get tricky. I want it to give me the range starting with character 64 ("A") and character 122 ("z"). This will also include a number of symbol characters (punctuation, etc.), which was an unintended side-effect. **

So at the heart of the expression in line 40, it takes a random number (the 1 in parentheses doesn't really have any effect) and multiplies it by 59, which is 123-64 (the random number never equals 1, so I have to go one beyond my target range). Then it uses the INT() function to strip out decimals and just use the closest integer. Then it adds 64. So now it will output random numbers from 64-122.

Line 50 is where I had to get creative. There's unfortunately no string concatenation function in Atari BASIC, so I couldn't just build up a line by going X$+X$+X$, and so on. However, it is possible to specify a character position within a string variable. Y$(1) means the first character of the Y$ string variable, and so on. So this line uses the step number of I (which is incremented by 1 each time the FOR/NEXT loop churns) as the position indicator on Y$ and copies over the randomly generated character of X$ onto it.

Line 60 completes the loop begun in line 27/30, which eventually builds up a line of the required length.

70 ? Y$

The next couple lines are the output end of the program. Depending on the value of Q$, the program will either use the LPRINT command to print the value of Y$ to the printer (and then go to line 80) or print it to the screen. Line 80 completes the loop begun in line 25 and causes the next line to be generated, until the required number of lines are generated.

90 POKE 752,0
100 END

Okay, here we are at the wrap-up. After everything's printed out, the cursor is turned back on and the program terminates (until the users types "RUN" again).

So yeah. Took me a bit of noodling to get this one to work, but there it is. Actually, there are a number of improvements I should make to it. For one thing, I should make the user hit a key at line 9 before it moves on, to be sure it doesn't execute before the user has a chance to turn on the printer. For another thing, it might be a good idea to add a line counter, especially when the user's printing a large number of lines to a printed page, as a bit of a progress meter. I have an idea of how I'd do it, but since I currently have no way of saving programs (gotta get an external floppy drive at some point), that's just gonna wait for now.

As I said, I am 100% positive this has been done before and better. But this is what I wrote...BASICally....


* Fun thing to do if you're using laptop running Linux in a public space: either open a new terminal emulator window or go to a virtual console and run either (a) sudo apt-get update or (b) cmatrix. People walking by will think you're either a hacker or a spy. Totally. 

** It wouldn't be straightforward to filter out the range of values for the punctuation characters the way I did it here. I could have just generated the text based on a string variable containing all the alphanumeric characters, but hey, that's hindsight for you.

Québec follow-up...[]

I can't believe I actually forgot to mention the name of the retro gaming store I visited while in Québec last month...

The store's name is La Planque Jeux Vidéo.

Be sure to check out their website, their Facebook page, and, should you ever find yourself in the city, their store. Seriously, it's awesome. Killer Instinct and Mortal Kombat 2 on free-play!


30 July 2014

When Retro Collecting Really Hertz...[]

So I got one of these the other day:

Behold the majesty...

That, my friends, is a Xonox Double-Ender cartridge. There are a number of these, some more common than others (but none extremely common, or cheap), all of which have two games inside one cartridge shell. This makes it incredibly irritating for those who like to keep their collections alphabetized.

So why am I bringing this up? Because while one of the games in the above cartridge worked fine with my semi-modern LCD television, the other one did not.

In case you're wondering, the one that worked was Chuck Norris Superkicks...because nothing stops Chuck.

To be specific, when I started up the game, the picture would appear to be scrolling much like an out-of-sync movie reel in an old Bugs Bunny cartoon. I cleaned the cartridge, tried a different system, and nothing seemed to fix the problem.

That is, of course, until I remembered a previous experience I'd had with another television set. When I first got my four-switch woodgrain Atari 2600, one of the games that came with it was Asteroids. When I plugged it into the system and tried to play it on my 47" LED HDTV, the picture wouldn't stay still. It flickered up and down, all out of sync. The other games I had worked fine, but this one just wouldn't cooperate.

So I switched to my small 24" LCD flatscreen in the other room, and voilà, Asteroids worked. The VCS has been sitting in that room ever since, because I can't be without Asteroids.

So how now to play a game that wouldn't even play on my smaller television? Play it on an old CRT television, of course.

For those unfamiliar with the term: a CRT (short for cathode ray tube) display is the type of television they don't make anymore, where an electron gun inside the unit would fire at the screen to make the pictures (Wikipedia explains it better than I do). The short version is that CRT televisions are the old boxy ones.

So I brought my trusty Atari 2600 Jr. upstairs to where I have an old TV/VCR combo sitting in a corner and plugged it in. As expected, the game then worked great (I mean, it's still not really all that good a game, but at least you could see what was happening).

Okay, JT, so how about the "why"? 

Why do I collect retro gaming, or why I figured that the CRT would work? Well, for the first case, it all started back when...

The second one. 

Oh. Well the thing to note about CRT displays is that there are no pixels, because the display is projected, not fixed. What it does have, though, are lines. The electron gun scans across the screen, displaying a line at a time to build up the image. So programs for the Atari 2600, designed with that in mind, could specify the timing of the scanlines in their code, so that they weren't limited to a set number of lines per screen. This is fine on a CRT, but an LCD or LED display has fixed lines, which causes synchronization errors. The frequency is all wrong.

Well that's lame for the retro collector, isn't it?

..which actually brings me back to the title of this blog post (If you don't know what Hertz is, I will again defer to Wikipedia for explanation).

One of the things that the retro collector has to keep in mind is that old games were designed for old equipment. So it's wise to keep some hanging about. Here are a few tips on dealing with the hardware requirements we must face:

  1. CRT Television sets: for the reason described above, but also if you plan on using a light gun for games like Duck Hunt. Light Guns for old systems worked in tandem with the timing of the scanlines to determine where the player is aiming. Therefore, they will typically not work with flat-panel televisions.
  2. RF Adapters: Most video game systems from the '70s and '80s output video via an RF modulator. They used a standard single RCA cable to connect from the console to a switchbox (into which you'd also plug the rabbit-ears antenna), which was then connected to the television via either a set of screw-in prongs or a UHF connector.

    The former are pretty much nonexistent on television sets these days, but you can still find the latter, as people still use them for cable service. Given that the switchboxes are cumbersome and not always reliable, you may want to invest a couple bucks into getting an RCA female to Coaxial male adapter from your local RadioShack (or other places, like AtariAge.com). Then, if you plan on using your set for cable TV as well as games, you can get a cable switcher (sometimes called an A/B switcher).

    If all you have is a monitor with no coaxial input, or if you don't want to bother with a switchbox for your cable, the other option is to get yourself an old VCR. Use the RCA-to-Coaxial adapter to plug the system into the Cable In of the VCR, then use a composite AV cable to plug it into your TV/monitor. As an added bonus, you'll get a much clearer picture this way.
  3. Proper power supply. Even if the plug fits, the output may not be appropriate. I found this out when trying to run an Atari Pong machine off a 2600 power supply; doesn't work. You can also find universal power adapters, in case you don't have an original, which have a veritable morning star of different plug ends to fit a variety of devices. Make sure to check the voltage and connector, or you may see sparks fly.
  4. A power strip/surge protector with rotating plugs. There are various styles of these. The reason behind this is simple: power adapters back then had huge boxes on them, so a regular power strip may not fit more than two or three devices.
I guess this post could also fall under the "PSA" category...well, I try to do my part.


22 July 2014

PSA: Atari 2600 vs. ColecoVision cartridges...[]

Hi all,

As I stated in my previous blog post, I recently visited a retro video game store that had a rack full of Atari 2600 cartridges. Unfortunately, either due to design or accident (hopefully just the latter), the Atari cartridges were interspersed with some ColecoVision cartridges.

For those not in the know: The ColecoVision was released in 1982 and represented a significant graphical leap forward from the Atari 2600 (although it is generally considered part of the same generation of video game consoles). One of its "innovative" new features was its controller:

Source: Google Image search

Look at that thing: it's got a telephone keypad and a coiled cord to match. This in addition to a joystick and two side buttons (which may or may not have been the inspiration for the Atari 5200 and 7800 joysticks...the 5200 came out just a few months later than the ColecoVision, so it's hard to tell). Certainly overkill in an era when most video games only needed one or two buttons at most.

So what did they use that keypad for? 

They used it for more buttons, of course. All ColecoVision games came with an overlay which fit over the number buttons and illustrated their functions (if they were used at all).
Source: Google Image search again.  

Okay then...

Now you say to me, "JT, you rambling, incoherent incompetent, what does this have to do with cartridges?" Glad you asked.

The Public Service Announcement Part

I did title this as a PSA, I suppose, so here's where I do my part to keep the public informed.

There are two easy ways to spot the difference between Atari 2600 and ColecoVision Cartridges. Look at a couple side by side:


On the left is Donkey Kong for Atari 2600; on the right is the same game for ColecoVision. Apart from the plastic color (which isn't uniform across either console), the cartridges look very similar. They are of similar size and have a similar grip indentation on the underside near the top. 

However, there are, as I mentioned, two easy-to-spot differences. Firstly, ColecoVision cartridges will state "ColecoVision presents" on them in nice bold letters. Secondly, and most readily visible, the ColecoVision cartridge has a slot in the back to hold the controller overlay. 

Therefore, if you are browsing (say, at a game store, flea market, or garage sale), through a bunch of loose cartridges, be sure to check the back before assuming a cartridge is for the Atari 2600. If it's got an overlay slot, it's definitely not (hey, that rhymes).

This has been a Public Service Announcement.


21 July 2014

Greetings from Québec... []

So the past few days I've been on vacation in Québec City. It's a fun place to visit, with lots of historical things to see (interspersed with the usual tourist traps) and amazing places to eat. Of course, it's also incredibly overpriced, but that's de rigeur (lol French).

On that note, it's of value to know at least a few words of French if you plan to visit. However, all you usually need to do is greet people with "Hello" instead of "Bonjour" and they will switch to English. So as long as you learn basic signage ("Entrée" and "Sortie" and "Arrêt", etc.) one should be fine.

I did also manage to find some time to say hello to a friend of mine, a local of Quebec City, whom I'd only ever spoken to online. As we're both collectors of retro video games, he insisted upon taking me to a shop not far from my hotel.
The store wasn't much to look at from the outside, but as soon as I entered I knew the trip had been worthwhile. Those in the Pittsburgh area will know of a store chain called The Exchange (I'm not altogether certain how widespread it is) which buys and sells movies, music, and games. This store was just the games, and it had them aplenty.

Not only did it have several shelves of Atari 2600 games, but it also had a sizable selection of both Nintendo, Super Nintendo, Famicom, and Super Famicom games, as well as Sega Genesis, Turbografx-16, etc. I was a bit annoyed to find several ColecoVision cartridges sorted among the Atari ones, but as they're easily identifiable (by the indentation in the back for the controller overlay, if not the word ColecoVision on the front), it wasn't too much of a problem.

What impressed me most, however, was a Vectrex console sitting on the counter. If only they had games for it other than Cosmic Chasm, which was being sold with the console (and which I already have).

Before we left, my friend and I had to go a few rounds on the free-play Mortal Kombat machine. Raiden is so cheap (muahahahaha).

I also walked away with five more Atari 2600 carts to add to my collection (see attached photo).

Fortunately, Canada also uses NTSC television, so there shouldn't be any region issues. EDIT: Yep, they all work.

Full disclosure: this is actually being posted from the United States. I started composing it on the plane in Québec before takeoff, out of range of the airport's wi-fi network (and International data usage is expensive!), so the rest of it is being written (pecked out on my cell phone's keypad) on the flight back, to be submitted once I am again on terra firma and regain access to the Internet.  It's the thought that counts.  EDIT: Actually, I posted it before walking through customs, so technically I wasn't in the country yet when it went live...

Final thoughts: If you haven't yet visited Québec City, do so, if only for a couple days. I think I still enjoy walking around Montréal more, with their vast, expansive underground complexes, but Québec is now officially Ninja-approved.


16 July 2014

Five Awesome Atari 2600 Games That Must Be Made...[]

Okay, fine, you got me. I'll do a list-based blog post. Let's just get through this...

Although the Atari Video Computer System was released in 1977, and the last Atari release for it was in 1990, games are still being made for the system. Most of these are either hacks of existing games or ports of games that should've made it to the VCS but didn't; however, there are a number of more or less original titles still coming out for the 2600, which is why I say Atari will never die.

It's this fact that makes my imagination often turn to titles I wish the world would see — sequels or spin-offs that never happened, or even original concepts that really should be done — some of which I have compiled here for your enjoyment.

1. Pac-Man vs. Evil Otto

I don't have to tell you who Pac-Man is, right? Please tell me I don't. If you don't know who he is, close your browser (Internet Explorer, right?) and come back when you find out the answer.

Less well known (but only slightly so) is Evil Otto, the villain of the classic arcade game Berzerk. He's a demented smiley face who bounces onto the scene whenever you start to take too long to get through a screen, heedless of wall, threatening instant death if you don't hurry to the next room.

Now imagine a game where you play as Pac-Man, but instead of semi-closed mazes in which you are more or less trapped, you must eat all the dots in one room and make it to the exit while dodging Berzerk robots. Should you start to take too long, Evil Otto bounces into view, and you'd better hurry to the stage exit before he gets you!

Like so. 
The mazes would have to be smaller, of course, or else you'd never finish in time. You start at one gate, which locks behind you. To open the gates again, eat all the pellets. In the center will occasionally appear a power pellet or a fruit. No time to wait in the corner for the robots to come get eaten when you've got to get out of there fast!

This game would be a mash-up of two incredible classics, and would make me very happy indeed.

2. Pitfall Hanna

People often talk about misrepresentation of women in video games, and I have to say I largely agree: games need more female protagonists. Back in the Atari 2600 days, though, you were lucky if your character looked like a human at all, as opposed to a spaceship, tank, plane, Yar, etc. So your character could be whoever or whatever you wanted.

There are exceptions, of course, like Pac-Man, Donkey Kong (and Jumpman), and Pitfall Harry.

Pitfall! is truly one of the great classics on the Atari VCS, and for good reason. It's an expansive world with deceptively simple controls and plenty of replay value. It even spawned a sequel, Pitfall II: The Lost Caverns (and an utterly execrable NES game, one we won't mention further).

I still think the Pitfall series is missing one thing, though. Pac-Man has his Mrs. Pac-Man, Mario has his Peach, and Donkey Kong has his Pauline (hehe), but where are the ladies in Pitfall?

This is where I see an opportunity. The world needs a completely new Pitfall adventure — with similar gameplay and graphics, but a whole new world to explore — this time with a female protagonist. The world needs more than just Lara Croft. The world needs Pitfall Hanna.

3. SeaQuest II: Deep Waters

Activision's SeaQuest has got to be one of my all-time favorite Atari games. It starts out slow and simple, but it gets tough quick.

So what could a sequel do to make it even better? Multiple screens, like Defender. I present my concept for SeaQuest II: Deep Waters:

Up in the top-left corner is a radar display, à la Defender, but with four screens arranged in a square layout. The player's ship is currently in the top-right corner in this screenshot/mock-up/quick slap-together job. The colored dots on the radar show the player his/her location (yellow), the locations of enemies (sharks in pink, subs in grey), and the divers (light blue).

I also decided the game needed floating mines which wouldn't show up on the radar, just because.

So now the game would involve going much further from the air and having to juggle multiple screens worth of targets. I'd love to dive into this game.

4. Star Wars: AT-ST Battle

The excellent Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back for Atari 2600 pitted the player against an unforgiving conga line of AT-AT walkers. This game would be based on the scene in Return of the Jedi where Chewbacca (and some fuzzballs) capture an AT-ST walker:
Source: Wikipedia

The game I'm envisioning would still be a horizontal scrolling shooter, but with you in control of a chicken walker with some hefty jumping ability and pew pew laser guns.

The forest moon of Endor is a lot trickier to navigate than Hoth, though. In Star Wars: AT-ST Battle, you must dodge Storm Troopers on speeders, Storm Troopers shooting from trees, and the occasional AT-AT walker as you keep the Ewoks from being decimated and work your way to blast open the shield generator base.

Here's where I'd love to have a fake screenshot to show, but my goodness did you even read that description? Screenshot totally not even necessary here. Plus, George Lucas has dark Sith powers, and Disney doubly so. It's risky even posting that screenshot up there from the movie.

5. The Yar Ultimatum (working title)

If you own an Atari 2600 and don't have Yars' Revenge, please obtain it swiftly and play it before continuing to read this post.

This is a game just screaming for a sequel (although I'm having difficulty figuring out a good title). But imagine the same setup as the original, only with more playfield variations:

Imagine facing down the Qotile with only a small square of Neutral Zone, or perhaps two slimmer ones on either side of a centrally located Qotile surrounded on all sides? Or perhaps the ultimate challenge, having to take on the Qotile Space Invaders-style, but with nowhere to hide?

I think this series is well overdue for a comeback.

Okay then, JT, you jelly-brained sluggard, are you actually going to make these games?

I wish I could. But hopefully someone with the savvy and dedication will see this post and be inspired. Perhaps not with the examples here (although I can only hope), but with some new idea even I couldn't imagine.

Hope this has been good for your imaginations as well. Feel free to comment your own ideas. 


09 July 2014

Will Current-Gen Games Be Collectible? []

This is a serious question I was asking myself the other day, and I'm sure it's one others have asked as well. It's a question that may seem odd at first, but the more I look at current trends in the video game industry, the more I begin to suspect that it will be much more difficult for people in the 2040s and 2050s to be retro collectors for current-generation games.

"But JT, you numb-witted fearmonger!" you shout at me, "surely you must be jesting. There will always be those who collect games, and perhaps you're just bigoted against the present generation and hence simply want to take opportunity to disparage it via Internet weblog post!"

Believe me, I've got plenty of disparagement to hurl at some of the current-gen systems and games, but this isn't just about my love of systems from the '80s and early '90s. This is just something I'm noticing, and something about which I'm hoping I'm wrong. Let me elucidate my reasoning:

1. Gaming is going digital.

Collecting anything usually requires that that thing be physical (well, unless it's Pokemon or something). So when games stop being physical, they stop being collectible in the essential sense.

Lamentably, this is what seems to be happening. I first noticed this trend when they introduced the PSP Go, which completely ditched the traditional physical media for games downloaded from the PlayStation Network onto Sony Memory Sticks. The PSP Go was a bit of a flop, but the idea stuck, and now it's everywhere.

Whether via PSN, XBLA, whatever the Wii uses, Steam, Origin, and too many others to list, the last few years have seen a large rise in games delivered via download instead of physical media (disc, cartridge, floppy diskette, etc).

This is a major step forward in convenience to the user, without question. I've personally downloaded a number of games via PSN to my PS3 and PSP, many of them retro titles like Metal Slug, King of Fighters '95, R-Type Delta (yes, PS2 counts), et al. Not only is downloading them easier than tracking them down at a resale store or flea market/garage sale, but it's a lot cheaper.

This means that (a) a lot more people will be encouraged to play games they otherwise wouldn't, and (b) the costs for independent developers to produce a title need no longer be bound by the cost for producing the physical medium plus packaging.

At this point, you're now re-reading the title of this post and realizing what this means for collecting. Simply put, digitally downloaded games are platform-dependent and service-dependent. They last so long as there is still a platform to play them and a service that can provide them. So, by way of example, were PSN ever to go away:
  • You would need to maintain that PS3/PS4/PSP/PS Vita (and not all PSN games can play on all of those). More specifically, the storage device which holds the data for your game on that device. Better hope the hard drive never crashes or the memory card never gets corrupted.
  • Even so, a lot of digital titles require you to be logged into PSN to validate that you own the game. Therefore, you may not even be able to start it anymore.
And this is only for keeping your own games. It won't exactly be possible to pick up a copy of a digital-only game secondhand. Nor will you be able to sell off your old digital games. Digital downloading is really convenient, but it doesn't exactly help the collector.

On that note:

2. Game purchases are becoming non-transferable.

We as gamers are not tremendous fans of Digital Rights Management (DRM), although we know why it exists. Piracy hurts sales, and that discourages developers from producing more product. Thus, panicky producers pick pesky, ponderous protection packages to perplex proponents of perfidious piracy (for a while), in the meanwhile peeving paying patrons.

Let us all thank social media and public outcry for scoring a major victory last year. Microsoft was all set to release their Xbox One console with built-in DRM that would effectively nullify the ability to trade in games or share with friends. We stopped that. At least for now, that is.

Even with that pat-on-the-back moment to our credit, it's just a fact of the world now that DRM is and will continue to be present on new software titles for all platforms. It's going to be there, and there's no saying that in the future they won't try again to use DRM to cut off used game sales at the knees. It's already being done at the game level in some cases (see 2011's Mortal Kombat), with "passes" that require players who buy the game used to pay extra for the right to play the game they already purchased. 

This directly affects collectors, because it makes both resale and purchase thereof more difficult. With current retro collecting, you can pick through a group of loose cartridges, pay whatever the seller asks (and maybe less if you bargain correctly), and use them as if you were the original owner on your own console. In the future, this will almost certainly not be the case.

3. Gaming is moving away from consoles.

You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to observe how quickly the mobile and online game market is growing. Nearly everyone in the United States has some form of mobile device, and even I have been known to use my phone to play Tetris or Solitaire in a spare moment. Whether on Android, iOS, or Facebook, the mobile/web platform is growing steadily, taking more and more time and money away from console gaming.

What does that do for collecting? Same effect as moving to digital games. Nobody is going to be collecting copies of Angry Birds or Temple Run (even if, for some reason, they wanted to do so) for the simple reason that they don't exist apart from a mobile device and an account that says you bought the game.

Let me reiterate: this is where the market is growing on an incredible level, and it's where the money is. Mobile games can be sold for free on the knowledge that users will likely pay more for add-on content than they would for the game up-front. This is great for the economy, but not so much for collectors. If all games go mobile, we just won't be collecting them in the future.

4. Buying a game no longer buys you the whole game.

While we're on that subject, let's talk about DLC. I love DLC; I hate DLC. You'll hear both opinions, and I happen to share both, depending on the context.

I love DLC because it (a) expands the life cycle of a game and (b) allows any major flaws to be corrected without having to re-purchase the game.

I hate DLC because (a) it allows developers to release unfinished games and charge ransom for fixing it; (b) it means that whenever you think you've bought a game, you haven't really bought the game.

Let me illustrate with a common experience: you've just bought Shiny-Awesome-Game for PS3, a couple weeks after the release date. You paid $60 for it, and it's got that wonderful new-game smell to it. You tear off the plastic wrap, open up the case, and pop it into your console. It's ready to go, right?

Well, it would be ready to go, except that you first must download "the most recent version" of the game, because there's been a patch already. Actually, I've gotten pre-ordered games that had updates pre-release. See my first reason above for hating DLC.

Even though patches and upgrades are often free, I still consider them as holding the game for ransom, because it means that, essentially, you haven't bought the game just by purchasing it from the store. This is doubly true for purchased DLC (and triply so for disc-locked content that's actually on the disc but won't be available until you buy it).

Imagine a future collector buying Shiny-Awesome-Game for PS3 in 2034. He dusts off his PS3, boots it up, puts in the disc, and has to hope there's still a PSN around, at least one that will still speak to his PS3, or else he's only going to be able to play the initially available version on the disc. Who'd want to collect that?

5. Everything has a life-span, especially optical media.

I saved this one for last because it's probably the weakest point, but it's still important. In fact, it's one that currently affects collectors for CD-based consoles (Sega CD, Atari Jaguar, Sega Saturn, etc). It's called disc rot. Sounds like a horrible disease, and it is. And it's incurable.

Essentially, CDs will accumulate scratches which expose the data layer to the air, causing oxidation and hence data loss. Once the data's lost due to disc rot, it's just gone. While ROM cartridges have an incredible shelf life (my Atari games from the 1970s – almost 40 years old now –  still work just fine), it's really only a matter of a decade or so before CDs start to degrade. DVDs last longer, due to their better protective coating, but they're still susceptible. I've even seen stories of Blu-ray discs going bad already, although those may be just bad batches (do a Google search to see the horror stories for yourself). So this is a problem that will affect current games less, but may still become an ever-increasing problem.

By the way: this affects solid-state storage (like flash drives and memory cards) as well. Keep backups of your games for PSP, in other words.

Okay, JT, we get it...final thoughts?

So all of these factors are what have me worrying about the future of collecting. It's not that games being released now aren't good enough to be worth collecting (well...not just that) or that the market is about to collapse, leaving games worth nothing (we've survived that before),  but simply that future collectors may not have anything that can be collected.

Where do we go from here? Well, unfortunately there's not much we can do. It makes great business sense to move to the digital distribution model, so there's not much stopping it. We can protest DRM all we want, but it's going to persist.

If all else fails, though...well, let's see how long my Atari lasts.


03 July 2014

Not the controller we deserve, but the one we need...[]

Ladies and gentlemen (and robots), as Atari collectors we need a better controller.

Quick disclaimer: I love using the original Atari joystick. It may not be the most ergonomically efficient or functionally convenient controller, but it is a classic. Nothing could ever replace it. I would never want anything to replace it, even if something could.

With that said, let me also state that I find the Atari joystick annoying to use at times. If you're unfamiliar with it, you (a) have never played video games or (b) are just wilfully ignorant. Here's a picture, in any case:

Source: Wikipedia
It is at once a perfect symbol of simplicity and function over ornamentation, and an image that makes my hand cramp instantly just to look upon it.

We'll put aside the fact that it's inherently right-handed (unless you, as I have, take one apart and re-wire it to be left-handed) and focus on its shape. It's a box, whose corners, although rounded, are going to cause discomfort no matter how you hold it. It is also lightweight, meaning that it is impractical to set it down on a table and use it as you would an arcade stick. The design is simple and straightforward, but it could use some work.

In fact, it wasn't long after the introduction of the Atari VCS that third-party joysticks emerged in abundance. The fact that the 9-pin controller port used by the Atari VCS was adopted as something of a standard by machines from Commodore 64 to the Sega Genesis with near 100% compatibility meant that there was always an alternative. Even now, a collector can find numerous different joysticks, all trying to improve upon the basic design.

One of the big drawbacks of the Atari controller was a function of its technology: the directional controls were all discrete, not analog. There were four separate signals for up, down, left, and right, and none of them had any gradation of intensity. Therefore the console could not tell how far you were pushing the joystick in a particular direction, only what direction(s) you were engaging.

Source: robotroom.com, via Google Image Search.

See those button-looking things up there? The bottom of the joystick has four plastic nubs on it. Depending on how you tilt the stick, one or two of those will make contact with the dome switches and send the appropriate signal to the console. The fire button does the same thing for the switch in the upper left.

Of course the Atari VCS did have analog controllers: the paddles.

Source: Wikipedia

These controllers, bundled in pairs, are incredibly responsive because they work via analog signals (I'm simplifying a bit, as I'm not an electrical engineering expert and it's not crucial to my point here). I find it incredible and disappointing that there really weren't third-party variants to these.

How did one port support both joystick and paddles? Well, that's a bit complicated, but essentially either controller type didn't use all 9 pins on the controller port. I found a site that shows the mappings of all these controllers, which those of you curious enough may want to examine. Also, if you read it you'll understand a bit more when I finally get to my point further down the page here.

There is another style of controller, however, besides the joystick: the gamepad, or joypad (depending on your term of preference). This is the controller people most associate with the Nintendo Entertainment System, and it's probably one of, if not the most important advances in controller design. Moving the directional control to a small pad able to be maneuvered by one thumb frees up the coordination of the other hand and greatly reduces hand/wrist strain.

Those who collect for the Atari 7800 ProSystem are probably aware of the deficient design of its standard controllers, based loosely on the joystick design. Some are aware that there was a different controller packaged with the system for European customers:

If you have an Atari 7800, get one of these. Also got this pic from Wikipedia.

Looks a bit like an NES controller, and works much, much better than a joystick (especially if you remove the little joystick thing on top of the directional pad). It's no surprise that from the NES forward, joysticks were ditched in favor of gamepads.

Leap forward a bit to 1997, when Sony released the Dual Analog Controller for its PlayStation console.

Source: Wikipedia. Again.
I also consider this a huge turning point in controller design, because here we have both discrete (D-pad) and analog (sticks) controls on the same controller. That's big, and it's a feature carried forward on controllers since.

Now you say to me, "JT, you feeble-minded protozoan! The Nintendo 64 had a controller with both analog stick and d-pad a year earlier!" And so it did.
Source: Wikipedia...boy I'm saying that a lot...

The picture above illustrates why I'm ignoring it for the purposes of this post. I've heard the arguments in favor of the N64's controller layout, but as far as I'm concerned it is an over-complicated, awkward mess that requires an uncomfortable shift in grasp to switch from the d-pad to the analog stick. We good on that point? Okay.

So with Sony's Dual Analog controller (and its descendants, the DualShock line), we first got a handheld controller that allowed easy access to both directional buttons and analog controls. Moreover, its design keeps the hands comfortably placed all during use. Truly remarkable.

By the way, if you want more love-spewing in Sony's direction from me, please see one of my earlier posts, wherein I also tackle the topic of video game controllers.

Are we getting back to your main point yet?

Yep. Here we go. Here is my proposal for the next step in Atari controllers.

Another disclaimer: I'm not an electrical engineer, and I don't even play one on television. I've never soldered anything in my life, nor do I have the resources or know-how to build electronic components. But I have done a bit of research on this, and I have at least tinkered with Atari controllers (to the extent, as I mentioned earlier, of turning one of my joysticks left-handed), so what I am proposing is, so far as I know, theoretically feasible.

So just check it out, at least:

So professional...such amazing skill...
What you see up there is a rough mock-up I slapped together in GIMP to illustrate my ideas. By the way, if you didn't click this link up above, you may want to review it for information on controller pin mappings.

Controller features
  1. Woodgrain finish with ridges...because it must. Also, the Atari logo.
  2. Comfortable grip to reduce hand strain during long gaming sessions.
  3. The directional buttons can be mapped to the same outputs as for the joystick. 
  4. In place of analog sticks, my mock-up here has two analog thumb wheels, basically miniature versions of the wheels on the paddle controllers. Left wheel for Paddle 1, right for Paddle 2. 
  5. Single red button on the right-hand side. I love how simple and uncomplicated Atari controllers can be. You'd be surprised what you can do with just one button. 
  6. P1 and P2 shoulder buttons. This is where it goes a bit onto more shaky territory, although I still believe it should be doable. Because paddle games for the 2600 didn't use a joystick for movement (by definition), they didn't need actual direction buttons. Therefore, paddle controllers use the same pins for "Fire 1" and "Fire 2" (the red buttons on the side of the paddle controllers) as the joystick would use for "Right" and "Left", respectively. But even though very few paddle games have a single player using both paddles (Bumper Bash is the only one that comes to mind), you don't want to move your thumb from the wheel to the d-pad to fire. This is the beauty of shoulder buttons. Therefore, these buttons should somehow hook up to the same place as the right and left d-pad buttons. 
  7. J/P selector switch (on top of controller). This I thought would be a great way to make sure one set of controls doesn't interfere with another. When set to J, it's in "Joystick" mode, and the shoulder buttons do nothing. Set it to "P" mode (i.e. "Paddle" mode), and the d-pad turns off, allowing the shoulder buttons to do their thing.
  8. Bonus points: Either in "J" mode or just naturally, the thumb wheels are depressable, and doing so automatically outputs the full voltage. That is, it's as if you were turning the paddle all the way. This is for compatibility with Atari 7800, where the pin that for the 2600 controller just means "fire" means "both buttons pressed," and the two buttons individually are controlled by the same pins as the paddle wheels (see this chart for reference). Therefore, when using it as an Atari 7800 controller, you just ignore the red button up top and use the paddle wheels for games where both buttons are used. 
  9. Extra bonus points: This also gives you compatibility with Omega Race, which uses a special add-on to the joystick to give you an extra button, using the same method.

So there you have a controller that would meet both ergonomic and technical requirements. The only time you'd need to switch to another controller would be for multiplayer paddle games or Indy 500

What I'm trying to say is, in effect, "Somebody please make this!"


02 July 2014

Feeling blue...with labels...[]

Last time, I discussed the expansive variety exhibited in cartridges for the Atari 2600 by various game companies. I know I've missed a few, and in fact in a future post I will address these, but today I've decided to talk about a related topic: label variations.

Anyone who's collected Atari games knows that many games, especially those made by Atari, have at least two variations: the picture label and the text label.

Source: AtariAge.com

Of course there are other variation types, and if you care to check on all of them, AtariAge.com has a guide which lists variations by company.

Today, though, I'm just going to discuss one specific label type: the Activision "blue label" variety.

These were produced by Activision in the late '80s to save production costs * in a time when the video game business was just recovering from a horrible crash. The Atari 2600 had also been on the market for a decade, and competition from other companies (i.e. Nintendo) meant that people weren't buying for Atari as much as before. This was a horrible thing.**

You may notice that some of the cartridges up there don't say Activision, but Imagic. This points to one of the tragedies of the Video Game Crash of 1983 (see link above), the loss of so many independent game companies. Imagic went under in the mid-80s, and the rights to their games went to Activision.

Perhaps this was only right, since, like Activision, Imagic was formed by a group of ex-Atari designers who wanted to do things their way. At least Activision gave their games the dignity of being presented by their original company.

So are they worth anything?

Which is better?
Depending on whom you ask, you may hear that the blue label versions are much more valuable, just a little more valuable, or really not any more valuable than the regular versions. It really depends on the buyer/seller, and what's considered as adding to the value. 

Certainly, the blue label versions are less common than the regular versions, so rarity may be an issue. The rarity gradient may vary by game, however, so this won't always be a definite increase.

Some people, like me, enjoy getting cartridge variations, so they may see more value in obtaining a version they don't already have. Of course, this can work both ways, if the person already has the blue-label version.

And then there may be those who just don't like the alternates, and only want the picture labels. You'll always find those people; you may even be one of them.

So Why Do I Like Them?

This one's hard to say. They're not particularly interesting to look at, and they don't increase the value all that significantly. I suppose I just like them because they're different. They look almost like "special editions" with labels reminiscent of blueprints (not the game Blueprint, though).

Also, Activision games are almost universally awesome anyway.

Especially Stampede. Source: videogamecritic.com

So there you go. Look out for the blue labels, either because you want to add something different to your collection, or because you want to avoid them. The power is yours.


* During the same time, Atari was re-releasing cartridges with the "red label" variant, notable for having red labels with black-and-white label art. 
** I reserve the right to add subjective comments based on my own opinions in my own blog.