12 December 1997

When is a Combat not a Combat? (originally for Suite 101)

[Suite 101 articles introduction]

Question: When is a Combat cartridge not a Combat cartridge?
Answer: When it's a Sears Tele-Games Tank Plus cartridge.

When the Atari Video Computer System (a.k.a. VCS or 2600) debuted, Sears was one of the strongest retail chains in the United States. If you wanted to sell your product at Sears, it had to have a Sears label on it. Thus, when Atari signed an agreement with Sears to have them sell the VCS, it became the Sears Tele-Games Video Arcade. (Tele-Games was the product line name for all video games at Sears. As far as I know, it is of no relation to the current Telegames company, which happens to sell classic video games.)

This was not the first time Atari had dealt with Sears. In 1975 Sears approached them with an offer to sell their new Pong console in return for one year of exclusive rights to do so. Pong became a top seller that Christmas and fueled Atari's development of the VCS. Without Sears, the VCS might never have made it to consumers!

The console was not the only thing renamed. Several of the games received new names as well. It's uncertain exactly why Sears did this. Perhaps it was to confuse shoppers and have them buy what they thought was new game, but was actually one they might already have. To make things more confusing, they named some cartridges after dedicated consoles they had previously released and just added a Roman numeral to the end to differentiate them. The most obvious example is Breakaway IV (a.k.a. Breakout).

Not all games were renamed. Home versions of arcade games Atari had to secure licenses for were not (e.g. Space Invaders, Pac-Man), nor were those based on other licensed properties (e.g. Superman). There were also three games that Atari created, but only sold through Sears. Here is a complete list of Atari cartridges that Sears renamed:

Sears NameAtari Name
Arcade GolfMiniature Golf
Arcade PinballVideo Pinball
BaseballHome Run
Breakaway IVBreakout
Cannon ManHuman Cannonball
CaptureFlag Capture
CheckersVideo Checkers
CircusCircus Atari
Code BreakerCodebreaker
Dare DiverSky Diver
Dodger CarsDodge 'Em
MathFun With Numbers
MazeSlot Racers
Maze ManiaMaze Craze
Memory MatchHunt & Score
Outer SpaceStar Ship
Poker PlusCasino
Pong SportsVideo Olympics
RaceIndy 500
SlotsSlot Machine
SoccerPele's Soccer
Space CombatSpace War
Speedway IIStreet Racer
Steeplechase[Sears exclusive]
Stellar Track[Sears exclusive]
Submarine Commander[Sears exclusive]
Tank PlusCombat
Target FunAir-Sea Battle

It is interesting to note that while Sears similarly renamed Mattel's Intellivision as the Super Video Arcade, they didn't rename any of Mattel's games. The boxes and instructions were different, but the cartridges and overlays are generally indistinguishable from Mattel's normal releases when found loose.

As a collector, you might ask whether the Sears version of games and consoles are rarer and more desirable. The answer is, "it depends." Some collectors who don't care about most cartridge label variations do collect Sears labels. Others don't care, except for the "Sears exclusive" games. In general, all Sears releases are slightly rarer than their Atari counterpart. (Check a rarity list, such as the one compiled by Craig Pell for details.) The same goes for consoles, although according to JerryG, the four-switch Sears console is possibly the rarest of the regularly released 2600's.

Copyright 1997 i5ive communications inc. Used with permission.

[2013-04-29: Craig Pell's list is still online, but hasn't been updated in a long time.  You might prefer searching the database at Atari Age.]

[2013-06-09: This article was modified and re-used in Classic Gamer Magazine a few years later.]

03 December 1997

Re: What was your last thrift purchase??

[Originally posted to rec.games.video.classic. Robert Batina asked, "tell everyone what your last thrift store purchase was and why."]

Five boxed Intellivision games with manuals and overlays for $2 each. (A bit pricey, but that's the going rate for classic cartridges at this thrift, boxed or not. I refuse to buy anything from them unless it's boxed and I don't have it.)

"Recently" bought an Intellivision + Intellivoice ($5) elsewhere and needed more games. Left a couple with boxes, but no overlays and/or instructions.

Boxed Odyssey 2000 with switchbox, power adaptor, and packing foam. (Only lacked instructions, as if I needed them.) Also a Merlin with half the instructions. Five bucks for both.

Desperate to buy *something* so I felt like I hadn't wasted my time. 8) Also, it was a high school band fund raiser and I was in band back in high school, so I sympathized with them and didn't try to talk them down. Besides, I didn't have an Odyssey 2000 or a working Merlin.

[I honestly don't remember either of these very well any more, so I can't give any more details. I'd guess the Intellivision games came from the Breaking Free Rescue Mission Thrift Store, based on the comments, but I'm not 100% certain. — 2 July 2010]

14 November 1997

Book Review: Phoenix (2nd Edition) (originally for Suite 101)

[Suite 101 articles introduction]

In 1994 Leonard Herman wrote a first-of-its-kind book called Phoenix: The Fall and Rise of Home Videogames. It simply covered, one chapter per year, the entire history of home video games through to 1993. He has recently released a second edition titled Phoenix: The Fall and Rise of Videogames (ISBN 0-9643848-2-5), which covers some coin-op history in addition to the original history of home consoles. I had the pleasure of being among the earliest ones to receive it.

First, let's get the most important part of the book out of the way: the acknowledgments. Near the end, Mr. Herman includes me in the list of people thanked, even though I'm not entirely sure what I did for him. Nevertheless, let me state that I have no financial arrangements with Mr. Herman or Rolenta Press and receive absolutely nothing for any sales made. Therefore, I will do my best to keep this review unbiased.

This edition is largely unchanged from the first. The additions primarily consist of more information on arcade games, three new chapters (covering 1994, 1995, and 1996) and black and white photographs throughout. The photos definitely add much to the book and I am glad Mr. Herman added them for this edition.

As for the book itself, I wouldn't recommend it to everyone. Only those that have a bit of interest in video games will find it fascinating, but that is the audience it was written for! The book is somewhat dry as it simply relates the facts of video game history. It's hard to build much suspense for the reader when he already has an idea of what's going to happen. In a few places, Mr. Herman attempted to have some suspense by describing a system or game before actually naming it. I found this annoying, but perhaps that's because of my familiarity with video game history.

While the book is a bit dry to read through, it is an excellent reference for video game history. The index is incredibly complete, plus there is a separate photo index. Mr. Herman also makes excellent use of comparisons between new systems and those that came before. This ensures the reader, or even the casual browser, doesn't forget facts such as that the Game Boy was not the first programmable, portable system. (Regardless of what Nintendo would like you to think.)

There are other books written on the history of video games, notably David Sheff's Game Over and J.C. Herz' Joystick Nation. I haven't read the latter (only read negative comments about it from other collectors), but the former is focused on Nintendo, its business dealings, and the people behind them. Phoenix, on the other hand, focuses on the actual systems, peripherals, and games that people enjoy playing. If you want to know about a specific slice of video game history, you might try another book, but Phoenix is the best at covering the whole pie.

In the final analysis, I give Phoenix three stars out of four. It is the best overall history of video games you'll find. You'll be amazed by some of the things you learn reading it. Quite frankly, if you're a classic video game collector, you can't do without it.

Related links:
Copyright 1997 i5ive communications inc. Used with permission.
[2013-04-29: You can currently order the third edition of Phoenix directly from Rolenta Press. Mr. Herman is currently busy working on the fourth edition.]

07 October 1997

System Spotlight: Magnavox Odyssey (originally for Suite 101)

[Suite 101 articles introduction]

This is the first in an irregular series I'll be doing. Every so often (when I can't think of anything else to write about), I'll give some history and Web sites for a specific system. For the first spotlight, I've decided to honor the one that started it all: the original Magnavox Odyssey. You might also see it referred to as the Odyssey 1 (to differentiate it from the other Odyssey systems) or, incorrectly, the Odyssey 100. The Odyssey 100 was actually one of several dedicated, pong-type systems Magnavox released in the mid-1970s.

Ralph Baer of Sanders Associates developed the system that would become the Odyssey from 1966 to 1967. Although he began trying to sell it to a larger company in 1968, it was not until 1970 that Magnavox bought the rights. In January 1972, they began production and presented the system in May of that year. Magnavox sold 100,000 units in 1972, but discontinued the system by the end of 1973.1

The Odyssey used traditional, full-sized components because Intel had just released the first microprocessor in 1971 and they were still incredibly expensive. It was not a sophisticated system, even by Atari 2600 standards. The system was programmable, but the game cards were merely jumpers that completed various connections. There were no electrical components on them and the system was packaged with six different ones.

The Odyssey was only capable of displaying a vertical line and three squares (two players and a ball) in black and white. In order to add the illusion of color, an overlay was included for each game. These translucent overlays were simply taped to the screen to provide a playfield that the screen objects shone through. For example, the tennis overlay was green with tennis court lines and two stick figures for players. Each game actually included two overlays, one small and one large, for different size TV screens.

The Odyssey came with two large controllers. Each had three knobs and a button. The button served the ball. Two of the knobs controlled horizontal and vertical movement, while the third allowed the last player that touched the ball limited control over its movement. As you can imagine, these three controls made Magnavox's tennis was a bit more challenging than what would become standard "pong." The system also came with several games, some of which relied more on board game components than video ones. These components included dice, poker chips, a United States map, a cardboard football field, and lots of cards. Magnavox also released a separate light rifle and two game cards for shooting games. Besides these, Magnavox also released some additional games. Some of these contained new game cards, but many simply used one or more of the original six game cards and added new overlays and playing pieces.

Most collectors treasure this system when they find it because it was the first. For a while, the system seemed rather rare, but in recent years it seems more and more collectors are finding them. I have found three in various states of completeness, myself. Although you won't spend a lot of time playing it, it's certainly a nice piece of history to add to your collection.


I'm afraid there is a lack of sites covering the Magnavox Odyssey in detail. The one I recommend is Inherent Mirth. Check it out!

1. This information was taken from Phoenix: The Fall and Rise of Videogames, second edition by Leonard Herman (Rolenta Press, ISBN 0-9643848-2-5). Look for a review next month!

Copyright 1997 i5ive communications inc. Used with permission.

[2013-04-29: If I had to recommend a Mangavox Odyssey site today, it would be Pong Story. That footnote was linked in the original article, but Blogger doesn't seem to provide an adequate way of doing that.]

05 September 1997

Preview: Atari Gaming HQ (originally for Suite 101)

The creators of one of my five top picks, Atari Gaming Headquarters (AGH), have agreed to give Suite 101 users and exclusive preview of their newly redesigned web site! (The above link is for the frames version. There is also a non-frame version.) Before you start looking around, though, let me hit some of the highlights for you.

First, a small disclaimer. (Every one has them these days, so why should I be any different?) As of last report, the new site was 95% done. These means it's still possible to find a link or page that's not quite done yet. Please be understanding if you do find such an occurrence.

The Atari 2600 and 7800 section of AGH has been expanded. The previous version was a little lacking, but no longer. One of my favorite features is the Histories of Third Parties. I don't believe anyone has attempted to chronicle the 2600 third-party game companies before...but they should have!

The Atari 5200 section is still as strong as ever. The makers of AGH still have the Atari 5200 FAQ and other useful (and useless) information galore.

An interesting feature in the Other Sections is one of the first bits of the site AGH let me in on, the Puffer Project. This has to do with Atari's plans to create games for their consoles that would hook up to exercise equipment in the home, such as an exercise bicycle. There were also plans to put such devices in arcades and health clubs. In the end, the whole project was axed. Interestingly, I saw such a device some months ago that hooked up to a NordicTrack skier and either a Sega Genesis or Super Nintendo Entertainment System. And of course, there's also been a game called Prop Cycle in the arcade that has the player riding a device much like an exercise bike in order to control his on-screen counterpart.

Okay, now I'll leave it to you to explore the rest. There's plenty of information and pictures to keep you busy for days to come. I'd like to give special thanks to Keita Iida for being my point of contact with AGH and providing the information that made this article possible.

Here are the URLs to keep in mind:
Copyright 1997 i5ive communications inc. Used with permission.

[2013-04-28: Wow, the first Suite 101 article where all the links (except the frames one) still work!

Keita's name originally linked to his e-mail address. That's probably no longer valid, but I removed it, just in case.]

01 September 1997

Thought (leather leisure suit)

Current thought: Say "leather leisure suit" fast five times.

My wife was telling about one of her co-workers wearing a leather leisure suit for some reason. She had such difficulty saying it, it took her several tries before she did so successfully. She discovered a new tongue-twister!

[From my "Past Tips of the Moment and Past Thoughts" page. This was the fifth "thought" and 11th post overall. I didn't keep track of the dates beyond the year, so the date is an estimate. — 28 May 2009]

15 August 1997

Thrifting: A Definition (originally for Suite 101)

[Suite 101 articles introduction]

thrifting (thrift' ing) vi. 1. To visit many thrift stores during a day in search of certain items, particularly classic video games. 2. To regularly visit thrift stores in search of certain items.

In the United States and Canada, there are stores called "thrift stores," "thrift shops," or "those smelly places with a bunch of junk." They sell used items (primarily clothing) and are often run as money-makers for charities. Perhaps two of the best known organizations that run thrift stores are Goodwill and the Salvation Army. The items they sell are usually donated by individuals. They also tend to be a good source of classic home video games.

Hard-core collectors will visit as many local thrift stores as possible daily in search of new games. This is not entirely unreasonable, since a) thrift stores get new donations daily, b) competition for classic video games seems to be increasing as the supply decreases, and c) it will please Bira Bira, the guardian of the Reef Store and patron little-wooden-icon of classic video game collectors. Collectors who either have lives or are no longer in college are more likely to go semi-weekly, weekly, or just whenever they can. Making a round of local thrift stores is called "thrifting."

The two most common uses of the word are illustrated by the following typical conversation between collectors:

Collector #1: "I went thrifting yesterday and found [long list of unbelievably rare items]."
Collector #2: "I haven't had a chance to go thrifting lately."

In this case, Collector #2 has actually been thrifting regularly, but hasn't been finding anything. The one day he decided not to bother going, Collector #1 went. If it weren't for the fact that Collector #2 actually met him, Collector #1 might be "Sum Guy." Sum Guy has been reported all across the country, buying every classic video game in sight. Other collectors never see him, but always hear about him. Visit a thrift store or yard sale and ask if they have any old video games. There's a good chance you'll get the reply, "We did, but Sum Guy was here 15 minutes ago and bought 'em all."

If you don't let this discourage you and you begin thrifting, you'll discover that thrift stores come in a wide range of types, from "clean and organized" to "smell funny and things strewn everywhere in no recognizable pattern." The best stores for finding things, of course, are the latter, assuming a) you have time to dig for them and b) you don't let the smell get to you. It is recommended that you slowly work up your tolerance before spending a long time in such a store.

Here are a few helpful rules to remember when thrifting:
  1. Cartridges are priced by size. Therefore, a 5200 cartridge might cost three times the price of an Intellivision cartridge.
  2. Never let the employees send an item back to be priced. You will never see it again.
  3. The less money you have when you go, the more items you'll find.
  4. The nicer the cartridge label, the more grease pencil marks the store will have used to price it.
  5. If you only find part of a group of items, you will not find the rest of them that day. Either come back next week (or even next month) or look in a thrift store on the other side of town. That is where the other half is.
Good luck!

Copyright 1997, i5ive communications inc. Used with permission.

[April 27, 2013: Ah, Bira Bira.  That's kind of a long story.  The short of it is, it was a small tiki carving that became a meme among collectors on rec.games.video.classic and was believed to bring good luck when thrifting.  Robert Batina, who ran the page the Bira Bira link used to go to, is still around, but unfortunately the Bira Bira pages seem to be no more.  "Sum Guy" was another meme that developed there; you can find more details on it at the bottom of my August 5, 2003 post.

Sadly, with the rise of ebay and just the general march of time, thrift store have become less and less a source for classic video games.  Sure you can still find PlayStation 2 games and such, but Atari 2600 cartridges, not so much.]

29 July 1997

Finally, a brag! [2600 Sesame Street games, Commando Raid, Raft Rider, Pooyan, Intellivision & Intellivioice]

[Originally posted to rec.games.video.classic.]

Finally, I found something worth bragging about. It's been months since I've seen anything at the local thrifts, but yesterday I picked up these 2600 cartridges for $0.50 each:

Cookie Monster Munch(R, light Actiplaque)
Big Bird's Egg Catch(R, very light Actiplaque)
Commando Raid(R, my third)
Raft Rider(ER)
Pooyan(ER, !!!)

Plus a Kid's Controller with Cookie Monster Munch overlay for $0.25. Pooyan is the first Konami cart I've ever seen (which is no surprise since all three are ER, according to VGR). Can anyone tell me how to play Raft Rider? The manual isn't on Greg Chance's page. It claimed four game variations on the label, but I can't get the game select switch to do anything and I didn't notice the game difficulty switches making a difference.

Today I went back there and picked up the Intellivision with Intellivoice for $5 I had to leave. (I didn't have enough money for it and the carts before.) I've only tested it briefly with a Bomb Squad cart I happened to have, but it seems to work fine with a little coaxing. ("Mattel preezentz...Boom Squad." 8) The Intellivoice didn't seem to be making contact with the cart slot at first, but hopefully it just needs cleaning. I've resisted buying Intellivision stuff up to now, but since it's so hard to find anything any more, I think I may start.

[This, indeed, was the start of my buying Intellivision games. — 17 Jun 2010]

18 July 1997

Is It Live or Is It Emulated? - Part 2: Commercial and Upcoming Emulators (originally for Suite 101)

[Suite 101 articles introduction]

Last time I talked about shareware and freeware console emulators you could download from the Internet. This time I'm going to discuss commercial emulators available in stores and those that are still under development. The advantages of commercial emulators are primarily support and games. Commercial products have an entire company's support line open to answer any questions or problems you might have. Commercial emulators also come with a selection of games, so you don't have the legal or moral conflicts of using illegal ROM images.

The first commercial emulator was Activision's Atari 2600 Action Packs. It was actually the first ever, full Atari 2600 emulator. There have been three Action Packs released, each with 15 games included. The first two Action Packs were for Microsoft Windows 3.x. Later, versions were released for the Macintosh and Windows 95. The third Action Pack was released briefly for Windows 95. Unlike the first two, which only contained titles written by Activision, the third Pack had a few games Activision licensed from Atari (notably Yars' Revenge and Combat). (Actually, the second Pack contained Atlantis, a game by Imagic. Activision had bought all the 2600 titles produced by Imagic and Absolute some time after the 1984 video game crash.) Apparently the Action Packs have not sold as well as Activision thought they would, so it doesn't look like there will be any more. The third Pack was actually recalled. If you're industrious, you might still find the first two with all three versions (Windows 3.x, Windows 95, and Macintosh) in a single package.

Currently, the only other commercial emulator is the Personal Arcade, a Colecovision emulator by Telegames. It is for Windows 95 only. So far only one volume containing ten games, few of which are among the best known titles, has been released. Unlike Activision, Telegames has a free sample version of their emulator available for download.

Don't despair because of the lack of commercial emulators. There are more on the way! Perhaps the best recent news on the emulator front is the upcoming Intellivision emulator. The Blue Sky Rangers have formed a new company, Intellivision Productions Inc., and bought the rights to the Intellivision system and games. Although they currently do not have a publisher, the Blue Sky Rangers are hoping to release a CD with the emulator and a complete catalog of Intellivision games, including some unreleased ones that were in development but never marketed, in the fall of 1997. You can get a demo copy now that allows you to play Astrosmash on your PC. The final emulator package should also be available for the Macintosh.

Another emulator under development is an Atari 2600 emulator created by the Cyberpunks, a group of 2600 enthusiasts who coordinate via the Internet. Their emulator will include full emulation of the Starpath Supercharger, a very nice peripheral for the 2600. (See the above link for a full description.) They are currently negotiating with Atari and Activision. If things go as they plan, they will use Activision as their publisher (thus probably officially bringing and end to the Action Packs) and the CD will contain the complete Atari, Activision, and Starpath catalogs, including some unreleased games.

There's no telling what other emulators might be in development, either commercially or just has hobby projects by individual programmers. I have heard rumors of a Magnavox Odyssey² emulator for the PC and a Vectrex emulator for Macs. In any case, there has been a large surge in emulating classic video game consoles now that today's personal computers are up to the task. Expect it to continue for a few years to come.

Copyright 1997, i5ive communications inc. Used with permission.

[2013-04-28: Needless to say, you can't buy any of these any more.  Although you can still get the Intellivision emulator sequel, Intellivision Rocks, from the Blue Sky Rangers.  And sadly, the Cyperpunks project never made it to market.]

04 July 1997

Is It Live or Is It Emulated? - Part 1: Shareware and Freeware Emulators (originally for Suite 101)

Being a classic home video game enthusiast doesn't just mean seeing how many Atari 2600 cartridges you can amass. It can also mean just playing and enjoying the games of yesteryear, back when game play came first, not fancy graphics and sounds. Not everyone has the space, money, time or luck to collect all the games they’d like to play. That’s where emulators come in.

An emulator is a program that replicates one processor, computer, or system on another. The system that runs the emulator usually must be more powerful than the original system. Believe it or not, only recently have personal computers become powerful enough to emulate the video game consoles of the 1970s and 1980s. Most of the emulators I'll discuss require a 486 processor at minimum. This time, I'll cover shareware and freeware emulators available on the Internet. Freeware refers to software that you can obtain at no cost. Shareware is software you can download and try before you pay for it. Next time, I'll cover commercial emulators available in stores.

Note that all emulators require you have copies of the game cartridges (called ROM images) on your computer in order to play the games. It is illegal to own a copy of a commercial game you do not have in actual cartridge (or other original) format. I am not even entirely sure of the legality of having ROM images of games you do own. Although there are many Internet sites to get ROM images, I will not discuss them here nor in e-mail, so please don't bother to ask. This does not apply to the new shareware and freeware games I have discussed in a previous article.

The most popular classic system, the Atari 2600, has also spawned the most emulators. Probably the most complete one is PC Atari, which runs under MS-DOS. One of the nicer features is a built-in front-end, which makes selecting the game you want to play easier. Most other emulators require you to specify the ROM image on the command line when you invoke it. This includes Stella, another fairly complete emulator which runs on UNIX, MS-DOS, Windows 95/NT (although the latest version isn't available for Windows yet), OS/2, and Power Macs. One feature Stella has that PC Atari lacks, however, is support for Supercharger games. Stella, like PC Atari, is still being updated with new features. Some other Atari 2600 emulators are Virtual 2600, which has versions that run on UNIX, MS-DOS, Amiga platforms, and A26 and VCS 2600, both for MS-DOS.

There are three Atari 5200 emulators. One of the oldest is Rainbow, which began as an Atari 400/800 computer emulator on the Macintosh. (The Atari 5200 is actually an Atari 800-type computer with some modifications.) There is now a version for Windows 95 and NT as well. The other two emulators are both for DOS and are called Pokey, which also emulates Atari computers, and Virtual Super System (VSS).

Marat Fayzullin is, as far as I know, the only person to write a Colecovision emulator. It is called simply ColEm. There are versions for MS-DOS, Macs, UNIX, Windows, and OS/2, although not all are up to date. The emulator is fairly complete, so Mr. Fayzullin has not made any updates since 1996. There is also only one Vectrex Emulator. It is called DVE, which stands for DOS Vectrex Emulator. It is also mostly complete and has not been updated recently. Note that what I said about copying ROM images does not apply to the Vectrex because the copyright holder has released them for copying for non-profit purposes.

If you get tired of having to remember funny file names for different cartridges, you might try a front-end program that lets you pick cartridges from a menu. One I have used with DVE is Console Menu, which can be used with several different emulators.

Copyright 1997 i5ive communications inc. Used with permission.

[April 28, 2013: PC Atari Emulator is still available and now has a Windows version. Stella, however, is probably the dominant Atari 2600 emulator now. Virtual 2600 is available, but no longer being maintained. Official sites for A26 and VCS 2600 no longer seem to exist.

Rainbow is still available.  Pokey doesn't seem to be.  VSS is, but looks to not be maintained.

ColEm is still around.  DVE can be found, but doesn't seem to have a site of its own.  ParaJVE, a Vectrex emulator written in Java became a DVE competitor.

However, pretty much all these systems are now emulated by one emulator called MESS (Multi Emulator Super System).]

06 June 1997

Electronicon is Coming!: Would I Con You? (originally for Suite 101)

If you're a comic book, role-playing game, Star Trek, Star Wars, or other fan, you're probably familiar with conventions or "cons." These events attract anywhere from dozens to thousands of people to one place to discuss their hobby and buy, sell, and trade items. Since collecting classic video games is a fairly new hobby, there have been few conventions, although local collectors do sometimes organize small gatherings. In fact, there has only been one actual convention so far, which was RGVC-Con held in Dayton, Ohio, USA last year. Scott Crawford, however, has taken it upon himself to organize a large convention later this month, called Electronicon. Rather than have me mess things up, I've gotten Scott to write this month's article to tell us all about it. Take it away, Scott!

Electronicon is a weekend-long classic video game fan convention, scheduled for June 27-29, 1997, at the Philadelphia Airport Hilton, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. The convention begins at 5 p.m. Friday, the 27th, and ends at 5 p.m. Sunday, the 29th. There will be things happening at all times between those hours, provided that someone at the convention is awake. =) Coincidentally, the event's opening date of June 27th also marks the 25th anniversary of Atari's date of incorporation.

Electronicon aims to provide the video gamers of the world with a great place to meet, play, trade, and celebrate all aspects of video gaming, with a focus on the golden years of home video games, often referred to as the "classic" era of the 1970s and early- to mid-1980s. Every other hobby of this magnitude has dozens, if not hundreds of conventions a year, all over the world, but until very recently, it seems that convention activity in classic video game fandom was either small (confined to smatterings of regional "collector's meetings") or didn't exist at all. Electronicon will give classic video game fans everywhere a convention-level atmosphere in which to meet; in other words, giving a huge, wonderful hobby the treatment it has for years so richly deserved.

Events at Electronicon include a guest speaking appearance by Howard Warshaw, programmer of the Atari 2600 games "Yars' Revenge," "E.T.," and "Raiders of the Lost Ark," as well as classic video game tournaments sanctioned by Twin Galaxies Intergalactic Arcade Scoreboard (keepers of video game world records since the 1980s), live video game auctions, and various demonstrations and presentations, including talks on foreign video games and showings of ultra-rare games!

Electronicon will also coincide with the Videotopia exhibit's stay at the Franklin Institute Science Museum. For the uninitiated, Videotopia is a traveling museum detailing the history of video games, and is a must see, with over 50 playable arcade games included in the exhibit!

For more information on Electronicon, which promises to be an event to remember, check out our home on the World Wide Web or contact me via e-mail at electronicon@hotmail.com.

-- Scott Crawford

Lee here again. I deeply regret that I am going to be unable to attend Electronicon. I hope, however, that I will be able to get someone who does attend to write a post-convention article for me. (Boy, I've gotten lazy! 8) ) Scott has already talked about one person who might be able to. If any Suite 101 members are planning to attend and would like to take a crack at summarizing the events, send me a note at [e-mail address redacted].

Copyright 1997 i5ive communications inc. Used with permission.

[April 27, 2013: As best I recall, Electronicon was a one-time convention, at least under that name.]

02 May 1997

Atari 2600 Technical Spotlight (originally for Suite 101)

This month, I thought I'd discuss, in simple terms, how the Atari 2600 works. I feel this will give classic gamers a greater respect for the game programmers. Please note that while I am a computer programmer, I am not a hardware oriented person, so this is only my understanding of how it works.

The 2600 contains a 6507 processor, essentially a slightly stripped down version of the one found in the Commodore 64 and Apple II series. The 2600 graphic chip, called Stella, requires 2600 games to be written to display only one line at a time (one scanline). This means that all processing has to take place in between the time it takes to draw each line or screen! Also, the Atari 2600 can only hold four kilobytes of code at a time! Chips weren't cheap back in the 1980s, so most games are only 8k. Few, if any, are larger than 16k.

To truly understand how the 2600 works, we must examine the screen elements. The 2600 only allows for six different ways of displaying objects. There are two player objects, two missiles (one for each player), one ball, and the playfield. Each had a few effects that could be used to modify them. In case it's not obvious yet, the 2600 was really only designed with games like Combat and Pong in mind.

Let's start with the two players. These have a fairly high resolution (for the 2600). They allow two main effects. The first lets the programmer place up to three copies of the player on the same horizontal plane. The second lets the player be stretched to two or three times its "normal" width. The biplane and jet games in Combat illustrate both of these effects.

It is possible to use multiple copies of the players on different horizontal planes. This requires drawing the first copy during one frame (a complete scan of the TV screen from top to bottom) and the next copy during the next frame. Because TV screens refresh so fast, this technique usually causes no problems. But if too many copies are made, it can lead to flicker. This is what happens with the "ghosts" in Atari 2600 Pac-Man. You might note that later programmers were able to reduce the flicker for Ms. Pac-Man and Pac-Man Jr.

The missiles, one for each player, basically have to be straight lines. The programmer can alter their width slightly. If you've played 2600 Burger Time by M-Network, you might have wondered why the hot dogs look so un-hot-dog-like. Because the programmer used the first player for the actual player and the second for the egg, all he had left to work with was the missiles.

I'm a little fuzzy on how the ball works, but I think it has to be a square. Using the same technique for displaying multiple players, it is sometimes used to "round out" blocky playfield graphics, which is the last element left to discuss.

Playfield graphics often make up the background or terrain of the screen. The resolution can be determined by the programmer within certain limits, but the higher it is, the less time there is to do other things. The programmer can define the shape of half the playfield and then either mirror or copy it on the second half. Adventure has examples of both mirroring and copying.

These are only the basics of Atari 2600 programming. As you can imagine, it takes a lot of work to create a good game with all of these constraints. If you'd like to learn more about Atari 2600 technical details or programming, I recommend Nick Bensema's Home Page, Bob Colbert's Supercharger Development Files, and the Stella Mailing List.

Copyright 1997 i5ive communications inc. Used with permission.

[April 27, 2013: The article originally said the 2600 contained a 6502 processor, which is the exact same processor as the Apple II and Commodore 64. This has been corrected. It might not matter to the layman, but I like to get details right.

Nick Bensema is still around, but isn't advertising that site, just a LiveJournal. Bob Colbert's site seems to have disappeared, but you can still find his Makewav utility around.  While the Stella link above works, you'll notice it only goes through 2006.  It seems the list ran to at least 2011, but is now defunct.]

15 April 1997

Tip of the Moment (tax withholding)

Tip of the moment: Don't forget to change your tax withholdings!

This tax season, my wife and I were hit with a major payment to the federal goverment. It seems I forgot to change my deductions when my wife got a full-time job. (Break out the W-4.)

[From my "Past Tips of the Moment and Past Thoughts" page. This was the sixth tip and tenth post overall. I didn't keep track of the dates beyond the year, so the date is an estimate. — 28 May 2009]

04 April 1997

New Games for Classic Systems (originally for Suite 101)

[Suite 101 articles introduction; all links provided for historical purposes only]

Believe it or not, there are actually people writing new games for various classic video games systems right now! Sure, the last time you saw a game on the shelf of your local toy or video game store may have been 10 years ago, but when they say you can find anything on the Internet, you should believe it. Here are the games you can find that you've never seen before.

Atari 2600

Ed Federmeyer has created two games for the 2600: SoundX and Edtris. SoundX is actually more a demo or developer's tool than a game. It allows you to cycle through every sound the 2600 can make using two joysticks. It also contains a graphics demo that I have not seen. Edtris is a Tetris-like game that is supposed to be very good. Every system needs a Tetris clone, as you'll see. Randy Crihfield produces and sells cartridges for Federmeyer with each of these programs for $16 a piece.

Bob Colbert has created a label called RetroWare. He released his first game, a puzzle game called Okie Dokie, in a limited 100 cartridge run which sold out before he even made an announcement about it. You can still get the binary image for the game (minus an Easter egg showing the serial number) from his web site for use with a 2600 emulator, ROM burner, or the Starpath Supercharger. Colbert has also released an early version of Stell-A-Sketch, an "Etch-A-Sketch emulator" as an image. He says his next game should be ready around June.

Chris Cracknell is planning to release a not-quite-new game called Rescue Bira Bira. Cracknell took the Mystique adult game Jungle Fever and modified the graphics so he could play the game around his children. He chose Bira Bira, a supposed classic video game finding icon as the theme. He decided to release the game on cartridge after very favorable results from a quick poll. Because the game is not completely original, this has caused some controversy in rec.games.video.classic Nevertheless, it too should soon be available from Randy Crihfield for $16. In the meantime, you can get the binary image from Cracknell's web page.


Kevtris was created by Kevin Horton. As the name implies, it is a Tetris clone for the Colecovision. I have not had the pleasure of playing it, but it has gotten very good reviews. An image is available and the cartridge version costs $23.

The newest of the new games currently available is John Dondzilla's Star Fortress. It is a Star Castle clone. If Dondzilla's past efforts on the Vectrex are any indication (see below), it should be very good. It costs $20.


John Dondzilla's first foray into programming for classic video games was Vector Vaders, a Space Invaders clone. While it is good effort, it's not spectacular. It caused quite a stir when it was first released since it was the first new Vectrex game in 12 years. Dondzilla's next game was Patriots, a Missile Command clone. I've played it on the Vectrex emulator and it is a lot of fun! Dondzilla completed his 1996 trilogy with All Good Things. This cartridge actually contains four games: Rockaroids (an Asteroids clone), More Invaders! (what he originally wanted Vector Vaders to be like), Vectris (a Tetris clone; I told you every system needed one), and Spike's Water Balloons (similar to Kaboom! for the 2600). Binary images of all of Dondzilla's games are available at this time except All Good Things. Each is also available on cartridge for $20.

And finally, Clay Cowgill is working on a Lunar Lander clones called Moon Lander. Alpha versions are available as images. The final version, featuring digitized sound(!), should hopefully be ready soon.

So, there you have it. Not only are these systems still alive and kicking, they're still inspiring programmers to create new games. And you probably thought you'd never be able to buy a new game again.

Copyright 1997 i5ive communications inc. Used with permission.

[April 27, 2013: Bob Colbert was later forced to remove Stell-A-Sketch from his site because Ohio Art, makers of Etch-A-Sketch, claimed trademark infringement. Despite the controversy it caused at the time, Rescue Bira Bira became the first in a long line of Atari 2600 games modified into something slightly different. The 2600 is a hard system to program for, so modifying an existing game is a useful learning experience for budding 2600 programmers.]

27 March 1997

Re: Finds that made you feel like a moron.

[Originally posted to rec.games.video.classic. James R. Leek had asked "who's got a 'find' that made them feel like a total idiot after they bought it?"]

Well, I swore I'd never admit this, but I suppose I will since this thread came up. I paid [more than $1]* for my first (bare) Combat back around 1991. This was before I started going to thrift stores and you could still buy new carts at the toy stores (cheap). I answered an ad in the paper. It turned out some kid's parents was letting him sell his 2600 and games to earn money for something. He was nice enough to reduce the per cart price since I was buying several games. At least the money went to a good cause.

(As opposed to another time at a yard sale, I asked about the 2600 and games they had out and the kid who was getting the money started telling his mother, right in front of me, "$10! $10! No, wait. $12!" Mom went with $8.)

* Sorry, I just couldn't admit it.

[Possibly I later fessed up just how much I paid for that Combat on Usenet, but I'm not going to do it here. — 2 July 2010]

28 February 1997

How to Start a Classic Video Game Collection Part 4: Where to Find Classics (originally for Suite 101)

[Suite 101 articles introduction]

This time, I'm going to discuss where to find classic systems and games and how much you should expect to pay for them. Since they're no longer sold in stores, you'll have to get them second-hand. The best places for this are thrift stores, pawn shops, yard sales, flea markets, dealers, and your fellow collectors.

A thrift store is one that sells used merchandise. They are usually run by charities, such as Goodwill and the Salvation Army. In these cases, the goods are usually donated and sold "as-is" (working or not). Many collectors frequent their local thrift stores (which is called "thrifting") as there is new merchandise daily. If a lot of collectors frequent a store, you will rarely be able to find anything other than common cartridges. Expect to pay US$0.25 to $2.00 for cartridges and US$1.00 to $20.00 for systems. Prices can vary greatly from store to store. In some cases, it helps if you come to know the people that work there. To find the stores in your area, look in the yellow pages under "thrift stores" or "second-hand stores."

Pawn shops are stores that buy merchandise from people and sell it for a profit. Today, only the older, junkier stores will have classic video games and they'll cost more than at thrift stores. It doesn't hurt to go if the other sources in your area are played out. Find them under "pawn shops" in the yellow pages.

Yard sales (a.k.a. garage or car boot sales) are where people gather a bunch of their possessions that they no longer use or need and try to sell them outside their home. If you don't see any video games, it never hurts to ask. (Until they tell you they just sold their old Vectrex system to "some guy" for $5 just 10 minutes ago.) The prices are generally a little lower than thrift stores. You also have the advantage of haggling. Most people price things slightly above what they will accept for them. You have more bargaining power if you buy a lot of items. Unfortunately, when it comes to video games, people often want to sell the system and all their games as a unit, which means you can end up with duplicate games. Check the Friday newspaper's classifieds to find that weekend's sales.

Flea markets tend to come in two kinds. The "professional," in which the same dealers are there every week, usually selling new merchandise; and the "non-professional," which is more like a giant yard sale. The former are generally not worth going to if all you're looking for is classic video games. Look under "flea markets" in the yellow pages. Other than that, the rules of yard sales apply.

Classic video games have become a big enough hobby that there are people who have made a business out of buying and selling them. Some of these people are on the net, such as Jerry Greiner and Steve Reed. Although they usually have a large selection containing some of the rarer games, you'll pay a premium for any game you buy. Also, because they know the rarity of the games, they'll charge accordingly for them (from US$2.00 to $20 and up).

Lastly, you can buy, sell, and trade with fellow collectors. You can meet them through the rec.games.video.classic newsgroup or maybe run in to them at a thrift store. Trading is easier if you can meet in person, but the members of the newsgroup are generally trustworthy. If they're not, people will publicly complain eventually.

This concludes this series of articles on how to start a collection. I hope it has been helpful to anyone new to the hobby.

Copyright 1997, i5ive communications inc. Used with permission.

[April 27, 2013: "Thrifting" was not originally linked because that article wasn't written until almost six months after this one. Atari2600.com is still around, but is no longer run by Jerry Greiner. Steve Reed is still around, but the link above is now invalid and only provided for historical purposes. He's now at steverd.com, but is only selling games on ebay, not his site. As for rec.games.video.classic, that's a topic for many posts. Actually, it already is, in a way. Look for other posts marked "pre-blog."]

01 February 1997

How to Start a Classic Video Game Collection Part 3: The System Choices - Non-Atari (originally for Suite 101)

[Suite 101 articles introduction]

In this article, I'll continue my look at the most popular consoles. Last time I covered the three Atari systems, so this time out I'll cover the three major systems not put out by Atari: the Magnavox Odyssey², the Mattel Intellivision, and the Coleco Colecovision. As in the last article, I'll be using the Atari 2600 as the yardstick against which to measure the capabilities of each system.

The Magnavox Odyssey² was an early competitor with the 2600. This system is rather underrated with collectors, which makes it easier to find. The graphics and sound are generally on par with early 2600 games, but unlike the 2600, the games did not improve much over time. The games are, however, often unique to this console. You would be hard pressed to find any controllers other than the joysticks the Odyssey² comes with, and many of these systems do not allow you to unplug the joysticks. The Odyssey² is probably a good choice if you know it has games you enjoy or you find a large initial supply of cartridges.

The Mattel Intellivision was the primary competitor of the 2600. It was released slightly later and has better graphics and sound than the 2600. The games are easy to find, but have a sports bias while the 2600 has an action/arcade bias. This might influence your decision. Although an Atari 2600 adapter was released, it is very hard to find. Intellivision controllers can sometimes be difficult to work with, depending on the game. Also, the Intellivision was not designed to change the controllers, so if one breaks, you're in trouble. Note that an Intellivision II and III were also released. No real improvements to the system were made with either release. In fact, Intellivision II controllers, although they can be changed out, are often considered inferior to original Intellivision controllers.

The Colecovision was released late in the classic era, so it has better graphics and sound than most other classic systems. It competed against the Atari 5200, so its capabilities are approximately equal to it. The games are a little harder to find than other systems’, but are usually plentiful enough if you live in the right places. The Colecovision has what is probably the easiest Atari 2600 adapter to find, greatly increasing the available library of games if you happen to find one. The original controllers are generally sturdy and can be easily swapped out. They are known to sometimes cause hand cramps, but not as badly as the Atari 7800 controllers. Coleco also created some other special controllers, like the Super Action Controllers, which are hard to find, but are considered some of the best controllers made for any system.

That concludes my look at the major classic consoles. In my opinion, a beginning collector’s best bet is the Atari 2600. The 7800 is also a good choice, mainly because it has built-in support for 2600 games. The Colecovision will prove harder to find games for, but is also an excellent choice if you can find the 2600 adapter. If sports games are your passion, you'll probably prefer the Intellivision. The 5200 can be a good choice, but be sure you get some good controllers with the unit or you will become quickly frustrated with it. The Odyssey² will probably provide less competition if you’re up against other local collectors. In the end, the final decision is up to you and your tastes.

Copyright 1997, i5ive communications inc. Used with permission.