Stella at 20: The History of the Atari 2600

Cyberpunks Entertainment tells us all about its exhaustive serial documentary on the Atari 2600.

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Stella at 20 may sound like the name of a sitcom or perhaps a movie featuring Sarah Michelle Gellar. But it's actually the moniker of an in-depth documentary created by producer Glenn Saunders and his crew at Cyberpunks Entertainment. Why are you reading about it here and who is Stella? Classic video game enthusiasts might remember a certain not-for-profit compilation of Starpath Supercharger games that came out in the mid-90s from a few guys who were into the cassette tape titles. This comp was called Stella Gets a New Brain and could only be purchased in limited quantities by mail.

Well, Stella is back now, in the form of a documentary series. The name most people know "Stella" by is the Atari VCS or the Atari 2600. Videogames.com asked Saunders to fill us in on what the film is about, and how readers can participate in this chunk of history. First, Saunder's word on what the Cyberpunks group is all about:

"Cyberpunks are digital historians," said Saunders. "What this means is that we treat the study of videogames similarly to the study of other media such as film, television, radio, or books. I feel that there is a language of style in videogames, defined historical eras, and most importantly, a level of artistry in the work of the designers. This may seem a bit pretentious and the subject matter undeserving of such a scholarly approach, but I believe that there is a growing respect for the artistry in videogames, and I don't just mean in the graphics. Any new medium takes a good 20 years or more to be legitimized, and it will happen with videogames. But computer technology is so ephemeral, and most everyone disposes of the old very casually that Cyberpunks are not waiting for the term digital historian to be legitimized before we act, which was the reason we pushed forward with the two projects we have: to start archiving the past, both physically and through reminiscences, while the history is still mostly salvageable."

Our question was, who will this appeal to? Will a documentary about a specific classic game era appeal to the mainstream or simply a niche audience? Certainly, there's been a well-documented resurgence of classic game hoopla, from Hasbro's 3D PlayStation rebuilds of Frogger, Q*Bert, and many others to the launch of a national convention dedicated to classic games, The World of Atari, now going into its third year. We asked Saunders to document the industry's leap into the mainstream.

"In the famous videogame industry crash of 1984, many companies believed videogames had just demonstrated themselves as a passing fad. But interest in games clearly persisted. By 1986 the Atari 2600 userbase had largely migrated to home computers which had become as cheap as their console cousins had been a few years earlier. The younger generation latched onto the Nintendo 8-bit when it came out and ever since I don't think there has been any doubt that the industry is here to stay.

"However, games in general, not just videogames, are a youth phenomenon. For some reason people feel as they get older that they shouldn't play games, or they replace videogames with other more "mature" recreation like poker, or hobbies like car restoration. (Some of these are often the same people who secretly play Tetris on their PCs at work, though.) So from that angle, there may be a limit to how mainstream videogames can be across all age groups. But as far as youth industries go, videogames couldn't be any more mainstream," said Saunders

Saunders has spent a great deal of time researching and interviewing folks behind the scenes as well as in the classic game spotlight."The documentary was originally conceived to be a single 90 minute television special. Together, the engineers would recount the story of designing the 2600, and then the programmers would tell stories about the games they wrote for it, ending with summaries about the historical importance of the 2600 and contrasting the industry of yore with today. Throughout, it would be framed as a 20th birthday bash for 'Stella' itself. (By the way, the interesting story behind Jay Miner naming the 2600 'Stella' is revealed in volume one).

"Due to the amount of material I have and the length of time it has taken to be able to release it, I didn't want to waste a lot of great stuff to fit it into 90 minutes, so the documentary is currently split into four total planned volumes:

"Volume One - The Genesis of the Console, the birthday party, summaries on the 2600 and games 'then vs. now' by all participants. This volume should be available in November, 1999.

Volume Two - The Game Designers talk about their games, what made them great, and what techniques extended the life of the unit. This is the volume that is currently available.

Volume Three - Originally intended to be included in volume one, Volume three is currently scheduled to feature a lengthy voiceover by Joe Decuir that explores the Atari 2600 architecture from start to bottom, hopefully easing into it gracefully enough so that non-techies can understand a lot of the concepts by tape's end, and therefore understand a lot of the technical discussions in the other volumes.

Volume Four - The Game Designers II. This tape would feature new interviews (as yet to be shot) of other important game designers I missed back in 1997 like those who worked for Starpath, as well as programmers I didn't have running time left to include in Volume Two. Those who were unfortunately cut from Volume Two includes the amazing Doug Neubauer who wrote the technically advanced 2600 game "Solaris," and Jim Huether who wrote some of the earliest 2600 titles," said Saunders.

Good history lessons have solid philosophies behind them; otherwise they're textbooks or instructional tapes that leave you loosely swimming in facts and figures. Saunders has been around the industry for years—since '77, essentially, and his first system, Pong—and tied his own theories in with supported research and interviews in attempt to make the documentary entertaining, informational, and philosophical. We asked him about the overall theme and tone of the film.

"These days you might say that you can buy your way to the top. The Sony PlayStation may be a good example of that. However, in late 1975 Atari was still a very small company with very idealistic aspirations. So you could say the theme is 'the little engine that could.' The documentary explores all the factors that made the 2600 (and to a larger extent, Atari itself) such a surprising and long-lasting success. It's truly amazing that in the first couple years of the Nintendo 8-bit taking hold in America, when the VCS was close to a decade old, Atari successfully sold several million cost-reduced 2600 Jr's and millions of cartridges, and even more amazing was the ever-increasing graphical sophistication of these games as they took advantage of more cartridge memory. Although the nature of the beast was vastly different, as sheer works of engineering genius, the 2600 has to be up there with the Voyager space probes as far as returning so much value for so long from so little circuitry. In an era where Japan hopelessly dominates the console landscape, the 2600 is a real American success story which people should never forget. But unfortunately, memories of the 2600 lie mostly dormant in the public consciousness. My goal was to bring those memories alive again and show people just how important the machine and the figures surrounding it were to the founding of this very important industry."As far as the footage gathered, I believe we succeeded in documenting these issues. We were very lucky and I'm grateful for what was accomplished gathering everyone together for these sessions. Instead of a clinical one on one interview between camera and subject, because of the roundtable format, these people are interacting with each other in a more easygoing, casual way. The timing of the piece couldn't have been more perfect, as was holding the last session at Nolan Bushnell's estate. Although it's now 1999, I could never change the title from Stella at 20. It's now not only a documentary about the 2600, but it's a document of a very unique moment in time which I seriously doubt will be duplicated with any future Atari documentary project," said Saunders.

It sounds as if cherry picking might be the way to consume this documentary series, as some segments will be more technical, for aficionados, while others will focus more on the consumer point of view.

"We wanted to cover some topics which may lose some nontechnical people for the sake of documenting history. It's designed more of an educational series than entertainment in this 'director's cut,' although we also went to great lengths to jazz it up with music and graphics to keep it moving along. Nevertheless, we really didn't want to water it down or fluff it up just to make it entertaining to everyone. However, I think volume one will appeal to a broad audience in that it has more human interest stories, and certainly more emotion."

Saunders went on to explain several scenes from the series, including interview moments with Nolan Bushnell delivering a gut-wrenching monologue about selling Atari to Warner Communications to Joe Decuir and others reminiscing on the passing of Jay Miner, the engineering lead behind the 2600, Atari 400/800, and Commodore Amiga to something about an Atari-shaped cake.

When mainstream meets niche, in any medium, there is usually a clash as to whether information and items remain in the custody of enthusiasts or whether these items should be introduced or reintroduced into the realm of affordable popularity and hence, easy to find and accessible. We asked Saunders if he thinks that classic game fans care about their pet interests to enter the mainstream.

"Many who are into collecting feel that the commercialization of the industry will destroy the hobby. Collectors would like to extend their ability to pick up valuable cartridges that are unknowingly being sold for .50c in thrift stores. Once everyone knows how much they are worth, those cartridges will be snapped up and the only trading left will be between collectors at market value. However, it's only a matter of time before these items would no longer be available any other way than through collectors. There isn't an inexhaustible supply, although a company called O'Shea's (http://www.oshealtd.com/) has roughly one million late-era Atari Corp. 2600 and 7800 cartridges available in the box for a song. Items such as these start out as yesterday's trash but inevitably wind up as future's treasures. The only question is how long will it take for the transition.

"Besides, many love feeling like they are part of some mysterious subculture. Becoming mainstream takes that mystique away," said Saunders.

The Stella at 20 documentary series may not be available in your local Blockbuster anytime soon, but the series will be available relatively easily by mail-order and by online contact. We asked Saunders about the difficulties that go along with self-distribution of such a massive, technical series with a decidedly niche audience."Although we are self-producing these tapes, the result is very much 'preaching to the choir,' which was not our original intent. At this time we don't anticipate making any more than 250 units of each volume, which isn't really getting this out to the masses the way it should. We feel that this footage is best served on broadcast/cable television where it can reach so many more people who just might be accidentally flipping channels and see Pitfall Harry jump across their screen and be intrigued enough to watch. Hopefully as the tapes begin to circulate and through press coverage such as this, the cable networks will take an interest in developing this with me. With 13 hours of footage, it can be remolded into just about anything desired.

"This was my debut as a documentarian, I really had no industry connections and no reputation. On the other hand, I was naive enough to rush into the project anyway, believing that even the raw footage would sell itself. Naivete is often the reason for people engaging in such ambitious things. If I knew what I know now, I might not have the courage to go through it all again to get me back to this point. The problems began when I had only one viable option in the fall of '97 for editing. When access to that system was lost at the rough-cut stage, I tried testing the waters for finishing funds but nobody seemed to want to consider it without a finished edit to show, or at least a glossy teaser which I couldn't afford to create. The few people I did show the footage to had a hard time visualizing how I was going to make all this raw unedited talking heads footage exciting and entertaining. I wound up having no means of completing it for close to a year and a half. It wasn't a tremendous amount of money I needed, but since I had assumed part of the debt for shooting the piece already, I had no way to extend it further to accommodate this expense. So all that time I pursued various strategies designed to raise money. When all failed, I sent a sincere letter to the participants in the documentary. This may seem like an unrealistic request, but I felt that they had all shown so much faith in me and my project, that they might see the value in nudging the project to completion with at least a collective donation. Joe Decuir, one of the hardware designers of the Atari 2600, saved the day by funding the purchase of the editing system and the first released volume (volume 2) debuted at the Classic Gaming Expo in Las Vegas in August," said Saunders.

Videogames.com asked Saunders what's next for him, more documentaries? Books? Games, even?

"Cyberpunks Entertainment is a group of four people originally including myself, Dan Skelton who does the graphic art, Russ Perry, who is a digital historian and currently publishes the 2600 Connection fanzine, and Jim Nitchals who funded the majority of the shooting phase of Stella at 20. Jim unfortunately died last year. Partly in reaction to that, we wanted to take what we had created and do something more ambitious. I contacted Brad Mott who developed the Atari 2600 emulator known as 'Stella' and indoctrinated him as a Cyberpunk. Brad is developing a new ultra-amazing version of Stella for us to use as the basis for commercial Atari 2600 emulators. Although some statements have been made, the details of our strategy are mostly confidential at this time. We can say that Brad's emulator combined with our strong background in 2600 history and the Stella at 20 footage is a combination that can not be matched.

"This project, while it could last us a while, may be the last one for the existing group of Cyberpunks. We have brainstormed a couple other ideas in the past, but so far we don't have enough resources to pursue them. Since 1994 I've enjoyed the generous dedication of these individuals. This has been a part-time endeavor for all involved, and is an exhausting pursuit to say the least!

"I, personally, have long-term goals in the game business if fate would cooperate that are not as confidential. One involves spearheading what I call the 'neoclassical' movement. I have faith in the marketability of 'neoclassic' video games. I define a neoclassic game not so much as a modernized remake of a classic, but as a totally original game on a modern platform which exhibits the same spirit as a classic title. Developing games such as this would be very inexpensive compared to most new titles, and yet I think there is an under appreciated thirst for games such as these.

"I don't really classify myself as a programmer. I certainly don't know 6502 assembly. I have a lot of 2600 knowledge the way someone might memorize trivia without knowing what the facts mean. I could probably never write a 2600 game. Nevertheless, I have developed a real appreciation for the work that went into designing the machine and making games for it and I think everyone else who watches Stella at 20 will too," said Saunders.

As mentioned, Saunders and the Cyberpunks group created the Stella Gets a New Brain CD, and then followed up with the Stella at 20 interview sessions. He's also conducted interviews on behalf of Digital Eclipse for Midway's Arcade's Greatest Hits 3—a side feature on the CD where creators of original games were profiled. He credits the experience of meeting what he refers to as "all sorts of venerables" like Eugene Jarvis, Jay Fenton, and legend Ed Logg. "It really is amazing having met and interviewed just about all the pioneers of the industry," said Saunders. "When I attended the CG Expo in August, while most game fanatics were walking around in a state of shock at the sight of David Crane and Rob Fulop, to me it was seeing all very familiar faces again. I have a great deal of respect and appreciation for their contribution to videogames and hope to work with some of them in the future."

More information about the series and about ordering Cyberpunks Entertainment's Stella at 20 documentary can be found on the company's web site at http://cyberpunks.uni.cc. The rerelease of the Stella Gets a New Brain CD is also available from this location.

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