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An interview with classic gaming enthusiast and homebrew game designer Kirk Israel.

In the second edition of The Brews Brothers, we talk to Atari 2600 game designer Kirk Israel.  A fan of arcade classics like Pong and Joust, Israel combined elements from those two titles to create an inventive hybrid he called Flap-Ping.  In this interview, Israel discusses everything from the creation of his brainchild to the legal issues that nearly clipped the wings of his promising project.

GRB:  Why did you decide to develop games for orphaned consoles like the Atari 2600, instead of today's more powerful computers and game systems?

ISRAEL:  For starters, most modern consoles are closed; ever since the post-crash NES days companies have wanted to keep a tight reign on third parties, and a really good homebrew is pretty indistinguishable from a traditional third-party effort.  But also, the 2600 taps deeply into my youth... as a kid, I never thought I'd be in a position to be able to make original games for the system that I loved playing so much...

GRB:  What's the appeal of developing software for the Atari 2600 in particular? What do you think draws so many homebrew developers to this humble system?

ISRAEL:  For starters, there's something "cooler" about coding for a console than for, say, an old home computer: I mean a lot of us coded something in BASIC back in the day, but there's something about the physical aspect of having an actual cartridge of your work.

Some people might be attracted to the strength of the developer community for the 2600 on AtariAge and the [stella] mailing list, other people groove on the sheer challenge of working within the system's limitations.

Of course, those limitations have a silver lining in terms of diminished expectations: you're back in the days of one man shows, where a talented developer can do a passable job of the graphical and musical aspects.

GRB:  What tools do you use to create your games, and what skills and experience are necessary to make software for the system?

ISRAEL:  The core is just a simple text editor (Textpad, in my case) and DASM, which is pretty much the standard Assembler, and then of course one of the excellent emulators... Z26 was my favorite during development. I supplemented those with some Perl scripts I coded myself for managing files, and later made some javascript editors that are available at Finally I used a supercharger to load my work in progress into an actual Atari.

I'm a programmer by trade, but not in languages as low level as what the Atari uses. (At least before Batari BASIC, which is a different story...) I wouldn't recommend Atari assembly programming to someone who has never coded in a higher level language, because I think you need a well-developed ability to break a task into a small series of steps that a computer can understand. Also, some basic skills in art and sound can help too...I've been a doodler all my life, and I used to play brass instruments and take some music theory, and both of those helped with JoustPong (especially for the title screen music, which I'm proud of even though it's terribly simple.)

GRB:  You hit a legal brick wall when designing your game Flap-Ping (formerly known as Joust Pong). Please describe the situation and how you managed to get the project back on track.

ISRAEL:  Well, the brick wall came after development was finished and JoustPong released. AtariAge got notified about a number of finished products and works in progress by the latest holder of the Atari name, formerly Infogrames. I would have thought they had noticed that some of JoustPong's graphics and sound was very similar to their own port of Joust, but it turns out they feel they have exclusive use of the word "Pong", which seems kind of extreme...given how many Google hits there are on the word before you get into anything specifically Atari related, it seems to have become a bit of a generic term already. Still, it didn't seem worth fighting too hard, especially since Thomas Jentzsch suggested the very clever "Flap-Ping" replacement. I redid the title screen and Dave "Liveinabin" Exton made bit of cover art for it.

GRB: How do threats of legal action affect the reputation of large corporations like Atari?

ISRAEL:  Atari, in its current form, is not well-regarded. Many old school Atari fans see 'em as Atari in name only. especially given their limited success in the modern gaming arena. I think this crackdown was very bad karma for them in the hardcore retro community, but the effect was small (along with the community!) relative to the way they've put out some terribly-under-debugged and otherwise lacking games lately.

GRB:  What compromises can major software developers like Atari make with the designers of fan-made projects like Flap-Ping?

ISRAEL:  It would be nice if they were better at discerning smalltime efforts that will sell at best a hundred copies vs. more corporate projects. I think most homebrewers would be happy to put in whatever disclaimers or copyright notices Atari wanted to demonstrate that ultimately they have legitimate Intellectual Property claims, but Atari seems to insist on viewing the world in black and white terms.

GRB:  Why are there so many remakes and tributes of classic games in the homebrew community, and so few original efforts?

ISRAEL:  Well, probably for the same reason there are so many sequels in the mainstream gaming market, or even in Hollywood... sometimes it's useful to tap into a known quantity. Though I don't think the situation is quite as bad as you imply, at least for the 2600.

Homebrews are often exercises in nostalgia, and some of our nostalgia is tied in with specific games and characters. You also see some interesting playing around with these characters and concepts in the Hacks hobbyist groups, where they take the basic code and modify the graphics, sound, and even gameplay to fit certain parameters. There's a lot of creativity there...sometimes more than in the regular homebrew groups.  Other developers do it for pride, to show that the 2600 could've done a certain game, if only people had thought of it or had the skill.

JoustPong was a kind of funny case, a hybrid of a game (Pong) and a certain physics mechanic (Joust). I think it's the best of both worlds, original gameplay in a nostalgic shell. It's also a hell of a deathmatch, if I do say so myself, and one of the most complex games around that is controlled by a single clicking button.

GRB:  What can be done to encourage original output from independent game developers?

ISRAEL:  Well, sometimes even the "less original" output is pretty cool, kind of expanding the universes of the previous titles.  But overall...well, supporting with dollars is always good, but probably less important than support on forums and that kind of demonstrated enthusiasm. After all, homebrewers generally do it for the love and the attention, and not the the time any money is coming in, the work has been done already.

Of course the support sites like AtariAge offer, where they work with developers to produce the physical cartridges, is invaluable to the hobby.

And it would be nice if more companies were willing to open up their platforms, but some (especially Sony!) seem dedicated to the principle that Enduser Creativity is EVIL and devices must only be used in ways the original maker intended and every game for them has to go through channels. Their ongoing efforts to lock hobbyists out of their PSP platform is dumber and more damaging than most anything Atari's lawyers have cooked up.

Special thanks to Atari Age for the scan of the Flap-Ping label artwork.

Check out my 1UP article, Singin' The Brews, to learn more about the homebrew gaming community! 

part 1: neill corlett

part 2: kirk israel

part 3: nathan lazur

part 4: ron lloyd