April 29, 2009 12:00 PM | Eric Caoili
Adventure 2600 Reboot recreates Atari's genre-defining 1979 classic with "16-bit-like" graphics, new sound effects and music, a more convenient front end, and more. The unauthorized remake also tracks players' best time for each difficulty, challenging players to complete quests with the lowest time score and adding an element of replayability.
William Stiernberg and a team that came together and organized their efforts on the Penny Arcade forums released the game for PCs earlier this week. We talked with Stiernberg about some of his design decisions for Adventure 2600 Reboot, including his changes to some of the game's pivotal elements, as well the advantages he sees in the original's simple graphics.
What's your game development background? Have you put out any other previous projects?
William Stiernberg: I don't have an extensive game development background, really. My first experience with programming at all was when I was in middle school, and I taught myself Q-Basic so that I could program some simple text based games. Later on, I would learn how to make custom levels and art for games as mods, although I rarely did any mod programming.
Eventually I sought out several projects over time, offering to do the artwork, because that's what I enjoy the most. Unfortunately, nearly every project I created artwork for fell apart before it could be completed. This is part of the reason I was so determined to bring this game to completion -- after so many projects that fell apart in the past, it kind of fueled my determination to see this one through to the end.
What tools did you and your team use for the project and asset creation?
WS: The Overworld artwork was created through two programs, Mappy and PhotoShop. 16x16 tiles were created in PhotoShop, and then the freeware app called Mappy was used to arrange and low down the tiles to create the overworld areas. I also used PhotoShop for the HUD and some spritework as well.
The Sound effects were done with Audacity, the freeware audio editor. I believe Delphinus also used Audacity to create the Ambient audio tracks. Khavall is a talented music student, and he has a variety of tools available to him at his university to compose and produce the soundtrack to the game, including Pro Tools.
What sort of history do you have with Adventure?
WS: Before I started, I had very little history with Adventure. Everyone knows about Warren Robinett's Easter Egg, and that was the extent of my knowledge until Halkun made the [Penny Arcade forums] thread about it back in August. So, I started reading and learning about the game, and became really interested in it. It's a classic, and many people have fond memories and nostalgia for the game.
After reading Halkun's thread, it seemed like a really great idea for a remake project. More importantly, it seemed possible. Most game projects wind up never getting finished because the project design is far too ambitious. With a remake of a classic Atari 2600 game, not only did it seem feasible to me that a small team of people could accomplish such a project, but all of the game concepts and design were already there.
So, I offered to help Halkun make the art, and he was going to do the coding from scratch. After doing a good amount of artwork, I decided to buy the Atari Anthology for the PS2, which includes the original Adventure. I wanted to get to know the source material better when doing artwork, but later on, I had to play it extensively so that I could code the remake properly. At this point, I know almost everything about Adventure 2600 that there is to know.
How long did you work on the project?
WS: Halkun announced the idea in the Penny Arcade [Games and Technology] forum on August 28, 2008. After reading about the project, I offered to make a few preliminary designs for the Castle artwork a few days later in September. So if the first day I did anything for this project was September 3, 2008, and the release date was April 27, 2009 at midnight, I have personally been involved with the project for seven months. And that's not including the time Halkun spent doing code and making sprites before he created the initial thread.
Why did you decide to recreate its look with "16-bit like" graphics (as opposed to say, "8-bit" or in 3D)?
WS: The original idea was to port the gameplay to modern PCs directly, and then apply 16-bit graphics to it. I personally feel that 16-bit presentation is a good middle ground because it gives you a lot of freedom with color and detail, but it still feels appropriate for the older gameplay.
How the sound is different from the original?
WS: Well, basically, the original game had almost no sound at all. There was no music and there were only some basic beeps/bloops when the Hero collided with an item, dragon, or bat. In the remake, we decided to retain some beeps/bloops for when the Hero acquires items or loses them to the Bat, but we updated the sounds of the Dragon.
Of course, the most noticeable difference in audio is the fact that we added ambient audio and music for the game. Delphinus created some great, high quality, mood-setting ambience for each area, and Khavall composed excellent "16-bit" sounding themes. The audio really brings the game to life when you're playing through it.
What other games did you look to or were inspired by when deciding on the remake's visual direction?
WS: Mostly 16-bit RPGs and action/adventure games. I drew a lot of inspiration from the 16-bit Final Fantasy games, and I also drew a lot of inspiration from Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. There were others that I took for inspiration for various areas, but most of the art direction came from 16-bit Final Fantasy and Zelda.
Can you talk about some of the changes you've made with the Bat and why you altered its behavior?
WS: The Bat represents the biggest gameplay change from the original. It's one of the things that Purists will probably notice first (and slam me for!), and I would have liked to make the bat more accurate to the original.
Basically, while the bat is on-screen, he essentially acts the same as he does in the original. The changes came in when I had to decide how to implement the bat across the overworld. I didn't straight port any code for this remake, and I only had certain resources to work with. So, I observed how the bat worked in the original game, and took some data, and implemented the new Bat as best I could.
He differs in that once he steals an item, he quickly moves and drops it to another area of the overworld, rather than hanging onto it for a long period of time. Secondly, you cannot chase the bat to subsequent screens. The downside is that once the Bat steals your item, you're going to have to track it down. The upside is that you can evade the bat by escaping to subsequent screens before he steals your item; and, if he has stolen one, you don't have to wait for him to drop it. But you'll still have to find it.
You encounter the bat roughly the same number of times on average during normal play as you would in the original, statistically speaking. I figured that this was an acceptable trade-off and that the gameplay remains largely the same despite these changes. It's the best I could do with what I had to work with.
You've been very open with the remake's development, sharing your changes and ideas on the Penny Arcade forums during the process. What role did the community have in the game's development?
WS: The community played a huge role in the game's development. Can't emphasize that enough. Ever since the beginning. It started when I was only doing art. Basically, I would create some art for an area, and post a screenshot. The community would have all kinds of suggestions about how to make it look better or suggest some tweaks to make it more interesting. Other times, I would just flat out ask for suggestions about how to liven up a scene, and I got tons of great responses that I added in.
The artwork of the game came out much, much better as a result. When it came to doing code, I would try to stick to the original, but I would constantly have questions from the fans about nuances of the gameplay, and the community ways always eager to clarify aspects of the original game so that I could make the Remake better.
And then towards the end, I took suggestions from the community about ways to add bonuses and replay value, and so I implemented a couple of those ideas that I could. Ultimately, getting input and making changes due to community feedback really helped flesh out this game in nearly every way, and I appreciate the suggestions and insight that I received throughout the project.
Were there any changes you'd wanted to make but backed off because it'd detract too much from the original?
WS: Yes. When I started with artwork, I wanted to put all kinds of things into each area to give liven it up. I wanted to put more pillars and suits of armor and all kinds of things into the Castles, for example. But ultimately I backed off on that some for the sake of staying a little closer to the original, for which the Castle throne rooms amounted to big empty squares.
I also changed how the Hero places the Bridge; but I received a lot of feedback from the community in favor of having the Bridge be the one item that controlled like the original game. So, I compromised by putting in an option called "Classic Bridge," which can be enabled or disabled. There were other instances, but ultimately I wanted the gameplay to remain largely the same, but alter enough to smooth out the experience.
Do you see any advantages that the original, with its simplified graphics and minimal soundtrack, might have over your remake?
WS: As far as graphics, having simplified artwork allowed the game to have physically impossible maze layouts, and few people would ever notice. With 16-bit graphics, you can recognize unique screens easily, and so when you travel through a maze, you notice pretty quickly when things fit together in a physically impossible manner, and that might throw some people off.
Secondly, some people kind of like how utterly simple graphics leave a lot to the imagination. Also, I'd say it's actually a little easier to see items and dragons against a plain single color background than a full color 16 bit backdrop. So, if you lose an item in-game, it's easier to spot when you're running around trying to retrieve it, since items stand out so starkly against the solid grey background of the original game.
Finally, I guess you might say that lack of graphics and soundtrack in the original kept its filesize down -- unfortunately I couldn't get my remake installer down to less than 65 megabytes!
Any plans for your next project?
WS: No plans yet! I'll be doing something, though. I want to do another game with an element of "randomness," like the Quest 3 of Adventure. The reason is that when you can introduce a well-implemented random element to gameplay, it can greatly increase replay value and player interest in the game, because it's a new experience every time you play. That's something I really appreciate about Adventure 2600, and it's something I want to incorporate in my next project.
If I don't end up doing that, I'll probably seek out another great Atari 2600 game or maybe an old-8 bit or arcade game and remake it in a similar way. I don't have any in mind yet. Part of the reason I was able to take this project to completion was by avoiding the trap of thinking too much about what I would do next; rather, my focus the whole time has been to finish this first, then start thinking about the next project.