How the 2600 forged the home video game future.

Culture and technology.
March 9 2009 5:54 PM

Speak, Atari

How the 2600 forged the home video game future.

(Continued from Page 1)

Robinett was inspired to create Adventure by an earlier text adventure game also called Adventure, which was in turn inspired by a love of cave exploring. Robinett's Adventurepopularized the now-common convention of screen-to-screen movement through a virtual space. It also made early strides in avatars and collision-detection (determining when one object hits another), basic aspects of video gaming. Most famously, Robinett programmed one of the first Easter eggs—a hidden dot gave access to a secret room which displayed the words "Created by Warren Robinett."

The Easter egg, says Robinett, "was a signature, like at the bottom of a painting." Atari discovered his handiwork after a 15-year-old player wrote the company a letter, but the egg remained because it was too expensive for Atari to make a new ROM mask. (Will that then-15-year-old player please identify him or herself and take a bow? Various sources suggest "a gamer in Utah.")

Montfort and Bogost go on to devote chapters to four other key titles in Atari history: Pac-Man, Yars' Revenge, Pitfall!, and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. The most significant of these is Pitfall!, produced by Activision in 1982. That company was started by a group of star Atari programmers who realized that the games they had anonymously programmed on their $20K salaries were responsible for 60 percent of the company's $100 million in cartridge sales for one year. Activision prided itself on decent-sounding sounds and aesthetic detail, such as the tree limbs in the Pitfall!jungle canopy—a pride that strained the limits of the Atari's native capabilities. They also started to work in teams, while giving the lead programmer prominent credit. That explains the tag line of this vintage TV ad for Pitfall!, which informs us that the game was "designed by David Crane."

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The end came in 1983. A lot of us started playing games on home computers. A bunch of big-time cartridges, like the infamous E.T., were huge busts, and retailers became gun-shy about ordering more titles and sent the ones they had on the shelves back. The returns bankrupted third-party game developers and fueled an industry consensus that video games were a fad—a toy whose time had passed. In two years, Nintendo would prove everyone very wrong. The arrival of the Nintendo Entertainment System would embed Nintendo games in the memories of a new generation, just as Atari's had already done. Using Montfort and Bogost's intellectual model, an enlightening book could be written about how the design of the NES hardware affected game development on that machine.

What still amazes me, in spite of my scholarly concerns here, is the nostalgic punch of early video games—how transporting the blocky sounds and sights can be. Thanks to the hard work of my fellow travelers, all of these memories are a click away. Firing up a game of Frogger, I can almost smell the mildew on my basement floor. A game like Raiders of the Lost Ark really did immerse you in the manner of a good Encyclopedia Brown story. Getting caught in the balloons of Circus Atari was like a nitrous hit. And I defy you to find a more haunting sound than the collapse of a doomed city in Missile Command.

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If you discovered the secret room in Adventure by yourself, not when it was published in a gaming magazine, send me an e-mail  and stake your claim to a place in history. (Update, March 11, 2008: Although I haven't heard from the "gamer in Utah," who first wrote a letter to Atari about the Easter egg in Adventure, I've heard from several people who found the dot and the secret room on their own. There were rumors of a "bonus" or "endgame" for Adventure, and the dot was discoverable because of a quirk in the game that caused a room to flash when there were more than two objects in it. For the complete scenario, watch the unveiling of the Easter egg here. Thanks to all to who pointed this out.) If you have questions about what it was like to work at Atari as a kid, e-mail Slate's John Dickerson.

Michael Agger is an editor at The New Yorker. Follow him on Twitter.

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