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Game Design Essentials: 20 Atari Games

Atari Games, in its heyday, produced some of the most brilliant game designs the world has ever seen - from Marble Madness to Tempest and beyond - and Gamasutra compiles the 20 essentials throughout the company's long arcade career.

As far as the [arcade] industry itself goes it had become -- and still is -- severely polarized. The only titles that were succeeding were SSJPK fighting games -- Side-Scrolling, Jump-Punch-Kick -- a very few sports titles, and high-tech driving titles. The market had become completely indifferent to innovation in game design.

It seemed that all our management wanted to see in development was whatever was currently earning money. For so many years Atari had led the industry in innovation by constantly looking forward. Now we weren't even looking over our shoulders, we were struggling to climb on a tired bandwagon.

-- Ed Rotberg, speaking around 1996, in James Hague's book Halcyon Days: Interviews with Classic Computer and Video Game Programmers

What happened to the Atari fanboys? Nintendo and Sega have theirs, Blizzard and Bungie too, Square and Enix, Capcom and SNK. Yet Atari Games, in its heyday, produced some of the most brilliant arcade game designs the world has ever seen. Unique and idiosyncratic, at its best it made games the likes of which no one else could. Later, it is sad to say, it produced games that no one else would want to.

Some people rave about Nintendo; how its designers come up with new ideas so often, about its fearlessness in taking risks with unconventional designs, and how it reinvents its franchises endlessly.

But even Nintendo has never been as original, as brilliant, as determined to design what developers think best regardless of what management, critics, and eventually, even players might have to say, as was Atari Games in its heyday. A trip through Atari's classic arcade game catalog is like a course in game design all by itself.

A World of Ideas

Arguably, this was the company that kept the spirit of classic arcades alive the longest -- as late as the early '90s. Even now, the company-which-calls-itself-Atari -- which should not be confused with the company this article is devoted to -- shills out the memory of the former arcade powerhouse with GBA and DS ports of classic-era games.

Many of Atari's games were the targets of unequaled numbers of home adaptations. Rampart has over a dozen, and no one knows how many versions of Breakout are out there, considering how shareware authors have adopted and colonized the idea -- not to mention Taito, and Arkanoid.

Atari, particularly the arcade division that split off from the company in the '80s rechristened "Atari Games," seemed restless with ideas. A game where players race marbles through a world of grid lines? Float innertubes down fantastic rivers? Defend castles with walls and cannons? Skateboard while chased by bees? Deliver newspapers?

While the company also had its share of less-than-memorable ideas (Pit-Fighter, Thunderjaws, Batman, most games after 1991), it is easy to overlook such missteps when the company also gave us Tempest. And at its best, Atari Games seemed almost embarrassingly creative.

Other companies could deliver with the absurd premise once in a while (what the hell was Namco smoking when it released Phozon?), but Atari used to do it all the time. At least, Atari didn't stop doing it in 1986. It released an update of Breakout the same year Capcom started selling Street Fighter II. I consider this to be unspeakably awesome, but it should be understood that most players at the time would have disagreed with me.


Atari Games' Signature Elements

Highly ingenious core play mechanics. These tend to be clever and unique, even while other arcade games were starting to become genrefied. Atari did release some genre titles, Pit Fighter in particular, but until 1992 the company never seemed to be quite comfortable with it. Most of those games are relatively obscure today, although Area 51 has shown itself to have legs.

An emphasis on procedural content as opposed to hard content. Atari was more likely to give the player algorithmically modified, changeable levels than hard-coded sequences. Gauntlet gives players different levels from a pre-made set every game, and manipulates food power-ups depending on game difficulty, average score per coin, and number of players.

While it always goes through the same general areas, Toobin's level order and layout can be quite different depending on which forks are taken. Skull & Crossbones shortens levels on easier difficulties. Atari Tetris uses the high score initials as preset blocks late in the game.

Level warps for skilled players. Many games feature these. Sometimes these are offered as a choice at the start of the game, like the wave selectors in Tempest and Star Wars or the score selector in Millipede, but some games would build the warps into the game itself, or even hide them.

Crystal Castles' warps are hidden places in certain levels. 720 Degrees and Rampart have a simple novice/advanced selection. Klax has two kinds of warps: the basic selection kind which appears often in the game, and "secret warps" which are activated by performing a special trick. S.T.U.N. Runner has secret routes in its levels that lead to warps. Gauntlet and Gauntlet II have them, Toobin' has them, even Tetris has them -- they are everywhere.

Distinctive sound. The venerable POKEY I/O and sound chip was used by Atari for much of its history. Used in arcade systems and 8-bit computers alike, like MOS/Commodore's SID chip it has a characteristic sound sought after by chiptune musicians.

The Atari font. This all-capital, 16x16 pixel, monospace serif font began seeing use around the time of Marble Madness, where it's used for the timer and high score entry letters, and appeared in many Atari games from then on. Since Atari Games differ so much from each other it helped to give the company's output a distinctive look.

It makes appearances in games as late as Gauntlet Legends (1998) and Dark Legacy (2001). It was pervasive enough that, even if the game contains no visible use of the font, if one were to go into the operator settings of a 1984-1991 Atari arcade machine and page through them, one would invariably run into the font after a few button presses.

The Atari Bell. Used nearly universally, for a while, as a credit insertion notification, again starting around the time of Marble Madness. It is not identical between games; Marble Madness uses a different bell than Gauntlet.

Per-credit scoring. For games that allow unlimited continues and that don't reset score after a continuation, it is strange, but Atari Games is the only major game developer to make frequent use per-credit score tables. By this time arcade games had already begun moving towards play-to-win instead of play-for-score, but for games that care about score this is a great concept.


Clarification and History

Before we begin, I need to more clearly define what I mean, exactly, by "Atari." The company's name is a term from Go; when a group of stones is one move away from being captured, they are said to be in "atari."

Founded as "Atari Inc.", the company was famously created by Nolan Bushnell to produce Pong machines in the early '70s, and there was no ambiguousness in the use of its name until Jack Tramiel bought the company off of Warner Communications after the great game crash of 1983, when mainstream tastes suddenly shifted away from the video game fad.

Tramiel, fresh after helming Commodore's success with the Commodore 64 home computer and seeking a repeat, bought only Atari's consumer electronics division from Warner. While Tramiel's "Atari Corp." did okay for a while, giving us the Atari 8-bit computers, the Atari ST, and the Jaguar, it didn't last as long as the arcade company -- Atari Games.

It's worth noting now that this article is not interested in the Tramiel Atari, the consumer products of the old Atari, Inc., nor will it cover Atari Games' home publishing efforts, either under the name Tengen or their own. We're interested solely in arcade games.

Atari Games' ownership changed hands frequently at that time, but that didn't prevent it from experiencing a great creative flowering. This is the era that gave us Marble Madness, Gauntlet, 720 Degrees, Atari's version of Tetris, Klax, Toobin', Vindicators, Xybots, Hard Drivin', S.T.U.N. Runner and many other unique games. Eventually Atari Games was sold to former competitor WMS, a.k.a. Williams Electronics, who also owned former competitor Midway.

The company's creative ascendancy seems to have ended around 1992. According to developer interviews from the various console compilations that have been released, Atari's developers had been continually stymied by the difficulty in coming up with original arcade ideas that tested well against fighting games, causing many projects to be abandoned.

One of the abandoned games was the sequel to Marble Madness, Marble Man. Little other than fighting games and racers tested well. Atari Games even tried making a couple of fighters of its own, with the most famous example being the moderately successful dinosaur fighter Primal Rage.

Some of the company's late successes include the Area 51/Maximum Force series of light gun games, the San Francisco Rush series of "exploratory" racing games, and Gauntlet sequels Legends and Dark Legacy.

By the time of Gauntlet Dark Legacy, the company had been renamed Midway Games West, and had found some work on the home adaptations of some of its arcade hits, but the continued implosion of U.S. arcades doomed the studio. Midway left arcades in 2001, and disbanded the studio formerly known as Atari Games in 2003. These days, the name "Atari" is used only by Infogrames.


Pre-Crash Games

Sprint (series)
1974-1989
Designed by Dennis Koble, Robert Weatherby, Kelly Turner, maybe others

When we talk about classic arcade games, it is amazing that we tend to forget about an entire era of arcade history. Video gaming did not jump instantly from Pong in 1972 to Space Invaders in 1978. There were many games in the intervening years, although only Breakout is really remembered today -- mostly due to its Atari VCS ports.

Many other early Atari 2600 games were arcade adaptations, renamed for the system: Combat (formerly Kee Games' Tank), Air/Sea Battle/Target Fun (Anti-Aircraft in arcades), and the many Pong-likes which made it into Video Olympics. The Sprint games, the basis of Indy 500 on the VCS, are especially notable.

I call the series Sprint, but the original game was named Gran Trak 10. Atari released no fewer than ten versions of what amounts to the same game over their history: Gran Trak 10, Gran Trak 20, Le Mans, Sprint 2, Sprint 4, Sprint 8 and Sprint 1 were all pre-classic arcade games.

Some were released under the name Kee Games, a shell company Atari created to get around distributor restrictions. Amazingly, Atari Games would return to the series in the late '80s with Super Sprint and Championship Sprint (both 1986), and Badlands (1989).

While the updates add 16-bit graphics, vehicle upgrades and, in the case of Badlands, weapons, they still amount to the same game: a race game with single-screen tracks and tiny vehicles, steered with a steering wheel controller and a gas pedal. Take a moment to let the awesomeness of that fact sink in.

Sprint 1

More awesome yet, even the original games, released a mere two years after Pong, are quite playable today. Since then, driving games have picked up a third dimension, cockpit and behind-the-car perspectives, sprawling tracks, drift mechanics, realistic damage, tremendously varied vehicles, weapons, navigation tasks, simulated worlds to drive through, and a slew of other features. But at their core, they all seek to duplicate what Gran Trak 10 did in 1974.


Sprint 8

And one of Sprint's features has yet to be equaled: Sprint 8 was a driving game played by up to eight players, around a gigantic monitor table in the middle, two to a side, all with their own steering wheels and gas pedals. No, wait; it was equaled once: by Kee Games' Tank 8.

And it wasn't just Atari that followed this successful formula: Midway's Super Off-Road is nothing more than a slower Sprint with bigger tires, turbo boosts, upgrades and multi-level tracks.

While it doesn't seem like it would be that kind of game, Championship Sprint has an end. I've never seen it myself, for it's one of those games that's fun to play for just a few minutes at a time, but that doesn't really lend itself to long sessions. While Badlands was released in 1989, the game was always a creature of its pre-Space Invaders design ideals.


Asteroids
1979
Designed by Lyle Rains and Ed Logg

Taito's Space Invaders came out in 1978, and changed video games forever. Earlier games would give the player a limited amount of time to rack up points, but Space Invaders, borrowing a concept from pinball, gave the player a limited number of lives, and even the opportunity to earn an extra. So pervasive was the idea that, even now, it is everywhere.

Asteroids came out the year after Space Invaders, and it took its ideas and ran with them. Space Invaders awards one extra life throughout the entire game, but Asteroids awards repeatedly as the player continues to earn points. This makes it the first "game of attrition," where it's expected the player will continually lose lives, so the game continues to award them.

This turns out to be a big mistake in Asteroids, since there exists a good strategy, the infamous "hunting" technique, that can take players to very high scores with little risk. But that idea, of attrition, was influential too: Defender, out the year after Asteroids, relies heavily upon it.

Asteroids is also notable for being what amounts to a rudimentary physics game. That is, a game that ultimately derives its play from simulating Newtonian motion. The player's ship, the rocks, even shots all have mass and inertia. When shooting, the ship's velocity is added to that of the shots coming out of the ship. Many things that are considered physics games now have to do with masses interrelating, colliding or connected with springs, but this is 1979 we're talking about.

One of the core ideas of Asteroids, which is now ubiquitous but was rather daring at the time, is the idea that the ship's movement is relative to its orientation and not the player's. Pressing the "turn left" button doesn't cause it to face the left side of the screen, but to rotate to its left.

The thrust button doesn't cause the ship to move up the screen but in the direction it's facing. While the player's not inside the vehicle being controlled, just like controlling an R.C. car, movement isn't direct but indirect.

It is not overstating things to note that this idea has since saturated gaming. Many 2D games could do without it, but when 3D came along it became indispensable. Tomb Raider, for example, makes heavy use of it. Many say Resident Evil was crippled by it.

Once you grant the camera the ability to change angle independently of the protagonist, it becomes harder to make a 3D game that doesn't do this, enough so that going back and doing it the old way, using viewport-relative control, is one of Super Mario 64's key innovations.

Finally, Asteroids is one of the few games that still looks "cool," even to a modern gamer spoiled by texture-mapped light-shaded polygons, because of its Vectorscan monitor. The effect just isn't the same when reproduced on a raster display device. These monitors are no longer manufactured by any company, and are becoming short in supply, so the time may one day arrive that Asteroids in its original form no longer exists.

Prior games maintained visible high score lists, a.k.a. "vanity boards," but Asteroids was the first arcade game to let players enter initials. Unfortunately, the score rolls over at a mere 100,000 points! Twin Galaxies' record for Asteroids rolled it 413 times, over a number of days. This could be considered illustrative of the difference in developer and player perspective at the time.

It may be that the developers didn't see that ultra-long games with huge scores weren't possible, but that they thought no one would bother playing for so long. Contrast Asteroids' complex play with that of earlier games like Pong, and it's easy to see how developer expectations may not have matched with players.


Centipede
1980
Designed by Ed Logg and Dona Bailey.

One of the most interesting things about these games is how abstract they are. Centipedes don't move like this in real life -- going back and forth until they hit mushrooms and drop down a level. In fact, nothing in this game matches its real-life counterpart very well. The game is composed entirely of invented mechanics. This is nothing special in the field of puzzle games, but in a action game, it's novel.

But then, for what is basically a shooter, there's a great amount of strategy to Centipede. The most inert things in it, the mushrooms, turn out to be the key to success. If there weren't mushrooms it'd be easy to clear board after board. It takes time to chip away at them, shooting centipedes creates more, and if there are too few on the screen the game drops in mushroom-producing Fleas.

Meanwhile, mushrooms hasten the centipede's descent, they block shots, they give scorpions something to poison which can make the 'pede much more dangerous, and they even block movement if they're low enough. All four of the game's enemies affect, or are affected by, mushrooms in some way.

Centipede's difficulty curve is also a bit special, for there are actually two curves here added together. The game gets harder by level, in that every time the player clears a centipede the next one is slightly harder, with a faster 'pede and more initial heads, and it gets harder by score, which affects overall game speed and enemy behavior.

This helps to mix things up a bit, and also makes the game less vulnerable to hunting strategies that freeze the level progress but increase score. Although the game still has those...

The distinctive winding motion of the centipede makes possible an amazing exploit. An old issue of Joystik illustrated the technique, attributed to one-time Centipede champ Eric Ginner, demonstrating that by leaving three mushrooms on one side of the screen, both the centipede and any extra nuisance heads will be trapped between them and the side in a constantly-winding blob, leaving the player entirely safe.

Due to the game's per-level difficulty advancement, if this is done on a "full centipede" board, one that starts with no individual heads, then the game will never drop in fleas to bomb the player or add mushrooms, meaning the only things that can hurt the player are the spiders that show up periodically. By just hunting them the player can accumulate high scores with minimal risk, although it's kind of boring to play that way.


Tempest
1980
Designed by Dave Theurer

Tempest is abstract even by Atari standards. Each level is a one-screen web, divided into lanes. The player can move around freely along the outside of the web using a dial, but his position always resolves into being in one of the web's lanes, and shots always travel down the center of a lane.

The web is in perspective, with the player's movement area being at the close end, and the center of the web in the distance. This is where the enemies come from, and clearing a level means destroying all the major enemies on the web.

The primary enemy is the Flipper, a tie-shaped thing that sails out from the distant center of the web towards the rim where the player resides. One shot kills a Flipper, but there's many of them and they're pretty quick, and the player must try to shoot them before they make it to the end.

If a Flipper makes it, it "flips" along the outside of the web, out of the player's reach, and tries to "capture" him by flipping behind him and taking him in, which costs him a life. Flippers on the outside can be killed either with the Superzapper or by shooting just as the Flipper's about to hit the player.

The most interesting "enemy" are the Spikes. They don't directly attack the player; in fact, they don't move at all. They start each level on the board, protruding into the lanes of the web from the distant opening. If a shot traveling down a lane hits one, it "pounds" the Spike back a bit, the amount varying according to the level, and a Spike pounded all the way back vanishes.

While they may block shots meant for more aggressive foes, they aren't dangerous until the level is complete. When cleared, the player sails down and through the web, with a 3D effect, to reach the next level. Any Spikes left during the level remain during this sequence, and if the player hits one along the way he loses a life and is sent back into the previous level.

The player can still move and shoot during the exit animation, so the can try to dodge into empty lanes and pound short ones down while exiting, but it's usually better to make sure there are free lanes available when the last enemy is killed... which means there are actually times when it's best not to kill that last foe. One of the enemies, Spikers, has as its purpose in life the growing of Spikes.

Tempest is one of the twitchiest games ever made, requiring total concentration to survive later waves. Most twitch games ultimately use a joystick, sometimes two, because of their familiarity to the player. Player movement in Tempest, however, is ultimately one-dimensional. The player movement zone during each wave is the outside of the web only.

Since dials are a very analog form of control, the game can throw situations at the player requiring speed and precision where ordinary digital movement would be inadequate, and indirectly helps take the rough edges off the design. If the player's lane is surrounded by enemies he can still escape if he can only twist the knob fast enough, while if he had a constant travel rate there would be more situations that come down to being inescapable.

Link: Interview with the designer of Tempest (unnamed, but obviously Theurer).


Quantum
1982
Developed by General Computer Corporation

Quantum, one of Atari's more obscure titles, has one of those game ideas that seems to float around the game industry, popping up randomly in various places, even though it's unlikely each use was influenced by prior art.

The recent DS game Pokemon Ranger, for example, has play that ultimately can be traced back here, and aspects of it can even be found in Sonic Team's Nights Into Dreams. But Quantum is obscure enough that it's probably not due to a conscious effort to steal -- the idea just seems to suggest gameplay.

In Quantum-style games, the player has a cursor that leaves a trail behind it of limited length. Depending on the game, the trail is controlled with a trackball, joystick, analog stick or stylus. Various enemies litter the screen, moving slowly.

The player's task is to surround them with the trail, making a complete loop and clearing them from the board. Some enemies try to foil the player by attacking the trail, others the cursor. Capturing more enemies with a single loop is worth bonus points. That, by and large, is Quantum.

The control scheme tends to matter a lot to games of this type. This one is controlled with a trackball, and like Marble Madness, the control method is not merely an aesthetic choice here.

The speed of the ball, combined with the skill needed to manipulate it rapidly, make a big difference to the experience. Arguably, if you aren't playing Quantum with a trackball, you aren't really playing it.

It should be noted that while Atari published this game, its developers did not design it. It was produced by General Computer Corporation, who also made the better-known Atari game Food Fight.


Major Havoc
1983
Designed by Owen Rubin

A lot of what we've come to think of the platformer genre can be traced back to this classic-era, pre-Super Mario Bros. game. Prime innovations introduced here are the ideas that jump height should depend on how long the button is pressed, and that jumps can be controlled while already airborne.

Of course, in real life we all jump more like Simon Belmont in Castlevania -- without any in-air control. Both adjustable-in-the-air height and off-ground horizontal control are unrealistic, added to games to make them more interesting to the player.

They add player agency when none would be expected both to make up for the limitations of the controls (there is no button marked "jump strength") and to allow player reaction speed to make up for failure to look ahead. They make platform games more immediate.

The game also includes multiple routes to each goal, and at the end a Metroid-ish escape-the-base timed section. It uses a Defender-style scanner to show players both an overall map and the location of off-screen threats. In early rounds it shows the player the way using tutorial arrows.

It even includes a form of difficulty levelling: if crashing into a enemy kills the player, on the next trip through that level, the enemy will be gone! This is better than what many recent games to feature "adaptive difficulty" do, invisibly reducing the number of foes, making them dumber, or decreasing their health without telling the player, in effect lying to him about how much better he's getting. At least here, you can see the thing that killed you last time is no longer around.

Another interesting aspect of play is the multiple "modes" for the game. Between platforming areas there are shooter sections. After clearing the space level there's a landing challenge before the platform area begins. There's even a miniature Breakout game playable on the control panel view screen between boards; while only playable for a few seconds each level, the board carries over between levels, and clearing all the blocks is worth an extra life.

So many awesome ideas made it into Major Havoc, and work well there, that it's a real shame that the game didn't do well, its sales curtailed by the crash.

Of random interest.... according to Digital Press' page on the game, the game contains the credits of its creators, but hidden in a very hard-to-find place. In the base levels, try as you might, you'll never be able to find a way to escape the maze and fall out of the level, but there is a very rare bug that causes the player to fall through a wall. If this happens on the outside of the board, he'll fall down through space and encounter the names of the game's staff.

Here's a cool bit of trivia. Sonic the Hedgehog is often regarded as the first platform game to have an "idle animation," where if you don't touch the controls for a few seconds y

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