Home » Behold One Of The Best-Rendered Cars On The Atari 2600: Cold Start

Behold One Of The Best-Rendered Cars On The Atari 2600: Cold Start

Cs Firefighter Screen

See that blocky collection of oversized pixels there? That’s a car. Well, a representation of a car, specifically some sort of fire engine. Yes, even if those wheels aren’t exactly round. I’m showing this to you because I believe it’s one of the better motor vehicles to be rendered by an Atari 2600 in a commercially-available video game, in this case 1982’s Fire Fighter by Imagic. Making objects like this on an Atari 2600 wasn’t exactly easy, so I just want to donate a shout out to Brad Stewart who programmed this game, and did a very credible job of making a distinctive-looking fire engine.

Cs Firefighter

The fire truck rendered here looks like a pretty archaic one, something like this 1927 American La France fire truck:

Cs Amlafrance

It’s pretty different from the much more modern, ‘70s-era American La France truck shown on the physical cartridge’s label (shown above the old truck there), which seems to have been made with a stock photo of a fire truck and some fire printed on a photo transparency laid atop it. This label probably took nearly an hour and tens of dollars to create, remember.

Making relatively-detailed graphics like that truck was not easy on an Atari 2600. In order to get an image of that level of resolution, you’d have to use the two sprite objects, which, because the 2600 only had enough memory for one horizontal screen line at a time, was only eight pixels wide by one pixel tall. Two of those would give you 16, and that truck seems to be using tricks to double sprites up for a total length of 32 pixels or so. This line of pixels could be modified every scanline, allowing for some amount of possible detail.

Cs Ataricarscreens

As you can see from these screenshots, the visual quality of Atari 2600 cars varied wildly, from reasonably colorful or detailed cars to what looked like something that could be made with a lone 2×4 and a saw. The Fire Fighter truck is one of the very few examples of a specific type and era of motor vehicle, and I’m pretty impressed with how it looks. So there.

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25 Responses

  1. I always enjoyed the different design philosophies of the different game makers.

    Activision went for pizazz (Grand Prix pictured above had moving pixels on the tires to simulate motion), Atari’s Indy 500 (with the special game-specific ontrollers!), like most Atari in house stuff had a bauhausian minimalist aesthetic, and Imagic was a wild card that usually prized fairly complex gameplay.

  2. Jason – I hightly recommend reading a book called “Racing the Beam” if you want to delve into Atari 2600 programming.

    The muli-color sprites of Activision Grand Prix are the result of an incredible hack: Atari 2600 sprites could only be a single color, but since games are literally rendered one scan line at a time, multiple color sprites were accomplished by changing the color of the sprite in between scan lines, relying solely on persistence of vision to see the different colors on the previous scan lines. Genius!

    Note that you can only change colors horizontally doing this, which is why multicolor sprites on the 2600 are all oriented horizontally, with each scan line being different colors (you can clearly see this by looking at the Grand Prix car sprites). This is also why different color cars always stay in different vertical lanes.

  3. Once again, I’ve learned something from Torch. Something I didn’t know, didn’t know that I didn’t know, wasn’t sure about as I leaned it, and have promptly forgotten. But man, did I enjoy the process!

  4. I wanted an Atari 2600 sooooo bad. My cousin had one, my friends down the street had one, even the kid I didn’t like across the street didn’t have one. But me? I had a 2nd hand “APF TV Fun” with 4 different flavors of Pong.

  5. Thanks for the memory bomb, Torch! To those of us who grew up playing text-based games like Hunt the Wumpus, Zork, etc., graphics of any kind were miraculous. And it’s still amazing to me what people were able to accomplish with such limited resources.

  6. i had dodge’em as a kid… and despite the wildly sub-par graphics (seriously, they were BAD), the game was fun as hell to slog through with a friend. Bonus points because my atari was the OG with the faux-wood paneling on it.

  7. When I was in high school, the best game available was Ass Steroids. I don’t even know if that qualifies as graphics. But you know what? You could drift that little fucking spaceship all over the screen.

  8. “because the 2600 only had enough memory for one horizontal screen line at a time, was only eight pixels wide by one pixel tall.”

    At first I thought that had to be a typo because the sprite is clearly more than one pixel tall, but reading between the lines (heh) of some of the other comments I guess everything was rendered a single scan line at a time? So that means you’d need the four sprites end to end, but also multipled by however many pixels it is tall?

    I started programming a bit later than the 2600 era, but I remember peeking and poking video memory directly to make graphics appear on screen and I kind of miss solving the low-level problems you had back then. These days you need a masters in math to do video game graphics.

  9. I loved Slot Racers on the Atari. As to why we liked them, the Atari and the Apple II and stuff, I mean, what else was there? It’s not like we chose the 2600 over a PS5.

  10. I just like how that old 1920s-style fire truck is still the basis for the fire truck graphic on road warning signs, a century later. Fire trucks haven’t looked like that in generations, and yet drivers still recognize the image.

  11. We would let the fire chase the person all the way to the top floor, so we still had chase them to the roof to play with time wise, and then start to put out the fire.

    For proper Towering Enferno game play lol

  12. Always amazing to me that the Atari and Apple II were so successful with such ridiculous limitations. I guess cheap = popular and the programmers go where the people are.

    1. They were successful because they were better than what we had before. Compared to Pong the Atari 2600 was a marvel. My friend’s dad bought him a 2600 and we played the crap out of that thing back in the day.

      Yes by today’s standards they are incredibly primitive and underwhelming but to a 12 year old in 1977 the 2600 and its games were incredible.

      1. Indeed. Games in general are FUN because they’re learnable yet a big challenge to win regardless of the realism of the images. Eg, Chess. Does anyone really care that a knight piece barely resembles a horse or a bishop has no human characteristics? Uh No.

        Realism (wow factor) is only important to attract initially.

        I remember distinctly playing Indy 500 video game (the one carved with a saw) as a 10 year old. It was very challenging to drive that car with the limited controls around the peanut-shaped track without crashing into a wall. It sure beat going outside and playing with just a stick in the dirt (hehe).

    2. It wasn’t about cheap. The 2600 game system was $190 when launched in the late 70’s, roughly $700 today. And each game cartridge was $20, or about $70 today.

    3. In terms of bang for the compute resources, my personal favorite is the 1K ZK Chess. The Sinclair ZX81 had just one kilobyte of memory (not unusual for the early 80s), and somehow developers were able to implement a functional chess game (computer plays against you) with that limitation. Today you could not even draw a corner of a tile with that limitation… https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1K_ZX_Chess

    4. I LOVE the limitations of Apple II graphics especially. I still do projects with my old Apple IIs. I just made a bunch of Apple II graphics for a display for fellow autojourno Ezra Dyer’s new arcade bar!

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