I received a copy of the recently released Atari’s Greatest Hits Volume 1 for Christmas. I was shocked to see so many titles packed into this game for the Nintendo DS. Many of the great classics from back in the day are here and now my geeklets get to enjoy them (almost) the same way I did.
Since I know a few people at Atari, I had a chance to interview the person responsible for porting these classics, Jeff Vavasour. Jeff is the founder and CEO for Code Mystics, a game developer specializing in cross-platform solutions.
• What do (did) these games mean to you?
Atari was a significant part of my childhood. Our family got the original “heavy-sixer” Atari 2600 back in 1977, a unit which I still have not 10 feet from my desk today. More than 1/3 of the artwork and manual scans that appear in Atari Greatest Hits come from my personal collection. I spent untold hours on that machine, and worked through every game I could get my hands on. On the arcade side, Battlezone and Asteroids were revolutionary in the day. I remember as a timid 10 year-old standing next to the Asteroids cabinet, waiting for the burly teen to work his way through the half-dozen quarters he’d stacked on the machine. Sometimes I think I began bringing these classics over to console and PC as a way to be sure I never had to stand in line for these games again.
• Which is your favorite? Why?
From this collection, on the arcade side, Asteroids is probably my favorite. The crisp hi-res vector graphics were fresh and new. The physics was realistic and natural with surprising maneuverability once you got the hang of the controls. The thumping Jaws-like soundtrack helped set the pace for the game and added a sense of tension. Playing this game long enough, it just became Zen. Honestly, it’s hard to choose though. I could say the same about Battlezone, Centipede, etc.
My all-time arcade favorite is another Atari vector game: Star Wars. Maybe someday we’ll get the chance to bring that one over…
On the home side, I’d say my favorite is a tie between Yars’ Revenge and Adventure. Yars’ Revenge has that psychedelic look in the neutral zone and explosions, the throbbing soundtrack, a simple mechanic with great difficulty ramping, etc., so many elements philosophically in common with Asteroids.
Adventure might seem like an unlikely choice. Once you beat it you may think there’s little replay value, but I made it my goal to improve my time in the game. (I had to measure it with a stopwatch. The game didn’t include a timer.) In fact, you can see my current record on YouTube of about 32 seconds for Level 1.
• What can we look forward to in future installments?
Well, on the Atari 2600 front, Yars’ Revenge, Star Raiders, and Combat are a few standouts I’m happy to see coming in Volume 2. For arcade, there are a number of stars including Crystal Castles, Millipede and Asteroids Deluxe. Also, Major Havoc was an arcade game ahead of its time, and I’m happy to see that one in Volume 2, as well.
As a child of the 8-bit era, though, one thing I’m particularly excited about for Volume 2 is a bonus extra: a full-on emulator of the Atari 400 with BASIC included. The touch screen makes a natural Atari 400-like keyboard. This may be one of the few appearances (if not the only) of BASIC on any device introduced since the ’80s!
• Is there any game that you would like to see added in future installments?
Aside from the solid line-up we already have coming in Volume 2, I’d like to see packages that expand beyond the core era. We tend to focus on late ’70s and early ’80s in these compilations, but Atari made a lot of games in the ’70s between Pong and Lunar Lander that I think would make a good addition to handhelds. Beyond that, Atari was making games for their own consoles into the ’90s – there’s a lot for the Atari 5200, 7800, Jaguar, and home computers to explore.
• How much do these games vary from their arcade counterparts?
They are emulations, so 100% faithful. Code Mystics is a new name, but our team was the founding tech team of the former Digital Eclipse, a company who pioneered arcade emulation back in 1993. We love these games and have literally spent decades trying to make pixel-perfect recreations. The game play, the sound and the graphics are exactly what they were when these games first came out. And now you don’t have to worry about getting booted off the high score boards by a stranger.
• Did you include any ‘upgrades’ to these versions that we should look for?
We didn’t want to tamper with perfection. We instead concentrated on making these games everything they could be on the Nintendo DS system. For example, one of the places previous compilations have often fallen short has been on controls, so we put a lot of work into getting them right. The package isn’t just a straight compilation, either. We threw in a lot of extras. You can find every manual for every released Atari 2600 game in the compilation.
And, as a special extra, we also threw in the version of Battlezone that was commissioned for the US Army as a tank trainer. It’s more of a simulator than a game, but it’s really interesting to see what may well have been the first “serious games” application of arcade technology. It’s a simulator that’s been discussed in collectors’ circles for years. Only two physical units were known to exist, so we’re pretty excited to be bringing that to the mainstream audience.
• Do these versions take advantage of the dual screen technology?
We made great use of the touch screen. Arcade games were custom-designed hardware, and the controls refined and balanced with game play. When you take that game play and give it different controls, you change the balance of the game. The DS’s touch screen gave us the unprecedented ability to recreate the original controls in a virtual form. So, there’s a Trakball, a spinner, etc. – whatever the game called for. The virtual Trackball even has “weight”. You can fling it, and it will spin under its own inertia, slowing down gradually, touch it again and you pin it in place and stop moving instantly. This is a control mechanic people relied on in the arcades, so we wanted to get it as close as possible.
But we also wanted to offer options. For people who may not have experienced these games as much in the arcades, we provide alternative touch screen control in many games, where you can put the game on touch screen and the shooter will move to your stylus.
Beyond that, in the Atari 2600 games, you get the Atari 2600 console and all of its switches in a nostalgic layout on the bottom screen, with the top screen serving as your TV. So, basically, the dual screen set-up allowed us to do full-screen game play while setting aside the other screen for a really authentic virtual control system.
• Anything you would like to add?
Just that this compilation and its sequel was a labor of love. I think fans will see and appreciate the care and attention to detail that went into Atari Greatest Hits. I know it’s a game I love to have in my Nintendo DS. They’re an ideal “quick fix” for handheld game play. And, I pretty excited to see how interested my kids are in these games too.