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The Atari VCS: The carts

Dr Kenny McAlpine looks at the music - or lack of it - in some of the games that were bundled with and released for the Atari VCS.
Welcome back. In this activity, we’re going to spend some time looking at some of the games that defined the Atari VCS as a platform and thinking about how those games shaped players’ expectations about video game music. We’re going to begin with Combat. Those kids lucky enough to find an Atari under the Christmas tree in 1977 would have opened the box to find the console, two joysticks, a pair of paddle controllers and a copy of Combat, a simple player-on-player game very much in the mould of Pong and which offered 27 different gameplay variants based around Tank, Tank-Pong, Invisible-Tank, Invisible Tank-Pong, Biplane, and Jet-Fighter. Even today, 30-plus years on from its launch, Combat stands up pretty well.
It’s got the simplicity of play and sense of head-to-head competition that made Pong such a success in the arcades. But Combat’s importance lies not so much in its playability or originality, but because it came bundled with the console, making it the first experience that most players had of the system and, in turn, shaping their expectations of gaming on the VCS. Combat’s soundtrack featured only sound effects, playing up to the TIA’s strengths, but in the process, establishing right from the outset that the VCS just didn’t do music very well, something the Atari’s Director of Special Programmes, Steve Wright, acknowledged. The VCS was never designed to do music, he is quoted as saying.
It was like a piano with a bunch of broken keys. From the beginning, the VCS had a complex relationship with the arcades. On the one hand, Atari boss, Nolan Bushnell, was keen to break the link between video games and the sleazy image that parents associated with arcades, bars and pool halls, but the success of the console depended on leveraging the reputation of the game titles that had proven themselves in those same sleazy arcades. Of the nine Atari titles that were available at launch, all but two had their roots in arcade games and either lifted directly or adapted gameplay elements from popular Atari coin ops.
The quality of the conversions varied, but perhaps the one that most authentically captured the feeling of arcade play in those early days was the port of Taito’s Space Invaders. Not only was this the first cross-company arcade-to-home licence, but it became the Atari’s first real killer app. Its success is almost certainly due to the game’s simplicity. The graphics and the controls are simple. And there’s no complex backstory to wrestle with. You can just dive straight in and play. And it’s addictive. Like Tetris, another game that captured the public imagination, there’s no end point. Wave after wave of aliens keep coming. The question is, how long can you hold them off? The sound is effective.
Again, the TIA provides synthetic blasts and explosions to accompany the action, but one crucial element is missing. In the original coin-op there’s a very subtle musical line. A descending Dorian scale that repeats and gradually speeds up as the alien invaders are dispatched. That’s an example of something we call non-diegetic music. That is, music that exists outside of the narrative world of the game and which is intended to provide an additional layer of emotional engagement for the player. In the coin-op, it’s very effective. You barely notice it. But as you play, you find your heartbeat and your respiration tuning into the tempo of that relentless musical line.
It creates a degree of tension that’s every bit as palpable as any motion picture thriller. The VCS version loses that, and although it’s fun to play, it’s not quite as tight or as tense as the original. That musical line had to go, because the developers didn’t have the memory or the computing power to recreate all of the elements of the game. And they decided that the music wasn’t as important as the sound effects. One of my favourite arcade games when I was a kid was Namco’s Dig Dug, and in the summer of 1983, it must have sucked up more of my pocket money than sweets and Action Man combined.
It’s colourful, it’s fun to play, and the music in the arcade machine, at any rate, is really quite sophisticated. In the game, you control the eponymous Dig Dug, who tunnels around a subterranean world fighting the fire-breathing Fygars and Pookas, cute little creatures that resemble beach balls in sunglasses, armed with nothing more than a bicycle pump. Those cute graphics belie surprisingly aggressive gameplay, an illusion completed by the bouncy and very catchy soundtrack that chirps away beneath the action. Yuriko Keino’s music in the arcade version begins with a catchy intro sting as Dig Dug enters the playfield from the top right of the screen and tunnels down to begin the game.
Now you can see and hear the differences in the Atari version straight away.
The graphics are chunkier and missing detail, while the music is slower and pitched a major third higher, a consequence of the Atari’s tuning system. The game also loses the two bar intro to minimise the memory requirements. Crucially though, the flavour of the original soundtrack is still there. Now there’s a real art to arranging music like this, in capturing the essence of a tune, while stripping it back to its core components. Dig Dug on the VCS manages to capture the spirit of the original track, as well as the limitations of the hardware allow.
Both versions of the game tie the soundtrack to player movements, playing the music back only when the player moves the joystick and vamping with a warning siren when the player stands still for any length of time. There is one important difference though. The arcade music maintains musical continuity, picking up the theme from where it left off when the player moves, while the VCS version restarts the theme from the beginning, again a restriction brought about by the Atari’s limited memory. The phenomenal success of many of Atari’s game cartridges seemed to sow the idea that they could sell anything, provided it was packaged as a video game. In 1982, for example, Atari released– –a video game version of the Rubik’s cube.
Apparently confident that people would pay 10 times as much for the digital version of a puzzle that played better as a collection of plastic parts and stickers. Nevertheless, Atari’s hopes were high for the 1982 release of Pac-Man. Too high perhaps.
Everybody knows Pac-Man. He was one of video gaming’s first iconic characters and, along with Mario, represents the popular notion of gaming. Although little more than a yellow circle, Pac-Man and his ghostly companions, Inky, Blinky, Pinky and Clyde, all seemed to have their own distinctive character, and the intro tune and the wakka wakka munching sound as Pac-Man gobbled up pellets, added to that sense of occasion. At a time when Atari estimated that there were around 10 million VCS consoles in circulation, the company manufactured 12 million Pac-Man cartridges, confident that demand for the game would drive sales of both cartridges and consoles.
The licencing deal cost Atari $1 million, and keen to get the game to market quickly to capitalise on Christmas sales, Pac-Man was fast tracked. Programmer Tod Frye developed the game from a prototype that he’d been working when Atari acquired the game rights. In an attempt to simplify the game enough to realise it on the VCS hardware, Frye straightened out the rounded edges of the maze and the pellets, and dropped the recognisable Pac-Man theme with its flamenco style half-step modulation in favour of a much shorter and featureless dirge at the start of play.
The directional animation of Pac-Man was also dropped, and the ghosts were not just indistinguishable, but they flickered as they moved, making playing the game a visually fatiguing experience.
Pac-Man had lost his personality. And the critical reception was damning. Next Generation magazine described it as the single worst coin-op conversion of all time. In the rush to market, Atari was eroding a consumer confidence and brand loyalty that just a year earlier had seemed to be unshakable. Pac-Man may have been the game that heralded the end of Atari, although undoubtedly it was the legendary E.T., a game so bad that thousands of unsold cartridges were crushed, dumped in the desert, and covered with concrete, that finally killed it off. Now of course, we’ve only been able to look at one or two examples of Atari game cartridges here. What I’d like you to do next is to play through some for yourself.
Below you can find links to several open source console emulators and video game ROMs. Please take the time to download and play through a few of these. It would certainly be a good idea to play through those titles that we’ve discussed here, but there are many other games that are interesting, either because they’re wonderful games like Activision’s Pitfall or Atari’s Pole Position, or because they exemplify significant moments in gaming history– Atari’s Snoopy vs. The Red Baron, for example, was one of the first games to feature the music of a professional media composer– and its music really shines as a result. Or, as with E.T. or Pac-Man, it’s because they are dreadful and show up the limitations of the machine’s hardware.
Once you’ve played a selection of games, I’d like you to post a short review of one of them, focusing on the sound and the music. How does the music stand up, both in and outside of the context of the game? Does the music work as game music? Would it stand up as music in its own right? Why? And what does that suggest more generally about media music?

Over its lifetime, a number of games, both good and bad, were released for the Atari VCS.

In this video, we’ll review a few of those that I think are important, either because they shaped people’s expectations of the console, because they were great games with great sound, or because they were dreadful and exposed the limitations of the hardware: you’ll realise that Atari’s TIA gave it what you might charitably describe as a ‘characterful’ voice.

Once you’ve completed the video step, what I’d like you to do is to play through some for yourself.

Below, you can find links to several open-source console emulators and to public domain and ‘home-brew’ video game ROMs. There’s also a link to an online VCS emulator that has embedded game ROMs. Please take the time to play through a few of these. It would certainly be a good idea to play through those titles that we’ve discussed here, but there are many other games that are interesting, either because they’re still very playable games, like Activision’s Pitfall II or Atari’s Pole Position; because they exemplify significant moments in gaming history – Atari’s Snoopy and the Red Baron, for example, was one of the first games to feature the music of a professional media composer, and its music stands out as a result – or, as with Pac Man and E.T., because they are dreadful and show up the limitations of the machine’s hardware.

Have a play, and think about the qualities of the music. Does it work as game music? Outside of the game would any of it stand up as music in its own right? Why? Is this to do with the music itself or its function as game music? Do you think expectations about game music would have been different back then? Should you be more forgiving of the music’s shortcomings because the hardware was so primitive by comparison to today’s platforms?

Please post a response to some or all of these questions in the comments section.

Please note that the links below will take you to external websites that are not affiliated with either FutureLearn or Abertay University.

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Video Game Design and Development: A Bit-by-Bit History of Video Game Music: Video Game Sound and Music

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