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Hello, Homebrew: Halo 2600

With the release of Halo Reach, Bungie—the studio that created and developed the series—has officially washed its hands of the Halo franchise for the foreseeable future. Now the baton has been passed to other developers, which has resulted in real anxiety from some circles in terms of the game series’s fate.

Not that this worry is anything new: Halo Wars was, in fact, developed by an outsider—Ensemble Studios—and is generally considered to be a top-notch RTS game. I Love Bees, the ARG by 4orty2wo Entertainment, is so highly regarded that it is arguably better, and certainly more inventive, than the game it was meant to promote. At the 2010 Classic Gaming Expo, however, another non-Bungie Halo game made its debut: Halo 2600.

Halo 2600 was an unexpected product from the people at AtariAge, who had previously promised a surprise homebrew release at what would be the first CGE convention since 2007. Developed by Ed Fries, former vice president of Microsoft’s game publishing wing, the game was borne out of an interest he had taken in programming for the Atari 2600 after reading Nick Monfort and Ian Bogost’s book, Racing the Beam.

“I wasn’t sure what to write, so I created a little Master Chief from Halo and made him run around the screen. Then I created an Elite for him to shoot at,” Fries explains in a post on AtariAge. “At this point it wasn’t my intention to make a full game. I was just screwing around.”

After getting tacit approval from Bungie and Microsoft to go ahead, Fries put together a game quite similar to the seminal Atari title Adventure, and on the first day of CGE, the game was announced, sold, and the ROM, dumped. And perhaps most impressively, the game is also one of the best homebrews to come along for the system!

The game consists of 64 linked screens that the Chief must venture through on his way to reach the final boss. He starts off completely unarmed so, as in the first Legend of Zelda adventure, your initial goal is to locate a weapon. From there, you must find keys that open barriers to progress further in the game. Each zone is based on an environment from Halo: for instance, there are grassy areas, a Covenant base, and an icy field. You could find a couple of equipment upgrades—a gun that fires faster bullets, perhaps, or a pair of speed boots that double your walking pace—as well as shield items that will allow the Chief to take an extra bullet before dying.

Little touches permeate the game to drive home the source material. When moving on ice, for example, the Chief will slide along in whichever direction he started walking in. Enemies include little 8-bit renditions of Grunts and Elites, and background objects, particularly in Covenant zones, really bring in the feel of the Halo universe. The final boss fight, against a gigantic Prophet so large that the camera “zooms out” to fit the fight sequence, is at once both epic and reminiscent of the battle against the Prophet of Regret in Halo 2. To top it all off, the familiar Halo theme and the ringworld themselves are both on the title screen.

The game is actually not that difficult, or at least not once you have the map layout figured out. Red Grunts and Elites are a pain, to be sure, due to their faster bullets, but once you obtain your speed boots those enemies are no longer a major concern. For those ambitious players who do eventually take down the Prophet, the game will start over on “Legendary” difficulty. Like the Legendary difficulty found in the games that served as the inspiration for Halo 2600, getting through the game requires a focus on survival, some gameplay tricks, and some luck. Walls are now deadly to the touch—Berzerk, anyone?—and the Chief moves at half his normal speed, making dodging normal bullets difficult and faster ones nearly impossible. Beating the game on that difficulty is an achievement.

Fries also left in an interesting glitch, called “Magic Land.” Getting outside the map causes the game engine to desperately flail about, trying to interpret memory never meant for the landscape, much like the hidden lands of Mountain King for 2600 or the game-broken screens of Metroid. Strange glitchy enemies exist out there, but with proper mapping, the player can get to the boss in a remarkably short amount of time, as evidenced by this playthrough:

Since the CGE run of game cartridges has long been exhausted, Albert Yarusso of AtariAge has been taking orders for the game cartridge on the website’s forum. And rabid collectors, take careful note: The CGE run has a different label from the newer run! The Halo 2600 game ROM is also available to play online via a Java Atari emulator, which is definitely a reasonable option for those gamers who have access neither to a physical console nor an emulator.

While homebrew ports of arcade games or titles that appeared on other consoles have a particular appeal to me personally –- I have always enjoyed seeing different takes on the same game for different consoles, like the excellent 2600 reinterpretation of the Intellivision’s Frogs and Flies, or Gunfight, a contemporary homebrew title loosely based on Atari’s Outlaw -– brand-new, original games, like Lead, so often are the more interesting experiences.

But Halo 2600, though based on an existing IP, is nevertheless its altogether own entity that yet manages to successfully draw on the source material in a new and interesting way.

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