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Atari at 40- 4k Memories

Last week, Atari turned 40. Like most gamers of my generation, the name conjures up a lot of great memories. I remember my parents taking me into a Rich’s department store in 1980 to buy me an “electronic game”. I thought I was going to get something like the Mattel handheld football game. What I got was one of the old wood panel Atari 2600 and a couple of games, including Asteroids and Missile Command. Paddle controllers. Warlords. Some math game, probably called “Math”. I was five years old. It made me a video gamer for life.

It was a very long time ago, but I can still feel the soft give of that orange button- a controller with X and Y buttons would have blown my mind. I still feel those rubber-booted controllers in my hand. And when that boot tore off, that meant that the controller would be used by the sleepover guest. When you were the sleepover guest, you could blame your terrible Combat performance on the busted controller. What was that rattling in the paddle after David Green turned it too far? The resistance of those metal switches. Having slide the switch from “TV” to “Game”. Sense memory.

I remember my parents taking me to Zayre and Service Merchandise to get Donkey Kong and Pac-Man on release, and I remember having to wait in a long line both times. The night I got Donkey Kong, I played it so long that my hand started to hurt. Yes, I had E.T. and I didn’t hate it at all. In fact, I loved it. I loved that bizarre Raiders of the Lost Ark game, and never realized that the part at the end where Indy is on that weird platform with the Ark was the “end”. Then there was Swordquest: Earthworld and Swordquest: Fireworld- never saw the other two. The G.I. Joe game with the giant Cobra that shot lasers from its eyes. All the Imagic games, with their silver boxes and all the Activision ones with their rainbow trails. Star Raiders, Space Jockey, Montezuma’s Revenge, Demon Attack, Pitfall, Barnstorming, Reactor, Spider-Man, Demons to Diamonds, Krull (!), Kaboom!

I remember so many particulars about those games- probably more than I remember about what I played last year. Indeliable, no-bit impressions of abstract shapes and the sound of bitcrushed crunches before bitcrushing ever existed. Ads in comic books, demo kiosks at K-Mart, “Yar’s Revenge, it’s new from Atari”, a TV jingle I never forgot. Have you played Atari today?

But I somehow never upgraded to the 5200 or the 7800, instead playing my 2600 until Christmas of 1985- in other words, the Christmas of Nintendo. I had friends that had the other Atari systems, and I was always jealous even though I hated the controllers. They seemed so sleek and modern at the time, especially compared to my old wood panel console. Then there were the Atari computers, which I never owned but always admired. This older kid called Eric that I knew had an Atari 800, and we played Temple of Apshai on it. He explained to me that the 400 had a membrane keyboard, which sounded very sci-fi, but you couldn’t feel the keys on it. I remember when his dad bought him a top-of-the-line 1200XL to replace it. I also never had a Lynx.

No, the last Atari console I ever actually owned was the Jaguar. Yep, I’m one of the few and the not-so-proud. I suspect that most Jaguar owners bought the console almost exclusively for Jeff Minter’s Tempest 2000, which at the time was not available anywhere else. And it was awesome, but then again Tempest is my all-time favorite arcade game. When KB Toys closed out their stock of the failed platform, I bought almost every game that was available for it at $1.99 a title. Very few were worth mentioning- Alien Vs. Predator and Defender 2000 were the only other titles worth owning. If you haven’t seen the Jaguar’s attempt at a 3D fighting game, you simply must get your hands on Fight For Life. It has to be the worst fighting game I’ve ever played in my entire life.

Of course, Atari has released games for other systems up through the current generation and their name- despite company sales, lawsuits bankruptcies, the Great Video Game Crash, dwindling reputation, and a general sense that this pioneering company got left in the dust- remains an important one. Whenever I see that logo with its retro-futurist font, it brings back so many memories from my life in games. I think of the great frontiersmen like David Crane and Larry Kitchen. I think of sitting in the living room floor wide-eyed in wonder that I could play video games in my living room. Yeah, they weren’t as good-looking as the games in the arcade and playing Robotron 2084 with only one stick sucked. But this was the company that, until Nintendo arrived in the US, was synonymous with video games on our living room TVs.

It’s sad that Atari is now more recognizable as a logo on a novelty T-shirt than as a significant part of the games industry. What they were doing in the late 1970s and early 1980s touched my life tremendously. Getting that “electronic game” when I was five years old is one of the reasons I’m here writing for a video games blog today.

Contemplating a Baldur’s Gate Return

I was going to ignore this story because there’s nothing that bores me more in this industry than rumor mongering, but when the name Baldur’s Gate is attached it’s hard not to sit up and pay attention. Then GameBanshee did a little legwork and it got a little more interesting. First, if you head over to BaldursGate.com and inspect the code behind the page you’ll find the following…

The code was updated again a day later, with this:

First: Yay, Boo! I live for references to Boo! Miniature Giant Space Hamsters For The Win!

Yes, I know. I have a problem.

Now, when I first read the original snippet at another site, entirely out of context, I thought that could more less mean anything, but that was because the original story I saw neglected to indicate the updated date at the top nor that the webpage itself was new. Then Game Banshee spoke to former BG designer Trent Oster, now of Beamdog (oddly, a digital distribution platform), and confirmed (for those willing to read between the lines) there’s something up and it’s nothing to do with the games coming to Steam.

So, it could be a new game. It could be a refresh of the Infinity Engine. Could be an iOS port. Could be they’re all just jerking us around. I dunno. I’m not totally sure it’s not just Bill playing an extremely well-planned and orchestrated prank specifically on me. He’s been known to do that… from time to time.

Although I am no super-sleuth about this stuff –who has the time?– it’s impossible not to notice the last line in the code invites users to check out the tapestry for clues. Said tapestry (which I assume is the background on the webpage) consists solely of character portraits from the original Baldur’s Gate. I’m firmly in the camp that thinks this will be some kind of remake of the original or new platform (iOS) release.

So the question is, does the world need either of these things?

I can tell you, for my money, it’s an easy “yes.” You put the original game on iOS. Sold. You remake the game from scratch. So long as it doesn’t look like it’s going to suck, I’m gonna play it. Take the Infinity Engine and HD-ify it some way. Yeah, I’d probably play that too. It’s Baldur’s frigg’n Gate. You had me at “hello.” I’m not the rest of the world, though.

What you can bet is that we’ll have a good indication of what faith whichever publisher is actually attached to this has based on what it turns out to be. An iOS port just means, “Hey, we think we can get a few bucks out of this.” So does an quickie up-res’d remake of the original game. A from scratch remake says there’s a lot of faith in what the Baldur’s Gate name represents and what can be wrung out of it. There’s also publishing rights to consider. I don’t know who owns the ability to do what with this franchise anymore. As far as I know, and according to RPS, Atari still holds the rights to Baldur’s Gate. I did a quick Google search to see if I could confirm just what Atari really owns here: The rights to everything D&D? The rights to the original game code? The right to specifically publish anything with the BG name? I came up snake-eyes on anything specific, but the Baldur’s Gate series wiki does have the following:

On February 7, 2010, in an interview about Mass Effect 2, IGN asked Ray Muzyka of BioWare about the future of Baldur’s Gate, noting the sighting of Boo in the Citadel souvenir shop. He replied, ‘Hey, that’s just a space hamster. Boo’s brother. And again, you’ll have to talk to Atari about that, they’ve got the license.’[7]

If Atari is at the helm of this thing you almost immediately have to look at it with a skeptical eye. Sorry, but it is what it is.

For what it’s worth, I think these games could work really well on an iOS format. You’ve got very little voicing necessary, mostly just the engine and heaps and heaps of text. Touch and dragging on the screen ought to work with the pausable real-time combat model, although precision might be an issue, and certainly character and inventory management shouldn’t be particularly challenging to implement. Certainly nostalgia alone would drive a lot of people to try the game out on their iPads if the price were reasonably fair. I know I would, though I wouldn’t place odds on my finishing the game.

That said, would there be quite so much teasing going on for a port or “HD” remake? This has the smell of something a bit bigger. I hate getting caught up in hype that’s obviously crafted specifically to play on people’s warm fuzzies for a much beloved franchise, but dammit, it’s working on me.