It’s funny how game consoles and computers carry different connotations with them. Even though consoles are just computers designed for a specific purpose, they carry a different association. Today, consoles are considered more “sociable” whereas PC gaming is often considered suitable for a “lone-wolf.” Multiplayer games on consoles are built with the living room in mind, and up until the seventh generation any game with a multiplayer mode included local multiplayer (i.e., the other players are sitting next to you instead of miles away) by default. In the 1970s and ’80s consoles also carried the connotation of shrinking down arcade cabinets to cartridges. Ever since the days of Home Pong consoles tried their hardest to bring arcade games to households.
Yar’s Revenge started, as many console games did back then, as a port of a popular arcade game. That game was the 1980 Star Castle by Cinematronics, a multi-directional shooter where you have to attack an enemy in the middle of the screen, break through the three shields surrounding it, and then fire through the opening to destroy it.
Lame jokes aside, Atari designer Howard Scott Warshaw began to port Star Castle to the Atari VCS, which by 1982 had been renamed “Atari 2600” after its production number. Warshaw made a few tweaks here and a couple of adjustments there, until the finished game was so far removed from the original that it was a whole new game. The “fortress” was at the right instead of center. There was now a neutral zone, where the Yar couldn’t be damaged by the heat-seeking missile but couldn’t fire either. The most interesting thing about this neutral zone–a long strip down the middle of the screen–is that it is not pixel art. It’s not a sprite or a background; rather, it’s a visual representation of the game’s code! Now how cool is that? It’s truly amazing just how much a skilled developer could squeeze out of the 2600, which at this point was five years old.
Have a look see:
Yar’s Revenge was a huge commercial and critical success, often being called one of the best games on the 2600. This success may have been helped by Atari’s tie-in comic book. As you saw in the Centipede article, Atari made short comics to go along with their respective games. In this specific comic, the Yars are an advanced alien bug species descended from Earthling house flies. Warshaw went on to make an adaptation of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (mirror) for the 2600, which was quite innovative and ambitious for its time. Warshaw must have been rewarded handsomely for his efforts, right? …In a manner of speaking, yes. Because Warshaw had proven himself a very talented designer with those two games, he was tasked by Atari with adapting another famous Spielberg movie you may have heard of.
That’s right. Atari really wanted to have a hit tie-in game on shelves for Christmas 1982. The biggest problem, however, was that Atari carts usually had a six-month dev cycle. Atari wanted it done in five weeks. Ray Kassar didn’t think it could even be done but Warshaw nonetheless gladly accepted the task and turned in his code right on time. E.T. was very innovative and, given the time to be polished, could have been a masterpiece. Warshaw was so sick of working on the game, however, that he was happy to turn it in. E.T. was one of the first console games to have a title screen (and an incredibly detailed one at that), it had open-ended gameplay with no violence or death, an arrow-like compass at the top of the screen, and an ending cutscene to reward the player, among other features. E.T. is oft maligned as the worst game ever made, but that’s not entirely fair. It’s more a tragic tale of what could have been. Yar’s Revenge was one of the best games for the 2600 and to think that Warshaw could have followed it up with another timeless classic is more disappointing than anything else. Of course, there were more dire consequences to face….
I don’t want to give away too much now, because I’d like to give a full account in my end-of-decade history review. For now, let’s just say that gamers, still freshly burned by the horrendous quality of Pac-Man, were not happy with Atari’s rush job. This, combined with a general lack of faith in the gaming market thanks to a glut of shovelware, led to the Gaming Crash of 1983. When word got out that Atari dumped some of their hardware in a New Mexico landfill (mirror), confidence further dropped and the console market all but died for a couple years.