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COMPUTER PROGRAMMING MADE EASY
April 3, 2009 2:25 PM   Subscribe

"My boss told me not to work on it, because it was impossible to do on the Atari 2600 console, which had only 1/8 K of RAM and 4K of ROM." But creating the world's first video game easter egg might not even be Warren Robinett's most remarkable achievement.

That honor should probably go to BASIC Programming, a cartridge that managed to turn the Atari 2600 into a programmable machine. Sure, it was limited - 128 bytes - but it was enough to do minor blips and bloops and loops. (It also worked with those totally awesome keypad controllers.) It's legacy lives on in batari Basic, a compiler that lets you create games playable on a 2600 emulator (and the Atari Age forums are full of user-created games).
posted by jbickers (37 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
I still remember when the kid next door told me about the magic room in Adventure, and how thrilled I was when I finally figured out how to pass through that wall. And then you got in there and what you saw was "CREATED BY WARREN ROBINETT"!! And I shit you not, it was still exciting.

Those were simpler times.
posted by mudpuppie at 2:31 PM on April 3, 2009 [8 favorites]


"... a compiler that lets you create games playable on a 2600"

I've never heard of this but now that I have I am very happy. Thank you!
posted by majick at 2:33 PM on April 3, 2009


It's hard to tell what's the normal game, what's the easter egg, and what's a depiction of a system totally malfunctioning. Ah, the good old days.
posted by xmutex at 2:38 PM on April 3, 2009 [13 favorites]


I love seasonal posts.
posted by Joe Beese at 2:54 PM on April 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


Ahhhh, I clearly remember the first time I found that wonderful Easter Egg.

I don't even remember how I read about it, as this would have been in the early 80s - I suspect I read about it in some early 80s videogame publication (wow, how I loved those magazines - would stare into blocky screenshots of games and try to imagine how fun they must have been to play!)

But anyway, finding the little invisible dot in Atari's Adventure game, and then bringing it to where it need to be brought, and seeing "Created by Warren Robinett" as spacey sounding bleeps and bloops played, was perhaps the most exciting thing I could have imagined, as a 10 or 11 year old...

He's like a rock star to geeks of my generation!
posted by newfers at 2:57 PM on April 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


These are pretty cool links, speaking as a person who's spent this week trying in GTA IV trying to fly a helicopter into Rotterdam Tower to access some off limits areas of the game.
posted by Science! at 2:59 PM on April 3, 2009


Along with Pitfall!, Atari's Adventure was one of the absolute top games on the console. Who needs fancy graphics - a block as a hero and crude ducks dragons made for a great time circa 1982. The easter egg was legendary even back then, and gaming magazines published the details. Grabbing that single pixel using the magnet and taking it to that room and seeing the glowing "Created By Warren Robinett" was awesome. Atari shafted their developers, refusing to give them credits on game releases.

Oddly enough, I bought this game with a $25 gift certificate I won in a promotion held by Gottschalks (West Coast dept store chain) for the release of Atari Pac-Man which was complete garbage.
posted by porn in the woods at 3:19 PM on April 3, 2009


Playing Adventure (first link) on game 3 is still fun as hell. That fucking bat!
posted by fleacircus at 3:39 PM on April 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


Warren Robinett was also behind Robot Odyssey, which I still think is one of the greatest educational games ever. This man is brilliant.
posted by formless at 3:44 PM on April 3, 2009 [3 favorites]


Those were simpler times.

Simpler nothing, I still think it's awesome.

Anyway, this is one of my favorite posts in a while. I used to own a copy of that book "Basic Computer Games."
posted by JHarris at 4:13 PM on April 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


Atari shafted their developers, refusing to give them credits on game releases.

It's my understanding that Atari's management considered all programmers to be totally interchangeable and undeserving of credit, being no different from skilled factory workers. This is not an attitude that is extinct.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:17 PM on April 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


One thing interesting about the Adventure easter egg: it's nearly impossible to find it yourself. You have to find an invisible dot in the invisible maze, then move it around. Once you get it into the right room you see it makes the wall funky and maybe you can figure it out then. But still, it's remarkably complex.

So.. how many people discovered it on their own?

Bob Polaro stuck in a neat Defender easter egg, too. I remember reading about both Adventure and Defender in Atari Age magazine and then trying it out myself.
posted by Nelson at 4:19 PM on April 3, 2009


it just ocurred to me that the average mefi thread probably contains more data than those 2600 cartridges ever did...all zipped down a phone line and through the air in a microsecond. wow.
posted by sexyrobot at 4:22 PM on April 3, 2009


Everyone thought for years that the Adventure easter egg was the first ever, but it was discovered a few years ago that an easter egg exists in at least one game for the Fairchild Channel F, which was the first ROM cartridge-based video game console and predated the Atari 2600 by a few years (the Magnavox Odyssey was the first game console ever, but it used simple transistor logic instead of a CPU, and the "cartridges" were little PCB cards with transistors instead of a ROM).

Info on the Channel F easter egg. It was the exact same thing, too: a complicated action that was almost impossible to discover would display the programmer's name.
posted by DecemberBoy at 4:43 PM on April 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


There's also a Missile Command Easter egg, with a zero score on a particular game variation replacing a destroyed city (the rightmost?) with the programmer's initials. Atari caught wind of it and actually rev'ed the ROM image to remove it from subsequent copies. I had a copy with the Easter egg, on my VCS, not 2600, you noobs.
posted by NortonDC at 4:48 PM on April 3, 2009


the average mefi thread probably contains more data than those 2600 cartridges ever did

Oh, much more.

Heh. So, up in the upper left corner of this page is the Metafilter logo image. It is about 4k, which would fill the typical 2600 cartridge that was in use at the time of Adventure.
posted by toxic at 4:53 PM on April 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


I had a copy with the Easter egg, on my VCS, not 2600, you noobs.

Yeah, but if you say "VCS", far less people will understand what you mean until you say "you know, the 2600".

Heh. So, up in the upper left corner of this page is the Metafilter logo image. It is about 4k, which would fill the typical 2600 cartridge that was in use at the time of Adventure.

Even despite the space limitations (the largest 2600 game ever was Pitfall II, which used two 16KB ROMS for a whopping total of 32KB), programming the 2600 was hardcore. There were no luxuries like sprites. When you programmed the 2600, you were basically directly programming the electron beam of the TV and telling it where to put pixels. The fact that people were able to do anything more interesting than Pong with it is pretty miraculous, really.
posted by DecemberBoy at 5:05 PM on April 3, 2009 [3 favorites]


The batari Basic creator's name is apparently Fred Quimby, speaking of things that may trigger youthful nostalgia...
posted by weston at 5:11 PM on April 3, 2009


it just ocurred to me that the average mefi thread probably contains more data than those 2600 cartridges ever did...all zipped down a phone line and through the air in a microsecond. wow.

I love living in the future so fucking much.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:13 PM on April 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


I love living in the future so fucking much.

You have no idea how often I think that.
posted by brundlefly at 5:19 PM on April 3, 2009


On this topic, I just have to send a shoutout to the greatest batari basic game of all, Terrence and Phillip: Asses of Fire
posted by jaymzjulian at 5:47 PM on April 3, 2009


for the release of Atari Pac-Man which was complete garbage

BLASPHEMY! I spent weeks if not months of manmanboy-hours playing Pac-Man on the 2600. No, wait, that was Space Invaders. High score! Sorry Mom, I'll do my homework now.
posted by intermod at 7:07 PM on April 3, 2009


Pope Guilty: I love living in the future so fucking much.

The processing power inherent in my keyboard makes the 2600 look like an abacus.

Now, I'm off to play a game that involves sending more data than any computer of that era could handle off to Florida and back with a round-trip time that is probably faster than it could redraw the screen. Oh, and the graphics? Easily better than state-of-the-art CGI during some parts of my life.
posted by Mitrovarr at 7:37 PM on April 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


I received the Jakks Pacific Atari 2600 joystick-thingy for Xmas a few years ago. I plugged it into the TV and showed Adventure to my wife. She didn't get it, so I played it and walked her through the whole game. It took about 10 minutes. We were both a little shocked at how quickly I beat it - I remembered every turn in the maze like I just played it the day before. Every now and again I plug that joystick in and beat Adventure, just for old times sake. Such an excellent game.
posted by jwest at 8:42 PM on April 3, 2009 [2 favorites]


JHarris, I also owned the book "Basic Computer Games." Ahhh, memories....and the things I learned in that book that I never used again, ever. *sigh*
posted by newfers at 8:49 PM on April 3, 2009


Memories. I remember learning "computer" in math class around 1981.

10 PRINT "CHOCOCAT"
20 GOTO 10
RUN


Cool story. That's a creepy picture of Robinett, though. Looks like Jello Biafra.
posted by chococat at 9:11 PM on April 3, 2009


The excellent new book Racing the Beam by Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost has a full chapter on Adventure, with a load of interesting anecdotes about Robinett and very clear descriptions of what goes on under the hood of the game, particularly how the limitations of the platform shaped the kinds of game design decisions that Robinett made.

To me, what's even more amazing than the computing non-power of the 2600 is the fact that each of those early games was the work on one person: the game design, the art, the sound, the programming, everything. I love games that are made this way. Thanks to the OP for the pointer to the forums, and the user-created goodies therein.
posted by sleevener at 9:28 PM on April 3, 2009


Thirding owning "Basic Computer Games".

And I think I still have my copy of Joystick around here somewhere...
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 10:05 PM on April 3, 2009


I have to say, I love everything about the picture on this cartridge. You see that scientist-looking-guy? With the spacesuit, and the planets, and that awesome-looking console with all the buttons and dials? See how he's got the whole modern world and time and space itself at his fingertips? Well, that dude is *me!* Fuck yeah, I'm a programmer!
posted by Afroblanco at 10:18 PM on April 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


How awesome would it be if you went to work and programmed wearing that space suit thing? Pretty awesome, I'd have to say.
posted by breath at 11:46 PM on April 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


This is the kind of post that makes me love Metafilter.

The world is just that little bit more awesome to me now.

Thanks, team.
posted by Wataki at 12:14 AM on April 4, 2009


Nelson: One thing interesting about the Adventure easter egg: it's nearly impossible to find it yourself. You have to find an invisible dot in the invisible maze, then move it around.

I disagree. It's not easy to find yourself, but many later games have more difficult secrets to find that we've uncovered either on accident or by figuring it out.

The invisible dot makes an item-pick-up noise when collected. The dot is in a locked-off area of the Black Castle maze that can only be entered with the Bridge (unlike as stated above, it is immune to the Magnet), but the fact that area is locked-off would make some players curious. Once picked up, since the dot is invisible by being the same color as the ground, the player will see it if it's carried over a wall.

All these things can be detected by an observant player, leaving the only remaining luck-dependent step discovering that dropping the dot, along with enough other objects, in the right-hand room of the main horizontal path makes the blocking wall flicker and become passable. And since dropping a lot of items in that room makes it cycle among the present object colors and, with the presence of the dot, one of those colors is background, that could be taken as a clue.
posted by JHarris at 1:35 AM on April 4, 2009


sexyrobot: it just ocurred to me that the average mefi thread probably contains more data than those 2600 cartridges ever did...all zipped down a phone line and through the air in a microsecond. wow.

AtariAge offers a series of downloads of Atari 2600 ROM images. Which ones? All of them, grouped alphabetically into five archives. They're so small individually that it'd be inefficient to offer them for download one at a time.

Asteroids, a big game for the time, was 4K, which in hexadecimal is 8,192 characters. Given a hex editor and maybe an hour or two, you could write down the game's entire code, take it to another computer, punch it in another editor and play it in Stella. In the C64 days I've typed in magazine programs much bigger than that.

I've noted that two different versions of Microsoft Word, when you save an empty document, produce files 22K and 18K in size.
posted by JHarris at 12:06 PM on April 4, 2009


This is why I joined MeFi :)
posted by vertigo25 at 2:22 PM on April 4, 2009


don't look now, vertigo, but there is this interesting fragment in the source code of our beloved site:

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posted by the aloha at 2:45 PM on April 4, 2009 [1 favorite]


^ matt left out two dots out of respect to warren.
posted by the aloha at 2:54 PM on April 4, 2009


My kid sister and brother (then 9 and 7) totally punk'd me (god, is that the right word?) by programming the Atari 400 to display a screen that said "Congratulations! You've made the highest Missle Command score ever! Call 1-800-XXX-YYYY) to claim your prize." They even got my parents into the act, exclaiming and congratulating them.

Like a fool, I called the number,which even they didn't know was some steel mill in Pennsylvania. I feel sorry for that poor operator.
posted by lysdexic at 6:17 PM on April 4, 2009 [2 favorites]


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