In November 2002 I participated in an email interview with Matt Reichert, who is a collector and aficionado of classic videogames (see his website at http://www.atariprotos.com). We thought the interview would be of interest to the readers of this website, so without any further ado, let's just get right down to the interview...
Do you have any interesting stories about your time in the game industry?
Yes. I wrote two of them on my website (see Lessons 18 and 19), and I spoke about those stories and the Spike story at the Classic Gaming Expo. The Spike story is available on my website as a RealAudio download.
Did you see or play any games that were never released?
Can you elaborate?
I can't remember, sorry (that's the reason for the abrupt answer). Well, now that I think on it, I also worked on River Raid 3 and Kaboom! 2 for the SNES - those were never finished (but you asked if I'd played them, and those never got quite to the playable stage).
Do you still have any classic systems?
Of course! I'm a packrat - I haven't gotten rid of any of my old game systems. I'm talking about the ones I bought for myself (the ones I used at work belonged to my employers, so I don't have those).
Do you find time to play your old games?
I don't even look for time to do that!
When Atari decided to finally bring the 7800 out in 86, they must have been scrambling for new games to release for it since all programming had stopped in 84. As Director of Product Development, how did you handle this?
Much of this "scramble" occurred before I joined Atari Corp. in 86 to replace the previous guy, whose name I have forgotten. Some development projects had been begun, and I worked with those developers to finish what had been begun. In addition, I worked with Mike Katz (my boss) to identify and license existing titles (usually arcade or home computer games) to the 7800 and 2600, or otherwise create some games on those systems. For example, I hired Bob Polaro (who had programmed some of the original 2600 games) to do some new games for us.
After my time at Atari Corp., a lawsuit was set into motion by Atari Corp. against Nintendo, because Nintendo's exclusivity policy harmed Atari Corp. by limiting the titles available for the Atari systems. To explain, Nintendo's policy of accepting ports of existing games to their hardware was that the port had to be "exclusive" - if a game publisher wanted a license to put an existing arcade game on the Nintendo Entertainment System, then Nintendo's policy was that the license would be granted only on the contingency that that same arcade game would not also be ported to the Sega or Atari Corp. systems. So when we would go to the owner of an arcade game to acquire rights, they would often refuse since they wanted instead to have the game go on the Nintendo system, where it would make more money. I think Atari Corp. lost the lawsuit.
By the way, the reason I never call it just "Atari" but always "Atari Corp." is because Atari Corp. was then a separate entity from Atari Games, which was the arcade company under different ownership. When the Tramiels bought Atari, they didn't actually want to be in the videogame business - so they didn't buy the arcade company. They only wanted the computer side of Atari, but it came together with the consumer videogame business as a package deal from the previous owners. As a result, the company culture when I came aboard was centered around the computer biz, and the videogame department was treated as a poor cousin from the wrong side of the tracks. A big part of my job was coming up with better support for the developers (they had all had to reverse-engineer the game system or otherwise come up with their own development systems).
Did you scour old archives looking for nearly finished games to complete?
Yes. I took a couple of different tracks to accomplish this: we had the old master tapes of all the work done back in the Atari heyday, and so from this I got the source code of games that hadn't been completed. In addition, I took the numbered product list and filled in the blanks. If you look in the old Atari catalogs, you'll find that each game had a product number (like CGX002, or something like that - forgive me if I'm remembering incorrectly what letters were used or how many digits there were in the numbers). Atari Corp. had a product list but it had gaping holes in it. I had been collecting Atari catalogs while I was working at Western Technologies, and I was able to fill in a lot of the gaps in the product number list. By having a complete list, I was then able to determine which ones had been released and which hadn't. I started phoning ex-Atari programmers to find out who had worked on what and who had source code that wasn't on our tapes.
Were the original GCC programmers called in to help at all?
Yes, some. Please don't ask me for names. I'm terrible with names, and I do not have my old Atari files.
As you probably know, the Atari 7800 version of Impossible Mission is
impossible to beat due to a bug that does not allow you to search for parts
behind various objects. I assume all games went through rigorousplaytesting before they were released. How did the Impossible Mission bug
get past the playtesters considering you can't even beat the game because of
I don't know. You'd have to ask the playtester (I think there was only one). Apparently he didn't finish the game. And I myself didn't know that some parts were behind objects that couldn't be looked behind.
Why was Ballblazer the only Atari 7800 game to use the Pokey sound chip? Did Atari think it was too expensive to put into other games?
I think there was another game that the Pokey was going to be used for. And yes, that game did cost more to make, so its price had to be higher. Didn't I make another game that had the Pokey in it?
Yes I think another 7800 Pokey game was released. I believe Commando also used the chip.
There are several "missing" Atari 7800 titles that we all expect are out
there in one form or another. Do you know anything about Rescue on
Fractalus, Electrocop, Moon Patrol, Lode Runner, or Sky Fox?
Fractalus was the other one that needed Pokey. It never got released? That and Sky Fox were both from Lucas, if I recall correctly.
Rescue on Fractalus for the 7800 was never released. I don't believe it got past some cockpit graphics and preliminary movement routines. However it was released for the 5200 and 400/800.
Did you see any 7800 games that you know never got released?
Yes, I suppose I found more stuff on the archival tapes that never got finished. Don't ask me their titles. It was a long time ago, and I don't remember. Before I joined Atari (while I was with Western Technologies) I remember visiting the Atari booth at CES in Las Vegas and seeing a headband that was to be used as a new kind of game controller, using alpha waves generated by the brain or something. I don't remember what game system that was intended for.
Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2 wasn't a big hit as Activision had hoped
(some people have said that it feels rushed and unpolished).
I hadn't heard those people say that. The reviews that I remember said that the voices sounded amateurish. We did use amateur dinner-theater actors, but I thought it was amazing that we had voices at all, way back then. I think we were mainly focused on making a decent game and getting it released - I don't know if we expected it to be a big hit. Mediagenic (Activision) was going through a bankruptcy proceeding at the time, and it was an incredible feat that we were able to complete the game at all (in my opinion).
I noticed that in the manual there's a little blurb about "Nefarious agents of evil, dressed in black slip into their offices and grab and prematurely release not-nearly-ready-for-release games." This seems to hint at some strained relations between Infocom and Activision (which I believe had just bought Infocom at the time). Did you get that feeling as you produced the game?
What are your thoughts on this?
I wrote that manual, and was using the humorous style of the old Infocom manuals as a model. The feelings expressed in that passage are feelings that all game developers and designers always feel, about every game they make. Most people who make games are rarely ready to release them (we always want to continue to polish them until they are perfect) but the realities of the game biz is that we usually have to release them before they are perfect. There were no strained relations between Infocom and Activision, since they were one and the same at this time (there was no person you could point at and say, "he's Infocom" while pointing at some other person and saying, "he's Activision" - we were all Infocom, we were all Activision).
Your list of games you've worked on mentions several Activision and Imagic 2600 titles as "(re-list)." Were these the titles that got re-released with
the blue labels in the late 80's? How did Activision acquire some Imagic
I don't know what color the labels were. You mean, on the plastic cartridge housing? And I don't know all the details of how Activision got those Imagic titles - as far as I know, Bruce Davis (who was the president/CEO of Mediagenic at the time) used to work at Imagic, so he did the deal.
When I mentioned the label color I was talking about the blue labeled games Activision put out in the late 80's. These were all releases of earlier titles and I assume that's what you meant by "re-list". Here's a picture of what I'm talking about:
Doesn't look familiar. I see the date of 1983 on that one. I don't recall what the cart labels looked like on the re-listed games I produced.
When you worked on Q*Bert for the 2600, were you a full time employee for Parker Brothers or did you do it as a contractor?
I worked on that game twice (it was released twice). When I worked on the Parker Brothers release, I was an employee of Western Technologies (the developer of the game). When I worked on the Atari Corp. release, I was an employee of Atari Corp. You can see my resume on my website (in the green zone).
Was it difficult to make a Pseudo 3D playfield (like in Q*Bert) on the
2600 given its severe graphical limitations?
Yes, but Dave Hampton, the programmer, was a wizard. He figured out a way to make those cubetops, using the 2600's "triple replication" feature. Don't ask me to explain; I'm not a programmer. Dave later programmed the Furby, and rumor has it that he's doing well as a result.
I don't know if you know this or not, but when I was doing some research on Q*Bert I discovered that the game programmer (Dave Hampton) went on to
create the Furby. Interesting huh?
Oh. Yeah. I shouldn't have added that information to the previous question, without having read all the questions.
Spike is the only Vectrex game that spoke (Darn it!). Why didn't anyone else attempt to add speech to their games?
A better question would be, why did I think I could make the Vectrex speak in the first place?
Was it difficult to make the Vectrex talk?
I guess not. Like I said in my Spike speech at the 1999 Classic Gaming Expo, I had written into the design that Spike and Molly's voices would be heard. I might have used the buzzword "voice synthesis," not understanding the full implications and meaning of the term. When he read that, the programmer told me that he couldn't implement that feature of the design. I went to Jay and borrowed his "back to work box," a pocket-sized electronic device with a speaker and a button.
I guess I have to explain. This was a device that Jay had had built by the design wizards of Western Technologies. He had it built either (1) so that he could demonstrate to prospective clients how Western Technologies could implement voice sampling in electronic products, or (2) so that he could inspire us playful employees to get back to work. When the device was being built, he gathered us all together and had us shout in unison, "Back to work! Back to work!" Then whenever we were more busily engaged in some playful activity than in productive enterprises, he would whip out the box, press the button, and thereby exhort us to return to what we were supposed to be doing.
Anyway, when the programmer told me that Spike couldn't talk, I went and got the back to work box, brought it to him, and pressed the button, and the box spoke: "Back to work! Back to work!" He said, "Hmm. Voice sampling is possible, even if we can't do voice synthesis..." And thus Spike spoke.
How do you feel about the various homebrew games using the Spike character (Spikes Water Balloons and Spike Hoppin').
Bedlam is my favorite Vectrex game (probably because it reminds me of an
inside out Tempest). Was Tempest an influence for Bedlam?
Well, duh. (^_^)
What made you choose such an odd name for the game? I would guess that not many people know the definition of Bedlam (A place or situation of noisy uproar and confusion.).
So you think that the game designer is always the person who decides what a game's title will be, eh? HAH! No, it's usually a marketing person. We had a meeting with GCE to review several games, and this game's title came up. I called it Castle Keep, and GCE didn't like that title. We were trying to find synonyms for "tempest" so I went and retrieved a thesaurus. I wrote the better ones on a whiteboard, and Ed Krakauer, president of GCE, decided on "Bedlam." I hated the name "Bedlam" myself, because (1) what you said - most people wouldn't know what it meant - and (2) a "bed" is a quiet place of repose and rest.
Do you know if Tapper was ever programmed or released for the Atari
I'm pretty certain that it was programmed - I never got a released copy, though.
Rumors have circulating that it was, but no one has found
an actual cartridge yet. Do you know if it was planned for the 5200?
I'm pretty certain that it was. We were making games for the following systems at that time: Atari 2600, 5200, 400/800/1200, Intellivision, Colecovision, Apple II, IBM PC Jr. As I recall, we programmed Tapper and Up 'N Down for each and every one of those systems. That doesn't mean that the game was released on those systems! At the end of 1984, Sega decided to shut its doors - and all the game publication rights were sold to Simon & Schuster. It would have been Simon & Schuster who then would decide which SKUs to release into the world where toy store shelves were already groaning from the weight of unsold videogames. The end of the first videogame boom/bust cycle was not a pretty sight.
Up N Down was an amazing arcade game but full of pseudo 3D graphics (most
notably the ramps), did you find it difficult to reproduce these graphics on
a home system? The 2600 version was especially impressive given the
limitations of the system, do you know who the programmer was?
When I was assigned to do the port of this game, I predicted that it would be impossible to do it on the 2600. I went ahead and wrote a design document, which was sent to Beck Tech in Berkeley. When I sent up to visit the Beck Tech office, I was astounded to see that a programmer had actually succeeded in making a passable 2600 version of Up 'N Down. I have forgotten his name, but I remember that he was a Vietnamese refugee who had come to America on a rickety boat - his engineering skills were used to repair some problem on the boat, which resulted in the survival and arrival on these shores of the refugees shortly after the fall of South Vietnam to the communists.
I noticed you have two games by US Games listed on you resume (Towering
Inferno and Picnic), what was your involvement with US Games?
I was an employee of Western Technologies, the developer of those games.
On the list of games you've worked on you mention one called "Pharaoh's
Tomb" for the Atari 2600. I don't recall ever hearing of that one before.
Was it ever released? Is this possibly a prototype name for Entombed by US
I never got a copy of the finished game. Is that the title that it eventually went out under? Can you show me a picture of the box?
Sure. Here's some info on Entombed:
I guess that's the game, then. Jeff Corsiglia did the original design, then left the company. The game programmer wrote an algorithm that generated a maze on the fly, then asked me to assist with design suggestions so the game could be finished.
Little is actually known about US Games as a company (other than they were part of Quaker Oats I believe). Can you tell me any more about them? Who
were some of the programmers you worked with?
I worked with Paul Newell on Towering Inferno, and if I recall correctly, the programmer of Entombed might have been Steve Sidley. We were all employees of Western Technologies. Someone from US Games did come visit us during the development cycle, but I don't recall his name offhand.
What was US Games relationship with Vidtec? This name appears on the
first three or four games they put out.
I have no idea. Maybe Vidtec was another game developer?
Can you tell me more about Western Technologies?
Western Technologies billed itself as a "toy think tank," but we would today refer to them as a developer of electronic games and toys. The company sometimes came up with original products, then found companies to whom those products could be licensed for manufacturing and distribution. Other times a company would come to Western Technologies and request assistance with development of a particular idea. I joined the company in 1979 as a model maker - usually making some kind of plastic housing to contain electronic hardware designed and created by others. One product I worked on was a combined smoke alarm / burglar alarm that one could take while traveling and hang over the top of a hotel room door (I think that one was one of those "help us design this thing" projects).
Sounds like they were involved in many 2600 games.
By the time I left, in 1983, the company focus had shifted to the development of electronic game software, and I was a designer (not a programmer) of electronic games. The company made games for several companies: US Games, Parker Brothers, Texas Instruments, Electronic Arts, and (of course) GCE among them.
More about Matt Reichert
On his AtariProtos.com website, Matt has a 7800 Karateka prototype cartridge that I made when I worked at Atari. That's my handwriting there. Matt also has a prototype cartridge from my Sega days, and he is working on a new Atari 5200 game called Cypher that he hopes to have ready in time for the 5200's 20th anniversary.
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© 2002 Tom Sloper. All rights reserved. May not be re-published without written permission of the author.