Insider's story about Atari

Fun first-person account of designing the cartridge version of Donkey Kong for Atari, written by Landon Dyer, who was 21 years old when Atari hired him.
The Atari Program Exchange (a captive publishing house) was holding a contest. The grand prize for the winning game was $25,000. I’d spent a semester of college blowing off most of my courses and doing almost nothing except work on Myriapede. I finished it with a week or two to spare and submitted to the contest.

A few weeks after I mailed Myriapede off to the contest, I got a letter from Atari that said (1) they were very impressed with the work, but (2) it looked to them like a substantial copy of Centipede (well, it was) and that they’d rejected it for that reason. The subtext was they would probably sue me if I tried to sell it anywhere else, too. I was crushed. I wound up going to a local user group and giving a couple copies of it away; I assume that it spread from there. I hear that people liked it (”best download of 1982″ or something like that).

A few weeks later I got a call from Atari; they wanted to know if I was interested in interviewing for a job. I was practically vibrating with excitement. I flew out and did a loop, and made sure to show Myriapede to each interviewer; it was a conversation stopper every time. Until they saw it they kind of humored me (”yeah, okay, you wrote a game”), then when the game started up they started playing it, got distracted and (”ahem!”) had to be reminded that they were doing an interview! One of the guys I talked to was the author of Atari’s “official” Centipede cartridge. He said on the spot that my version was better than his.



  1. Thanks for the link, I really enjoyed reading that.

    I was confused by his statement about the level background graphics being stamped once.

    I thought with the Atari 2600 there was no frame buffer due to RAM limitations of the machine (due to high manufacturing cost at the time) . I thought the screen had to be drawn from scratch for each frame and synced with the vertical refresh rate of the television. So how would the background be “stamped” down once if there is no frame buffer?

  2. #3-

    Wow. I have absolutely no idea, and little interest in the answer other than really wanting to see if someone in this thread will actually have the answer.

  3. I’ve heard this same story before plus lived the game play of it- I remember most games coming out one year, 1982 or 83 were just bad games. I remember people just getting sick of the same old same old. One thing I remember was that when I started writing database interfaces for clients professionally, around 1990, I soon realized that any kind of turaround speed required 2 or 3 developers. At one point I thought to myself, “A long way from ‘Created by Warren Robinet'” and that’s when it clicked that the games were bad because only one person wrote them and they had to write them while the arcade game was still a hit.

    It WAS remarkable when I powered up the atari about 1992 how incredible unfun the games were. I expected a nostalgic, fun time, but they were all horrible compared to even the shareware available in 1992.

  4. #3: He’s talking about the Atari 800 computer, which had more advanced capabilities than the earlier Atari 2600 game console.

  5. I just played it. It is a pretty good (for the day) clone of Centipede, especially for someone who didn’t have access to the original specs. I do recall having played it as a child.

    I think the only thing that really hampered this from being a perfect copy is the screen orientation, and the trakball (sic) support. The arcade version has a vertical monitor.

    Home computers always have horizontal monitors, and given the low resolution, they usually couldn’t throw away the left and the right side to try to make a fake vertical playfield.

    Atari did sell a ‘trakball’ (Atari’s name for the trackball) for the Atari Home Computer, but it wasn’t a true trackball. It was simply converted into a digital up/down/left/right joystick input.

  6. For the record, there was a small local computer chain store in NYC called The Computer Center that sold a knock-off of Centipede that an employee wrote. The game was called “Megalegs” and the graphics and game play were great. So great in fact I bought it on cassette and practiced playing it so much that when they held a promotional contest for the new release of “Centipede” for the Atari computer in Macy’s I was way ahead of the curve and won second place. Could have won first but I was genuinely so nervous and terrified of competing against these rich Manhattanite kids (I’m from Brooklyn) that I choked.

    But thank you Mike Dubno—author of “Megalegs”—for helping to make my 14-year-old dreams come true!

  7. #7

    Actually, the trackball did both that *and* had a trackball mode. There is a switch on the underside to switch between the two modes. Most games didn’t support the true trackball mode though (I remember missle command did, not sure if centipede did or not).

  8. Nice. This made me drag out my old trusty 2600 for a trip down memory lane. Not as fun as it was when I was a kid but still enjoyable. When did those games get so easy? I remember them being very challenging!


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