Donkey Kong and Me

In the fall of 1981 I was going to college and became addicted to the Atari arcade games Centipede and Tempest. I knew a little bit about the hardware of the Atari 400/800 home computer systems, and decided to make a scary purchase on my student budget and buy an Atari 400 and a black and white TV (which was all I could afford). I messed around in Basic for a while, then bought an Assembler/Editor cartridge and started hacking away on a Centipede clone. I didn’t have much to go on in terms of seeing prior designs for games and had to figure everything out myself. Like most of the school problems, you really just have to work things out with a few hints from the textbooks and lectures.

Anyone who’s worked with that Asm/Editor cartridge probably bears the same deep emotional scars that I do. It was unbelievably slow, the debugger barely worked, and I had to remove comments and write in overlays of a couple K in order to squeeze in enough code. My game, which I called Myriapede, took about three months to write. I still have the original artwork and designs in my files; graph paper marked up with multi-colored pens, with the hexadecimal for the color assignments painstakingly translated on the side.

[I had to guess at colors. All I had was that cheap black and white TV, and I had visit a friend’s and his color TV for a couple hours in order to fine tune things].

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.

A couple weeks later they gave me an offer. Atari moved my single roomful of stuff out to California. I flew out and spent two weeks in a hotel waiting for my things to arrive; Atari wanted me out there real bad.

Now, there were two popular arcade games that I simply could not stand; the first was Zaxxon, a stupid and repetitive scrolling shooter. The second was Donkey Kong — it was loud, pointless and annoying. Of course, the reason they wanted me in California was so I could work on a Donkey Kong cartridge. After a few moments of dispair (and faking enthusiasm in front of my bosses) I gritted my teeth, got a roll of quarters and spent a lot of time in the little arcade that my hotel had, playing the DK machine there and getting to know it really, really well.

I should explain how Atari’s Arcade conversions group worked. Basically, Atari’s marketing folks would negotiate a license to ship GameCorp’s “Foobar Blaster” on a cartridge for the Atari Home Computer System. That was it. That was the entirety of the deal. We got ZERO help from the original developers of the games. No listings, no talking to the engineers, no design documents, nothing. In fact, we had to buy our own copy of the arcade machine and simply get good at the game (which was why I was playing it at the hotel — our copy of the game hadn’t even been delivered yet).

So I played about as much Donkey Kong as I could stand, and started fiddling around with ideas. I wrote a 25-30 page design document that broke out the work into modules, and estimated the work at five months (this was early November of 1982) and handed it to my boss, Ken, with some trepidation. Was it good enough? Would they send me packing for not being a real designer and games programmer?

“We’re totally blown away by that spec,” said Ken. I’d simply enumerated the objects in the game, written some psuedo code for some major game modules, and assumed that it was a starter for a real specification. But everyone else treated it like the whole thing. I just needed to code it up. That was kind of scary.

“Marketing wants it by Christmas,” said Ken. I had made a careful estimate, and came up with about 150 days of work. There was no way the game would happen in a couple of weeks, but the sense of pressure was clear. With nothing else to do (besides find an apartment and wait for my stuff to arrive), I began to spend almost every waking hour at work. I did my first ever all-nighter, cranking the stereo notch by notch to keep pace with a guy in the office next to mine who was also doing an all-nighter. The company cafeteria was open for three meals a day.

The neat thing is that once you’ve gotten into a project to this extent, the project tends to write itself and you’re just along for the ride. Life is defined by work, and then the boring eating/sleeping stuff. I know that sounds hellish, but it’s really a tremendous amount of fun. I was was like 21 years old and being paid to do something that I think I would have done for free.

We used a Data General minicomputer, an MV/8000, for cross-development. This was the machine that Tracy Kidder’s book Soul of a New Machine was all about. While it wasn’t a VAX running Unix (which I would have preferred) it was still pretty easy to use and had some decent tools (no Emacs, though). We used a version of the Atari Macro Assembler that had been ported to the MV/8000, and that was worlds better than the miserably slow Assembler/Editor cartridge I’d done Myriapede on, but everything had to be downloaded to our development systems at 9600 baud, so turnaround time became a big issue toward the end of a project, especially since we had to share the MV/8000 with fourty or fifty other people during the day, just like the overloaded mainframe back in college. I’d often stay late, and after about six PM the systems were pretty fast again (five minutes, instead of nearly an hour).

– – – –

My very first day at work I arrived at my office after orientation and found an Atari 800 computer in a boxes. I spent a little while setting the machine up, got it working, and went to get coffee.

When I returned, a staffer appeared in my door. “Oh,” she exclaimed, “You knew how to set up your computer! I was going to do that.”

“Well, thanks, but…” Didn’t everybody know how? Setting up an Atari computer wasn’t amazingly simple and obvious, but it wasn’t all that hard, either.

It was a portent of things to come. My first officemate didn’t know how to set up his computer. He didn’t know anything, it appeared. He’d been hired to work on Dig Dug, and he was completely at sea. I had to teach him a lot, including how to program in assembly, how the Atari hardware worked, how to download stuff, how to debug. It was pretty bad.

That would be a general theme throughout my tenure at Atari. Newly hired people didn’t necessarily know how to do their jobs, and I spent a lot of time helping them figure stuff out that they should have known in order to land a job in the first place. Atari’s hiring practices were not very careful.

– – – –

I’d been writing in C for a number of years, and I developed a sort of pidgin C that I used in fleshing out modules. I’d write a few pages in this high-level pseudo-C, then spend half a day “compiling” it into 6502 assembler. Sometimes a significant chunk of code would work the first time (this is a scary experience, really it is).

The other thing I “got” somehow was that comments were important. I’d seen a bunch of OS code (including the 400/800 OS sources) and it was really nice and understandable. But most of the game sources I saw in the consumer division were crap, just absolute garbage: almost no comments, no insight as to what was going on, just pages of LDA/STA/ADD and alphabet soup, and maybe the occasional label that was meaningful. But otherwise, totally unmaintainable code. For the most part that was okay in the games industry, since almost none of the code in the company was ever re-used or shared (the exception being well-debugged subroutines in the Atari Coin-Op division for doing math and operating the coin mechanisms of the arcade machines).

I think that DK is one of the best-commented consumer games that Atari shipped (Super Pac-man is better, but it arguably didn’t ship). Customers don’t see comments, but other engineers do, and it’s worthwhile for them to learn from what you’ve done. For instance, Mario’s jump moves are derived from basic physics of motion, and the calculus-based equations are in the source, nicely formatted so you can see where the magic equates just below came from. After DK shipped, a cow-orker of mine got a copy of the source listing, spent a week reading it and said that he was blown away (“I don’t know how you could have typed all that, certainly not in just five months, and when I saw the motion stuff my jaw hit the floor.”) Blush. Code should both entertain and educate.

Donkey Kong shipped in mid-March of 1983. I vaguely recall a small party at work, but mostly I was glad it was all over.

– – – –

Technical details. Kong is in graphics mode $E (192 scanlines by 160 color clocks wide). When a level is started up, the background is stamped once. Barrels and other creatures are XOR’d onto the screen (I had some mask-and-repaint code at one point, but it was way too slow). Mario is a few player objects (three, I think). The “prize” objects (umbrellas, etc.) are the remaining players. The XOR graphics are pretty annoying to me, but most other people didn’t seem to mind and some people even thought it was cool.

All of the sound was done by Brad Fuller. Mona Lundstrom did a lot of the graphics design (but I wound up replacing most of it). The ‘cartoon’ sequences were given to another engineer, whose code I had to entirely replace (he originally wanted to do the job in FORTH, and didn’t understand that the game couldn’t afford to devote half the cartridge space to a FORTH interpreter just to make his life easier).

At its peak DK was about 20K of code, and it had to go on a diet to fit in the 16K cartridge; a lot of the images were compressed (notice that Kong himself is symmetrical). Towards the end I was crunching out only a few bytes a day, and it shipped with maybe a dozen bytes free.

There’s an easter egg, but it’s totally not worth it, and I don’t remember how to bring it up anyway (something like: Die on the ‘sandpile’ level with 3 lives and the score over 7,000).

For tuning difficulty, I slowed the game way down and simply made sure that it was possible to play. Some of the object movement is random, but should be within beatable constraints, assuming you are fast enough.

– – – –

The first division meeting I went to strongly hinted at the future of Atari. It was greek to me, but the basic message from management was that sales were slowing, margins were plummeting, and that the company was going to have to restructure to stay profitable.

The building next to mine was the first to go; Atari used it to manufacture the 2600 game console. They moved the building’s manufacturing overseas and laid off most of the people who worked in it.

There were some distant purges in marketing. The little “conversion” group of 8 programmers I was in had been moved to a satellite location far away from any of Atari’s major buildings, so we were pretty isolated from what was going on, but even from a distance it was clear that things weren’t going well. The game industry had essentially crashed, and Atari was putting millions of unsold cartridges into landfills. All of the mistakes that wild success had covered up were coming around to bite hard.

My office-mate had finally finished Robotron. By request, she made three versions of the ROM image, located at different ROM addresses. Unfortunately, the Q/A staff was only able to test two of the images. Guess which image Atari sent to be manufactured? Guess which image had a fatal bug? I saw a hardware engineer struggle to come up with a cheap gate-or-two fix that would make the game work; only a few bytes of it were wrong. In the end, Atari threw $200,000 worth of ROMs away.

I have the impression that mistakes like that were being made all over. This was compounded by the fact that games were just not selling; fueled by time-to-market, Atari marketing had forced its engineers to write games that lacked polish and fun, and that practice had come back around. People were bored with playing the same old junk.

There were layoffs and reorgs every few months. Our little group moved to one corner of the Coin-Op division’s building; a consolidation to save money. I was working on Super Pac-Man and nobody seemed to care, so I took my time on it and did a good job.

Eventually Jack Tramiel bought the parts of Atari that he wanted, and I would up working on the Atar ST, but that’s another story.

Author: landon

My mom thinks I'm in high tech.

198 thoughts on “Donkey Kong and Me”

  1. Wow, great post! Thanks for writing, this kind of stuff is fantastic to read.

    DK was one of the few carts I had for my 130XE when I was a kid; I’ve always loved that game. πŸ˜‰

  2. Great story about how you got hired at Atari. Atari has to be the most interesting companies to have worked for.

    Myself and I’m sure many others over at would love to see your artwork for Myriapede. Hopefully one day you can find the time to post it on the Web.

    I would have loved to see your source code from Donkey Kong as well if it had survived.


  3. Thanks for this, DK on the 8bit Atari is my favorite port of the game.
    If you ever feel like coding a new game for the Atari, we will be ecstatic over at the Atari Age forums πŸ™‚

  4. HI .

    I am so glad to here to story finally told,and my dad was an engineer at
    Atari. He later had to go to Raytheon Corp due to what you were talking
    about. He told me at the ahe of 12 or 13 we were moving to Virginia because
    things had got bad,and he had a new job at Raytheon. So I do under stand
    the things you went through because I grew up in it. My dad would be 68
    years of age now,but he passed on from cancer. He told me about all the
    programing problems and there was also technical problems in the Manufacturing
    of the chips too he said. They did not always work he said. I was really
    young when he started at Atari and I not sure when he started there but
    I was 9 when I first remember him duing stuff with the computers there.
    Well anyways I just wanted you to know that the kids who had parents working
    at Atari remember well the layoffs. I am now 40 years old now, so that was along time ago. I think Atari should have thought out what they were doing better, but my dad did fine at Raytheon.

  5. This was a game that I played a lot. I would have to check out Myriapede. Super Pacman was coded well too. I liked playing it and always wondered why it was not released. This info was very helpful. I can see why Atari was losing money.

  6. Wow. What an amazing story. DK and Super Pacman are great fun to play! A long over due thanks for the great work!

  7. Hey, Thanks for programming DK for the ATARI, Me with my brothers spent a lot of time playing that game. My childhood memories are full of ATARI DK. THANKS!

  8. Great story! I knew that crufty Assembler-Editor cartridge well – I used it on my Atari 400 to write a 3D vector graphics package that could be called from Atari Basic. It was able to animate a wireframe cube at about 3 to 5 fps.

  9. Well you’ve made it to Reddit, so you will be getting traffic.
    I saw all of this happen from the consumer side, so its very interesting to
    see it from the developer side.

    I remember the competition too: Miner 2049er (a blatant knock-off)

    An excellent story and trip down memory lane (all 16k to 48k of it, har!)

  10. I have very fond memories of that cart, thankyou for providing some very interesting context, and thanks for all your hard work on DK.

  11. Wow!

    I started coding on the atari 800XL when I was about 13 or 14. My friend and I used to compete against each other to come up with something novel or weird. We used to love peeks and pokes. Smooth scrolling I think was my favourite.

    I saved all my pocket money for what seemed like years to buy the atari assembler cartridge and started coding in 6502. I really liked the way sprites worked on the atari with their collision detection. Far better imho than the zx spectrum. I started creating my first platform game similar to bounty bob when I was about 16. Unfortunately I was a bit late, just as I had conquered 6502 and learned enough to actually write a complete game out came the Amiga and Atari ST. I was devastated. I put down my computer and picked up a guitar. It was another 6 years before I looked at any code, by then VB was out and that was totally new!

    I was so desperate to learn the ins and outs of programming on the atari that I actually stole “mapping the atari ” from one of the big book shops in town. I was amazed to actually find it there. fir you are interested.

    Your story really struck a chord with me, thanks for sharing.


  12. Uhm. I’m sorry but I’m definitely going to need more details on this easter egg now or I won’t sleep…

    Also, thanks for writing up that story. Your work is part of the vast tapestry that has led me to also become an employed gamedev.

  13. I grew up with an ATARI ST! I’d be interested in hearing about what parts of that you were involved in. I remember playing stuff like King’s Quest 3, and Police Quest, and Fiendish Freddy’s Big Top of Fun. Lots of other little games too. I’m feeling nostalgiac now.

  14. Got my start writing video game copies on the Apple ][, 6502 assembly. (didn’t have much choice when you’re limited to 1mhz 8bit CPU w/32K of storage!) I did a Donkey Kong copy called “Dinkey Conga” which only simulated the first 3 levels of DK but was really popular on the bulletin boards. (My excuse for only doing 3 levels? I sucked at the arcade and couldn’t play past level 3 enough to get a feel for it.) Got thrown out of the local videoarcade for taking “screenshots” with a polaroid instant camera!
    Those were the glory days. I founded a video game company a few years ago and we shipped a PC Gamer “Game Of The Year” title, but it’s a very different industry. No fun, just deathmarches, burnouts, and licensing issues. So I left and now write modeling tools for chemists.

  15. Hi, I’m a big fan of your 8-bit donkey kong code. It is without a doubt not only the best port of the game, but one of the most amazing feats of programming on the 800 series hardware. You did a fantastic job getting so much into such a small cartridge! Please post on Atari Age sometime, as I’d love to hear about your other projects.

  16. Great post.
    I find it so sad that so little is known about the tech industry and those who worked in it (like the 70’s and 80’s).
    I hope more people who worked in the industry will follow your lead and post what it was like to work in tech.

  17. I would love stories like this to be published as short video interviews on the web. This for me would be the sort of content I would watch.

  18. DK on the A8 was the best version of the game I ever played at home back in the day. I thought it absolutely ruled over the ColecoVision version I had been playing at a friend’s house. I was delighted that all the stages were there and I had the game a week or two before stumbling across the intro sequence where Kong stomps down the girders. It was one of the few times that I felt a “home version” got anywhere near the real thing.

  19. While most of my peers were outside getting fresh air, I spent many an hour and late nightcozied up to the 800 version of Donkey Kong. I regret nothing!

    Thanks, and thanks. =)

  20. That is an amazing story such an inspiration to read, i kinda wish i was old enough to know how to program back in those days, i would be a millionaire right now lol πŸ™‚
    thanks for sharing!

  21. I will repeat the sentiments of my brethren above. As someone who would have loved to have a job developing games in the industry during the years you were actually doing it, I want to hear more and more. This was an excellent bit of history you gave us.

  22. Great. So it’s YOU I have to thank for my wasted teenage years πŸ˜€

    Great article. Really nice to read on many levels.

  23. Wow great story. I grew up playing videogames on the Atari VCS, Atari 800 etc with the other kids in the neighborhood. The whole industry in the early days seemed to have a real sense of innovation and excitement.

    I haven’t played any of the games released in the last decade, but every now and again I fire up an emulator and replay some of the arcade classics. The older games seem to have a simplicity and playability that the new games lack.

    I worked as a corporate coder for a while after graduating college, but quickly burnt out. After reading this article, I feel inspired to dust off my programming skills and try and code up a simple game when I get some free time.

    I am amazed at how you coded up such a great game, with so little support. Despite my college education in computer science I really have no idea about game design / programming.

  24. I remember getting the Merlin macro assembler for the Apple ][, it was great. I decided to write the world’s fastest hi-res screen blanking program as a way to goof off with the macros. Turns out all the 6502 addressing modes took longer than the 3-byte STA absolute addressing mode. So I wrote a 5 line (??) macro that generated a 24K program to clear 8K of memory. It was really fast πŸ˜‰

  25. I still own a working atari-400 and 800. I also have a cpu for an MV15000 (wall hanging) and an argus 390MB HD (coffee table). It ran about 40 users using interpreted basic and some DG database access software. This was the stuff that variables were defined like A1$=”stuff”. Comments were cool, but the core memory space restricted us to 4K (4,096 Bytes!) modules. We had to chain stuff with common memory space (one routine would call another, leaving data in common memory). Had 16MB Ram on a lot of BIG cards. The OS and multiple userspaces chewed it all up. A big report could kill the machine (and the printer).

    Damn that was cool to read!

  26. Hi
    Really nice article, and brought back some fond memories (altough my initiation was in the zx spectrum 16K, i also started with BASIC and quickly moved on to Z80 assembler). It would be nice if you could share some more stories about game development in those days.
    Thanks once again, it was a great read.

  27. Yeah, I won an Atari 400 in that national 1982 McDonald’s giveaway, and I had the macro assembler too. It was irritating as 9 hades, like the article said. Later, I forked out the 150.00 or so to purchase the ROM listings, and finally figured out that crazy graphics scheme inside there. Later, I upraded to a 64XE, and got a floppy drive, with that crazy Pascal compiler. That was my first foray in structured programming outside of Fortran on a Cyber at school.

    I finally sold the whole box of stuff to a high schooler in 1989. By that time, I had purchased a brand new 2000.00 Northstar 16 Mhz 80386 with 2 screaming seagate 20 MByte MFM drives in, plus a 1.44 MByte drive. I was cooking!

    A great story that I can definitely relate to. well done, and thanks for the memories of 1984.

  28. lots of memories… I started programming in atari basic when I was in senior high, then I wanted to emulate the water drops sound in the song Situation from Yaz ( Yazoo in America ) which led me to learn assembler for the 6502 so I could do it in the Atari. Like you, I suffered with the poor tool that it was; but that tough me how to think much more logically, and to follow thru the whole reasoning before coding, and that is an skill that has proven very valuable up to today. I bet that the programmers of that assembler atari we all share that trait. On that time I was being paid for designing copy protection schemes, so when I went into games that Turbo Basic for Atari was already out, with a compiler but without a linker, so I made a linked and created the Tretis game by Prehistoric Programs ( the spelling is intentional ). is still available in some web sites for download. If you find it, enjoy!

  29. Awesome article. I had an Atari 800 at age 12 & was programming it assembly the next year. Went on to get an EE from perhaps one of the best schools in the country, founded a successful electronics company and now I just tinker for fun (life is rough.)

    But you’re my hero. I read every issue of Byte, Computer, A.N.A.L.O.G. (yes I typed in the 5 pages of binary for those games), etc..

    Everything I learned was from guys like you (I’m 38 now.) The phrase “standing on the shoulders of giants” comes to mind.

    Thanks man, you REALLY made my day.

    By the way, I owned one of the first STs ever made (and 4 more after that.) The first was a dog & had lots of problems, but I loved it nonetheless. PLEASE write the ST story soon!

  30. Awesome story! As a programmer who started in the late 90’s, I REALLY feel sorry for those who were stuck using ASM. I also felt a sharp pain when I read that they didn’t comment it either. I got you bookmarked and can’t wait to read more. Take care.

  31. hey.

    i dont know if this is true, and i’m sure you have ten million comments to moderate; but i fell in love with the love of my life over super pac man and pizza hut, and i would never have been the man i am today without it.

    I know that sounds rediculous, but im not kidding.

    Thank you for some of the best days of my life, sir.


  32. I knew Landon at Atari; he was brilliant. I had a Bachelors in Computer Science, but he knew much more than I did.

    I’d heard a slightly different story about Robotron; that there had been a last-minute change in the code that hadn’t been tested, but his story sounds reasonable.

  33. The Robotron thing was: The programmer had three versions of the code, one for each possible location of the ROM cartridge (let’s say, 0x8000, 0xa000 and 0xc000, but I might have the values wrong).

    Two things happened:;

    1) There were two locations in the source code that had to be changed to build the cartridge properly (the origin of the cart, and the address of a JMP instruction). In building the three images, the programmer did the edit/build steps correctly for two images, but blew the edit of the JMP instruction for the third.

    2) The Q/A department had the ability to test the first two images, but lacked a ‘special’ cartridge for testing the third, and didn’t bother.

    Guess which image went to be manufactured?

    It was only a one bit difference, but the ROMs didn’t work at all. I met with a hardware engineer who was trying to come up with ways to add (say) a twenty cent chip to each cartridge that would mungle the address lines after a reset or something, but nothing came of that, and ultimately it was just more landfill.

    A simple ‘EQU’ would have made two independent edits unecessary, and when I pointed this out ($200K later…) the programmer said, “I didn’t know you could do that!”

  34. Ah, the days when memory was restrained. I think things would be a lot different right now if memory wasn’t so cheap. It is amazing how with our gigahertz machines and our gigs of memory that a word processor like word or open office may take a minute to load.

    I’m sure there will be a resurgence of limitations programming, but it will probably come from little pdas and embedded devices (which IMHO will be the new devices of the future) For instance, just check out the iphone sdk, 3 hrs of video, emulator, etc. They are really doing it right.

    It is amazing how fun programming is sometimes. Thank you kindly for the story.

  35. “This was the machine that Tracy Kidder’s book Soul of a New Machine was all about.”
    scares me knowing i’ve actually read that book.

  36. Hey, thanks for the story. I hope you get around to relating a tale or two about the development of the ST.

    I worked at Atari (probably after you left) on the BIOS and GEMDOS for ST. In addition to actual useful code, I was responsible for the scrolling rainbow Atari logo in version the TOS 1.4 about box. That was inspired by the NeoChrome color palette Dave S. wrote. Fun!

  37. So if you believe that your code should serve to educate how about you provide us with that 27 year old assembly source for donkey kong or your beloved super pac-man. Maybe we could learn something from it.

  38. Hi!

    Thank you for such nice article! I had my first computer, an Atari 800XL when I was 8. I did some nice programs in basic but never got to do any assembler. Anyway, I had the DK cartridge and my sister and I used to play a lot.

    Now I’m 33 and managed to end up programming games ^____^

    Is there any chance you could publish some code from that time? I still have my 800XL and it’s never too late to learn something πŸ˜€

  39. Wow. This was amazing πŸ™‚ Thank you so much, not only for your post, but for DK! It was the motivation behind me becoming a programmer!

  40. Hey Landon, thanks for the story and memory lane… a friend sent me here…

    I wrote Robotron for the Apple II – wrote it on my own as a labor of love, sent it off as a thinly-veiled copycat to Broderbund, then got a call from TMQ Software (later known as ICOM Simulations) – they had just bought the contract from Atari to produce it, and they hired me.

    I went on to do Ms. Pacman, also for the Apple – and my code for both games was trans-compiled for the PC. My code was pretty well commented, but even more important, the playability and quality ROCKED! Blew away most of the rushed ports being done, though I never saw yours.

    I had started work on *Food Fight* (anyone remember? πŸ˜‰ before getting out of the business – I decided I didn’t want to contribute to anyone’s wasted youth any longer… πŸ˜€
    Steve πŸ™‚

    1. Hey Steve, I stumbled across the transcoding when I was trying to figure out how it was made. Discussion here. If you could comment on that thread, or contact me, that would help answer a 32-year-old mystery about how that code was produced.

  41. fascinating read! this all happened a bit before my time, but with my microcontroller programming coursework in college i feel like i can relate. we had a percentage of each homework assignment that was based on the number of lines of code. everything was graded on a strict gaussian curve too so it wasn’t even just a matter of hitting a certain limit!

  42. Excellent article! It’s great to hear the voice of the man behind Atari’s DK–I’m one of your satisfied customers. The arcade game wasn’t one of my favorites, but I did play the cartridge often. I can say the same thing about Pac-Man too.

    The Atari 800 was my first computer, and much of what I wrote was basic with machine language subroutines stored in USR functions. [A=USR$(“random-looking characters that were machine code”)] – somewhere in there was a routine or two for VBLANK interrupts and so forth. Inspired by Williams’ games, I wrote a sound effect processing routine that worked during the VBLANK, so triggering only meant setting a flag from the program and the sound effect worked in the background without slowing down the game.

    The POKEY chip was the greatest in its day, and much of what I created ran under the lower clock rate (I forget the name of that mode) so all the sounds were lowered an octave–and it sounded great over a stereo, thanks to an adapter I soldered together using a monitor plug. (My video went to the TV through the antenna jack.) I think this was a precursor to me playing the electric bass later in life, heh heh.

    Ahh. Hacking the Atari. I too remember the pain of Atari’s Assembler/Editor and bought the much nicer MAC/65 macro assembler. I also installed Omnimon (a debugging tool that could break into nearly any running program including cartridges for a look-around. It was a circuit board that took advantage of the unused 4K block at $C000 in the older computers.)

    My fun (besides writing my own stuff) was modifying and improving other people’s games. I was able to make K-Razy Shootout run from a disk, and modified it to ignore collisions. It was fun watching my friends play until they realized they were immortal. It’s funny how we take cheating for granted these days.

    Anyway, I too thank you for the trip down memory lane. Your version of Donkey Kong was fun to play, and I would like to see your source code if you decide (or can) publish it someday. I’m just now learning C++ and starting to dive back into the magic of programming. It’s funny how most of the work is already done for us now! (No more writing bit-shifting routines to make things move.)

  43. What a great story! I was a Commodore dealer in the 80’s and 90’s and sold 64’s through Amigas and Video Toasters. My main job, though, is as a teacher. At the time I taught programming (now IT) in a Louisville High School. Your story line is not dissimilar to events at C=. I’ll never forget their marketing campaign one year “The Computer for Human Beings” where they gave out Jelly (human flavored) Beans. Atari developers had a compuserve area that they let folks listen in on. I lived there for one whole summer one year. You guys are great to listen tol

    I can’t wait until your ST story comes out… I am most interested in hearing your ruminations on Jack T. Any good Nolan Bushnell stories?

  44. What a story! Im from the generation that was born just after the DK days and grew up just before the XBox revolution so I guess we missed a good bit but that doesnt make this account any less interesting.

    The geek in me says you had a job worth killing for, and I envy you for it!


  45. Thanks for the trip down memory lane! My Atari 800 was my first personal computer (I had done some programming on mainframes, namely the IBM 360, prior to that – gotta love stacks of punch cards!), but the Atari 800 was the first computer. I owned Still have it – you’ve inspired me to dust it off and load a few programs from the cassette drive πŸ˜‰

    I have to agree with the other comments here by programmers who’ve had to live with memory and processing constraints. I still work with a lot of microcontrollers in the autonomous robotics research I do in addition to my day job in Systems Engineering. (I’m one of those perpetual students, gonna finish that PhD one of these years.) I’m always amused when I give a microcontroller to a CS or EE student today to read a group of sensors or control an actuator and they say, in all seriousness, “But it only has 4 MB of memory, how can I write a program for it?” Usually followed by, “Can I use Visual Studio?”

    It is a different world now, thanks for reminding me of what the early days were like.

  46. [I had to guess at colors. All I had was that cheap black and white TV, and I had visit a friend’s and his color TV for a couple hours in order to fine tune things].

    That’s pretty impressive. πŸ™‚ I too remember the days of black and white tvs.

  47. Back in the day, I bought an Atari400 with 48K of RAM, and later upgraded to floppy disk. I loved Defender, Missile Command, Star Raiders and then the later Llamasoft games by Jeff Minter.

    Several years before that I’d saved up and bought my first machine (Science of Cambridge Mk14) as a kit and soldered it together with my Uncle’s help (it was hex keyboard and display). Entering programs as hex was kind of interesting.

    I loved the Atari Technical Reference manuals, and DeRe Atari. The listing of the OS was amazing. Compared with the Commodore PET kernel the OS was very well designed.
    I wrote various programs, one became the most popular from a BBS for a little while, which was a Floppy disk cataloguer. Others were disk to disk copier (in assembler of course) – I think I hand assembled that because I can’t remember having an Assembler,
    and I certainly didn’t have a debugger.

    I didn’t write a platformer until about 11 years ago for my kids. (I just had “nobby” the alien (except he was green) wandering around, and jumping that kind of thing.
    What I learnt as a kid stood me in good stead in my profession, most of the time, I’ve worked on coding for big companies and had my own company before the dotcom crash.
    Knowing machine code helps when you need to do things like improve performance of some graphics code. You can look at the assembly output of the C compiler, and either tune your C, or stick in some assembler to make it run much quicker. It is pretty scary what code many assemblers put in for casting for example.

    A few years ago, I was trying to cram some firmware for an embedded application into a device, and it’s amazing that the PicC
    compiler (was once HiSoft C) even if you “switch” on a byte, converts this to an integer, so you end up with many many bytes wasted comparing two bytes. So the way to save space is use structures other than switch…

    Now I’m the director of another company, but I still “own” some firmware, and make updates when required.
    (nice to keep your hands dirty).

  48. “It is pretty scary what code many assemblers put in for casting for example.” I meant compilers of course. With the grey hair comes memory loss. I loved the article by the way, takes me back to what seemed like a kinder age with more freedom.

  49. Hi Landon,

    It’s great to happen upon you again, and to know you’re doing well. The story’s great, too – fun, clever, and thoroughly entertaining, same as you always were.

    I don’t think I’ve seen you since the old NBS days, so consider this a wave hello across a coupla-three decades or so. πŸ˜‰

    Best wishes,

    “You’re in an internet of twisty little blog entries, all different.”

  50. Ahhh those were the days, I wish my old 800 still worked, maybe I’ll try fixing it again, along with my 1040 STF (yup not FM), I still have a working XE GS though and Jaguar. Thanks for the nostalgia, loved DK although I think my favourite game was Wizard of Wor, I always loved two player games.

    By the way anyone know if there is somewhere to download the demos Atari produced? I remember having a cool walking robot, it just walked towards the screen on a green conveyor belt type thing, and also the flying swans/geese on the ST were awesome.

  51. “The neat thing is that once you’ve gotten into a project to this extent, the project tends to write itself and you’re just along for the ride.”

    This is a beautiful and most humble sentance. I very much identify with it.

    Thank you for your work and for sharing your experience. I hope that one day the source code for DK would be published.

  52. Nice article to flash back to the old Atari 400/800 programming days.

    This was back in the day when we were all more productive since porn on the computer looked like crap (custards last stand)

  53. I loved this read. I remember playing DK on 2600 all the time, of course, then came ColecoVision! Granted, I was an end user and I know nothing about code, but I could really get into an entire book about this kind of thing, the subject matter is frascinating. Great voice, great read… keep at it.


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  55. Great story! I’m 39 & still have my Atari 800XL in the garage! Can’t bear to part with it. I didn’t play or program many graphical games back then, but I was absolutely in love with Infocom.


  56. Thanks from another satisified customer. My 48K-upgraded Atari 400 was my primary gaming system for many years. I always took note of the arcade conversions that had that extra attention to detail; your Donkey Kong and Super Pac-Man ports were definitely on that list. I remember that Tim Ferris’ Mr. Do! was also an outstanding effort. Did you have any favorites of your own?

    God, the Assembler/Editor cartridge…I’d almost completely buried the bad memories, but you brought them all rushing back. It was painful enough to write small ASM routines to embed in BASIC programs, I can’t imagine developing an entire standalone executable in it! Yow.

    Thanks also for sharing your experience at Atari “from the inside.” I’m not at all surprised at the astounding levels of mismanagement.

  57. “We got ZERO help from the original developers of the games. No listings, no talking to the engineers, no design documents, nothing.”

    That explains a LOT about the 2600 games.

  58. This was a really interesting read!
    I hope you will publish something about your time on the Atari ST since that was the system I grew up with and have very fond memories of.

  59. Thank you so much for sharing your story. While I am only 23 years old, I started on a computer in 1989, so I can feel the nostalgia coursing through my veins.

    Thanks again!

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  61. AWESOME story–I read the whole thing and I was blown away–I love these early Silicon Valleyesque stories so much–I wish I was old enough back in those days to be there and appreciate it–thanks for the read and please post more like it-I just subscribed!

  62. Wasn’t DK put out by Coleco? Was Atari contacted to do Coleco’s work? Those games were always smoking cool

  63. @Wade Franklin — were you in Oregon? That wasn’t “3D Supergraphics” or something was it? (Blue binder with floppy/tape?)

    I too enjoyed the story– Super Pacman was indeed impressive! I think everyone had their run-ins with the Assembler/Editor. I switched to the Synassembler ASAP. Of course I spent most of my time messing up other people’s copy protection… (“Monkey Wrench” and “Examiner” “WOM “cartridge anyone? πŸ˜‰

    Soul of a New Machine was the book that pointed me at a career (CS/EE). A good read, even to this day…

  64. Hey Landon,

    This is Howard Scott Warshaw, remember me? I remember you standing around on one leg outside your office and chatting enjoyably. Have you ever seen Once Upon Atari? That’s the documentary I did about being at Atari back then. Including Tod walking on the walls and the sprinkler lobotomy and the money and the drugs and all the weirdness surrounding Pac Man and ET and the big crash.

    You should check it out at and it’s nice to see you are still out there on one e-leg. πŸ™‚


  65. This was a great article. Fills in more of the holes in those weird Atari years. As a more recent game industry worker I can tell you, things have changed, but not too much.

  66. Great story. I was working at Atart at this very time consulting with Andersen to put in a new sales and inventory system (Andersen that became Accenture btw). Started out in a great building near the Flags entertainment park, then got moved to a basement room crammed with three other guys from Andersen. What was great were all the stories told about exec management excesses as Atari was run into the ground. The exclusive dining room with expensive art and meals. The way visiting execs took a helicopter from SJC airport the few miles to the site. How employees who were parked on the helipad portion of the lot were asked to move their cars, and then stood by while a limo took the execs from the pad the last few yards to the building. Some of the Atari folks working in the IT group were equally scary with respect to competence. Some managers had no background whatsoever. Must say, though, that the Andersen staff at the time were all very talented and smart – moreso than me. A very fond memory although it is tough to see such mis-management. Have seen plenty of other such examples since then unfortunately. Not limited to Atari.

    1. Yes, no wonder Atari lost money!

      I think all these excesses was cut out when Tramiels took over the helm. I do not think I would have like to work for Jack (or other ego bosses like Steve J. for that matter, even if I love Apple products), but at least they shipped products and tried to keep the costs i control.

      Never owned any Ataris myself (Apple ][+ and later PC’s, but used to make music in band on an ST with Cubase. Great machine for MIDI.

  67. That was an awesome article! Very interesting… I hope i am able to code that good when I get older…………..

  68. Hey! My Uncle worked for Atari. He did Superman and the Chess program, to name a few. I’ll bet a dollar he’s the nut-job who wanted to do the cartoon sequence in FORTH!

    “All of the sound was done by Brad Fuller. Mona Lundstrom did a lot of the graphics design (but I wound up replacing most of it). The β€˜cartoon’ sequences were given to another engineer, whose code I had to entirely replace (he originally wanted to do the job in FORTH, and didn’t understand that the game couldn’t afford to devote half the cartridge space to a FORTH interpreter just to make his life easier).”

  69. I just wanted to add my request in with the others to hear more about your Atari ST experience. I used that system for years and was very fond of it.

  70. I worked at Commodore during the time when Jack left and bought Atari. And, incidentally, when the Amiga was acquired. Funny to see a bunch of long hair guys wearing suits but that’s another story.

    The game “Jack Attack” that Commodore shipped was a ‘tribute’ to good old Jack. We felt sorry for Atari when Jack bought in.

    1. Jack might not be the best boss, but I think he had more business sense that Irving Gould and Medhi Ahli. I think the loss was Commodores. After Jack left the whole Commodore company went straight downhill in sales and profit (thin Jack profits turned to big losses during Irving Goulds era).

  71. Daring Fireball author John Gruber linked to your article, saying, “Great old-school Atari programming story.”

  72. This was my favorite cart for my 800 hands down. I think the highest compliment it could have received was from my buddy with the ColecoVision who said, yours is better.

    Now how bout some of those ST stories? Thanks again.

  73. My brother and his friends (all age 15 at the time) actually worked on Centipede for Atari for a while. Eventually they were screwed over by “the man”–a lot of that “official author’s” code was theirs. Anyway, your description of the process sounds exactly like what I saw. “Here, we need Centipede, make it”, without any provided graphics, specs, anything. They played the video game (and watched others play it) to work behaviors out. Being high school kids, purchasing an actual arcade game seemed out of the question, and probably beyond parental permission even if funds were available. Multitudes of quarters had to suffice.

  74. you wrote this incredible recount as good as your code. write more. 8bit nostalgy is very hard to cure…

  75. Loved the article, posted a link back to it from my blog on Classic Gaming. Thanks, really gives a quick feel as to what would have been most of us’s DREAM job!

  76. Great article. Brought back fond Atari 800 memories. I remember playing Star Raiders for hours on end. I also remember writing reports for school and how you’d erase your entire report with the delete key that was too close to the return key.

    My dad assured my carpal tunnel by having me type in those long code printouts from the various magazines of that day. We’d spend hours looking for the errors, trying to get it to do whatever the article said it’d do.

    Just for fun, I typed Star Raiders in wikipedia. Ahhh… life was good.

  77. Loved the story. I was not into the graphics / games side of things.

    I became interested in tech stuff while in high school. I was broke but a friend had picked up the guts of a pinball machine. I tried to use relay logic to play tic-tac-toe. With 2x or 3x the parts I could have done it.

    I became interested in computers in 1963 as a junior in college. The computer center had a 40K (digit) IBM 1620. A nop took something like 160 uSec. I learned raw machine code and punched the 12 digit instructions one per card. No time for fancy stuff like an assembler.

    When I finally learned how to use the assembler it held zero magic. Some others I met later seemed to feel that assemblers imbued code with some special properties. Unbelievable!

    Married with children I bought a 6802/Z80 machine. I forget how much it cost but 2 or 3K sticks in my mind. I tried to show my son a little programming. I was able to get a 4-block β€œtank” to move left and right. I think I used Basic but that was a loooong time ago.

    I worked for CDC on the CDC 6000 Scope OS. Much OS code and all I/O ran in 4Kx12 bit processors. Overlays were a way of life. Seymour Cray originally designed the 6600 to use the germanium transistor as 20 nSec switches. When the silicon transistor came along he used them as 5 nSec switches.

    Most recently I totally reprogrammed a 1MHz 8-bit processor to run a pellet stove. That processor has 80 bytes of RAM inconveniently arranged in 4 pages. My client’s stoves now control pellet feed to maintain an internal temperature. The hardware guy wrote the original code and then patched his code to death. There were equates for memory locations but mostly bytes were addressed as 0x15 rather than timer4. Can you say yuck?

    Old Timers Rule! And Medicare ain’t so bad either.

    Now back to making a budget PBX using 8051 processors.

  78. My sister stumbled on to this great article and forwarded it to me. I must say my jaw dropped many a time whilst reading this article in just amazment.

    Its nice to get an insight to what it was like. Atari will always be in my mind a cult a culture. Something that will remain retro yet remain cool for many years and years to come.

  79. It’s been said already, but thanks for sharing that, very enlightening.

    If you know whoever was behind Decathlon, let them know how much if my childhood was spent waggling that joystick!

    DK was a close second.

  80. Great, great stuff. I stumbled across this site through Digg. As a guy with a computer science degree and a video game junkie, reading the articles about days at Atari is fascinating for me. I’m also ashamed of my own skills as a coder (and mind you, I have a CS degree from a top university) because I realize I could NEVER hang with somebody from your era…and what’s worse is that I’m definitely better than most of my peers in the industry.

    Anyway, as I said, great stuff. Shoot me an email. I’d love to pick your brain about coding, startups (mwahahah), all that stuff. Thanks!

  81. I think it’s safe to say that Donkey Kong on the Atari is a true classic fan favorite. It’s great to read the story were it all began from the actual creator / programmer who worked on it.

  82. A 16K cartridge. Amazing πŸ™‚
    You must think developers nowadays are spoiled brats in comparison, with all those gigabytes of data to spare.

    I salute you.

  83. I like the way Donkey Kong uses playfield animation. It gives it a very different feel from the scores of games that uses player missile graphics for everything and thus look identical to each other. And XOR sprites look ok to me. Did you cache shifted versions around in memory for speed, or did you build them on the fly?

    Incidentally, I had both an Atari 400 and later an 800XL (and finally a ST). There were two demos I saw at trade shows in the UK that I never could explain.

    One was a turbo loader for cassette tapes. There was a lump of electronics in potting compound and a normal cassette recorded. They claimed it could load from tape faster than an 1050 disk drive. It couldn’t but it was pretty close. The lump of potted electronics was quite small and the sold the whole thing for about 40 bucks. I never figured out how they managed to modulate and demodulate that high a baud rate with what must have been a couple of Op Amps. I don’t know how stable it was – probably not very – but I don’t think it was faked.

    The other was an Atari 800XL with a Prestel cartridge. It was displaying 40×24 text in the Prestel font, which is easy to do on an Atari. But it was also displaying Prestel colors. They allow any character cell to have one of 8 colors (basically R1G1B1) in the foreground and one in the background. If you looked carefully the screen looked like Mode 0 with a strage overlay color, like they used the player missile graphics or something. But PMG doesn’t look like it can handle the worst case where either the background or the foreground can change each character square. It was sort of flickery too, though not as bad as if they interlaced a color frame and a text frame alternately.

  84. After reading a few of your stories, I kneel down hoping that you will honor me with being one of the 13 readers you receive on this blog. What you have here is masterful. Thank you for posting it.

  85. @Tom:

    RAM wasn’t at a premium, but ROM was (the DK cartridge shipped with like 18 bytes free). The moving objects were decompressed into one “unshifted” and three “shifted” forms (4 pixels per byte in mode $E). There might have been a K or so of RAM left over (I don’t remember being very worried about it).

    XOR was a compromise. Initially I thought I could get a mask-in-and-then-damage-repair system going, which would have looked a lot more like the coin-op version, but the number of cycles this took to draw was prohibitive. I might have looked at generating the code to do the drawing dynamically (given the RAM situation), but there was no time to go very far down that road; I had to have something working pretty quickly.

    I loathed (well, still do) games that used the P/M graphics because they were too lazy to do right by the player. “Kill the player on single pixel overlap, because hardware collision detection is there and we *have* to use it” was one of my pet peeves. H/W collision is not friendly.

    I did advise the person who did Robotron to use hardware kill-collision, but that was because doing bounding-box collisions would have been an algorithmic challenge (naively N^2, more clever with bucketing solutions). And Robotron is one of those few games where pixel-perfect overlap (or near as doesn’t make a difference) is an okay player experience.

  86. This was a great read! I always enjoy reading about programmers who were involved in the dawn of the home computer age (e.g., John Harris). Donkey Kong is certainly one of the finest arcade-to-home translations out there. It came out a year after ColecoVision took all the glory for the game, yet Atari’s was superior in so many ways. But in 1983, Atari was in trouble, and the video game mania was cooling down. But I still got many hours of joy playing it. I was always terrible at the arcade version, and once I had this, I saved my money because it was so good. I remember the high praises for the Atari DK in reviews from Antic and Computer Games magazine, too.

    As much as I loved my Atari 800 (my first computer!) I never could achieve the skills so many others did when it came to programming games, so that dream career never came to pass. I only could program in BASIC. Everything else was too complicated and analytical for me to figure out. πŸ™‚

  87. Hi Landon,

    A VERY interesting article, and it struck a real chord with me. Thank you so much for publishing it. Back in the early ’80s I nearly bought a Atari 800 specifically to learn assembly language programming on, however at the time they were relatively expensive (in the UK at least) and I wasn’t able to afford it on my budget, along with the other peripherals I wanted, so I opted to buy a Commodore 64 instead. I don’t really regret the decision – the ’64 was a great machine, and eventually my dreams of releasing commercial games was realised, though not on such a grand scale as you!

    I came across your article by accident whilst researching Donkey Kong; as a mental exercise for me, I am writing a new version of DK but with new levels; I’m considering around 10 in total. I have no illusions of selling it course (whose interested in Commodore 64 games these days, and I’m guessing Nintendo wouldn’t be too pleased about it?!) but I’ll probably end up releasing it in the wild, for free of course. Again, it’s just a mental exercise for me, something to while away the cold evenings here in the UK!

    As with some other poster here, I would love to take a look at your source code, if only to see how you worked around some of the niggling problems I found in the early says. I expect your source is still subject to copyright, but if you don’t say anything I won’t πŸ˜‰

    Anyway, regardless of that, thanks again for sharing your memories with us.

  88. Atari Donkey Kong was a big part of my exhibit at last year’s Vintage Computer Festival. Believe it or not, it’s still a hit at parties. Thanks for writing this article!

  89. Belated thanks, geezer. DK was (and still is) one of my all time favourite arcade games and the version you wrote for the Atari 8bit is simply magnificent. I bought the cartridge and spent many contented months on it back in the early ’80s.
    Great to hear a story about the company I worshipped as a kid from one of the guys who was making it great. Super Pac Man played beautifully as well. Cheers for both.

  90. hey Landon-

    This is your cousin Nate. My bro just e-mailed me and told me about your blog. I remember thinking how cool it was that you had something to with programming Donkey Kong for the 800. Back when we had an 800- Donkey Kong and Defender were by far my favorites. My dad traded the 800 along with the games a few years ago to your uncle Perry. Anyhow I look forward to reading more of your Blog. Hopefully you have some entries about the Newton. It was neat to see protypes back in the day.

    later- Nate

  91. Never had an Atari, can remember going to mates houses to play and seeing their ads on TV with the Atari Rap – yeah. Oh so cool.

    Not much into computer games, or reading blogs, but this is truely interesting. You’ve lived the life of so many youngsters of my generation (im 29 now).

    You’ve brought back many warm memories. Cheers


  92. Something I seem to remember unique about the ‘girder’ level of the DK Atari 400/800 version…in the arcade, it is fatal if you jump and your head touches a barrel rolling on the girder above you. But in the Atari game you are not affected. ‘Course this reflects the view shown on the DK arcade side art showing the girders staggered in the depth of the screen dimension.

  93. It’s been ages since I’ve heard anybody mention DK. I’m still a huge fan of the old school games consoles. Every console now is judged on the graphics quality and DK really proved that it’s not all about the graphics. Cool post!

  94. Wow, great to see the info about DK for the 8-bits. I’m currently in the process of writing up hundreds of capsule game reviews for the Atari 8-bit and stumbled across this site while doing some research. Very cool – please post ANY additional info you can share…there are lots of us still out here who would love to read it.

    And not to float your boat too much here, but I’ve literally played thousands of games not only on the Atari 8-bits but also on every other 8-bit PC and console out there. I can tell you, without hesitation, that your Donkey Kong port for the Atari 8-bit was by far the best arcade translation ever done. Period.

    After buying quite a few clunkers from Atari for my 800 (Dig Dug, Asteroids, etc.), you have no idea how awesome it was at the time to play the DK cart when it first came out. It was better than I could have ever imagined and my friends and I were floored. The fact that it absolutely trounced the Colecovision version was icing on the cake.

    Anyway, after all these years…Bravo, sir.

  95. Not too long ago I dug my Atari 800 out of the garage, dusted it off, and after all these years it started right up like it was brand new. Playing all my old game cartridges again was great from a nostalgia angle, but only one of them, Donkey Kong, is compelling enough to keep me coming back for more.

    What a work of art that thing is! Somebody else here said it was the best port of Donkey Kong, and I’m inclined to agree. Prior to getting an Atari 800, I’d received a brand new ColecoVision for Christmas, and the big lure of the Coleco console was that it came with Donkey Kong. I was blown away by how good it was, and I guess when compared to the games on a 2600 or an Intellivision, Coleco’s Kong was pretty good.

    The thing kept freezing up on me, however, so we wound up returning it. Thank goodness for that, as I otherwise wouldn’t have gotten the Atari 800 and, later on, Atari’s Donkey Kong, which made Coleco’s port (even the “super” version for the Adam) look, well…

    Compared to the Atari cart, Coleco’s Kong was, at best, unfinished. And that’s if we’re being kind.

  96. I’ve been playing Super Pac-Man on 5200 lately and looked up the author, then linked around to this blog from a year ago. Awesome story, and awesome job on DK and SPM.

  97. Excellent post. I was 13 years old and I spent my saved up allowances over several years on the 1200XL, and Donkey Kong was one of the best cartridges and best ports.

    Even after I got a disk drive and started buying games made for 48K, and even after I got an Atari ST, I still found myself playing DK on the 1200XL quite a bit.

    It is sad to hear all the stories about Atari management being dysfunctional. It’s not a unique story – I’ve worked at 6 startups – but (as you stated so well) none of them were quite as successful that they could “mask” failure over with success.

    Other favorites of mine at the time were Donkey Kong Jr., MULE, Archon (might have been a disk game), and the 2600 version of Pac-Man (no, just kidding about that last one…).

    While I’m at it, favorite all time game was Alternate Reality by Phillip Price (which, unfortunately was largely unfinished).

  98. It’s sad to think the crash of 83 took Atari with it essentially. A lot of bad choices for the company but the name still makes me wish I could have experienced the birth of video game industry.

  99. Mr Dyer,

    Great story.

    I was the Lead Software Engineer for AtariLAb, and your tale brought up many memories (good and bad).

    However, you may be doing the cartoon engineer a bit of a disservice. AtariLab was done in FORTH; we were able to do this because the “FORTH interpreter’ takes about (IIRC) 2 dozen bytes of space.

    [Boring explanation follows:] It is important to distinguish between the “inner” and “outer” interpreters. The inner interpreter is essentially a virtual machine that walks lists of addresses. The outer interpreter is a compiler that converts the source code into address lists.

    You were probably right in your decision not to use FORTH; the engineering effort to get the FORTH compiler to generate ROMable code would have been significant, and having engineers learn a new language costs big time, but I wanted to point out that FORTH was and is a viable option for resource constrained environments.

    — Charles

  100. Hello Landon,

    I’m SO happy to have found your blog and read about your DK creation !

    First a big THANK YOU for not only for one of the best games on the Atari 8-bit platform, but also for launching me into the wonderful world of computing !

    At the early 80’s I’d come to a point where we were bored with our 2600. I’d been playing around on several computers including my uncle’s C64. I didn’t like a lot about that machine (sucky Basic, SLOW disk drive etc.)
    So I was “in the market” for a good affordable computer. Of course I’d been looking at the Atari homecomputers (which were only seriously launched when the XL series arrived in Europe) but when I played DK, I was sold.

    I _HAD_ to get that system, if only to play that game.

    Bit amazed that you actually didn’t like DK as a game. I love the arcade version, but you definitely did a better job !!
    It plays SO much more fluently compared to the arcade version. I also loved you included the bouncing off the walls.

    It’s been said before here by others, it’s definitely the best port on any system. And of course yours’ is the only to include all 4 levels….

    Funny thing is that we in Europe mostly had Crazy Kong in the arcades, and I always played a version that had the “barrel bug”, which meant a barrel would never come down a ladder if you were standing on it.
    So I was really amazed the first time a barrel would come down when I played it on my 600XL πŸ™‚

    I stayed faithful with Atari ever since, ST, Portfolio, Lynx I had almost everything except the Jaguar. I still own my first 130XE, and in recent years I bought a 800 (PAL version, pretty rare) and recently an XEGS version.

    My kid (8 years) loves Star Raiders on it and I still play a lot of games,. I still own my original DK cartridge πŸ™‚

    I also collect classic arcade games now and I have a Centipede and Star Wars cockpit amongst them πŸ™‚

    Now, I’m going to download Myriapede !! Do you know if they “borrowed” any of your code for that for the 5200 Centipede version (which was much better than the original Centi for Atari 8-bit).

    Again: thanks for your hard work, and giving me so much fun playing it over all those years πŸ™‚

  101. I’m an Atari collector (most of the carts) and would have to say that the Donkey Kong 400/800 version is by far one of the best ports I have ever seen or played (also defender and pac-man). How did you come up with the barrel drops, fire paterns, and elevator bouncing things patterns? The coin-op had settings that changed the difficulty. And I’ve noticed that the Atari 8-bit version somehow changes (increases) it’s difficulty as you play more?? Barrels on the first level get thrown in some cases at you! You said you didn’t have the insight from the original developers on the coin-op, etc.
    I’ve also heard that the XE version was slightly different, I have one boxed and yet to play it. Great article!

  102. What a great read.
    Seeing Donkey Kong for the first time as a 12 year old and my jaw dropping at how fluid the movement was is one of my fondest memories of owning an Atari 8 bit. It’s one of the games that got me into Software Engineering and to this day I still think it plays better than the arcade original.

  103. A little late to the party but better late than never…

    Awesome read and brought back some chilling memories. Not so much of playing your game, but working as a contracted developer for Atari on the IBM PC/XT port of Donkey Kong in the 80’s. I could write on for pages though I will keep it brief.

    I still have a cardboard box with all of the source on 5.25″ floppies, dot-matrix printed 17″ greenbar, and at least one VHS tape we had to convert from 1″ PAL to VHS NTSC flavor. This title was never released due to us being stiffed on the money (big drama). At the last second Atari cobbled together some foreign code and put out a few copies of this title but it was not the same product that we spent months working on and was a complete joke. I am hopeful to one day to publish all of this stuff for historical purposes. BTW Landon, that video tape was furnished to us from Nintendo Japan of their top guy at the time playing through all the levels. Did you ever get such a luxury? πŸ™‚

    Side note, at one point I held world record on DK Japan MAME until I got beat and I haven’t played in a while. Yeah all of those countless hours of QA really show and I guess you can say I know how to play the game! LOL

  104. Fantastic story! Your version of Donkey Kong is my favorite arcade game of all time. Better than tyhe coin-op, better than the 7800, and even better than the much revered Colecovision version. The motion is extremely light and fluid on your version. Mario feels heavy and “sticky” on other versions; especially on ladders. Also, your “squashing” of the graphics to handle the flipped aspect ratio was the best that anyone did it. I just paid some exorbitant amount of money on eBay for a shrink-wrapped copy of your Donkey Kong as a centerpiece for my collection cabinet. Thanks for one of the greatest games of all time.

  105. Your version of Donkey Kong was utterly brilliant, I remember vividly my teenage self being hugely impressed and gratified that someone had made a port and done it properly, which was a rare thing back then. The game looked good and played even better. It was like having an arcade game at home, pretty impressive on 16k. I won’t mention the other Atari In-House ports I owned, but none of them were as good. It was nice to be able to read your story and to be able to thank you for a great gaming experience all those years ago.

  106. Fascinating reading, brought back memories of my time in the computing industry, and before…
    Sad to say, the company I worked for last had more than it’s fair share of clueless people, sadly they also seemed determined to ensure everyone else did as little work as possible by being as disruptive as possible.
    Im not currently in the industry, as they kindof literally drove me to insanity.
    But great read, and hope to read more.

  107. It’s your fault our family ended up getting an Atari computer, you know. Though my dad was savvy enough to not get the 800XL I demanded and skipped forward to the then rather more current ST…

    If it hadn’t been for that unexpectedly sublime version of DK, I might not actually have cared, and we could we have settled on an Amoeba or PC contemptible…

  108. I loved this game as a kid. I remember riding my bike about 5 miles to the local mall with a bag full of change/cash to buy this game. I think it was around $40, which was a lot for me back then. It was worth every penny. πŸ™‚

  109. That was an interesting story and it was really cool reading it from the Atari Donkey Kong Programmer himself. I loved that game and was an avid Atari enthusiast back in those days. I ran an Atari 800 BBS called the “Eagles Lair” as well as one on an ST later. I loved all things Atari and still have a couple of 8 Bits today. Thanks for the information.


  110. Hi

    I did see you did publish madmac 1.7 that was used to compile the example code for the Atari Panther I searched but the issue is that the dev disk 3-26-91 for the panther are missing do you have them? Michael Schmall wrote the examples maybe you know him and can ask for me if he can help.

  111. Pingback: AtariXL
  112. When the gorilla in Donkey Kong makes a noise, it sounds almost exactly like a noise the 810 disk drive makes. Was that intentional, or just a coincidence?

  113. Why did you reverse/flip the location for Donkey Kong on the Atari 8 bit version? It always seemed funny to me that the Nintendo NES version of Donkey Kong does not have the cement factory and the Atari does! Great job on the game, it’s one of my favorites on the Atari.

    1. There wasn’t enough vertical space to have the all of the first screen’s beams, so we had to remove one, which flips Kong as a result.

      I considered having a full-height first level, and use vertical scrolling, and discussed it briefly with my manager and a product guy, and we all decided it would look odd and be hard to explain to players.

  114. Wonderful article? I remember being mesmerized by Donkey Kong in the arcade as a kid. I played the 2600 version as well but it wasn’t the same. Wish my family had gotten an 800, it would have been incredible playing your version on it! Alas, the only computer I had growing up was a TRS-80 Color Computer 2 with a tape drive that quickly broke so I couldn’t save programs anymore (I’m still suspicious of my stepbrothers for that).

    Thanks again for the great read!

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