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In Memory
Sean Pettibone

 

Classic Games



Homebrewing Extra Lives for the Atari 2600

From arcade ports to fan-made games with unique styles, homebrew titles offer quite an impressive diversity of gaming styles for players to pursue. You can find yourself reliving a classic game in a slightly streamlined form, a remake of a game youíd never expect to see on the console or playing something entirely new. Look inside as we take a look at these five titles that deliver
some of the most engaging experiences for Atari 2600 players.

Star Castle Ė Atari 2600 - Homebrew
Developed by: D. Scott Williamson

One of the more interesting stories in Atariís history is that the classic title Yarsí Revenge actually began life as a
port of Star Castle. It was thought the arcade game couldnít be adequately reproduced on the 2600ís hardware and its limited cartridge memory which is one reason for that gameís famous half-castle opponent. Of course, it had other elements that gave it a very different feel, and it was more inspired by the arcade game than a knock-off. Given the limitations of the hardware, players probably assumed this was the best the 2600 could do, and it was an excellent game in its own right. After all these years, this has been proven wrong with this excellent translation. It faithfully reproduces the feel of the arcade game with the same gameplay mechanics and an uncompromising level of difficulty that makes it quite difficult.

Star Castleís basic premise has you flying your ship around while trying to destroy the massive Star Castle at the center of the screen. During your mission, youíll have to avoid coming into contact with one of three mines that chase you around the screen constantly. You can shoot the mines, but they regenerate at the center of the screen and resume their attack on you. One of the more interesting and effective strategies in dealing with them is to fly off the side of the screen. This gives you some breathing room since they donít cross that barrier. Itís a small advantage but you still have to be on the defensive to guard their relentless attacks. While youíre dealing with the mines, you also need to keep your focus on the Star Castle itself. Itís protected by a series of three concentric rings that spin around that players have to penetrate by blasting it piece by piece. As each piece is destroyed, the ring opens up another line of attack to the next closest ring. However, destroying all the parts of a ring makes it immediately regenerate, which means you have to time your shots perfectly in order to penetrate to breach its center ring.

Once the innermost opening is created, the castle itself will begin to fire huge missiles directly at you through the gap, giving you something else to watch out for. These shots are surprising accurate and fire very quickly, so you need to keep your reflexes sharp. They can be avoided if youíre far enough out of the way, but you have to react in advance. If youíre close to the edge, you can fly off the side of the screen to avoid the missiles. This also makes it more difficult to destroy the castle since your shots are limited in distance. Using all of these strategies simultaneously is what makes Star Castleís gameplay so challenging. Controlling your ship is fairly easy and we found the interface worked smoothly throughout with either a joystick or d-pad delivering solid, responsive control of the action.

Its not easy to destroy the
Star Castle, but youíll probably need some time to master its rhythm and get the hang of it. It mirrors the steep learning curve of its arcade counterpart. Initially, the gameplay can be unforgiving at first, though players can improve their chances by anticipating the patterns that the mines attack and learning how to escape. Players will also need to avoid breaking up a ring completely, which can also be frustrating. One of the more effective strategies is setting up the rings so there are only one or two pieces left, then shooting at close range to get two quick shots, destroying the castle. Itís not easy to accomplish this, but sometimes youíll be able to do this if you arrange your shots ahead of time. Eventually, you should get the hang of things with practice and persistence. When you finally destroy it, a cool explosion rips through the screen and you have to fight it again. This version of the game isnít as flashy as some other homebrews but it doesnít need to be. Its yellow monochromatic graphics arenít vectors as in the original, but the raster-based monochromatic approach works effectively to recreate the arcade feel. The pulsating sound reverberating from the castle creates an ominous feel that adds to its intensity. Star Castle is an impressive technical accomplishment that proves that it could have worked back in the day. This challenging, entertaining and polished port captures the spirit and intensity of the arcade game effectively.

Princess Rescue Ė Atari 2600 Ė Homebrew
Developed by: Chris Spry

A demake, or deconstructed remake, on the 2600, can go in either direction, either a cheap novelty with little replay value or a joke demo that mocks the original hardware. Fortunately, Princess Rescue lives up to the inspiration. This version of the endlessly popular Nintendo franchise game doesnít go the easy route and instead tries to faithfully recreate the first Super Mario Bros title as closely as possible. Itís a bit strange to play this on the 2600, but itís still fun. It succeeds for the most part, though there are a few things about it that can be a little off putting. Trying to play it with a standard Atari joystick doesnít give it the right feel, making a clunky game thatís more frustrating than engaging. Things change for the better when using either the Atari d-pad or a modified controller offers much better results. When playing with a d-pad, players will find the game far more responsive and authentic. Princess Rescue follows basic structure of the original game faithfully as the plumber navigates a series of scrolling levels while avoiding obstacles and enemies while collecting coins along the way.

Whatís most impressive about Princess Rescue is its scale and ambition, since the game takes great pains to recreate almost all of the levels found in the original game. Its authenticity goes even further since the stages mimic the original NES game faithfully, right down to platform placement and enemy actions. This is an impressive technical achievement for the 2600 given the gameís complexity. Players will find many of the same hidden elements and tricks from the original game, including multiple power-ups, hidden areas and boss battles. Most of the game mechanics are carefully recreated and level designs are very nicely done. Battling the numerous classic foes including the koopas on each stage, players will have plenty to keep them busy throughout Princess Rescue. As expected, thereís plenty of replay beneath the surface as you try and beat each stage faster, find all the coins and beat all the enemies. Those familiar with the NES version should have a leg up since the maps are little changed, making it easy to progress through the game.

While the basic structure and gameplay mechanics are similar, there are some huge differences thanks to the hardware differential. Visually, the game is very simple with blocky graphics and sprites that capture the essence of SMB though in simpler form. This is most noticeable with Mario himself who takes on an outsized, blocky appearance. His animation is a little clunkier as well which gives the game a modest appearance. You wonít find the scrolling backgrounds here either, most of the action takes place on black backgrounds. This compromise is fair enough considering the hardware limitations, though it will probably take some getting used to. Marioís famous theme plays in the background as well, though its constant repetition can become annoying after awhile. These changes are minor in the big picture, since what Princess Rescue accomplished is more impressive than what was left out. The game does feel a little bit odd on the plarform, but itís definitely an interesting exercise in what might have been.

Lady Bug Ė Atari 2600 Ė Homebrew
Developed by: John Champeau

Arcade translations on the 2600 VCS face an uphill task, since the hardware usually limits how closely the game can mimic the machines, the challenge developers face comes in prioritizing which elements to emphasize. The nascent homebrew community seems to have come up with some interesting solutions such as larger carts and bankswitching techniques to push the hardware to its limits. One excellent example of this is Lady Bug. Based on cult-classic title from Universal, Lady Bug found a ready audience on the Colecovision and this version does an outstanding job in recreating the look and feel of the game. It takes the standard Pac Man maze game formula and adds a few unique twists that give it a feel of its own. The main objective is to eat all the fruits on a level without getting eaten by the many creatures floating around.

Unlike many maze games of its era, Lady Bugís mazes are changeable with doors that swing in different directions. This lets you change the maze configuration in real time, which gives the game a strategy most maze games lack. You can use these to your advantage by locking in some of the creatures but this can also trap you, so you need to be careful. Another unique element in Lady Bug is the timer, which lights up at the side of the screen, each time it reaches the end, another creature is released from the center. When all four are released, a special fruit appears that freezes your opponents when eaten.

In addition there are skulls that you need to avoid since colliding with them costs you a life, so you have to be careful. Lady Bugís real trademarks are its bonus items. Scattered throughout the maze are various items you can collect. The first of these are Hearts that multiply your score when they turn blue, but only add extra points when you eat them in other colors. Finally youíll find the trademark letters, which when spelled out can give you either an extra life or a special mode. These are color-coded as well, and you have to eat the corresponding color in order to unlock these rewards. All of these elements combine to make for a challenging and unique puzzle game, but what makes the 2600 version so impressive is how closely it copies the arcade game. Visually, the elements are all there with fluid animations of the main character and her enemies and a polished look that is slightly blockier than other versions, but still impressive. The 2600 version even includes the death animation from the arcade, where the lady bug flies up to the top of the screen that wasnít included in the Colecovision version.

The game plays surprisingly smoothly with fluid movement and excellent responsiveness that feels very close to the original game. Its plays nicely with a standard joystick and players should have no problem getting used to the controls. Lady Bugís sound effects are excellent and enhance its arcade authenticity. When you compare its quality to other attempts at maze games on the platform, such as Atariís clunky version of Pac Man, its hard not to be impressed. Its highly polished presentation and tight controls set a high-water mark, make it both technically impressive and surprisingly playable. Lady Bug is an achievement on the plarform, with challenging gameplay that effectively translates this unique, challenging and enjoyable title to the 2600 with little compromise.

Space Raid Ė Atari 2600 Ė Homebrew
Developed by: Oscar Toldeo Gutierrez

Segaís Zaxxon was one of the more innovative games produced in the arcades back in 1981, but the original Atari 2600 port by Coleco fell short of the mark. Without the gameís trademark isometric viewpoint and a disappointing glitchy overall presentation, the top-down approach used in that port fell flat with players. Hoping to rectify this situation, a developer has reproduced the arcade game in fine form, with its trademark visuals intact. Under the pseudonym of Space Raid, players will find an immediately familiar and fast moving shooter. The first stage begins as your ships flies through space and you shoot at enemies who fly right at your ship. As in the arcade game, you can avoid them by moving up and down and taking a path outside their range. Itís not as easy as it sounds, since the enemies will adjust their heights as well, especially later on. Youíll immediately notice the fine visuals in this portion as the scaling and movement is remarkably smooth. The gameplay feels quite fast and challenges players who enter the main fortress, which is filled with stationary and moving foes that seem to attack you from all directions.


Avoiding them while maintaining your shipís fuel can be quite challenging but most players should be able to handle both tasks. The most difficult challenge comes when you arrive at one of the barriers, which take the form of force fields or walls, which you have to fly through. The perspective can be a little tricky at first, but once you get adjusted to it, the game becomes much easier. As you fly deeper into the fortress, the enemy forces will fire guided missiles at your ship, which you canít avoid. The best strategy in these portions is to fire as quickly as you can before it hits you. Once you get to the end of the second stage, youíll face off against a boss robot that can be defeated either with multiple shots to its main frame or by blowing up the missile it holds. Successfully beating the boss sends you back to the beginning, with faster opponents and trickier patterns to master. The controls are fairly responsive and fluid and the game mimics the feel and mechanics of the classic Zaxxon arcade game effectively and most players should be able to get a feel for the game right away. Thereís a slight learning curve while you master the altitude and get the hang of the perspective, but this part of the game helps to make it stand out.

These elements are fairly good though there are a few things where the game feels a little less polished than it should. Most of the elements from the arcade game are present, but Space Raidís visuals are much simpler, and thereís a somewhat blocky look to the game. The limitations of the hardware are also noticeable in certain portions of the game where massive flicker rears its head. These arenít enough to detract from the overall experience, and this solid shooter still remains appealing and addictive once you adjust to these compromises. Space Raid is an impressive technical accomplishment that effectively captures the essence of the arcade game effectively. Itís presentation and graphics make Space Raid one of the better 2600 shooters, offering a satisfying version of Zaxxon thatís both challenging and fun.

Lead Ė Atari 2600 Ė Homebrew
Developed by: Simone Serra

Lead is an exciting vertical shooter that mixes elements of Space Invaders and Tempest with modern elements to create a fresh, engaging title. The objective seems simple initially. A sole laser cannon sits at the bottom of the screen and you have to shoot the alien invaders heading towards the bottom. If they reach the bottom, itís game over. Youíve seen this a million times before, right? Not exactly. This 2600 throws several innovative twists on the genre to keep things interesting. First, barriers on either side keep your movement constrained, while the flowing laser cannon sweeps in rapid fire across the screen. The basic mechanics are fairly simple at first. Then the twists come in rapid succession. On the second stage, your objective switches and you have to avoid the aliens as they fall, the next stage returns to the basic shooting mechanics, then a different twist where you have to  shoot the aliens without colliding with the edges. Another variation are Ďscrambleí stages, where donít shoot, and have avoid aliens that come in clusters, which is more difficult than it sounds. The stages gradually become more complex and difficult, with the path twisting ahead of you, while aliens come at you in trickier patterns. Itís a very difficult game but you can restart at the last level completed when you lose, which lets you reach later stages if youíre persistent.

Leadís variety in stage objectives keeps you on your toes throughout each level, and the frequent changes in mechanics add to the challenge. These different stages make the battle for survival feel like an endurance test. Continually running up the score is a strong motivation to keep playing. Speaking of which, thereís a propulsive techno-style beat that accompanies the action throughout each stage. Its shows off how much can be done with the 2600 and is impressive from a technical standpoint. Lead has an excellent flow that feels reminiscent of modern music rhythm games. This helps to enhance the gameís frenetic arcade-style shooting action. Its soundtrack is an example of how homebrew developers have stretched the hardware to create an immersive and engaging experience that pushes the console past its expected limits. In addition, Lead offers a number of options that lets players adjust the speed, difficulty and pacing of the game. Thereís also a streamlined 1K version of the game that simplifies the graphics and only offers the shooting levels while a 4K version pares things down to two stage types. The thing about Lead is despite its simplicity, its also quite intense with its colorful, pulsating graphics and fast paced-action quickening the playerís pulse.

Behind the flashy graphics and immersive music, thereís plenty of gaming substance. Players will find thereís some interesting strategy to how you time your shots and movements that make its gameplay surprisingly deep and robust. With its smooth scrolling shots and devious enemy patterns, the game control feels right throughout. Its mix of retro and modern design sets a meets a high standard for homebrew titles, making for a solidly entertaining twitch game. The design is well-balanced, its difficult but, not frustrating or cheap. The music is superb and the combination of music and intense action can create an almost hypnotic effect, making for an immersive experience. Leadís sound and music are perfectly balanced to enhance the action without overwhelming its solid play mechanics. While not as well-known as it should be, Lead is definitely worth seeking out. Itís one of those sleeper titles that slowly sucks you in but keeps your interest level high thanks to its changing objectives, smooth controls and challenging gameplay.

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

- Michael Palisano

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