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In Memory
Sean Pettibone


Classic Games

Exploring the Atari 2600’s Homebrew Arcade

Capturing the feel of classic arcades has been an elusive goal for 2600 programmers and developers for close to thirty years. While they don’t always succeed, there are several recent homebrews that have come close to this goal. Not all of them are arcade perfect in terms of graphics, but most of them capture the essence and feel of those golden-age cabinets to a fairly impressive degree. Join us as we take a look at three of the best titles we’ve played recently.

Pac Man 4K
Atari 2600 - Homebrew
Developed by: Dennis Debro

Atari’s original Pac Man conversion wasn’t terrible, but its blocky graphics, flickering ghosts and lack of detail made it disappointing for many players. Now, thanks to the efforts of its talented developer, gamers are finally treated to a version of the game that lives up to the 2600’s potential. The original release’s block design and clunky animation were some of its biggest problems. In the new version, everything has been changed for the better with Pac Man 4K. Atari’s original  conversion played on a blue background, but players will find that Pac Man maze has reverted to its original blue on black design, with the flashing power-pellets in their proper place. Pac Man himself looks better, with his standard design, not that eye-filled weirdo from the original. He also closes his mouth when stopped, another huge improvement. The ghosts have their own colors once again, and chase in familiar patterns that mimic the arcade game. Players will even hear the famous siren as the game unfolds, which adds to the game’s arcade authenticity. The game’s immediate appeal lies in its easy to understand gameplay, which captures the arcade feel flawlessly. The controls are smooth using a standard joystick and the game mechanics and AI are excellent. There’s a high degree of ‘polish’ immediately evident in this version and 4K lives up to the arcade game’s reputation instead of tarnishing it.

On the down side, Pac Man 4K’s pellets still look like dashes, but the maze layout more closely resembles the arcade game. Instead of the single square block at the center of the screen, you finally have different fruits for each stage. The game plays much smoother than the original conversion, with a flowing gameplay that matches the speed and tempo of the original arcade game. A small improvement is the scoring, which now follows the arcade system exactly. From an animation standpoint, the game play is much smoother. While the ghosts and pac himself still suffer from some minor flicker, its far less noticeable than it was in the original release. You’ll also hear the original theme song at the beginning of the game, instead of the random bleeps from the first conversion. Overall, these changes make for a far more authentic and accurate translation. Taken together, the game looks and sounds much closer to the arcade game, and its sound effects are outstanding. These improvements make this a worthwhile title for anyone interested in what might have been had Atari not rushed their original game to market. Pac Man 4K manages to successfully squeeze most of the elements from the original game into a small space, making this both an impressive technical achievement that shows what the 2600 is capable of, while also being fun to play.

Juno First
Atari 2600 – Homebrew
Developed by: Chris Walton

Most 2600 arcade conversions are usually exercises in compromise where the game’s visuals and mechanics have been scaled down and simplified due to the console’s hardware limitations. Recent homebrew titles have pushed the boundaries of the system and have come much closer to the arcade experience. A prime example of this is the outstanding port of Juno First. The first thing you’ll notice is the game’s high degree of polish, with an elaborate title screen, music soundtrack and even a high-score table. Interestingly, your scores can be saved if you have the Atarivox adaptor.  This Konami title originally came out in 1983 and offered an interesting take on the space shooter. Instead of attacking you from a fixed position, as in contemporary games like Space Invaders or Galaxian, Juno First’s enemies attack in waves and fly at your ship. You aren’t in a fixed position either, and can scroll either forward or back to avoid their shots and attacks. Its open-ended playfield gives the game a unique feel that makes the action seem more intense since foes can fire at you from almost any direction.

Each wave of foes presents a different set of challenges and there are several types that you can destroy. You can see which ones are heading your way by looking at the radar on top of the playfield. In addition to your main mission, you’ll also see astronauts flying around sporadically. Shooting the containers they’re trapped in releases them. If you capture them, they’ll unlock Hyperspace mode where the enemies will stop firing at you for a few moments. Shooting them in this mode is easier and gives you higher bonus points. Despite all the complexity, Juno First’s levels end when you destroy all your opponents. Early stages start off fairly simply and are easy to clear, but there are some interesting strategies in play. You can scroll backwards and make enemies appear at the bottom of the screen and you can also use this technique to avoid their fire. You can also use the radar to figure out which ones are coming at you, and use this to avoid them. Some levels also feature waves of enemies flying in formation and subsequent waves move faster and become more intense.

The game’s visuals are impressive, with the scaling enemies, smooth linear backgrounds and slick animation giving Juno First a slick, arcade-style appearance throughout. There are some minor flicker issues when multiple enemies are on screen, but it doesn’t detract from the game’s highly-polished appearance. Impressive sound effects and shots are great with the standard cart and the added music in the opening is quite good and helps get you in the mood for the action to come. Between its frenetic action, challenging level design and abundance of varied levels, the game delivers a solidly entertaining experience with surprisingly high replay value. The game’s smooth controls and scrolling play mechanics give it a genuinely arcade feel that’s fast and fun throughout. With its polished gameplay and excellent visuals, Juno First is a fantastic release, making for one of the best arcade-translations on the 2600.

Space Rocks
Atari 2600 – Homebrew
Designed by: Darrel Spice, Jr.

Atari’s original Asteroids conversion from 1981 was a decent effort for its time, but there was definitely some room for improvement. Space Rocks takes up the banner and delivers a challenging and entertaining port of the arcade game, though it seems to take more from Asteroids Deluxe than the original. The first thing you’ll notice when Space Rocks powers up is the opening menu, which allows you to set a number of options. These include the color scheme and style of rocks. You can choose from three different powers, such as hyper-warp, shields when you press down on the joystick. The other options let you turn of the magna mines and set the extra-ship points threshold. Once you’re done with these settings, its time to play. Despite its apparent simplicity, there’s actually quite a lot going on under the surface. Playing the game through while experimenting with its many options, Space Rocks offers a surprising amount of replay value. The sound and visuals immediately impress with its effortless smoothness, the animation of the rocks is superb and they spin just like the arcade game. Unlike the Atari version, the rocks here are wire-framed which makes them more closely resemble the original game’s vector graphics. You can also play with the rocks in filled-in mode like the original 2600 title, but this isn’t that good looking and makes the visuals feel mushy, though this is a matter of personal preference. Players will find the sound effects in Space Rocks closely resemble its arcade counterpart as well, with thunderous laser blasts and loud explosions complimenting the action.

Your ship moves smoothly, gliding across the screen quickly. The rocks themselves blow apart into smaller pieces quickly, but the physics here are much closet to the arcade game, making the play much more challenging. You’ll quickly find yourself lost in a sea of small rocks if you aren’t careful, so you need to focus your fire on a small section of the screen if you want to survive for long. As in the original game, occasional enemy ships will appear onscreen and fire shots at you, which are easy to destroy on the early levels. Occasionally, you’ll have some help when they crash into rocks. In certain modes, you’ll also encounter a larger cluster of mine ships, which consist of multiple attackers that are tied together. When you shoot at them they’ll break apart and come directly at your ship so you’ll need fast reflexes in order to beat them. As you might expect the early levels are fairly easy to navigate, but as the later levels add more rocks that move at faster speeds, things become increasingly difficult. Like many classic arcade games, the objective is basically to survive as long as possible and rack up a high score. Extra points are awarded for shooting down flying saucers and the attacking ships. Players can survive longer by avoiding clusters of rocks and not relying too heavily on the warp, which can put you right in the center of disaster. Still, the key is concentration and skill, where you have to stay focused for an extended period, surviving waves of rocks in order to gain a high score. Space Rocks effectively captures the look and feel of Asteroids and does so in a polished and playable cartridge that makes it one of the more enjoyable cartridges on the 2600.

Note: For authenticity, all games were played on the original hardware and controllers.

- Michael Palisano