Retronauts episode 85: The golden days of Activision

Hi everyone, I’ve landed in Tokyo and settled in for the night after being awake for about 26 hours straight. Please forgive me if I keep this entry short and to the point, because at this point I’m not entirely certainly I’m not hallucinating everything.

This week’s episode looks back to 1979 and the birth of Activision, a company that had a profound impact on the business of video games. Without Activision, the industry would look very, very different. A perfect storm of great timing, strong financial backing, and top-flight programming and game design came together in the form of this company to prove that third-party publishing could be a viable and valuable video game business model. Steve Lin and Jaz Rignall join us to chronicle the circumstances that led to Activision’s creation, the games they produced, and the great successes they had until their business model began to fizzle… which is to say, this show covers Activision until it became Mediagenic. (For more on that, I highly recommend the Activision/Infocom/Mediagenic retrospectives at The Digitial Antiquarian — they were enormously valuable as we planned this podcast!)

Steve Lin and Jaz Rignall join Jeremy and Bob again to look back at one of the most important game creators of all time: Activision, the company that established the concept of third parties.

Libsyn (1:41:34, 70.8 MB) | MP3 Download | SoundCloud)

As for musical interludes this time… well, there wasn’t really much I could pull in terms of music from Activision’s Atari 2600 era. Instead, I looked to the late ’80s for some tasty FM synth tunes. This episode’s music selections come from Shanghai, Shanghai II: The Dragon’s Eye, and Ghostbusters for Genesis. Enjoy!


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24 Responses to Retronauts episode 85: The golden days of Activision

  1. Kevin

    This was a fun episode – like Bob, my first console was a 2600 and I have a lot of fond memories of the Activision library. My dad and I were both big fans of Starmaster, my sister and I sunk some good time into Fishing Derby, and River Raid was my grandmother’s favorite video game period. I’m actually kind of hyped up to hook up the 2600 and play some of these after listening to this episode.

    As a related aside, a couple years ago I wrote about a club called the Activision Addicts that used to exist in the city I covered for a local newspaper – they were a local video game group mainly interested in Activision games that had donation drives to bring games to local children’s hospitals. Worth a look!

  2. I’m so glad you guys touched on the sunsets in those 2600 games. They were really nice looking.

    …now onto Space Shuttle. Lol! Man, that game was actually cool. Of course it would not be fun without the layout that was supposed to go over the 2600 console, and it seems as if none of you had the complete game. But, dude, experiencing space travel, breaking through the atmosphere, and trying to not be melted in reentry to earth…amazing–for the time, of course. It was, and still is, an immersive but also ambitious title for the 2600. There was nothing like it.

    It’s not perfect, but I definitely think it’s worth looking into just to see it in action. And I’m always right about everything, so trust me. Lol! (Sarcasm everybody…)

    • Ryan Gavigan

      Yeah, needing the actual console controls (b/w, difficulty switches, etc) becoming actual game controls is something that’s not intuitive when you aren’t looking at the manual or running on emulation. But damn was it cool :). I remember using the switches in Starmaster in order to toggle to the map, etc. kind of like in modern times i’ve had to tell a friend he needed the right joystick plugged in in order to play Raiders of the Lost Ark.


  3. TheBigSnit

    Years later, Little Computer People would re-emerge on television in the form of a CGI-animated show called Reboot.

  4. HelloMrKearns

    oh wow…I remember trying to play Space Shuttle when i was a kid. Had no clue what I was doing but I played it because it made colours on my TV.

  5. Super Boy Allan

    I always liked the story about how Garry Kitchen determined which pitches the Atari 2600 could remotely play in tune and hired a composer of commercial “jingles” to write something that *only* used those pitches for his music to Pressure Cooker. The result is one of the few pieces of music that sounds remotely in tune on the 2600; the system only had a 5-bit frequency divider and wasn’t designed with music in mind (since only a handful of games had music back in the mid-70’s – 1975’s Steeplechase is about as far back as I can go, and I’m not even 100% certain about the year).

    Anyway, pardon my gaming nerdery.

  6. Lane

    I haven’t finished the podcast yet, and you may have touched on these later in the podcast – but some of the better early Activision games:

    Pitfall II is probably the crowning achievement for the Atari 2600. Gorgeous graphics and animations; a far more expansive environment than its predecessor; a no-death/checkpoint system (when an enemy touched you, you were simply sent back to the last checkpoint and your score decreased a bit based on distance).

    Most impressively – it featured an interactive music system that predated Lucasarts’ iMUSE system by a decade. Pick up gold or hit a new checkpoint? Happy music! Get hit by an enemy? Minor key, sad music. And much like the Pressure Cooker anecdote above, it actually sounds good despite the 2600’s audio fidelity limitations – the C64 version’s soundtrack pales in comparison, which is saying something. Though I’d chalk that up to a poor port more than anything.

    The 5200 version is also worth mentioning, as it included a unique second dungeon that was not found in any other versions.

    H.E.R.O. is another excellent Activision title worth mentioning. Also Starmaster, which out-Star Raider’ed Star Raiders – at least on the 2600.

    On the Commodore 64, a handful of Activision games I remembered fondly: Hacker II, Great American Cross Country Road Race; Master of the Lamps, Aliens: The Movie, Mindshadow, Ballblazer, Spindizzy – and the list goes on.

  7. Garnsr

    I don’t think anyone ever said that every time a patch was mentioned they were talking about pieces of fabric that had pictures on them, that you could sew onto clothing, that you earned for achieving a feat in a game, like a physical achievement picture. Every time I heard it I still thought of modifications to software, I don’t know if younger people even know what a patch on clothes is.

  8. Samael Howard

    Love this episode! I wish more people covered the early days when anyone could afford to make the best game of the year, and invent an entire new genre…but only if they could master an insane design challenge unlike anything ever seen before or since.

    With that said, there were a few mistakes you didn’t catch. Enduro wasn’t a Sega arcade game – were you thinking of Enduro Racer, the often forgotten (in the states) Hang-On sequel? And you play the cop in Keystone Kapers, not the criminal. Also Spider Fighter really deserves more credit – it’s the closest the 2600 gets to a bullet hell, and defending your fruit offers more gameplay depth than Galaxian or Megamania.

    I also wish you’d covered their last few 2600 games in more depth. The post crash 2600 was still relevant to many families who couldn’t afford to upgrade to an NES. Double Dragon might have been a case of too much with too little (and bad priorities – the game would have benefited from sacrificing the ear splitting sountrack and retaining the enemy stun effect instead), but Dan Kitchen’s Kung Fu Master is an Atari 2600 game with giant sprites, varied enemies and stage hazards, plus more boss variety than Super Mario Bros, complete with a period appropriate/limited memory forgiving kidnapped girlfriend! The music even enhances the experience – how did he fit all of this int0 16k? Even the homebrew scene has never attempted anything this ambitious.

    Even after the golden age had ended, Activision could still work miracles on a disposable box that was only ever designed to play Pong and Combat. (Two sprites, two missiles, and one ball.)

  9. Nathan Daniels

    I think Jeremy mentioned that analog controls didn’t come out until the 5200, but the paddle controller was analog, wasn’t it? This is not a correction attempt; I know Jeremy was referring to analog joystick.

    It does however bring up the fact that in some cases, technology still hasn’t caught up with those days. There is a great Kaboom port for iOS that is still unfortunately unplayable. The touch screen is nowhere near responsive enough to keep up with the bombs. And even if a paddle controller could be used in emulation, today’s most responsive TVs have too much lag to play that game effectively.

  10. dc12

    This was a very interesting episode, even if I usually fall asleep listening to the old days of gaming with Ataris and Intellivisions. It’s a good add-on to the first episode of vol. 3! Interesting that there was a not-so-bad version of Ghostbusters.

    • dc12

      Yeah, the 2600, 5200, and 7800 all had a Pole Position according to the internet. I’ve only held the 7800 copy but couldn’t get the f-ing 7800 to work on modern tvs.

  11. Slick Vic

    Hey Jeremy,

    The cops n robbers arcade game that you were trying to remember when you were talking about Keystone Kapers was probably “Lock n Chase” ( Pacman clone).
    As for Keystone Kapers- this game is completly different from the Bonanza Brothers, because you play as the cop. I had this game back in the day and its pretty good. Imho one the best Activision titles on the 2600. The basic premise is that you are chasing Harry Hooligan through a closed department store as he tries to escape through the roof of the store. As you chase you must overcome several obstacles that Harry has placed to slow you down. The cool part of the game, is that each stage adds a new obstacle to slow you down. After adding all the obstacles, the game then tweaks the obstacles by changing them slightly. Example – you have a bouncing ball as one of the first obstacles, which later bounces higher than normal does. You also have a radio that blocks your way, where later stages they add more radios per screen- which changes the jump rhythm of the game. You also have a run away shopping cart, which increases the speed in later stages. You also have a flying toy biplane that can be an instant kill, and later on the you have to overcome multiple planes and they become faster as well. There is also a elevator in the game that can either aid you or end your game because of it’s slowness. The game also sorta has a rhythm mechanic via the jump button/ducking, but the rhythm completly changes when the difficulty level increases. I highly recommend this title. Btw- sorry for rambling about this game.

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  13. Greg Falkingham

    While a minor detail, it is perhaps worth noting that the advent of the third party publisher also meant the birth of third party off-brand cartridges. With Activision, the differences were pretty subtle, with them being the same size and black plastic as official carts. The labels were a bit amusing, since they prominently featured a screen shot of the game itself (which was actually a drawing).

    The biggest difference was the absence of the dust cover on the bottom, which exposed this long tongue-like PCB with the cartridge contacts and a couple spring-mounted plastic tines that retracted into the cart. This invariably means that whenever I buy a second hand Activision cart I have to spend a fair amount of time cleaning those exposed contacts first to get it to work.

    My favorite off-brand Atari carts, though, were the M-Network games that Mattel put out. They literally reused the plastic shells of their Intellivision carts and put a wide plastic sleeve at the end to properly fit into the Atari console slot.

    Add another vote for Spider Fighter, which I only picked up and played about a year ago. It is much faster and more intense than just about any other shooter on the Atari.

  14. Hellfire

    Regarding the discussion about the revival of Activision after the bankruptcy, besides the massive quantity of Infocom sequels and rereleases Activision internal development was all in on the giant robots. They developed 4 mech games and an expansion pack in 4 years. They stopped along the way to turn MechWarrior 2 into the car combat game Interstate ’76 and to make Battlezone ’98. All of these are PC games.

    Someone mentioned seeing MechWarrior 2 for years and that should be expected considering there are 38 separate MechWarrior 2 releases counting the expansion pack and the Mercenaries spinoff. 38!

    In retrospect Activision was my favorite PC game developer of the mid 90’s and probably the decade. Move over Black Isle.
    MechWarrior 2 (1995), MechWarrior 2: Ghost Bears Legacy (1995), MechWarrior 2: Mercenaries (1996), Interstate ’76 (1997), Heavy Gear (1997), Battlezone ’98, by the time Heavy Gear 2 came out in ’99 my computer couldn’t keep up.

  15. Ryan Gavigan

    All in all I was happy with the effort on the episode, as it does show more dedication to research on the pre-NES era that’s been sadly lacking in earlier episode efforts. Only near the end did it start to ‘break down’ 🙂 with things like the Enduro thing, Keystone Kapers, the not knowing Pole Position indeed was on 2600, etc. But all in all much better.

    Garry Kitchen did Keystone Kapers and Pressure Cooker, but he got his studio in new jersey partnered with Activision early. he did Space Jockey, then Donkey Kong for 2600 as a contractor for others, then Activision hired them because they were a small studio, *very far away*, that were doing good things in a small group (Garry, his brothers Dan and Steve, John van Ryzin) that was reminiscent of the ‘founding 4’.

    Thanks to Jeremy for going to the extra lengths in his post-working-for-the-man gig. Just want to make sure pre-crash era gets the proper ‘props’. I was waiting for this episode before looking at possibly going to patreon.

    Activision games when they started really showed that those games themselves were starting out as there ‘3rd generation’ (or more) 2600 games versus those jumping on the bandwagon later.

  16. Enargy

    Great episode! You need to have Jaz on more often!

    One small correction – River Raid does use a pseudorandom method of generating levels.. but since the seed is constant, the order of those chunks will be the same every time the game is played. This was done as a clever way to save memory.

    Related, here’s a really interesting interview with Carol Shaw:

    Oh, and recently there was a Tiny TV Jam challenge on the PICO-8 forums where users made games to be played on a 10 x 11 pixel voxel TV . Lots of neat games to come out of that, including a demake of River Raid:

  17. Jeff

    For the record – I believe the toys Bob Mackey remembers his sister having are today known in America as “Calico Criters” – but in other regions (Japan & Europe) are still called by their original name “Sylvanian Families”

    • I was just coming on here to mention these guys. My wife loves Calico Critters and I’m pretty sure that’s what Bob was thinking of! Knew someone would beat me to it!

  18. Really enjoyed the episode! I personally loved Crackpots as a kid, and was even playing it just last week on my Retropie. It holds up really well! I loved Pitfall as a kid, and just about a year ago I finally got a copy of Pitfall 2 to try out on the 2600. Even all these years later, I was blown away by how big that world is for an Atari game. They really pushed that hardware.

    As a huge Ghostbusters fan, I was also happy to hear you guys mention David Crane’s take on the title. For my money, the Commodore 64 version is the “true” version of that game, having just the right balance of buying and upgrading equipment without some of the more annoying features like running out of gas and that climb up 22 floors of Dana’s building like the NES had. I have that one on 2600 as well and I think it’s a pretty good port.