GameCentral speaks to gaming legend and llama enthusiast Jeff Minter, about his work reimagining lost Atari classic Akka Arrh.
As hard as it is to believe, Atari is now 50 years old and unlike many companies and franchises, who had their anniversary plans ruined by the pandemic, it’s been able to celebrate that fact very effectively, with the excellent Atari 50 compilation and interactive retrospective.
One of Atari 50’s most interesting inclusions is the coin-op Akka Arrh, which was originally supposed to be released in the early 80s but despite being completely finished was canned, because players found it too difficult.
It’s a really fun single screen shooter and so famed Atari (and llama) enthusiast Jeff Minter has been brought in to create a modern day interpretation in the style of his classic Tempest 2000 and its successors.
We were able to speak to Minter about the new project and were unsurprised to find that he’d played the game long before it became a part of Atari 50, via a collector that owned a working prototype machine and released its code online.
‘First impressions were pretty good; I liked the abstract nature of it, and the almost lotus-shaped geometry of the levels,’ says Minter. ‘I thought the level splitting between upstairs and downstairs was interesting, as was the lighting up of upstairs level sections to ‘electrify’ the incoming enemies.’
The original game has you controlling a spaceship in the middle of the screen but you’re able to zoom in to a closer view of the action in order to shoot invading aliens who are trying to build a giant cannon.
‘It plays almost like some kind of ancestor of the Tower Defense genre, in which ‘you’ are the tower,’ says Minter. ‘In my remake, I’ve slowed things down a little and reduced the aggression a bit. It’s going to be a game players play at home, so we don’t need to throw them off as quickly as possible to get them to put more coins in the slot, so to speak.’
‘It feels almost like a real-time strategy game, so I’ve pushed a bit in that direction and made the levels almost like a series of puzzles. You can pretty easily blaze away with bombs and pass a level easily, but to rinse the most points out of it, you need to study the attack patterns and learn how most efficiently to deploy your weaponry. Some levels can be entirely conquered with a single bomb and a smug expression as a destructive chain reaction consumes the entire level and awards the highest bonus scores.’
It’s interesting to imagine what influence Akka Arrh may have had on gaming if it had been released in the 80s but as well as the real-time strategy elements there’s also a lot of Robotron: 2084 in it, which has always been one of Minter’s favourite golden age coin-ops (and ours).
‘I’m always channelling Robotron!,’ admits Minter, as we ask him how he coped with the fact that the turret you control in Akka Arrh cannot move. ‘I did find being locked to the middle of the screen a bit limiting at first, so I’ve added bonus weaponry that you power up that enables you to fire shots out of your cursor itself as well as the turret. This opens up the gameplay rather nicely, and the balance between the shot types, and whether they originate at the turret or at the cursor, allows for added complexity in the level designs.’
The original coin-op used a trackball, similar to Missile Command, but according to Minter his game works fine with an analogue stick, although you can also use the touch pad on the PlayStation if you want and there is trackball support on PC.
Minter’s history in gaming stretches back to the VIC-20 and right up to modern games such as TxK and the excellent VR title Polybius. However, apart from his love of ruminants and old school arcade games, he’s also always been famous for his psychedelic graphics.
He won’t be giving that up for Akka Arrh, which features all the surreal imagery and electronic music you’d expect, although Minter has tried to make sure it isn’t off-putting for people not used to his style, with the option to tone down or switch off some of the wilder effects.
‘The visuals are all pretty simple polygon models, nothing that fancy. The level shapes I plotted out on a grid in a paint program then put in the vertex coordinates by hand. The enemy shapes are made procedurally – I have a little collection of snippets of code I use to create those, from simple geometric primitives subjected to a variety of replications and transforms. The ‘explosions’ on the surfaces are created using signed distance fields,’ he explains.
‘For audio I rummaged through a big bag of audio samples I’ve been accumulating for a couple of decades now. Some of the samples come from my own earlier games. I wanted something a bit different for the music side of things, so I got some free instrument samples and made a very simple little sequencer thing that runs as the enemy squadrons appear, giving each level a distinctive tonal ‘theme’ – I think ‘music’ is too grand a word for what it is, but I actually quite like it, and it helps make each level feel distinct!’
Minter’s version of Akka Arrh will be released on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation, PC, and Atari VCS in early 2023. Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration is already available on the same formats.
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