Atari Safari
The cult of the 2600 is still alive and well

The Atari Arcade Emulator for Windows is Hasbro's latest nod to classical gaming antiquity, a magic door to the happy days of childhood -- but rogue gamers on the trailing edge are taking the opposite approach: Throw away the famous brands but save the ancient console game system from the flea market and the landfill. They're blasting the past, hacking new cartridges (carts) for the Atari 2600 that would have blown Nolan Bushnell away.

See also...
... by Nick Montfort
... in the Scope section
... from August 20, 1999

The new wave of Atari cartridge development began in 1995 when software engineer Ed Federmeyer released a new Atari 2600 cartridge, a Tetris-style game, called Edtris. Federmeyer (who also made the SoundX demo cartridge for the 2600) grew up playing on the system. He dreamed about "how great it would be to grow up to be a game tester or programmer for Atari." Atari had gone the way of the pigeon post by the time he was ready for the job market, but developing for the 2600 was still an option. The experience was something more than a nostalgic journey: "It was like having one's childhood dream come true."

Coding the seemingly simple Atari 2600 is a monstrous task -- even for those who clear the first hurdle and learn 6502 assembly. So naturally a bunch of skilled programmers have been working on everything from Commodore 64s to Linux boxes to hack out a mighty fistful of new carts. The carts include Oystron, a side shooter; This Planet Sucks, a rescue-the-little-people game; and Okie Dokie, a puzzle game. These games might have sat alongside some of the better offerings by Activision and iMagic. Another cart, The Dark Mage, is more unusual -- now that text-game aficionados are about as common as Coptic translators -- the game marks the first ever Atari 2600 text adventure. The Atari Programming Page offers a lengthier game list, links to warez themselves, and information on how the truly brave can try their hand at coding.

These nouveau retro games do retain some of the pioneering system's quick start, straightforward interface and pounding interaction, even when run on emulators on a 400-MHz computer. However, nothing can substitute for the black joysticks and that wood-paneled box. Get a Starpath Supercharger -- if you can find the cartridge-port 2600 peripheral -- and you too can funnel new games from PC to 2600 console. Or, you can buy actual cartridges of several new games, including Edtris.

Even if your aging game system isn't an Atari 2600, you need not despair. New carts have also come out for ColecoVision, vector-graphics marvel Vectrex, Odyssey2, and more recently dead systems like the handheld Atari Lynx. With a game library offering more selection than any other, lots of sociable two-player games, and simplicity that allows even neophytes to get in on the fun, the classical gaming experience sure beats hang-gliding on the N64.

Nick Montfort is a freelance writer living in Manhattan. He has a Marvin Minsky magnet on his refrigerator.