Controversy As An Atari Prototype Lands On MAME

arcadehero April 23, 2019 25

NOTE: This article has been updated to reflect some new thoughts about the event. As I figured, this is something that people will be talking about in arcade circles for some time to come.

It’s been a little while since we had some controversy to discuss in the arcade history/collector community, the last time being challenges to Billy Mitchell’s high scores. You may also recall a story from several years ago when a collector found a super rare Sundance arcade game left to rot in a cabin, where some controversy was generated from that. Well today we have something new that will certainly be a source for discussion.

What is Akka Arrh?

Before we get to that story, a background on the game at the center of the debate today. If the name Akka Arrh doesn’t sound familiar, that’s because it was one of those many titles that never made it out of the play test phase. Also known as Target Outpost and The Sentinel during it’s development, the final version was called Akka Arrh, which was a clever way for the programmers to refer to themselves (“Also Known As Another Ralston Hally” production) since Atari wasn’t keen on giving their talent any credit at the time. Those programmers were Dave Ralston and Mike Hally; Funny enough, Akka Arrh would have been their first game at Atari by what I can find. Mike Hally would be known for his work on games like Gravitar, Star Wars, Firefox, Area 51, and others; Ralston for work on Crystal Castles, Paperboy, 720, Vapor TRX and others.   While I’ve never met either of them, I’ve heard many ex-Atari staff members talk about Mike, as he was with the company for a very long time.

The game itself is as odd as it’s name sounds, playing off of the Missile Command and Liberator game designs with it’s own twist. You play as a central turret that must fend off hordes of invading enemies. It’s one of those games that is easier to see how it works than to explain it, so here you go:

The game got pretty far along in development, to the point that it had it’s own unique cabinet instead of being thrown into an existing blank piece as most test pieces do. The control panel and some of the art reminds me of Atari’s Quantum, while I really like the side art and the unique tube marquee:

Sentinel / Akka Arrh by Atari

Ok, so what’s the “controversy” all about?

Only three cabinets of Akka Arrh exist, having been found in high-end, high-value collections. One of those made an appearance at CAX 2012; I don’t recall seeing it there last year. I have no idea how much one of these cabinets would sell for, but given that some titles like Major Havoc can fetch a few thousand dollars, I’m sure it wouldn’t be cheap. Given that Atari was pioneers of the industry and there are physical examples of the game cabinets, there is intrinsic value in the cabinet alone, regardless the software found inside.

As the story of the controversy goes on the MAMEWorld Forums, one of those collectors had a technician come to his home to repair some other game (it is not specified which), and in the process that person allegedly went into Akka Arrh cabinet, got the ROMs to copy them and then anonymously posted them online so they could be used in emulators like MAME.

With that story, the lines have been drawn in the sand, although most reactions do seem to be uniform – many are happy that the game will be more available, but the way the technician went about it violated the trust one puts into someone when you allow them into your home to work on your collection (and for a different purpose). I’m no lawyer, so I don’t know if there is any legal recourse that can or will be taken, since the collectors don’t own the Akka Arrh IP. Although as an unreleased game, I don’t know if anyone really does as there may be a statute of limitations on that sort of thing.

I am seeing a bit of vitriol aimed at the collectors over this, which I would say is unfair. One thing to keep in mind is that arcade collecting can be very difficult and very expensive when it comes to preserving 30/40/50 year old arcade cabinets. You can question the investment into such hardware, but if it wasn’t for the people who bothered to save these machines in the first place, then Akka Arrh would likely just be another text footnote on System16 and nothing else.

I have to admit though, something does sound odd about the story, in that burning/copying ROMs isn’t exactly like plugging a USB cable into a device then hitting ‘copy;’ You can’t walk by an arcade machine with Bluetooth enabled and steal the ROM data off the chips either. It’s a slightly laborious process that requires physical contact with each ROM chip. By what I understand, you would have to gain access to the game (which is often locked from the back), then carefully pry off each ROM(something that always runs the risk of damaging the chip by bending or breaking one of the many legs), copy it using a ROM burner that is attached to a computer (probably a laptop in this case), then when that is all finished for each chip(a time consuming process), carefully place the ROMs back. It’s not a process that should be easy to go by unnoticed, unless the collector wasn’t present for a few/several hours. Seems like it would be easier to gain access to the already copied ROM files(granted, that is an assumption on my part – I do not know if those with an Akka Arrh machine have backed up the files or not), then share them.

I’m not saying that the collector is a liar, just that the story is difficult to accept given the little we have. It could be 100% true, in which case I’ll be happy to update this article. But as the old saying goes: “Trust, but verify.”

I highly doubt that Atari SA (the current holders of IP of most Atari games from 1972-84) has a clue about this, had the files or have been maintaining a copyright on them, so I would safely rule them out as a source (they also are extremely protective of their IP, having taken many entities to court for using anything resembling their IP).

Until more information comes to light however, all we can do is guess as to how the ROMs appeared online. Kyle Orland of Ars Technica has done some excellent digging into this that you can read about here. Otherwise, I have a feeling that we might never know the full story, thus launching this into the stuff of legends like the never-ending drama about Donkey Kong or the myth of Polybius.

There is a long thread on the KLOV Forums about this too; where do you fall in the debate?

 

25 Comments »

  1. Chris Smith April 24, 2019 at 6:17 am - Reply

    This is a complicated one. I absolutely don’t condone activities of the technician! Despite the IP ownership (which can be a mess, trust me I’ve looked at that specifically for Bouncer) this was a violation of trust and really showed a lack of character and integrity.

    While I don’t condone the method of obtaining it, the ROMS are now available and the game can now be enjoyed by the masses. So that is may be the only win here.

    I’ve battled this question before, I’ve been searching for a Bouncer machine for close to 20 years, following leads, interviewing all the former employees, even making a trip to the desert to track down a former technician. I am losing hope of to locate one machine that may be salvaged. I have asked myself this same question, would I make the ROMS available for MAME if I ever locate Bouncer. The answer took a little bit of evolution, initially I battled with rarity factor, but overtime and after meeting with the staff and hearing the stories, it was clear the game would need to be shared.

    I wish more collectors who have these rare titles would go this route. In the end, a software recreation will not damage the uniqueness or value of owning a rare piece.

    Without going into the whole MAME battle, simply put, playing a real game is always better. However MAME is great at preserving the game and allowing all to enjoy something they will never own, whether it be space, money, etc…

    Game On!
    -Chris

  2. Arcafefever April 24, 2019 at 11:43 am - Reply

    The moment an arcade collector justifies his/her purchases in this hobby as an investment, I loose all respect for them as an actual enthusiast.

  3. Steve April 25, 2019 at 9:05 am - Reply

    Let’s not forget that some PC World tech in Bristol “betrayed the trust” of Gary Glitter when he took his laptop in for repair.

    Bradley Manning “betrayed the trust” of the US military when he leaked to Wikileaks.

    Edward Snowden “betrayed the trust” of the US government when he leaked to the Guardian.

    I’m not saying what the tech did was right, I’m saying people do things that some people think are wrong when they think they are doing it for the greater good and the motives of the tech should be taken into account before saying they did something they shouldn’t have done. History will be the final decider.

    • arcadehero April 25, 2019 at 9:57 am - Reply

      It’s a different issue between unreleased video game ROMs and state secrets. One affects the entertainment of a niche group, while the other involves the privacy rights of millions of people. In the case of the former, there’s not much a court or government will do because it’s a video game that the collectors don’t have the rights to on a software level (but the game cabinet is their personal property, so if the story is true, there could be an issue there a lawyer could do something with). Perhaps we could argue that in all cases these guys have a Robin Hood Complex, but the law and history will treat them all very differently because of who and what is really affected here.

      Akka Arrh very likely would have been released at some point, whenever one of the collectors felt a change of heart, or when they would croak and the game would go into someone else’s hands. As mentioned, I don’t entirely believe this story of a technician doing this until some evidence appears to support it, and it would be shocking if none of these three collectors hadn’t already burned the ROMs for back-ups already (which are much easier to end up online). If the tech story turns out to be true, then I still think he did a crappy thing – yes I am happy that the game is publicly available, especially as a big fan of Atari. But I wouldn’t want to hire that guy for a job or let him near my collection since I don’t know what he’ll do with it in the name of nobility or whatever it is.

      I am attempting to get a hold of Mike Hally, one of the two creators of Akka Arrh for his opinion on it; I think that would be interesting to hear.

  4. mrjbrpg April 28, 2019 at 9:34 pm - Reply

    That is weird, the post says more comments than there are actual comments. I hope that comment bug gets fixed right away.

    I do have to say that it is a complicated matter, but at least the executable code is preserved to learn about its existence.

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