Atari here, Atari there

The free time I’ve had over last couple of weeks has been very… well, Atari-filled; my scrolling shoot ’em up Callisto made it out of the door safely and just in time for this year’s ABBUC software competition and there’s another scrolling shoot ’em up been submitted so I’m particularly looking forward to playing that when the releases start filtering through to the public domain in a month or two. Entering the competition has been on my “to do” list for several years now so I’m pretty pleased that the planets have finally aligned correctly for it to happen.

There’s also a fun little (literally, since there’s a size limit of 4K) Atari 8-bit BASIC coding competition on the Atari Age forums and I threw my hat into the ring for it with Stellar Caverns, one of those “use PRINT to scroll the screen vertically” games where the player has to navigate safely through a tunnel. The quirk is that the display list (the sort of scripting language used to define the Atari 8-bit’s display) has been customised to flip the character screen memory vertically so the scrolling runs downwards rather than up.

Finally there’s a third Atari 8-bit game in the early stages of development, but I’m keeping that one under my metaphorical hat until there’s at least a playable level ready to show off demonstrate. That might be happening at Play in October as long as I’ve got enough coding time and there are a few other projects that need attention…!

Playing Moon Patrol (A8)

Hello everybody, my name is Jason and I have an almost crippling addiction to Moon Patrol on the Atari 8-bit. I’ve had this addiction for quite a while now, but was only playing with an emulator and telling myself it wasn’t the same as the hard stuff, that I could stop at any time… and then a parcel arrived on Saturday morning containing an actual cartridge and I was hooked!

In fact I’ve wanted Moon Patrol for my Atari 8-bit for a while, although it didn’t occur to me to actually look for one on eBay until R3PLAY where there was an XE Games Machine and a box of cartridges to choose from. Just nine English pounds got me unboxed cartridge without manual (that did include the shipping from America) and after a little digging around through storage boxes, out came the (t)rusty Atari 800XL and power supply. The C64’s Zipstik was borrowed and several hours of diligently patrolling the moon followed.

The sprites might be a little chunky and the otherwise nicely defined backgrounds could possibly have done with a little more variety of colour between stages considering the Atari 8-bit’s large palette, but Moon Patrol‘s gameplay is absolutely spot on and, after a day and a bit of playing with a decent joystick on the big telly in the front room, getting through the first loop without dying is tantalisingly close to being a reality and my final life is usually lost about halfway through the second. And that tune has been indelibly burnt into my bloody brain and I’ll no doubt be humming it all week!

Colour for colour’s sake

One of the things I’ve noticed about trying to draw graphics for 8-bits is that the machines with higher colour counts are harder to produce something decent for than those with a more limited palette. Actually, I noticed this years ago when trying to get my head around the Amiga after several years of cramming everything into three or four colours with the C64, but it’s recently been rather frustratingly reinforced by a couple of doodling sessions between stints of writing reviews.

One particular compulsion seems to be that, when there are lots of luminances of the same colour available, objects get drawn using shades of a single hue despite the “real” world not usually looking like that; bushy-topped, cartoon-like trees with five shades of green but no other detail until the rather sudden transition to multiple browns for the trunk, brick walls where even the grouting is a vibrant red, bright purple bias relief dreadnought spaceships (this one isn’t so bad, aliens may well want a purple ship) and so forth.

The other, far stronger urge when there’s a large palette is to wedge colours into the bloody display just because the hardware can do it! That might not sound like an issue as such, but colour for colour’s sake usually turns into a waste of other resources, with the obvious example being rainbow splits through the background colour register – yes, they’re a cheap and relatively cheerful way to get large swathes of colour into a display, but for most machines they take a fistful of processing time to actually maintain, CPU grind that should probably be running the game.

When the hardware supports truly bonkers amounts of colour use, trying to cram a myriad of hues into graphics can also lead to situations where an object could have been rendered nicely in four colours but has instead got twelve just because it can; for example, some of the presentation graphics for Blok Copy on the C64DTV have loads of “detail” that was layered on to get the colour count up because it felt like short changing the system if I used the 8BPP 320×200 256 colour mode without splashing the hues about a bit – that font in particular probably looks like chroma distortion on some televisions! Even worse were the first tests of the unreleased Atari 2600 version called Shyfter that used thirty five colours for the tiles, seven hues across by five luminances down – the start screen looked fabulous, but it was rather rapidly cropped back to just one shade per column because trying to get that playfield back to it’s initial state was nigh on impossible.

The trick (and it’s one I’ve struggled with quite a bit, which is why there’s probably a slightly frustrated air to this post) seems to be self restraint and trying to get something decent-looking that has a reasonable colour count without going absolutely Tonto in the process can be a right bugger…