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Attack of the Retro Coders

Those old game machines from the attic may have pitifully little computing power and laughably primitive graphics. But a cadre of game creators still considers them the ultimate programming challenge.
August 20, 2003

Every summer in Las Vegas, the gamers descend for their annual convention. They come to see the hottest new wares for their favorite consoles and computers. But they’re not interested in Microsoft’s Xbox, Sony’s Playstation 2, or Nintendo’s GameCube. This is the Classic Gaming Expo. They’re hovering around the Commodore 64, the Atari 2600, the Amiga, and the Apple II: the vintage machines from the 1970s and 1980s that, in their minds, aren’t just sources of nostalgia but platforms for exciting and new software. They are retro coders, writing fresh programs for old hardware.

Though some of these programmers sell their work, it’s primarily a labor of loveand logic. “They do this to prove their worth as programmers,” says John Hardie, director of the Classic Gaming Expo. “It’s incredibly hard to write for these systems because of their limitations, their lack of space. When you’re working with 4 kilobytes of RAM, it’s the ultimate challenge.”

For many diehard techies, this pioneering generation of machines elicits the same kind of goose bumps as a classic pop song might for a music fan. These early computers, after all, provided the first means for an armchair gamer to create his answer to Asteroids. The Apple II, for example, has been a darling of the indie hacker set ever since the first machine was introduced at a meeting of the Homebrew Computer Club, a do-it-yourself group of programmers in California, a quarter century ago. Released in 1977, the Apple II was a groundbreaking, mass-market computer with a keyboard, compatibility with the BASIC programming language, and, best of all, color graphics. There was no hard drive but it came with two game paddles. It was perfect for game making.

“The important thing back then was that because the computers didn’t have fancy graphics, the programmers had to make them fun to play,” says Albert Yarusso, editor of Atari Age, an online magazine for fans of the early Atari systems. “That’s why they’re still fun today.”

Programming for these machines carries a similar appeal today as it did when the computers first came on the marketnamely, their accessibility. In the 1970s and 80s, the video game market was dominated by proprietary arcade machines like Pac-Man and Space Invaders. Consumers could play these machines, but they couldn’t hack them. The Commodore 64 and Apple II provided a means through which a self-taught coder with the will and the chops could write and play his own (it was usually, though not always, a guy thing) rudimentary software.

Today, the major video game consoles like the Xbox and Playstation 2 are just as exclusionary as the early arcade machines; the only way to write software for these systems is with an expensive development kit, reserved for a select group of developers approved by the makers of the game systems. Creating these elaborate games requires millions of dollars of capitalization, as well as teams of artists, coders, and designers that can encompass dozens of people.

Programming for the Commodore 64 or Amiga, on the contrary, can be done with an army of one. “It’s possible for one person to do all the code,” says Malte “ThunderBlade” Munde, a 27-year-old retro programmer from Hamburg, Germany. “You can code from scratch.” Munde runs Protovision, a group of 13 like-minded homebrew coders around Europe who specialize in making new games for the Commodore 64. They collaborate almost entirely over the Internet, a few persons handling the music, for example, others dividing up the programming tasks.

Since 1997, Protovision has published several games, including Metal Dust, a shoot em up, Reel Fishing, a fishing game, and a mythological battle game called Botz. The games sell online for about $25; so far, the group has sold 1,000 copies. That’s not enough to quit their day jobs as computer programmers, but enough to pay for the beer at their annual Vision party-an event that’s open to anyone who gets the warm fuzzies when he runs his fingers along a C64 keyboard.

 Mike Mika, a 29-year-old programmer from San Francisco, prefers making games for the Atari 2600, the classic home video game system that debuted in 1977 and, after losing ground in 1984, remains a cultural icon.   Mika’s interest began with a childhood fascination with the arcade game Berzerk, a maze-based shooter in which the player hunts down a variety of robots who bark out commands like: “Intruder alert! Intruder alert!” The home version of the game, however, was missing the famous robot yells-a detail that irked Mika into his adulthood. So he decided to do something about it. “In ber-nerd fashion, I took the free time I had over a week or two and implemented the one element that the original arcade game showcased,” he says, “and inserted that feature into the 2600 version of the game.”

Retro coders who create games for the 2600 have the added challenge of packaging, since the software used to come on boxy, plastic cartridges. (The machine predates the CD by about six years.) To house their games, the programmers literally have to rip apart old cartridges and solder in their new chips. Mika, whose day job has him making games for the Xbox and Playstation 2, says all this effort is worth it, simply for the pure mathematical challenge that he doesn’t find in a contemporary coding environment.  

The simplicity of the Atari 2600’s programming environment makes it highly accessible when compared to today’s elaborate, and expensive, console systems. “The 2600 has barely any display hardware,” Mika says. “You have to time triggers to turn the pixels on and off as the raster beam in the television sweeps across the screen. You have to create elaborate timing tables just to get an ounce of decent resolution. Also, you can download an emulator, assembler, and debugger for free from the Internet and just make a game.”  The soul of an old machine comes from a sense of both nostalgia and surprise. “It is like going back in time,” he says. “You discover something new every time you work with it.”

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