Friday, December 5, 2014

Over 1800 Atari VCS games trawled for hidden stuff!

Everyone knows the Atari VCS, or 2600, depending on your preference. Everyone should know The Cutting Room Floor, which documents unused stuff hidden in games. Fantastic website, and they have 14 entries for Atari's system. Allow me to share a university professor's paper, which looked through 1816 titles for the system, in the hunt for hidden stuff.

In July, as a result of my book on Japanese game developers, I was invited to Montreal to give a keynote speech at the Game History Annual Symposium. As you can see from the itinerary it was an amazing two days, jam packed with fascinating discussions on the history of games, and methods of researching game history.

The majority of talks were excellent, with favourites including a talk on Space War and Warrior (the vector graphics one), plus one where speedrunners were examined as a means of digging up "gaming fossils", since they hammer games in ways that reveal a title's inner workings.

This blog entry relates to "Using Historical Video Games to Teach Computer Scientists" by Professor John Aycock (pictured).

The quick version is that he dissects old games in order to teach present-day students valuable skills. The problem being that students would otherwise graduate without working within a constrained environment, and many techniques used on limited hardware (such as the Atari VCS), are still used today. Games are fun, students like games, and so: "... the implementation of old games can be used as a vehicle to explain modern Computer Science techniques."

What caught my attention was that they would disassemble old games in order to understand how they work. At the end of the talk I asked if they discovered anything odd in the games. The answer given related to Chase the Chuckwagon, which had an unused piece of graphics, and two sections of code which - in the context of this game - did absolutely nothing. Likely leftovers from previous games, where code was borrowed. Three mysteries which intrigued me, because I am all about uncovering the "unknown".

My question, and the conversation with Professor Aycock afterwards, led to me receiving an email with the following:
"I got curious - and somewhat carried away - when you asked about hidden things in games, and I thought you might like to see the result:"

Strung Out: Printable Strings in Atari 2600 Games

"This report documents the raw findings from an exhaustive (and exhausting) analysis of a large corpus of Atari 2600 games to find printable strings. While similar reports have been conducted before [3], this is the most extensive survey so far, to the best of our knowledge. We intend to analyze these results from a higher-level viewpoint later, but this report serves as a permanent record of the data and the methods we used to acquire it."

"The results reported here are based on a corpus of 1816 Atari 2600 ROM cartridge images. Duplicate images were removed - the initial corpus, as acquired, had 1840 images - but some game images have one or more prototype images too. We have not removed these, because sometimes the strings are different between these versions."

For anyone who enjoys The Cutting Room Floor, this should prove very interesting. Surprisingly, despite programmers not being allowed credits in games, many have their named tucked away within the code. Some games have little jokes from those who made it, while others contain ending text or - in the case of edutainment title MegaBoy - the answers to puzzles.

It's a long document, and mostly raw data, but I'm sure a lot of people will get a kick out of it, and it will probably keep TCRF busy for a while updating the Atari section.



  1. How is it that I live in Montreal and work at a game dev and somehow didn't hear about this amazing sounding "Game History Annual Symposium". I'm going next year for sure.

  2. I've been documenting these and more in VCS games for over 25 years: