Aspiring coders face off in Atari contest

The competition was fierce when Atari gave up-and-coming designers a chance to create a retro game. Images: An angry Atari princess, bull and ninjas

6 min read
It was Sunday just before 4 a.m., closing time, and across downtown Manhattan nightspots were shutting down, their customers heading for home.

But for Club Awesome, the party was going strong, because following hours of anticipation a fight was about to begin. The patrons gathered to watch.

In an instant, two ninjas, one red, one blue, sprang into a blossom-strewn cherry grove.

Charging through the trees, the fighters hurled deadly shuriken at each other as they frantically searched the forest for the bombs that would burn their foe's castle to the ground.

Evan Harper, 24, and Theodore Watson, 23, glared at the computer monitor before them and sidelong at each other as they steered their warrior avatars into battle.

As the two pale, stubble-shadowed video game design students mashed the keyboard, other members of Club Awesome, their five-person programming team, looked over their workbench and smiled.

"You guys having fun?" asked Carol T. Chung, 23, with the faintest smirk. The combatants didn't answer, but they didn't have to. All around them, other groups of young programmers with team names like Flashsmack, G Bunch and Pixel Pirates were racing a deadline to see which team could create the most fun.

It was all part of Retro Redux, a competition last weekend at the Parsons School of Design in Greenwich Village that gave nine teams of aspiring designers a mere 24 hours to create complete games based on the Atari 2600, the classic 1978 console that helped spawn iconic titles like "Asteroids," "Centipede" and "Pong." In today's nostalgia-drenched media culture, it should come as no surprise that Atari has recently revived the 2600 as part of a game system called, aptly enough, the Atari Flashback, which is pitched at 30-somethings hungry for a taste of their childhood.

The return of King Pong
Legendary video game
developer Nolan Bushnell
figures he's good for
one more big splash.

Atari sponsored last weekend's so-called game jam, and the young artists and programmers were lured by the possibility that the event's winning game would be included on a future version of the Flashback, a shot at the big break. (On Monday, Atari said it would indeed be using the winning game.)

So not far from the dueling ninjas, a school of piranhas fine-tuned their man-eating maneuvers, a vengeful princess prepared a comeuppance for a sexist video game culture and one very angry bull prepared his escape from the alleys of Pamplona on his way to greener pastures in France.

At a moment when handheld game consoles pack more computing power than the mainframes of yesteryear, getting young programmers to make games for the Atari 2600 is asking them to return to gaming's Stone Age, a time when graphics meant blocky pictograms rather than photo-realistic 3D models. But in one sense, that was the point.

"This is a great exercise for them, because instead of worrying about flashy graphics, they have to return to core concepts of game play, and that means asking, 'Is it fun?'" said Katie Salen, director of Parsons's graduate design and technology program and the driving force behind Retro Redux. "These old games have a lot to teach."

Retro Redux began at noon Saturday and ended at 1 p.m. Sunday (24 hours, accounting for the resumption of daylight saving time). The participants, 33 men and seven women ranging in age from 20 to 32, hailed from Parsons, Mercy College, New York University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the School of Visual Arts. The contestants filled the moments with learning, fun, frustration and some outright goofiness. A few of those moments follow.

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11:51 a.m., Saturday After the teams receive a brief tutorial in the software they will use, Salen explains that there will be four prizes: Top Game, Most Innovative Game, Best Visual Design and Best Audio Design. Each prize comes with a trophy: an old-school 2600 joystick mounted on a wooden base. But are the joysticks authentic? "They better be," she says. "We bought them on eBay."

1:11 p.m. Across the sprawling computer lab and in a few smaller nearby rooms, the brainstorming is in full force. A popular theme is animals eating people.

1:50 p.m. In a corner of the lab, children of some Parsons faculty are occupied with Sony's PlayStation 2. The contrast between the flashy modern graphics and the crude icons of the 2600 is stark. One might expect Mark Bosz, 11, to look down on the ancient games. Yet he offers perhaps the most astute commentary of the weekend. "The old

games are actually addictive," he says. "Like 'Pac-Man' or 'Mario,' you can play for hours and hours. The old games were more original. Now they're all the same, just with different pictures. The graphics are great now, but they're boring a lot of the time."

3:42 p.m. Subversively, team Flashsmack from R.P.I. has decided to base their entire game on upending the stalest of video game conventions. "You know so many of these classic games are based on you, the protagonist, going in and saving the princess, right," says Ward Childress, 22. "Well, in our game you are the princess and the princess is angry that she has been made this helpless character for so long and now she wants to take revenge on all the video games of years past."

Shocking new
game concept
A small Texas company thinks
it has a lock on the next break-
through in games: physical pain.

5:46 p.m.

Word of Retro Redux is out. Kunal Gupta, 22, and Ramiro Corbetta, 21, two Columbia students, show up simply to soak in the atmosphere. "This is totally incredible," Gupta says, gesturing across the room filled with buzzing young programmers. "We don't have anything like this uptown." Gupta plops down on a couch, whips out a laptop and starts showing off a cell phone game he is making. When dinner arrives, Corbetta wonders if he can cadge some spaghetti.

11:03 p.m. Team Superfriends, recent Parsons alumni, are making the piranha game. The Pixel Pirates from the School of Visual Arts are simulating Pamplona. A visitor asks why these games are so violent? A Pirate, Mason Staugler, 26, answers with an expression of utter exasperation. "Look, humans have four basic impulses: eating, sleeping, having sex and killing," he explains. "Aggression is a normal human instinct. You want to take it out."

2:15 a.m. Sunday Interteam cooperation has bloomed, or perhaps it is just opportunistic intelligence gathering. Prithvi Virasinghe, 27, of Team Phatari, helps Club Awesome test its ninja game. When he returns to his own area he explains, "Well, we're all friends in the end."

His teammate Kaho Abe, 32, snickers.

"I'm always feeling competitive, of course," Virasinghe says. But by now ambition is racing fatigue. "I'm not feeling competitive," Abe says, yawning. "I just want to finish."

4:50 a.m. Strain is starting to show. The Pirates are bickering. "No dude, you chill out," one young designer shouts. A few members of the team decide it's a good time to shop for toothbrushes.

7:55 a.m. The sun is up and the R.P.I. team declares victory and leaves. Aren't they worried that other teams will use the remaining time to leapfrog them? "They need it," Childress says. After a few moments he adds, "Just kidding."

11:56 a.m. The sole remaining group is the G Bunch. Asked for an update, Brett Jackson, 28, doesn't even take his eyes off the screen. He mutters, "We'll be all right."

In the end, the ninjas won. On Monday the school announced that a three-judge panel had anointed "Ninja Garden" the top game. In addition to Chung, Harper and Watson, the team included Matt Brant and Raymond Zablocki. Asked for reaction, Watson could only evoke his team's name. "Man this is awesome," he said, shaking his head. "Really, just awesome."

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