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Atari Vault : Multi-Player Breathes New Life Into Age-Old Games

I'm from the Atari Generation. The Atari Age. Whatever you call it, it came before the Nintendo Age. Like it or not, that fact colors everything I do as developer. A new Atari collection like Atari Vault always makes me gaze back so I can see forward


I spent much of last weekend attempting to get a multi-player game started with someone, anyone, on the internet. It was not a game of Star Wars Battlefront, or Words With Friends, or even Clash Royale. It was a game of Atari 2600/VCS Basic Math. Let me back-up a bit. Basic Math was released as part of a new Steam-only, PC-only release from Atari named Atari Vault.

When Atari Vault was released last Friday, my initial reaction was negative.  While it includes 100 games (18 coin-ops, 82 Atari 2600/VCS games), they are pretty much the same games Atari has been publishing for the past 2 decades. My thoughts ran like this: "Why do they always release the same old batch of unlicensed 2600 titles and arcade games?"

Atari has a rich history that goes far beyond what we've seen in past titles like Atari:80 Classic Games and Atari Anthology. "Where are the 5200, 7800, Lynx and Jaguar games?  Why can't Atari let people try the 8-bit computer version of 'Star Raiders', once called the best computer game ever made, or judge for themselves if 'doing the math' would have helped the Jaguar succeed?" "Where are the odd an wonderful coin-ops from the 70's and early 1980's?     Where is Shark Jaws, one of the first violent coin-ops?  What about X's and O's Atari Football or Food Fight?  Where are the licensed coin-ops like Pole Position and Did Dug? Where is  the remarkable Rick Mauer designed Space Invaders for the VCS, the game that arguably jump-started the console era?" " Where is the Star Wars coin-op, maybe the best golden age video game ever produced?"

o me the Atari story cannot be told  unless people can play the whole history of Atari.  They need to the play VCS/2600 versions of E.T. and Pac-Man and judge for themselves whether they are "the worst games ever made" (hint: they are not).  

However, I'm a bonafide Atari Nerd, so there is no way I would pass-up this collection.   I also love Steam, as it has revolutionized my enjoyment of PC games.   Atari Vault was developed by Code Mystics, who have been involved in many emulated retro collections  over the years, so I knew there was a pedigree of knowledge and quality to back-up the title.

When I was searching through the games list in Atari Vault, I noticed one named Basic Math that I vaguely recall playing at my friend's  house in 1978, the first time I played an Atari 2600.      It was one of the first games that Atari produced with the original VCS in 1977.   I had not thought about Basic Math (also known as Fun With Numbers) in almost 4 decades. As I recalled,  all you did was use the joystick to answer simple math problems.  I maybe played it once,  because even back then, I was not easily amused by educational video games.   It had to  feel like an arcade game or I was out.


However, the interface for Basic Math was intriguing.  The 3D box spun in-place pleasingly.    The interface and visuals developer Code Mystics created for Atari Vault are very well-done.  I felt them tugging me gently back  to a specific time and place in my childhood, which I suppose is the goal in a nostalgia product like Atari Vault.    They made me want to "open" the box and see what was inside. Then I saw that there was a [Multiplayer] button on the interface for the game.  Multiplayer Basic Math? "What could that be?" I thought. And right then  then my quest started . An almost day-long adventure to find someone, anyone, to play a multi-player game of Atari Vault Basic Math with me. When I clicked the [Multplayer] butting in Atari Vault I was presented with a screen that looked like this.


At first I assumed that this was the specific "lobby" for Basic Math.   I was not surprised that there were no other people in  there.  Why would anyone else besides myself, someone who had a just hair's width of nostalgia for the game Basic Math because I played in once 38 years ago, even consider playing a multi-player version of the game? I clicked the [Host] button assuming it would start a multi-player version of Basic Math, but instead it took me to this screen:


It dawned on me that  the previous screen was the lobby for EVERY multi-player game, not just Basic Math.  And there were none listed, which meant no none was trying play anything in Atari Vault. That was not encouraging at all. I clicked the [Match] button on the interface, and a little icon appeared in the top-right corner of the screen which I assumed meant a had requested a game. Then I waited. And Waited. And waited. At some point I  decided to "live-tweet" my quest, something I've heard all the kids are doing these days with their flip-phones and PDAs.   My quest quickly turned from instant gratification into something else entirely.  

I started a multi-player game in Atari Vault and waited. No one came.

  Instead I decided to try Street Racer.  There is a variation in that game named "Number Cruncher" that I recalled from having my own Atari VCS in 1981.  I loved that game.   It's all about eating numbers and not crashing into them.  what could be better than that?  As a bonus, it felt "math" related which seemed appropriate wile on my Basic Math quest.  

  I got a bite!  However the multi-player game never started, and it appeared like the options were for Space War, a game I had tried earlier in the day.  So I kept trying.  


  I never got a real game started, which was a disappointment.   pulled back and tried a different game that might attract more players: Outlaw.



Outlaw! was one of my all-time favorites Atari 2600/VCS games.   The bouncing shots combines with the destructible environments made for a very pleasing head-to-head shooting game.  The multi-player version did not disappoint. The only issue I noticed occurred when the game ended.    Sure, I "believe" I won 10-7, but I could not be actually sure since at the exact moment my final shot collided with the other player, the game abruptly sent me back to the multi-player select screen.  There was no final score, no ability to rematch, nothing.   It was like I had taken P.T. Barnum up on his offer of the  Great Egress with nothing to show for my efforts.       However, fat off my multi-player success, and went ahead and tried to start another  game of Street Racer :Number Cruncher.   


It worked! I got game going and I beat my opponent handily.  I was pretty sure it was because they didn't know that you could hold the fire button down to speed up.  Number Cruncher was okay, but I really wanted to see what Basic Math was all about.  So I tried again

I waited around for someone to accept my offer of a game of multi-player game of Basic Math.    It's a weird slog to wait for a another player in Atari Vault.  You basically start a "Match" style game, and wait.  There is zero indication of how many people are online, what games are being played, etc.   It could be a 30 second wait, it could be all-day.   So I decided to quit and eat breakfast. I had no plans of returning and trying again that day. 

But I could not stop thinking about Basic Math.  As I ate my breakfast, I could escape from the idea that a  game Basic Math could be started and played in Atari Vault.   What did that mean? What kind of multi-player experience could that be?    With all the intellectual property Atari must own, why would they have chosen Basic Math as one of the games to feature in this package?  Furthermore, why would they feature it as a multi-player game?  Was it just a small piece of shovelware in a 100 game collection?  Was it an oversight to include it?  Was there something brilliant and wonderful hiding inside that virtual Atari cartridge box that I missed in the 70s? I had to find out.   So I started to tweet vigorously to see if I could get someone to take the bait and try one game with me.


  Not sure why I said that I'd never played before.  I was desperate I guess, trying not to scare away any potential players who thought I was some kind of 1st grade math shark.    At that point I looked up some math facts and decided to tweet those to make it more interesting while I waited.  

  Then it happened.  Either all my tweeting got my match noticed, or someone named "sharpcarlos" happened upon my game request, but either way, I was in.   However, when we got to the options screen, everything was blank.  I desperately tried to click the options and when nothing worked, I pressed the [Start] button, but it was to no avail. The game never started, sharpcarlos got bored (I imagine) and left the game. Strike 1.

I then attempted to get another match started for about an hour. In the mean time, I posted more facts.

I tried Haiku. 

And when I finally got another 2nd game started, the results were even worse.

  Strike 2. I tried another math fact, and restarted the game.  

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