Notes from a retro game designer

Photo: moparx/Flickr

The Atari 2600, or Video Computer System (VCS), introduced in 1977, would ultimately become the first commercially successful video game console that accepted plug-in ROM cartridges, allowing the consumer to expand their library of games without having to buy a new console.¹

Adventures in Toy Design: Part 2

Wildfire Pinball by Parker Brothers (1979)

In 1979, when this story began, I had not yet completed college and I had never written a computer program. The closest I had come to writing a real program was fooling around with my TI-58 programmable calculator. Here’s a sample of what a program on that device looked like.¹ Not exactly OOP,² huh?

The Making of Donkey Kong for the Atari 2600

Life is strange.

In the summer of 1982, I spent about three months creating a list of 4,096 numbers, meticulously ensuring that every single number was the right value, and in the correct place in the list. When I finished, the only tangible evidence of my work was that long list of numbers.

When the list was complete, after nearly 1,000 hours of work, the former Connecticut Leather Company¹ put the numbers (in order) into a computer memory chip and plastic case and sold it at stores throughout the country. And people actually bought it.

The list of numbers that…

Geoffrey the Giraffe and the Tale of Two Cheeks

Crossbow Arcade Game © 1983, Exidy, Inc.

I’ve been in the video game industry for 40+ years, starting in 1979. The first video game system I developed games for was the Atari 2600. My first two 2600 games were Space Jockey, for U.S. Games, and Donkey Kong, for Coleco. Upon their completion, I decided I wanted to work with the best game developers in the world, at a company called Activision.

At the time, Activision was the premier game publisher on the Atari. I joined the company in 1982, opening the company’s first remote design facility (the Eastern…

I don’t like when my computer hides things from me.

As a software/video game developer, I see tech tips everyday. Most of the time I will read the ones that sound interesting, but I find that I rarely, if ever, have the occasion to use the tip in the future. However, there is one tech tip that I have used on numerous occasions with success, and for that reason, I’ve decided to share it with you all here. Hopefully, it will get you out of a jam someday, at which time you’ll remember this moment fondly. …

My first job (1969) — NYC, teletypes and espionage

I read an article today in the Guardian about a new book coming out, “American Kompromat” by Craig Unger, about Russia’s (alleged) 40-year effort to cultivate Donald Trump as a Russian asset. Yuri Shvets, a former KGB spy, was a key source for Unger in writing the book.

What caught my eye in the Guardian story was the following:

“Shvets, a KGB major, had a cover job as a correspondent in Washington for the Russian news agency Tass during the 1980s.”

With that, I was inspired to write this story about my first job in the Big Apple.

In the…

The amazing story of its development.

Is there anyone left who hasn’t played the game where you remove tiles, one at a time, to clear the board?

Shanghai ® Copyright 1986, Activision

Have you ever wondered where it came from? I’ll bet we’ve all seen and/or played a game like this, as it’s probably been put on every computer, game system, mobile device, website, watch, toaster and refrigerator imaginable. In fact, I’m shocked it hasn’t been ported to the entertainment screen of the Tesla, as so many other games have been¹ [Elon, what are you waiting for?].

I would guess that this game, sometimes referred to as Mahjong, has become the…

Adventures in Toy Design: Part 3

In the 1970’s, Bill Dorhmann had arguably one of the most fun corporate jobs in the world. Bill was the Vice President of Research and Development for Parker Brothers, of Monopoly fame, and one of the most successful toy companies in the work. In the late 1970’s, in my days of developing handheld electronic toys, I had the pleasure of interacting with Bill on a few projects for Parker Brothers.

While I don’t claim to have known Bill that well, I certainly grew to respect him as a brilliant toy executive, with a keen understanding of what would sell in…

Adventures in Toy Design: Part 1

We had this toy idea for a voice scrambling helmet.

It was 1979 (or thereabouts). The helmet would cover your face completely (think Darth Vader™), have an internal microphone and headset, and an external microphone and speaker. The child would put it on their head, turn it on, and speak. Circuitry in the helmet would scramble the child’s voice and output the garbled speech through the external speaker. …

And Got Over My Fear of Out-of-Tune Game Toons

When I first saw the Atari 2600 and played a few of the early games, one of the things that stood out to me was just how bad it sounded when a game attempted to play music.

Atari 2600 Video Computer System

Before I started developing for the machine, as a consumer, I never questioned why it sounded so bad; I just knew that the music was terrible. Clearly, no one at Atari had come to what I thought was the obvious conclusion that, if it’s a choice between out-of-tune music, or no music, no music is preferable. …

Garry Kitchen

Garry Kitchen is a retro video game designer whose titles include Donkey Kong (2600), Keystone Kapers, GameMaker (1985) and Bart (Simpson) vs the Space Mutants.

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