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WIPs of days gone by - part 1



  • "Time it was, and what a time it was, it was
    A time of innocence, a time of confidences
    Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph
    Preserve your memories; they're all that's left you"
    -P. Simon


new code, old system...


For the last few years I've been writing code for the Atari 2600 in my free hours.


It's been said that the toughest game system to program for is the 2600, so it's only natural that at a 2600 coder weighs exactly why he's jumping through hoops with boots on.


People are drawn to program old systems for dozens of reasons. Some are revisiting their childhood wishes, some do it for the challenge, some enjoy the resistance of the medium, and some do it for the groupies.


A big part of the draw for me is that its my way of remembering times gone by, without the tedium of playing the same old song over and over again; I riff on older memories to make them new again. As an added bonus, my work can create homebrew games that allow other people to make their old memories new again too!


But not every bit of code that gets created is turned into a homebrew. For me, the first step in the development process is often to start with a prototype, mainly because I have some gaming dynamic or code technique that I want to test out.


So I work at it. And work at it. And work at it, until one day I finally have something to look at and try out. Then comes the contemplation.


Is my concept really technically feasible? Is it interesting? Is it fun?


If the answer to any of these is no, I shelve the code and move on, a little sadder, a little wiser.


I thought I'd kick off this new blog by taking one of these works down from the shelf and sharing it with you.



apocalypse then...




This one was to be called z-tactics, short for zombie tactics. It was my first assembly project, and it was an ambitious one.


The idea in this game is that you're the head of a tactical unit that's trying to control a zombie outbreak. Everything is seen from a high map level - the deep purple is the zombie infection, the green is territory with life, the light purple are barriers, and the black is territory that was overrun by zombies but is now barren.


Also on the playfield would be different power houses, which you'd select to activate that ability. One power house would give you the ability to build barriers. Another would give you "radiation", which you'd use to burn the life off a square which would create a kind of barrier, though there would be a small chance the radiation would cause a mutation and cause a zombie outbreak on that square. I also had the idea of a nuke house, which would level a big patch of ground.


When used, each of the powers would deplete, and you'd have to wait for it to replenish, which would take more or less time depending on power. But if the square with a power house was overrun with zombies, you'd lose that power.


I stopped working on z-tactics for a few reasons.


The prototype and concept was technically feasible and interesting, but I wasn't convinced it would be fun. For me, "interesting" can be a source of "fun", but I realize for a lot of other people it isn't.


I also realized that the majority of the 2600 fanbase want an action experience, and really aren't interested in semi-complex strategic games.


Here's the binary, in case anyone is interested. It's not playable, but you can move the cursor around, and watch the green patches turn purple and the purple patches turn black.





what comes after z?


It can be depressing to waste coding effort, but I don't feel too bad about shelving it now. A lot of the code and knowledge from z-tactics turned up in new efforts, like 21 Blue and the bB Titlescreen Kernel.


Code is funny like that. Just like old game systems and nostalgic memories, it also wants to renew itself over and over again.




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I also realized that the majority of the 2600 fanbase want an action experience, and really aren't interested in semi-complex strategic games.


Back in the early to mid 1980s when all of this stuff was new to me, I craved a certain amount of complexity. There was a short time when I wanted to write things down and create maps while playing games like Zork, but I finally had to admit to myself that I was stupid and lazy. I didn't really like writing things down and mapping out mazes. I wanted just enough complexity to keep me interested, but not enough to actually make me do tedious work. I already had a job in the real world. I didn't need another one. I just wanted to have some fun:


How to Make a Successful (Fun) Game

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I don't agree on the stupid part at all, and laziness can be a positive trait for someone who writes code!


It's a concept I first read about in "Programming Pearls", my absolute favorite book on coding; laziness stops you from rushing in and coding the first idea that pops into your head, and forces you to rethink how you can write something in six lines of code instead of a few hundred.


Or to give another example, it forces you to write an easier-to-understand platformer kernel because the thought of deciphering a bunch of complex code is tiring.


The trick is overcoming the laziness when it's really time to code! ;)

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