by One of the Bruces
You never forget your first love.
I'm writing this on a machine whose video card--whose *friggin' VIDEO CARD*--has more than a *MILLION* times more RAM than the first system I loved. I'm writing this on some obscenely fast processor--it's an AMD Athlon 2000+, so it's a 32-bit processor running at 1.67 Ghz.
But your first, now that's something special.
I'm sure some of you figured this out in the second sentence. 8-bit processor running at just a hair over 1MHz. 128 bytes of RAM, doubling as variable space and program stack. 1-D video hardware. A variable amount of ROM: 2K early on, 4K in the classic incarnation, up to 16K, or very occasionally more, towards the end of its life. Manufactured from 1977 to 1991.
Yep, folks, it's the Atari Video Computer System, nee "2600".
I lived Atari for several years. I was Pitfall Harry, hopping onto crocodile heads, when the world was fresh and new. I got the secret dot in Adventure, dispatching Yorgle with a sneer, struggling with Grundle, and fleeing in terror from Rhindle. I was betrayed by Pac-Man, and knew better than to buy E.T. And even though I didn't know much about computers, I always wanted to make an Atari game.
And here it is, 2002. I'm a computer geek by trade. I make my living constructing virtual penguin farms on machines that cost, literally, millions of dollars. And I write software for the Atari 2600 for the sheer joy of it. I'm not very good yet, but I'm working at it. I have a cartridge here that I sort of wrote; the game engine isn't mine, but I understood the data structures well enough, at least, to make a game that was pretty distinct from anything else. I have sketches for a couple other games I'd like to do someday; one of them is even one of those I thought about in third grade, when the world and my VCS were new.
I still have that VCS, and I have played my own game in my own Atari.
After a day spent working on systems that consider 1GB of RAM awfully constraining, in a world where I can throw a few hundred virtual Linux machines onto a single mainframe running VM and not have the iron even breathing hard, it feels somehow purifying to sit down and bang out code in 6502 assembler. Not only do I have to care about every individual machine instruction, I have to care about how many machine cycles each instruction takes: I'm racing the raster across the screen, and my instruction has to be finished before the 1-D video hardware gets too far across the screen to draw the player, or ball, or playfield. It's an amazing feeling to make something work in that environment.
Maybe this musing is about realizing your dreams. Even, or maybe especially, when they're old, and foolish.
You never forget your first, and that, for me, is the Atari VCS. But it's also the 6502 that sits at the heart of each and every 2600. Not coincidentally, that's the same processor that powered my Vic-20--my first home computer. My second one as well, the computer I grew up with, the Apple II. It was on the Apple that I discovered the Infocom games, first in 40-column uppercase, and later on in glorious 80-column mixed-case. When I was 12 or 13, I wanted nothing more in life than to be an beta tester for Infocom. I wrote my own crappy adventure games in Applesoft BASIC. They sucked. I still have the Apple, and I still have those diskettes, and trust me, they still suck. But I always wanted to test an Infocom game, and, maybe, some day, write something like one.
And that's where the dream-realization comes in.
I was too depressed when I wrote Sins Against Mimesis to really think, "Hey. I just wrote something very much like an Infocom game." But I had. And I *did* get that feeling, although by that time, it wasn't very much like an Infocom game at all, when I wrote Stiffy Makane: The Undiscovered Country. Hell, I advanced the state of the art with SMTUC. For a stupid game about moose cock, there's really some pretty sophisticated stuff in there. But I digress.
But that paled in comparison to actually doing what I wanted with all my heart when I was 13. Well, besides getting laid. That's a whole different set of stories, and I'm not telling them here.
Mike Berlyn had, when Cascade Mountain Publishing was still a going concern, just released Dr. Dumont's Wild P.A.R.T.I.. I bought a copy. I found some problems. I sent an email. Mike sent me his phone number. And there I was, in my late 20s, on the phone in New Jersey, telling Mike Berlyn, Implementor, where his game was broken, and offering suggestions to fix it. Better than that, I was conscious at the time of what I was doing. I finally, by God, *was* an Infocom beta-tester, or near enough that it made no difference.
There are a lot of dreams that have ended up on the shelf along the way. A little later, rather than just filing them somewhere, I started actively throwing them out, shredding them so I couldn't moon over them later. I'm kind of sorry about that, since at least two of them turned out to be realizable after all.
I still have that Apple II. I don't do much with it anymore, except play the occasional game of Karateka, or Choplifter, or Star Blazer. But it was there that I learned how to program and enjoy making computers do what I asked them to do. And that, plus a lack of money for an air-conditioned apartment, got me a summer job at Rice in the Information Systems building. And that, plus a continuing need for beer money throughout college and graduate school, got me the job, the career, the life I have today.
Shit, I still don't know what, or who, I want to be when I grow up. But, goddamn it, I wrote an Atari cartridge and I was a beta-tester for something damn close to an Infocom text adventure. And that's gotta count for something.
You never forget your first love. And sometimes, under some conditions, you get to return, and even, maybe, once in a while, prove yourself worthy.
About the author: One of the Bruces wrote a Lord of the Rings text game for the Atari 2600.