Retro Atari 8-bit Computer Gaming – Arkanoid

By Jeff D. Fulton – 8bitjeff

What a pleasant surprise. Arkanoid for the Atari 8-bit computers is a very well made game.

Note: My brother Steve and I owned pretty much every Atari game system and computer until the company closed in the mid 1990’s. Using emulation, I am going back though the archives of Atari computer game software and re-playing and or playing for the first time many of the games released for these computers. Most people will be familiar with the Apple, TRS-80, Timex, Amiga, C=64, Amstrad, and Spectrum versions of some of these games, but very few people (relatively speaking) have had the pleasure of playing games on the Atari computer systems. I am not going to do much comparison between the games on various platforms, but in some cases I will mention the ones I have seen or played to compare them to the Atari versions. I am exploring the Atari systems as a way to generate game ideas and promote nostalgia for systems that may not have been given a fair shake back in their day. I’m not here to say that any one system was better, but from a historical stand-point, the computer systems of Atari have not always been given the love and press they deserve. They certainly sold by the millions throughout the 80’s, but coverage of them is rare today, even in Retro magazines and web sites. We can’t rectify that all at once, but we can add the love of Atari computer gaming to our little slice of the infobaun.

The Atari 8-bit line of computers was first released in 1979 (the 400 and 800), and were so far ahead of other systems that they quickly became a major player in the relatively tiny world of USA hobby computer gaming. With the release of Star Raiders and countless other incredible 8-bit computer games, the system would see it’s peak in popularity (in the USA) in 1982-1983. That popularity would fade as Warner Communications would blunder out the Atari 1200XL, and miss the boat entirely on the Christmas 1983 season with such a limited supply of Atari 800XL computers that people had no choice but to discover the magic of C=64 gaming (at prices well under those Atari/Warner was charging). Atari never made it back and the C=64 took over the 8-bit computer game industry almost over night. The Atari 8-bit computer line was roughly equivalent to the C=64 and used the same 6502 family of processors. The C=64, had much better music capabilities and more available sprites, but the Atari 400/800 (and later 800xl and 65/130XE and XE game systems) were built for pure speed, more colors, with hardware scrolling and a remarkable display list capability that allowed each horizontal line of the screen to be a different graphics mode (or screen). In the hands of the best developers this allowed for some awesome games. It also had 8 sprites (4 players and 4 missiles) as well as custom chips for i/o, sound/music and graphics. The same system designers would later put their skill into creating the awesome Amiga computer line using many of the same ideas. In that case, the Atari 8-bit line of computers can be seen as basically the older brother of the Amiga.

Me playing Atari 8-bit Arkanoid in the Altirra Emulator for Windows.

Up until today, I never knew this game existed for the Atari 8-bit line of computers. While it certainly is not the best 8-bit version of the game (see this video for a nice comparison of them all and decide for yourself), I really am not concerned with playground hardware wars. I’m concerned with showing what type of power could be squeezed out Atari systems in the hands of great developers. For whatever reason, this version is missing all the music of the Arcade original, but the visuals, animations, use of color and some of the sound fx are really quite extraordinary given what I was expecting when I first found this “disk” in my Atari 800 ROM archives. Pokey or even sampled versions of the arcade music might have been cut because it is rumored that this game was made to squeeze into 48K to target the entire audience of Atari 800 – 65XE owners and not leave out those with only the 48K machines. Choices like these made developing for the Atari 8-bit line difficult for coders as even though the machine was relatively powerful when compared to it’s rivals, the choice to target those who had not upgraded to more ram or the newer models did not help in game to game comparisons. In any case, even though this version lacks music, it makes up for it in pure fun.

The first version of this game I played was on the Atari ST, and it was very fun. I never thought that a competent Atari 8-bit version could be created, but I have been proved wrong. Here are screen shots of levels 1-3.

Arkanoid Atari 8-bit Level 1
Arkanoid Atari 8-bit Level 1
Arkanoid Atari 8-bit Level 2
Arkanoid Atari 8-bit Level 2
Arkanoid Atari 8-bit Level 3
Arkanoid Atari 8-bit Level 3

Game Play
When playing the game via emulation, using the mouse is a must to simulate paddle action. This is easy with the Altirra emulator. The game plays fast and furious and at least the first three levels are exactly like the Atari ST versions I remember. The one gripe I have about the game is that the Laser Cannon power up will not let you fire into the left most column of bricks. This makes finishing a level difficult if you (like me) rely on that cannon to supplant your lack of “breakout” skillz.

As stated before, this game looks great, especially in comparison to some other, earlier Atari 8-bit releases. In fact, I am a little astonished at the quality given it needed to be squeezed into only 48K. Level 2 is a little hard on the eyes at first, but levels 1 and 3 look very nice. The beginning animations from other versions are missing. This detracts little from the core game play, but would have been prime playground fodder back in the day.

The game play sounds are well done, but as stated before, the lack of music from the original is a little strange. The Pokey Chip was more than capable of creating awesome chip tunes (See Mule for one of the best examples).

Tid-Bits and Extras
Steve Fulton’s interview with Chris Crawford, the first SOFTWARE EVANGELIST, has a lot of information on the Atari 8-bit computers.

The Atari 8-bit Arkanoid was programmed by Mike Hutchinson for Imagine. Even though he demonstrates some very high skillz with this game, unfortunately he is not credited with any other Atari 8-bit game development.

Imagine created 3 games for the Atari 8-bit (maybe we’ll get to those some time soon): Leggit! (1983), Green Beret (1986), and of course Arkanoid (1987).

The page has a nice set of box art for this game.

This game is playable online via the Java emulator. There are no instructions on how to map keys in the emulator, and the site looks a little sketchy… has a nice summation of all the various home versions of Arkanoid.

Final Verdict
I was only able to play through 3 levels of this game, but using the same criteria I use when judging Atari ST games: Using all of the games I have played or seen on the system, how does this compare to the fun, and use of capabilities of the Atari 8-bit hardware: I give it a very solid 85%. If The beginning animation screens and Pokey music could have been added, then this would have been closer to 90%.

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