How a basement hacker transformed Donkey Kong for the Atari 2600


Enlarge / If you’re unfamiliar with the name, “Atari 2600,” fellow kids, have a gander at this piece of hardware. (It actually worked, promise.)

Wahyu Ichwandardi / Getty Images

The following excerpt comes from Arcade Perfect: How Pac-Man, Mortal Kombat, and Other Coin-Op Classics Invaded the Living Room by David L. Craddock.

Sickly green light washed over the stubble and pale complexion of the man hunched in front of his computer monitor. Beside it sat a television, black except for five horizontal, crimson-colored bands running from top to bottom like lines on notebook paper.

Garry Kitchen closed his eyes, but the straight red lines were burned into the backs of his eyelids. Behind him came a steady pounding: poundpound-pound-pound. He didn’t rise to the bait. He knew what he’d see. On the arcade cabinet’s screen, a giant ape the size of King Kong had just scaled a construction site made of straight red girders. With every stomp, the platforms had twisted and bent until they were slanted like ramps. Standing tall at the top, the ape intoned his grating, mechanical laugh.

Kitchen gritted his teeth. His replica of the construction site was almost perfect. Steel girders, a flaming barrel, a little man in red-and-blue overalls, an ape at the top.

There was just one glaring, maddening difference. His platforms refused to bend. That was going to be a problem.

Garry Kitchen watched the success of Mattel’s electronic games with interest. Just a few years ago he’d been a college kid chasing an art degree and working part-time at Wickstead Design Associates, a firm that built consumer products like calculators and other digital electronics.

“I ended up getting involved in microprocessor engineering because I kind of had to,” Kitchen recalled. “During this time period, I’d switched from art in school to electrical engineering. I was learning engineering on the job, so why not finish my degree in engineering? We were a small company, I got dragged into doing work of a much higher caliber out of necessity. There was one guy who could, but he wasn’t available.”

By 1978, consumer electronics were evolving from handheld electronics to Atari’s 2600 machine. While Atari had started out as the sole manufacturer of games for its console, Activision opened that December and developed games for personal computers and the 2600—a tacit admission to developers everywhere that anyone could write games for Atari hardware. Kitchen went to his bosses at Wickstead Design Associates and made his case.

“Look, electronic toys are being hurt in the marketplace by video games,” he said. They stared blankly. Video games? Kitchen pressed on: “Everybody’s jumping on this Atari thing. We should look into it.”

Kitchen asked around and received little feedback. Atari couldn’t stop Activision and other studios from making games for its device, but it didn’t have to help. There was no software development kit, no prototype console designed to write and test code. Activision’s founders only knew how to make games for the 2600 because they’d worked with it while at the company.

By that time, Kitchen had flipped his schedule, working at WDA full-time and taking engineering classes at night. He wasn’t making much money, pulling in $11,000 a year, but he enjoyed waking up every morning to solve new problems. Developing games for the 2600 was his latest and greatest challenge. Kitchen scraped together $1200 for an Apple II—the most expensive of 1977’s “holy trinity” of personal computers, including the Commodore PET and Radio Shack TRS-80—and dissected his new machine to learn its ins and outs. It ran on a 6502 8-bit processor, which he picked up on quickly having worked with microprocessors on electronic toys.

Once he wrote code, he knew he’d have to find a way to put it on an Atari 2600 cartridge. His solution was a custom-made board with a chip he’d soldered on to play Atari ROMs. Testing code required him to run a ribbon cable from the chip on his board to the teeth in the 2600’s cartridge slot.

Some vintage techie posing with an Apple II computer.(Credit: Ted Thai/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)
Enlarge / Some vintage techie posing with an Apple II computer.(Credit: Ted Thai/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

Six months later, he’d completely reverse-engineered the 2600 using his jerry-rigged setup and written a game, Space Jockey. The program weighed in at two kilobytes, four times the size of Mark Lesser’s 511-byte handheld games, and was much more complex. A shooter, Space Jockey scrolled the screen to the right as the player shot down enemy ships. Kitchen took his creation to his bosses at WDA. He had daydreamed about Atari and Activision getting into a bidding war over Space Jockey, one of the first Atari games written outside either studio’s walled garden. Instead, Donald Yu, one of his bosses, published it through US Games, a separate entity they’d founded to publish electronic toys. Yu licensed Space Jockey to his company and prepared to put it on the market.

Before, when Atari had employed the only engineers capable of writing software for its console, games had appeared at a steady drip. The advent of Activision and engineers such as Kitchen increased the drip to a steady flow. Consumers, thirsty for new titles, lapped them up, but Garry Kitchen wouldn’t see a penny from any sales of Space Jockey when it released. His bosses, as the game’s publisher, would reap any rewards.

“You know,” he said to Yu and the others, “I should be making more money than $11,000.” Bankshot and Space Jockey had become two of WDA’s biggest products.

“We don’t think you’re worth that much,” they replied.

Kitchen quit in early 1982. He didn’t leave Wickstead Design Associates alone. His brother, Dan, went with him. They threw in with a couple of other engineers and set up shop in Garry’s basement. Within a few hours of their first meeting, it resembled a mad scientist’s lab.

The owner of the house Kitchen was renting had left the basement unfinished. Exposed pipes and wiring hung from the open ceiling. Several workbenches had been shoved against the walls, and the four engineers spread out, cluttering every surface with computers and other equipment. Everyone did their own thing. Some guys experimented with the Apple II. Others tinkered with Atari’s 2600. As yet, no one had a contract to develop anything. They were just tooling around until something came up. Coleco was the first to offer up something.

Founded in 1932 as the Connecticut Leather Company, Coleco pivoted to toys in the 1980s with Cabbage Patch Kids dolls. Now the owners were eyeing video games. Kitchen was confused when he received a call from a contract company offering him a deal with Coleco. “We have an in there,” the recruiter said, and explained that word had gotten around about Kitchen’s aptitude for programming 2600 software. “They’re looking for somebody to do a port of Donkey Kong on the Atari. Are you interested?”

Kitchen brightened. “Sure.”



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