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Achievement Unlocked: Hey STELLAAAAA!!

FINALLY!  I’ve been waiting for this one all day.

February 26, 2010   No Comments


Last time, the paddle was a bunch of errors and trials, approached from the point of view of the Bluetooth interface of the Mindstorms NXT.  It didn’t work out so well.  Many of the problems I had were the result of telling the NXT to do conflicting things, often queueing up many actions faster than it could process them.  It ended up having about as much control as a fully loaded freight train.  I’d tell it to rotate left and it would rotate left.  While it was rotating, every frame processed would tell it to rotate left again.  And again.

And again.

Then, the paddle would reach the point where I wanted it to stop, so I’d send a stop request.  Of course, I’d already sent a ton of “RotateLeft”s that it hadn’t processed yet, so it would run through them until it had used them all up.  Then it would stop.

By then, though, since the paddle had gone too far, I’d tell it to rotate right to get back where I wanted it.  In the next frame, it was still too far, so I’d tell it to rotate right again.  And again.

And again.

Eventually it would catch up and start rotating right, back toward the target point.  Now the queue was full of “RotateRight”s, so it would spin wildly back across the target.  Then again in the other direction.  Then back.

The ball, of course, wouldn’t wait around for the paddle to make up it’s mind and would sail steadily right past the confused rectangle.

Obviously, that’s bad.

I hacked around the problem by adding limited protection against command queuing.  I also lowered the power of the rotation motor so that the paddle would be less likely to swing past the target point, so it would be less likely to need to swing back.  Unfortunately, the lowered power also meant that it was no longer fast enough to reach from one side of the play field to the other.  If the paddle was at the bottom and the ball went for the top, it couldn’t make it.

In the end, this lack of control limited how well it could play.  It ended up playing just slightly better than the computer paddle.  Despite all of the technology and computing power involved, it was still no match for a reasonably skilled human player.

What I really needed was to be able to tell the paddle to go to a specific point as fast as it could. ROTATE 10 DEGREES LEFT.  And off it would go, just like that, resulting in a point that’s 10 degrees left of where it was.

Actually, I could tell it to do that.  Sort of.  I could tell it to rotate a certain number of degrees, but there were two problems with that.  First, the motor seemed to think that rotating somewhere in the same magnitude as 10 degrees was the same as rotating exactly 10 degrees.  I’d tell it to move 10 degrees and it would go full speed for 10 degrees, then coast for another 15, stopping at 25.  Then after that, if you told it to rotate another 10 degrees in the same direction, it wouldn’t go anywhere.  Since it went a total of 25 degrees with the first movement, it wasn’t going to go anywhere until the cummulative total of future movement requests was greater than 15 degrees.  Great, so now it was moving totally randomly and sometimes refusing to respond to movement requests.  That’s really useful right there.

The second problem is that it didn’t really matter if I could tell it how to rotate exactly 10 degrees, because I had no concept of what in the hell 10 degrees meant in the game world.  All of the calculations and projections were in pixels.  Degrees would be meaningless without some sort of conversion, and a conversion would require crazy calibration code.

I think I eventually may have solved the first problem, outside of the Crazy Weekend Project timeframe.  I think there was a mode for the Mindstorm motor that would force it to rotate the desired amount exactly, but that it was a hidden mode or was not accessible the way I was trying to use it or something like that.  I haven’t tried it out on a game, but I have a reasonable expectation of success there.

I think I’ve also solved the second problem, as well.  All of my initial thoughts on paddle calibration involved some crazy scheme where I’d rotate the paddle to the clockwise extreme of the screen, then take a reading, rotate it to the counter-clockwise extreme, take another reading, and use the numbers to come up with a conversion between pixels and degrees.  A little something like this:


It’s all fine on paper, but in practice, it all falls apart.  First, you have to find the extremes.  You can’t just rotate the paddle all the way to the left, then all the way to the right, because Atari paddles have a useful range somewhere in the middle.  They have a roughly 270 degree arc, but for most games, there’s only about 100 degrees of usefulness.  Also, even if that did work, how will you detect when you’ve hit the end point of the paddle?  The motor will just keep going and going until something breaks.  You might be able to turn left or right until the on screen paddle quits moving, but in some games, like Pong, the paddle will happily sail off the screen.  If the paddle behaved and stayed on the screen, you still have to correlate the rotation angle of the paddle to the movement on screen, and stop moving and make your calculation at the instant the extreme is reached.  There’s a good chance that you’d have to move so cautiously and deliberately that you will have lost the game before you’ve calibrated your paddle.

However, the idea is sound.  The math is a simple transformation that works. So what if you take away the walls and try again?  Why bother with two variables, when you can do it with only one?  Like this:

The extremes don’t matter at all.  What matters is that you have a distance and an angle.  So why not start with specifying the angle?  Rotate 10 degrees clockwise or 25 degrees counter-clockwise.  Then, when the motion is done, see how far the paddle on the screen has moved.  This will be much easier to do, not to mention, much faster.  One movement and you’re done.

This is what I’m going to try to do.  I already have the Pong recognition set up and running from last time, so I’m going to use that as a base to implement and tune the new movement engine.

The general Paddle class interface will be something like this, although it will likely be modified and tuned as I go.

public class PaddleController
    public void Connect() { }

    public void Rotate(int theta, sbyte power) { }
    public void StartRotation(bool direction, sbyte power) { }
    public void Stop() { }

    public void ButtonPress() { }
    public void ButtonDown() { }
    public void ButtonUp() { }

    public bool Busy { get; protected set; }
    public ManualResetEvent Completed { get; protected set; }

February 25, 2010   No Comments

Setting Up You The Bomb

Kaboom! is an Atari 2600 game made by Activision.  Its box and cartridge are one of the few known examples of an acceptable use of the color magenta.

The premise of the game is simple:  The Mad Bomber is on the loose and you have to catch his bombs in buckets of water before they hit the ground and explode.  The Mad Bomber darts across the top of the screen, dropping bombs, and you control up to three buckets with the paddle.  The game starts off slow and simple.  Ten bombs are dropped in the first round, and it’s easy to catch them all.  The second round drops 20 bombs at a faster rate.  Subsequent rounds drop more bombs at a faster rate, topping out at the eighth round where 150 bombs are dropped blazingly fast.  If you miss a bomb, all of the bombs on screen explode, you lose a bucket and drop down a round to an easier difficulty, and the Mad Bomber smiles at the chaos he’s caused.

The graphics are outstanding for an Atari 2600 game.  The bombs look like bombs, the Mad Bomber looks like a Mad Bomber and the buckets of water, well, they sort of look like buckets of water.  The Mad Bomber has different facial expressions, as well.  He’s sad when you catch the bombs, happy when you miss, and apparently gets “surprised” if you get a score over 10000, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen that.

I said the rounds get progressively faster, but I didn’t indicate just how fast they get.  The speed gets insane in the upper levels.   It’s probably the fastest game on the Atari 2600.  You’ll probably think it can’t get any faster than round 5, but it will.  In the higher levels, the game gets so fast that you literally cannot watch the action.  If you try to move your eyes to track the falling bombs, you’ll probably get dizzy and end up with a massive headache.  You basically have to play this game with your peripheral vision.  Stare at the center of the screen, loosen up your focus, and play out of the corner of your eye.

That’s why I want to try to tackle this game.  It runs fast.  Very fast.  To be successful, it will have to be able to move the paddles with both speed and precision, as opposed to Pong, where the robot did neither.  If I can get the robot to play Kaboom! well, then it shouldn’t have any problem with movement in any paddle-based game.

Here’s a sample of the game, in case you haven’t seen it before:

February 25, 2010   No Comments

Pong Non Sufficit

Pong is not enough.

The Atari Robot is bored.  Pong is undeniably a classic game, but it’s classic in the same way Shakespeare is.  Everyone looks at it and praises it, but they really want nothing to do with it because it’s so old and dull.  Back and forth, back and forth.  For hours.  Even to lose a game takes twenty minutes sometimes.  And it’s not really pushing anything to the limit.

The Atari Robot wanted more out of life.

At first, it talked at great length about a kitten object that it had fallen in love with and wanted to search the world for.  For a time, this plan was compelling, however, my apartment is strictly full of non-kitten objects, and acquiring a kitten-object for this endeavor would not have been wise.

Atari Robot was sad.

It looked around at other famous robots.  There’s the robots that build cars, but there’s no romance or excitement in that.  Then it found what it wanted to be.  One of the most well known uses of robots in the world today is in bomb disposal.  Excitement and adventure, becoming a bomb disposal robot would be sure to make all the female Atari Robots fall for him.  However, my apartment is strictly full of non-explosive objects, and acquiring an explosive object for this endeavor would not have been wise.

Atari Robot was sad.

Then I realized that there was a way for Atari Robot to live its dream and keep all my fingers and not get arrested.  I have a bomb disposal simulator that Atari Robot could use.  Atari Robot could join the Bucket Brigade to stop the Mad Bomber!

Atari Robot was happy.

February 25, 2010   No Comments

Previously on Crazy Project Weekend…

A Crazy Project Weekend is when I take an extended weekend and dedicate my time to a AAA project:  One that is Achievable, Awesome, and slightly Abnormal.  There are a couple of rules, made up on the spot this instant, guiding the Crazy Project:

  • Work must be done within the limited weekend time frame.  You cannot begin any concrete work prior to the time window, and if you do not complete by the end of the time, you have failed.  You may do some preparation ahead of time, such as feasibility research or acquiring necessary materials, however, nothing should be built and there should be no written plans.  The point is to see what can be done in five days, not what can be done in five days and a couple of hours an evening for three weeks prior to those five days. 
  • It must not be something you would otherwise normally do.  Setting up a website with a blog and a bunch of pictures of the dog doesn’t count.  Cleaning the garage doesn’t count.  It must not be something that anyone would normally do.
  • You have to learn something.  If you know exactly what you’re doing going in, then it’s no fun.  One of the central pieces of the project must involve something you’ve never worked with before.  There must be several moments where you have no idea what in the hell you’re doing and wonder what you’ve gotten yourself into.
  • You must post regular progress updates throughout the weekend, detailing what you’re doing and what you’ve done.  Viewers must be able to get a glimpse of your thought process and understand what you’re going through.  You should talk about initial goals and milestones, obstacles you see on the path to those milestones, and the general approach you plan to take.
  • Reaction from outsiders to your project must be a mix of “Why did you do that?” and “Oh man, that is AWESOME”.
  • It’s fine to have a mental plan going in, to make sure that you’ve appropriately scoped the project so you have a reasonable chance of success, no matter how unreasonable the project itself may be.
  • Continuing the effort from a previous Crazy Project Weekend is acceptable, even though it violates some of the previous rules.

The first Crazy Weekend Project was over Labor Day Weekend, in September 2009.  I decided that it would be a good use of my time to build a robot out of Lego Mindstorms that could play a game of Pong on an unmodified Atari 2600 and win.  Initially, I had planned to make it play a perfect game of Pong, but I didn’t get there.  Full details here:  https://mathpirate.net/log/category/crazy-weekend-project-1-pong-robot/

The second Crazy Weekend Project was over Thanksgiving 2009.  It was limited, in that I only dedicated about half the day to the project (The other half being dedicated to XBox 360…).  There were two goals for this project:  Put together a speech recognition system capable of recognizing and responding to a set series of commands, as well as write a system that could identify faces.  Speech recognition came together very quickly, so the bulk of the time was spent trying to make Wesley Crusher disappear from episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Full details here:  https://mathpirate.net/log/category/crazy-weekend-project-2/

This will be my third Crazy Weekend Project.

February 25, 2010   No Comments


I seem to have been neglecting this lately.  I’m a week overdue on a programming/testing post, and it’s almost getting to the point where I’m late on a video game history lesson.  So, to prove I’m not dead, here’s a few bits of here and there.

First, if you’re in Washington, you have less than a week left to Approve Refererendum 71.  I already have.  Have you?

Now, back to games and things.  Here’s a few of my latest acquisitions.


This one should require no introduction or explanation.  Tengen Tetris.  I spoke about this game several times in previous entries, alluding to the legal fight between Atari and Nintendo, but always in passing.  Now that I actually have a copy, I’ll have to devote an entire article about it.  That’ll be in the future, but for now, to illustrate its awesomeness:  Two-Player Cooperative Mode.


The second notable acquisition is a Japanese Famicom game called Metafight.  Well, it’s actually “Something-Something Metafight”, but I don’t know Japanese.  The cover has some generic anime characters, one of which looks angry.  None of that really matters.  I’m not really into Japanese things and I’m not really into anime or stuff like that.  And I don’t have a Famicom system.  So, then, you ask, why would I go out of my way to buy a Japanese anime game for the Famicom?


This screenshot might help you figure it out.  It at least might look a bit familiar to you.  Maybe.  Can’t quite place it?  This’ll do it:


Metafight is the Japanese version of Blaster Master.1  There is no opening story sequence in Metafight, which automatically means that the plot for Metafight makes far, far more sense than the “My pet frog jumped on a box of radioactive waste in my backyard and went down a hole and I followed it and found this bad-ass hyper-agile tank in the underworld and I proceeded to fight lots of nasty creatures in my bad-ass hyper-agile tank in order to rescue my radioactive mutant pet frog and save the world from the radioactive mutants that live under the Earth’s crust” plot that Blaster Master tried to have.  Of course, since Blaster Master changed the story from whatever angry anime guy was doing to something stupid about a mutated frog, they had to change the tank ignition sequence to be in a cave, instead of Metafight’s futuristic tank garage.

But enough about that for today.  It’s time for robots.

It’s been a while since I’ve visited the land of the video game playing robots, but I assure you, I have been thinking about them.  I think the next time I get back into them, assuming I ever do, the first thing I’ll do is organize the codebase.  It was built to get it to market, but not built for future expansion.  If I want to keep going with this, I’ll need to rewrite large sections of it and separate the movement interface and screen capture plumbing from the game specific recognition and logic code.  Although it won’t be quick, that should hopefully be reasonably straightforward to do.  From there, I’d like to work on improving the control of the paddle.  A few weeks ago, I think I may have improved the precision of the controls, but I still haven’t tested it out.

At any rate, I think Pong is the wrong game to try to develop precision controls.  The trajectory projection gets in the way of making sure the paddle is moving exactly where I want it to go as fast as I can get it there.  The paddle might very well be going where I want it, but by the time it gets there, that’s no longer where I want it.  So, I think I’m going to have to try another game to tune the paddle controls.  Right now, I’m leaning toward Kaboom! as the game of choice.  It should have easy to program recognition and logic (Bomb drops straight down, move to catch bomb, repeat), and it will absolutely require precision, accuracy, and speed.  Runner up is Indy 500, but I think the pathfinding and collision avoidance knock that one out at this point, not to mention the 360 degree driving paddle.  An interesting side-note is that pretty much whatever paddle game I choose, I’ll have to deal with something I didn’t care about in Pong:  The button.

Beyond the paddle, to really get things done on the Atari 2600, I’m going to need to be able to control a joystick.  I have several options, of course.  I can try some alternative controller, like the button operated Starplex or the gravity operated LeStick, but really, or maybe try to build my own controller, but really, to claim that I built a robot that can play an Atari 2600, I have to build something to handle a good old CX40 Atari Joystick.  That’s probably not going to be easy.  The controls won’t have to be as precise as the paddle, since there’s only nine options, however, it’s going to involve control on two axes that are somewhat dependent on one another.  I’ve had thoughts involving double arms that push or pull, a swing arm with a piston, a gantry crane like setup, and something that rotates and can push the stick, and none of those ideas seem any good at all.  I’m sure I’ll think of something.

  1. And if you don’t know what Blaster Master is, well, you just need to play more NES games. []

October 27, 2009   1 Comment

Electric Curiosities: Pac-Man vs. K.C. Munchkin

The game is familiar.  You play a round creature that lives in a maze.  You’re chased by monsters and have to eat dots to survive.  Some of the dots let you attack the monsters temporarily.  When you get all the dots, the maze resets at a higher speed.  It’s a lot like Pac-Man, but it isn’t.  The game is K.C. Munchkin, and you’ve probably never heard of it, let alone played it.

If you have heard of K.C. Munchkin, then it’s probably because of the lawsuit.

Back in the early 80s, a widespread and highly contagious disease known as “Pac-Man Fever” infected millions of people around the world.  The only known cure for this pandemic was to eat lots of dots, power pellets, and ghosts in your local restaurant, bar, convenience store, or darkened rooms where people repeatedly paid good money to stand in front of a TV for five minutes, known as “arcades”. 1  Eager to help fight the spread of this horrifying condition, Atari, who was the leading video game manufacturer at the time decided to help sufferers of Pac-Man Fever get their treatment in the convenience of their own home, and purchased the exclusive rights to develop and distribute a home version of the cure.

Obviously, this was a big deal for Atari, who was starting to get a bit of competition in the home console market.  Most of it was weak and incapable of causing any harm, but some of it, like the Intellivision, constituted a clear and present danger.  By grabbing the license to the biggest video game in the history of video games2, they grabbed a license to print money.  Not only would the Atari 2600 have a sure-fire hit, their under development Atari 5200 console would have a sure-fire hit, their computer line would have a sure-fire hit, and, on top of that, the Intellivision would have a sure-fire hit, because Atari put profits before console exclusivity.  To summarize, Pac-Man == $$$.

Naturally, mega hits will spawn imitators.  Magnavox, the makers of the Odyssey2 system, which was one of the legitimate competitors to Atari3 decided to produce a Pac-Man imitator.  However, since it was clear that a straight Pac-Man ripoff would get them sued, they made some changes to the game play.  Keep the maze, but make change.  Keep the big round chomping critter, but make it blue and give it antennae and a smile.  Keep the creatures that chase you, but only include three of them and make them look like aliens.  Keep the dots and power pellets, but have far fewer of them, and, most importantly, make them move.  Throw in multiple mazes, invisible mazes, and a maze editor.

And one more thing, release it first.

Here is a leaked photograph of Atari executives at the very moment that they heard about K.C. Munchkin:

Scared Blue Ghosts

Pac-Man == $$$.  Threat To $$$ == Lawyers.

Atari sued to halt distribution, claiming copyright infringement.  K.C. Munchkin was clearly inspired by Pac-Man, and the differences clearly show that Magnavox knew that they were stealing.  Atari lost.  Although there were similarities, the court reasoned, there was nothing directly stolen and any reasonable person looking at both works could easily tell that they were different.

But remember, Pac-Man == $$$.  Threat To $$$ == Lawyers.

Yep, Atari didn’t go down that easily.  They appealed and this time, they won.  K.C. Munchkin was pulled from the shelves, Atari was free to make millions from the distribution of home versions of Pac-Man, and Atari, Inc. v. North American Philips Consumer Elecs. Corp. entered into court precedents.

The thing I don’t understand about all this is how this lawsuit didn’t completely devestate the video game market permanently.  As I’ll talk about, K.C. Munchkin is clearly not Pac-Man, but it is clearly Pac-Man like.  But the same holds true for many games.  The industry is founded on imitation.  Sonic stole from Mario and Mario stole from Pitfall.  Gradius is Space Invaders moving forward.  There are hundreds of Doom clones and GTA clones.  And I can’t even tell the difference between Guitar Hero and Rock Band.  All of these knock-offs should have been destroyed by the precedent set by the lawsuit, but it never seems to get used.  In fact, I don’t think Magnavox was sued for their Breakout clones Blockout/Breakdown or their Space Invaders clone Alien Invaders – Plus!4 or their Outlaw clone Showdown in 2100 AD or their Street Racer clone Speedway or their Indy 500 clone Spin-Out or…  The list can go on.  Why, then, was K.C. Munchkin singled out for the attack?


Magnavox did it first, and, more importantly, Magnavox did it better. 5 The existence of K.C. Munchkin was an embarassment to Atari.  It was not a real threat to Atari.  Atari was guaranteed to make bucketloads of money with the Pac-Man license, and K.C. Munchkin on its own wouldn’t have put a dent in it.  However, because Atari was guaranteed to make bucketloads of money with Pac-Man, they wanted it fast, they didn’t care about getting it right.  I’m not going to say that Pac-Man for the Atari 2600 was an unmitigated disaster of a game, because it’s not.  As far as Atari games go, it’s not that bad.  Where it fails is in the comparison to the arcade version.  It’s blocky, the ghosts are all the same color and they flicker, the colors are all wrong, the sound is horrible, the maze is different, there’s a weird rectangle instead of fruit.  It’s like ordering a reproduction of the Mona Lisa and getting a crayon drawing from a six year old instead.  It’s just disappointing.  So to have K.C. Munchkin laughing from the sidelines, where a third-rate competitor one upped the official licensee, with its multi-colored non-flickering enemies, its decent sound and its sharper graphics, that was intolerable.  If the Atari 2600 of Pac-Man version had been a closer replica of the arcade game and had it come out first, Atari probably would have left K.C. alone and that game wouldn’t be remembered for anything today.

So, then, let’s take a look at the legendary K.C. Munchkin for the Magnavox Odyssey2 and how it compares to the infamous Pac-Man for the Atari 2600.




Straight away, it’s clear that KC Munchkin is not Pac-Man.  You would not have seen this game in a store and mistakenly believed that you were buying Pac-Man.  From the front, it’s hard to even tell that the game is Pac-Man like.  I do have to give KC Munchkin (And Odyssey2 games in general) bonus points for their box art, which always looks like it should be painted on velvet and viewed under a black light.  Bizarre smiling shaggy things and glowing cubes, and the wooshing Odyssey2 logo ruling over all.

Pac-Man, on the other hand, just looks like the game.  It’s really boring, by Atari standards.  Usually the box art is so fanciful and wild that it barely resembles anything remotely related to the game inside, but for Pac-Man, it looks like the game.  Even worse, it looks like the Atari 2600 version of the game, not like the arcade version.  Consumers should have known what they were in for when they saw it.  Somewhat mysteriously, the large Pac-Man figure on the outside of the box looks nothing like the cartoony Pac-Man that’s on the cartridge itself.  I don’t know of any other Atari game where the box art is different from the label art like that.

As far as the back of the boxes go,  KC promises multiple mazes, invisible challenge mazes, and a maze editor.  Pac-Man promises …  a children’s mode.


While KC Munchkin wins on the packaging, Pac-Man wins on the instruction manual front.  Inside the Pac-Man manual are detailed and whimsical drawings of the characters and items in the game.  Inside KC Munchkin’s official rules book is difficult to read white text on a black background, surrounded by game sprites and random numbers and letters, some of which have inexplicable Superman trails.  I think the glowing question mark sums up the KC Munchkin instruction book.



The Pac-Man playfield just looks sickly.  Blue and kinda sickly yellow.  Really?   The arcade game was blue walls on a back background.  The Atari is capable of producing the colors blue and black.  So why the change?  Even Pac-Man looks queasy in that environment.  K.C. Munchkin, however, has bold purple walls on a black background.  Easy to see, and look how happy KC is as he6 strolls around the maze.  The Pac-Man maze is a symmetrical, rectangular affair, without the twists and turns of the original.  KC lives in an asymmetrical tangle of passageways, forcing you to develop different strategies for the left or the right of the board.

If you look at the Pac-Man shot, you’ll see that there are only two ghosts and only two power pills.  That’s because the ghosts and power pills flicker like mad because the Atari has limited sprite capabilities.  The programmer actually only displayed one ghost every frame, and it just looked like four because the other ghosts hadn’t faded from the CRT yet.  They’re all the same color because he was lazy.  Unfortunately, the all digital PC input device I’m using captures frames as they are.  I recorded at 30 FPS, which means that I got two frames of the Atari screen, therefore two ghosts.  There really are four ghosts and four pills. For the KC shot, what you see is really what’s there.  Three creatures, each of a different color, and four special munchies.  The special munchies will flash to an X every once in a while, so you can easily tell what they are, but that’s the only flickering you’ll get in this game.

The KC characters are more detailed.  They have more visible features and have distinct up and down animations, as well as left/right.  Pac-Man is always in profile and the ghosts never look like they’re moving in any particular direction.

And then there’s the dots.  The dots are really what makes K.C. Munchkin stand out.  Most Pac-Man based games are full of dots.  They’re everywhere, and you have to go everywhere to get them.  Not so in K.C. Munchkin.  In this game, there are only twelve dots.  Four power dots and eight regular dots.  The catch?  The dots move.  That one little feature is what makes K.C. Munchkin be powered by awesome.  Not only do you have to run away from the monsters, you have to chase down the dots.  At first, they’re lethargic, but as you eat their brothers and sisters, they become less complacent and more alert, until the last remaining dot is hauling ass at the same speed you move through the maze.  You have to plan ahead to cut it off, while at the same time, you have to make sure you’re not being drawn into an ambush by the three critters.

Another major difference in the gameplay of KC Munchkin is that you only get one life.  It’s a theme that runs through many Odyssey2 games7.  One life, no bonus lives.  Your score is only as good as your best run.  Make one mistake, and you’re back at zero.  It’s a bit disconcerting at first, but it ends up working to the advantage of the game.  Your near death scrapes with the red critter as you hunt down that last dot are made much more tense and exciting by the fact that you don’t get to try again.

Pac-Man Audio | K.C. Munchkin! Audio

And finally, the sound.  Pac-Man is about as pleasant to listen to as a trash compactor.  Every dot you eat sounds like an electric banjo being massacred, the death sound and start game sound are just grating.  Only the power pellet and eating ghost effects are remotely pleasant to listen to.  None of them sound anywhere remotely like the arcade sound effects.  The programmer didn’t even try.  K.C. Munchkin has a considerably mellower sound.  It’s still early home console sound, so it’s not all that great, but it won’t have you reaching for the mute button and a pack of earplugs to block out the horror while you play.

Of course, all that text and all those pictures don’t really mean much.  You have to see the games in action to truly compare them.

What came next?  Well, Pac-Man obviously continued on his path of fame and fortune and is still making games today.  On the Atari 2600 front, Ms. Pac-Man was released a few years later and was simply awesome, fixing pretty much everything that went wrong with the original.  Fame, however, was not in store for K.C. Munchkin.  He starred in one other game, called “K.C.’s Krazy Chase”, which was a semi-autobiographical depiction of his legal battles.  Afterward, he retired from the video game scene, and is now a veterinarian in Upstate New York.

Bottom Line:  If you’re a hard-core dot munching Pac-Fan or if you are considering buying an Odyssey2 system for your collection, you need to get a copy of K.C. Munchkin.  If you already have an Odyssey2 system and don’t have this game, there is something wrong with you.  If you’re a more casual fan, not willing to drop $100 on a 30 year old console just to play this one game, then there might be emulators or Flash versions available.  I’ve never bothered to look, since I have the real thing.

  1. Sadly, arcades are now thought to be extinct in the wild.  The last non-captive arcade died in late 1994, in Burlington, WA, when it was eaten by a Seattle’s Best Coffee. []
  2. Which, of course, was only about ten years at the time… []
  3. And by “legitimate competitor”, I mean that it had measurable market share, a decent library of games, and had survived for more than a year.  You may not have heard of this console, but it did exist.  Honest. []
  4. Where Plus == Suck []
  5. See also the lockout chip lawsuit that Nintendo filed against Tengen/Atari when Tengen released a better version of Tetris than the Nintendo one… []
  6. He?  I don’t know.  I suspect that KC is pulling a Samus on us. []
  7. Probably unsurprisingly, since half of them were written by one guy. []

October 18, 2009   2 Comments

Electric Curosities: Enhance your NES!

Back in the early 90’s, toward the end of the life of the NES, the company who was responsible for the Game Genie came up with another idea to make Nintendo angry. It was called the Aladdin Deck Enhancer. Reportedly designed to allow “enhanced” games on the NES by providing extra RAM and better graphics, it was called “the future of console game play” by its very own box. In reality, however, it was an ill-timed plot to sell cheap, unlicensed games for the NES.

Cartridges for the NES were fairly expensive to produce.  It wasn’t just the ROM chip, a simple circuit board, and a big plastic shell, like there was in the days of the Atari.  Sometimes NES games needed some extra memory, sometimes they needed a graphics coprocessor, but they always, every single one of them, needed the additional electronics to satisfy the 10NES lockout chip.

You see, Nintendo learned a lesson from the Great Crash of 83.  Atari didn’t have any kind of lockout device on the Atari 2600.  This allowed third party developers like Activision and Imagic to produce some of the best titles of the system without needing the permission of nor needing to pay Atari.  It also allowed anyone with a ROM burner to produce mountains and mountains of unashamed garbage that masqueraded as video games.  You think ET caused the Crash?  No.  Custer’s Revenge caused the Crash.  Star Fox caused the Crash. 1   Nintendo wasn’t going to let their system be killed by crappy games.  The solution to this problem came in the form of the 10NES lockout.

By setting up a two-part lock electronic lock, they prevented a critical mass of lousy games from accumulating and thereby averted a full scale market implosion.2  One part was in the console.  When you put in a cartridge and turned the power on, a challenge was sent to the cartridge.  If the cartridge responded properly, then you got to play the game.  If the cartridge failed to respond correctly, you got a blinking power light and a flashing gray screen of death.  And the only place to get the chip that acted like the key to the lock was Nintendo.  They patented and copyrighted the design, so they’d sue you no matter what you tried to do to circumvent the lockout.  But, Nintendo also recognized that the key to a successful console was third party support.  Game publishers were welcome to make games for the NES, as long as they abided by all sorts of requirements and rules (Including censorship), and, on top of that, pay for the privilege of getting the chip for the cartridge and the “Nintendo Seal of Quality” on the box.

The program was successful.  Because of it, Nintendo avoided a flood of terrible and worthless games.  Sure, there were games that sucked, but for the most part, anything that had the Nintendo Seal of Quality was at least half-way decent.  Even crap-buckets like Total Recall or Super Pitfall were miles above the uninspired and derivative silicon wastelands that plagued the Atari 2600 in 1983.   The lockout chip also made piracy of NES carts more difficult.  Without the 10NES key chip, a game wouldn’t play, and Nintendo wasn’t about to hand out those chips to pirates.

Of course, the flip side should be obvious.  Because Nintendo controlled the chip that was the key to the system, Nintendo controlled every game that was allowed to play on it.  Want to put out a game with blood in it?  Nope.  Want a game with strong religious themes or symbols?  Ain’t gonna happen.  Adult content or mature themes?  Uh-uh.  Want to release the same game for the NES and for Sega?  Not for another couple of years.  Want to put out more than a handful of games a year?  Fat chance.

Don’t want to pay the licensing fee to Nintendo…?

Whenever there is a technology that will prevent someone from making money, that someone will find a way to defeat that technology, thereby allowing money to be made.  That is exactly what happened with the 10NES lockout chip.  Some people created pass-through carts, which looked like a Game Genie and required you to plug in a licensed NES cartridge in order to play.  It then used the real 10NES chip in the licensed cartridge to unlock the NES, which then loaded the unlicensed game in the passthrough.  Other companies thought that was too tacky looking and instead decided to simply fry the 10NES chip in the NES system by sending it a voltage spike.  However, the truly dedicated ones reverse engineered the 10NES chip from the specifications in documents obtained under false pretenses from the US Patent Office.  The corporation who was responsible for this awesome act of technological trickery?  Atari.  The Atari who had been nearly destroyed by unlicensed games had decided to create its own unlicensed NES games under the Tengen brand, largely to get around Nintendo’s licensing fees and severe non-compete restrictions.3

Unlicensed NES Cartridges

Unlicensed NES Cartridges: Bible Adventures (Wisdom Tree), Quattro Adventure (Camerica), Fantasy Zone (Tengen)

Most manufacturers of unlicensed NES games ended up following in Atari/Tengen’s shoes and created 10NES knock-off chips.  However, those chips raised the cost of producing a cartridge and cut into the profit margin.  Which brings us back to the Aladdin Deck Enhancer that I was talking about before I went off on that long-winded tangent of a history lesson.  You see, there was nothing about the Aladdin Deck Enhancer that was really an enhancement at all.  It actually wasn’t about the extra memory, it actually wasn’t about the graphics coprocessor.  It was about the knock-off 10NES chip.  The plan behind the Aladdin Deck Enhancer was that they’d sell the base cartridge, which contained the lockout chip and some other chips, then sell the games that plugged into the base separately.  As many games as you wanted, but only one lockout chip.  The games, since they wouldn’t need to include the extra electronics, would be cheaper to produce and therefore cheaper to sell.  On top of that, why not license other games for use with the Aladdin Deck Enhancer?  Certainly there are other companies or game developers itching to get their games on the NES without having to deal with the Iron Fist of the Big N.  It’s like a license to print money!

Aladdin Deck Enhancer

Or rather, in 1988, it would have been a license to print money.  But the Aladdin Deck Enhancer came out in 1993, firmly in the period of 16-bit domination.  If people wanted enhanced graphics and bigger games, they didn’t buy games on some convoluted half cartridge that required some bizarre mutant shell for them to work.  No, they went out and bought a Super Nintendo.  The company which distributed the Aladdin Deck Enhancer was ruined and folded a few months later.

Aladdin Deck Enhancer

The game “Dizzy The Adventurer” was included as a pack-in cartridge.  The other six cartridges released were The Fantastic Adventures of Dizzy, Quattro Adventure (including Boomerang Kid, Super Robin Hood, Linus Spacehead, and Treasure Island Dizzy4 ), Big Nose Freaks Out, Micro Machines, Quattro Sports (including Baseball Pros, Soccer Simulator, Pro Tennis, and BMX Simulator), and Linus Spacehead’s Cosmic Crusade. 5  11 other games were promised on the box, and while none of those were released as Deck Enhancer carts, most were later (or had already been) released as standalone unlicensed NES carts.  While not crowning pinnacles of gaming glory, the Aladdin games aren’t complete abuses of the physical properties of silicon.   It’s likely that some of the games would have easily been qualified for the “Nintendo Seal of Approval”, had they wished to go legit.6

  1. Not THE Star Fox, although, interestingly enough, Star Fox for the Atari 2600 is the reason THE Star Fox had to be called “Starwing” and “Lylat Wars” in Europe. []
  2. Atari learned the same lesson.  In its 7800 ProSystem console, there’s a lockout mechanism that’s so strong that it is actually against the law to export an Atari 7800 due to restrictions governing military grade cryptography.  In Atari’s case, however, a second full scale market implosion was avoided, not by the lockout chip, but rather by not actually having a market that could implode. []
  3. And, of course, they got sued…  Although some may claim that the lawsuit was less about protecting their technology than protecting their reputation, as the lawsuit focused on the Tengen version of Tetris, generally considered superior to the Nintendo version. (Much the same way that Atari had sued Magnavox for the superior K.C. Munchkin infringing on the less-than-stellar 2600 Pac-Man…) []
  4. It’s obvious that Codemasters felt that Dizzy would be their killer app, with three Dizzy games available for the unit and another one promised on the box.  Although apparently big in the UK, sadly, the failure of unit meant that Prince Dizzy of the Yolk Folk would remain obscure in the US… []
  5. If you’re ever in need of a Commodore 64 flashback, you should give Dizzy or the games on Quattro Adventure a spin.  Not that you ever actually played those games on a C64, but they’ll certainly remind you of one. []
  6. And if they hadn’t been made by the same people who made the Game Genie… []

October 3, 2009   2 Comments

Electric Curiosities: The Lost Art of Cartridge Design

These days, with the exception of the Nintendo DS, video games come on boring shiny discs that look pretty much exactly the same as every other game for every other competitor’s system.  You can’t tell the difference between the games for two consoles by feel alone.

It was not always like this.  Deep in the mists of time, video games all came in chunks of plastic called “Cartridges”.  By look and feel, you could distinguish one system’s games from another’s.  Sometimes cartridges for a system were plain and rectangular, sometimes they were embellished with features like handles, and sometimes they were yellow…  Bright yellow.  This post explores the cartridges for a number of different systems, some of which may be familiar to you, and some of which will hopefully strike you as freakish and bizarre.

First off, the full gallery, for size comparison.  For fun, I’d recommend trying to see how many of these cartridges you can identify without zooming in all the way and reading their logos.


If you don’t recognize at least three, you’re probably not going to find the rest of this post very interesting.  And if you can name all of them, then feel free to start naming cartridge-based systems that aren’t represented here.  There are still a few systems that I haven’t raided eBay for yet…

Anyway, without further babbling, the carts:

Atari 400


(Pictured: Centipede)

The Atari 400 computer had a small (by Atari standards) cartridge with a plain text brown label.  The cart contacts were protected by a sliding door, which was partially exposed, unlike the doors on 2600 and 5200 carts.  The Atari 800 had two cartridge slots (because one is never enough), but the slots were not equivalent, forcing  Atari 400/800 games to have a marking on the top of the cart telling you to insert it into the left or the right cartridge port.  However, since people didn’t buy the Atari 800, not many cartridges were made for the exclusive right port, leaving it lonely and depressed.1

Atari 2600


(Pictured: Combat)

According to what trusted sellers on eBay have told me, this is Combat for the Atari 2600, which is apparently EXTREMELY RARE (LQQK!).  I had never heard of this game or this system before, so I don’t have much information on it to share.

Atari 5200


(Pictured: Robotron 2084)

After their apparent disastrous failure with the Atari 2600, Atari bounced back and produced the Atari 5200, which, as the name implies, was twice as good as the 2600.  5200 carts were the largest Atari carts, with the height of a 2600 cartridge, but the width of a SNES cartridge.  Typical 5200 carts were silver labels, with an image on the label and blue Atari branding.  Unlike the multiple rebrands of Atari 2600 cartridges, the 5200 did not survive long enough to change this basic design.

Atari 7800


(Pictured: Tower Toppler)2

During the rise of the NES, Atari released the 7800 ProSystem.  Learning from some of the mistakes they made with the 5200, the 7800 had 2600 compatibility, which lead to the 7800 using a size and shape identical to the 2600 for its cartridges.  7800 carts mostly had a silver border and plain text end label, with game art in the middle of the main label.

Atari Jaguar


(Pictured: Iron Soldier)

The last gasp of the once powerful Atari, the Jaguar came out right at the transition between 2D and 3D and would have had more success had most of its games not completely sucked.  (I’m looking at you, Checkered Flag.  And Club Drive.)  The cartridges used the extremely popular 2.75 x 4 form factor (Similar to the size used by the Genesis, SMS, Famicom, N64, TRS-80, TI-99, and Tomy Tutor), but for some inexplicable reason, had a tube shaped handle on the top.

Atari Lynx


(Pictured: Scrapyard Dog)

Lynx games are some of the flattest in this set, about two credit cards thick.  The contacts are exposed directly beneath the label.  Most Lynx games had a curved lip at the top edge, allowing you to pull the game out of the system after it’s inserted.  The Lynx is one of the few systems in this set where you can’t see what game is in the system after you’ve put the cart in, as the label faces the back of the system, instead of outward like on the Game Boy.

Atari XE


(Pictured: Battlezone)

The Atari XE Game System was Atari’s competitor to the Atari 7800.  The two systems fought each other valiantly and both were slain in the process.  The XE was compatible with Atari 400/800 series games, so XE carts were the same size and shape.  The color was changed because by the late 80’s, people had realized that the early 80’s were ugly.  The label was updated to include game art.  And finally, the bizarre half-exposed dust door on the 400’s carts was removed for the XE.

Bally Videocade


(Pictured: The Incredible Wizard)

Bally Astrocade/Videocade/Professional Arcade3 had cartridges that wanted to be cassette tapes.  While they didn’t have winding spools or magnetic tape, they did have what appears to be write-protect tabs that were punched out.  These holes were used to hold the cartridge in place after you inserted it, because Astrovision Videocade4 cartridges possessed limited intelligence and were known to try to escape when you turned the system on.



(Pictured: Donkey Kong)

The ColecoVision knew a good thing when it saw it.  Why try to come up with your own cartridge design when you can steal the one that was Atari was using?  Coleco carts are the same size and shape as Atari 2600 cartridges, but had controller overlay slots in the back and the label was reversed so that you’d see it the right way up when it was in the system.  Oh, and there were little ridgey things at the top, and the case was slightly beveled to prevent you from trying to jam a Coleco cart in an Atari or an Atari cart into a ColecoVision.  This cartridge camouflage is especially useful now, as less savvy eBay sellers can’t tell the difference between an Atari 2600 cartridge and a generally more valuable ColecoVision cartridge, allowing someone who can tell the difference to take advantage of them.  Unfortunately, the label design for a Coleco game kinda sucks, giving the ColecoVision name more prominence than the cartridge title, and limiting the custom artwork to the title itself.5

Emerson Arcadia 2001


(Pictured: Tanks A Lot)

The Emerson Arcadia 2001 wasn’t satisfied with the 3×4 cartridge that the Atari and Coleco had.  Oh no, they had to push it to the max.  As a result, the Arcadia carts are 6 FULL INCHES of rainbow-titled watercolor AWESOME.  And why stop there?  Why not put a label on the BACK side of the cartridge, too?

Fairchild Channel F


(Pictured: Videocart 1: Tic-Tac-Toe/Shooting Gallery/Doodle/QuadraDoodle)

They’re yellow.  They’re big.  And they’ve got giant psychedelic numbers on them.

Nintendo Game Boy


(Pictured: Kirby’s Dream Land)

Game Boy cartridges are about the smallest a cartridge can get without feeling too small.  It’s large enough that you can’t eat it and won’t permanently lose it in the seat cushions, but small enough to take large quantities with you wherever you go.  It’s got a big spot for label art that isn’t invaded by branding, since the branding is built into the cart itself.  These carts must have evolved from stray Bally carts, as they also have a notch for a locking device to prevent their escape.  It’s also one of the few carts that tells you how to put it in the system, with a large arrow in the plastic and the words “THIS SIDE OUT” on the label.

Game Boy Advance


(Pictured: Rayman 3)

The GBA cartridge was about half the height of a Game Boy cart, leaving less room for artwork on the label.  The system branding is still on the plastic and the insertion arrow is still there, but the label no longer tells you which direction faces out, leading to mass customer confusion.

Game Boy Color

GameBoyColorHybrid GameBoyColor

(Pictured: Blaster Master Enemy Below and The Legend of Zelda Oracle of Seasons)

The Game Boy Color cheats in its quest to gain attention by having two types of cartridge that I have to comment on.  There’s the Black Mutant Hybrid cartridges, which are identical to standard Game Boy carts, only black.  These mutated black cartridges could be played on an ordinary Game Boy, but also contained Game Boy Colorized versions of the games.  Then there’s the similarly sized clear carts, which are strictly for the Game Boy Color.  The system branding region that had been indented on regular Game Boy carts was inverted into a bubble on the clear carts.  Additionally, by the release of the GBC, the clear carts had been sufficiently tamed and no longer attempted to flee when they were played, so there was no need for a locking mechanism on the system, which means that they do not have a notch in one of the corners.



(Pictured: Snafu)

Intellivision cartridges were smaller than Atari cartridges, likely because prolonged use of the Inty’s control pad caused severe hand cramps, preventing people from opening their hands wide enough to grasp a larger cart.  The cartridge has a pointed front with the game’s title on a label on the sloped surface receding from the point.  There was typically no artwork on Intellivision cartridges, simply because there wasn’t enough room.  In fact, there was hardly even enough real estate for the game title itself in some cases.  Some Intellivision cartridges had what can best be described as a “Fill Line”, instructing you just how far to stick the cartridge into the system.  Mattel was so enamored of the Intellivision cart’s form factor that they used the same shell for their Atari 2600 versions of Intellivision titles (Known as M-Network), simply sticking on a wider base to fit the 2600’s cartridge slot.  These M-Network carts even have the Fill Line.



(Pictured: Star Trek Phaser Strike)

Milton-Bradley Microvision cartridges are large, but they’re large with a purpose.  You see, they’re not just the game cartridge, they’re also a face plate, controller overlay and screen overlay, all in one.  They mounted on the front of the Microvision handheld system.



(Pictured: Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt)

The Nintendo Entertainment System was another obscure system which was released in the mid-80’s.  Presumably these games are so rare because they’re absolutely freaking huge.  Plus, no one really wants to play games which apparently promote cruelty to animals and pyromania.  Early Nintendo-produced NES games had a fairly standarized label design, with some real game graphics6 used for the artwork and the game title set beneath it at an angle, but this quickly gave way to a free-for-all anything goes approach to label design.  And they’re freaking huge.  I know I might be desecrating your memory of a classic here, but seriously.  Look at them.  They’re FREAKING HUGE.

Nintendo 64


(Pictured: The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time)

This cartridge almost killed Nintendo.  When the Nintendo 64 was released, it’s competitors were using CDs.  PC games were almost exclusively released on CDs.  Even third-rate lame ass systems like the Atari Jaguar had CD add-ons.  CDs let you have amazing sound, extensive videos, full voice-overs, and games of unlimited size, plus, they were really really cheap.  Nintendo, sensing a passing fad, decided to stick with the tried-and-true cartridge technology.  The N64 sold 33 million systems, the PSX sold 125 million.

Nintendo DS


(Pictured:  Rayman DS)

Too small.

Nokia N-Gage


(Pictured: Rayman 3)

Nokia thought they were going to take the world by storm and revolutionize the portable game market.  Let’s put games on the phone, so people only have to carry one thing around.  Let’s make the games 3D.  Let’s get big licenses to make games for us.  LET’S CRUSH THE GAME BOY!  Sadly, in all of their big plans, no one stopped to add the requirement “Let’s make it usable”.  In order to swap games in the original N-Gage, you had to pop the back cover of the phone off, then REMOVE THE BATTERY to reach the game card slot.  Yeah, and it sucked as a phone, too.  At any rate, I’m not sure if this one can even be legitimately included in this set, since N-Gage games came on a plain ordinary MMC card.



(Pictured: KC’s Krazy Chase!)

The main section of an Odyssey 2 cartridge was roughly the same size as an Atari 2600 cartridge, but there was a large handle on the top of the cart.  It’s unclear what prompted this design choice, but I suspect that O2 carts had the opposite problem from Game Boy and Astrocade carts, in that Odyssey2 carts would sometime refuse to leave the nice warm cartridge slot and you’d need to grab a hold of the handle and pull as hard as you can to get them out.  Odyssey2 cartridges were black plastic, and had labels that were simplified monochrome renditions of the groovy black light art found on the boxes.  The labels also featured a large Superman flying style “Odyssey2” logo emerging from the center of the artwork.  Odyssey2 carts were all very exciting, as demonstrated by the use of an exclamation point in every single title for every game released on the system!

Sega Game Gear


(Pictured: Sonic the Hedgehog 2)

Like the Lynx, the Game Gear featured full color graphics and was more powerful than the Game Boy.  And like the Lynx, that didn’t matter because it didn’t come with Tetris.  Game Gear carts were larger than Game Boy and Lynx carts, but still small enoguh to be portable.

Sega Master System


(Pictured: Golden Axe Warrior)

SMS carts were smooth black plastic, with a small red label only large enough for the game title and Sega logo.  But who cares about the cartridge, when the game in the picture is Golden Axe Warrior?  If you have a Sega Master System, you need this game.  If you don’t have a SMS, then you need to buy one, then buy this game.  It’s that simple.  Golden Axe Warrior is a pure rip-off of The Legend of Zelda, but it’s one of the most pitch-perfect ripoffs ever made.  Change the main character to Link and the main enemy to Gannon, and you have the game that Zelda 2 should have been.

Sega Genesis


(Pictured: Sonic The Hedgehog 2)

Black and curvy.  Obtrusive branding on label.

Super Nintendo


(Pictured: Super Metroid)

The Super Nintendo cartridge is one of the most complex cart designs around.  The ridges and bevels of the NES cartridge weren’t enough for Nintendo, so they added screws, curves, divots, notches, and what appears to be aluminum siding.  The label has a huge amount of space devoted to branding, but still manages to have room for game artwork.  SNES carts aren’t quite as freaking huge as NES carts, but they’re still pretty big.  Also, just like NES carts, they’re mostly empty space inside.  Early Super Nintendo cartridges had a solid section across the base, which allowed a locking mechanism to fit into a hole on the front of the cartridge, but as time went on the carts evolved a way to free themselves from this capitivity, leading to the gapped cart shown above.  In a rare gesture of defeat, later SNES consoles removed the locking arm entirely, thereby allowing even the early cartridges to escape.



(Pictured: Parsec)

Most cartridges are easy to stack in a pile.  The TI-99 doesn’t play like that.  Cartridges for that computer suddenly get fatter halfway up the cartridge, complicating any standard strategy.  Your only hope is a backwards/forward alternation, but even that tends to be unstable.

Tomy Tutor


(Pictured: Traffic Jam)

Tomy Tutor cartridges7 are similar to Sega Master System carts with a different color scheme.  They’re white instead of black, have white labels instead of red, and the label has a notebook paper motif instead of Sega’s graph paper styling.  Almost makes up for the rubber keyboard.



(Pictured: Mega Bug)

Back in the history of ages past, Radio Shack did more than try to sell you cell phone contracts and RC cars.  At one point, they had a fairly popular line of computers.  No, they weren’t just computers.  They were COLOR Computers.  Special.  TRS-80 carts had a large section of game art on the front, while the end label was a standard design with the Radio Shack logo, game title, and, for easy reordering, the catalog number.

Turbo-Grafx 16


(Pictured: Blazing Lazers)

The TG-16 used cards that were pretty much the size of two credit cards stacked together.  The artwork was printed directly onto the card, rather than being an applied sticker like on pretty much every other game cartridge.  Most games had a large single colored patch with the game title in the TG-16 font and the TG-16 logo.  Above this is a black patch, presumably housing the actual game content.  When inserted into the system, the full label section remains visible.

Virtual Boy


(Pictured: Red Alarm)

Virtual Boy carts were larger than Game Boy cartridges and featured a label with a red and blue field and the stylized game title.  The lack of art on the label was mitigated by the fact that most users of the Virtual Boy lost their eyesight while playing, and were therefore unable to closely examine the cartridges.

  1. It later found love in the form of the similarly ignored NES expansion port. []
  2. Also known as Nebulus or Castelian []
  3. No one seems to actually know what this thing was called, not even the system itself. []
  4. or whatever []
  5. And when they were selling the Adam computer, the corporate labeling read “ColecoVision & ADAM”, making it even larger and even more obnoxious. []
  6. Although slightly enhanced by exciting motion lines. []
  7. All ten of them… []

September 26, 2009   4 Comments

Electric Curiosities: Motion Sensitive Controllers

The PS3 has one that, much like the system itself, no one cares about.

The Wii built their entire reason for existing around one.

And the XBox 360 has decided that they’re completely irrelevant, and is instead trying to pass off an EyeToy rip-off as “Innovation”.

I’m talking about motion sensitive controllers, and despite what Nintendo1 might have you believe, they’re about as innovative as Project Natal.  You see, the Wii isn’t the first Nintendo system to have a motion activated joystick. 

IMN Control Game Handler  GH-001

 The NES had one, called the “Game Handler”, from IMN Control.  The Game Handler is basically the top half of a flight stick, without that whole pesky base that’s normally attached.  The product code for this joystick is the overly optimistic “GH-001”, implying that not only were they expecting the line to produce a GH-002 and GH-003, but also a GH-100.

I have one.  Unfortunately, my apparently gargantuan hands are unable to comfortably hold the controller in such a way that I can press all of the buttons without finger contortions.  The main trigger and the primary thumb button are interchangable between A and B, while the two difficult to reach, yet remarkably in the way side buttons are start and select.  They’re unlabeled, but that’s not a problem, because you’ll accidentally hit one of them rather frequently when you play, so you’ll soon learn which one is which.

IMN Control Game Handler

Of course, Game Handler itself was not terribly innovative.  The Atari 2600 even had a gravity controller, and I think it used real mercury switches, because it’s from back before mercury was dangerous.  I’ve seen it called “Le Stick” or the “Heyco Gravity Joystick”.  The joystick itself says “Heyco” on a small ring where the cord enters the base, but the plug appears to have been harvested off of a regular Atari joystick.  Although it’s decidedly phallic in appearance2, it’s much easier to hold this joystick than the Game Handler.  Much of the simplicity is owed to the fact that it only has one button, and that button can be placed on the top, where it’s easy to press. 

Atari Gravity Joystick

Thing of it is, this joystick is digital.  That means it’s on/off.  Which means you’re either tilted or not.  There’s no clear indication of when you’re about to tilt far enough to trigger the switch.  And it’s inconsistent.  Sometimes left will move you left, sometimes it will move you left and up, and sometimes down.  Just down.  Not left and down.  Just…  Down.  Down doesn’t move you down.  Down moves you right.  Of course.  That means you play like you’re having a seizure.

I don’t normally suck that much at Yars’ Revenge.

Now, that much awesome simply cannot exist on its own.  When you have an object this amazing, well, you just have to get two.

Atari Gravity Stick Dual Wield

Next up:  Robotron 2084.

So, in the end, it’s clear that the motion control of today’s consoles is not nearly as technologically innovative as you were led to believe.  It had all been done before, nearly 30 years ago.  The innovation made with this generation was that the designers decided that it would be a good idea to remove the suck from motion controllers and make something that actually worked.

  1. And Apple, for that matter. []
  2. Thankfully it was released before controllers had a rumble feature… []

September 16, 2009   1 Comment