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9 old arcade games Atari's next owner (or you!) should revisit
9 old arcade games Atari's next owner (or you!) should revisit
January 25, 2013 | By Steve Fulton

January 25, 2013 | By Steve Fulton
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    16 comments
More: Console/PC, Smartphone/Tablet, Indie, Design



Game developer Steve Fulton is an unabashed fan of the classics, but sometimes the oldies offer more than nostalgia -- often, they contain genuinely good game design that can still be tapped into today!

The following was originally written as a community blog post by game developer Steve Fulton. We liked it so much that we prettied it up, added some video, and made it a "real" Gamasutra story.

Thanks to the Old Classic Retro Gaming YouTube channel for providing all of the following videos.


Back in the 70s and 80s, Atari Inc. created dozens of coin-op games that were designed to hook players in, take their money, and by the end, have them beg to play one more time.

Nolan Bushnell described these games as "Easy To Learn, Tough To Master," and they were the genesis of the today's casual and mobile game market.

With Atariís impending bankruptcy and sale, itís time they looked back at some of their little known coin-ops that could be translated into hit mobile and downloadable games. Who knows, some of these could be hits for the company's next owner!


Dominoes (1977)

Atari's Dominoes coin-op was a version of "snake" where each player guided a set of "dominoes" that grew longer and longer as they stayed alive. The object was to not run into your "dominoes" or the dominoes of the other player.

I used to play a single player version of this (collect things on the screen and don't die) on my cell phone every day, and it was extremely addictive. This concept could easily be moved into the 21st century by going back to the original themes of "dominoes" as a single-player, snake-style game and adding gates, jumps, obstacles, etc. in arenas with ever-increasing complexity.


Canyon Bomber (1977)

At first glance, Canyon Bomber looks like an action game. You have planes with bombs, and you are destroying stuff. However, at closer glance you can see that this is not the case.

When you drop a bomb into the "canyon" it destroys some rocks, but other fall into place where the ones destroyed once rested. If you added a "color" to the bombs, and had that color bomb only destroys rocks of the same color, you would get a game that resembled a balloon-pop style game, but with added action elements.

You could even take this one further, adding a story and a second on-screen opponent, thus getting a game much like Puzzle Quest.


Avalanche (1978)

This game has been described as the "reverse" of Breakout. It's a "catch the stuff" style game later popularized by Activision's game Kaboom! on the Atari 2600.

The rocks at the top of the screen fall, and you must catch all of them, or die trying. With added bonuses, multipliers and power-ups this could be great concept for an intriguing little game.


Super Breakout (1978) (Progressive)

Super Breakout took the "ball hits bricks" concept of it's 1976 discrete logic brother and added several new versions, including "cavity" (with multiple balls) and "progressive" (where the walls just kept on coming).

Atari should have never given up the concept-crown of this game to the Arkanoids of the world. The most compelling version in this game, "progressive," should be blown out with the same type of power-ups and extras that grace every other game that ripped this one off over the past 30 years. †


Sky Diver (1978)

It seems simple. A guy jumps from a plane and you guide him to the surface while managing free-fall, pick-up flags, etc.

A game with progressively "lower" jumps (and maybe even bonus "base-jumps"), a scrolling playfield, with items to collect and enemies to avoid while in freefall and parachute mode would be very compelling.

Add a military component, and the urgency to land a set number of troops within a certain time-frame to attack an enemy base, and you might have a winner.


Smokey Joe (1978)

In Smokey Joe (the single-player cousin to Fire Truck, seen above), you guide a fire engine to a (theoretical) emergency through very dangerous streets.

That was it. You never actually made it to the emergency, you just drove until time ran out.

An update would have several different types of fire engines racing to an actual fire. The more that arrive in a timely manner, the better chance you have of being successful. The better job you do, the more money you have to upgrade your trucks and buy new ones.


Quantum (1982)

One of the first arcade games created for Atari by Ms. Pac-Man creator GCC was this amazing "drawing" game.

Other than its obvious inspiration from Qix, Quantum was far ahead of its time. The action is simple: draw around a set of particles while avoiding the pulsars. The more particles you can encircle at once, the more points you get.

It's that simple, that basic, and that brilliant. If there is one game on this list that the next owner should develop into a casual title immediately, it is this one. They are simply losing money by otherwise sitting on it.


Cloak And Dagger (1983)

This puzzle game was developed as a tie-in with the movie of the same name. Each level is puzzle that needs to be solved by getting from one side of the floor to the other. The player can shoot and optionally light the bomb at the center of each room. Dr. Boom's minions get harder and more numerous as the game progresses.

This coin-op was not very popular when it was first released, but time has been kind to the depth and the concept of this game. With a few enhancements (i.e. different weapons) this could be a very effective action puzzler.


Food Fight (1983)

Finally we come to my all-time favorite "lost" Atari coin-op. Like Quantum, this one was designed by the geniuses at GCC (who would go on to design the Atari 7800 console, and the exact replica of this game for that platform).

Your job in this game is to eat †the melting ice cream cone on each screen. Sounds easy? Well, there are several evil chefs trying to stop you buy throwing food in your direction. You can use the same food to stop the advancing chefs. Bonus rounds with unlimited ammo (watermelons) and an instant replay function really put this one over-the-top. †

With re-thought mobile interface, this game could (and should) be a hit game in the modern era.


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Comments


Christopher Thigpen
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Food Fight is a classic I would love to see. My only fear is that it doesn't get remade like the nauseating Burgertime remake.


Keep it simple. Keep it lean. Keep it fun.

Speaking of fun...great article.

Jeferson Soler
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@ Christopher Thigpen - I'm surprised that Food Fight was never put into any of the Atari Classics collections. The game itself is really good, in my opinion, and the Instant Replay function is one of the few things that makes this game ahead of its time.

Frank Cifaldi
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General Computing still exists as an entity, is it possible that its games don't see re-releases specifically? Maybe they partially own Food Fight?

Steve Fulton
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They could still own them. They could also be owned by Warner, as GCC stayed on to consult with Warner after the break-up, and Atari Corp. had to negotiate for the 7800. Whomever owns them, they they should get on this!

Jeferson Soler
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@ Frank Cifaldi and Steve Fulton - Both of you may be right with your assumptions of the Food Fight ownership. In the past, I always wondered why Kangaroo was never part of the Atari Classics collection until I found out that Sunsoft was the original developer of the game and not Atari. It is possible that Food Fight may be (even in part) owned by another company and that's big enough reason for Food Fight not make it into the Atari Classics collection.

Steve Fulton
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I just looked it up on the USTPO web site.
I'm no I.P. lawyer, but from the records it looks like Atari Inc. owned the Food Fight trademark up until 2000, when it was cancelled. Then Threshold Animation studios registered it, and renewed it through the 2000's. Now it looks like Brain Pop! owns the name. The original name of the game was "Charley Chuck's Food Fight" I believe, so that would be another way to go.

This is only the trademark. The copyright for the actual work is completely different.

According to the Copyright database, Atari Inc. registered Food Fight in 1983 and then Atari Corp registered in 1991 for a game published in 1986 (7800 version I suppose).

And then there is this:

http://www.8bitrocket.com/atarilist_2004.txt

A list of all the Atari Inc. properties transferred by Inforgrames in 2004 (from the U.S. copyright database). Almost all of the games on this page are on that list...

Jeferson Soler
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@ Steve Fulton - Thanks for the info!

Martin Goldberg
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@ everyone - AFAIK There's no issues with Food Fight. When I was in contract to code the Taco Bell games for the current Atari back in 2009, Food Fight was one of the original planned games. Taco Bell decided to go with a different title in the end.

As far as Atari Corp. having to negotiate for the 7800, that had to do with development fees that were still left to be paid and not licensing. The MARIA was done under work-for-hire, however GCC's contract was actually with Warner Communications (Warner is the one who forced Atari to stop suing GCC and made them start working together). Jack wanted to continue through with the 7800 but it was of course one of a number of contracts that stayed with Warner (including the Amiga contract, which he wound up negotiating for in August '84 to launch his counter suit). Warner, GCC and Atari Corp. entered on again/off again negotiations until Spring '85, with Warner's position that he needed to pay GCC the money if he wanted the 7800 and he in turn stating they should have included it and they should be paying it. Regardless of the positions, Jack could ill afford to pay GCC during '84 as he was constantly at the point of bankruptcy. He finally relinquished in Spring '85 and paid GCC what they were owed, and then negotiated for the money owed for the 10 launch titles that GCC developed. Concluding by early August '85, he then started to woo various people to start up a formal consumer video game division again, eventually managing to snag Michael Katz from Epyx. All stuff we're going to be covering in our second book. ;)

BTW, doesn't the chef on the far right of the flyer (used as the intro graphic to this article) look amazingly like Will Ferrell?

Steve Fulton
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There ya go. Food Fight is available. I would suppose Quantum is too. There is no good reason then why they have not been remade.

Chris Ainsworth
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I'll take one I, Robot license, please.

Fun article, I'd love some of these to again see the light of day, but on the other hand, there's always the chance of another Star Raiders or Yars Revenge lackluster revisit.

Jeferson Soler
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@ Chris Ainsworth - I thought about I, Robot, but I didn't want to bring the game up as I thought that the article was more about simplistic, non-3D, fun games for the mobile consoles. Having said that, it would be nice to see someone talk about I, Robot in a special article as it was/is an underrated classic game, in my opinion. Not to mention, it was probably the first 3-D polygon game to be ever made and it was unfortunate that the game was released just when the videogame market crash was in full effect (1984).

kevin Williams
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I am sorry if I am repeating what has been said earlier. But the Atari arcade content is a rats nest regarding licensing - a fact that caught out Infogrames. I remember creating a overview document on what Atari Inc., owned and Atari Games owned to the consternation of my bosses at the French company, who had been fed a pack of lies on what exactly Hasbro actually had sold them. Remember to this day the then CFO of the corporation shouting that I was wrong, only to then have to retract the statement in the most ungracious way - underlining how poor the management was at Infogrames!

Steve Fulton
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Kevin,

I'm sure it is a nightmare. If you go strictly by copyrights and trademarks, there are so many holes it's amazing. For the early arcade games, it looks like they copyrighted the PCBs, which makes sense because the PCB layout is what others copied. You'll also see in some cases the manuals copyrighted, but not the games. You can see the list of copyrights transferred in 2004 here:

http://www.8bitrocket.com/atarilist_2004.txt (a list you are probably well versed in by your experience!)

The other interesting thing is that it appears that Atari Corp. trademarked I.P. but did not necessarily register copyrights. That doesn't mean they are not copyrighted by default, but it also makes it hard to transfer or research.

Martin Goldberg
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Actually, that's not so much the case any more though it certainly was back in the days of Bruno and Wim. The legal council, Kristin Keller, has done a stellar job over the past decade navigating all the previous litigation and properties, and actually leveraged Curt (and sometimes myself) for internal documentation and other needed expertise. Though there was a more recent case with regards to PONG and Jim Wilson not wanting to accept when I broke it to them that while they may own the copyright and trademark for PONG, they don't own the audio-visuals and can't really enforce that because of the whole Magnavox licensing and pre-existence of bat and ball audio-visuals.

kevin Williams
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@Steve,: I focused wholly on the amusement titles - to try and avoid the core VCS complication. A revised version of the list I created is available from this source:
http://arcadeheroes.com/2012/06/11/atari-trivia-2-and-the-ultimat
e-atari-history-timeline/

@Martin: thank you for the update - I had heard that a major investment to redress the poor beginning had been made. As I said my focus was on the amusement titles rather than the whole Atari VCS and consumer titles (what a mess to chase down).

On PONG - as Nolan paid out of court over the Magnavox situation I would not liked to have argued that. I only found out about the settlement in writing a foreword for a new book on the early days of the amusement scene. Any previous comment of a settlement had been actively denied!

I worked for Bruno on the INSKOR concept - but got roped in on the final Atari purchase discussions before I managed to extricate myself from the operation. Still wonder to this day exactly how the French investors are in Lyon, and if they will ever get their money back on the deal?

Martin Goldberg
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Kevin -

RE: the timeline, you'll want to update some of the factoids in the timeline (I know I owe you a copy of the book). I.E. PONG wasn't built on the royalties of Computer Space, it was built on the advancement from Bally, which they didn't hire Al until they were getting that (and Al didn't chip in $250, he was an employee). Kee Games wasn't formed until September '73 and didn't merge with Atari until October of '74 - before the release of Tank. Also, Barrel PONG and PONG In a Barrel are two different things. Contact me privately and we can talk about it all further.

RE: the update, yes even the amusement titles have been hashed out as well. Put simply, Atari Interactive owns the copyrights and trademarks to all the '72-'84 titles, as well as the home rights. Warner (via the purchase of Midway Games) owns the coin-op rights to all the '72-'84 titles, but technically can't do a thing with them in coin format because they don't own the rights to the names, etc. (the copyrights and trademarks). That's what partially lead to that mess with the Atari anniversary coin-op you were involved with on your side of the pond with INSKOR. Interestingly, the loss of free use of the Atari logo for Atari Games happened early on. There were two different Atari Games companies early on. The first, Atari Games Inc., was formed immediately and comprised everything that was left from the split including Ataritel and the other divisions/groups that weren't sold off. By immediately, I mean literally the day Consumer was sold to Jack, everything else was renamed to Atari Games Inc. When the other sections were sold off or shut down as well, the Coin part of Atari Games Inc. was spun off as everyone knows, under NAMCO and renamed to Atari Games Corp. It was at that point it turns out, that Jack obtained sole ownership of the Atari logo and brand name and Atari Games started licensing it - all the way until the Midway buyout (barring the brief period as TWI of course).

Re: the Magnavox settlement, I'm not sure what you mean. That fact it had happened was pretty much public knowledge, and Nolan had been claiming for years it was a junk settlement. Additionally, it wasn't Nolan that paid out of court of course, it was Atari (just as it wasn't Ralph suing anybody, but Magnavox). Regardless the settlement was a licensing agreement for all the relevant patents - same thing that all the rest of the companies that lost had to do. We have a copy of the full agreement btw, and it was anything but the junk settlement he claims and there were no special terms. Basically, companies had two options to license the patents: either pay an up front sum for a paid in full royalty, or pay royalties annually based on sales. Atari chose the former, and was able to spread out the $1.5 million over several years. Now remember, this was $1.5 million at time when they were cashed strapped enough they had been looking for investors and started negotiating to sell to Warner right after the licensing agreement was signed. The terms also included giving Magnavox license free access to any technology in production over the following year and to all the patents and technology already produced.

The suits were never specifically about PONG of course, it was about video game technology - the meaning of the term "video game" itself; the ability to interface with a television via it's video signal (another reason why XY/vector display games were thrown out as prior work time and again, as CRT != video). Somehow this got misinterpreted/misreferenced over the years to Atari being sued over PONG. PONG was simply the medium of the patent infringements with regards to Atari. It was a different game for every company, and not just PONG clones. I also always found it hilarious with Nolan calling Ralph a patent whore when he was giving interviews in 1973 (just before they were first contacted by Magnavox) stating he intended to do the exact same thing with their patent for video game technology and go after infringing competitors. In that light, such talk comes off as someone more pissed off that someone else did it before him.

The issue with PONG and how it relates to what I discussed with the current Atari is that the visuals for bat and ball games (i.e. PONG games) were already laid out and used in those very early patents for video game technology. The same patents Atari had licensed. The patents used the games and their visuals to help define the patents. It was a very interesting conversation, trying to explain to them a concept that was completely foreign to them - coin and consumer games were engineered during this period and not programmed, which is also why you see a lack of copyrights. I got questions like "But who programmed it? Where was it all developed?" Nobody programmed it, it was engineered. You had circuitry for all game elements, usually designed by one or two engineers, and in the case of PONG it was one. They had a hard time understanding it in terms other than today's model. No big design team, no artists for the visuals, no big development phase mapped out by a team. I showed them the Tennis images, clear as day from the patents, and then followed up with the fact with all three principles (Nolan, Ted, Al) also came out more recently admitting Nolan had taken the idea (the visuals and basic game play) from the Magnavox Caravan Odyssey demo of Tennis (with Nolan of course stating, it sucked, he thought he could improve it, and that's why he gave it to Al as a warm up). That further enhanced the fact as to why they could never have copyrighted the game look or play and why Jim can't have legal go after anyone for using PONG's audio visuals. Now they did later copyright the 2600 version of PONG audio-visuals and software, which they do own and can certainly go after in relation to that (besides using the PONG name, which is trademarked).


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