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Bob Colbert

Bob Colbert created the homebrew Atari 2600 game 'Okie Dokie',
has dabbled with the Supercharger, and speaks with Ohio Arts lawyers.

“When I was a kid and the Atari was king, I always wanted to write a game for the system. Back then it was practically impossible, so doing it now is like making one of my dreams come true.”    -- Bob Colbert

MT> What is your computer science background?
BC> I have a Bachelor's Degree in Computer Science from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. I've been programming since I was about 14 when I got a Ti-994/a computer. Shortly thereafter my brother bought an Apple 2e and I started programming in 6502 assembly, that turned out to be very helpful for writing Atari 2600 games.

MT> Okie Dokie was inspired by the game “Lights Out.” What was your reasoning behind programming this type of game?
BC> When I started trying to program for the 2600, one of the first things I attempted was the "6-sprite" trick. The 2600 really only has 2 sprites, but you can have 3 identical copies of each sprite on one line (remember Combat where you have 3 planes flying in formation?). Through some well timed code, you can make those 3 copies have independent graphics. This was used in a lot of Atari games and seemed like an interesting programming exercise. About the same time I started seeing T.V. commercials for the game Lights Out and thought that the 6-sprite algorithm would be especially suited to implement that game.

MT> What are the differences between Mastersc and Makewav?
BC> Mastersc was my first attempt to remaster the Supercharger tapes. The program was designed to process .wav files made from Supercharger tapes and produce digitally perfect .wav files that could then be written to either a CD or recorded back to tape. I wrote it on a 14mhz Amiga 1200 and I remember it taking about half an hour to process one tape, many times erroring out. Mastersc was actually pretty "dumb", meaning that it didn't recognize the Supercharger tape format, but only the "0" and "1" bits that the various waveforms represented. This worked pretty well, but I wasn't satisfied. Once I figured out how to determine the bits on the tape, I wanted to see the game code. I altered Mastersc to write the bits to a file in byte format. Next I took a disassembler (I think it was written by Dan Borris) and ran it against the new file. I was amazed to see what seemed to be actual 6502 assembly code produced! But it wasn't perfect, there seemed to be glitches in the code at regular intervals. I was able to figure out that these "glitches" were caused by header information in the tape file. After a bit of work I deciphered the header information. I then wrote my first version of makewav, which would take the 6k Supercharger ROM image, convert it to a .wav file and add the proper header information back in.

MT> You obtained minor assistance from Craig Nelson. What was it like communicating with the creator of the Supercharger?
BC> It was GREAT! He was absolutely one of the nicest guys to deal with. I called him to see if he knew who owned the rights to the Supercharger games. My goal was to get the rightful owner to release the games into the public domain, much as the Vectrex games had been. He told me that the rights belonged to Bridgestone Multimedia. We got to talking about the Supercharger. I thanked him for creating such a cool device and told him about my endeavors to reverse-engineer the tape format. Then I was blown away when he asked if I would like him to fax some information on the tape format to me, he just happened to have it sitting on his desk! Well, of course I accepted the offer! I couldn't believe that he just "happened" to have it there. This was 1996 and Craig was at his desk at 3DO, well I found out later that the reason he had it handy was because the Cyberpunks (Stella gets a new Brain) had been in contact with him recently. It is also a well known fact that the Cyberpunks and I didn't get along too well at that time. I was later told by one of the Cyberpunks that Craig thought I was one of them when I contacted him and that he was mad at me for deceiving him. Unfortunately I've never contacted Craig to clear that up, but I never represented myself an anything but an enthusiast looking for the rightful owners of the Supercharger games.

At any rate, Craig mentioned that there was some way to load regular 4k Atari ROM images into a Supercharger. The information he provided me was one page of a printout from some 6502 assembly source code. From that, I was able to figure out a way to modify the Supercharger to allow loading of 2k and 4k games.

MT> Okie Dokie was originally meant to be a Supercharger game. Why did you later decide to release it in cartridge format?
BC>I thought it would be a fun thing to do! I had heard of Edtris by Ed Federmeyer and thought that making a cartridge like Ed did would make my experience with developing Okie Dokie complete.

MT> How long did it take you to manufacture the original 100 Okie Dokie cartridges?
BC> That's actually a trickier question than it might seem. I started out by making two prototypes, one of which I still have and the other which I sent to Tim Duarte, who at that time produced the 2600 Connection newsletter. Those first two prototypes took me probably a couple of hours each to produce. They had black and white laminated labels. After I made the first two prototypes, I spent some time working on the production of the label. After a bit of trial and error, I was able to make color labels laminated on one side. I spent a lot of time and money at Kinko's, since the labels were printed on a color laser, I had to pay $2 for each sheet, PLUS the computer time to print each sheet. Then I had to sign and number each label and then have the labels laminated. If the lamanate had a bubble, I would have to redo that label. Next I had to cut the labels out, which I did at Kinko's too.

Another challenge I faced was removing the old labels from the Atari cartridges. I tried filling up my bathtub with water and letting them soak, but that just made matters worse. I tried Goo-Gone and that was still too much work. Finally, I tried heating up the labels with a space heater and that allowed the labels to peel off easily -- except for silver-labled Atari cartridges.

I don't own an EPROM burner, but my brother does. Unfortunately it is installed in an IBM XT computer and my brother lives about 10 miles away. While 10 miles isn't too far, I had to make quite a few trips, since I bought the ERPOMs in batches (I had recently been married and bought a house, so I didn't have a lot of money on hand to buy 100 EPROMs). I had also made the decision to have each ROM image contain the serial number that is on the label. This meant that I had to load a seperate image for each game burned. Each EPROM also got a label with the serial number printed on it placed over the "window" on the chip. Needless to say that it was quite time consuming.

Creating the circuit board was yet another challenge. I was trying to keep the cost of these games as low as possible, and the easiest way to do that was to reuse the board already in the Atari cartridge. I would work on the cartridges in waves i.e. I would do the same production step on five or ten and then do the next production step on those same cartidges. These steps involved removing the old ROM, cutting various traces on the board, soldering on the EPROM, adding on an extra chip, and soldering on a couple of jumper wires. The boards were then tested and the serial number was verified against the one burned in the EPROM. Next the boards were installed in the cartridge and tested again. The label was then put on and the cartridge tested for one last time, this time verifying the serial number in the EPROM against the label. (There is a secret way to see the serial number in the game.)

MT> Why did you choose not to accept Crihfield’s royalty plan for additional copies of Okie Dokie?
BC> I felt bad that not everyone who wanted a cartridge could get one. Not taking the royalty meant that each person who wanted a game from Randy would save $5.

MT> You later created the Supercharger game Stell-A-Sketch, and you were contacted by Ohio Arts, maker of the Etch-A-Sketch. What transpired?
BC> They asked me to stop selling the game. I was curious as to how they ever found out about my obscure little creation and asked one of the lawyers. He said that somebody brought a flier from Electronicon (a video game convention a couple of years ago) into their office. Stell-A-Sketch was sold at Electronicon in cassette format for like $1 or $2, something like that. I got a box of old cartridges out of the deal in anticipation of putting my next game on cartridge. Ohio Arts never actually saw the game but maintained that I needed to change the look of the game so that it didn't resemble their product or take the game out of circulation. I respected their wishes for a few reasons, not the least of which was that my daughter, Ashton, was born that same week. One of these days I'll get around to changing the graphics and release it again.

MT> Your in the progress of reprogramming the Apple II game Sabotage for the Atari 2600. What is the current status of this title?
BC> About the same as it was 20 months ago (when my daughter was born). The kernel (or game engine) is complete, and the gameplay is there, but I haven't put any AI or leveling in yet. There is scoring and the end-game sequence (where the enemy climbs the wall around your gun and blows it up) is there too. I also need to add sound. I would say that the game is 80% complete. When I finally do get around to finishing it, it will probably be an 8k game, with a 6k version released for the Supercharger.

Good Deal Games would like to thank Bob for participating in our interview
and for initially helping the homebrew movement!

E-Mail: Bob Colbert or visit his webpage!



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