Friday, March 29, 2019


Another restart and now armed with a map giving me a good idea of where to go in the GUE, I returned to the dome room and lowered myself down below with a rope, where I found a magic torch. This item would prove immensely useful, an unending light source, though with some restrictions. We can’t make things too easy, now can we? This room below the dome also had a connected “tiny room” with a massive and locked door that my skeleton key did not work on.

Not far at all from the dome room was a room filled with ice on the western wall. I tried melting it with my torch, but drowned in the resulting deluge. I tried throwing it, and this safely melted the ice, but also washed away the torch, which I found extinguished in the next room over by the stream. Past the ice was a passageway with a “moby ruby” leading to the base of the volcano, where a deflated hot air balloon awaited. As I had to extinguish the magic torch to reach this area, I’ll have to save it for much later, when I’m pretty sure I’ve done everything else there is to do.

I scooped up and deposited the treasures that I could get a hold of, which so far included:
  • The coins in the maze
  • The painting from the studio
  • The platinum bar from the loud room
  • The necklace in the pearl room past the round room and engravings cave

Upon depositing these treasures and returning to GUE, the trapdoor no longer slammed behind me. This would certainly be convenient for making return trips.

Other treasures that I’ve seen include:
  • The painting in the guarded bank
  • The ruby past the ice wall
  • A Fabergé egg found up a tree – in one of Zork’s meaner puzzles, there’s another treasure inside, and you need the thief’s help in opening it
  • The gold coffin in the Egyptian room, which is too big to squeeze through any of the passages leading to or from it
  • A silver chalice in the thief’s lair

Unlike a lot of later adventure games, you can’t just pick up everything that’s nailed down and carry around a giant sack of completely useless thingamabobs. There’s a tight inventory limit, as did Adventure, but now it’s based on weight capacity rather than an item count limit. An expedition takes planning. To retrieve the four easy treasures in a single run, I had to leave my heavy sword behind in a safe spot. The white house’s living room with the trophy case seemed as good a base camp as any. A single puzzle involving multiple inventory items might already max out your weight limit and require an entire expedition; you may have just enough space to bring along the items you’ll use, a light source, and just enough free space left over to hold onto the treasure that you are rewarded with from solving the puzzle.

I played around with Flood Control Dam #3’s buttons, and found that pressing blue button drowns you. Neat. Some more fiddling around with the controls, and I drained the reservoir, where I found a pump on the other side.

I knew I could inflate the boat near the dam with the pump, but the parser decided to be difficult.

Dam Base
You are at the base of Flood Control Dam #3, which looms above you
and to the north.  The river Frigid is flowing by here.  Across the
river are the White Cliffs which seem to form a giant wall stretching
from north to south along the east shore of the river as it winds its
way downstream.
There is a folded pile of plastic here which has a small valve
A sharp stick, which appears to have been broken at one end, is here.
> inflate plastic
with what?
> with pump
I can't make sense out of that.
> pump plastic
I can't make sense out of that.
> inflate plastic with pump
The boat inflates and appears seaworthy.

Finally! I knew better than to bring a sharp stick into the boat. But the parser remained stubborn about trying to launch it.

> get in boat                                                    
You are now in the magic boat.                                   
> launch boat                                                    
You can't go that way.                                           
> put boat in water
Nice try.
> leave boat
You are on your own feet again.
> push boat
Pushing the magic boat is not notably useful.
> push boat into water
I can't make sense out of that.
> get in boat                                                    
You are now in the magic boat. 
> launch                                                         
Frigid River                                                     
You are on the River Frigid in the vicinity of the Dam.  The river
flows quietly here.  There is a landing on the west shore.       
You are in the magic boat.                                       
The magic boat contains:                                         
 A tan label                                                     

About time. Reading the label:

> read label
          !!!!  FROBOZZ MAGIC BOAT COMPANY  !!!!

Hello, Sailor!

Instructions for use:

   To get into boat, say 'Board'
   To leave boat, say 'Disembark'

   To get into a body of water, say 'Launch'
   To get to shore, say 'Land'


  This boat is guaranteed against all defects in parts and
workmanship for a period of 76 milliseconds from date of purchase or
until first used, whichever comes first.

   This boat is made of plastic.                Good Luck!

Yeah, I could have used some of those instructions about 25 or so moves ago. Thanks a lot, Frobozzco!

I took the boat down the river, disembarking on every shore that I could for the sake of map completion. The first of them was a rocky shore that I had been to previously, and it felt really satisfying connecting the dots in this manner, even if it did require some map layout rejigging. The penultimate stop, just before the Aragain Falls, led to a cliff side which had been visible from a canyon right at the beginning of the game, a rainbow spanning the gap between the two cliff sides. I had to rearrange the map even more severely to keep things coherent!

There didn’t seem to be any way to get back to the dam, as the river rapids prevented upstream piloting (how was I even steering the boat in the first place? Magic?). But I did find a conspicuously placed, human-sized barrel looming on the edge of the cliff.

> get in barrel                                                       
You are now in the wooden barrel.                                     
> look                                                                
You are inside a barrel.  Congratulations.  Etched into the side of the
barrel is the word 'Geronimo!'.  From your position, you cannot see   
the falls.                                                            
> geronimo                                                            
I didn't think you would REALLY try to go over the falls in a         
barrel. It seems that some 450 feet below, you were met by a number   
of  unfriendly rocks and boulders, causing your immediate demise.  Is 
this what 'over a barrel' means?                                      


A good chunk of mapping done, there remained one unexplored avenue; the area past the drained reservoir. A series of rooms revealed two new treasures, a trunk full of jewels, and a crystal trident. Further up north was a coal mine, serving as yet another maze, with some points of interest near or just past the entrance:
  • A room with a giant mirror on the south wall
  • A “bat room” with a cute reference to Hunt the Wumpus as upon entering, a giant bat guarding a jade figurine drops you deep within the maze
  • A “shaft room” from which a wicker basket can be lowered to and from a room in the dark depths below
  • A smelly room right above a “gas room” that explodes if you bring the torch inside, but has a sapphire bracelet inside

I mapped out this area and the maze with some difficulty, and at one point the thief came by and stole my torch, leaving me to get eaten by a grue in the dark. Trying again, this time bringing my torch and lamp, I finished mapping it, and found a few new things on the other side of the maze:
  • A ladder leading deep down into the mine
  • A lump of coal
  • A big piece of timber
  • A snug passageway

That passageway was so snug that I couldn’t even carry my lamp or torch inside with me! So I returned to the shaft room, put the torch in the basket and lowered it into the darkness. Then I lit my lamp, and doubled back to the passageway. Sure enough, the lit torch now provided light on the other side of the tunnel! So I dropped my lamp and crawled through the passage, safe from grues as there were light sources on both ends of the tunnel. This side of the tunnel led to a strange machine, which was obviously intended to be operated by a screwdriver (“The switch does not appear to be manipulable by any human hand unless the fingers are about 1/16 by 1/4 inch”), and I had seen one in FCD#3’s maintenance room.

Lastly, I went back to the round room to see if I would randomly stumble in any new directions, and I did. A winding passage and grail room led to:
  • A two-room temple, complete with an altar, bell, book, and candle.
  • Another mirror room, described identically to the one in the mines.
  • The entrance to Hades!

One detail I've been glossing over, is that when you die, your treasures are scattered across the map and you are warped to to Hades, but are still free to wander GUE in an incorporeal form, unable to interact with anything. You can get another shot by praying at the temple, which zaps you to the forest. I would instinctively just restore, though, as recovering my treasures was too much work, and I don't even know if beating Zork after dying is possible (beating Zork I is not).

Zork is pretty much mapped out at this point, with just a few small areas not yet charted. The volcano is probably the biggest remaining task. My todo list of things remaining to be done:
  • Reservoir:
    • Get the trunk and trident
  • Coal mine:
    • Steal the jade figurine from the bat
    • Get the bracelet from the gas room
    • Operate the machine
  • Rocky crawl:
    • Retrieve the golden coffin
    • Open the giant locked door
  • Bank:
    • Steal the portrait
    • See if the vault can be robbed
  • Temple & Hades:
    • Get the Grail
    • Enter Hades alive
  • Circular Room:
    • Raise the bucket
  • Treasure Room:
    • Kill the thief, get the chalice and golden canary
    • Solve the thief’s puzzle room
  • Frigid river
    • Find a use for the shovel (it can’t be a red herring, can it?)
    • Find a way over the Aragain Falls
  • Volcano (to do last!):
    • Get the ruby
    • Operate the balloon in the volcano

My map so far:

Tuesday, March 26, 2019


I returned to the dungeon below the white house, and continued my mapping effort, starting with the North-South Crawlway, and discovered a one-room artist’s studio, and the Bank of Zork.

The bank consists of multiple rooms, all plundered long ago, except for a portrait of J. Pierpont Flathead in the chairman’s office.

> look at portrait

                    ||   __  __   ||
                    ||   $$  $$   ||
                    \||    >>    ||/
                     ||  ______  ||
                      |  -//--   |
                     ___//|  |
                    /__// |  |
                          |  |
               __________//  \\__________
              / $ /       ****       \ $ \
             /   /         **         \   \
            /   /|         **         |\   \
           /   / |         **         | \   \
          /   /  |         **         |  \   \
          ^   ^__|______$Z$**$Z$______|___^   ^
          \         *   $Z$**$Z$   *         /
                 |      $Z$**$Z$      |

                 J.  PIERPONT  FLATHEAD

And you thought Infocom games didn't have graphics. Ha!

Multiple signs warn of an advanced security system designed to prevent thieves from leaving, and a security deposit room contains the bank vault and a mysterious impassible “wall of light.” While exploring the bank, the thief entered and stole my sword again. I had to restart, as fighting the troll to get to the maze barehanded was impossible, but from trying I did learn that AFGNCAAP wears armor.

The troll swings; the blade turns on your armor but crashes
broadside into your head.

Restarting, I went right back into the cellar, picked up everything I could carry along the way, killed the troll easily with my sword, and entered the maze. Mapping it out took a while. I think there were about 15 rooms in total, and the thief kept disrupting things. Not only did he have a tendency to attack and kill me seemingly at random, but he’d even pick up the items I’d been using as breadcrumbs and drop them in random places in the maze. I’m still not completely confident that I mapped it out accurately, but I did locate a few points of interest; an adventurer’s skeletal corpse lootable for coins, keys, and useless gear (strange that the thief, having roamed the GUE for presumably far longer than I have, never looted the coins!), a “grating room” on the other side of the locked grate in the clearing above ground, the thief’s lair, and a “cyclops room.”

I remembered from days long past how to pass the Cyclops, mainly because of how simple and yet ludicrous the solution was, and the terrified Cyclops dashed through the door he was guarding leaving a Cyclops-shaped hole in it and a passageway back to the white house living room.

The thief’s lair is upstairs from the cyclops room, but would be deadly at this point. Your combat prowess is determined by score, and my score wasn’t anything to write home about yet.

With the maze mapped out and a few doors-to-before unlocked, this seemed like a good place to take a break. I have a working base map, with every immediately accessible room on it. From here on, progress is going to take planning, thinking, and puzzle solving, and I can’t wait to do it again!

My map so far:

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Zero Hour

We start out above ground, near a boarded-up white house, with a mailbox out in front. Reading the mail produces a lengthier message than the one seen in Zork I:

                        WELCOME TO ZORK

    ZORK is a game of adventure, danger, and low cunning.  In it you
will explore some of the most amazing territory ever seen by mortal
man.  Hardened adventurers have run screaming from the terrors
contained within!

    In ZORK the intrepid explorer delves into the forgotten secrets
of a lost labyrinth deep in the bowels of the earth, searching for
vast treasures long hidden from prying eyes, treasures guarded by
fearsome monsters and diabolical traps!

    No PDP-10 should be without one!

    ZORK was created at the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science, by
Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Bruce Daniels, and Dave Lebling.  It was
inspired by the ADVENTURE game of Crowther and Woods, and the long
tradition of fantasy and science fiction adventure.  ZORK is written
in MDL (alias MUDDLE).

    On-line information may be available using the HELP and INFO
commands (most systems).

    Direct inquiries, comments, etc. by Net mail to ZORK@MIT-DMS.

    (c) Copyright 1978,1979 Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
                       All rights reserved.

My first order of business would be to explore and map. The area surrounding the white house consists of a confusing forest layout, a clearing with a locked grate, and a canyon view which can be climbed down to the bottom where there is a narrow road leading to nowhere. Inside the house are a few rooms, containing items including a lamp, some food, an empty trophy case, and also an elvish sword.

So far, the layout seems an awful lot like Adventure, but better written and with more stuff.

The house has three rooms, a kitchen, a living room, and attic. Unique to this version of Zork is a newspaper in the living room.

There is an issue of US NEWS & DUNGEON REPORT dated 7/22/81 here.

                US NEWS & DUNGEON REPORT
7/22/81                                        Last G.U.E. Edition

This version of ZORK is no longer being supported on this or any other
machine.  In particular, bugs and feature requests will, most likely, be
read and ignored.  There are updated versions of ZORK, including some
altogether new problems, available for PDP-11s and various
microcomputers (TRS-80, APPLE, maybe more later).  For information, send
a SASE to:

                Infocom, Inc.
                P.O. Box 120, Kendall Station
                Cambridge, Ma. 02142

Also in the living room is the other side of the boarded-up front door, with gothic letters engraved.

The engravings translate to 'This space intentionally left blank'

Moving the rug aside and revealing a trapdoor, I went down to the caves, where things still resembled Adventure. I very soon encountered a troll, who I killed easily with my sword, only for the sword to then immediately get stolen by a wandering thief. Exploring more revealed familiar sounding room names such as “East-West Passage” and “Round Room.” The round room had compass-interfering magnetics which confused my adventurer and sent them off in a random direction when trying to leave, to a cave with old engravings on the wall:

The engravings were incised in the living rock of the cave wall by
an unknown hand.  They depict, in symbolic form, the beliefs of the
ancient peoples of Zork.  Skillfully interwoven with the bas reliefs
are excerpts illustrating the major tenets expounded by the sacred
texts of the religion of that time.  Unfortunately a later age seems
to have considered them blasphemous and just as skillfully excised

Flood Control Dam #3’s guidebooks have an entire passage that had to be excised from Zork I:

"                  Guide Book to
                Flood Control Dam #3

  Flood Control Dam #3 (FCD#3) was constructed in year 783 of the
Great Underground Empire to harness the destructive power of the
Frigid River.  This work was supported by a grant of 37 million
zorkmids from the Central Bureaucracy and your omnipotent local
tyrant Lord Dimwit Flathead the Excessive. This impressive
structure is composed of 3.7 cubic feet of concrete, is 256 feet
tall at the center, and 193 feet wide at the top.  The reservoir
created behind the dam has a volume of 37 billion cubic feet, an
area of 12 million square feet, and a shore line of 36 thousand

  The construction of FCD#3 took 112 days from ground breaking to
the dedication. It required a work force of 384 slaves, 34 slave
drivers, 12 engineers, 2 turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear
tree. The work was managed by a command team composed of 2345
bureaucrats, 2347 secretaries (at least two of whom can type),
12,256 paper shufflers, 52,469 rubber stampers, 245,193 red tape
processors, and nearly one million dead trees.

  We will now point out some of the more interesting features
of FCD#3 as we conduct you on a guided tour of the facilities:
        1) You start your tour here in the Dam Lobby.
           You will notice on your right that .........

And in the adjacent maintenance room, an obscure IBM joke not found in Zork I:

On the wall in front of you is a
group of buttons, which are labelled in EBCDIC. However, they are of
different colors:  Blue, Yellow, Brown, and Red.

I kept exploring and mapping until my lantern ran out and I got eaten by a grue. The map will eventually prove crucial for the challenge of actually completing the game, and in the meantime I now know the locations of multiple items and treasures, and have recognized a few areas where items will come in handy. For instance, a “dome room” above an abyss has a railing from which a rope could be tied to and climbed down from.

Some other dungeon features include:
  • A “loud room” which, unlike in Zork I, produces an effect that makes it seem like Zork has glitched out (and possibly makes the solution a bit more logical if you’re familiar with CLI commands).
  • A “riddle room” with a talking door that asks an insultingly easy riddle, and admits entrance to a room at the bottom of a well with an enormous bucket.
  • A “dam base” room with a deflated plastic raft.
  • An “Egyptian room” with the golden sarcophagus of Ramses II, which must weigh literal tons.
  • A volcano with visible ledges, but no obvious way of reaching them
  • The south bank of an impassible reservoir
  • Another maze of twisty little passages, all alike.
  • A gallery with one painting that hadn’t been stolen yet.

Zork’s a big game, make no mistake, and the time limit imposed by the lantern is harsh. I’ve explored the area immediately north of the Troll Room pretty thoroughly, but the maze and chasm region near the Troll Room are mostly uncharted, and there are plenty regions gated off by unsolved puzzles.

My map so far:

Friday, March 22, 2019

Game 54: Zork (PDP-10 version)

If you want to follow along and play the same way as me, download Confusion, a Zork-compatible MDL interpreter here:

Download the MDL code (slightly modified to run on Confusion) here:

You *must* read the Confusion readme to get anywhere with it.

Or you could just play an Inform port here:

My first exposure to Zork was a late Macintosh port released in 1984, played on a friend’s computer. I didn’t own a computer at the time, and my exposure to video games at that point was essentially Nintendo, Spectrum Holobyte’s Tetris, and the odd coin-op game at the local ice cream parlor. The experience of Zork was mind-blowing; for the first time, a game wasn’t bound to the normal rules of its programming. In Super Mario Bros, I could do nothing but walk to the right and jump, destined to follow Mario in one direction through a finite series of prearranged levels consisting of bricks, coins, and water. Other games on the system followed even tighter constraints, with the game boundaries limited to what was laid out on the screen.

Zork was a three dimensional world, seemingly endless in all directions, with no two regions alike, and most mind-blowingly of all, I could tell the game what I wanted to do by typing instructions in natural English, and it would understand. I would wander around the forest, smell the foliage, climb the trees, and Zork obliged with detailed descriptions and new discoveries about the world. I’d look for a way into the white house with the boarded front door, stumble onto a corner with a window, and try opening it. When it worked and I found my way in, it didn’t feel like I had solved a video game puzzle that was placed for me to solve. The white house was simply there, and being tantalized by the boarded up front, I had found a way in. And I wasn’t supposed to be there.

Even as I played through Colossal Cave Adventure during this blog’s first few months, it couldn’t compare to Zork. This may partly had been due to Zork being my first exposure to the genre, and captured a sense of magic and awe that I may be immune to nowadays. I now better understand the sort of programming and design that goes into these games, having played and dissected so many for decades. But I feel it’s much more than that; Zork offered compact, yet lush and detailed prose with multiple layers of texture, and Adventure offered mostly terse descriptions unconcerned with anything but function.

The rank undergrowth prevents eastward movement.

Furthermore, Zork’s parser is an amazing piece of work, and was crucial to cementing the illusion of actually interacting with the game world, and not simply choosing from predetermined possible actions. Adventure’s interface accepted two-word commands following a strict <verb, noun> format – GO NORTH, GET LAMP, LIGHT LAMP, UNLOCK GRATE, KILL DRAGON, etc, and felt like an extension of the rigidly procedural operating system environment that the game was running on. Follow-ups by Scott Adams and Ken/Roberta Williams worked in much the same manner, but with a smaller vocabulary. Zork understood commands such as “kill the troll with my sword,” and was generally free of guess-the-verb situations. And amazingly, this parser worked even better when they translated it to the 8-bit microcomputers where Adams and Williams had needed to make compromises.

As part of some preliminary work for this replay, I showed a version of Zork to my friend “C,” who hardly ever uses technology that doesn’t involve touchscreens, and has little patience for video games from any era. She found it as instantly engaging as I did on that Macintosh so long ago, was glued to the screen for a good two hours, and deemed it “smarter than Alexa.”

There are essentially two different games that can be called Zork, each with many extant versions and platforms. The original Zork was directly inspired by Don Woods’ Adventure, seemingly without any other computer game reference material to draw from. It was developed from 1977-1979 at MIT, on a DEC PDP-10 mainframe (as was Woods’ Adventure before it). This was the computer of choice for the hackers of time, and despite having been in service since 1963, far surpassed the abilities of the microcomputers of the time.

In 1980, when Zork’s developers decided to bring it to the microcomputer software market, they would have to cut large portions of the game to make it fit. It would be largely rewritten, condensed, and polished up, and most the cut portions would later become recycled into Zork II, Zork III, and Sorcerer.

If you are casually familiar with Zork but not with this history of it, then the game you think of as “Zork” is almost certainly the cut-down, more widely played microcomputer version. That’s the game I played on the Macintosh so long ago, and it’s the game that’s been widely distributed since. Either way, introduction excluded, this post is about the original mainframe “Zork,” which I played in a somewhat inauthentic form in 2004, and have opted to replay.

Henceforth, “Zork” will refer to the mainframe title, and “Zork I” will refer to the microcomputer game. Zork I is the whale, Zork is the ancestor.

Like with so many other mainframe games, the problem of figure out which version represents the original experience isn’t simple. Zork was developed continually, and information on its version history is fragmented. A “final” MDL version from 1981 postdates the release of Zork I, and may be the only extant MDL version out there. But there had also been a port of a transitional version to FORTRAN called “Dungeon,” which was widely circulated at the time, and formed the basis of ports to DOS, Amiga, and Atari ST, platforms far more powerful than the 8-bit microcomputers of 1980 and more than capable of the full Zork experience.

Then there is the port to Inform, essentially a re-creation that’s considered to be very close to the original. This is the version I played in 2004, and the fact that it is technically a remake is one of the reasons I’ve opted to replay in a more authentic manner.

Ultimately, I decided to play the final MDL version, running in Confusion, as I haven’t found a way to make it run in a PDP-10 emulator, and according to a Github discussion group may never be possible, as the original ITS MDL compiler may not exist anymore. Zork MDL has bugs, and there’s no good way to know if the bugs are authentic or if they’re introduced by Confusion. But all of the other options have even bigger yellow flags for my historical angle.

If you’re playing along with Confusion, you’ll want to launch “mdli” from the command line, and not from within Windows Explorer. This is because whenever you save, it boots you back to the command prompt.

I used Cmder, as it served me well before.

So far, so good. Next you need to use this command – case sensitivity matters!
<FLOAD “run.mud”>

And that’s it! We’re in Zork.

Henceforth, you can save a few seconds by re-launching mdli with this command (case sensitivity does not matter except for the “-r” part):

One annoyance is that you only get one save game slot. Your only commands are “save” and “restore,” with no ability to specify slots or filenames. You can get around this by going into your “MTRZORK” folder and making copies of and renaming the ZORK.SAVE file, but it’s not terribly convenient.

I think that’s enough background. Now to actually replay Zork, and see how much of my memory has left me over the years.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Game 53: Battlezone

Wikipedia and Mobygames both regard Battlezone as an early progenitor to the FPS, and countless articles detailing the FPS describe it as if it were a milestone on the way to Wolfenstein 3D.

I must question the wisdom of this view of history. It’s easy to look at this game casually, observe that it is first person, involves shooting, and label it as an early FPS. But we typically don’t categorize tank sims from the year 2000 as FPS’s, so why treat one from 1980 this way? It has similarities with the FPS canon; you move, you rotate, you shoot projectiles down the middle of the screen, and this is all presented with a 3D perspective, even if play exists only on a flat plane. But it has crucial differences as well; you steer with tank controls (identically to the dual-sticks involved in Atari’s earlier 2D Tank, in fact), you move very slowly, there is no side-stepping, the playfield is an endless space with randomly strewn obstacles rather than anything resembling designed levels, there is only one enemy in the playfield at a time, and even the graphics are a wireframe polygonal 3D rather than the pseudo-3D raycasting seen in Wolfenstein 3D and its immediate progenitors.

Nor can I really see Battlezone as a stepping stone. The aforementioned FPS histories often name-drop Spasim and Mazewar as games before it, and MIDI Maze as a game after it. This leaves enormous gaps in a history that allegedly started in 1973. Where is the link from Mazewar to Battlezone, and what happened in the seven years in between? I have a bit of distaste for the obsession with identifying “firsts,” as it can turn into a tenuous contest to find the oldest example without consideration for relevance or importance.

A stronger claim to fame, I think, is Battlezone’s use of realtime 3D polygonal graphics. There had been some stepping stones along the way; Atari’s earlier Night Driver (and its lost predecessor Nürburgring 1) had pseudo-3D graphics by positioning and scaling lines of pylons to create the impression of speedy driving with a 3D perspective as they zoomed past your field of vision. Akalabeth had wireframe 3D graphics, but lacked realtime movement. Making them realtime and polygonal, with this level of technology, had to be done vectors.

Vector graphics were practically an Atari trademark in the early 80’s, and 3D wireframes were a natural fit for the screen technology, taking advantage of its naturally crisp lines, free from the jagged edges that plague 3D graphics to this very day, and without burdening the CPU with expensive line-draw and fill routines. A polygon consists of a number of vertices whose X,Y coordinates on the screen would need to be calculated with some complex math in order to map the points of objects in a 3D virtual space onto the 2D plane of a computer screen. With a conventional pixel-based display, the computer would then need to render the polygon by arranging pixels in a series of lines connecting the vertices to each other, often in a staircase-like pattern when diagonal lines were needed. With a vector monitor, the computer was done with the math as soon as the vertices were all calculated, as the monitor would do all the work of rendering lines from one point to another.

Atari wasn’t the first developer to make video games with vector graphics; Cinematronics did it earlier, inspiring Atari to follow, and Cinematronics had likewise used 3D polygons at least a year earlier with 1979’s Tailgunner. Nevertheless, Atari seems to have popularized the use of 3D vector graphics in video games, anticipating if not directly influencing their eventual modern, texture-mapped use. A number of 3D vector arcade games followed, before fizzling out in the mid-80's in favor of sprite and tile scaling techniques or filled polygons, which weren't possible on vector monitors. The style lived on in personal computer games for awhile, even inspiring some similar games like Spectre on the Macintosh, and continued to be used well past its obsolescence in order to evoke a retro or cyberpunk style.

With the tank viewfinder as an integral part of the original cabinet, Battlezone could also be seen as a forerunner to virtual reality. Midway’s Sea Wolf may have done something similar before with its periscope, and was more sophisticated as the periscope could be swiveled to aim your torpedoes, but Battlezone upped the immersion level by having 3D visuals through the viewfinder and separate partitions for the radar and score display. MAME tries to emulate this with a masked overlay, but it’s not really the same thing.

My best attempt felt like some luck was involved. One thing I discovered early on is that you MUST have the sound on to stand a chance. Contrary to the laws of physics, you’ll hear the enemy shots before you can see them, which is your cue to evade. This is where I found some luck to be involved; if an enemy tank shot at me from an angle, I could dodge the shot simply by moving forward or backward. But you can’t keep the tanks at an angle forever; you’ve got to line them up in your sights so you can hit them yourself. And if they happened to fire a shot when I was facing them head-on or at a narrow angle, it would be too late for me to dodge it. This only happened once during my best playthrough, and felt like luck. Baiting them into wasting a shot never seemed to work out in my favor, as I’d have to waste time dodging their shot, giving them plenty of time to recover and fire off another one as soon as I lined my tank sight up with them.

After killing a few tanks, the UFOs appear. I found it worthwhile to hunt them as soon as I could hear their distinctive whine. They don’t fight back, they’re worth 5 times as many points as a tank, and the tanks in the arena move slowly and are easy to dodge when you aren’t trying to engage them.

Scoring points that quickly led to rapid deployment of enemy missiles. Fortunately, they usually approach head-on, or zig-zag a bit before approaching from your left. By assuming any missile not coming head-on would try to hit me from the left, I managed to take out quite a few without suffering a hit. In the end, one erratic missile took me out, but I lasted awhile until then.

Finally, there are super tanks, which are utter nightmares. They’re fast, aggressive, recover from shots quickly, and were responsible for two of my deaths. I just don’t have a good strategy for dealing with them. UFO hunting when super tanks are around is, of course, a nonstarter.

Battlezone took me awhile to come to grips with, but I enjoyed it the more I stuck with it. Skill and patience are required, quick reflexes are downplayed, and the 3D polygonal visuals are ahead of their time and immersive, even in MAME. I don’t like how much luck still seems to play a part, but given this is an arcade game, it wouldn’t do for games to last indefinitely, and I’m sure players who really take the time to learn Battlezone’s patterns could reliably last far longer than I did.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Game 52: Missile Command

Buy Missile Command and about 90 other Atari games in the Atari Vault on Steam:

In a way, Missile Command feels like a grim twist on Space Invaders. Both games are about the impossible task of fending off waves of hostile aggressors raining death and destruction from above until your inevitable demise, but Missile Command really hammers in the “inevitable demise” part. There is no cover, no dodging, and no catharsis of shooting down your assailants like ducks in a row, just a brief respite in between rounds as you lick your wounds and prepare yourself to face overwhelming odds yet again. Upon losing the last city, a screen-filling explosion overlaid with the words “THE END” tolls your annihilation. This ending is not often seen when emulating, as it is skipped for players who make the high score board, which is reset when the machine or emulator is switched off.

The arcade game is controlled with a trackball, moving the targeting reticle across the screen much like a mouse cursor. A joystick, whether analog or digital, would not be an appropriate substitute. MAME lets you play with a mouse, but I have a trackball control panel, so I used it.

The best I could do, after hours of trying, was a score just shy of 30,000. It didn’t take long at all before the missiles came down too fast for me to effectively shoot them all down. The faster they fall, the more you have to lead them, especially with the missiles from your side bases which fly slowly and usually have to travel far. Any missile that makes slips through your cloud of flak is probably going to strike terra firma without giving you a second chance.

In later rounds, I’d eventually have to abandon protection of all of my cities but one near the central missile base. I’d begin each round by spamming ABMs from a side base to form a protective cloud against the initial wave over a city or two, then abandon that base and use my central one to pick off missed threats. But I couldn’t find a way to reliably deal with smart bombs, which actively avoid your missile’s blast radii. Direct hits will take it out, as will trapping it in between two explosions, but I couldn’t do either of these things consistently, and so they would often take out my missile silos or a remaining base. My final surviving city, as seen in the video, fell to smart missiles.

I tried playing with a mouse too, but this didn't improve my play as much as I had hoped. The problem is backspin; move the cursor too fast, and it will reverse direction. It's as if the game has a built-in maximum speed for the cursor, and exceeding that speed will make it move in the other direction. I had also ran into this problem occasionally when using my trackball, but this happened much more easily with a mouse. I don't know if this is an issue with MAME or with the game itself, but when I played on a real machine at Funspot, it backspun even with moderate rolling speed.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Game 51: Adventure (VCS)

Buy Adventure and about 90 other Atari games in the Atari Vault on Steam:

Read the manual at AtariAge:

Developed by and surreptitiously credited to Warren Robinett, whose previous works at Atari included Slot Racers and BASIC Programming, Adventure has often been called the best game on the Atari 2600. I can’t really disagree with that. It would perform pretty well on CRPG Addict’s BDI index, even if it would score modestly on all three aspects independently, and does some neat system-defying tricks like the fog-shrouded maze and persisting a game state across multiple screens. It’s still a pretty humble game without much replay value.

Here I am replaying it anyway, for one simple reason: I never beat game mode 3, which features the complete game world and randomizes the placement of the objects.

And since I’m replaying on the hardest game mode, I figured, why not flip the difficulty switches up while I’m at it? The switches affect dragon behavior. With both up, the dragons will snap their jaws shut much faster when they come in contact with you, and will flee from the sword.

The second change potentially makes a big difference in how the game is played. Normally, once you find the sword, you can search for and destroy the dragons, provided the bat doesn’t snatch the sword from you. Once you’ve killed three of them, you’re safe to explore the game, with nothing but the annoying bat to impede your progress. Once the dragons flee from you, they are nearly impossible to kill, and may be guarding rooms or items. The sword is the only thing that keeps the dragons away from you, and thanks to the bat you never know where it might have stashed the sword when you need it, or when it might snatch the sword from you.

In my playthrough, I managed to kill a dragon by accident, and didn’t encounter any more until I found the chalice room. At this point, I was able to drive the dragon away with the sword, swap it for the chalice, and then retreat to the yellow castle victorious. The bat proved a bigger nuisance, more than once stealing the item I needed and eventually dropping it off far away.

I found that this does have some data behind it worth analyzing. Dragons and bats behave by wandering around until they encounter a room with an object they like or dislike. When passing the edge of a screen they will end up in the next room over, same as when you pass the edge of the screen, but they ignore walls. This behavior occurs constantly, even when you aren’t in the same room with them. Consequently, every room in the game has four exits, even on edges that look like solid walls, because the bats and dragons can always exit a room through any edge.

Once in a room with an object they care about, they check the table for the highest row that applies, and approach it or run away from it accordingly.

Curiously, the yellow dragon is afraid of the yellow key. Perhaps a coding error that Robinett kept because he found it amusing?

To interpret the table, the topmost rows have the highest priority. In rows where a dragon is in the right column, the dragon is afraid of the object in the left column. In rows where a dragon is in the left column, the dragon likes the object in the right column.

Sword Red Dragon
Red dragon Player
Red dragon Chalice
Red dragon White key
Sword Yellow dragon
Yellow key Yellow dragon
Yellow dragon Player
Yellow dragon Chalice
Sword Green dragon
Green dragon Player
Green dragon Chalice
Green dragon Bridge
Green dragon Magnet
Green dragon Black key

In ordinary language, this means the dragons all flee from the sword (with ‘A’ difficulty – otherwise they ignore it). If they aren’t fleeing, then they pursue their favorite object on the screen, which may very well be you. All dragons have you as their top priority, and have the chalice as their second priority. After that, they vary, with the red dragon inclined to guard the white key, the yellow dragon inclined to run away from the yellow key, and the green dragon inclined to guard pretty much anything it finds.

So suppose you are the red dragon. You start off in a random room, and nothing's in it, so you just wander off in a straight line, going wherever the room edges will take you. Eventually you stumble on a room with the black key, but according to the table you're not interested in the black key, so you keep moving. Eventually you find the chalice room, so you move toward the chalice, and when you touch it, you stop in your tracks, content to guard it. Five minutes later, the player enters the room. Because you're more interested in the player than the chalice, you abandon the chalice and chase the player. But after the player exits the room, the chalice is now the only thing in the room with you, so you return to the chalice. Later, the player brings a sword into the room. The sword is higher on the list than the player, but you're programmed to move away from the sword, so you do, fleeing the room. There's nothing of interest in the next room so you keep moving in the same direction until you enter a room with something interesting.

The bat’s logic is different. It only likes one object at a time, but has ADHD and constantly changes its mind about the thing it wants. This is the table used:

Bat Chalice
Bat Sword
Bat Bridge
Bat Yellow key
Bat White key
Bat Black key
Bat Red dragon
Bat Yellow dragon
Bat Green dragon
Bat Magnet

It starts off interested in the chalice. After a certain amount of time, regardless of whether it found the chalice or not, the bat will lose interest in it and desire the sword instead. If it enters the room with the sword before changing its mind again, it will move toward the sword, pick it up, drop anything it happened to be carrying, and will then continue flying in the same direction for a while. Eventually it will move onto the bridge, then the yellow key, and so on until it loops back to the start of the list.

That said, I have never seen the bat swipe the chalice before I've found it myself, so there must some logic preventing this from happening. Theoretically it could swipe the chalice almost immediately, fly around a bit, then get bored, seek out the sword, find it in your hands, and steal it, dropping the chalice in its place. But I have never seen that happen. Anyone know how this works?

Monday, March 11, 2019

Game 50: Space Invaders (VCS)

Starting off the year 1980 is the Atari VCS version of Space Invaders. I’ve already done the original arcade version by Taito, but the Atari conversion qualifies as a whale of its own.

Like so many other Atari games, there are several gameplay modes. This time, it’s an incredible 112.

Of course, it’s another one of those situations where Atari just counted every possible combination of gameplay options as a separate “game mode.” There are essentially seven base game types (and four of them sound pretty stupid to me), and four game rules which can be turned on or off for 16 possible combinations, giving 112 total combinations of game rules and game types.

I did begin to try the 16 singleplayer variants by myself.

Mode 1

It’s Space Invaders, alright, just uglier. There are some tangible differences; the invaders only shoot one kind of projectile, and your own fire just passes through it, rather than negating or being blocked by it. And there are three shields instead of four. And the shields instantly vanish once the invaders descent far enough. The laser base can’t quite move all the way to the edges of the playfield, so there’s only a brief opportunity to shoot down the outer invader columns, which you'll need to take when you can.

Mode 1 was pretty easy, certainly easier than the arcade game. Starting in round five, the invaders start so low that you don’t get any shields. And from round six on, they begin one descent away from landing. At this point, you absolutely must eliminate the bottom row ASAP, which can be done pretty quickly albeit dangerously if you focus on the bottom row or two and keep moving from column to column. If an invader decides to shoot while you’re under it, then you’ll probably have no time to react and will just die. Once you have some breathing room, you can focus on eliminating the columns from the outside-in to slow down their descent.

I scored 10,000+ points pretty easily here, flipping the score counter. The game doesn’t change after round six, so theoretically I could play forever.

Mode 2: Moving shields

The shields move back and forth, which mainly just causes them to get in your way more, especially when it comes to shooting the UFOs. This is a moot on round four onward, because at this point you lose the shields anyway. It really just means it will take longer to flip the score, since the prime opportunity to score points by shooting UFOs is in the earlier rounds.

Modes 3-4: Zigzagging bombs

The invaders’ projectiles move left and right randomly as they descend. This mainly slows you down by forcing extra precaution, and kills you more often when you aren’t. It’s hard to predict where the projectiles will land, forcing you to stay farther away from them, or risk getting caught off-guard and blown up.

Space Invaders actually felt like a cover shooter in these modes. Normal shots had been easy enough to weave through, and it actually felt like a relief when the invaders got close enough to disable the shields, because they were no longer in my way. The zigzagging shots had the opposite effect; hard to dodge, and making me feel vulnerable once my shields went away. In addition, while moving shields just got in the way more in mode 2, here they helped a bit, as they blocked the zig-zagging shots more often.

Modes 5-8: Fast projectiles

Now Space Invaders gets hard, and I didn’t last long at all once I reached the third round. There’s just no time to react to low-flying invaders if they happen to shoot when you’re under them. Modes 7-8 have an especially deadly combination of fast-moving, zigzagging bombs.

Modes 9-16: Invisible invaders

I’m pretty sure this is a joke. I can’t even clear one round on mode 9. I didn’t bother with the rest of the modes here.

Later, I played some of the two-player modes with “B.” Modes 17-32 are just throwaway modes, featuring pointless alternating play.

Modes 33-64: Two-player competitive

The manual says these are competitive modes, but the only impetus for competition is the fact that you get separate score counters. You don’t even get separate life pools, and the game ends when a total of three laser bases have been destroyed regardless of the player who loses them, making competition even more pointless. We played as if it were cooperative, working together to try to repel the invaders with double the firepower.

The basic modes with slow and straight invader shots were pretty easy, unsurprisingly.

The modes with fast and/or wavy shots were really hard. Having double the firepower did NOT make up for being twice as likely to get hit.

Invisible mode, once again, got us with that last lousy invader slipping past our fire.

Modes 49-64 add a restriction that you and your “opponent” must alternate shots. You still have more damage potential than you would playing solo, because two laser bases means less moving around. But a missed shot has worse consequences, because neither of you may fire until your missed shot reaches the top of the screen.

You could also play these modes solo. A modern controller’s got more than enough buttons for two laser bases. I tried it too, using a d-pad and left bumper for the left base, and face buttons and right bumper for the right base. Conclusion: I’ve got enough fingers to play this way, but not enough coordination.

Modes 65-112: Partnership

Scrolling through the list of game modes to get here is rather tedious. All of these modes grant two players partial control over a single laser base.
  • In modes 65-80, one player controls left movement, one player controls right movement, and either can fire, but the single shot limit remains. 
  • In modes 81-96, you surrender control to the other player whenever you fire, and the other player surrenders control back to you when they fire. 
  • In modes 97-112, player one is responsible for movement, and player two fires the gun.

These modes were all as dumb as they sound. The first set of modes just got us killed, as often we’d both try to move in opposite directions to dodge a shot, and the base wouldn’t move at all. The second set isn’t very interesting, with half of your playtime spent waiting for your partner to fire. In the final set of modes, we were able to work more or less in harmony, but it was still pointless. I’d rather have had co-op modes with two laser bases, just like the competitive modes, only with shared points and lives.

Overall, I’m glad I played this port of the game, even if the mode count is ludicrously padded. The challenge of fast and wavy shots is novel, the invisible mode kind of stupid, and the entire set of “partnership” modes a waste of time, but the “competitive” modes played cooperatively are what really sold the package.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

A day at Funspot, NH

My longtime friend and occasional Data Driven Gamer partner "R" and I took a trip to Laconia, New Hampshire this past weekend, to visit the American Classic Arcade Museum. Located on the second floor of Funspot, a massive amusement center near the scenic shores of Weirs Beach, the museum boasts nearly 200 classic arcade machines, with half again as many circulating in and out of storage and repairs, including most of the arcade games that I played on this blog so far, and quite a few rarities and unusual cabs.

If you’ve read any of my posts on arcade games, or my “what I do and why” page, then you already know I am a big supporter of emulation as a means of preservation and accessibility. I roll my eyes at the usual arguments that it isn’t good enough – that low-resolution graphics only look right on a CRT, that you’re supposed to play video games on the couch with a gamepad, that emulation just doesn’t feel right, etc.

But I would hardly deny there are compelling reasons for preserving the original hardware and making it accessible to the public. Nowhere is this more evident than in the sector of arcade games, and the farther back in time you go, the more evident this is.

On one extreme end, there are electromechanical games and pinball, where the physicality is integral to the experience and can’t be emulated. Pinball simulators exist, but there are limits to how accurately a computer can simulate the laws of physics that they run on, they don’t replicate the feel of a steel ball slamming itself around a spring-loaded table, and to my knowledge there has been no serious attempt to generally simulate electromechanical arcade games, which constitutes a history unto itself.

There are purely electronic arcade games which haven’t been emulated yet. Atari’s early CPU-less games like Pong and Breakout have only been accurately emulated fairly recently, and there are plenty of gaps, such as Computer Space and Tank. Other developers who made their first electronic games in that era include Bally, Sega, Taito, and Nintendo, and their first efforts are mostly or entirely unemulated. There’s always the possibility, as long as there are still functioning boards out there, but this window won’t last forever, and may already be past for some of them.

Then there are arcade games which offered unique controls or cabinet designs that were integral to the gameplay experience. Discs of TRON might play fine with a gamepad in MAME, but without that walk-in cabinet, with the fluorescent lighting, the surround sound, and that bizarre 3D motion disc controller, it’s just not the same experience. These types of games have made a comeback of sorts in the post-Dreamcast era, when arcade games could no longer offer superior graphics to home consoles and computers, but could offer unique peripherals or thrill ride-like experiences.

Even when the gameplay experience translates flawlessly, the cabinets themselves are works of art worth preserving for their own sake. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles might play perfectly in MAME or XBLA, and look fine on your big screen HDTV, but that big illustrated control panel with color-coordinated joysticks and buttons is an aesthetic detail that Konami put a lot of effort into making especially for the game, and you’re missing out on it by not playing the game on it. Is it a relatively small aesthetic detail compared to the amount of effort and floorspace needed to maintain and preserve an antique machine that only plays one game? Absolutely.

And so ACAM, a former commercial business turned nonprofit museum, preserves and exhibits games of all of these categories. And it feels very much like a museum with interactive exhibits, more so than an arcade; the air is filled with the noise of vintage arcade games and their recognizable sounds, but the patrons, mostly GenX’ers, their kids, and a few of ages in between, are quiet and reserved, a far cry from the crowded and noisy scene downstairs filled with kid-pleasing redemption ticket games, which octogenarian founder Bob Lawton confirmed is what brings in the real money. I can only imagine how incapable the multi-hundred machines at ACAM are of turning a profit; it’s no secret that even commercial arcades have been struggling for decades. $20 bought us 125 tokens, which lasted a pretty long time as the machines mostly only cost one token per game. I can’t imagine the arcade games can even pay for their own electricity at that rate, let alone the maintenance – quite a few of the games on the floor were out of order, and many others had badly functioning controls.

Arcade Blogger has an excellent visual guide of ACAM. Rather than try to present another one, I’m just going to recommend you view theirs:

The full experience of visiting the museum proved far more interesting than the sum experience of playing the games in it, which individually didn’t offer a better gameplay experience than emulation could, for the most part. Certainly there’s an intangible aspect that emulation can’t cover; the ambience, the feeling of walking to machine to machine, seeing the cabinet designs and artwork in person, the curation and arrangement, etc. Even disregarding custom controls and cabinets, having 200 dedicated machines holds a romantic appeal that a single setup with access to thousands of ROMs just doesn’t offer; hence we have frontends like 3D Arcade and New Retro Arcade. But as for individual game experiences, only a fraction left me thinking “that wouldn’t be the same on my MAME setup.” My reaction to playing ACAM’s famous Donkey Kong machine was more like “yep, that’s Donkey Kong alright.”

I’m going to discuss the games that stood out to me, but focus on tangible aspects that DID leave me thinking “yeah, that wouldn’t be the same on my MAME setup.” I won’t be delving very deep into gameplay on any of them; with so many games available, I didn’t spend more than a few minutes with any given game. The trip was absolutely worth it, and I’ll be going back some time, but I couldn’t do the comprehensive experience justice with words. Think of the rest of this post as not being about ACAM, but about the game-specific experiences that may be missed by settling for emulation, as we often must.

Computer Space

Computer Space was one of the major reasons I wanted to go to ACAM in the first place. It’s a seminal game that led to the founding of Atari, it’s rare compared to Pong, and it is not emulated. “R” held the camera while I played. Appropriately, this was one of the first machines I saw in the museum, very near the entrance, and was the first that I played.

I had played Ironic Computer Space Simulator, a remake of sorts running on a PDP-1 emulator, and discussed it in some detail as the second entry on Data Driven Gamer. Most of my observations here concern differences between that and the real thing.

The controls, which look really cool in the dark, consist of four buttons, not arranged very ergonomically, and are difficult to press, which may be due to the machine’s age. They move easily enough, but unless you push them right in the center and directly down, they’ll fail to make contact and won’t register.

The playfield is vertically larger than the screen. This makes gameplay confusing when you or the UFOs are near the top or bottom; anything close to those edges gets cut off from view.

Like in the simulator, you can only fire one missile at a time. Unlike the simulator, the missile does not disappear when it hits a UFO, which means you always have to wait for it to reach its maximum distance before firing the next. All too often I would score a hit, and then be unable to fire a follow-up shot to the next UFO when I wanted to. The missile range seems to be shorter too, and a lack of trails makes it hard to spot.

Scoring more than 9 points in the allotted time wasn’t hard at all, but the score counter glitches out when you do.

Hyperspace mode doesn’t seem to work as it should. Supposedly, if time runs out when you are ahead in score, you’re awarded bonus time and the screen colors invert during this period. I had no trouble meeting this requirement, but instead of seeing inverted colors, the screen’s white pixels just became finer and the score/time counter got rendered in a funny and illegible way.


We had played Pong on DICE, but struggled with the controls. Would a real machine be better?

This machine was in rough shape. The playfield was off-center, making the left side of it partially obscured by overscan. The net and the right paddle were rendered askew, seemingly distorted by the movement of the left paddle. The top and bottom portions of the screen were once again cut off, hiding the positions of the ball and paddles as they got close to the edges. And the screen was displaying white-on-light-grey rather than white-on-black. There’s video footage of Pong in action at ACAM, and it didn’t look like this, so this may just need some recalibration. But the day we played it, Pong wasn’t very playable.

Pong Doubles

I never played Pong Doubles before, but this is like Pong, except with four dials, which control four paddles; two per side of the screen. A “doubles” game costs two coins, but a single coin will begin a standard two-player game. So, just like Pong, right?

The machine functioned better than Pong, but there was one big problem; the paddles don’t move all the way up or down! Angled shots could be impossible to hit back, and often were.

At first I thought this might be a machine calibration issue, but later in the week I tried it in MAME, and the result was the same; the paddles don’t move all the way up and down. I imagine this is a deliberate balancing design for the doubles mode; you might not be able to hit an angled shot with your paddle, but your partner can. But in the standard singles mode, this is just unfair.


Another unemulated Atari game! This two-player cocktail cabinet was one of the first video games purchased by Funspot, and was located at the D.A. Long Tavern, where ACAM’s founder-owner Bob Lawton was chatting with the guests and his granddaughter served beer.

A predecessor to Combat, Tank has some intricacies not found in the VCS game. Most obviously, the controls are more flexible and immersive, with a pair of two-way joysticks, each controlling one of the tank’s treads. The maze is larger and more interesting than either VCS maze, with an open region in the middle full of mines. It also has some pretty realistic sounding tank engine noises and explosion sounds.

Unfortunately, it’s not that much fun to play. The big maze takes forever to traverse to reach your opponent, and like the VCS game, there’s not much strategy. Whoever gets hit first gets stunned, giving the other player a good opportunity to line up another shot and hit them again and again until the machine warps them through a wall to another random part of the maze. The VCS game mixed things up with a multitude of gameplay modes, the most interesting of them being the Tank-Pong variants, which was ultimately a better addition than any of the arcade game's bells and whistles.

Gun Fight

This features a unique control panel design with two joysticks; an 8-way digital stick for moving the cowboy, and a two-way analog stick that looks like a pistol grip for aiming the gun up or down, and a trigger underneath for firing.

Unfortunately, the second joystick would not register any movement except “down,” limiting that player’s mobility quite a bit.

This cabinet did not produce Marche funèbre on each successful kill.

Indy 4

This was the centerpiece of ACAM’s collection.

Photo by Funspotnh

It’s been emulated, and I covered this in my DICE post, but keyboards are a poor substitute for steering wheels. Steering on this machine just felt really good. On the downside, using the brakes while standing up is tricky, especially if you're trying to hit both the brakes and gas at the same time, so the drifting technique that I discovered playing in DICE doesn’t work too well unless you've got very large and nimble feet. We didn’t really use the brakes at all, just letting up on the gas when needing to take hairpin turns.


I didn’t play this one, and I wish I did, because it isn’t emulated, and is a descendant of Gran Trak 10, another landmark unemulated game. Maybe next time!

Death Race

A rarity, with only 500 cabinets ever produced. This machine was near the entrance, right next to the Computer Space machine. Player 1’s steering wheel didn’t work right, so the only way to play was to insert two coins and play alone on the right wheel. I held the camera while “R” played.

This was one of the more fun games of the TTL era! It’s not so much a race as a macabre twist on a destruction derby – a bit like Atari’s Crash ‘N Score from a year earlier. Scoring kills becomes more difficult over time as the playfield is dotted with gravestone obstacles which impede you, but not your victims. “R” showed an uncharacteristically sadistic glee, cooing “you can’t escape death!” as he ran the stick figures over in his motored hearse.

It’s a bit hard to imagine that this bloodless carnage passed for controversial even back in the day. The mechanical dying screams are downright bloodcurdling, though, and not quite done justice by the recording. The mismatch between the realism of the sound effects and graphics is a bit disturbingly surreal too. The machine was placed, appropriately enough, to Exidy’s other game about murdering helpless people, the far more gruesome, and yet somehow much less controversial Chiller.

Sea Wolf

Sea Wolf’s graphics and gameplay are emulated in MAME just fine, but the real fun is the periscope, which serves as your torpedo sight and rotates to aim. A glowing red LED display seen through the periscope shows your torpedo status. This setup can’t be reproduced by emulation, and without it, the game’s nothing to write home about.

Triple Hunt

A pretty impressive looking display, more of a diorama than a computer monitor. Unfortunately, this was out of order. But if it worked, then a pixelated video bear would be projected into the 3D scene of trees and foliage, which you’d try to shoot at with a realistic looking rifle prop.

Also on display was a nonfunctional, cordoned-off electromechanical game from the 40’s called Shoot the Bear, which featured a mechanical bear that would walk through the forest diorama, with a photoreceptor on its side for you to shoot at with a light gun.


Sort of a counterpart to Sea Wolf, having you drop depth charges on submarines from a destroyer. Like Sea Wolf, the fun is in the unique controls, though they’re not nearly as fancy as Sea Wolf’s periscope.

Photo by iCollector

The lever controls your destroyer’s speed, and the wheel is rotated to adjust the depth at which your charges explode.

The monitor has a multi-layer cardboard art inserts, giving it a 3D diorama feel that emulation doesn’t replicate.

Monaco GP

By far the most technically impressive TTL-based arcade game that MAME doesn’t emulate. Full color graphics, realistic sounds, a headlight effect when you drive into tunnels, and it just boggles my mind that the CPU-less technology that produced Pong could produce this. ACAM had a deluxe sit-down model with score and sound displayed on a fancy looking dedicated LED panel.


MAME plays this fine from a gameplay perspective, but this was my first time seeing it on a real vector monitor. MAME gets the look all wrong, and I now know I’ve been living a lie.

What really blows me away here isn’t the smoothness of the vectors, but the brightness effect. Those shots, which look like moving dots in MAME, look like brightly glowing photon torpedoes on a real vector monitor. The video doesn’t do it justice, and I doubt any flat panel or raster display could truly reproduce the effect. But they could certainly do a better job of approximating it. You’re probably watching this recording on a flat panel, and I’m sure you can tell from it that the bullets should be much brighter than the asteroids. Emulation just draws everything at uniform brightness, but there’s no reason why it couldn’t do better than that.

Video Pinball

Unfortunately this machine wasn’t playable, because the plunger didn’t do anything. But the cabinet was interesting to look at. I could see that there was a 3D foam pinball table at the top of the cabinet, and the image reflected off a mirror below it, giving the virtual pinball table a 3D physical look to it, and the video ball and flippers were projected onto the mirror image from below.


A re-release of Nintendo’s early milestone game Sheriff.

There’s an 8-way joystick for moving, and a dial for aiming the gun. But the joystick is STIFF. Pushing it takes some effort – this would NOT be evident when playing in an emulator, and when you do push it, there’s a noticeable delay before the sheriff actually does anything, though that would be evident when emulating.


I’m not really a pinball fan. I’ve always found the tables kind of samey, with little to distinguish one from another but the artwork and gimmicks. I never last long enough to really appreciate gameplay flow, and the gimmicks only last for so many plays before I’ve seen them all. The Addams Family is my favorite, but it still holds less lasting value and playability than most of the Atari VCS games I’ve played so far.

ACAM’s got a row of pinball tables, with a few electromechanical tables like Old Chicago and Sky Jump, but most are well known solid state machines, like White Water, Black Knight, Black Knight 2000, Joker Poker, and three of Atari’s six normal-sized pinball machines.

But then there's Atari's other pinball machine, not on the ACAM floor, but positioned right outside of it near the entrance. This is the one known for its gimmick and not much else; Atari’s Hercules.

The gimmick, of course, is the mammoth size, with jumbo pinballs to match it. Note the comparative size of the vintage pinball table to its left, which is inoperable and for display purposes only.

Herc's got a very slow feel compared to most pinball tables. Ironically, the flippers feel weak, unable to deliver the force needed to send the ball all the way up the table. That’s about all there is to make the table stand out, really.

Missile Command

My MAME setup has a trackball, but I wanted to see if an authentic cabinet would feel any different.

In this case it does, but not in a good way. Spinning it to the left didn’t so much make the reticle move to the left as jitter around the screen in a somewhat leftward direction. I didn’t last terribly long here.

Wizard of Wor

I’ll be playing this game in more depth later on, but we played a coop game on real hardware while we were here. The biggest thing that emulation doesn’t replicate is the joystick, which is pressure sensitive. Tap it only slightly, and your worrior turns to face that direction but doesn’t move. MAME instead offers an additional button which can be held to prevent movement, which is fine for gameplay purposes but isn’t an authentic emulation.

Neither of us could make out what the Wizard was babbling on about during gameplay, his synthetic voice drowned out by the game’s music, and the noise of the arcade games on the floor. The starfield in the background had a shimmering look to it that MAME doesn’t quite match, but I don’t know if this is deliberate, or if this is due to wear and tear on the starfield circuits.


Another Atari game with a gimmicky cabinet and controls. You look at the monitor through a gunner’s sight, which helps you line up your shots and provides immersion (and a diegetic HUD which convincingly guises itself part of the tank sight), and the controls are similar to Tank’s, with a two-way joystick controlling each tread. Unfortunately, the left joystick did not register in the down position, making it impossible to reverse or pivot left. The vector graphics were smoother than what MAME offers, with none of the blocky vertices or aliasing artifacts present, but didn’t blow me away as Asteroids did.


In an effect similar to Video Pinball, the castles are 3D objects projected onto the mirrored screen and overlaid with video. It’s even more striking, as they had more depth than a pool table. MAME sort of reproduces this with artwork files, but they’re only flat images and it’s not the same.

Mouse Trap

The sound effects were remarkably realistic for a 1981 game. I didn’t remember ever hearing them before in MAME. I did replay in MAME later, and the sounds were there (is this a thing that got added recently?), but they didn’t sound quite as clear as they sounded on the real thing.

Tunnel Hunt

It’s not a particularly good game by any means – all you do is shoot at unlicensed TIE Fighters, using an analog joystick to move crosshairs, while trippy rectangles in the background give the sensation of floating through a tunnel. But the unique cabinet makes this even more immersive than Sea Wolf and Battlezone.

Photo by

The blinders keep sound and light out of your peripheral, and you need to lean forward into the alcove to see the angled screen. A magnifying lens on the cabinet causes the display to fill your field vision, sort of like a prototype for virtual reality. The effect is really immersive, and not just a little bit dizzying.

Dragon’s Lair, Space Ace, Cliff Hanger, Us vs. Them

This set of laserdisc games was arranged in a neat row. Sadly, the machines have been gutted and replaced with computers running Daphne (I’m assuming), as the laserdisc players stopped working months after the machines arrived. Or maybe it’s not so sad; I think you may be hard pressed to tell the difference. The LED screens used for displaying scores still work, etc.

One difference in Space Ace that was evident to me is that although the control panel has buttons for selecting a difficulty, they don’t do anything. And I’m fine with that; the default ROM used by Daphne disables them on purpose because the difficulty switch was badly implemented in the first place. All it would do is narrow the timing window for your inputs, causing some of them to nonsensically require input before you can even see what Dexter is supposed to be reacting to. If an arcade operator was so inclined, Daphne could be configured to use the original ROMs where the difficulty selection works as intended.

I never played Cliff Hanger or Us vs. Them before. Cliff Hanger is hot garbage, and I say this having enjoyed Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace. Those games aren’t to everyone’s taste nowadays, but they worked because the animation was designed to be played, not watched. The scenes are composed so that danger approaches in orthogonal directions, possible directions to move are likewise easily mapped to the directions on the joystick, and timed so that you know when you are expected to make a move. Cliff Hanger’s video is sourced from the feature film Castle of Cagliostro, which wasn’t animated with any of these considerations, and the timing and inputs needed to pass a scene are pure trial and error.

The death animations, which in Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace were lovingly animated to show you how Dirk or Dexter bought it at the moment where you were supposed to do something, are absent, and in their place awkwardly choppy transitions. For instance, when Lupin (sorry, Cliff) is driving a getaway car and I failed to press a direction before the car was supposed to make a turn, it did not show the car drive off the cliff, as no such scene had been animated for the film. Instead the screen turned blue and declared “YOU BLEW IT!!” and then showed a closeup of a generic explosion.

Us vs. Them has a different approach. It’s a rather bad and forgettable 2D sprite-based shoot’em up with a video backdrop showing the terrain you’re supposed to be flying over, sometimes switching back and forth between chase perspective and overhead perspective. The sprites do NOT blend well with the video backdrops, especially not during the chase cam perspective scenes, where the angles and positions of everything just looks entirely wrong. On the plus side, the video at least looks nice, with non-interactive cut-scenes that are pretty well produced, and occasionally quite funny, such as a silly parody of American Gothic.

Food Fight

An arcade game with a joystick that looks like a standard 8-way stick, but in fact it recognizes 49 different positions. MAME just expects you to use an analog joystick and automatically maps various ranges to the 49 different positions.

I played this to see if it felt any different from using an analog joystick. Other than the bat-shaped grip, it doesn’t.

Star Wars

ACAM has two Star Wars machines, an upright cabinet and a deluxe sit-down model. Both use an unusual yoke controller, which gives a different feel from an analog thumbstick without really doing anything that the thumbstick can’t do. Oddly, the controller has four fire buttons, but they all do the same thing. Kind of a missed opportunity, as the X-Wing has four laser cannons ingame, but they just cycle regardless of which buttons you press.


This machine was placed, appropriately enough, in the tavern instead of the main ACAM floor. It’s the Budweiser model, not the tamer and more widely distributed Root Beer Tapper, and has beer taps on the control panel instead of buttons. A gimmicky detail to be sure, but one that ensures emulation isn’t quite the same.


This cabinet stands out because it and the control panel are askew. Other than that, there’s nothing special about the game or its controls. Playing it felt about the same as playing it on my own MAME setup with a trackball and joystick, only with the slight annoyance of a non-level control panel.

Crossbow, Cheyenne, Chiller

This trio of Exidy shooters was near the entrance, right next to the Death Race and Spacewar machines. Cheyenne was out of order, but Crossbow and Chiller worked perfectly, a big surprise to me as we had terrible luck with light gun games. Crossbow just feels murderously hard; aiming is difficult, and your heroes kick the bucket in the blink of an eye if you don’t hit the tiny projectiles and monsters as soon as they appear on screen. Chiller on the other hand just feels murderous, with you blasting the flesh off naked and defenseless victims chained up in a torture chamber for no reason except the game asks you to.


The control panel is kind of interesting because the “knock-out” button is positioned far away from the normal buttons used to deliver standard punches, and takes more than normal force to press. Once the announcer shouts “put him away!,” you need to really reach over and smack that button. Compare to the emulated experience, where the knock-out punch is just another button on your controller.

Star Trek

It seems there’s just no escaping Star Trek games for me. Gameplay does seem to be inspired by the mainframe title, but it’s in realtime, and there’s no exploration aspect, you just warp from sector to sector clearing each of enemy warships while defending the space stations. It’s a deluxe sit-down cabinet with a captain’s seat that looks like it came out of a TV set, a weighted spinner on its left arm for steering the ship, and an array of pushbutton controls on the other for activating phasers, torpedoes, engine, and warp drives.

Marble Madness

Singleplayer mode plays fine on MAME with my trackball, and feels about the same. But Marble Madness was meant to be played with two simultaneous players, and the only right way to do that is to have a control panel with two trackballs (and I don’t), or play on a real arcade machine.


Notable for its odd controller, a 360-degree joystick that only moves in a circular motion, and is incapable of returning to the center. MAME just treats it like a generic paddle controller, which is probably accurate electronically but doesn’t reflect how it feels to use the thing.


I’d never heard of this game, and according to Funspot’s website only two were ever made. But it’s nothing special to play, just another vertical shoot’em up with a weird floral theme as menacing flowers in space drop lethal petals on your space ship. MAME emulates it, and there’s nothing special about the cabinet or controls to make this game worth the trip for any reason except the novelty of playing the real thing.

Night Stocker

This was actually the first arcade game we saw, as it was placed right at Funspot’s entrance, next to a display case detailing the history of Bally Sente, with a bunch of placards, a golf control panel, and an exposed cartridge PCB. The game is controlled with a steering wheel and light gun, anticipating Namco’s Lucky & Wild by several years. We played a round, with “R” at the wheel and me shooting. Unfortunately, the light gun did not work at all, so we didn’t last too long.

Operation Wolf

This game was actually only recently emulated correctly in MAME. For years, a copy protection chip was unemulated, and key ingame moments did not trigger correctly. That’s changed by now, though, but even accurate emulation is no substitute for holding a big toy Uzi in your hands.

Operation Wolf is infamously hard, and I couldn’t beat the first stage. It’s possible that the gun wasn’t calibrated correctly, and it’s possible my aim was just that bad. Maybe both. I didn’t really last long enough to get a chance to look into it.

After Burner

The deluxe sit-down cabinet is possibly the epitome of an unemulatable game. The entire cabinet shakes, tilts, and pivots as your fighter does, and your controls are a heavy duty yoke and throttle. But I have no idea how you’re supposed to play this game effectively. Every time I try, whether using MAME or not, I keep getting shot down and I can’t even see what hit me, or figure out how to prevent that from happening. It also didn’t help that the missile button was broken and didn’t do anything.

S.T.U.N. Runner

Another sit-down cabinet, or more accurately, a sit-on cabinet, and it has a sense of immediate speed that you don’t get from sitting on a normal couch or chair. The control device is a yoke, the same one used by Star Wars, but it didn’t work very well for steering left and right, and may have been broken. Tilting it up and down for aiming your guns worked pretty well, and it had a more limited vertical range than the yoke in Star Wars, corresponding exactly to the range that the guns can be aimed.

It may seem like I’m being harsh on ACAM, or perhaps on arcade games in general. The place deserves to be gushed over, but I'm not very good at gushing, nor is that especially interesting to me. There's plenty of gushy reviews of Funspot at Yelp, if you would like to see articulate praise of the place and experience as a whole. And this is far from a comprehensive list of games I played; I left out the several dozen joystick-and-CRT machines that I played, because on an individual game-to-game basis, there was nothing novel about them to discuss. Most of these games play the same at home as they do at ACAM. And yet, being there at ACAM and playing these games in that setting was just as much an integral part of the experience as playing any of the most unique and irreproducable games

From a perspective of gameplay experience in the individual games, maybe I’m not even being harsh enough. None of the games I played and deemed troublesome to emulate have a great deal of substance to them. A single CRPG from the early 80’s has more substance than a dozen novelty arcade cabinets, and it would take much less effort to preserve and distribute a thousand such CRPGs than it would take to preserve and exhibit a single Atari sit-down game. It seems like the more challenging it is to preserve a video game, the less substance you actually preserve by doing so. But maybe that’s for the best. Imagine a bizarro-world where cabinets of Death Race, After Burner, and every other rare or deluxe sit-down game are available everywhere and can be delivered to your home and somehow don’t take up any space. And in the same world, Ultima IV can only be played by taking a trip to a museum that preserves the last remaining Apple II computers which run games off of the last floppy disks, and the keyboards don’t always work right. I think that would be a very poor trade!

But although I’m grateful that so much substantial gaming history is preserved and made trivially accessible through emulation, I’m also grateful that places like ACAM exist to preserve the side of gaming history that’s not so easily preserved. In one day, I had a chance to have many gaming experiences that can’t be had any other way, and would certainly be resigned to the dustbin of history were it up to purely commercial interests. And I’ll be back; there’s plenty I didn’t see, either from lack of time, energy, or because they were out of circulation that day. These games won’t be around forever; they rely on custom parts that haven’t been manufactured in decades, and must be cannibalized from other machines when repairs are needed. Once these parts run out, these experiences will be lost forever. Or perhaps they’ll retrofit these machines with emulators someday, much like they did with the laserdisc machines, and replace other failing parts with approximate 3D-printed substitutes. Or perhaps someday Funspot itself will fail as a business, and be forced to liquidate its collection. I don’t know, but for now it’s there, and tirelessly fulfilling its mission to collect, curate, and preserve the history of classic coin-op games.

We’ll be going back to the regular schedule of whale-watching soon enough, starting with a 1980 port that achieved whale status independently of the arcade game it was ported from.

Most popular posts