The past two weeks I’ve been in the San Francisco Bay Area for work. Before flying back home, I had the opportunity to go to the Atari Party in Davis, California - an opportunity I couldn’t pass up! Having grown up playing the Nintendo 64, most of Atari’s products predate me by quite a few years. But, my time spent doing homebrew game development eventually lead me to the Atari 2600, and it gave me a true appreciation for the 8-bit and 16-bit eras when Atari was in its heyday. I made the trip to Davis with my twin brother James, coworker Garrett, and high hopes of seeing some classic gaming history.
We arrived after lunch to a full parking lot at the Mary L. Stephens Public Library where the event was being held. Inside, a large multi-purpose room was already filled with guests who were perusing the different tables setup with systems spanning from Atari 8-bit computers to the Atari Jaguar CD. As we entered, we were given free tickets for a raffle, and then we found our separate ways to the nearest open tables. I landed at a table with an Atari 800 where I spent a few minutes playing Galaxian and Gauntlet. Once I had my fill of those games, I surveyed the rest of the room taking notes of what I wanted to try next. At a group of tables alongside the perimeter of the room, I found an Atari 2600 with a modded cartridge that allowed you to mount a custom ROM chip. Intrigued, I asked the man behind the table, Bill, if he had a ROM we could test. He pulled out a little case with about 6 different chips including one covered with a piece of tape that read “Warlords”. I recognized Warlords — it was a one of the few games for the Atari 2600 that featured 4-player multiplayer, so I had to try it! Bill let me mount the chip to the cartridge and, after a few jiggles, James, Garrett, and I were enjoying fast-paced 4-player warfare with other guests. It was great!
The next stop was an adjoining table where Bill had setup an Atari 7800. Behind the system, was a large display case full of games that we could choose to play. The “game” we wanted to play was BASIC Programming, but it wasn’t in the case. We still asked Bill if he had a copy, and luckily he did! The next hour took us down memory lane as we programmed simple game loops in BASIC. I was surprised at how sophisticated the game was for its time. It allowed you to write a program of about 60 symbols that could interface with five unique memory locations — Hor1, Hor2, Ver1, Ver2, and Note. The first four of these memory locations represented the positions of two squares in a “graphics area” where you could actually manipulate and move the two squares in BASIC code. The Note location, when written to, would play a short chiptune based on its value.
Here’s a video of one of our makeshift programs running on the Atari 7800:
After an hour or so of playing with BASIC Programming, we stopped to see if we won anything in the raffle. Garrett was the only one lucky enough to come away with a prize. He was gifted a USB stick containing 18+ hours of interviews with former Atari engineers and game developers. Pretty cool stuff!