Thursday, April 25, 2013

My Gaming Audio History: Combat (1977)

As early as I can remember, in my family we owned an Atari VCS 2600.  I remember playing it simultaneously with the NES, which we got when I was 3 or 4, but since I'm making this list chronological, I'm starting with a focus on the older Atari and the games I played.  We had the six switch 2600 model, which goes well with my parents recollection that they bought it about a year or two after Atari came out.   As a young kid, I've got to confess, sometimes I just pretended the Atari was a helm for a space ship and that flipping the switches, which made a wonderfully satisfying sound, helped me pilot around.  The wood veneer matched well with our southern decor and the Atari 2600 was released with the game Combat.

Combat (Oct 1977)

This game, like Super Mario/Duck Hunt for the NES, came with the Atari system purchase.  My parents think they got one a little after they first came out, which makes sense with the fact that we had a second generation six switch version.  I actually really liked Combat, and played it with my brother and dad a lot.

Who created the audio?  This game is of the era where programmers were responsible for the audio, so it would've been created by the game designers and likely was a last addition, limited by space necessary for the game to play.  As a group project it's hard for me to know exactly who on the team worked on audio, or if they all contributed to it.  Designers: Steve Mayer, Joe Decuir, Larry Kaplan, and Larry Wagner.  I'd love to learn more about the specifics of the game audio development.

So what's the audio experience?  I'd forgotten, but there's no music-- at least not as we think of music.  There's a looping ambient sound in each world, what I think of as a "game on drone."  The sound of tanks (or planes) moving, gun fire, and a connecting shot are the major audio experiences of the game and I remember them well!  The most tonal audio is no doubt a result of playing Combat Pong (around 2:36), where each shot ricochet moves up a sort of chromatic scale.  All sounds simply cease when the game timer ends.

How does the audio experience draw the player more deeply into the game?  As crude as the graphics are, the audio helps my eye sort out what's happening on screen.  Where are my bullets bouncing?  Have I hit something?  Etc.

I'm just watching a video of game play with the planes on YouTube, and I noticed a comment about love of the jet sound.  It's amazing that these drones and noises can have such memory and connection!  Actually, if you consider the audio experience from once you decided to play your Atari, these bullet hit sounds and airplane drones weren't too far from the white noise you'd just heard from the TV static as you were connecting/setting up your Atari.

I forget that these games had silent title screens-- if they were screens at all-- sometimes the games just played.  This system literally brought the arcade experience into the home.  Combat took two players, so it was meant to be a multi-person experience, and aside from the looping drone of the game being in progress, the audio was cheering, talking, or just a silent concentration between the players.  If you're into it, check out the code with commentary.

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