The Game: As a bold adventurer trespassing a mighty castle in search of treasure, you face a twisty maze of chambers, dead ends aplenty, and colorful, hungry, and suspiciously duck-shaped dragons. (Atari, 1980)
Memories: The first game of its kind to hit the Atari VCS, Adventure scores a first in video game history – and not just because of its huge, sprawling maze.
Programmer Warren Robinett was a little disgruntled during his stint at Atari. He watched as his fellow programmers jumped ship, formed companies like Imagic and Activision, and struck it rich as the third-party software industry took off. Meanwhile, Robinett stayed put, and with a handful of fellow Atari stalwarts, formed a loose collective called the Dumb Shits’ Club – the implication being that anyone who stayed at Atari, when other companies were offering real money and real “this-game-written-by…” credit, was worthy of that designation.
To remedy this, Robinett put his name on his next game anyway. By performing some fairly specific actions, and not necessarily anything related to completing the game, the player can gain access to a room filled with multicolored characters reading CREATED BY WARREN ROBINETT. Unlike today, there were no minigames or special abilities to be unlocked – it was just his name. For the game’s designer, it was more of a rebellious move than anything, and he sat on the secret, not even telling his closest friends at Atari. Eventually, he grew tired of being one of the Dumb Shits’ Club’s longest-serving members, left Atari, and went out of the country on a vacation.
It was then, naturally, that an inquisitive young player found the room containing Robinett’s name. The existence of the room, and detailed instructions for reaching it, circulated quickly in video game publications, and the concept of hidden features was born. Atari got in on the publicity surrounding Robinett’s credit, when in fact he himself had kept it secret because it used 5% of the code that ran Adventure – and he feared he’d get fired for “wasting” that much of the game’s memory capacity on what amounted to an in-joke. Robinett founded an educational software company and wrote the well-regarded Rocky’s Boots. The company, The Learning Company, was later sold to Mattel for $4.3 billion – Robinett finally forfeited his membership in the Dumb Shits’ Club. He later went on to work on projects for NASA, among others.
And how did Atari take the news of the secret credit Robinett had bestowed upon himself in their latest best-seller? Plans were promptly drawn up for an ambitious multi-game sequel to Adventure, with a heavy emphasis on the kind of hidden features that very likely would have cost Robinett his job. It would be packed in with special, secret-message-loaded comic books by Atari’s corporate sibling under the Warner Communications umbrella, DC Comics. And there would be a huge cash prize for solving the puzzles. It all sounded good on paper – until it finally saw the light of day under the title of Swordquest. By the time the contest ended, the four-game cycle had stopped at three, the bottom had dropped out of the video game industry, and the checks written to the winners couldn’t clear the bank.
The next time you have to read a web site walkthrough or buy a strategy guide so you can unlock the latest games’ secrets or play a hidden minigame, or the next time you send Mario down those perfectly innocuous-looking pipes to grab some free coins, just remember: it all started here.