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With Atari's Video Computer System (2600) having hit its 40th anniversary sometime between August and September this year, I thought it would be a little fun to do a review of a new "homebrew" game for the system.  AtariAge.com released "Scramble" by Champ Games for Atari VCS this year, four decades after the system first hit the streets, and it's quite an incredible game.

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Play with either the Atari Joystick or a Sega Genesis Gamepad - Scramble is programmed to discern between the two.  Read on to learn more!

“Scramble” for Atari VCS is a port of the 1981 arcade game of the same name by Konami, designed and programmed by Champ Games, and published by AtariAge.com.  It was released through AtariAge in July of 2017, one of seven new homebrew games which were released for the VCS this year – 40 years after the system first hit the streets (semi-officially on 11 September 1977; local stores nearby Sunnyvale, CA had the system advertised as early as 1 August of that year).  It is a side-scrolling space shooter with 99 run-throughs and incremented difficulty.

Under the Hood:

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Stars, bullets, and blasts, oh my!

Scramble is an incredibly well executed port, especially given the limitations of the VCS.  It is a 32K game that uses the Display Processor Chip-Plus (DPC+) to assist the VCS’s 8-bit 6507 CPU.  The practice of adding extra chips to game boards was popularized by Nintendo (think Star Fox and Yoshi’s Island), but was pioneered by Activision for the game Pitfall II: Lost Caverns (1984) for Atari VCS.  Developed by David Patrick Crane (interesting how the chip was named, isn’t it?), the DPC helps return processing cycles to the 6507 CPU, while also enabling 3-voice, 4-bit digital sound.  Effectively, the DPC increases the number and quality of sprites that can be drawn simultaneously, as well as improving the quality of sound that the VCS can produce.  The modern “Harmony” and “Melody” chips used in many homebrews include DPC+ mode, which further improves upon Crane’s DPC.  While not all homebrews utilize DPC+, Scramble takes full advantage of it, and the results are impressive.

Graphics, Music, and Gameplay:

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In Atari's heyday, a title screen with selectable game settings was unheard of.  It is actually fairly common in today's homebrew games.  Akin to the arcade, Scramble shows a "splash" screen as well as the point values for each target, and high-scores screen.  Note the game's code was completed in 2016; it was not available in cartridge format until this year.

At power up, Scramble features a starting screen akin to the arcade original, where the player may select difficulty (Novice, Standard, Advanced, or Expert), view the high score table, and is also shown the point value for each target destroyed (also displayed in the arcade game, and akin to Robotron 2084, Defender, etc.).  When the player begins, the game opens with the original arcade stage music, albeit not quite as deep and booming as the coin-op version’s.  The other arcade sounds are there as well.  The bombs make the classic whistle as they fall, the multi-part explosions for fuel tanks, bases, and the player’s ship are intact, and the UFOs have their own wobbly noise in line with the original.  As with the arcade game, there is a limit to how many sounds can be played at once, so if the screen gets particularly busy, some will cut out (e.g., bomb whistle) until things calm down.  From a graphics perspective, Scramble is up there with the best of them.  The colors are vivid, especially when playing on a CRT television (even the screen captures don’t do it justice, since they grab the signal before the TV displays it), and although the graphics are not quite as good as the arcade’s (more on this later), the game is simply gorgeous.  The map is practically identical in layout to the arcade, the number of sprites on the screen is astounding for a VCS game, the stars sparkle in the background, and screen flicker when multi-color sprites overlap (think about the ghosts from Pac Man) doesn’t impact gameplay (indeed, when you're in the heat of battle, it's almost unnoticeable).  At certain points on the map more than 6 sprites can be on the same scan-line, including the player’s multi-colored sprite, bullets, and bombs, and the screen flicker has no bearing on gameplay in any way.  Such a display could even make an NES slow down and flicker (Technodrome in TMNT, anyone?).  The game supports 2 bombs and 3 blaster shots simultaneously, allowing for up to 5 offensive shots on the screen at once.  Bombs dropped from high altitude take a while to fall, however, so your bomb release rate typically drops the higher you are.  Every time you complete a stage, making it through the “Base” section at the end of the run, you start at the beginning at higher speed and with tougher enemies (akin to the arcade).  Another challenge is your fuel supply.  At lower difficulties, fuel consumption is lower, but in Advanced and Expert, you have to take more risks to ensure you shoot the fuel tanks (labeled with an "F") to keep enough gas to get to the end of each stage.  Sometimes, you'll have to swoop down and engage with blasters, even if it means putting yourself in line with a missile or meteor.  The game supports 99 play-throughs.  Admittedly, I’ve made it through only 3.

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On "Expert" difficulty, the UFO's fire back, and some of the rockets seek the player.  This shot also shows the variety of multi-colored sprites supported simultaneously, even on the same scan-line, and the number of player shots that can be displayed simultaneously.  Note the fuel tank at the bottom left of the stage.

Controls:

The stage constantly scrolls to the right, while the player’s controls are unlimited mobility top-to-bottom, and up to half-screen left-to-right.  That mobility is especially necessary in section 5, where the player navigates through the opening of the final base, and getting the ship to the right place at the right time is absolutely paramount to success.  Scramble is also one of a handful of games for the VCS which supports more than a single button on the controller.  Long-time fans of Atari may already know that the VCS is compatible with the Sega Genesis gamepad controller in place of the Joystick (it won’t work for the analog Paddle or Driving controllers).  The VCS recognizes the d-pad for directional input and the “B” button in place of the standard joystick button.  Scramble was programmed to check if a Genesis controller is connected to the Atari upon power-up.  If detected, the game allows for the use of the “C” button to drop bombs, and the “B” button to fire the ship’s blasters, giving the player more control over their shots.  If a standard Atari Joystick is plugged in, the button will fire both bombs and blasters simultaneously, which is still easily playable.  Excepting at higher difficulties, the extra control from the Genesis gamepad is really a nicety, so don’t sweat it if you don’t have one.  If you need to take a moment away, the game also has a pause feature, which is highly uncommon for Atari games.  In the case of Scramble, flipping the Color/Black and White switch on the console will pause or un-pause the game.

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Positioning can be paramount - immediately after this still-frame capture, I crashed into the fuel tanks.

Differences from the Arcade:

As one would expect when bringing an arcade game to Atari, there are a few differences from the original.  The fine detail isn’t quite there on the Atari port – for example, the bombs are little squares instead of the arcade style sprites with fins and tubular body, the ship exhaust is monochrome, and the sprites themselves have less detail.  As mentioned above, the sound isn’t quite as “boomy” as the arcade version, although it is highly faithful.  The terrain isn’t in solid colors like the arcade, rather, it is constructed using colored lines.  Even so, this is a damn-close port, more faithful than many of the best ports on Atari across the 1970s and 1980s, and although higher fidelity is now fairly commonplace for 21st Century homebrews (e.g., Juno First, Pac Man 4K, Chetiry), Scramble is a cut above.  It captures the arcade original’s gameplay with what are, frankly, minimal sacrifices to complete the port.

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Flaming meteors in stage 3.  A bit tricky in higher difficulties to keep fuel levels up.

Purchasing Options:

Scramble comes in either NTSC (North/some of South America, Japan) or PAL60 (most of Europe, some of South America, Asia, and others) format, boxed with an instruction manual and poster to hang on your wall for $50.  The big question is: is this game worth almost the same money as the latest triple-A first person shooter?  For a serious collector, the answer is absolutely yes.  It is one of the finest arcade ports ever to reach the Atari VCS and is quite a bit of fun.  With 99 play-throughs, you’ll be playing for a while, too.  That said, if you’re a casual classic console collector, capping most purchases below the $25-30 range, the $50 price tag is a little steep, and the programming marvel that is Scramble is probably not worth the asking price for three reasons.  First, odds are you can find the arcade ROM and play it in its full glory through a Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator (MAME) for free…legalities of doing so aside.  Second, the binary file is available at AtariAge by the programmer, and if you own a Harmony Cartridge, you can download it and play it on your console (or PC through the Stella emulator) for free.  Third, Scramble is not yet available in “Cartridge Only” format, so the price is what it is, and probably won’t drop any time soon.  If it does become available as Cartridge Only, the asking price will likely be closer to $20-$30, which is much more acceptable for a casual collector, and certainly worth the money.

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If you have an AtariVox voice synthesis module/memory card, the game can keep track of more scores.  On-board memory is enough for the top 10 until you reset or power-off the game.  The AtariVox will keep the scores saved indefinitely.

Final Thoughts:

All in all, Scramble is a wonderful game for Atari VCS (2600), and an exceptional example of what the system is truly capable of producing graphically and audibly 40 years after its release in 1977.  It is a must-have for the serious collector, and should be a first-look for casual collectors if and when it gets released in cartridge only format.  Have you played Atari today?

-"Caesar"

 

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