We close out our series of interviews by chatting with Ron "Cafeman" Lloyd, the developer of Koffi: Yellow Copter and Adventure II for the Atari 5200.  What makes Atari's successor to the 2600 a "SuperSystem?"  What can be done to push this underrated console to its limits?  Is Infogrames truly worthy of claiming the name of the industry pioneer that created hits like Adventure?  Ron's got all the answers.

GRB: Why did you decide to develop games for orphaned consoles, rather than the powerful and versatile personal computers of today?

LLOYD:  For the same reason I own The Greatest American Hero and Land of the Lost on DVD.  There is a link to certain memories of playing my Atari systems, and so it seems cooler and more rewarding to make an "Atari system game" than if I coded up a PC game. The technical challenge of it all adds to the allure. After all, how many people are truly capable of programming their own Atari system game?  Very few. But it's all worth it when I see the appreciation and excitement from retro gamers when they see a new game coming for their beloved system!

GRB:  Why do you design games for the Atari 5200 in particular? What advantages does this system offer over other consoles available in the early 1980's?

LLOYD:  I loved the Atari 5200 Supersystem back in the day. It really delivered the arcade experience more than anything else.  In summer 2000, I got my original 5200 back from my cousins after a 10-year absence, and the memories came flooding back.  It was about this time that I discovered the homebrewer community at AtariAge's forums, and so I decided I would learn the 5200 hardware and attempt my own game -- that 5200 demo became Koffi: Yellow Kopter, which was finished in 2002.  Back then, I was happy to learn that the 5200 was virtually the same as the Atari computer line, which I had some experience programming as a kid, so I had a little head start there.

I'm not very familiar with the Colecovision, but I do know that the 5200 has built-in hardware "collision detection" and the CV does not.  The CV and 5200 trade off several minor advantages/disadvantages, it seems. The 5200 is far easier to work on than the Atari 2600!  The 2600 is a bit hamstrung by its meager 128 bytes of RAM, and cart sizes were initially only 2K or 4K which doesn't allow much game code. In contrast, the 5200 has 16,000 bytes of RAM and easily supports 32K games, although few of the official 5200 games used over 16K.  The 5200 has far better sound and graphical capabilities than the 2600 does.  But I don't think it is easy to make a decent 5200 game.  The 5200's biggest weaknesses are its limited number of color registers and limited sprites.  There are tricks to boost these, but it depends on if the game's design allows you to use these tricks.

What is really cool about both the 2600 an 5200 is that both are flexible enough for developers to continually come up with more tricks and methods to use them! Homebrewers use bigger ROM memory sizes than were typically allowed by penny-pinching companies in the 80's and it allows richer and easier to code games.

GRB:  What tools do you use to create Atari 5200 games, and what skills and experience are necessary to make software for the system?

LLOYD:  I use a PC with WordPad along with DASM and TASM to compile source code into the binary file.  Atari800win is the most accurate Atari 5200 emulator I've seen, it seems to have the timing down perfectly.  But I also need to use Dan Boris' Virtual Super System 5200 emulator, the 'programmers debug' version, because it gives more freedom in testing and running the code line-by-line if I need to.

To test on the real machine, I used to burn eproms using a $200 eprom burner that I had to buy.  But today, I use the the A52 flash cart that Videogame Wiz sells, which is much faster, easier and cheaper.  Anyone wanna buy an eprom burner? :)

Having good modern tools makes the process a lot more fun.  There is an ANTIC4 program available online that we used to draw our screens and develop our character sets.  I wish I had a good sprite program that did the same thing.  Still, pencil, paper and graph paper comes into play even in this day & age.  Finally, for Adventure II we use a compression routine to pack more stuff into the game.

I have a BS degree in Computer Science. You don't need that, but you really do need to understand binary and hexadecimal numbers.  You need to learn how the system of choice works and how a TV set refreshes.  You need to learn about ROM and RAM, and how to properly program computer code, most likely Assembly language.  I had a head-start due to my education & occupation. Some people just aren't cut out for it though, just like I'm not cut out for running fast or dancing. :)

GRB:  You had encountered some resistance while designing your latest game, Adventure II.  Please describe in detail what nearly put an end to the project, and how you were able to resolve the situation and resume work on your game.

LLOYD:  Infogrames purchased the Atari properties and in 2004, as the new "Atari", they had issues with homebrewers using their purchased intellectual properties.  On the one hand, I understand the legality of registered trademarks and owned intellectual properties.  That is why I didn't name the dragons in Adventure II "Yorgle" and so forth.  Of course, nobody can claim ownership on the word "adventure" or the adventure style of game.  Still, we are clearly making an homage to the Atari 2600 game, Adventure. I don't know if Warren Robinette would recall this, but back in 2001 or so, I emailed him to basically get his 'blessing' on our project. I was happy to read his response that he views it as an homage and he was fine with it.  Still, I respected the new Atari's wishes and temporarily changed the name to the wonderfully creative title, "Quest for the Golden Chalice".  Thanks to Curt Vendel's efforts, however, the lawyers agreed to let me keep the title.  In 'fair trade' exchange, I assisted Curt's team in the development of an Atari Flashback 2 version of Adventure II (which is Atari 2600 hardware). "Atari" still dictated some ground rules that I had to agree to, which affected a few ideas I had.  Hey, it's water under the bridge, let's all just move on!

GRB:  What compromises can major software developers like Atari make with the designers of fan-made projects like your own Adventure II?

LLOYD:  I think it would be cool if the big companies granted licenses or general provisions for homebrewers, with the provision that the projects could be included on compilations or as secret unlockable bonuses in the real games, if desired.  It has been stated that companies must defend their intellectual properties, or a precedent could be set causing them to lose them.  For example, if somebody programmed a Sonic the Hedgehog or Pac-man game and sold it, that is clearly using somebody else's "property" and I don't go for that. (Hmm, but I would love to try Sonic on the 5200... no, don't go there!). But an homage, that is something different, and something that ought to be encouraged, not shot down.  And something made for an outdated 25-year old system, where only a few hundred people at most are playing these things ... come on, what is the big deal?

GRB:  Why do remakes and tributes of classic games far outnumber original creations in the homebrew community?

LLOYD:  Possibly because we never got what we wanted from the offical companies back in the day.  That's why somebody tries a version of Warlords, Combat 2 or Adventure II for the 5200.  That's why you see Thrust, Climber 5 and Maze Craze on the 2600 -- we never got satisfactory versions of Thrust, Donkey Kong, or Marble Madness on the the 2600.  And you sit back in the 21st century and look at these games and think "WOW! I never thought the 2600 could do that!"  And nostalgia plays a role, of course.

GRB:  What can be done to encourage original output from independent game developers?

LLOYD:  It takes so much time & effort just to get a classic system homebrew to run properly, that many don't have to free time to additionally create their own characters, world, and gameplay!  Perhaps if there were some reusable game engines available, there'd be more emphasis on new game design and less on the programming aspect.

I think it is best to let the homebrewers try what they want.  It may be better for homebrewers to copy the style of a proven fun game, but to modify it as they see fit.  Or, to take not a certain game, but a certain theme from the era and develop something fun.  We could always use new shooters, just so long as they aren't more Space Invaders clones.

From personal experience though, I think that the act of inventing and creating the 'world' and characters in Koffi: Yellow Kopter was the most fun part of the project. There were no expectations like there are from making an homage to an existing game. I'd like to revisit Koffi someday.

Screenshots taken from Ron Lloyd's web site, Cafeman's 5200 Game Development.

Check out my 1UP article, Singin' The Brews, to learn more about the homebrew gaming community!