Sunday, June 16, 2019

Games 69-72: Early Activision

The very first company founded for the purpose of developing console games, Activision was formed in 1979 by four ex-Atari employees; Larry Kaplan, Alan Miller, Bob Whitehead, and David Crane, who, dissatisfied with working conditions at Atari, left to form the original third-party video game developer. Carol Shaw later joined them.

I’ve already played at least one VCS game by each of these developers.
  • Kaplan – Combat, Air-Sea Battle
  • Miller – Surround, Basketball
  • Whitehead – Star Ship
  • Crane – Outlaw
  • Shaw – Polo, 3-D Tic-Tac-Toe

In July 1980, Activision released their first four games, all for the Atari VCS.
  • Boxing, by Whitehead
  • Checkers, by Miller
  • Dragster, by Crane
  • Fishing Derby, by Crane

None quite reach whale status, but I’ve decided to play two of the ones that came the closest as Activision intros (Boxing actually crept ahead into whale territory since I began this project, but I’m not counting them retroactively). Both are two-player competitive games, and I played some rounds with “R” rather than against the ingame AI.

Game 69: Boxing

The manual suggests, on its front page, to simply plug in the cartridge and play. So we did.

You move your boxer around the ring with the control stick, and pressing the button causes you to punch. The game automatically selects the hand and kind of punch, depending on your distance, and on whichever fist is closest to your opponent’s face. Like Atari’s Basketball, Boxing only has two game modes; singleplayer and multiplayer.

We found that whoever controlled the black boxer (player 2) won, every single time, and it was never close. Maybe there was less lag – we had a gamepad mapped to player 1’s controls and a wireless keyboard mapped to player 2’s controls. We didn’t really have time to test this theory. Regardless, I wasn’t really able to see a good strategy here. If you’re in a position to punch your opponent’s face, then they’re in a position to punch yours, and if you both try, then whoever hits first will score a hit.

We read the manual, and it only has three pages with any content, including the front page!

The most interesting page was the third, which had a photo credit to designer Bob Whitehead, a perk that neither he nor anyone else enjoyed at Atari, and his tips for beating the computer. Apparently, it’s programmed to get tired in the last minute of the round!

The AI opponent isn’t completely stupid, but isn’t all that good either, and I easily outscored it even with both difficulty switches flipped against my favor, causing the AI boxer to move fast and mine to move slow.

Both the manual and contemporary (and retro) reviews mention an aspect of this game that wasn't a factor in emulation; that playing with a real Atari joystick is fatiguing, and as in real boxing, you're going to get tired at some point into a 15 round match and start to slow down. Our gamepad and keyboard were comfortable and lightly operated, and I'm pretty sure that if we wanted to go the distance with them, it wouldn't have been a physical challenge. Is this a case where the convenience of emulation has actually been a detriment to the intended game experience?

A side note, there is an earlier prototype arcade game by Atari called Boxer, and it looks suspiciously similar.

As similar as the games may look, it’s not completely clear if Boxer is an ancestor. Boxer’s controls are much, much more complex. That’s not my video; neither I nor “R” could even figure out the controls. From the looks of things, there is an analog stick used to control your boxer’s position, and a pair of bike-handle like grips that can be swiveled to punch. When we played, sometimes the boxers would respond to inputs by moving around erratically or flailing their limbs, and sometimes they would do nothing but bob at each other back and forth. MAME’s game info file says that the controls don’t map well to MAME’s schema, but evidently someone had better luck with it than we did.

Activision’s developers previously worked at Atari’s VCS department, not their coin-op department. Would they have had access or knowledge of an unreleased coin-op prototype? It’s certainly possible, but far from a granted.

Game 70: Fishing Derby

This too, suggested playing without reading the manual, and we did.

Two fishermen sit on dueling piers and cast their lures into the water below. The deeper fish are worth more points, up to a maximum of 6, and the first fisherman to catch 99 points worth of fish wins. The joystick moves your lure, and when it gets close to a fish, it bites, and then jerks around quite violently. Then you can hold the joystick button to reel it in, but you must time it so that the shark swimming around at the top of the pond doesn’t eat your catch.

The shark’s movement feels somewhat random. Sometimes it looked like the shark was calm, and then would go berserk as soon as I started reeling, ensuring that between its rapid, erratic glide and my fish’s swaying, they would touch and I’d lose my fish.

We only had time for a few rounds, and only in the last one did we both feel like we knew what we were doing.

I won by a good margin, but it didn’t feel like a fair victory. The fish on the bottom two rows are worth the most points, but the fifth row fish initially spawn closer to the left pier and the sixth row fish spawn closer to the right, giving me on the left a bit of a head start since I didn’t have to sink my lure quite as low to maximize my points. And after the first few reels, the fish all seemed to group up on my side, not giving “R” a fair chance for a good portion of the round.

Later, I tried playing against the computer on my own. I beat it very easily, but then I tried setting the difficulty to ‘A’ and had trouble getting the fish to bite consistently.

So, I read the manual.

First, it pointed out that the setting the difficulty switch to ‘A’ means the fish won’t bite unless the lure is directly under their nose. Secondly, it told me that the button can be used to reel fish in faster, but interestingly, only one player can reel in at a time, and priority goes to whoever hooked their fish first. It seems catching your fish first and denying the reel button to your opponent could be a viable tactic!

With this info, I beat the computer easily on difficulty ‘A.’ I got a feel for where the fishes’ mouths are, and also discovered that you can slow down your reel by releasing the button and speed up again by pressing it again. This tactic is important for avoiding the erratic shark, but the AI doesn’t seem to use it, and so its fish got eaten by sharks more often than mine did, making me the winner.

Activision’s earliest whale came out in 1981, but before moving on to it, we’re going to go back in time to 1978 Atari.

Game 71: Avalanche

A very Breakout-like game, where you control a paddle and have to catch falling rocks.

I used my Atari paddles to play this. At first, it didn’t work well at all in MAME; the on-screen paddles would come to a sudden stop for a second when they were right in the center of the screen. But then I tried setting the joystick deadzone in MAME to 0.0, and the saturation to 1.0, and that solved the problem. The paddles then worked quite well.

As in Breakout, the longer you last, the faster things get, and as the rows of bricks diminish, you get fewer paddles, and they get narrower. But it seems like a poorer game than Breakout, because there is less interaction. You either catch the rocks or you don’t, and the angles are irrelevant. There’s some strategy involved, thanks to the multiple paddles, and that sometimes it’s better to catch rocks that fall close together rather than catch them in the same order that they fall. But other times, Avalanche just drops two rocks close to the extreme ends of the screen at almost the same time, and then you have no choice but to frantically move the paddle back and forth.

I cheated just to see what happens when you clear the screen. Unsurprisingly, you get another screen of boulders (and a free play), only now the stack of paddles recedes at a faster rate.

The best thing about this game, I think, is the monitor bezel, which I left into the gameplay video.

Game 72: Kaboom!

Read the manual here:

Activision’s first whale, created by Larry Kaplan, is a ripoff of Atari’s Avalanche, but somehow it’s more fun, and certainly more personable. While Avalanche flopped, Kaboom sold a million.

An unapologetically idiotic premise, a “mad bomber” in a striped shirt moves around the screen dropping lots of bombs, and you have to catch them all in buckets of water, which you control with a paddle, breakout-style. Every round, the mad bomber’s speed increases, until he’s flitting across the screen like a fly on crack, unloading up to ten bombs per second, while you madly dash back and forth to keep up.

The manual says that the difficulty maxes out at the eighth wave, and suggests that scoring 3,000 points constitutes a victory, as Activision would mail you a “Bucket Brigade” emblem. The real prize, though, is the Mad Bomber’s face when you hit 10,000 points.

I used my paddles to play this game. The buckets moved around a little bit on their own, which wasn’t an issue with other games I had played with the paddles. In fact, I expect this is part of the game’s programming; they only jittered while the Mad Bomber was moving around, and never during the downtime in between rounds. Movement felt smooth enough while turning the paddle, which you should be doing constantly, and I can’t imagine playing trying to play this with a joystick or even a mouse. The difficulty ramps up FAST. I found that disabling Vsync made a big improvement to my performance, but even then, the best I could do was to score 1,200 points.

As I noted, it’s more fun than Atari’s Avalanche. The mad bomber adds a bit of personality, and while Avalanche was random about the order in of falling boulders, the mad bomber’s movement guides the order of the bombs, making them fall in sinusoidal lines. The bombs drop fast, but your buckets are wide and spaced closely together, creating a fairly large catching zone, and it becomes more about smooth, controlled, zig-zagging movements than about precisely lining up your paddle with the falling objects as was the case in Avalanche and in Breakout before it.

One change I wasn’t a fan of is that when you miss a bomb, you lose one of your buckets. As a result, when you fail once, the game becomes even harder, and you’ll certainly fail again. Even that, though, has some nuance to it, as you’ll also get demoted one level, and if you were on level 8 when you failed, then there’s a good chance you’ll be able to reach a multiple of 1,000 points on level 7 with only two buckets, and get your lost bucket back.

Also, the range of paddle motion recognized is tiny, not even half of the actual arc of motion that is physically possible. This undoubtedly makes bucket movement faster when you’re in the live zone, but the side effect is that the dead-end zones are enormous, and when you move the buckets all the way to one side, the paddle will probably be fairly deep into a dead-end zone. When you reverse the paddle direction, the buckets won’t move at all until you rotate them back into the live-zone, which doesn’t feel very good from a control standpoint, and makes it hard to anticipate just how far you’ll need to move to get the buckets to go where you want them to. I’d have preferred a wider live zone for this game, for more precise movement and less dead zone, even if this meant I’d have to turn the paddle even faster to keep up with the Mad Bomber.

I did a bit of measuring to see if I could find out some hard data on the differences between levels. The manual tells how many bombs are dropped per round, and the point value of each bomb, but it doesn't say how fast the bombs are dropped.

Surprisingly, game logic in Kaboom! operates at 40fps, a number that doesn't fit neatly into the display frequency of 60hz. And while the level speed trends toward faster, and the rounds trend towards longer, it isn't consistent. Level 8 is the fastest round, but level 7 is the longest.

"Frames per drop" is based on the 40hz logic frames, not the 60hz display frames.

Level Bombs Frames per drop Seconds per drop Seconds of bombing
1 10 24 0.6 6
2 20 12 0.3 6
3 30 12 0.3 9
4 40 6 0.15 6
5 50 8 0.2 10
6 75 4 0.1 7.5
7 100 6 0.15 15
8 150 3 0.075 11.25

Gameplaywise, all of these games by Activision feel very much like games Atari might have made. They’re all simple, single-screen action games, and in my view, are even more simplistic than the median Atari VCS game of the time, and not only because they forwent those extensive lists of game modes.

But there’s one aspect that makes them stand out in a way that wasn’t common in Atari’s games. All three have recognizably human characters, and while Boxing needed to have human-looking avatars, Fishing Derby and Kaboom could have easily done without them. Activision went ahead and created multi-colored sprites to represent these people on the peripheral of the playfield anyway. How appropriate then that Atari, a company that viewed its employees as cogs in the machine, would make most of their games about machines like space ships, racecars, tanks, and planes, or abstract objects like balls, paddles, bricks, and boulders, while Activision, a company founded from the desire to credit the people behind the games, would make games about boxers, fishermen, and bomb-throwing anarchists.

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