You’re going where?

Sometimes random events influence your life in ways that you can never anticipate. One such event happened to me back in 2006.

As anyone who has followed the fortunes of Llamasoft over the years will know, I have a certain affinity with bovines. My coding handle for years was “Yak”. I’ve always identified somewhat with oxen – udeful animals, not necessarily the sharpest tool in the box but possessing the patience and strength to get the job done – traits that I find admirable, and that I can usefully hope to emulate in my own work. Completing a project taking a year or more takes a certain amount of determined plodding, bovine stoicness. Oxen are gentle, patient, and get the job done. And often they have lovely horns.

One day back in 2006 when Giles was away I was sat here on my own and I was thinking about how oxen, although doubtlessly useful throughout human history, are seldom much celebrated. They are not a glamorous animal, the bovine equivalent of a tractor. Often taken for granted. Did anyone ever, I wondered, think of an ox as something lovely? Something beautiful, to be admired? Something precious?
So as you do, I did an idle Google search, for “precious ox”.

Following the resulting links I found myself reading an academic paper entitled “The Amazonian Ox Dance Festival: An Anthropological Account”. It told of a place in northern Brazil, in Amazonia, where there takes place a festival, virtually unknown outside of Brazil: “The festival is a peculiar development of a folk play that has existed in Brazil since the 19th century and is based on the motif of the death and resurrection of a precious ox.”

(You can read the academic paper here, and I thoroughly recommend it; it’s a fascinating read).

I read on into the night, fascinated. The festival takes place on the island of Tupinambarana, a day’s passage by boat down river of the capital of Amazonas, Manaus. It is a celebration of the cultural blending of the people of the region and comprises aspects of Amazonian tribal mythology, Catholicism and African mythos brought to the region by the slave trade. It takes place in the city of Parintins, a town only reachable by river or by a small airfield, and once a year at the end of June two teams compete in a three-day competition of dance, music and astonishing artistry and creativity. The entire town is divided into areas of red and blue, the colours of the two teams named for the underlying bovine theme of the competition – “Boi Caprichoso”, the Capricious Ox, whose avatar is a black ox with a star on his forehead; and “Boi Garantido”, the Reliable Ox, a white ox with a red heart on his forehead.

Parintins lies just below the equator, 24 hours downriver from Manaus.

The two rival oxen, Boi Caprichoso and Boi Garantido

The “Brincadeiro do Boi”, or ox-play, the tale of the death and resurrection of a precious ox, is something that has taken place in various parts of Brazil for hundreds of years. But only in Parintins has it become the huge festival that it is now, and the performances have expanded to include material celebrating the Amazonian environment and “cabloco” culture of the local people, and blends Amazonian, European and African religion and mythos in an incredible display of artistry. Underpinning it all is the central theme of the tale of the ox, and in the performance the arrival of the ox – Caprichoso or Garantido – draws the wildest cheers from the fans.

Boi Caprichoso dances. Behind you can see members of the Marujada da Guerra, Caprichoso's percussion group.

Everything in the town is divided into red and blue. It is one of the few places in the world where you will see a blue Coca-Cola logo – no supporter of Caprichoso, whose colours are black and blue, would be keen to drink Coke from a red can, so the company produce blue cans for the Caprichoso supporters. Images of the two rival oxen are everywhere. Even the phone boxes are shaped like oxen. Everybody loves their chosen ox – Caprichoso or Garantido – with a passion.

Even Coca-Cola comes in red and blue colours in Parintins.

Even the phone booths in Parintins are shaped like oxen.

All this sounded amazing, and I jumped on the then-nascent Youtube to see if I could find anything relating to this amazing-sounding bovine festival. Back then there wasn’t a lot to be found, but I did find this one clip that blew me away:

It starts out simply enough, you see the black ox dancing, and then as the clip progresses you begin to see the scale of the thing: the ox is dancing on the palm of a giant animated statue, and that statue is itself dwarfed by the scale of the massive arena in which the performance is taking place.

The arena, like the town itself, is divided in red and blue.

It was a real “holy cow!” moment.

A giant Boi Caprichoso hovers over the arena.

I remember seeing that clip and thinking then and there, holy cow, one day I have to go there, see that. Being at that point years from the end of my mortgage and God help me trying to make video games at that time that seemed like a far distant “one day, maybe” though.

In the years that followed we continued to learn about the Parintins festival. I ordered a copy of Caprichoso’s CD of songs for 2006, and that stayed in the CD player of our Toyota for many months (in the process allowing us to learn a peculiarly ox-specific subset of the Brazilian Portuguese language). Eventually all the songs became available on Boi Caprichoso’s web site, so I’d go there to hear each new year’s music. Youtube eventually began to host more videos of the Festival, and these days each night’s performances are generally available to view by the following day. You can even watch the performances live if you hook up to the stream from TVAcritica.

Now I’m getting to the sort of age where you start to realise that perhaps you ought to get round to doing some of the things you’ve always wanted to do, while you still can; and mercifully my mortgage is but a distant memory. So tomorrow morning we will be outside to catch the bus to Carmarthen, the first, mundane step on a journey that will culminate in our arrival in the Bumbodromo, the huge arena that I first saw in that old Youtube clip. We’ll be travelling to Parintins via a 24-hour boat journey from Manaus, the capital of Amazonia, and we’ll be sleeping on the boat for the duration of the Festival. As Caprichoso supporters we’ll be sitting on the blue side of the Bumbodromo. This year’s performances should be especially good – Caprichoso having won the previous two years’ competitions are out to take a rare consecutive third win, while Garantido will be doing their best to break Caprichoso’s streak. Both teams will be pulling out all the stops to outdo one another in the arena.

The tribal shaman flies in on an actual working hoverboard to resurrect the precious ox Caprichoso.

I still find it weird to think that after all these years I’ll finally get to see Parintins with my own eyes, to sit in the arena watching the ox dance, surrounded by people singing of their love for the ox, the “touro amado”, the beloved bull. That old idle Google search will have led me to the one place on earth where oxen are celebrated with such joy.

Expect more posts when I get back. I’ll have lots of pictures.

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Upon launching the game from the Steam launcher, you will be asked to select from one of two options.

Launch Polybius in Oculus VR Mode” will launch the game directly to your Oculus VR headset. Use an Xbox compatible joypad or the Oculus Touch controllers to play the game.

Play Polybius” is the option you use to play the game in non-VR mode. Selecting this mode will bring up a further dialogue. Here you will see a list of available screen resolutions and refresh rates – select the one you want to use. Then press “Start Normal” to begin the game. You may also choose to start in VR, just in case you changed your mind between this menu and the last; or to start in 3DTV mode if you have a display that supports such a thing.

You can choose to Configure Keyboard. Here you will see a diagram of a controller (to remind you what goes where) and a bunch of fields containing the keys bound to each of the controller functions. By default, the ones used in Polybius are:

Arrow keys for motion

- “A” for button A, used to start the game, choose options in the UI, and to fire.

- “B” for button B, used to go BACK in the UI.

- “Q” to quit the current game in progress from a paused state. Right bumper on  the controller.

- “P” for pause, used to toggle Pause Mode on and off, and to go to the UI options menu from the title screen. Menu button on the controller.

You can change these key assignments to whatever you like: select the field with the binding you wish to change. If a key is already bound, press that key to remove it from the binding. If you want to add a key to the binding, press the key to add it. You can bind multiple keys to a single control function if you so desire. When you’re done, press Accept and Exit to save your changed bindings, Cancel to leave without saving or changing the bindings, or Reset to Default if  you’ve really buggered things up.

There are two keys with hardwired functions in the game: ESC quits to desktop, and F1 toggles between fullscreen and windowed modes. You shouldn’t use those for game function bindings. That’d be silly.

At the Game Title screen

From this screen you can choose to set the Game  Type (by pressing LEFT and RIGHT), bring up the UI Options pages (by pressing P/Menu), or to begin a new game by pressing A.

Game Modes

There are three selectable game modes in Polybius. These are:

Pure Mode. In this mode you always begin at level 1 with 3 shields.

- YOLO Mode. In this mode you begin at level 1 with 9 shields, but you never receive any extra shields.

Classic Mode. In this mode, you can begin the game on any level that you have previously reached. As you play, each time you begin a new level, your current Lives and Score are compared with your previous best at that level, and saved if they are better. You can subsequently begin a game at that level, and with that saved Lives and Score – your Restart Best.

If a Classic game is started, you will be taken to the Level Select screen to choose your starting level. Here you can press Left and Right to select levels, or Up and Down to move through the selected levels five at a time. Press A to begin your game or B to go back to the title screen.

Polybius Gameplay Overview

Polybius has two main objectives – to go as fast as you can, and to shoot as much stuff as you  can. The faster you are going, the more points you get for things that you shoot.

To shoot, simply hold down button A. Optimal autofire is standard – no adding difficulty by requiring exhausting button-jiggling for our users.

To increase your speed, fly through the gates (which look like pairs of horns, because of course they do). Each time you pass smoothly through a gate your speed will increase. Try not to clatter or outright run into the sides of the gates, or you will lose speed and a shield.

Fly as fast as you dare, but don’t feel obligated to hit every gate. It’s better to miss an acceleration and just keep your existing speed than it is to clatter a gate, get slowed down, and lose a shield.

If you go fast enough you will start to get shock waves that travel down the surface of the level ahead of you. This is cool and good.

Pick up any pills you see; they will do various things that you will like. There are “bad pills”, but these don’t arise until well into the game so don’t worry about them too much.

Gates light up red when you are lined up correctly to pass through them.

Some projectiles, when shot, turn into Booster Rings which are beneficial to you.

After the first ten levels you may encounter gates that lift you up in the air. You can prolong such flight by pressing DOWN whilst in the air.

On Slalom levels, pass each post on the side that the flag points to. Try to just skim each post as you pass for highest bonuses.

Try to learn a comfortable and smooth path through each of the levels. Once you have that, you can think about optimising it for maximal points rinsage.

The game is pretty zoney on a regular  screen (sit close to a large screen in fullscreen mode for maximal immersion) but it’s a whole nother level in VR. Put on that headset if you’ve got it!

Obligatory Beg for Exposure

If you enjoy Polybius, leave us a like and a review, it all helps. I’m fed up of all the scrabbling for attention that one needs to do these days so I’m not going to endlessly go on about it in my social media or anything, but it’d help if you feel like doing it.

The game should work fine on most PC setups, but the PC world is bound within a fractal border of edge cases, and it is possible there may be problems with exotic setups. Try the game, and if it’s not working for you, take the Steam refund option and if you could let us know what went wrong and what kind of setup you have, we’ll aim to fix the issue with a future patch.

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Minotaur Arcade Vol. 1 Mini Manual

Upon launching the game from the Steam launcher, you will be asked to select from one of three options.

Launch MAv1 in Oculus VR Mode” will launch the game directly to your Oculus VR headset. Use an Xbox compatible joypad or the Oculus Touch controllers to play the game.

Play Oculus Arcade Mode” launches onto the headset as before, but with the game in Arcade Mode (see below).

Play MAv1” is the option you use to play the game in non-VR mode. Selecting this mode will bring up a further dialogue. Here you will see a list of available screen resolutions and refresh rates – select the one you want to use. Then press “Start Normal” to begin the game. You may also choose to start in VR, just in case you changed your mind between this menu and the last.

You can choose to Configure Keyboard. Here you will see a diagram of a controller (to remind you what goes where) and a bunch of fields containing the keys bound to each of the controller functions. By default, the ones used in Minotaur Arcade are:

- Arrow keys for motion

- “A” for button A, used to jump in Goatup

-”B” for button B, used in the Game Select screen

- “Y” for button Y, used to toggle Pause Mode on and off, and to return to the Game Select screen from a game’s Attract Mode.

You can change these key assignments to whatever you like: select the field with the binding you wish to change. If a key is already bound, press that key to remove it from the binding. If you want to add a key to the binding, press the key to add it. You can bind multiple keys to a single control function if you so desire. When you’re done, press Accept and Exit to save your changed bindings, Cancel to leave without saving or changing the bindings, or Reset to Default if  you’ve really buggered things up.

There are two keys with hardwired functions in the game: ESC quits to desktop, and F1 toggles between fullscreen and windowed modes. You shouldn’t use those for game function bindings. That’d be silly.

Arcade Mode

You may be wondering what Arcade Mode is, so I’ll explain. In non-arcade mode the game uses online leaderboards, and these behave as they generally do on consoles and in Steam; the name that is posted to the leaderboards is your logged-in Steam name. That’s fine.

However these are by their very nature arcade-style games; sometimes you might be in a situation where you have a bunch of players taking turns to play, and you don’t want to have to have everyone log in and out all the time to post their correct name on the online boards. Not everyone playing may even have a Steam account. For this situation there is Arcade Mode. This mode uses local score tables only, and at the end of a game, if a player gets onto the local score board they will be prompted to input their name, just like on an old arcade machine.

At the Game Select screen

Here you can launch either of the two games in Minotaur Arcade Volume 1. Press A to launch Gridrunner, or press B to launch Goatup.

Each game will launch into its Attract Mode. In the Attract Mode you can:

- Press A to begin playing

- Press Y to return to the Game Select phase

- Press Left or Right to page through the score tables. Note that online score tables may take a little while to propagate.

The games themselves are simple to learn. You will learn the subtleties of gameplay as you gain experience in each one. The basics are as follows:


Move your ship with the directional controls. Firing is continuous and automatic; there is no need to press any fire button. Imposing game difficulty by requiring frantic button mashing may have been fine for bongoing away on arcade cab buttons but we’ll be having none of it at home.

Collect the big obvious poweruppy things. They do a variety of nice things that you will enjoy while they last. Do collect any minotaurs in nice stripy jumpers that you see.

Try not to run into any of the enemies  or their bullets. If you do you’ll go bang.

Avoid the Bloody Laser Thing. Cultivate an awareness of its position and cadence.

When your ship is drawn as an outline, you are invincible. Use this time productively to smash enemies by collision like an angry bull, or to nip out of scrapes.

Gridrunner Game Modes

There are three selectable game modes in Gridrunner. These are:

- Pure Mode. In this mode you always begin at level 1 with 3 lives.

- Endurance Mode. In this mode you begin at level 1, but you never receive any extra lives.

- Casual Mode. In this mode, you can begin the game on any level that you have previously reached. As you play, each time you begin a new level, your current Lives and Score are compared with your previous best at that level, and saved if they are better. You can subsequently begin a game at that level, and with that saved Lives and Score – your Restart Best.

You may select between the game modes at the Level Select screen before gameplay begins. Note that levels may only be selected – by pressing Left and Right - if you are not in Endurance Mode.  Pressing Down toggles Endurance Mode on and off.

Mouse Control

It is possible to use the mouse to control the ship in Gridrunner. This will only work in Non-VR, Full Screen mode.


Climb as high as you can. Do not fall off the bottom of the tower.

Kiss any billy goats you see on the way.

Traverse platforms and collect objects to progress your pregnancy.

Try to raise as large a family as possible.

Some items grant special abilities for a period of time.

When your goat is drawn as an outline, you are invincible. Use this time productively to smash enemies by collision like an angry bull, or to nip out of scrapes.

If you enjoy Minotaur Arcade Vol. 1, leave us a like and a review, it all helps. I’m fed up of all the scrabbling for attention that one needs to do these days so I’m not going to endlessly go on about it in my social media or anything, but it’d help if you feel like doing it.

The game should work fine on most PC setups, but the PC world is bound within a fractal border of edge cases, and it is possible there may be problems with exotic setups. Try the game, and if it’s not working for you, take the Steam refund option and if you could let us know what went wrong and what kind of setup you have, we’ll aim to fix the issue with a future patch.

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Introducing and Explaining Minotaur Arcade

I know I don’t post on here that much, I guess because these days just about the only social media thing I bother with is Twitter and my Morning Sheep Time periscopes, but I thought it’d be cool to do an update talking about some of what we have been up to since Polybius came out. Of course we’ve completed the ports of Tempest 4000, which is finally out on PC, PS4 and Xbox One. And having finally finished that we’re working to put final touches to two projects that have been nearly complete for a few months now – Polybius for PC/Oculus Rift, and Minotaur Arcade Vol. 1. Both things are nigh on complete and just await final plumbing in to the Steam online leaderboards/achievements stuff and that will be happening over the next few weeks. We do have MAv1 also working on PS4/PSVR but the Steam version is likely to be first out as it won’t have to pass through the release bureaucracy at Sony.

Just in case anyone is wondering what Minotaur Arcade is and how it relates to the old Minotaur Project mobile phone games, well, I shall explain.

The Minotaur Project games were a series of 9 games I did during the two awful years I worked on mobile phone games. Although those two years ended up being the worst of my entire career, the games themselves werre actually pretty decent little things, and garnered good reviews wherever such things were published. Over time the games became nonviable on iOS as Apple decided that nobody would be able to run older games on newer versions of their OS, and we had neither the hardware nor the inclination to invest any more time in updating them, and anyway I had no intent of going back to mobile at all any time soon unless someone was to pay me handsomely in advance to do so. Just too horrible of a market.

Some of the games were ported to Android, and indeed free versions of those are available elsewhere on this site. But basically those games were languishing and pretty much unavailable to most people.

At the beginning of the year Giles was working on the Tempest ports, and I was in need of something to do myself, and I thought it might be nice to somehow maybe resurrect some of those old mobile games, rescue them and bring them to actually viable platforms. Of course I didn’t think that just straight porting them over would cut the mustard; I’d have to be able to make them more interesting in some way and polish up and extend them.

One of my favourites of the old Minotaur games was Gridrunner, which I’d developed in the style of a classic old Namco arcade machine.

Now most old arcade machines were sprite and tile based, and so was a lot of the old Minotaur Project stuff, so I started thinking about how I might go about creating some kind of framework into which it would be easy to port sprite and tile based stuff, making it easy for me to plug the old MP designs into it, whilst also allowing for the possibility of introducing new features with which to extend the designs once ported, and to make them look nicer and more interesting than just straight mobile phone game ports.

I thought it’d even be nice if I could make it so everything could be playable and look cool in VR as well as on a normal monitor, since by now we have a fair bit of VR experience and the necessary bits in our engine, so why not?

And so the framework for Minotaur Arcade was made – a ‘virtual arcade game’ environment designed to be easy to port MP games into (and therefore by their very nature *any* sprite and tile based games also), which would allow me to get ports up and running relatively quickly, then allow me to add extra stuff to make them more interesting and fun. And have playable VR versions fall out by default too.

I don’t have that many screenshots of the actual porting process unfortunately but there are a few taken during porting of Goatup so you can see something of how it works.

Here’s Goatup on iOS. It’s a platform game where you have to climb up as high as possible while eating grass, grabbing bonuses and having kids. As you can see it’s not particularly complicated; there’s a bit of an effect to make it look like it’s mapped onto a section of a cylinder but it’s really pretty minimal, you can barely notice it in the screenshot.

And here we are at the start of the porting. The sprites and tiles have been recreated in a voxel editor, as everything on the “virtual arcade game” screen is a voxel object. To the code we’re porting our environment just looks like a char map and some sprites though, so it’s easy to quickly start getting bits of the game logic ported and working even if they don’t look that nice yet. You can see the platform generation is working and the central column is sort of being drawn even though it looks a bit odd. The Spectrum-style score display of the original is now replaced by our Namco-coinop-style status area at the top.

A bit further on. The “screen” doesn’t have to be flat any more since it’s a 3D object in its own right, so instead of simulating the game being drawn on a section of a cylinder, we can simply actually make it so. It’s looking a bit sparse and odd here but you can see that major bits of the game are actually starting to work and become playable. The goat is running around eating grass and leading kids around already.

And here the basic port is nearly complete. There’s still a few inconsistencies (like it saying ‘lives’ in the top right instead of ‘kids’), but it’s pretty much all working. It looks more interesting than the old mobile versions, it’s fully playable in VR as well, but as far as the game logic is concerned it’s just running on a stock sprite and tile system. It means we can get a nice looking port done really quickly.

Once done we can polish up the game and add extras as necessary. The end results look pretty nice compared to the original starting point.

Original iOS game

Similar scene in Minotaur Arcade framework

MAv1 Goatup general gameplay

Of course we would like to be able to sell these games, and hopefully to be able to do so at a reasonable price, as we’ve learned through bitter experience that the ‘race to the bottom’ pricing of games on mobile led to them becoming devalued to the point where charging over a pound was considered to be “expensive” and it’s now at a point where people on mobile simply expect games to be free and developers have to resort to trickery like serving adverts or designing games that funnel users through IAP pay bottlenecks as part of their core design. This is not something I am willing to resort to.

Ideally we’d like to charge perhaps a bit over a fiver for MA releases. I do appreciate that some people might think that a little cheeky for enhanced mobile phone game ports even if they are quite significantly enhanced (but I would argue less cheeky than selling emulator roms of old games for that kind of price, which seems to happen a lot on various platforms these days). So I figured to make the perceived value better it might be nice to organise the MA releases as pairs of games – hence the “Volume 1″. I figure two decent games, including VR versions, for a bit over a fiver isn’t that bad of a deal.

The other game of the first pair is Gridrunner, as you have no doubt figured out by now. Here are some screenshots of what it looked like on iOS, and what it looks like inside the Minotaur Arcade environment.

Gridrunner on iOS.

Gridrunner ported to Minotaur Arcade. Here is the title screen of the attract mode.

Gameplay from an early level.

Logically the game thinks it’s on a flat tile map. We can use the Minotaur Arcade framework to warp it onto a hemisphere though, so why not.

The display of the “virtual arcade machine” isn’t constrained to the tilemap surface, so explosions can happen in 3D space. Something you will appreciate even more if you put on a VR headset and get inside the display!

Different levels can offer different perspectives and topographies.

And of course it wouldn’t be a Llamasoft game without going a bit mental with the voxelshatter stuff at times (usually at times when you are not directly controlling the action, as here, where you are busy exploding)

and here, where you’ve just completed a level, so we can go a bit bananas with the voxelshatter and postprocessing effects just to punctuate that pleasurable moment of completion.

The games come with all the usual Llamasoft modes you’ve come to expect – Gridrunner has Pure, Endurance and classic Restart Best modes, for example, with online and local score tables for each. The games now also have a new mode called Arcade Mode. This only affects the score table behaviour. Basically on completion of a game, instead of entering your login name automatically as would normally happen, in Arcade Mode when you get a hiscore it brings up an oldschool arcade-style name entry board into which you can enter whatever you like. This entry is then saved on the local (but not online) score table. You might find this mode handy if you have a bunch of mates round, for example, and you want to take turns competing for hiscores, just like in the old arcades, without requiring each participating player to log into Steam or whatever.

Well there you go, that’s what Minotaur Arcade is about. We’ll see how it goes releasing this on ps4 and Steam, and if it goes well enough to warrant it there could be ports to other VR platforms, and further Volumes. It’d be nice if it does do well enough to justify further developments, as I’d enjoy not only porting other Minotaur Project games, but perhaps also doing modern updates of some of my other sprite-and-tile based games (just about anything from the c64 and 16-bit eras would fit well). Or even develop new content for it as well, since I’m not about to just be rehashing old stuff even if I do considerably enhance it.

And it beats selling straight MAME roms for nearly a tenner apiece IMO.

I’ll finish off with a video of MAv1 running on ps4. Look out for it soon, probably on Steam/Oculus first and ps4/psvr subsequently.

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The Bathtub Curve

There’s a plot that comes up in the field of statistical analysis, typically illustrating the probability of a component failing during the course of its lifetime. Due to its shape it’s known as the Bathtub Curve, and excellently enough it is constructed using something called the WeiBULL Distribution. It looks like this:

The bathtub curve

You may be wondering what this has to do with the development of Polybius, as we’re hopefully not going to be analysing failure modes here. Quite right. It’s just that the shape of the curve for me outlines pretty accurately the stages that you go through during the course of making a game (or any bit of software really, I suppose).

Here’s my version of the curve:

The yay-grunt-phew curve.

Consider how you’ve felt at various times when coding. We’ve all had those times when we’re super keen, when we wake up in the morning and our first thought is how much fun we’re going to be having coding today and how awesome it is to be working on what we’re working on. We’ll call that state “maximum groovosity”.

Conversely we’ve all had days when it’s difficult to brain right and when coding feels like nothing works, nothing flows and it would actually be better for the code if we just did nothing for the day. We’ll call that state “minimum groovosity”.

Our graph here is a plot of groovosity over time for the duration of our project. As you can see there are three distinct phases, as follows:

Yay phase. This occurs right at the outset of the project. This is always a groovy time, as you’re working on something brand new, filled with enthusiasm, and the wins come pretty quickly as the most important basic components of your game design are implemented and become operational. Every day you’re seeing more stuff make the transition from out of your brain into something on the screen, that you can touch and feel with the controller. Working in the Yay phase is pretty effortless as you are having so much fun. Over time though, with the core systems established, the individual wins slow down and you begin to feel aware that there is an awful lot of underlying work that needs done before you can get to the end of the project. You can feel the general level of daily groovosity declining, until eventually you have to grit your teeth and settle in for the next phase:

Grunt phase. This is the part that feels most like real work. When I came back from London with the initial concept approved I was also aware that I had a whole bunch more levels to do, enemies to implement, all that good stuff – it was definitely the start of Grunt phase. Levels in Polybius, although fundamentally simple, still took days each to do, because they had to be fine-tuned so that I knew there was a perfect, exhilarating, no-crash flowing run down each one of them, and that fine tuning means a lot of just going over and over them until it felt right. And doing so in VR, since I wanted the VR experience to be excellent and without any motion sickness to the best of my ability. (It’s a testament to the durability and comfort of the PSVR headset design that I was able to use it comfortably for hours and hours every day, and I must have donned and removed it thousands of times and there’s no sign of any of its components wearing out).

Grunt phase  can be a hard time. It feels like the project stretches out endlessly before you, and things can start to feel a little Sisyphean. You’ll be doing a lot of gruntwork like UI and leaderboard stuff that’s never particularly fun to do but which is absolutely necessary. It’s during this phase that your fears and feelings of inadequacy come out. You’ll have a rubbish coding day and just feel like you’re too rubbish to be attempting what you’re attempting. You’ll have a level design that’s not working out and tell yourself you’re a rubbish game designer and everyone’s going to hate your game. You’ll sometimes feel that the game’s just not “clicking” with you the way you’d hoped and you’ll fret about the possibility that you might be on a hiding to nothing.

This happens to everyone. This is normal. Keep calm and carry on, as they say.

The grunt phase is often what separates hobby projects from professional ones. We all know loads of people who start out on projects, get through the Yay phase, start out on the grunt phase, feel like it’s too much like hard work and end up distracting themselves with something else – often the Yay phase of a new project. And there’s nothing wrong with that, when you’re learning or just out to have some creative fun. That’s why short projects and things like “game jams” are so much fun – you basically move speedily from Yay to Phew without ever having to go near Grunt.

Come the day you sign a contract, though, you’re going to need to be able to have the endurance to get through Grunt, so it’s an important skill to learn if you’re heading in that direction. I’m sometimes asked what I think the most important skill that an aspiring game programmer should learn, and my reply is usually “Completion”.  Having the strength of will to push through the hardest parts of the project even when you feel like smeg and would rather be doing something else is the mark of a professional.

It’ll be worth it, because one day you’ll realise that actually there is light at the end of the tunnel and it’s not even a train – the end is in sight. Rather than stretching out endlessly you can actually start to feel that in a few months, weeks, days the thing could actually be finished. You’ve crossed the desert of Grunt and entered:

Phew Phase. Finally you’re almost there. You’re finishing up all the loose ends now – there are still plenty of those but you work through them and as the list of outstanding issues gets smaller the better everything feels. It begins to look and feel like a well rounded whole; title screens and menus all fully populated and working, levels complete and nicely balanced, score tables functioning, all the little bits and details that go to make a complete game present and correct. As the work crystallises around you into its shiny final form you will find your groovosity level rising day by day.

It’s a great feeling, and it’s well worth the effort it takes to get here; nothing quite beats the onset and experience of the Phew stage. You feel justifiably proud that you had the fortitude to push through to the end despite everything. You realise that your game actually isn’t as bad as you’d feared during the hardest times of the Grunt phase (one developer said something like “our games only finally become good a month before they are finished” and I know I’ve felt the same thing and I think it comes naturally from the feeling of relief that pervades the Phew stage).

Completing and releasing a game is an important milestone in a game designer’s career, too. Showing your mates some cool ideas and demos is one thing, but releasing a complete creation to the world is another. It feels excellent and having done it once you now know that you *can* do it, and that makes it a bit easier next time round. And the more times you do it, the more you’ll feel able to completely rely on the belief that you *will* get it done, no matter how hard things get during the Grunt phase  and no matter how your own insecurities will try to bull you off the path.

Of course in real life the profile if your project isn’t quite as pessimistic as it looks on the curve as drawn there. You’re not going to necessarily spend the grunt phase at your lowest ebb of groovosity. Most of the time you’ll be fine, ticking along at medium  groovosity. Yes there will be bad days but there are also great days too, when something you’ve implemented that day adds a vital spark to the design and it makes you grin when you play through a level and reminds you of how you wanted the game to make you feel. But there is that kind of general shape to it – Yay at the incept, Grunt to push through and get the main part of the work done, and Phew the lovely phase where you bring it over the finish line and realise yep, I’m a game designer, I can actually do this.

There is an extended version of the curve though, which applies specifically to those of us who intend to develop on consoles. It’s pretty much the same regardless of which console you’re on; it happens the same way in all cases. The extended curve looks like this:

The extended baa-thtub curve.

You’ll note the addition of two new phases beyond the actual Phew phase of the original curve. These are console specific and we denote them as follows:

Smeg phase. In terms of blood pressure this can be the most demanding stage of the entire project; usually it is relatively brief compared to the grunt phase but by its very nature it will feel unreasonably long. I sometimes also refer to this phase as “the bureaucratic phase of the release” as you will inevitably be filling in loads of forms, many of which require almost but not quite exactly the same information as each other. You’ll be going through arcane procedures, juggling obscure product and service codes, and have to come up with screenshots, videos and marketing-bollocks style descriptions of your own game for the metadata (I always feel like a knob writing stuff that praises my own game to the high heavens).

You’ll also have cert to get through; oh, the joy of cert. I’m sure you’ll think that it won’t be that bad, after all you’re a conscientious developer and you’ve tested and tested and fixed up all the important bugs you can find before you even think about entering cert. Everything looks fine, nothing falls over and the game feels great. Nonetheless, it is quite likely that despite your best efforts you’ll get at least one bounce at cert, and possibly even multiple bounces (see that serrated section of the Smeg phase plot where these occur). You’ll start to feel pissed off and you’ll hear Italian swearing fill the air. In order to survive this phase it’s important to just chill out and remember:

The people doing cert are not looking for the same things that you are.

Consider the following three issues. Which one is the most important and should halt the release process?

(a) Game occasionally crashes during a level.

(b) Sometimes you don’t get an extra life when you should.

(c) On the credits screen a bit of trademarked text is momentarily obscured.

As a developer you’re naturally enough thinking (a) for sure, because nobody wants a crash bug to spoil their game; (b) also because although it’s not a crash it does alter the gameplay in some way. (c) doesn’t matter because who gives a toss about that?

To cert though everything is the other way round. They will of course report any overt crash bugs, but the chances are you’ve nailed those already yourselves. A relatively infrequent crash bug will certainly get reported if it manifests during test but it’s not considered to be the most serious.

So what is the most serious? According to cert it’d be (c). It’ll all be stuff like incorrect use of copyrighted terms, calling things by names that aren’t officially sanctioned, that kind of thing. It’ll drive you nuts because it’ll be things that to you seem utterly trivial but which are OMG MUST FIX in the eyes of cert. Things that we’ve had raised as MUST FIX bugs over the years include:

  • Putting (TM) instead of (R) next to a product name
  • Mentioning the system’s name in the credits
  • Referring to “right joystick” instead of “right stick”
  • Message that we’d put reading FINAL SCORE being read by cert as ANAL SCORE
  • Using the term “d-pad”. Never use the term “d-pad”.
  • Failing to use the word “button”.

And so on. The more you go through the process the more you’ll get used to it but almost inevitably there will be a few gotchas in there. Usually when you get kicked back from cert it’ll halt the process and it’ll take a few days to restart, so even if the list of bugs is entirely trivial to fix (I think the most severe one we had took Giles and I 20 minutes to find; by far most of the rest were literally just text string edits) it’ll cause the release phase to stretch out in a way that can feel agonising.

This is normal. Just remember it’ll pass, you will get through it, it’s not being done to annoy you or hold you back, it’s just that platform holders have to look at things a particular way because they’re in the middle of all kinds of ethical and legal expectations and they can’t just shove any old code out there into the hands of millions of people without checking it against a specific set of rules, and a lot of those rules will seem arbitrary and peculiar to you. Cert is just something you have to do if you want to play on those platforms, is all. Relax, chill, realise it’s just something that needs done with calm. If there are iterations the chances are that the amount of work you have to do to fix any issues will likely be quite small, often literally just text edits. Fix, reiterate, and then go out and spend some time outdoors or something. After all, you’ve been grinding through Grunt phase for months. Get some air.

Eventually you’ll fight your way through the Smeg phase, everything will get approved, and you’ll enter the final phase of console game development:

Pub Phase. In which your game is finally published on the console.

Also your natural destination after having successfully traversed Yay, Grunt, Phew and Smeg phases. Well done. You’ve earned your stripes as a game dev. Get a few pints down you and let the wrinkles in your brain smooth out.

Soon enough you’ll be doing it all again :) .

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Early Days

The whole ‘re-emergence of VR’ thing was happening around the time that we were making TxK for the Vita, and once we were done with that we heard that Sony were looking to make their own VR system we expressed an interest in that. We were offered the chance to get ahold of some early prototypes of the PSVR (and boy has it ever come on since those early protos I can tell you!) so we jumped at the chance.

We spent about a month getting some stuff up and running on there. I made a simple little VR game inspired by my iOS game ‘Minotaur Rescue’. It was a simple game played in a sphere; your little ship was entirely controlled by where you were looking, it didn’t need you to use a controller at all. The gameplay was quite simple, shoot rocks and enemies and rescue the little minotaurs that were floating around in the play area.

Minotaur Rescue VR

We ended up porting this to Oculus and Gear VR. We showed it at a couple of exhibitions and put a demo version up in the Gear VR app store but it was never widely distributed at all; we didn’t expect to make any money with it really, it was more of a learning exercise for us to dip a toe into VR.

Following that we did a complete overhaul and upgrade of TxK onto the PS4 and introducing support for PSVR. This was then ported to the PC and Oculus and again we took it around to a couple of exhibitions where we found that people really liked it, that although as a game it didn’t *need* VR in order to work, it actually felt pretty great to be surrounded by everything as you played through the game, particularly when you finished a level and it smashed all around you as you flew off the level. It imparted a Tron-like feeling of being *inside* an 80s arcade game, something I loved and which was absolutely on my mind when it came time to make Polybius.

Of course those versions of TxK have never been released, for reasons I don’t need to belabour here. However it is not out of the question that there may yet be some way for that work to see the light of day again. We’ll see.

By the time that was done, PSVR was getting a lot closer to its eventual release spec and we had a much better idea of what we might be able to get out of it. We went to Sony with little more than a video of an environment test we’d done (on Oculus at that point), my folder full of “influences” pics, and me basically saying “we’ll make something really cool in VR!”. We got the go-ahead from them and when I was thinking of what we’d call the game I remembered the old legend of Polybius and I thought it’d be neat to do something inspired by all that, but using modern VR techniques to make it super immersive and awesome. I’d noted people becoming positively euphoric while playing the VR versions of TxK, and I thought that if we could make a game that engendered feelings like that in its users, that would kind of fit in with the legendary Polybius’ reputation for being psychoactive (albeit in a harmless, positive way, unlike the brainwashing, disturbing way that the legendary Polybius was said to work).

We knew that to do a complete new game we’d need to get an implementation of our Neon lightsynth engine working on PS4, so we started out from that. The game was to be made so that it’d be playable in normal 2D as well as VR mode, but I absolutely wanted it to be primarily an excellent VR experience, so I wanted to do as much of the actual development of the environments and effects as I could directly in the VR space. To that end we needed to extend the Neon engine to be able to do stereo 3D, and I began to build an editor that functioned inside of VR, allowing you to adjust and animate the parameters that generated the environments and see the results floating all around you as you worked.

An early test of the VR Neon editor

This editor ended up being quite a complex and versatile beast, and while it ended up being just what we needed to make the environments for Polybius it did take up a few months of development time. Probably more than I’d anticipated. Giles would come up with some interesting Neon modules, and I’d play around with them, but as time went on I became increasingly anxious about the fact that we had a decent editor coming along but I didn’t have any actual gameplay to speak of running yet!

This came to a head one time when Giles went off back to Italy for a few days and it was getting close to the time when we were due to have a meeting with Sony to show them our progress – and I still didn’t have any game! So I thought “right! let’s get something down!” and just started throwing down some of the ideas I had on the simplest surface I had, a plane that I’d been using as a scroll test.

Scroll test plane and bulls in the editor

I made a little ship in a Neon stack and hooked it up to the controller. I gave it a gun and some shots, and made a level sequencer that just spat out little white placeholder cubes for enemies. I made it so you could shoot them and they’d blow up. I put in some shootable terrain blocks, and then I played around with that. It felt good, so I put on some Underworld and made gates that boosted you when you flew through them.

Suddenly that felt *excellent*. Flying through those gates, building up to crazy speed, and shooting these little white blocks that exploded all around you – I remember having a massive grin and realising that I’d finally found the direction I wanted to go with the gameplay.

Giles came back and I excitedly handed him the headset and told him to have a go and he had pretty much the exact same reaction that I did. We knew we had the start of something nice. It was a massive relief to me because I’d been waiting for that moment to come for a while. Sometimes it feels like it’ll never come, but it always does in the end.

Testing out early Polybius ideas.

We went to our meeting with Sony (and I remember that being initially a bit fraught, as it turned out we’d been building to some odd, obscure version of the OS that nobody had on a devkit there any more, and quite some faffing needed done before we could even get our demo running). It was still pretty much a bare bones concept, having only taken any definite shape a couple of weeks before, and I wasn’t sure what the guys would make of it. We gave the headset to our chief dude, and people gathered round to watch on the social screen while he played. Now as I am sure you know if you’ve played it in VR, it doesn’t really convey the same feeling watching it from outside in 2D as it does when you’re right there inside it, and the people watching outside thought it looked just OK.

Then our guy came out of the headset grinning and told us that after 2 minutes playing he’s “felt like a Jedi”. This was what we’d been hoping to hear :D . Everyone else had a go and people definitely loved it once they got inside and had a go.

We got our go-ahead for the next stage of development, and retired happy to the Pelton Arms in Greenwich (our favourite London pub where we always stay when we’re in town for meetings; they have great beer and excellent music and a famous cat and a great breakfast in the morning, we’ve been there so many times now we’re treated like locals, and they even have a credit in Polybius, check the credits page).

There I drank a not inconsiderable amount of relief beer at having made it to the next stage. Now we just had to make the other 95% of the game!

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It’s out then. And people don’t seem to hate it!

I am very glad finally to have got to this point. It’s been quite a journey.

I want to do a detailed post about the design of Polybius and the process of making it, but as I am actually due to go offgrid for a few days with my brothers on Friday I don’t know if I’ll have time to do it all. So I thought I could break it up into chunks. This first entry isn’t going to say much at all, really, just show a bunch of images.

Back before I knew exactly what Polybius would actually be (and it took rather scarily longer than I expected before I could say that I knew what it would be, but I’ll get to that in another entry) pretty much all I had was the name and a vague kind of feeling about which direction I was going to set out in. One of the first things I did was go out and gather together in a folder a set of screenshots and images, each of which contained some aspect of some part of the feelings that I wanted to feel about the new game. I didn’t want to just outright copy any of these things, mind; just to think about what I liked about each of them, and how they might inform whatever I was going to end up coming up with.

Can you recognise them all?

I’ll be posting more about the making of Polybius over the next day or two, and if not finished by the time I’m off with my brothers I’ll finish it up when I get back.

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Atarians of Note

Back in 8-bit days it was quite common for people to actually know the names of the individuals who made some of their favourite games (for back then many games were made entirely by individuals, before it became the huge-team-effort that it is today). These days you’re only likely to know the name of a game’s designer if they are egotistical enough to actually mention it in the title of their game.

On the Speccy you had the likes of your Matthew Smiths and Mike Singletons. On the Commodore you had your Andy Braybrooks and Tony Crowthers. There were quite a few well known names on each platform and you could generally be assured of getting what you were after if you liked the work of one of these fellows and then decided to pick up further games by the same person. It was a bit like following a favourite band, but with nerds.

But what of the Atari? Continuing my amble through the world of Atari 8-bits, today I’ll look at the A8 output of some people whose names I actually remember from those days. I’m not going to begin with the obvious like Doug Neubauer because he deserves an entire blog entry on his own which I shall hopefully get to one day. Here I’ll just examine the a8 output of a couple of chaps whose work I enjoyed, and who actually did more than one game on the system. I’m not saying these guys are the best of the best, just that their work impressed me enough back in the day that I remember their names even now. And their work is pretty consistent so it likely won’t be a waste of time to boot up and try any of the games I mention here.

Russ Wetmore

One has to feel sorry for poor Mr. Wetmore having had to go through school with a last name that sounds like one of those baby dolls with convincingly disgusting simulated bodily functions that some children seem to like (perhaps because they have only recently mastered voluntary control of said bodily functions themselves). I bet that can’t have been much fun. Nonetheless Russ Wetmore emerged from this unfortunate circumstance with sparkling Atari 8-bit programming skills which he put to good use in some excellent titles that are well worth a look.


I had this on cassette for my a8 and spent many happy hours in front of the Radio Rentals BAIRD 19 inch colour telly that we had in the family living room waggling my stick thereto. This is perhaps surprising as the game is based on Frogger and I’ve never been an especially huge fan of Frogger. Not even the prospect of lady frog action can hold my attention for more than a few goes of that I’m afraid.

19 inches of 70stastic glory. I don’t think this one caught fire.

For all that the gameplay is basically Frogger though, Preppie is so nicely dressed up that I can forgive it that and enjoy persevering through quite a few levels. A “preppie”, apparently, is the kind of American college student who is far too rich by dint of having rich parents. They like to wear Lacoste shirts (remember those, with the little alligator on them? I vaguely remember those being a thing in the 80s) and are generally a bit annoying, apparently. In this game you are one of these “preppies” by the name of Wadsworth Overcash (I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE) and for some reason you have to collect balls on a golf course (because golf is a preppie kind of game to be playing apparently). Anyway.

Preppie. Basically Frogger.
Basically it’s Frogger isn’t it.

Yes, basically it is Frogger, but there’s at least a little humour in it and the music’s rather good. It starts out pretty gentle and easy but the time limit in particular becomes a lot shorter on higher levels where you have several balls to pick up.

Preppie level 5
Here we are on level 5 with three balls to collect and Lacoste alligators to mount.

As far as Froggers go this is one of the nicest on the a8, and very nicely made as are all the games on the platform by Mr. Wetmore (I wonder if he’s ever been to Wetwang in the Yorkshire Wolds? Probably not). His next though is a little more interesting as it departs (mostly) from being so basically Frogger.

Preppie 2

In this outing Wadsworth Overcash is back and for some reason is tasked with painting the floors of a maze pink.

Preppie 2
Pinken that maze Wadsworth.

To be honest I think he looks more like a footballer here than a rich American college student but I guess there’s only so much you can do with player/missile graphics. The giant frogs from the first game are back (they appear in the median strip of that game after a few levels) and these lollop in a fairly leisurely fashion around two of the three interconnected mazes. There are a couple of turnstile-doors like in Lady Bug that you can use to thwart their relentless advances, and just like a real rich person you can make yourself visually and corporially imperceptible with a press of the fire button, allowing you to pass straight through your slimy pursuers like a bad lunch. Naturally this power isn’t unlimited and you must use it sparingly in order successfully to pinken all three mazes.

The interconnecting room.
The second of the three mazes.

In the second maze of the three there are no giant frogs; instead there is a reprise of some of the elements from the first game in the shape of golf carts and lawnmowers. Beware as although there can only be one of each in each corridor at a time, they can emerge from either side, making painting the corridor ends somewhat of a bugger if you’re not careful.

Another jolly nice game from Mr. Wetmore then, again excellently programmed and with nice jolly music, rather more interesting than the first in that it incorporates elements of the painting and maze genres as well as a slight remaining whiff of Frogger. I can’t remember if cats come out and leave paw prints in your pink paint on higher levels or if I’m just imagining that. If they don’t then they ought to.

Russ Wetmore also did a game called Sea Dragon which is a port of a game originally infinitely uglier on the TRS-80.

Sea Dragon cover

The game itself can be pretty much summed up as “Scramble with a submarine”.

Scramble with a submarine.
Scramble with a submarine.

It’s considerably slower than arcade Scramble, and you might think that’ll work to your advantage but trust me, it really doesn’t. This game is harder than a drunken Scotsman. You will die and swear a few times even on the first, relatively easy bit where you are just shooting the mines. Once you get into the twisty little caverns (which are immediately about as hard to navigate through as the last parts of arcade Scramble, necessitating those kind of turns where you have to haul back on the stick just to scrape through, and there are bastard lasers) good luck.

William Mataga

You might have seen some of these games ported to the Commodore 64 but they originated on the A8 (in fact I plan at some point to do a blog entry along the theme of “Games whose A8 Versions are the Original and Best“, which is actually quite a large category containing some famous names). We’ll start with one of my favourite A8 games from back in the day:

Apparently “shamus” is American slang for a private eye. I did not know that. The only Shamus I knew at that time was the dog out of Meddle by Pink Floyd.

I had this on cassette tape for my Atari 400 before I got posh and bought an 800 with a disk drive. You could actually hear the data as the game loaded; it sounded something like the ringing tone of an American telephone. Still took bloody ages to load though. However did we all put up with tape decks for so long? (Mind you, back in those days when you’d actually paid a decent price for a game and waited ten minutes for it to load, you damn well took your time to learn to play that game well, despite how much more difficult many games were back then. Having invested a not inconsiderable amount of money and time to get that game into your machine you were damn well going to persevere for a bit before switching it off).

Anyway, sitting through the bleeps and burps was well worth it.

Shamus on the A8.
May not look like much but it was in fact challenging and fun.

Granted the graphics don’t look like that much, and the colours aren’t quite as lovely as they can be in a lot of A8 games, but the gameplay was strong and challenging. It’s basically faster Berzerk with some actual purposeful exploration bolted on. Rooms could contain treasures as well as monsters, and there were variously coloured keys to be found which opened up new parts of the maze and eventually whole new levels.

Corner maze section.
The enemies look like they belong in one of those peculiar childrens’ breakfast cereals.

Notice the line between the little man’s head and his hat – bullets will pass straight through that without harming you, just like the same thing with the player’s neck in Berzerk. Also like in Berzerk spending too long in a room will lead to an indestructible enemy appearing and chasing you out of the room. Gameplay overall is a good bit faster than Berzerk though – not quite up to Robotron standards but pretty quick on the later levels. There’s nice little touches throughout like the fact that if you die for the next couple of rooms the enemies are a little bit less aggressive, giving you a little breathing space for you to recover from your loss. Nice.

Map of the first level.
Map of the first level. There are four in total.

A jolly nice game, and one which scratches a nice little itch between fast-paced arena violence and exploration. In fact I think there’s still room for more of this type of thing to this day – straight arena shooters have been done to death by now I think, but something like this done in a Robotron style is something I could play the hell out of even now.

Mataga did a sequel to Shamus:

Shamus Case 2

which is kind of interesting but IMO not such a good game as its ancestor.

The first kind of screen.
The first kind of screen.

Play alternates between two different kinds of screen. In this first kind you can move around the chambers and ladders, jumping over the pits and avoiding the snakes that come through all the snake delivery tubes that cross the level. It sort of looks a bit like Montezuma’s Revenge (another excellent game I’ll get to in a future update) but it’s really not.

The second kind of screen.
The second kind of screen.

On this second kind of screen you can shoot projectiles upwards into the teeming masses of thingummajigs, some of which come down and try to get you. You have to knock out all of the pacman-snake-things at the top to move to the next bit. There’s something to do with a bird that is supposed to be your ally but which nonetheless attacks you and needs shot, and every now and again the indestructible enemy from the first game appears and attacks you. It’s all a little bit confusing to be honest, and I don’t fully understand all of it yet despite having read the manual. Definitely more complex than the basic “you, gun, baddies, maze” of the original. Still, quite a lot of people seem to like it, and I fully admit I haven’t played it much so it could be I’ve just not given it a fair chance yet. I’ll have a few more goes and see. As of this moment I still prefer the original Shamus by far.

Finally let’s have a look at Mataga’s final release on the A8, “Zeppelin”.

Continuing the videogame tradition of subterranean aviation.

In this multidirectionally scrolling shooter you get to fly a dirigible through a cave. Cave-based aviation seemed like quite a popular theme for 80s videogames, with the likes of Fort Apocalypse having you pilot a helicopter through subterranean caverns, and Looping having you fly a small, acrobatic prop plane through various cave-like structures. Not to mention Scramble and Caverns of Mars.


Zeppelin gameplay.
Flying through the caverns.

OK it looks a bit of a dog’s breakfast in the screenshot bit it’s actually not too bad when you’re playing. The terrain scrolls past smoothly in whatever direction you’re going. There are switches to shoot which turn on or off various defences, little balloons to shoot, and factories under domes that you get to wreck as you pass by. By moving your zeppelin to different parts of the screen you can kind of choose which direction the scrolling will go next and therefore where you will end up going. There are some parts of the cavern that are locked and which require you to pick up an absolutely enormous key, almost as big as a bungalow, and bring it to an equally gigantic lock by carrying it underneath your zeppelin.

Look out, bungalow.
Nice little bungalows can be found throughout the caverns.

There are more factories under glass domes which you get bonus points for fucking up, and nice little bungalows everywhere that you get to ruin. Some switches are guarded by a monster that likes hamburgers, so you have to find a giant hamburger almost as big as a bungalow and bring it to said monsters to distract them. To progress to the next level you have to find a box of TNT almost as big as a bungalow, shoot an absolutely gigantic plunger to make it go up, deposit the TNT into the box, and then shoot the plunger, itself almost as big as a zeppelin, in order to progress to the next level.

I love 1980s game logic. It’s like being stoned without having to actually smoke any weed.

Where are they now?

Russ Wetmore stopped making games after the three mentioned here and went on to develop business and productivity software. Still coding, according to the info about him on Wikipedia. Excellently enough he recently released the source code for all three games on

William Mataga is now Cathryn Mataga and appears to have had a productive career in the games biz since those early 8-bit days. You’ve probably played some of the games she’s worked on.

Right that’s it for this week. I’ll be doing more Atarians of Note in the future and I have a few other themed entries I’m going to do, all still centered round the A8, and all of which will featire games well worth firing up on the emulator. Do play along :) .

And finally…

From December 1982, A8 public domain.

Flappy Bats then.
Sounds familiar…

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A8 Arcade Ports: Win some, lose some…

Atari carts
Some Atari 8-bit cartridges. The brown ones are Atari releases.

In the early days of the Atari 8-bit machines, pre-5200 era, Atari came out with a bunch of arcade game cartridges; as mentioned in the introduction Atari owned the rights to a lot of popular coinops back there so it was only natural that they would produce ports for their own line of 8-bit machines. Some of these were excellent, and some of them rather missed the mark for various reasons.

Atari Getting It Right

Missile Command
Missile Command. Excellent.

There had already been a very good (nay miraculous, considering the technical limitations of the VCS and just how not at all cut out for drawing multiple arbitrary lines that system was) port of Missile Command onto the VCS game console, but Rob Zdybel’s port to the A8 was sublime. It managed to incorporate just about every feature of the coinop, including features such as MIRVs, satellites and planes, and those complete and utterly bastardy little guided bomb thingies that were such a bugger to shoot. The three missile bases of the coinop were consolidated into one, but that was a necessary compromise in order to fit the game to controllers of the day which had but one button, and although it simplified the gameplay somewhat it certainly didn’t detract too much from what was a great port, and well worth spending a bit of time with to this day. I believe that later releases of this cart for the XL/XE machines even allowed the user to plug in an Atari ST mouse and use it to control the cursor after selecting trakball mode (Ctrl-T).

Donkey Kong
Donkey Kong. I never found the donkey.

Atari’s Donkey Kong port isn’t perfect – if you wanted to get really picky you might moan about the slightly too thin girders and that on the first screen there was one less level than in the coinop so Kong is on the wrong side (completely understandable as the coinop had a vertical aspect ratio), and masking might’ve been nicer than XORing. But in terms of playability this is a very good port indeed. Most home versions of the day managed to lose at least one of the levels from the arcade game due to constraints of space but this port retains all 4 of the coinop’s levels plus the animated intro and intermission screens. Surprisingly it was written by a guy who didn’t even like Donkey Kong that much – read his blog entry about it here, for a good insight into what it was like to actually be in the belly of the beast at Atari working on these arcade ports. Visually the Coleco port was probably a bit more attractive but you could at least play the A8 port with a controller that wasn’t almost entirely unpleasant, making it my Kong winner of that era for pure gameplay.


Here’s a good example of an arcade port that’s toned down somewhat for its home incarnation. Arcade Defender is one of the most notoriously difficult arcade games of the era (in modern times no doubt people would start comparing it to Dark bloody Souls) and this port is a lot more forgiving. Part of Defender’s difficulty lies in its control method, which is here tamed to a much more conventional joystick control, with the keyboard’s space bar activating the Smart Bomb. This led to the demise of the space bar on my own Atari 800 – I was playing Defender with the 800 sat on the ground where I was using my foot to trigger Smart Bombs. I must have been too vigorous one day and broke the space bar, forcing me to up my game and play without using Smart Bombs. I did get to the point where I was able to play forever even on hard difficulty and no Smart Bombs, which further indicates the lenience of the port, since I have never come anywhere near that on an actual coin-op.

The port itself is smooth and competent and features all the essential elements of Defender gameplay. The ship’s a bit on the large side and the sound effects don’t have quite the same bite as the Williams originals, but it’s one of the nicer looking and sounding ports of the time. Explosions are appropriately shattery, although they seem to be made up of generic particles rather than the actual parts of the disintegrating sprite’s bitmap as in the coinop. It feels a little bit soft and mushy in control compared to the original but that just makes it feel comfortable and easy to settle into; it’s not hyper twitchy. It makes Defender nicely accessible to most people, who might not have the skills or patience to get to grips with a more accurate port.

If you do want to experience Defender gameplay that’s closer to the original in terms of difficulty then I recommend you check out Planetoid on the BBC Micro, or Guardian on the C64, both of which use the keyboard rather than the joystick to more accurately emulate the coinop’s multitude of buttons, and both of which are hard as a bastard.

The Humanoid must not escape

Atari’s port of Berzerk to the 2600 was pretty decent for that system but if you studied the gameplay you noticed that the robots never strayed outside of the horizontal band of screen space in which they originated, a constraint imposed by the limitations of the VCS’ hardware that rendered accurate reproduction of the coinop’s gameplay impossible. This A8 port, however, suffers from no such constraints and is as perfect a rendition of coin-op Berzerk as you are likely to see on any machine of that era. There is even the taunting speech from the robots, calling out “The Humanoid must not escape” and “Chicken, fight like a robot” should you leave the room before all of them are dead. The only difference is that the speech is only generated between levels since without speech generation hardware the 6502 has to play back the samples by hand, which can’t be done at the same time as running the game. That doesn’t detract at all from an excellent port of Berzerk though.

Atari Getting It Not So Right

Asteroids. In my eyes. Ow.

I have to begin by pointing out that if you look at the truly dreadful things perpetrated in the name of Asteroids by other people on other systems then it must seem positively churlish to call this out as not being good, since on most of those other systems it’d be considered great. However it’s the A8 here and we expect a degree of arcade-style lustre which is simply entirely absent – look at it, the poor thing’s ugly as sin. Plus it’s Atari making a port of one of their own best known and loved coinops so I’d expect the highest standards to apply.

To add insult to injury Atari had already produced an excellent port of Asteroids to the 2600 which was actually verging on the miraculous, and which despite a bit of sprite flicker and some constraint of the asteroids’ trajectories nonetheless managed to deliver a decent looking and playing game on that system. Here the game ported to a much more capable system actually ended up looking worse. Multiplexed sprite graphics were replaced by XOR plotted monochrome playfield graphics, which allowed more asteroids to be on screen at once, but which also unfortunately ended up being flickery and ugly and looking like a dog’s breakfast when a lot of asteroids occupied the same space.

XOR draw ugliness
An XOR dog’s breakfast.

Even the motion of the asteroids got a bit choppy when there were a lot on screen. This game was intended to be one of the flagship titles on the 5200 (game system never released in proper British parts, consisting basically of an a8 in a gigantic, enormous case paired with unreliable, unsuitable analogue joystick controllers for no apparent reason, so we were actually rather better off without it, especially as most of its games were either derived from existing a8 games or could be trivially backported to the a8). It was never actually released on the 5200 though, perhaps because someone sensible at Atari decided that a dog’s breakfast looking port of Asteroids on a system with a wholly unsuitable controller might not be showing the company or the system in their best light.

Multiplayer Asteroids
Fun multiplayer options though

It is a shame though because not everything about the game is poor. Moving the asteroid rendering to the playfield freed up the sprite system allowing for a variety of multiplayer local gameplay options for up to four players at once, whcih was actually kind of fun. And as I said at the start, on any other system this would probably be considered good. It’s just that we hold the A8 and Atari to much higher standards and this just doesn’t make the grade.

If you want to see just how well an a8 machine can do Asteroids, then you should check out this version, made in 2012:

Asteroids emulator boot screen
Your eyes do not deceive you.

Yep, that’s not a port; that’s an emulator. It actually loads and runs the code from the ROMs of the real arcade version of Asteroids. Additional software emulates the vector drawing and sound routines and it runs fast enough to be fully playable.

A miracle.
A miracle.

This is a truly remarkable achievement on behalf of the programmer, and the only example I have seen of an emulator running on a system that was designed a couple of years earlier than the thing it’s emulating.

Now for another truly remarkable achievement, although in an entirely different sense…

Cast your mind back. It is the early 80s (and there will not be time for Klax for nearly another decade). You are Atari. You own the license to one of the hottest arcade games of all time, Space Invaders. You’ve already done a decent VCS version that flew off the shelves. You have expert programmers on hand to do ports onto hardware that you designed. Space Invaders isn’t even that difficult of a game to program. So your own A8 port of Invaders is going to be a bit special, yes?


What the actual fuck.
What the actual fuck.

If you are at all familiar with what Space Invaders looks like I am sure that there are several questions that will go through your head on looking at that image. Questions like “where the fuck are my houses”? Questions like “what the fuck is that giant shed at the side of the screen in aid of?” and “where are the iconic Invader shapes that everybody in the Universe recognises instantly and the license for which you paid a crapload of cash to Taito?”

That kind of thing. Lordy knows what they were thinking, for this is a rubbish port of a great game.

I think the shed at the side is supposed to be some kind of rocket. At the start of every wave the invaders actually come marching out of it, giving you plenty of time to pick plenty of them off before they’ve even mustered their ranks in the play area. Maybe that’s why the houses were taken away as you had an unfair advantage in murdering the Invaders as they came out the shed doors. I really don’t know. It gives me a headache to think about someone at Atari looking at this port and going “yup, looks like a good version of Space Invaders to me”, and signing off on it, maybe even paying the programmer a bonus for producing what is so blatantly obviously a huge pile of smeg to anyone with competent eyes to see. Maybe they’d given S. Munnery a job, I don’t know. This is why arcade ports and remakes should never be trusted to anybody whose main motivation is money alone. They must be done by people who love and will respect the original work or you end up with this kind of crap.

I decided to take a look at the 5200 version of Space Invaders to see if they’d improved it at all:

Still smeg.
Still smeg.

At first glance you’d be forgiven for thinking that they’d improved it because there are at least houses this time, even if they are tiny, rubbish ones. Which inexplicably have random colour streaks through them, and not in a cool-looking raster bar kind of way, just in a random rubbish way. The Invader shapes would be fine shapes for a canine’s breakfast I suppose, and notice how they are all coloured in various shades of fugly. Nice. But at least the shed’s gone… or has it? In fact when you play it’s evident that although the awful shed graphic has been removed the game behaves in every way as if it’s still there. The Invaders still march out inauthentically from the left. Worst of all once out they don’t even traverse the entire screen properly as they ought; instead they turn around where the invisible shed ought to be, which is confusing and rubbish when you’re playing. It’s obviously they’ve just reused the old a8 code, bolting on some rubbish houses, turning off the shed graphics and changing the invader graphics but not even changing the associated logic to reflect the removal of the shed. I really don’t understand the attitude that must have prevailed at Atari at that time. Why not give the job to somebody who actually gave a fuck about it, especially given that it’s supposed to be, you know, a flagship title on your brand new console. You’d think it’d be worth making the effort, even if it did cost you a few more bucks, or the effort of finding some loyal fan who’d do the job more for love than money, but no, just tweak up an already shite port and call it done. It beggars belief, it really does. I just can’t begin to get my head round it. I’ll never understand “business”.

If you want to play a half decent Space Invaders on the a8 then I would recommend seeking out Roklan’s Deluxe Invaders:

Roklan's Deluxe Invaders
Recognisably Space Invaders.

It isn’t perfect but it is at least recognisably Space Invaders (in fact I am not sure how they got away with doing such a close clone, unless they had their own licensing deal with Taito back in the day). You have houses, the Invaders look like Invaders, there’s no shed, and there’s also a pleasing number of game variations to enjoy.

It isn’t the most authentic Invaders from that era though. For that you need to head over to the Vic-20 and look at the excellent Vic Avenger cartridge, which is as close a clone of Space Invaders as I have ever seen, reproducing almost perfectly nearly every quirk of the original game, despite running in a much smaller screen area.

VIC Avenger
VIC Invaders. Best Invaders.

The Invaders of the Vic version look a little portly due to the Vic’s odd screen proportions, but apart from that the graphics are pretty much spot on to the coinop. But it’s other little bits of attention to detail in reproducing the game that make the Vic version stand out. For one, if you look at the Roklan game, you will see that everything moves very smoothly – including the block of Invaders itself, they all move smoothly as a body, wiggling as they go; something that it’s naturally very simple to do on the Atari, animating characters on the playfield and just scrolling them about.

Only if you go and watch a real game of Space Invaders you’ll see that that’s not how it works. In real Space Invaders hardware limitations meant that the machine could only move one Invader at a time, and early on in the level you can see that the motion kind of ripples through the block of Invaders as they shuffle left and right on the screen. As the player shoots away Invaders, the hardware has fewer to draw, and so the overall motion of the pack of Invaders starts to speed up. This effect of the game’s hardware limitation, and its effect on gameplay, was recognised as a positive thing by the game’s designer and became a defining characteristic of the game. There is a feeling when you play of organically chipping away at the game’s very code and hardware capability as you battle towards the end of a level; it doesn’t just go “oh there’s thirty Invaders left now; I’ll speed up the attack pattern a bit”, it’s something that you make happen by altering the task that the code has to do through your ablative actions. In both the Atari and Roklan games you never see that, because they use the a8′s playfield and character handling to make the burden of moving the block of Invaders almost nonexistent – a clever move technically that uses the target hardware well, but one which unwittingly removes part of the soul of the game they’re trying to replicate.

The Vic game gets it pretty damn near perfect. Well worth firing up an emulator for if you’re inclined to study this further.

Anyway! That’s enough arcade ports for now. There are tons more that I’ll get to in future weekends, although next up I think I’ll do some original A8 games rather than just ports. There was a lot of great stuff on there. I hope some of you are playing along and maybe coming to discover a new love for Atari and their 8-bits that you might not have known before :) .

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A British Person’s Introduction to Atari 8-Bit

British people are eminently sensible (or at least they are in some things, but obviously not when it comes to Brexit or voting Tory, but let’s not dwell upon that) and as such many of them will have owned an Atari computer at some point during the 80s. However it’s likely to have been one of the 16-bit ST series of machines from the Tramiel era, and very nice those machines were too (I was way more of an ST man than an Amiga dude myself back at that point in history).

Not so many people are familiar with Atari’s 8-bit machines though, because just by dint of timing, pricing and how things unfolded during 8-bit times on our lovely isle of tea and biscuits the A8 machines (for that is how we refer to them historically now that we all live in the future) sort of fell through a gap in the market and were never really that popular here.

These machines were actually rather special though, and there was some excellent software developed for them, which it’d be a particular shame for you to have to go through an entire lifetime never having seen. Plus it’s getting on for winter which is an excellent time for weekend emulator fiddling and game playing so I thought it might be nice to do a little intro to the Atari 8-bits, link to a decent setup that you can download and use to explore some of their library yourself, and an ongoing series of occasional posts looking at some of the games.

If you remember the A8s at all you probably remember the XL (and later the XE) series machines that only really appeared in Britain as those other machines you’d sometimes see in the shops that nobody bought many of because they weren’t Commodore 64s or Spectrums. And whereas you wouldn’t look as much of a pillock to your mates if you’d bought one as you would if you’d've bought an Oric or a Camputers Lynx or something daft like that you probably would have still felt like a second class citizen compared to your mates with their Speccys and C64s.

However it wasn’t always like that. There was a period in the early 80s when the Atari 8-bit machines seemed glamorous and alluring and were the object of desire for a certain class of computer spods, myself included. To understand this you have to understand certain conditions that prevailed at the time.

Firstly, we fucking loved Atari. It’s hard to imagine how loved Atari was back then, especially in this day and age; but for a bunch of us growing up round then Atari were synonymous with videogames, both in the arcade and at home. The Atari VCS looks laughably primitive to us now but back then it was the most amazing thing, bringing an ever-growing selection of brightly-coloured and playable games to your telly, beating the crap of the boring Pong-based machines that had come before it. The name “Atari” became synonymous with the act of gaming itself and kids would say they were coming round to “play Atari” (as would similarly happen with the name “Nintendo” some years later). Plus they made or licensed some of the best coin-ops in the arcade, so if you were a gamer at the start of the 80s, you by default loved Atari.

Secondly the machines were incredibly advanced for their time. The basic design of the machines was begun in 1978, originally intended to be a more advanced game console that developed and extended a lot of the ideas that had gone into the VCS. Around that time home computers such as the PET, TRS-80 and Apple ][ started to become popular and the extended-VCS design was itself extended to incorporate the features of a proper home computer. Home computers of that era were in general rather janky and unattractive from a game enthusiast's point of view, usually featuring monochrome displays, a complete lack of sound, and bugger all in the way of controllers. The Apple ][ fared a little bit better in that it had a bitmapped colour display, farty Spectrum-level sound and the possibility of plugging in those floppy analogue controllers that nobody ever used for proper gaming back then. The Apple ][ never gained a toehold amongst gamers in the UK however, largely because it cost about as much as the moon and was pretty useless without a disk drive, which was another lunar-magnitude expense on its own.

And so it was for us in 1980. The spoddiest of us computer spods had obtained the likes of the ZX80 and the Acorn Atom and were rasterbating furiously over those machines, or farting about on the PETs and TRS-80s at school or college. We'd heard of the Apple ][ but in all likelihood never actually seen one in the flesh. Then in October 1980, nearly a year after their launch in the US, Personal Computer World brought us news of new machines, made by our sainted and beloved Atari, and destined for the UK.

PCW Oct 1980
An 8-bit porn mag.

I still remember having that magazine in my digs at uni, I must have read the bit about the Atari machines hundreds of times, poring over every detail like a beloved porno. Compared to what we were used to, from an aspiring game designer's point of view these new machines were nothing short of incredible, full of all kinds of features to make the very tasks we struggled to achieve in games programming on existing machines both massively easier and hugely less limited. Reading again and again the details about such things as hardware scrolling, player/missile graphics, display lists, amazing colour capabilities and compatibility with existing Atari controllers was enough to make one's own joystick somewhat tumescent.

The machines were available in two flavours, the somewhat space-age-looking Atari 400:

Atari 400
Atari 400. Beam me up Scotty.

with its Star Trekian angularity and jizz-proof keyboard (which was perhaps less of a deterrent than it ought to have been for those of us already inured to the ZX80's plastic membrane which had a keyfeel about the same as drumming your fingers on the desk). Here you can see the cartridge lid flipped open and the BASIC cartridge inside - not that that would be staying in there for any length of time for those of us who did end up getting one of the machines, but we'll get to that later. It even boasted an incredible FOUR joystick ports along the front of the machine, a generosity and ergonomic bounty of interface possibilities that would not be equalled for many years to come.

The big brother to the 400 was the somewhat more conventional-looking 800, which looked rather like some kind of office typewriter:

Atari 800
The imposing Atari 800.

and I am sure Atari probably had hopes of making inroads into the business market, but let's face it business types were more likely to go for the existing TRS-80, PET or an Apple ][ if they really wanted to be posh. The 800 had the distinction of being built like an absolute tank, and boasted 16k (later 48k) of RAM and an extra cartridge slot that nobody ever used.

Best of all was the potential for excellent gaming software on these machines. Atari owned the rights to a lot of the most popular arcade games by dint of either having already made or licensed the games themselves, and with all that fancy hardware there was the possibility of hods of excellent games making their way onto those machines. There was also Star Raiders, a game that for its time was so gob-smackingly amazing that anyone who saw the game in action (or even read about it in the stuck-together pages of that PCW magazine) was immediately inseminated with a burning desire to possess a machine to run it on.

Star Raiders
Star Raiders. Spooooooge.

My favourite arcade game of the time was Exidy "Star Fire" which featured the same first-person out of the cockpit window view. Star Raiders promised not only to bring that experience home but also enhanced it by bolting on features that until then had been purely the domain of the ultra-spoddy text-based Star Trek games that proliferated on the less capable machines to yield an arcade/strategy game hybrid that concealed an astonishing depth of gameplay in its meagre 8K of 6502 machine code.

A particularly outstanding feature of the Atari machines was the mind-blowing wealth of colour they allowed programmers to bring to bear on their game creations. Many machines of that era were pedestrianly monochrome; if you had colour at all it was a huge deal, and just about every other machine could only muster up eight, or if you were lucky 16 colours in total. The Atari smashed that limit utterly and allowed programmers to have exotic luxury like several shades of blue on one screen.

Attack of the Mutant Camels
Several shades of blue I tell you.

With capabilities like these, a fistful of great software licenses in hand, and the undying love of every potential new game programmer in the country, surely then Atari with these machines would sweep forth and take over Britain? Alas, it was not to be.

The trouble being basically that upon introduction the machines were priced roughly in line with their model numbers. Ouch. In Eighties quids as well. Us British computer spods were an impecunious lot, and so excellent though these machines promised to be they were admired from afar as being akin to the Apple ]['s sexier siblings rather than anything we could actually be hoping to buy. And by that time Uncle Clive was cranking up to the peak of his career and bringing us first the ZX80 (at under a ton the first machine I could ever actually afford to buy), then the ZX81 (miraculously both better than the ZX80 and considerably cheaper) and ultimately the Speccy (crowning glory of Uncle Clive's career and the direct genesis of the UK game development scene). Commodore brought out the VIC-20, also cheap as chips and with a decent keyboard, appealing to those of us who'd cut their teeth on 6502-based systems like the PET. So us nerds hoovered up these less capable but a hell of a lot cheaper systems while the Ataris languished out there on the exotic boundary.

Of course this situation didn't last, Commodore firing the first broadside across the industry in what proved to be a punishing price war that decimated the early home computer scene, and also introducing the Commodore 64 which everyone agreed was just the best computer ever, even those who had bought Spectrums, although they would never allow themselves to admit it and they carried that self-delusion with them throughout their entire lives, scarring them to this very day. Atari too became embroiled in the price war, and the prices of the hitherto exotic A8 systems tumbled - but by then everyone was already decided for either the C64 or the Speccy and the machines were never taken up in significant numbers, leaving Atari very much the Green Party to Uncle Clive and Jack Tramiel's Tories and Labour.

For some of us though the Atari machines still had about them a bit of glamour and arcade allure that the other machines, even great ones like the Commodore 64, somehow lacked. The possibility of great, cartridge-based arcade ports was enticing. I was fortunate enough to get my first Atari machine during the Vic-20 era, when they were still quite expensive and finding anywhere selling them and the software for them was pretty rare. I only knew a couple of fellow Atari owners in my area, and we'd meet up several times a month for gaming sessions and yes, a bit of yo-ho-ho did go on, as it always did back then, but in the case of the Atari it was as often as not simply because a lot of the games were hard to come by via legitimate means unless you were prepared to order stuff from the US. Atari of course were turning out their arcade ports, and there was a succession of other good games coming mostly out of the US, where people were richer and the Ataris had caught on more than they had here. Much of this software was well-made and had quite a different "flavour" to the British and European stuff we saw a lot of on our 64s and Speccies. Us Atarians felt like we had access to games that were somehow more exotic, more arcadey-feeling somehow, than those available on our other machines.

A8 software, the best of it, has a special kind of feeling, I don't know how to explain it really, except that it feels more "arcadey". That isn't to say that it was all brilliant - there was a fair share of smeg as there was on all machines, and not even Atari themselves were consistently excellent, as we shall come to see. But there was some truly excellent stuff on there, and some games that people might know better on other machines originally had their start (and often their best implementation) on the Ataris. I still enjoy wandering through the A8 section of my emulator collection (or even occasionally firing up my original 800 that I still have, and which still works fine apart from the space bar, which I broke back in the day doing Smart Bombs with my foot whilst playing Defender).

I thought it might be fun to do a series of blog posts about some of these games, especially as a lot of British people might have missed them entirely, having never owned an A8-series machine. If you're interested, it's also pretty easy for you to follow along with me, or wander through some of the A8 library on your own, through an extensive curated collection of "the best of Atari 8-bit" which you can download from this page here. This collection contains over a thousand games and the emulators necessary to run them, all contained in a neat UI and accompanied by extras such as manuals and screenshots and is a complete piece of piss to install.

Right that’s it for the intro. Next posts I’ll get on to the games. If you don’t know 8-bit Atari that well do make yourself a cup of tea, grab some biscuits and join in, there’s some great stuff to be found!

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