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:
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?