Tech-savvy fans programming, developing on classic consoleWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | email@example.com
The Atari 2600 was not the first home gaming console, but for many, many consumers, it was the first they ever owned. Released in 1977, the 2600 was a revolutionary device for home video gaming, popularizing cartridges as a storage medium for software and setting standards in quality that every other system would try to live up to.
The system would have the longest lifespan of any home console — the last Atari units would be sold in 1991, more than 13 years after its initial release. For a generation of gamers, Atari and video games were synonymous terms.
The legacy and significance of the Atari system may be lost on some modern gamers, but for many, that original, primitive console holds the imagination in a way that can never be matched. Many of Atari’s most famous games remain popular on gaming emulator sites, which recreate the experience of playing the originals perfectly. And for the truly dedicated, another challenge is available — modifying existing classics yourself, or even creating your own 2600 games from scratch.
By day, Don Curtis is an application developer in the networking services department at the University of Toledo. But a reminder of one of his greatest hobbies is never far from reach — for the past ten years, Curtis has always kept an Atari 2600 running in his office on campus.
“All of my bosses tolerate it, because I don’t play it during work hours,” Curtis said. “It’s more of a conversation piece, kind of like a lava lamp or something, just always on in the background.”
At his home is more proof of his passion for vintage gaming — his basement has several classic arcade games that Curtis has totally restored. They run on PCs, with modern emulators installed on the drives, but they look and play like the classic stand-up machines that dominated kids’ imaginations (and piggy banks) in the early 1980s.
As far as working with the 2600 software, Curtis said that he hasn’t done extensive modification of existing material just yet.
“I have not done a lot, I’ve just gone in, I’ve looked under the hood, played around with some of the source code of some of the files, made some changes, saw that it could be done,” Curtis said. “But I’ve never really undertaken a creative project like Will Nicholes has.”
Nicholes has taken game modification one step further. A senior software engineer for a company that works with the Department of Homeland Security, Nicholes, a UT graduate, grew up with the 2600 and began to modify games after discovering emulators for Atari classics in the 1990s.
“My very first attempt at modifying a game was ‘Adventure’ on Atari,” Nicholes said. “I thought it’d be fun if I was to tweak a few bytes of program code and add another object in there. So I added a hot air balloon to ‘Adventure,’ so you could float around, above the kingdom.”
Nicholes toyed with adding more objects until a realization struck him.
“I thought, if I’m going to be making all these modifications, I might as well just make my own game.”
The result is “Duck Attack!,” a new 2600 game, created almost 20 years after the system ceased to be manufactured. With a structure loosely based on the gameplay of “Adventure,” “Duck Attack!” took nearly seven years for Nicholes to complete.
“I put it out to the forums on [fan site] Atari Age so that people could play it, tell me what they thought of it,” Nicholes said. “I used a lot of ideas that the folks on that forum gave me.” And, fittingly, “Duck Attack!” has now been immortalized on an actual cartridge. At the 2010 Classic Gaming Expo, July 31 and Aug. 1 in Las Vegas, the game was first made available for sale to collectors on a cartridge that is actually playable on vintage Atari machines.
“It’s just really thrilling and really exciting,” Nicholes said. And while many developers and fans look with bated breath toward the future, others still feel a nostalgic pull toward the past — one symbolized by that simple brown console.
“If you were to show the original engineers who built the Atari the stuff that’s being done on the Atari 2600 today, they would not believe it,” Curtis said.
Play “Duck Attack!” online at willnicholes.com/duck/index.htm.