Mark Hahn interview
By Scott Stilphen
Mark Hahn designed an independent Atari VCS/2600 game Elk Attack. He's also the man behind the VCS games Pengo and Dukes of Hazzard for Atari.
Q: How did you get your start at Atari?
Mark Hahn: Right after college I worked for a small, embedded systems company named Digitron (now out of business). I learned a bit about programming microprocessors there. Most of what we did used the 8080, but I did get a little exposure to the Apple II.
I kind of stumbled into computer consulting after that. I have worked about half of my career as a consultant. I worked as a consultant for NY Telephone and Mobil Oil, among others, before becoming an employee at Atari. The gig at Atari was kind of a fluke. I had been consulting for some friends and they went out of business. When they went broke, they owed me quite a bit, and I needed a job fast to pay my rent. At this point I was living in Manhattan. I checked the want ads in the Sunday NY Times and found 2 ads for a 6502 programmer. One was with Children's Television Workshop (of Sesame Street fame); the other was with a new office Atari was opening in NY. I got offers from both, but the Atari offer was almost twice as much money, so I went there.
Q: I’m aware of 3 games that you did: Dukes of Hazzard, Pengo, and Elk Attack. Starting with DoH, what was the reason that it was never released? It seems nearly complete.
Mark Hahn: Dukes was never released because it sucked. I just wish someone had told me that when I was programming it. There was a lot of competition between the NY and CA offices. Nobody from marketing (which was in CA) was willing to tell me they didn't like the game. So I did demos of several
screens, they said they liked them, and then I got working on game play. I only found out they did not intend to release it from some Marketing VIP's secretary. I had put months of very long days and weekends into the game. I was a bit upset.
When I say the game sucked, I mean it didn't look as good as the games Atari was trying to produce at that point. I think the game play in Dukes was pretty good. The game was sort of designed by committee. By design, I mean the main features of the game: you will control a car, you will need to evade the police, you have to jump over obstacles, the background will scroll, etc. The graphical look, the game logic, and all the programming were left up to a single programmer, me in this case. None of us really knew what we could do with the 2600. All the technical staff in NY had never programmed the 2600. So the game was pushed in a direction that made good graphical resolution impossible. In defense of the group that designed Dukes, we didn't have a lot of examples of what the VCS could do at that point, and it was very hard to get any examples from the CA office.
Q: There are quite a few levels. How many are there?
Mark Hahn: The number of levels could be pretty huge. I originally wanted to have 256 levels. That was one of the justifications I used for going to 16K of ROM. To the best of my knowledge, Dukes was the first 16K cart ever produced at Atari. In fact, I had to wire-wrap a prototype to be able to demo the game. Hardware engineers in CA had managed to produce a 16K prototype, but it was huge and took an external power supply. In my design, I gave up a few memory locations and managed to drop a few chips from the circuit. Some of my circuit was later used in proto cards that used the SARA chip.
Q: You're probably right. Far as I know, Dig Dug was the 1st 16K game released by Atari, late in 1983 (which was followed by Crystal Castles and Millipede shortly after) and first shown at the 1983 Summer CES show. Dukes of Hazzard was mentioned in a late 1982 issue of the Atari Age magazine.
Pengo is a great translation of the Sega classic. A prototype exists which is different from the release version in some aspects - most notably with the title screen (the proto has an “arcade-style” title font, and the Pengo character is stationary). I’m curious as to why the arcade font wasn’t kept- was it due to memory constraints?
Mark Hahn: The arcade style font was dropped because it took up too much ROM. Pengo was an 8K cartridge, and I was crunching bytes on that game till the last minute.
Q: Were Dukes and Pengo the only 2 games you did for Atari? Did you have any other games that you worked on that either didn’t get
finished or released?
Mark Hahn: I did a couple of screens for a submarine warfare game that another game designer had written for the Atari 800 and the Apple II, but I don't remember the name (Ed: Thorn EMI's Submarine Commander? It was published for both systems.). I helped with sounds on a few other cartridges, mostly by doing some work on a tool that allowed our sound designer, Andy Fuchs, to play with sounds in an interactive fashion.
Q: Were the games that you wrote ones that were chosen or assigned?
Mark Hahn: Dukes was assigned to me. Pengo was a title that Atari had bought the home game system rights to, but nobody wanted to try the conversion. The original arcade machine had a z80, 32K of ROM and 32K of RAM, etc. I prototyped a few screens and brought them to management. They liked what I'd done, got buyoff from marketing, and off I went.
Q: I heard that Elk Attack took you 3 months to write, and was based on Taito’s Electric Yo-Yo, correct?
Mark Hahn: Yes. We had a Yo-Yo machine in the NY office. I spent many hours late at night playing that game while I was waiting for my assemblies to finish, or downloading test code.
The history of Elk Attack is not very interesting. In the spring of 1987, finding myself unemployed, I wrote a VCS game based very loosely on Yo-Yo. Those things that were easy to do I did; those that were hard, I changed or dropped. I named my cart Elk Attack as a joke and sent the cart to Atari and Epyx for them to evaluate. Neither were interested, so I stuffed my test EPROMS in a drawer and forgot them until I ran across the STELLA emulator. Brad Mott had a wonderful emulator but no binaries to distribute with it. I gave him permission to include Elk Attack with distributions of Stella.
Q: What equipment did you use to program it?
Mark Hahn: I used a Microtek Mice-II In Circuit Emulator and a PC as my development system.
Q: It appears you used some code from Pengo...
Mark Hahn: The hardest part of Elk Attack was getting the screens to look the way I wanted them to. I started with some screen code I had written for Pengo and modified it quite a bit. I re-used very little code from Pengo, but it I did use parts of the Pengo code to prototype things I was working on in Elk Attack.
Q: Do any of your other games have any glitches in them?
Mark Hahn: No ... my code is bug-free ... not! I'm not aware of any bugs in Pengo that the user would see. There are numerous bugs in Dukes, but it was never finished. Elk Attack has an extra scan line bug in it somewhere. Under just the right (or is it wrong) conditions it will put out an extra scan line (193 instead of 192, some TVs will roll the picture when this happens). Since I never sold Elk Attack to anyone, I never bothered to fix that bug.
Q: Any hidden Easter eggs in your games?
Mark Hahn: Nope. Never had the room. I have my initials in a few unused bytes at the end of Elk Attack.
Q: Any other versions of your games that you know of (like Pengo)?
Mark Hahn: There may have been 2 versions of Pengo that became pre-production prototypes, the one with arcade style text, and another version that was almost the finished game.
Q: How was it working for Atari?
Mark Hahn: It was great and it was terrible. Howard Warshaw has done some video documentaries on what it was like (Ed.: "Once Upon Atari"), but I refuse to pay Howard for a copy (and he won't cough up a review copy, at least not for me).
Q: What are some of your favorite games?
Mark Hahn: Robotron - all time best. Also Doom and Duke Nukem.
Q: Ever see any of your fellow ex-Atari programmers?
Mark Hahn: I haven't seen any of them in years. I know Christopher Omarzu very well, and I trade email with a few of them from time to time, but many still live in the bay area, and I just don't get down there too often.
Q: Have you attended any of the “retro” gaming conventions or have any interest in doing so?
Mark Hahn: Nope, I guess I'd be interested in going to one if I had the time.
Q: Between your days at Atari and the present, what have you been doing with yourself? Still involved in the game industry?
Mark Hahn: I haven't done any real game programming since Atari. I do a lot of embedded systems programming these days. Not as much fun as games, but usually not as stressful.
|Dukes of Hazzard||Atari VCS/2600||Atari||unreleased|
|Elk Attack||Atari VCS/2600||Atari||unreleased|
|"submarine game"||Atari VCS/2600||Atari||not completed|
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