Bringing the Coin-Op Classics Home—Old School

(My interview with Rob Fulop, the man who brought Missile Command to the Atari 2600, originally published in GameRoom Magazine, July 2006)

From the moment I first encountered a coin-op video game, all I wanted was to play as much as I possibly could. When I was nine years old, though, I was kind of dependent on Mom and Dad to give me a lift to the local bowling alley or arcade—and, needless to say, that didn't just happen every day, so I spent a lot of my formative years wishing there was a way to play more frequently.

I begged my parents for a dedicated Pong system or Pong-clone—and they always refused. They knew I'd get tired of it pretty quickly (even though I swore I wouldn't). So, it wasn't until I was working as a paperboy and able to save up my own money that I got my first home video game system: the Atari 2600.

There were a lot of cool (for the time) games on the 2600, but what I was really interested in was home versions of the games I played in the arcades. Luckily for me, Atari was dedicated to licensing coin-op games and turning them into home versions. The first titles for the 2600 were adaptations of Atari coin-op games of the 70s—Video Olympics (all of the Pong variants) and Breakout were the types of games the 2600 was designed to play. Other early Atari coin-op games, like Skydiver were also fairly easy to convert. But it wasn't until Atari grabbed the home video game license for Space Invaders that the Atari 2600 really began to take off. People bought the 2600 just to play Space Invaders. After the success of this title, Atari snatched up all of the best coin-op licenses, many of which were exclusive to the 2600. And, with a vast library of their own coin-op games to draw upon, Atari was the game system for those of us who wanted to bring our arcade game experience home in the days when owning an actual coin-op game wasn't even a thought that crossed most peoples' minds.

One of the most prominent 2600 programmers when it came to converting coin-op titles to home systems was Rob Fulop. Rob joined the company in 1978 as a summer intern in the coin-op division, where his first assignment was building a sound effects editor that was used to generate sound effects for Atari's short-lived pinball lineup. The following year, after graduating from UC Berkeley, Rob went to work full time in the home division. His game credits include the 2600 conversion of Night Driver and the Atari 400/800 version of Space Invaders. In addition, Rob also designed and programmed the home version of Missile Command, a coin-op classic that is among many collectors' favorite games today. I recently talked to Rob about the challenges of taking an arcade classic and bringing it to the home market. We also discussed his views on the video game market today as compared to the classic era.

Unlike the huge teams that develop home video games today—and unlike the multiple people it usually took to bring a coin-op game to life even during the classic era—Atari 2600 games were generally built, start to finish, by a single programmer/designer.

"Programmers were left on their own to come up with projects they wanted to pursue," said Fulop. "They would pitch these as one-page write-ups to upper management. When they were approved, the programmers were left alone for about six months, after which it was expected that they would have some kind of working demo."

Missile Command was a nine-month project from start to finish, and Rob Fulop was its sole developer. He did, however, have occasional input from Dave Theurer, designer of the coin-op version of the game.

"Since I had spent the previous summer working in the coin operated division, I knew Dave, as well as most of the other coin op guys," said Fulop. "Thus, it was no big deal for me to go talk to Dave whenever I needed to—which was only a couple of times."

The biggest challenge in converting even the simple (by today's standards) coin-op titles of the 80s to 2600 titles was the vast difference between the hardware of the arcade game and that of the console.

"The coin operated version of the game had custom hardware, as did all coin operated games," Fulop explained. This provided the coin-op programmer with whatever features they felt they needed to make the game.

With the 2600, the hardware was standard for all titles—and a lot more restrictive.

"Basically, there were 128 bytes of RAM available and 4K of total program memory. There were only two player objects (sprites), and two single-bit 'missile' objects. Thus, we had to resort to several time-tested techniques to 'reuse' these objects several times as the electron beam scanned the picture tube."

The restriction on the number of objects that could be displayed on the screen was Fulop's biggest challenge. In the coin-op Missile Command, the sky is almost always full of missile trails. On the home version, this wasn't easy to recreate.

"Basically, I ended up alternating frames...displaying one set of tracks on one frame, the next set of tracks on the next frame," said Fulop. This is what gave the game its flickering look—a problem evidenced in many of the more complex Atari 2600 titles of the day.

"Some people referred to the game as Flicker Command for this reason," he said, "but there really was no other way to make it work."

With all of the hardware restrictions, Fulop says there were a number of compromises that had to be made to bring this coin-op classic to life in cartridge form.

"There are fewer missiles coming down at you, and they are always in parallel, since one of the modes of the 2600 hardware allowed multiple copies of an object across the scan line."

The pyrotechnics in the home version were also limited.

"The coin-operated version of the game allows four simultaneous explosions," he said. "The 2600 version only allows two explosions at the same time."

The use of a joystick controller instead of a trackball is also one of the major compromises that Fulop had to live with.

"Obviously, the lack of a trackball is another major difference," he said. "The joystick is not nearly as satisfying a controller for this sort of game, since part of the joy of the original Missile Command is that you just need to be 'close' to where you want to fire your weapons."

Fulop admits that, had he had the hardware space for it, the 2600 version of Missile Command might have been just a little better.

"When I finished the first version of the game, it occupied almost 5K of memory, so I had to squeeze it down almost 20 percent. I tossed out some very good sound effects along the way."

Nevertheless, Fulop was pleased with the way the final product turned out. The game was a big seller for Atari, and most video game fans that eagerly purchased the game in the early 80s agree that the game did a good job of capturing the feel of the coin-op original. In fact, with all of its coin-op adaptations, Atari managed to pull off home conversions of coin-ops that, at first glance, seemed impossible to implement on such restrictive hardware.

"The 2600 did a great job in bringing the arcade experience home," said Fulop, "especially as the programmers learned how to 'trick' the primitive 2600 hardware into doing stuff it was never intended to do."

Fulop cites other Atari 2600 coin-op adaptations as examples of these techniques.

"I found Defender and Asteroids to be great adaptations of their coin-operated equivalents. I recall a version of Ms. Pac-Man that also did quite a good job."

Fulop says that all of the developers at Atari were huge coin-op fans. He recalls that his favorite classic games were some of the most challenging in the arcades at the time.

"I've always liked Eugene Jarvis' games a lot... Robotron and Defender stand out as personal favorites. I think he (Jarvis) just has great sensibilities in terms of bombarding the player with just enough stuff to make it almost out of control...but still somehow containable."

Despite his affinity for video games at the time, however, Fulop says that things have changed quite a bit since then.

"I haven't played a video game in years," he said. "I'll sometimes rent a PlayStation 2 game if I'm working on a project similar to it, but I'll only play it with the 'answers' beside me."

Fulop cites complexity and play-through time as two of the main reason for his dislike of many of today's games.

"I find video games too time-consuming to play these days. I wish they were easier!"

Although technology has come a long way from the classic coin-ops of the 80s, Fulop sees little willingness to expand the genre in terms of creativity and playability.

"The economic realities of the current video game business cannot afford the luxury of figuring out new play patterns," Fulop said. "IN other words, the game companies can't afford to take design risk. A new hardware platform comes technology needs to be mastered. Thus, there is technical risk involved. This means that the team can't be sure exactly when a game will be ready.

"When you combine technical risk with design risk, which is always there when you try to make a new game, you end up with a product that cannot be counted on to hit the shelves by Christmas. Given that games cost millions of dollars to make these days, it's just not worth it for a company to embark on the creation of new types of interactive entertainment.

"And why should they?" he continues. "The old play patterns that were figured out 20 years ago still work just as well as they always did. The play patterns are pretty basic:

Go fast (any driving game), Kill everything (any shooter), Treasure hunt (most any RPG)


"There are a few oddball play patterns, like Pac-Man's play pattern (turn the tables, where you are chased by something and then you get to chase it in return after doing something), but for the most part the top three play patterns can be recombined over and over with new graphics every few years...and people don't seem to be playing them any less."

In an age where arcade games are sometimes inferior to the home versions of the same games, and where classic game fans can purchase an original upright coin-op game from the 80s for less than it costs to purchase a new home console, it's sometimes hard to remember the days when having an arcade in one's home was nothing but a fantasy.

Thanks to Rob Fulop and his fellow console game programmers, we were able to bring some semblance of the arcades into our homes. Not to sound old or anything, but we were darned happy to have those 2600 conversions back in the day—even if they weren't exactly the same as the coin-ops into which we pumped quarters on the way home from school every day and on Saturday afternoons at the mall arcade. Back then, when you added games like Space Invaders and Missile Command to your 2600 collection, you were the most popular kid on the block because you, in a sense, had your own arcade.

Now, when many collectors actually do have an arcade in their homes, the Atari 2600s and the home versions of the 80s classic coin-ops are gathering dust on the shelves—if they weren't sold at a yard sale in 1985 for money to buy a Nintendo Entertainment System, the next console that brought arcade classics into the home, which was in turn sold to buy the next great home console, and so on down the line. Heck, even if you aren't inclined to buy a houseful of arcade machines, you can play them on the computer, on one of the many classic collections available for today's consoles.

Who knew that things would change so much in a mere 20 years? And how much they'd stay the same. It's pretty interesting how many of us go back to the classic coin-ops these days when we're looking for our video game fix.

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