The Atari 2600 was a wonderful machine for its day. Despite having only 4k at its disposal, its games were etched in the minds and hearts of a generation of gamers. But few of the hundreds of games produced for it had the staying power, reach or influence of Robinette’s Adventure, which became the forerunner of countless imitators through every generation of game systems since.
I was a wee fellow when my mom brought this game home for me. As a single parent, she was often torn between the expense of the games and the peace and quiet it gave her from me. But when she brought home Adventure, the whole dynamic changed.
This was no Space Invaders, Asteroids or Defender. I didn’t shoot at nameless foes until I was overwhelmed by endless waves of enemies or bedtime. Enemies in this game had to be killed differently than just pushing the red button on the joystick. My humble, square shaped cursor had to pick up a sword and touch an enemy to kill it. Moreover, each enemy was distinct! Each had their own look and movement patterns- heck, they even had names for each other! Yorgle the yellow dragon and Grundle the green one were relatively easy to pick off, but Rhindle was a blood-red terror who moved and attacked twice as fast as his brothers. I still remember my guts going cold the first time that little red dragon-shaped graphic appeared on the edge of the screen, making a B-line for me and ‘bouncing’ in my direction so quickly it was almost a blur. And as if the dragons weren’t challenging enough, how many times did that darned, unkillable bat swipe your needed item with something you didn’t need or definitely didn’t want?
And how quickly the tables could turn! You could be humming along with the magic chalice, headed happily to the golden castle when… the bat came and switched it for a live dragon! Or you could feel bulletproof with your magic sword [that skill looked like an arrow, if you looked at it the wrong way…], only to find every dragon ran away as fast or faster than you at the sight of it? Or the magnet pulled your bridge away while you were still in the middle of a wall?
Then there were the locations! Whereas the field on Space Invaders or Missile command was a static, black background with things flying across the screen, the backgrounds of Adventure shifted and changed in a medievalized New York Minute. Like the original Star Wars movies that would change scenes from a white ice-planet to a green-jungle world and then to a bright orange land of gas-clouds and floating cities, Adventure would jump to a new locale with a completely different color scheme and motif in an eyeblink, and what
these locations lacked in raw graphic power they made up in the ability to tap into my imagination. A deep, blue labyrinth suddenly would ‘flip’ as you crossed a threshold, becoming a great, dark castle surrounded by black on all sides, making the prepubescent me think of every spooky haunted castle and forest I’d seen in cartoons or movies. Another castle was pure white on a white background, awakening imagined references to the White Witch of Narnia, who ruled over wintry lands covered in snow and ice.
And strategy? After playing game after game that involved jumping, flying or shooting, Adventure had tools to use, tools that had to be used in conjunction with each other, if you ever wanted to get that beautiful, glowing golden chalice into the heart of the bright golden castle. Find the magnet, and you just might bring that beautiful cup right to you. Or should you take the bridge and jump through the wall, and start running? You could only carry one object at a time; should I kill Rhindle first, or grab and run? Oh no, I’m on high difficulty, which means the dragons will all run from the sight of my sword- do I brandish it from room to room? Do I put the sword and chalice in line with each other, hitting each with a series of the loud ascending and descending ‘bu-du-BLIP’ / ‘ba-da-BLUP’ noises? Or sneakiest of all: do I hid my sword offscreen, wait for a dragon to approach, and then try to spring the trap? But what if the dragon appears next to me? What if the bat suddenly trades my sword for something else? What if…
Almost as fun were the surprises. If a dragon actually ate you, your hero still moved around in the dragon’s gut! Even weirder, there were a few times when the bat would grab ‘your’ dragon, and you could grab the bat from inside the dragon! Who knew about programming bugs then? To twelve-year-old me, this was the coolest thing in the universe! And even death wasn’t the end; if you did get eaten, hit the reset button and…well, the instruction book said you’d be ‘reincarnated,’ but more important, you got a chance to start again with all your stuff in the same place! How cool was that?
Last and best of all: in the video game magazines and among my fellow gaming buddies, rumors began to sift about a ‘secret message’ in Adventure. Remember, this was 1982- no internet. I never found it when I had the cartridge; the closest I came was finding that weird little microdot in the room where the walls blinked. It wasn’t until years later, when I had one of those nostalgic ‘flashback’ 2600 sets, that I was able to use the microdot to bypass the line/colored wall, and see the magic glowing words: “Created Watten … by …Robinett…”
…okay, it was supposed to read “Created by Warren Robinett.’ The two ‘r’s looked like ‘t’s at the time. Still, you get the idea.
Thanks to Atari and designer Warren Robinett, I still think of the magic sword when I mod a weapon in Fallout 4, I hear the descending musical tune of the dragon’s deaths when I take out an avatar in X-Com2, and every maze I created for the RPGs I GM’d for my kids as they grew up had hints of the Blue Labyrinth. Games have come and gone in my life, but I will always be grateful to Atari and Mr. Robinett for a little, 4k masterpiece that kindled the fires of imagination in my head, and gave me permission to tell and share my stories to those I know and love.