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Brewskis: Quenching the Thirst for Fresh ColecoVision Titles

Posted by Rob Maerz on December 29, 2014 at 1:20 PM

Brewskis: Quenching the Thirst for Fresh ColecoVision Titles

Originally published in Classic Video Gamer magazine


In the summer of 1982, the ColecoVision’s release meant doomsday for the Atari 2600 and Mattel’s Intellivision home consoles. Coleco’s “Arcade Quality Video Game System” was released with the smash pack-in game Donkey Kong and solidified the system as an instant success selling out all 500,000 units in its initial production run. The most advanced home console of its time sold six million systems in just two short years.


Unfortunately, the ColecoVision was released only about eighteen months before the Video Game Crash. The crash, the disastrous ADAM computer and the passing of the Cabbage Patch Kids forced Coleco to declare bankruptcy in 1988.


Only around 125 titles were released during the ColecoVision’s production run. Arcade perfect ports like Mouse Trap, Frenzy, Carnival, Pepper II and Zaxxon have left ColecoVision enthusiasts thirsty for fresh new titles ever since.


Scott Huggins, a Math and Computer Science graduate of Southwest Texas State University, is a Software Engineer with Lanvera, LTD., a document outsourcing company. Huggins began programming for the ColecoVision in 2002 and has four titles to his credit: Cavern Rescue, Astro Invader, Spectar and Terra Attack.


Eduardo Mello is a programmer for Opcode Games. He began programming for the ColecoVision in 1998 and has six home brew titles to his credit with Space Invaders Collection, Sky Jaguar, Yie Ar Kung Fu, Magical Tree, Road Fighter and Pac-Man Collection.


These are the ColecoVision home brew meisters. It’s not a lucrative business, but a labor of love. I sat down with them to discuss the ColecoVision and home brewing for this historic console.


In its heyday, the arcade not only showcased the hottest games but also served as a hangout, meeting place and some even hosted competitions. There are those that say that the arcade is dead and that they simply are no longer profitable. Will we ever see people getting out of their homes and back into the arcades? And what is it about the modern console games that have lured people away from the simpler, two-dimensional classics?


Huggins: I don't think we will ever see it like it used to be. Certainly it will not have the feel that it did back in 1980-83. I guess we can blame technology for taking away the simplicity and charm that those old arcade machines delivered. I am not sure what exactly killed the feel of the classic arcade.


The classics were meant to be played for a maximum of fifteen minutes per quarter - very quick and you move on to something else or put in another quarter. I think the fast twitch factor is lost.


Mello: Technology became so advanced that it now requires large teams to develop both the hardware and software which translates into higher costs. Considering that the average arcade sells probably no more than 50,000 units, it isn't hard to figure out why we do not see many arcade games released anymore.


Huggins: It's an adventure to start playing a modern game nowadays. The games last forever as you can stop and continue a single game for over a period of days, weeks or months. They are all time consuming and require a lot of studying just to figure out how to play. I guess to many, that's called evolution.


Mello: The most traditional entertainment industry in the U.S. is Hollywood, so I believe that is why Americans like their games photorealistic and cinematic. If you think about it, the search for realism isn't anything new - get a copy of any video game magazine from the eighties and you will find reviewers describing how the graphics looked "almost real". The problem was that the technology wasn't there until recently.


The first person shooter games are the number one genre in the occident. For some reason our culture seems to enjoy extreme violence. In contrast, FPS games aren't as popular in Japan, an eastern country that hasn’t been involved in any war since World War II. Also, in Japan mangas and animes are the dominant form of entertainment. Thus, Japanese gamers aren't as concerned with photorealism and are more open to graphic abstractions.


Huggins: I would prefer to play Defender for ten minutes and then move on to Qix or something else. Some of my younger friends just cannot understand why I would waste time on those games versus an XBox 360 game.

What was the historical significance surrounding the release of the ColecoVision and how did its release influence the future of video gaming?


Mello: The ColecoVision was released during the Golden Age of Arcade Gaming and offered the closest to the arcade experience in the comfort of your own home.


Huggins: I am 40 years old. So, in late 1982 I was the perfect age (thirteen) to "get" the ColecoVision’s relevance when it was released. It looked so sleek. The television commercials and magazine ads made the console and games look state-of-the-art. I couldn't believe it.


Mello: The Expansion Module #1 (the Atari 2600 module) was a huge advantage back then and I think most people today just don't realize the importance of that. The success of the ColecoVision with its pack-in Donkey Kong cartridge convinced Nintendo to enter the video game market the following year in Japan.


Huggins: I had an Atari 2600 with about twenty games at the time. I remember in December 1982, all the guys in my school were nuts over the possibility of getting a ColecoVision for Christmas. I was envious because I knew I wouldn't be getting one.


You could certainly feel it immediately - people forgot about Intellivision or any Atari product as being the “cool system.” I still enjoyed my 2600 and playing my friend's Intellivision, but those that owned a ColecoVision were viewed as being in another league.


I think the ColecoVision came and went too fast. It never saw momentum since the video game industry crashed only eighteen months after its release.


What set ColecoVision apart from the competition at the time was arcade-like graphics for the home console. If you were to pick one game that looked, sounded and played like the arcade on a ColecoVision which title would it be and why? Additionally, what is your favorite ColecoVision title?


Huggins: My favorite ColecoVision title is Pepper II. Talk about a great translation of a very unknown (as was their M.O.) - Pepper II has it all: great sounds, nice graphics, perfect controls and perfect game play. It's one title I never got sick of.


Obviously, picking Donkey Kong as the pack-in cartridge was brilliant. It's arguable whether the game was done as well as it could have been done, but it was good enough and it played well. Just seeing it as it was on a regular television set with the theme song, graphics and sound effects was thrilling at the time.


Mello: There are many examples of very close ports. Games like Venture, Mouse Trap or even Turbo. Atarisoft also produced many first-rate ports like Galaxian and Defender. In fact I find it ironic that Coleco's biggest competitor was the one releasing the most polished games for the ColecoVision. All Atarisoft games were very well programmed and in some cases were using some very advanced techniques. I wish I had met the team that created them.


Some of my favorites like Zaxxon, Tapper and Mr Do! were not arcade perfect but were a lot of fun nevertheless.


What was the most damaging blow to Coleco and what could they have done differently to stay afloat during those down years in the video game industry?


Huggins: At the time of the crash there was an immediate shift towards home computers. You could program your own software, buy non-game software and also buy great looking games. It seemed the more versatile way to go.


Mello: The ADAM was their worst decision, but I understand why they were putting all their chips on it. The video game market was collapsing and the word was that video games were a fad and computers were the future. So they were doing what everybody else was doing, switching from video games to computers.


We know how the ADAM ended: being rushed to the market, full of bugs and other problems. But, even if they had missed their release window in Christmas 1983 and waited until 1984 to have a more stable product it probably would not have made a difference. By then 16-bit computers were all the rage and 8-bit computers started to fade away.


Another issue was software quality. Do you realize how amateurish game development was back in the early eighties? Companies were not applying the most basic rules of software engineering. A programmer leaving a company most of the time would spell the end of a product.


I believe that Coleco should have stayed in the video game market only, improved their overall quality (both hardware and software) and focus on designing unique products.


After the market crashed, Nintendo released the Entertainment System in 1985 which in effect revived the video game industry and has grown into the behemoth that we know of today. If Coleco was financially stable in the late 1980s [they declared bankruptcy in 1988] what challenge, if any, could it have presented to the NES?


Huggins: Games will always look better on the NES because of its color palette and better sprite hardware - it's just a more capable machine. However, the ColecoVision was not “pushed” until then and I think it could've evolved nicely had it been given the chance.


Mello: I believe the ColecoVision was a viable platform. Sure, it isn't as powerful as the NES as it lacks a few important features like hardware scroll. But, you can still produce some quality games for it and the hardware could be produced at a very competitive price.


A unique advantage of the ColecoVision was the expansion port which is unusually complete and flexible for a video game (or even computer) system. The ColecoVision expansion port basically exposes the whole system bus to the outside world allowing you to add more memory, peripherals and replace the video, sound and even central processors. Because of that, Coleco would have released a “ColecoVision II” between 1985 and 1987 yet still allow ColecoVision users to upgrade without the need of buying a new machine.


In Japan, two systems similar to the ColecoVision evolved into far more powerful machines during the eighties. The Sega SG-1000 used the same ColecoVision hardware with just a few differences in memory and I/O mapping. In 1985 Sega created the Master System which was basically an SG-1000 with an improved video processor. It was even backward compatible with the SG-1000. That is something Coleco could have done.


Then there’s the MSX - a standardized format for home computer. Also very similar to the ColecoVision, yet it evolved not one, not two, but three times - all backward compatible.


Additionally, in Japan Konami was a major player in the MSX software market. Had the ColecoVision stayed around, Konami would have ported most of their MSX games to the ColecoVision in the US and I am sure a few other Japanese companies could have done the same. In fact, three games that Konami created for the MSX were ported to the ColecoVision: Antarctic Adventure, Cabbage Patch Kids (Athletic Land in Japan) and Monkey Academy. More were planned like Video Billiards but cancelled because of the crash.


Why the significance of home brewing for classic consoles like the ColecoVision and what do you “get” out of it?


Huggins: Nostalgia is part of it. The feeling of late 1982 came back when I had a working version of Phoenix that I had been developing for the ColecoVision. I then wanted to port an obscure arcade title in the same traditional vein that Coleco had previously. Astro Invader is certainly not an arcade classic, but I thought it might translate well to the ColecoVision.


Mello: I believe that home brewing helps keep classic consoles like the ColecoVision alive. In the 1990s, people like me started to rediscover classic consoles and collect them. Fifteen years later, most of us had already completed their collections. I believe that eventually we would all get bored playing the same games for decades. Home brewing is here to fill that gap and to offer us something new to play from time to time.


It's very rewarding to be able to create or port a game for such limited machines. The sense of accomplishment is out of this world.


What motivated you, Scott Huggins, to port obscure titles like Astro Invader and Spectar?


Huggins: That’s one thing that I am attracted to regarding the ColecoVision. Space Panic, Pepper II, Cosmic Avenger, Looping, etc. aren’t exactly classic arcade titles. But, Coleco made them available on their console, which I thought was great. So, I wanted to try to continue that tradition.



 

 Is there any competition between each developer? For example, is it race to stake claim to writing a particular arcade port?


Mello: It is more a matter of who wants to do what. Once someone announces that they are porting a given game then that game is taken and we will look somewhere else. But I don’t think it’s really competition.


Huggins: When I was roughly fifty percent complete with Phoenix, Opcode expressed interest but they let me try to finish it. I told Eduardo I was abandoning that project but I don't think he wants to pick it up. I think all ColecoVision developers help each other out a lot - a very friendly group of guys.


Mello: I toyed with the idea of porting Phoenix and I actually even exchanged a few emails with Scott about that. But, I couldn't shake the feeling that I was stealing someone else's project.


What technical background is required in home brewing for the ColecoVision and what type of person home brews for the ColecoVision? How different is it to program for the ColecoVision versus the Atari 2600?


Mello: The ColecoVision is actually very easy to program for. Although it is less powerful, in many ways its architecture is similar to a more modern platform like the Super NES.


Huggins: It's totally different from the 2600. We have Video RAM which is really nice. All the cycle counting on the 2600 makes it very challenging to code for that machine. Those 2600 developers who have been doing it within the last five to six years are incredible.


Mello: The 2600 is very hard to program because the hardware is completely unusual: there is no real video processor therefore the CPU must create the whole video on the fly which is very complicated and requires precise timing in software.


I believe that what is required to program the ColecoVision is first of all a good understanding of the machine along with a good understanding of what you can and cannot do. A good starting point is to play as many games as you can, including games on similar platforms like the SG-1000 and MSX. That will give you a good sense of what can be done.


Then try to learn Z80 assembly. While you can program the ColecoVision using C language, Z80 assembly is the way to go if you want to extract the most out of the machine. It can be a hard and slow process in the beginning, but later on it will prove a very useful tool and will give your games a technical edge.


Huggins: To get into ColecoVision programming at an entry level, you should carefully and patiently read Daniel Bienvenu's C-Programming Tutorial document. You could then get going pretty quickly if you have a decent amount of C-Programming experience.


How do we keep alive classic console home brewing for the next generation of developers?


Huggins: I'm not sure but it seems to be flowing along well. I joined AtariAge.com in 1999 when it was called Atari 2600 Nexus. It's every bit as strong now as it was then.


Mello: I am about to be a father of a baby boy and of course I will introduce him to video games eventually. What I think I can do is to introduce him first to Atari and ColecoVision. This way I hope he develops at least some respect for those old consoles and games. I will also try to get him involved with classic gaming activities, like gatherings and such, so hopefully he feels like he is part of the whole thing. And of course in the future, if he expresses a desire for home brewing I will be there to support him.


How long does it take, on average, to reach completion on a given project? Which project was your easiest and which was your most challenging and what made that project challenging?


Huggins: Astro Invader was by far the easiest as it only took three months. Spectar was the most challenging in that it took roughly one year to complete. I find the sprite limitations on the ColecoVision to be very hindering. So, in the later levels on Spectar to get that many moving objects on screen at once without flicker was a challenge.


Mello: A game can take from a couple of months to many years. So far I have authored only arcade ports.


Porting an MSX game is fairly simple and quick, while porting an arcade game can take years. Pac-Man was ported from an arcade game and the hardware is quite different from the ColecoVision. That means I must convert all routines to simulate the arcade hardware. The MSX on the other hand is very similar to the ColecoVision hardware as it uses the same CPU and video processor.


Pac-Man Collection started in 2003 and was released in 2008. While I cannot say it took five years to complete because I was actually working on many different games during the same time, it surely took hundreds of hours of programming effort. So I would say it was the most challenging so far.


Strangely, Donkey Kong, a game that would be perceived as a bit more complex, has been progressing at a far better pace, perhaps because I am more experienced now.


The VideoGameCritic.net review on Sky Jaguar questioned "why bother on this old relic" calling it "bland" and "generic.” They then go on to state from a technical standpoint that it "scrolls in a jerky manner." How do you react to negative reviews and in retrospect do you say "yes, there is a way that I could have fixed the scrolling issue" or is it an instance where any possible solution had been exhausted?


Mello: Reviews are always a matter of personal taste. If a reviewer hates RPGs, no matter how good an RPG is that reviewer will always say it isn't good enough.


While this particular reviewer did not like Sky Jaguar, I have heard a number of people saying the opposite and that Sky Jaguar is the best shooter they have played on the ColecoVision. It is also fair to mention that Sky Jaguar isn't a game that I created as I only ported it from the MSX. The reason I ported it was because on the MSX it is the best shooter available that requires only 1KB of RAM which is the amount available on the ColecoVision.


From the technical point-of-view the problem with the scroll isn't related to the game but to the ColecoVision itself. The video doesn't offer a scroll smooth function, so we have two options: tile scroll, where the playfield is scrolled 8 pixels at a time or smooth scroll by software. Smooth scroll by software requires that you define the same tile four or eight times (1 or 2 pixels scroll) for each tile instance with an increased number of pixels shifted. The problem with that solution is that the number of tiles available is reduced by four or eight. The other problem is that the video has a color limitation where each character line can have only two colors and when you start to shift pixels that just gets worse.


So, games that use the software scroll solution get severely limited in terms of tile variety or color or both. That is why Sky Jaguar doesn't use it - it is a design decision and I honestly prefer it that way.

Eduardo, you wrote Pac-Man Collection which has been auctioned off on eBay for as high as $350. Do you see this as a form of flattery or is there resentment as to what may be perceived to be others profiting from your efforts?


Mello: I think it's more of the latter, unfortunately. What I believe is happening is that a lot of people outside the AtariAge.com circle do not know about the game and think they are getting a “one of a kind” deal when actually it is widely available. Sure, we have been slow to ship, but it's just a matter of waiting a few months at most.




What is the reason for Space Invaders Collection not being available at this time?


Mello: We ran out of manuals and boxes for the game. But we have plans for it, stay tuned.

 

Do you have any additional games planned for development or currently in progress?


Huggins: I am about 95 percent complete with an original game called Frantic which is best described as "Frenzy on steroids". Joe Kollar, who does the label and box artwork for my games, designed it while I did all the programming. When it is complete, I think it will be my best programming feat thus far as I pulled some stuff off that I didn't think I could.


Pixel-to-pixel collision detection is one thing I had to do. I needed to do that in order to let your player get out of the tight sports he can get in with robots, missiles and the cannon laser fire. You have to be dead accurate with your firing to destroy your intended target. In the past, if you were "close enough" (for example three or four pixels within target) you were awarded the kill or you were killed. Again, some of those levels have so much going on. Lots of sound, lasers, robots, missiles, and Heinous Hank (equivalent to Evil Otto in Berzerk) all going at once and the game does not slow one bit.


Also, I tried to really break the mold graphic-wise and not look so much like a computer game but more like an arcade game. The game just needs more polish and a couple bug fixes and it should be ready.


Mello: I have many games currently in development:


Donkey Kong Arcade is a port of the original Donkey Kong arcade game. The idea is to produce a more faithful version of the game than the one shipped with each ColecoVision. For example, this new version includes the conveyor belt stage, all the intermissions and a permanent high score table. Some would say that the ADAM version offered all of that too, but graphics in the new version are much more faithful and game play is as close to the arcade version as possible.


Arkanoid is a port of the Taito classic. All the small details found in the arcade version will be present, and some kind of analog controller will be offered so the experience is as arcade-like as possible.


Rally-X is a port of a Namco game and is in very early stages of development. The final game should offer fast and smooth scrolling.


Then I have many MSX ports in different stages of completion:


Knightmare is one of the best (if not the best) shoot-em-up for the MSX. It features fast action, smooth sprite animation, eight different stages, bosses and many different weapons and special powers to choose from. The ColecoVision version will include an easy mode (because the original game is so insanely hard) and permanent save of high scores and warp zones.


Goonies is a Konami game based on the classic Richard Donner movie. It offers five different stages with dozens of screens each. The ColecoVision version will replace the password system with saving points for easier access.


Yie Ar Kung Fu II - The Emperor Yie-Gah. This is the follow-up for the first YAKF featuring more fighters, more scenarios, better sound and graphics and more challenging game play.


Zanac is a version of the classic Compile shooter. This game was actually first released for the MSX in Japan, and then ported for the Famicom Disk System (which later was ported to cartridge for the US release). The game is very long and the final boss is one of the coolest ever.


There are more, like Gradius, but they are still in very early stages of development. All the games above will require the Opgrade Module, a small expansion module for the ColecoVision that will increase the memory of the system.


What exactly is the Opgrade module?


Mello: The OM is still under development so specs can change. What we have for sure is 24KB of additional main RAM, 128KB of Flash memory for the new BIOS and to save games and 128KB of RAM for the MegaRAM which is a device that simulates a bank-switch capable cartridge.


I have a number of games in development for the OM, including ports of Donkey Kong and Arkanoid, as well as many MSX ports, like Knightmare, Goonies, Yie Ar Kung-Fu II, Kings Valley, Zanac and more. The module should be available later this year or early next year with two games: a pack-in (Donkey Kong Arcade) and a standalone game which will probably be Knightmare. Developers will be able to use the OM if they want and will be welcome to do so.


How will the ColecoVision stock controller work with a paddle-based game like Arkanoid?


Mello: We are planning to offer two control options: one based on some kind of analog controller or perhaps an adaptor for Atari paddles and the other using the regular ColecoVision controllers. The problem with the regular controller is that you lose speed control, but we will try to offer some speed control thru the second action button. For example, press the button to go faster, release it to go slower. Not perfect but better than nothing for those who don't have an Atari paddle. The spinner on Super Action Controllers and track-balls won't be supported since they are too CPU intensive.


Which of these arcade titles would you or would you not consider porting to the ColecoVision and why: Satan’s Hollow, Galaga, Turtles, Moon Cresta / Eagle, Tazz-Mania, Make Trax and Magical Spot II.


Mello: Never heard of Magical Spot II. What is that - a porn game?


Huggins: Satan’s Hollow is very doable and would translate very well to the ColecoVision. However, Galaga would be very challenging to pull off.


Mello: Moon Cresta is kind of a classic of the shooting genre. Not high in my list but still a possibility.


Huggins: I seriously considered Moon Cresta at one time but instead I opted for Spectar for the vaporware aspect. Spectar was shown as an upcoming game in 1982 but never saw the light of day.


Mello: Turtles I played a lot on the Odyssey 2 and is also a possibility. Galaga is a no-brainer although I have been trying to figure out the best way to port it.


For more information on purchasing these home brew releases, visit www.AtariAge.com and www.opcodegames.com.


 


 

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