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.

01 July 2014

A Field Guide to Atari 2600 Cartridges, or "Why I love SpectraVision Carts"...[]

Good morning, Atari fans (or good afternoon, good evening, or good night, depending on when I get this posted)!

One of the great things about collecting for cartridge-based video game consoles, and especially for the Atari 2600, is that the cartridge designs were not completely standardized.

With modern consoles, using disc-based games, there really isn't much room for design creativity or variation apart from the label artwork. The disc has to fit in the drive, has to spin correctly, can't interfere with the plethora of moving parts inside the machine, et cetera.

Meanwhile, cartridge-based consoles only require that (a) the cartridge board contacts line up with the contacts on in the cartridge slot, and (b) the cartridge itself will fit into the slot.*

Because of this, it was possible for companies to add uniqueness to their games by giving them distinctive cartridge shapes.

There are certainly more variations than I will be able to cover here, but here are some to look out for as you build your collection:

Note: Pictures will be oriented with label at the top, so the labels will be upside-down.

Atari — The Basic Cartridge

This is about as basic as you can get, and that's not a bad thing. Game cartridges from Atari have a classic shape and, typically, excellent artwork **. The typography changed a bit over time (from all caps to mixed case titles on the end labels), but the design stayed consistent. The games have clear end labels, they stack/shelve neatly, and they're incredibly durable, especially because they usually had a protective cover over the open end to keep out dust.

These are also pretty much the only cartridges that have end labels separate from the front labels. Most types have a wrap-around label, with front and end in one peace. While I do like this feature, it means that these are the ones most commonly seen without end labels, since one can fall off without the other. 

Activision — The King (of Discolored Labels)

Activision was formed in October 1979 by a group of former Atari employees who wanted recognition (Atari's policy was not to credit programmers). They won the right to produce games for the Atari Video Computer System (the 2600's original name) and opened the door for third-party developers to come. We all owe them a debt of gratitude.

It's easy to spot Activision cartridges due to their distinctive style, which consists of six common traits (apart from the Activision logo):
  1. A large, friendly typeface with titles in all caps;
  2. A small indentation near the top with grooves for gripping the cartridge;
  3. Screenshots of actual gameplay instead of cover art;
  4. The programmer's name right on the label;
  5. Small tabs along the back which correspond to grooves on the front, making it easy to stack cartridges together securely (so that you can carry several without them slipping around); and
  6. Discoloration splotches all over the label. This is known as "Activision Rot" or "Acti-rot" and is a side-effect of aging on the glue used to affix the labels. 
The last of these is really the only big downfall of these cartridges for collectors, because it means that you will really never see one of these amazing games in their original state. However, some (myself included) see it as a feature which gives the cartridges character, so long as it's not too egregious. 

Of note is that Activision cartridges do not have the protective cover at the open end that Atari cartridges do, which makes them more susceptible to dust/dirt on the contacts. 

I'll also say that these are my second-favorite cartridges, largely because of the tabs/grooves that help to lock the cartridges together. This is just such a useful feature, and several other companies borrowed the idea. I also really like that they show right on the cartridge what the game looks like, so a bad game can't hide behind fancy cover art. 

Quite apart from the cartridges, Activision games were unique in that their manuals came with messages directly from the programmers, which adds a personal touch that games these days, programmed by teams of thousands, just can't match. That's a topic for another day, though.

Imagic — So Shiny....

Let me just say that I love Imagic cartridges, except for how they fit on the shelf. The pull tab on top is very functional, if overkill, and I'm a sucker for anything shiny.

However, that tab on top obscures the end label significantly when it is on the shelf. Combined with the tilt of the end label, this makes it difficult to read the labels quickly. Fortunately, I keep all my cartridges alphabetized.

Parker Bros. — Just Think of Frogger

To be fair, Parker Brothers did more than just Frogger; they also produced the Star Wars games, Q*Bert, and others. But Frogger is the one that always comes to mind.

The label tapers toward the open end and is wrapped around the pointed end (which doesn't help visibility on the shelf), and most of the cartridge is bevelled and ridged for easy removal. And there's the large, friendly Parker Brothers logo on the back.

The one thing I really don't like about these cartridges is that the label is very often loose around the pointy end.

Coleco — Yes, It's for Atari

Although Coleco made games for their own system (which could also play Atari 2600 games), they also produced games for the Atari 2600 directly. They are easily recognizable, as they are pretty much the only cartridges made out of white plastic.The indentation in the back is also fairly distinctive.

I think it's interesting that Donkey Kong up there is a game owned by Nintendo, but programmed/packaged by Coleco for an Atari console.

Important: Be sure, when you are purchasing these, that it has the phrase "Video game cartridge for use with the Atari® Video Computer System™ and Sears Video Arcade ™" on the cover, as the cartridges for ColecoVision can be nearly identical. You can also check a recessed area in the back, which for ColecoVision games holds the controller overlay.

CBS Video Games — Look for the Grey

These cartridges are also usually very distinctive because of their color, which is nearly always a dark grey rather than the standard black. Other than that, the cartridge looks just like an Activision cartridge, although the grooves may not be compatible.

The text is also distinctive, as well as the lack of cover art. But really, it's the grey factor.

Twentieth Century Fox — Games of the Century

Back in the heyday of the Atari 2600, it seemed everyone was making games. Even Twentieth Century Fox got into the racket with several movie tie-in games, all labelled "Games of the Century."

These cartridges also resemble Activision carts, although again the grooves are not compatible, and the ridged area is larger along the sides.

The astute will note that for the top screenshot I have used a different game, as the end label for M*A*S*H has an unusual end label where the title is squeezed into a corner. I kept M*A*S*H for the front and back, though, because it has the Fox logo on the back, while Alien does not.

M Connection (Mattel) — "Those Weird Ones"


These are probably my least favorite cartridges for the Atari 2600, and the reason should be pretty obvious. But, in the interest of clarity, let me count the ways:
  1. Awkward shape which provides no real advantage — it does not make it any easier to insert/remove from the system. Moreover, it makes it the sore thumb sticking out of any group of cartridges. Because the top is much thinner than the bottom, it completely ruins the stability of any stack, and won't even stack with others of its kind. It also fits on shelves awkwardly, so that rows containing these cartridges are looser than others.
  2. No cover art. Even the most generic Atari cartridges at least had a front label that gave you the title; this gives you nothing and makes it just feel incredibly cheap.
  3. Angled end label. I don't like this on the Imagic carts, I don't like this on the Parker Bros. carts, and I really don't like it on these carts.
  4. Just...just no. 
Don't be fooled by covers, though; some games in this shell can be pretty awesome, like Astroblast. 

Data Age — The "Also Shinies."

I think of these as lesser versions of the Imagic carts; they're also nice and shiny, but they don't have as flamboyant and oversized a cartridge. They're also hit-or-miss in terms of game quality. If you ever see a game called "Airlock," just run. Don't even pick it up.

Also: angled end labels are still a no-no.

Sega — No, there's no Sonic

Years before the blue hedgehog stormed onto the Sega Genesis, and even before the Sega Master System, there were Atari 2600 games made by Sega. This is one of the only ones I've found, but it has such an interesting cartridge design that I just had to share it. Just look at that thing...majestic.

That's still not my favorite, though.

SpectraVision — So Awesome

This right here is an example of my personal favorite style of Atari 2600 cartridge. SpectraVision (also known as SpectraVideo) made quite a range of titles for the Video Computer System, including Cross Fire, Planet Patrol,  Tapeworm, and this one, Bumper Bash.

I included these images at higher size just because of how awesome they are. Let's go into a few details:
  • Thumb indentation on the front. This really does help the grip, and adds quite a bit of style.
  • Sturdy, solid construction. If you hold a SpectraVision cart in your hands, you'll immediately feel that it's different due to the weight. It just feels heftier and bulkier. Feels great.
  • Grip texture on the back. This goes far beyond the textured surface on the back of an Atari cartridge, and even has the wordmark embedded in the pattern. 
  • Separate end label. I mentioned before that I like it when cartridges have end labels that aren't just one piece with the front label. This one is even recessed a bit. 
  • Shiny. I like shiny. Even if it doesn't show up as well when you use camera flash.
  • Protective cover at the open end, which helps keep out dust/dirt. Always a good idea.
Overall, there's just so much to love about cartridges from SpectraVision/SpectraVideo. Even though not all their games are the best, you have to hand it to their cartridge design. So awesome.

So there you go. Hopefully this has been entertaining, informative, and useful to you as you pursue an ever-expanding Atari collection. I may have missed one or two types (in fact, I know I've missed one, and will address it in a later post), but this should give you a general idea of the incredible variety to be found when collecting for the Atari 2600.


* I'm simplifying a bit. If you want a bit more information about specifics for some different consoles, see this handy guide done by an eBay user. 
** Although later on a lot of cartridges were produced with plain text labels. I'm sure everyone has a Combat or Space Invaders cartridge with a text label. -- Correction! The text labels came first.