Arcade Perfect talks about the history of porting arcade games to home console and handheld consoles. This is a subject which is very interesting, and not one I have read a lot about. Many of the stories in this book made me feel for the developers, especially early on when the console limitations hamstrung what they could and couldn’t do. Once we move into the more powerful consoles, or the handhelds, the story change to what else the developers were able to add to the port.
David starts by going over Pong and Atari’s journey in making dedicated pong consoles in the 70s. This part covers a few chapters and reads a bit like an early history of video games. We hear about the origins of Atari, and we get the story of the Magnavox Odyssey. The Odyssey was still being sold around this time, but it was the victim of horrible marketing. People thought it was only usable with a Magnavox TV, people didn’t know how to market the system, and it had the misfortune of being first. People just didn’t know what they were looking at. This is leading up to Atari pitching a dedicated pong console to Sears.
While I have read the story of Atari trying to explain their console to executives at Sears before, I still find it funny. At the time, I can see why they were confused by what Atari had presented them. Computers were new, and the prototype which Atari presented them with looked strange. It was described as a rat’s nest of wires inside a wooden box. The production models looked much better. David explains how Atari wanted to build a custom chip so it would be harder for other companies to make their own consoles. Given how many pong consoles there are, I’m not sure it mattered that much.
There are a lot of Atari 2600 ports talked about, including Space Invaders, Donkey Kong, and Night Driver. The differences and challenges of working on PAL ports which run at 50 frames per second, and the NTSC games which run at 60 frames per second is discussed. As the book goes on, it turns from talk about porting games to talking about what the developers can add to the port to make it stand out, and to put their own stamp in it.
The stories in this book are really interesting. I also like hearing the perspectives of the people who worked on the ports and hearing their feelings on how those ports are looked at now. There are two in particular I found interesting. The first in the story of the Pac-Man Atari 2600 port, and the second in the Donkey Kong port for the Atari 2600. Both stories have parts in them which I enjoyed more than the ports. They have stories of what it was like as a game developer working on their own and about some of the other companies making Atari 2600 games.
David explains how Todd Frye worked on Pac-man for the Atari 2600. He mentions the technical limitations, the choices he made while making it, and some of the background on Frye and the relationship between Namco and Atari. Frye had to deal with some of the nonsense that was going on at Atari around this time. Howard Scott Warshaw goes into more detail on just what was happening in his book Once Upon Atari. One thing that is pointed out is how the aging Atari 2600 was never going to be able to replicate what the arcade game was going to look like.
This is around the time we hear about getting the spirit of the game onto the cartridge. The technical limits, the small cartridge that Frye had to use, and the time frame he had to operate in made the port much harder to pull off. Compared to other arcade ports though, this one stick out because of the situation at Atari. Pac-man, like ET, was released right before, and contributed to, the North American video game crash. When you look at this port of Pac-man, you can see it’s a maze case game. It just doesn’t look like Pac-man. Especially when you compare it to the unlicensed knock offs of Pac-man.
In these chapters about Todd Frye and Pac-man, there is a story about another company. It’s mentioned how Frye was thinking about leaving Atari, along with Howard Scott Warshaw, to help get 20th Century Fox’s game company off the ground. I’ve talked a bit about this when I went over the 20th Century Fox games on my YouTube channel. Warshaw explains more about this in Once Upon Atari while David mentions it going on at the same time. It makes me wonder what would have happened to the two projects, Pac-man and ET, if they had left. I’m guessing ET would have been delayed. I doubt they would have been cancelled due to how much money Atari spent on the licenses, and how Atari was run at the time.
The story of the Donkey Kong port was also fascinating, not because of the game itself, but for the story of the developer. David gives us the story of Gary Kitchen, and also a little bit about the company US Games. I found the process that Kitchen went though to be amazing! He created his own development kit for the Atari 2600 and learned how to program games for it. This was still at a time when programming games for the console was limited to a select group of people. Kitchen didn’t come from Atari. He learned how to make games on his own by just working hard at it. He made some games for a short-lived company called US Games, and when they weren’t paying him what he was worth, Kitchen went out on his own.
There are a few stories in here which I like. Many of they have to do with Kitchen showing Atari his port and them telling him he needed to make the platforms diagonal. This gets into some of the limitations he was working with. Unlike Frye with the Pac-man port, Kitchen was learning the different tricks of the hardware as he went. I do like how the issues he found were dealt with. This is another example of a port bringing as much of the game to the console as possible. It’s also an example of hearing about all of the work being put into one of these ports and the developer talk about the experience of making it.
There are many other stories in this book which were interesting. Once you get to the modern ports of retro games you hear about the developer trying to add value to their port. Sometimes it’s a lot of additional materials, other times it’s as simple as an easter egg with the developer’s name. The process of making these was something I had never thought about before, and it puts many of the less than perfect arcade ports in perspective.
The book also touches on game preservation as well. Not just getting the ROM of the game but adding the design documents and interviews with the developers. It’s a subject which is only recently being taken seriously. Many of these games, and the ports specifically, add to the history of video games. That makes this book feel a little more important for me. Not only is it a good resource for information on porting games, but it also adds a lot to video game history as well.