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October 2nd, 2013 PETE COTTELL | Culture Features
 

Pac From the Grave

128 bytes and 35 years later, people are still making new games for the Atari 2600.

culture_gamer_3948ILLUSTRATION: Dana Perasa
One summer day in 1989, my family found an Atari 2600 at a yard sale. Even then, it was a wood-paneled relic of a simpler time, before slap bracelets or mutated turtles. My parents were happy to fork over $10 for a withered Bankers Box stuffed with a pair of controllers and enough games to keep 5-year-old Pete enchanted for months. I was completely addicted. At bedtime, they’d have to pry the controller from my hands. Then, a few months later, I came home from soccer practice to find a sleek, gray Nintendo NES waiting for me. I’m not even sure what happened to the Atari; it might still occupy a milk crate in my parents’ basement.

After almost a decade of getting fireballed and jump-smashed by a certain coin-collecting guido, Atari finally pulled the plug on the 2600 in 1992. The Atari brand changed hands several times before falling into bankruptcy early this year. But Atari looks ready to live forever—and not just because some guys can’t frog-hop across the road, beat Bowser and move on to drive-by shooting hookers. There are still new games being made for the Atari 2600 35 years after it was first released. And the old ones are getting better, thanks to programmers fixing Carter-era coding glitches and even trying to fix the problems with the unplayable E.T. cartridges that crashed the video-game industry in 1982 and supposedly ended up dumped in the New Mexico desert. That’s why this weekend’s Retro Gaming Expo at the Oregon Convention Center isn’t just about fetishizing antique electronics but about celebrating new ingenuity.

In 1995, a hobbyist named Harry Dodgson effectively created the first “homebrew” Atari game from cannibalized cartridges purchased in bulk from a local Big Lots. The game was a rudimentary program used to test computer monitors, but the idea of DIY Atari programming was all the old-school enthusiasts needed to keep the dream alive.

For Rick Weis, the love of Atari was rekindled in 1998 while helping a friend rip 2600 programs onto hard drives for storage. Like a lot of Atari hackers, Weis, now 50, says he returned to games like Pac-Man not for warm-and-fuzzy feelings of nostalgia, but for simpler gameplay.

“You have to play these modern games for weeks on end to get into them,” says Weis, a truck driver from Vancouver, Wash. “You can pick up an older game and play it for 15 minutes to get your fix. A lot of these games are still very fun.”

But since no one is making those games commercially anymore, homebrew gamers took over. Weis began to hack old games with friends, tinkering with the code of existing games to alter features like text, color or the speed of gameplay. The primitive code is still tough to handle, and there’s no money to be made, but it’s fun to push a clunky old system to its limits, he says.

“People get into homebrewing for the love and the challenge,” Weis says. “Being able to make a game for the 2600 is very tough. Part of that challenge is finding new ways to make this old system run more efficiently.”

So kitchen-table programmers like Chris Trimiew, 31, admire the DIY potential of the 2600: “The fact that you can be one guy and sit down and make a game is incredible,” Trimiew says. “For most people, they had a dream of making games when they were a kid sitting and playing Combat on a black-and-white TV in their grandma’s basement and they said, ‘Hey, I wanna do that someday.’ It’s not something you can do with a modern game.”

After getting laid off from Blount International in 2008, Trimiew used his knowledge of C++ coding to translate wayward prototypes of obscure Nintendo and Super Nintendo games from other countries for American gamers. A collector friend from Longview, Wash., eventually asked for help with a homebrew of his own creation, and out came Road Warriors. Rather than mass-produce the product, Trimiew sold a uniquely packaged limited run of the game at last year’s Retro Gaming Expo, which included a die-cast car, an air freshener and a hand-numbered cartridge. The initial run of 41 copies sold out in a day.

“For me, it’s being able to figure out a way to make simple games that are fun to play, and the other part for me is the challenge of it,” he says. “I’ve done other consoles, and working with the Atari is the hardest console I’ve ever worked with. Parts of it just don’t make sense. But the game design is so simple by necessity that it really allows you to pick one or two elements to focus on and do them extremely well. What’s interesting to me is stripping the game design down to just that and not having any extraneous stuff to distract from the gameplay.”

How good could such a simple game be? There’s a Portland-centric urban legend about a game called Polybius, which had an addictive effect on gamers. As the story, which has been referenced on The Simpsons, goes, the Polybius cabinet was planted in a Portland arcade by the government as a seizure-causing mind-control device. The game is usually described as involving giant flashes of fast-moving colors.

Weis asked Trimiew to re-create it for the Atari.

“I emailed him back in five minutes and told him there’s no way in hell you can pull off something that complicated on an Atari. Your microwave has infinitely more processing power than an Atari 2600 does,” Trimiew says. “I started toying around with it and came up with an idea, maybe even in a dream, of how it could work. There’s all the subliminal messages and stuff like that—it was just one idea grown on another and another. Then I emailed him back about four months ago and said, ‘Let’s do it.’”

Trimiew will be selling a small batch of around 30 copies of Polybius at this year’s Retro Gaming Expo. He expects it to sell out in less than an hour, even though it costs almost as much as Grand Theft Auto 5 or Call of Duty.

“With a lot of new games, you play through the story once and it’s a great ride for that six to 30 hours, but when you’re done with that, what’s left?” Trimiew says. “You can play through it and relive the same exact thing. With these older games, most of them are based on points and trying to beat yours or some other guy’s best score.”

And Portland is the perfect place to keep it alive, he says. Thank the hipsters.

“I think Portland is a culture that has a lot of nostalgia and a lot of memories wrapped up with when they were children,” he says. “You don’t see these people making Atari games and organizing these huge conventions in other places like the Midwest. It’s just comical to imagine some guy sitting on a farm in Wisconsin programming an Atari game. Why would you do that? It’s such a ‘Portland thing’ that I don’t think it even seems out of the ordinary to us.”


GO: The Portland Retro Gaming Expo is at the Oregon Convention Center, 777 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., retrogamingexpo.com, on Saturday (9 am-midnight) and Sunday (9 am-5 pm), Oct. 5-6. Weekend passes are $25 in advance, $30 at the door.  

 
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