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Steve Penhollow | The Journal Gazette
“Duck Attack,” designed by Will Nicholes, will debut at the Classic Gaming Expo.

Ducks roam new game for old Atari

The first Atari video game console was introduced in 1977, and it wasn’t long after that when Will Nicholes, who was 5 or so at the time, got to play his first video game.

Atari had a pretty good run. The game consoles and games sold like hotcakes, but interest waned as newer, more advanced game consoles were introduced. In 1992, the game system went off the market.

I, for one, don’t miss Atari or any of the other computer games that have come and gone over the years. The activities I enjoyed as a kid – rock fights and shooting BB guns – were much more appealing. It’s a generational thing.

For Nicholes, though, that first exposure to Atari started a love affair that refuses to die. Nicholes, who is now 38 and lives in Fort Wayne, got back into Atari in the 1990s, and a few years ago he decided to use his computer programming skills to modify one of the old consoles.

Eventually, as Nicholes added more and more changes, he decided it made more sense to design his own game.

It took seven years of tinkering, from 2003 until now, but he finally finished his game, called “Duck Attack.” It involves a mad scientist who has created radioactive fire-breathing ducks that lay plutonium eggs that the scientist plans to use in a doomsday device.

Players try to retrieve the eggs before the scientist can destroy the world.

The game will be introduced at the Classic Gaming Expo in Las Vegas this coming weekend.

Nicholes doubts the new game will make much money – perhaps enough to buy a handful of other games, he said – but it will cement him as an important member of the cult world of people who still love the original Atari system.

Atari, Nicholes said, is like anything else that people experienced when they were young. It was the first computer game to become part of pop culture, and people who discovered it as kids remember it fondly.

When these people go online, they can find a whole universe of other people who share the same fond memories and all new games developed by devotees – called home brewers.

Modern home brewers face quite a challenge because of the Atari game system’s limited memory.

“I’m a programmer, and it was unlike anything I’ve ever done,” Nicholes said.

To explain what he is talking about, Nicholes noted that a modern computer has about 4 gigabytes of memory, what we used to call RAM. In the mid-1990s, a typical computer had 4 megabytes of memory. Earlier computers had only four kilobytes.

The Atari, though, had a measly 128 bytes of memory. For people who use Twitter, it takes 140 bytes to tweet just once.

“It’s quite a test cramming it all into that space,” Nicholes said.

What is interesting is that the new Atari games are better than ever, Nicholes says.

“A lot of home brew games do a lot more,” Nicholes said. “The main thing is time. All the games made in the day had to be put out in a hurry. Now, people aren’t rushed.”

Nicholes proves this since he took seven years to finish his game, obviously not a rush job.

The most appealing part of all of this is that it’s still possible to get into games like Atari dirt cheap. Atari made a huge number of game consoles, so many that they are still plentiful at garage sales and online auctions, and relatively cheap, as little as $20 or $25.

“People are coming back to it,” including lots of young people who weren’t born until long after Atari consoles went off the market. “It’s surprising because it’s so primitive.”

So early computers are now the new nostalgia.

It’s enough to make you feel old.

Frank Gray has held positions as reporter and editor at The Journal Gazette since 1982 and has been writing a column on local topics since 1998. His column is published on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by e-mail at fgray@jg.net.
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