Tuesday, November 10, 2009


I've already written extensively about Adventure 2600. I blogged the first article in March, The 2600 Adventure of Zelda. In this article I explored the connection between Adventure and The Legend of Zelda, and I argued that Zelda owes most of its mechanics and feel to Adventure. Soon after, I reviewed the fantastic remake, Adventure 2600 Reboot pioneered by SlashX. This time, however, I'd like to actually focus on Adventure 2600.

Part of Adventure's charm is its impressive creation date: 1979. The suits at Atari told Warren Robinett not to make the game because it couldn't be done. There simply wasn't enough room for a real Adventure in 4k of data. Robinett proved them wrong and still had enough free space on the cart to produce a nice big "fuck you": he included his name in a secret room. His action is both a rejection of Atari's tyrannical authorship attribution policy (no designers were credited for their work) and the creation of the first video game Easter egg. This act of defiance is worthy of a folk song. I'm already writing it in my head: it could involve some programming contest with the devil in which Robinett wins by producing Adventure and Satan loses with the "Basic Programming" cartridge also produced in 1979 (programs on this cart can only be 63 characters in length, have fun).

Although its background and conception are interesting and complex, the plot of Adventure remains simple and archetypical: a wizard stole the chalice (Holy Grail) and you have to retrieve it. There are bats and dragons. Well, that's the official story, and, like the simple graphics, the player is free to imagine what the escapades of their heroic square symbolize. What does the square do once the kingdom is saved? What kingdom is this? Where is the wizard? Why is the world so small? We'll never know the answers, but I wouldn't have it any other way. Some games you can be a valiant night on a righteous quest to save the land. Other times you are a sneaky rogue or dragon poacher. The possibilities only end with your deteriorating adult imagination!

It's difficult to determine if more gamers played Adventure around its release or in more recent times thanks to Atari collections, emulators, and TV plug-ins. My first experience with Adventure is worth noting: the year is 2003 and I am a college freshman. I had always heard of Adventure, and vaguely remembered seeing it played as a kid, but had never paid attention and didn't know anything about the game. My friend Ryan and I were exploring the city, reveling in our recent emancipation from parental constraints, and, of course, we ended up at Wal-Mart. Now, if you'll think back 6 years you might remember that A/V Atari TV adapter joysticks were all the rage. We see one that looks fun: it has Missile Command, Adventure, and other classics (and several not-so-classics). Back at the dorm: we try to play Adventure. We have no idea what the fuck to do. Ryan grabs the sword and accidentally kills a dragon. We reach the first hyper maze (blue) and explore for about 5 minutes, but we don't find our way out of its treacherous perplexity. We switched to Missile Command.

Fast Forward to about 10 months ago. I had just moved to a new city and was craving a new adventure. Naturally, Adventure came to mind and I traveled far and wide searching for the same cheap TV aracade stick I played Adventure on years earlier. After visiting every store in town (Toys 'R Us, Wal-Marts, K-Marts, etc.) I caved and downloaded Stella and the rom. Still confused, I managed to beat the game in about 20 minutes (on Quest 1, which is pretty pathetic). A huge wave of disappointed washed over me: the game was pathetically small. However, after quick internet research I discovered that the game has OTHER MODES!

So I began Quest 2 and was shocked by the bat! I'd never seen it before! Originally I felt crippled by the bat. I was always nervous that she would grab my items. The anxiety was surprisingly heavy in those early days before I had beaten the game hundreds of times. Commonly, the bat will steal your items at the exact moment before you use it, often replacing it with a dragon before you even notice that something happened. The bat seemed like an impossible foe, I couldn't fight him and my only hope, originally, was to catch her and let her hold the items that I needed to use. I later discovered the bat's secret: she can only swap items, never randomly drop them! This includes items laying on the ground or in the player's hand. She can, however, pick up any item when she is holding nothing. It was a tough battle, but, with the help of the continue feature I finally tackled Quest 2.

(In Adventure 2600 Reboot the Bat is currently glitchy: she can pick up more than one item, instantly teleport items, drop items anywhere she wants. This weekend she literally took my sword and replaced it with 4 fucking dragons. The goddamn game only has 3 dragons so I'm not sure what was going on. Cases like this are somewhat rare, but not as rare as you might think. Still, the challenge is welcome!)

Quest 3, however, composes the meat of the game. Certainly I'll revisit Quest 1 and 2, but most of the hundred-or-so hours I've played Adventure (and Adventure 2600 Reboot) have been dedicated to Quest 3, in which all the items are randomized. This typically produces an easier quest than Quest 2 because in Quest 2 the player is required to enter all 3 castles, including the "secret" room in the White Castle which is only accessible via the bridge. However, it can also generate extremely painful quests, or even impossible quests. Overall, because of the complexity and variable output, Quest 3 is the most satisfying mode Adventure has to offer. Unlike other adventure games, in Adventure 2600 your hero is lightning fast. The player can zip around the map at high-speed, fusing arcade twitch gameplay and exploration.

But playing games by oneself can grow dull, and, therefore, you should seek out fellow adventurers. This weekend, Sami and I Adventured together and I think she gained a new appreciation of the game. We didn't just play it once, of course, but, as typical Adventure 2600 session go, we played game after game after game. Together we probably saved that fucking cup around a dozen times (and I sneaked in even more games when I could). I still get a thrill from trying to run 15 screens with an item before the bat steals it.

Designers can learn a lot from Adventure. Although Adventure is small in size and relatively "simple," it constitutes a very complex and well-balanced game. The design is absolutely perfect, in a way that more complex projects can never hope to replicate. It is a perfectly balanced equation. I don't expect perfection in art, but I do expect an attempt at perfection. But above all else, like Ezra Pound says, make it NEW! Make it ambitious!

More important than appreciating Warren Robinett's achievement, however, is an admiration for the oldest hero in video games, that tiny square. One can learn a lot from the square: how to blend in to the environment, advantageously use magnetics, and, finally, understand that no matter how far and wide we adventure our reality remains small and confining. One's life may be confusing and difficult, yet one has the ability to heroically triumph under most conditions. Sometimes, like in Adventure, victory is impossible. Victory and loss, however, are both arbitrary terms created by other humans; it is through one's own deeds that one makes meaning from a randomly-scattered reality.

(article not yet proofread).


The Dread Pirate Guy said...

Did you ever see the homebrew Adventure 2 for the Atari 5200?


It was on AtariAge for the longest time. It looked like a really good fan project until (I'm guessing) Atari put a stop to it.

8bitcity said...

To my knowledge they didn't put a stop to it but decided to fully support it as a real game :) It even got released on one of the Atari Flashbacks!

Actually there were 3 sequels. From wikipedia:

In 2005, a sequel written by Curt Vendel was released by Atari on the Atari Flashback 2. This sequel was roughly based on a condensed version of mazes from the Atari 5200 sequel Adventure II. In 2007, AtariAge released a self-published sequel heavily inspired by the original, called Adventure II for the Atari 5200. It was used with permission from Atari Interactive.

Unknown said...

I forgot how detailed and thorough your reviews are. I am truly impressed man, truly!

Del_Duio said...

At the time, no other game came close to how fun Adventure was. I must've played this thing to death as a kid.

The dragons used to scare the shit out of me occasionally, like when you'd leave a room and the thing would be right next to you and do that Atari booping "roar" sound. The bat in this game is such a pain in the ass too haha.

James Dziezynski said...

I was lucky enough to have played through Adventure around the height of its popularity in 1981. I was all of 5 years old, but defintely remember that bright orange box! My sister and I hand drew maps to try and figure out the mystery of the unnamed kingdom-- those were some good times!

One thing I'll never understand though, is how Adventure is clear cut classic and yet E.T. on the 2600 is lambasted to no end. As a marketing ploy, yes it failed and the timing was awful, however E.T. is a pretty good game (switch around some graphics and you could have Adventure 2)!

I've come to realize the bulk of E.T. haters are younger gamers who probably play E.T. for 30 seconds and condemn it, but for a 2600 game it has good depth, good play control, an actual quest, good graphics and even a little bit of music!

My point is it's funny how history remembers certain games. I love Adventure and I'm sure it helped fuel my love for gaming in general.

8bitcity said...

I really can't side with you on the E.T. issue. That game is terrible. However, I play tons of terrible atari games too, like Double Dragon. Terrible.

So nothing personal, but how is the play control in ET good? You float and fall and it's just weird. Plus, dude, the pits. The fucking pits. Always. Really the pits are the game-breaking feature that I can't get over.

Another game I wish I could understand is Lord of the Rings. Seriously what the fuck is going on with that game. I walked for half an hour one time, nothing happened. I don't know what to do. Pretty realistic transition ironically.

Del_Duio said...

I had E.T. as a kid and it was very frustrating. You'd always fall in those pits and it took forever to get out. I really didn't even know what to do aside from fall down random pits looking for pieces of his communicator or whatever. And to avoid those cops or whatever they were.

Is it the WORST game of all time? I dunno about that. It isn't very good at my age now and at my age way back then though.