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How Mr. Run and Jump leapt onto the Atari 2600 (and modern PCs)

It's as much a challenge to program for the Atari 2600 now as it was when the console was originally released. Graphite Labs would know.

John Harris, Contributor

August 3, 2023

22 Min Read

Mr. Run And Jump (now available for Steam, the Epic Game Store, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X and S, Nintendo Switch, and the current Atari VCS console) is another of a growing genre of challenge platformers, where progress is measured by the screen, and careful yet quick movements are required to get through a gauntlet of danger. Yet this gauntlet is a visual wonderland, with objects that call to mind neon tubes and vectorscan lines.

The game's hero is native to an Atari 2600 game (which you play a bit of before the main game begins). For its release, the developers went the extra mile and actually created an Atari 2600 version that you can order in cartridge form and runs on the original hardware.

Matt Raithel and John Mikula of Graphite Labs, the developers of Mr. Run And Jump, graciously answered some questions about the game for us.

Who are you, and what is Mr. Run And Jump?

Matt Raithel: I’m Matt Raithel, studio director and owner of Graphite Lab. I am the executive producer of Mr. Run and Jump and have been making video games since 2004. Most of my career has been devoted to developing licensed games with partners like Hasbro, Nickelodeon, and Disney, to name a few. In 2015, our team at Graphite Lab kickstarted our first original IP called Hive Jump, which was featured on Wii U by Nintendo as one of the first Nindies. I was the executive producer for Hive Jump and contributed a large portion of the concept art to that game. Years later, we would announce the development of Kombinera in 2022 with publishing partner Atari. This collaboration would continue with the development and release of Mr. Run and Jump.

John Mikula: My name is John Mikula; I’ve been a programmer at Graphite Lab for about ten years. I’ve led the programming efforts on several of Graphite Lab’s biggest games, including Hive Jump and Roller Coaster Tycoon: Puzzle. As the company transitioned away from licensed titles and into the realm of original IP, I’ve also adopted an additional role as a game designer at Graphite Lab. This has culminated most recently with my position as game director on Mr. Run and Jump! I am also the original creator of Mr. Run and Jump for the Atari 2600.

MR: Mr. Run and Jump is a side-scrolling precision platformer. Players help Mr. Run and Jump, joined by his trusty pal Leap the Dog, defeat the terrifying Void and collect all the Power Gems from the Realms of Color. They will venture through a dazzling and dangerous world, dodging countless enemies and conquering hundreds of fierce platforming challenges to save the day. Each world has its own distinct style, with a beautifully illustrated visual aesthetic bursting with vibrant neon graphics. Along the way, players will face a wide variety of treacherous enemies, each with their own patterns and personalities. All of this is set against an original story of a transformed world, a devouring Void, and all the wonders of the Realms of Color.

JM: Mr. Run and Jump started as a side project—something I would work on in my spare time. Development began around 2015, and it took me several years of on-and-off work before I finally got the game to a state that I was happy with. I was gearing up to bundle the game with an emulator and sell it on Steam, but this happened to be right around the time we started working on Kombinera with Atari. It was like the planets aligned for Mr. Run and Jump. I imagined what the modern version could be, Atari is naturally the perfect partner for this pitch, and Kombinera was a great point of reference for what our team was capable of! I wrote a quick pitch to Matt one night, and the rest is history.

There is no name in video games as foundational as Atari. How does Mr. Run And Jump live up to the Atari legacy?

MR: Mr. Run and Jump started years ago as a game for the Atari 2600. I remember John telling me one day that he was working on an “old school” Atari game. I got excited because my first console was an Atari, so when I played the 2600 version for the first time, I could authentically vouch that it fit the Atari aesthetic. In fact, I quickly offered up the title of Mr. Run and Jump as “the best Atari game never made.” What makes the 2600 version so good is that it nails the simple mechanics of running and jumping from the start, yet it scales the obstacles in a way that tests your skill and ability without ever feeling unfair. So you may make a simple jump, then on the next screen, you make a more difficult jump, and then on the next, you make a similar jump but a Skullkin enemy is added to force you to time the jump properly. This scaffolded design is so important to keeping players engaged. The best Atari games did that, too. That’s where I think both versions of Mr. Run and Jump succeed so well.

JM: It’s true that, for a lot of people, the Atari name is more-or-less synonymous with the early days of video games. When I think about games of that era, I think about jamming a cartridge into a console or plopping a quarter into a cabinet and immediately playing something bright, loud, and exciting! The industry back then was all about instant, arcade-style action—in no small part because of the state of technology at the time. I can only speak authoritatively about the Atari 2600, but the resources available for games on that console are beyond meager! With only 128 bytes of RAM, 4KB of ROM in a cartridge, and a host of other technical limitations, games on the Atari 2600 have almost no choice but to be gameplay-first, boot-up-and-go experiences. Every scrap of fat has to be eliminated in service of the core gameplay.

Every game is at least partially defined by the medium through which it is played. Mr. Run and Jump started life as a 2600 game long before the modern version was conceived, so the limitations of the console’s restrictions and the consequences of those restrictions are naturally baked into the game’s DNA. When developing the modern version, a big part of the design process was translating that classic makeup into the modern era, and I feel we did a great job at doing so! Much like the 2600 version, If you boot up the modern version of Mr. Run and Jump and mash a few buttons, you’ll be in the game and jumping around a level within seconds. Having the 2600 version to build off of gives us a direct link to the era of gaming that initially defined Atari.

An animated GIF from the game Mr. Run and Jump.

I love the glowy neon-vector look of Mr. Run And Jump; it's not exactly like the style of games like Tempest, but it's definitely reminiscent of them. Along with pixel art, it's a lasting legacy of the short classic age of arcade gaming. How well do you think it suits the presentation of Mr. Run And Jump?

JM: The aesthetic style of the original 2600 version of Mr. Run and Jump is so simple and abstract that I believe you can take the game in wild directions, visually speaking, while maintaining its recognizable charm. I have a fantasy where the game performs exceptionally well sales-wise, and each subsequent sequel we go on to make has a totally unique art direction. So long as the characters are recognizable and the worlds are themed after the colors of the rainbow, we could really make Mr. Run and Jump look like anything. Imagine a psychedelic tie-dye version of Mr. Run and Jump or a Picasso-esque cubist version!

That said, I’m glad we went with the glowy, neon appearance for this game. Even though it’s heavily associated with the '80s, it’s a foundational aesthetic that still reads to me as “the future.” The modern version of Mr. Run and Jump is all about thrusting the world of the original game into a bold, contemporary version of itself. The neon-vector stylings complement this theme nicely by saying, “you’re in a new reality now, Mr. Run and Jump,” in a way that is flashy yet accessible.

Obvious inspirations to the style of Mr. Run And Jump include Super Meat Boy and Celeste. How does Mr. Run And Jump pull itself past those older titles?

JM: I had developed the 2600 version of Mr. Run and Jump long before discussions of the modern version had begun. The technical limitations of the Atari console are such that it didn’t even occur to me to look at modern platformers for direct inspiration, at least, not especially closely. The PC version of Mr. Run and Jump is a natural evolution of the 2600 version. Celeste, Super Meat Boy, and other precision platformers wound up being a natural, post hoc point of comparison, but I didn’t necessarily set out to make a game like them.

There are many aspects that define the identity of a game like Mr. Run and Jump, but I believe the raw game-feel is the most important. I’m referring to the visceral sensation of controlling the character and how it feels to move them around and perform basic actions such as running and jumping. At the outset of development, I tried to define two key terms that contribute to the game-feel of a platformer: schema and kinetics. Schema refers to the player’s moveset, what actions they can perform, and how those actions can be strung together. Kinetics refers to the moment-to-moment motion of the character, including nitty-gritty details like their top speed, how quickly they can change direction, how smoothly they accelerate, etc.

The schema of Mr. Run and Jump is unique compared to other precision platformers. The player has two fundamental actions: jumping and crouching. These moves can be combined together in various contexts to perform more advanced actions. Moving while crouching will cause Mr. Run and Jump to roll. Jumping while rolling will perform a long jump. Jumping while crouching will perform a high jump. Crouching in midair will perform a dive. The list goes on! All these actions can be strung together, almost like a combo system, to navigate complex obstacles. Sufficiently long jump strings will keep the player in the air for a surprisingly long time, and I often describe Mr. Run and Jump as a game where the player “learns to fly.”

Kinetically, Mr. Run and Jump is a smooth game wherein the player flows through a level by gliding from surface to surface. There are also certain moves like the dive or the long jump that will deliver a satisfying burst of speed, but it’s important that the players can always rein themselves in so they don’t lose control and run into an unexpected obstacle. Momentum isn’t quite as apparent as it is in something like Super Mario World. It can be difficult to describe, but I believe Mr. Run and Jump has a feel all its own, and it will be apparent once people get their hands on the game.

Mr Run and Jump Cover Art

An Atari 2600 version of Mr. Run And Jump is in the works as a physical cartridge. Hobbyists and small companies, like Champ Games, have made and sold small runs of new Atari cartridges, but this is the first time, to my knowledge, that a big publisher has done it since the NES days. It's an interesting decision from a company like current-day Atari to go through the considerable effort of developing and producing a new Atari cart after three decades. I imagine that its making wasn't easy?

JM: While I can’t speak to the production of the physical carts themselves, I can confirm that making the game’s software was indeed not easy. Dealing with the resource limitations I mentioned earlier required intensive programming efficiency, unlike anything I’ve had to do on a modern game. The real issue, though, is rendering. The Atari 2600 draws images to the screen by modulating a colored laser beam known as the cathode ray tube, or CRT, a feature of old boxy TVs, and not so with the flat screen LCDs that are common today. The CRT is constantly scanning the screen as if it’s reading a book, from top to bottom, one scanline at a time, at a blinding speed. The game code needs to maintain synchronicity with the CRT, constantly altering what color it’s supposed to be displaying immediately before it needs to display it. It’s a process akin to building a race track, each and every lap, while the cars are racing! All this has to happen while also squeezing in the actual game processes: reading input, moving the characters, collision detection, etc. I was warned that developing an Atari 2600 game is something of an infamous programming challenge, and I was definitely not misinformed!

MR: I played Atari as a kid and marveled at the efforts that went into games like Dolphin and Megamania. The Mr. Run and Jump franchise started with the 2600 version, so it seems natural to me that the original gets released. To have it on a limited edition cartridge is really the hard work of Atari and their team on the XP program. John had the code completed and even had box art commissioned before starting on the modern version. To me, that speaks to the authentic passion John had for this project. It wasn’t a marketing hook or some gimmick; Mr. Run and Jump really was created for the 2600 so to see it arriving in cartridge form is flattering and mind-blowingly exciting at the same time.

The promotional value of making a new 2600 cart is pretty high, surely. What do you think the market will be like? Is this a limited-run kind of thing? Will there be ways to play the 2600 version without having to dig out or hunt up an Atari 2600 console?

MR: It's wild to see the support for the limited edition version! I’m excited that fans are supporting it and cheering us on. We realize we are on hallowed ground with our entire industry sharing an origin story with Atari. I speak confidently that the Atari 2600 version of Mr. Run and Jump will impress and entertain any player who gets in on this limited edition version. 

Mr. Run and Double Jump


The PC version does a lot of things that aren't possible on the old units. How does the 2600 version of Mr. Run And Jump compare to the PC version?

JM: The PC version of Mr. Run and Jump is actually a pseudo-sequel to the 2600 version. They are completely separate games. In fact, the PC version opens with a brief intro sequence wherein the player plays through a facsimile of the 2600 version until a tear in the fabric of reality transforms the Realms of Color into the glowing neon incarnation of the modern game.

The PC version gives Mr. Run and Jump an expanded moveset, which includes double jumps, wall jumps, dives, rolls, and more. These new movement options make the game much more mechanically interesting. Obstacles and enemy patterns have been made substantially more complex, and I’d say it’s generally a more engaging experience overall.

Levels have also gotten an overhaul. Both games feature six worlds, but the PC version breaks up those worlds into four-to-five individual levels, while the 2600 version treats each world like a single big level. Levels in the PC version are generally much longer than those in the 2600 version, and they’re probably close to what one would expect from a modern, side-scrolling platformer. Meanwhile, the 2600 version doesn’t have a scrolling camera, so the levels had to be composed of stationary screens that the player transitioned between.

The scoring system from the original game was removed in the sequel. It was originally meant to add replayability to the game, but we felt this wasn’t necessary in the PC version. Beyond that, the sequel features a glut of completely new features, such as time trials, collectibles, unlockable hats, cutscenes, new enemies, music, and plenty more.

MR: One thing that is different mechanically in the original is the actions on death. In the 2600, if Mr. Run and Jump dies, the player is started at the beginning of that world. This makes the simple gameplay very demanding for a game designed for that era of gaming. I like difficult games, and grew up in this era of Atari and “NES HARD” titles. So I really like this feature of the old game—it personally drives me as a player.

The modern version is challenging but offers more flexibility for players to manage difficulty. Accessibility options such as more frequent checkpoints, for example, allow players of all tastes to enjoy the new version in a way that suits them best.

Technology has advanced a lot since the era of the original Atari consoles, and hobbyists often include hardware in carts now that would have made the eyes pop out of any developer from back then. Are there any special tricks, unavailable to devs in the console's era of release, used by the 2600 version of Mr. Run And Jump that you'd like to mention?

JM: I can’t say exactly what sort of hardware is in the carts themselves; that’s more Atari’s purview. What I can say is there’s nothing technologically advanced about the software of the game. I wrote the game code in the same Assembly language they would have used at the time. It’s a genuine ROM that theoretically could have been made back in the late '70s. What is different, however, is the development pipeline. My nice, modern PC definitely made creating Mr. Run and Jump a whole lot easier than it would have been back in the day. Compiling the code is almost instantaneous, plus I can load the ROM onto an emulator for play testing without having to burn the game to a cartridge. That’s not even to mention the debugging tools I now have access to! If you wanted to go back in time and make a developer’s eyes pop, you’d show them the Stella emulator and how easily it lets you do things like enter breakpoints in code, advance through scanlines one at a time, inspect the contents of RAM, enter virtual inputs, etc.

I appreciate the options to subtly change the character’s name (to “Ms. Run And Jump,” or just “Run And Jump”). It’s evident that it didn’t require much development work, which fits in with the kind of game it is (it’s not like there are layers-deep dialogue trees and romance opportunities that must be customized for each option). It helps LGBTQIA players to feel included, but it’s also not ostentatious. It’s rather tasteful, I think.

JM: Thank you for the kind words! The honorific swap is a feature I’m very proud to have incorporated into the game. For a long time, while I was developing the 2600 version, I was calling the game by the slightly more generic title Jump ‘n’ Run. After I decided I was going to release the game in some capacity, I realized it needed a better title because every permutation of the words “jump and run” was already being used by other projects. I asked myself, “What’s unique about my game?” and the answer I came to was simply: the character. Mr. Run and Jump was really the star of the show; he had a unique look, but at the time, he didn’t have a name. My plan was to give my character a name and then title the game after them. This would make my game title distinct from everything else that seemed similar.

I feel that naming a character “Mr. _______” is a suitably old-video-gamey thing to do. I’m referring to various gaming luminaries such as Mr. Driller, Mr. Domino, Mr. Mosquito, and Mr. Do! Since I was working on an old-school game, using this naming convention felt like a charming and fun direction to go. However, I never really liked that I was gendering the character with this decision. To me, Mr. Run and Jump is a cute little blob with a big snout, and he could really be whatever the player wanted him to be, with or without a specific gender. Mr. Run and Jump was a perfectly blank slate, and by calling him “Mr.” I’d be taking away that characteristic. I was happy with the name in every other way, but this was always a sticking point for me.

The ability for the player to change the character’s honorific was one of the first ideas I wrote down when our pitch was accepted by Atari. I figured if I couldn’t give them a gender-neutral name, then the next best option would be to allow the player to change their name if they wanted. It was a decision that felt right to me—and even though it’s a very small feature in the grand scheme of things, I know it matters to a lot of people just as it matters to me.

An animated GIF from Mr. Run and Jump.

I enjoyed that, after the prologue, the player has access to what seems to be the complete moveset immediately instead of unlocking it over time. That's an interesting design decision, because it lets players use advanced tricks from the outset to complete optional challenges. Those advanced moves aren't so complex that they can't be discovered, but it's still unlikely to sabotage a player stumbling upon them in a tight moment. Was that an intentional design goal, both in how they’re all unlocked from Violet 1, and their discoverability?

JM: Yes and yes! I remember there was some worry among the team that allowing the player to access their entire moveset from the get-go would be overwhelming; however, I was confident that it would only be an issue if the player were required to use their entire moveset all at once. Player progression is an important aspect of a lot of video games.

With Mr. Run and Jump, we viewed the player’s knowledge of their abilities as the primary progression system. The player can technically perform a midair dive (for example) at any time, but levels don’t require its use until we officially introduce the mechanic on Level 3. It just seemed unnecessarily stifling to me to arbitrarily restrict the player’s moveset. I didn’t see any major downside to someone figuring out how to perform a long jump earlier than anticipated. At worst, maybe they’ll be mildly frustrated if they accidentally long jump into some spikes. At best, they’ll feel smart and excited because they discovered something new! The tradeoff seemed worth it to me.

With Mr. Run and Jump, I felt that controlling the character should be like playing with a toy. To simply move Mr. Run and Jump around a space should be a fun and engaging activity all on its own. Toys don’t restrict what you do with them; it’s games that determine how a toy is played with by instilling limits, goals, and rules. If Mr. Run and Jump (the character) is a “toy,” then the enemies, levels, collectibles, and objectives are all part of the “game.”

The anti-frustration features are interesting. In my own playthrough, I ignore the invincibility stars but usually take advantage of offered extra checkpoints. I like how they’re adjustable and can be disabled completely. Difficulty balancing has been tricky. Mr. Run And Jump seems like the kind of game where dynamic balancing depends on being obvious, not something that happens secretly but completely upfront, so the player knows when they finished a difficult challenge fairly. Any thoughts on dynamic difficulty?

MR: Graphite Lab’s approach to design begins by setting an intended experience as a baseline. That experience should be well-tuned and intentional for a target player persona. In the case of Mr. Run and Jump, that player was John. So, we tuned the game natively against his preferences for pacing, difficulty, and so on. This is a strategy we learned when working on Hive Jump. With that game, each member of the team had ideas about how difficult it should be or what features should be included. It was impossible to please everyone, and we lost so much dev time trying to. Eventually, we settled on the right player persona for that game and got it settled and shipped. So we balanced Mr. Run and Jump against John as the ideal player based on that experience. The accessibility options then allow us to widen that ideal balance based on player preferences. We, after all, set out to build a brand for all audiences, and I feel these features help players of various skill, ability, and patience all enjoy the game in a way that suits them while allowing us to offer the “developer intended” balance as a baseline.

JM: Building off of what Matt said, we can’t necessarily measure someone’s enjoyment of the game objectively. As a game designer, I’m left with no choice but to use my own experiences and intuition to guide my decision-making process. Feedback from the rest of the team and other playtesters is always welcome and accounted for, but ultimately, if I can’t find an experience enjoyable, I can’t be confident that anyone else will either. That said, I acknowledge that not everyone is me! We can’t cater to everyone’s individual tastes and preferences, but we can try to be accommodating where we can.

People like things for very different reasons. I can absolutely imagine someone appreciating the sights and sounds of Mr. Run and Jump, but they can’t quite get a handle on the gameplay. I want people like that to be able to grab the invincibility stars and see the game through to the end if they so wish! At the same time, I wanted to make sure any assistance features we included were opt-in only. Mr. Run and Jump can be a very challenging game, and personally, I enjoy that! If the game were to force assistance onto me, I would feel cheated and annoyed because that would rob me of the personal satisfaction of overcoming a tough obstacle. Choices and options like this are a great tool for increasing a game’s accessibility, which I believe is a good thing.

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About the Author(s)

John Harris


John Harris writes the column @Play for GameSetWatch, and the series Game Design Essentials for Gamasutra. He has written computer games since the days of the Commodore 64. He also maintains the comics blog Roasted Peanuts.

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