Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Adventure - Atari for the Block
A Link to the past: How an intrepid square hero started it all.

If it was to school I went to learn my ABCs and 123s, then it was the Atari 2600 to which I gravitated to learn how to play video games. Now, I'm not sure if Adventure was the first game I ever played, considering that a three-year-old me might have sampled my father's Electronic Action TV Game Model 200 (a Pong clone that had a built-in light-gun game), but it was definitely among the handful of games that served as my introduction to the medium; it was one from a group of sacred artifacts whose subjects included Circus Atari, Space Invaders, and Maze Craze: A Game of Cops 'n Robbers.

The 2600 was my brother's, and he had quite a large collection for it. He had what I called "the magic box," which was a rather bulky cardboard box that contained all of his 2600 games (without casing or manuals, since he always threw them away); it was named as such because its contents seemed to exponentially grow in quantity almost every time I opened it up after lugging it out of his closet and pulling it over to the TV. "Where is he getting all these games?" I wondered, knowing that even my generous father had his limits. It was inexplicable, much like many of the games that would come to appear inside of it. Fortunately, my sampling of its wares began in early 1981, when there were fewer titles from which to choose and most of them were high-grade like Adventure.

In a time when space shooters, quirky arcade titles, and high scores ruled the day, Adventure was something different: It was a game with a final goal; you could win an ultimate prize and find reward in the form of a victory screen. There was no "bounce until the time-limit expires" or "collect every heart to move on to the next in a never-ending sequence of stages." No--you grabbed a weapon, slayed the monsters, infiltrated the enemy fortress, snatched the loot, and took it back home to your own castle. It was instantly appealing to me. It was like having my own little digital playhouse, where I could move about at my leisure and plan my course of action without fear that a big smiley-faced bomb would suddenly drop in and blow me up if I took too much time.

It was short and seemingly simple, but Adventure had a lot of depth compared to other games of similar length. Its default difficulty, essentially a beginner mode, was brilliant in how it functioned as both a tutorial and a satisfying self-contained experience, even if it could be beaten in about a minute; it was merely training for the two advanced difficulties, which added shrouded mazes, a third castle, extra rooms, an additional red dragon (which was faster and more fierce than its green and yellow cousins), and an annoying bat with a penchant for endlessly stealing and swapping items and even dragons, alive or dead. Difficulty "2," like the default difficulty, was linear--its initial item-placement never changing, with only the bat's antics potentially mixing things up--but "3" was random in how items could be scattered anywhere, creating an untold number of possible sequences. The yellow key to your home base, for example, could be hidden in the locked black castle, whose key might be laying around the middle of a maze somewhere, assuming the bat hadn't gotten to it first.

I always felt a tinge of nervousness when playing difficulty 3, since the training wheels were off and there was a chance that a dragon could be viciously chomping at me a split second after I entered a normally vacant room. It was terrifying enough to be chased by two or more of the duck-billed foes, but it would soon get worse when the bat would zip by and steal my sword (which I originally thought was a spear), leaving me a useless magnet in its place. Danger could be lurking on any screen, the sense of which taught me lessons in patience and vigilance. Difficulty 3 was the "true" Adventure experience, throwing me off the known path and into what my still-formative mind interpreted as pure chaos. A lot of it had to with Adventure's memory limitations: It could only process two items per room, with any additional objects causing all onscreen sprites to flash wildly while unintentionally granting dragons immunity to the sword. I spent half the time trying to reach safe spaces in to order to gather myself, if that only meant escaping the visual noise. It seems Adventure had a way of attacking my senses as well as my still-forming psyche. I didn't mind, though--I liked this new feeling of excitement, of being left to my own devices.

When previously writing about NES games and 8-bit games in general, I implied that you could augment your adventure by applying your imagination and sense of wonder to the game world, itself, and make a personal, lasting connection with it. In the Atari 2600 era, this was the rule rather than an option; since your hero was likely to be a tiny block or stick figure whose world was barely identifiable, you had to pretend that you were in exotic locations and otherwise give personally specific designations to landmarks that were merely a collection of random shapes. For me, that was part of Adventure's allure. I gave my own thoughtful interpretation to nearly every unlabeled screen: The blue maze borders found to the left of the yellow castle were a series of unnavigable rivers that demanded only land travel. The shrouded area to the right was a sunless hedge maze partially illuminated by the hero's unseen torch (like in Haunted House). The black castle's shrouded innards were an underground cave system. The white castle was filled with lava streams. The usually empty rooms found on either side of the hedge maze were quiet, barren pockets of the surrounding woodland. In this sense, Adventure really was my playground.

More than the random elements of difficulty 3, the long-term source of Adventure's replayability was my pushing of the game's boundaries. It was always fun to play around with the items to see if I could push a key or magnet past a room's border and get it to appear, say, ten screens over; make the game explode by piling every possible item into one location; or get eaten by a dragon and thereafter coax the bat into picking up this newly tethered pair so we could be taken on a world tour. My favorite trick was to take hold of the bridge, place it over any screen's walled-off border, and see where I'd arrive after crossing through it. What lurked on the other side was usually an unbreachable surface and only a Metal Gear-style glimpse into an apparently adjacent room, but I'd sometimes pop out in a far-off location or in the square openings atop one of the castles (points from which there's no escape without resetting). In truth, there were only a finite amount of these "wall warps," as I called them, but I would always convince myself that there had to be a highly secret location that I could discover if I could just find the right angle to enter a previously inaccessible room.

In reality, there was a big secret hiding behind one of the game's narrow borders. One day, maybe a year later, I suddenly became excited when my brother interrupted one of my wall-hugging sessions (in the game, of course) to disclose that there was indeed a sneakily hidden room and that the key to its access lay in the black castle's maze, though he couldn't remember where or how. He learned of this from my uncle, of all people, who was once a 2600 owner; now in his 60s, he regards video games as "a waste of time" and doesn't at all project himself as anyone who has ever touched a controller. I don't know which was the bigger mystery: The existence of Adventure's hidden room or the fact that we learned about it from a guy who's so averse to technology that he can't even figure out how to turn on his flat screen TV.

With a new sense of hope, I headed toward the black castle and searched every room of its maze, hugging every wall in search of a key. When nothing turned up, I grabbed the magnet and gave it another run-through, attracting nothing but dead space. I was ready go give up when I noticed that a room on the second level of the looping maze was flashing when only the magnet was present; after spotting a small, inaccessible plot of land near the room's bottom-center, I came back with the bridge and crossed over to the cordoned-off space and continued my berserk hugfest until I heard the item-grabbing sound. It was nothing but a dot, colored gray and only visible when it overlapped walls and other structures. With the dot in my possession, I stumbled onto a point of interest--the room located down and right from the yellow castle, its now-rapidly-flashing border a clear hint that the holy grail lay beyond here. After placing the dot down, I wedged my way past the border and there it was: Nothing but a room with a vertical text scroll emerging from an entrance point that led nowhere. Who the hell was Warren Robinett? I didn't know, nor did I sense that I had discovered gaming's first Easter egg (which was hidden as such because Atari had a policy of not including credits in its games). All I knew was that glitching past this intrusive, oddly placed credit also led me to nowhere in particular.

Still, I was excited about it, as if I'd just walked upon untraveled sacred ground. When my brother returned to the room, I couldn't wait to share my discovery with him. Not yet anything resembling a wordsmith, I proudly declared that I had found "the spick"! Now, there's a world of difference between seeing that word in print and saying it out loud. The younger me sensed something was wrong by merely observing his teeth-clenching, hissing expression, but all he told me in response was that I probably shouldn't yell out something like that. My mistake became clear to me the next time I mentioned it during a family gathering (loudly telling a friend that I'd found this "spick") and completely brought the room's activity to a halt. See--the word I was looking for, of course, was speck, and even that was a poor identifier. 

I think I probably banged my head on the bottom of the table too many times when I was a kid.

That was Adventure--a game small in scope when you count only the number of rooms but rich with content when you consider its near-endless possibilities for fun. When I do return to it, which these days is sadly very rarely, I always play it straight at first before mischievously returning to my old tricks, trying one last time to breach a wall that might lead to hidden treasure.

For game developers, it was an inspiration. For me, it was a world of imagination and made me think about what wonders this medium could produce in the future. It would be years before I'd find my answer, but Adventure did well to prepare and train me for the Hyrules, Rendars and Eggerlands to come, and for that I'll always hold it dear.

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