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Steve DeFrisco

Steve DeFrisco started out with Imagic, writing "Tropical Trouble" for the Intellivision and a few games for the Apple II and Atari 800. But he's most notable for being involved in the last batch of Atari 2600 games, those written in the late 80s after the Atari 2600 Jr. ("Under 50 bucks!") was released. He authored both "Secret Quest" and "MotoRodeo," both of which were credited on the box to Nolan Bushnell. And he's the author of the very last coin-op port attempted for the 2600, a port of 1989's "Klax," which was never released.

In the 1990s, Steve wrote "Baseball Heroes" for the Atari Lynx and then worked for Digital Pictures, creating games for the Sega CD and Saturn.

How did you get hired at Imagic?

I was quite lucky to be friends with Brian Dougherty, one of the founders of Imagic. I was going to U.C. Santa Cruz at the time, and I was hired as a student programmer, which was a six month position. After the six months, I was offered a full time job.

What do you remember most about your Imagic days?

It was great fun. The dress code was informal, so jeans and t-shirts were the norm. We spent a lot of time at the office and a lot of time together outside of the office: office softball team, movies, rafting trips, etc. The work hours were "as needed, as necessary," so there were many people working a sort of graveyard shift from 11am to 2am. We had some coin-operated video and pinball games around to play with, and we were always competing at one game or another.

What was the Intellivision hardware like?

The GP1610 processor was quite advanced for it's time, lots of registers and a good sound chip and a decent graphics chip. Compared to the Atari 2600, it was great.

How did "Tropical Trouble" develop?

"Tropical Trouble" was originally designed as a sequel to "Beauty and the Beast," a title that was just being finished when I started at Imagic. Since "Beauty and the Beast" was a vertical game, you were climbing buildings to catch the bad guy, we decided to make it a horizontal game. In order to keep it a bit believable--like most games are in a believable world!--we put the player on a deserted island so that there would only have to be one enemy.

Why was "Shooting Gallery" never released?

Apparently the Atari VCS version of "Shooting Gallery" didn't do too well, and it was decided that the Mattel version, with the Mattel market drying up anyway, would probably be a bad bet.

You were writing 2600 games in the mid to late 1980s when everyone else had bailed out. What's the story?

When I was working at Axlon, Nolan was approached by Atari to create a few new games for the Atari VCS. They had just cost-reduced the system and were trying to sell a few more units. They thought that if they had Nolan's name on the box, people might be more inclined to buy them. So, we designed and wrote a few games at Axlon. After I left Axlon, I continued writing a few more titles as I was contracting at the time, and it was easy to get the contracts.

So Nolan Bushnell's name and picture were on the boxes of these games even though he didn't do any design or programming?

To be fair, Nolan did a bit of design, but he is not a programmer. Atari thought that his name would entice people to buy some more 2600 titles.

Did you ever feel behind the times, writing 2600 games in the late 1980s?

Yes and no. Sure, I knew the market really wasn't there, but there was a great deal to learn about efficiently using system resources to get the job done. Remember, the 2600 had 128 bytes of RAM, and we were writing games in four to sixteen kilobytes of ROM storage. Compare that to the Sega Saturn's two megabytes of RAM and 650 megabytes of CD-ROM storage. The screen display was mainly controlled by the processor. You had to write a "screen kernel" that had to be exactly timed to beat the beam down the screen. I found myself in a sort of elite group of programmers who have dared to program the 2600, and survived.

Who else was working on 2600 games with you?

At Axlon, Pete Mokris and John Viffian. We also contracted with Todd Frye.

Were there any 2600 games that were considered during this period, but never written?

There were a few games that were actually started but never finished.

"Saving Mary" was a game where "Mary" was trapped in a riverbed with rising water. You had to drop blocks of different sizes and shapes for her to climb up on to escape being drowned.

"Shooting Gallery" [unrelated to the Imagic game of the same name] was a classic shooting gallery that had lots of targets on the 2600. Lots of targets was a difficult thing to do with the limited graphics capability of the 2600, and it looked pretty bad.

"The Adventures of Max" was a game where the player, Max, was to fall into deep holes and fight his way through caverns and caves back to the surface.

How did the 2600 port of "Klax" come about?

Atari wanted a version of the coin-op title "Klax" for the 2600. I guess I was the man to do it. They actually provided me with C code from the coin-op title to translate the product quickly, so the actual algorithms for the game play were already laid out. The tough part, as with all 2600 titles, was the screen kernel. Since the "Klax" blocks needed to come towards the screen, they had to get gradually larger and larger, and there were five columns. The limited display capabilities of the 2600 made for some blocky graphics.

You've worked a lot with Atari, up until "Baseball Heroes" for the Lynx 1991. What are your feelings on their dissolution in 1996?

I'm sad to see them go. When the Atari 2600 came out, I loved playing it. I even made a pushbutton controller for "Asteroids" that had the same layout and same buttons--I had to track them down--as the coin-op version. The first computer I owned was an Atari 800, and I taught myself to program in assembly language on it. If it wasn't for that experience, I doubt I would have become a game programmer myself.

Have things changed over the years? Was it more fun to work on, say, "Tropical Trouble" than "Maximum Surge"?

There were more people involved in the design of the games I was working on in the later years, and I think the games suffered as a result. When you have one or two people who are on the same wavelength and can work together to really hammer out a great design, you get a great project. At Digital Pictures, everybody seemed to have an input, and some issues were not decided upon until it was too late, and the idea had to be retrofitted into the code.

It's hard to say what was more fun to work on. All of the projects I have worked on have had their ups and downs and all of the various machines I have programmed for have had their great features and frustrations. I think if any of the titles I had worked on was a blockbuster hit I might feel differently, but I would have to say that they all were fun--and they all were a pain in the butt.