Atari 50: Adventure

When one thinks of action/adventure video games there are many names that spring to mind: Legend of Zelda, Castlevania, Metroid, The Witcher, and many others. But before any of those games were a thought, there was one game during the Atari era that definitely tried to evoke that idea of a quest, and that was Adventure for the Atari 2600.

Created by Warren Robinett and based off of another game of the same title, Adventure was a game unlike any other at that point in time. Now while there had been what was called “text-based” adventures, Robinett went in a different direction and broke the concept down to its most basic parts. As such it allowed the player to make their own event(s), and therefore their own story.

In this game, your quest is to take an enchanted chalice from an evil magician’s lair and return it to the Golden Castle. To do this you need keys to unlock the castle gates, and each one is guarded by dragons named Yorgle, Grundle and Rhindle.

Because of the restrictions of the 2600, Robinett only had a maximum of 4K code to work with, so this made Robinett get creative with his game design. Especially when it came to carrying items.

I made the decision to allow you to carry just one object at a time, and that turned out to be a good thing because it meant you had to make strategic choices. If you had a treasure and a weapon and you wanted to go somewhere, you had to pick which one you were going to take.
It was also a good choice because the graphics on the 2600 were so limited and it kept things from getting too cluttered on the screen.

Warren Robinett

In a time where programmers were also responsible for the artwork Robinett had to also draw his creatures. Unfortunately the dragons looked more like ducks according to him but Robinett did the best he could.

Halfway through development Robinett found himself bogged down and he then went to work on another project. Fortunately he didn’t stay away for too long. Especially with an idea he got thanks to then Atari President Ray Kassar.

Since Kassar had a policy that prevented programmers from receiving any kind of recognition Robinett decided to find a way around that and create a hidden room. One that would have a pleasant surprise if the player was to find it. However, the keys and location were placed in such an obscure way that Robinett doubted that anyone would find them. Of course, for obvious reasons he didn’t tell anyone about it.

I was the only person creating the game, and nobody went through our games with a fine-toothed comb to see what might be in there. The hard part was keeping it a secret until the game came out. I didn’t even tell my two buddies, Jim Huether and Tom Reuterdahl. I felt that if I couldn’t keep the secret myself, how could I expect them to keep a juicy secret like that?

Warren Robinett

Essentially the player had to find an item Robinett called “the dot” which was a pixel that looked so insignificant that most wouldn’t even give it any attention.

I called it “the dot” and it was just one pixel. It was the smallest, most insignificant little object you could possibly have, and it was gray. It was the same color as the background. That made it more insignificant because [even if you found it], you could lose it and maybe not find it again.

It was hidden in part of one of the mazes in which you couldn’t see very far. The area was even inaccessible-you had to use the bridge to cross the wall to get into it. You had to make a map of the whole maze and then you would discover that there was one little tiny chamber that you couldn’t get to unless you used the bridge to cross the wall. And then if you went in there you’d run into the dot and you could pick it up.

If you picked up this little dot, the one pixel dot that was hidden inside the inaccessible part of a large maze, and you brought it back and you messed around with it long enough, you found that it could get you through this wall and into the secret room in which I filled the screen with the words, “Created by Robinett.” It [the message] was in every color in the rainbow because I made the graphics go through the entire palette. I wanted my name in colored lights.

Warren Robinett
Impressive. Most impressive.

While it wouldn’t be until after Robinett left Atari that this secret would be discovered, it still left quite an impression, and a magazine called “Electronic Games” ended up covering the story, nicknaming it an “Easter Egg”, which would be something that many other games would emulate.

So in all, it was quite an impressive game for its time, and one that really helped set the tone for many other adventure games to follow.

Thank you Mr. Robinett for helping to create something different for the Atari VCS, and for helping to push the boundaries of game design.

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