.... Steve Baker
By Scott Stilphen
Throughout his programming career, Steve Baker’s efforts usually involved getting the most out of whatever hardware system he was currently working on – sometimes even beyond its perceived limits! In this interview, he reflects on past accomplishments, including the Epyx 2600 ‘Games’ series, and describes his latest project.
DP: Before getting your start into programming, what were you involved with?
Steve Baker: Playing with my HP-25 handheld calculator with 49
programmable steps. But at that time I was 1300 hours into a 1600-hour
"training" to be a hairdresser...and a friend turned me on to the HP-25. I
watched as he "input" the steps for the lunar lander program and then pressed
the R/S (run/stop) key. The display flashed a few times showing various
"variables" and then patiently awaited our input. After crashing several
times from either too fast a decent (usually due to lack of fuel and a horrible
plummeting death) or an experiment in terminal velocity, I was hooked. I went
out and got mine the next day.
DP: When did you start working on 2600 games?
Steve Baker: Late in the game...spent most of my effort doing Apple-II games. Early 80's was involved more with the 5200 game console, then in the late 80's the 2600 again. I loved the simple hardware and task to draw a LIVE TV screen a line at a time...76 clocks.
DP: Is California Games the only 2600 title you did?
Steve Baker: I also worked on both Summer Games and Winter Games.
DP: You worked with M. Peter Engelbrite on California Games. What exactly did each of you do in regards to programming it?
Steve Baker: I worked on Half Pipe, Surfing, and the sound engine.
He finished Surfing, Foot Bag, and the BMX Bike Racing. The MCP (Main Control
Program) was used from the earlier Summer/Winter games. Still to this day I
don't know how the Half Pipe event runs with 77 clocks in some frames without
tearing the screen. Lucky, I guess...
DP: Very! From
what other VCS programmers have told me, it was a very unforgiving
machine, especially in that aspect (the dreaded "76 cycle blues"...). The title screen for 2600 Cali Games is a neat effect
- is that your code?
Steve Baker: Nope...comes from a simple adder...ain't math great? LOL!
DP: Did Peter work on Summer and Winter games too? Did anyone else help you with these?
Steve Baker: Yes, I remember (on Winter Games) Peter did the Bobsled event (Ed: he also did the Luge, Ski Jump, and Hotdog Ski events). I did the speed skating cigarette butts...LOL! Graphics have come a loooooooong way.
DP: I had heard that Tod Frye had a hand in Winter Games? Is this correct?
Steve Baker: I know Tod did Swimming for Summer Games and I did Rowing. Not sure which one Peter worked on (Ed: Peter did the Pommel Horse event). The Nelson brothers (Craig and Scott) were working on the MCP for these games and the bank switching which opened the carts up to 16K of ROM (a 4x size increase). I also did the shooting part of the Biathlon event for Winter Games.
DP: Are you still in contact with Peter?
Steve Baker: Nah...I have not seen
him since the Epyx days. I did run into another Epyx programmer on a trip to
L.A. once, at a Denny’s...
DP: Were there any other programmers at Epyx that were involved with games/projects relating to the 2600? (I'm not sure, but I think Epyx only released the 3 "Games" titles....)
Steve Baker: I know for California Games it was just Peter and myself. There was a guy named Jeremy (last name forgotten) that did work on the Winter and Summer games titles.
DP: Was this a title you wanted to do, or that Epyx assigned?
Steve Baker: Assigned, but I was the closest thing they had to a
person who has been there. I surf and skateboard, so those were my assignments.
Also having a MIDI background, I got the “sound” side of things - I made an
87-byte sound engine, with many complex effects, for the Atari 2600.
DP: Were there any technical hurdles you had to overcome in programming C.G.?
Steve Baker: I was always squeezed for space, but the hardware was
pushed to the max. And little tricks from past Apple-II 6502 programming came
in very handy. Helps to think in binary!
DP: Were you a fan of the original C-64 and Atari 400/800 versions of the Games series?
Steve Baker: I helped the programmer and artist on California Games with the Surfing game's animations and "feel". Mostly I played them on the Apple-II.
DP: Was the Atari 2600 the only (game) system you wrote for?
Steve Baker: I also wrote for Mattel’s Intellivision, Apple-II,
Commodore 64, Atari 5200 & 400/800 computers, IBM Intel series...all in assembly
language or using language and compilers of my own design.
DP: Do you recall the game titles that you did for those systems?
Steve Baker: I was usually the behind-the-scenes guy. I mainly did hardware drivers and coding in assembly for all of the processors. Most of my best work has never been released, even on the HP-25. I had created a dozen games using 49 steps, or less. There have been a few titles on the Apple-II and 5200 that people may remember from the early years, and some educational titles for the Apple-II with D.C. Heath. I did a lot of behind the scenes help with creating sound effects and music for various software titles on the IBM computers. I am a catalyst for others to perform their work. Most of the coding I do today I have done 100's of times in the past so I see things differently than most. I see something in front of me and can duplicate it in software almost instantly. I had a co-worker call me the best coder on the planet. I think in binary.
For the 5200 I did Defender, Stargate, Miniature Golf, and Microgammon SB. The “SB” stands for Super Brain – one of the difficulty settings in the game….or my initials :)
DP: I must say that your Atari version of Defender was simply incredible! Did you have the chance to meet with Eugene Jarvis, when doing your version, or did he offer any help/advice?
Steve Baker: I had originally done Defender for the Apple-II as an exercise in programming. Atari wanted it for the 400/800/5200 so that was the 1st game I did for them. Yes, Eugene and I had an informal meeting at a park near Atari, and I just told him how I programmed it from what I saw and he confirmed it. I did find out the swarmers (little red ones) do not fire behind themselves...LOL! It’s a great trick - approach them, get behind them, and then flip around quick and pick them off at your leisure.
DP: Did Atari have a Defender machine in their "arcade" for you to use?
Steve Baker: Not for Defender, but when I started Stargate, I used their machine for graphic reference. When it was done, my Stargate screenshots looked like the arcade machine.
DP: Was this ever released?
Steve Baker: No. That was the final game I did on the Atari 5200. I had created a unique way of having dozens of objects on the screen at the same time using a combination of player and bitmap graphics. The code only used 2 "players" and was way ahead of its time. I do still have a running copy for the 5200. Also taught the "sound" people how to timeshare the sounds to produce two-voiced sound effects from a single channel. Stargate even had the same "front end" as the arcade machine, so you could adjust the game to your liking - ALL of this in 16K of 6502 code. I am very good at getting the most out of any hardware and pushing it beyond its limits just to see what happens... ;-)
DP: Did you reuse any of your Defender code for Stargate?
Steve Baker: Only very small pieces of it like the Task Manager that handles all of the graphics and sound updates. The rest of the code was written from scratch for better speed and used more of the hardware.
DP: Were there other games that you worked on that never got finished, or weren't released (for whatever reason)?
Steve Baker: I had done a computer vs. player backgammon game on the Apple-II, and play-tested it for the 5200. Biggest complaint about it was that it “cheated". Oh well...it had too small an audience anyway. The only people that did like it were those that played backgammon often. I worked on Dick Tracy for the Apple-II for over a year, which was one of my best works. It never got released; I had done "too good" of a job on it. Disney told the IBM developers to make their version look as good as mine, but they couldn’t. I had color editing to 4x the normal Apple-II HIRES, so I had MORE resolution on the Apple-II than the IBM programmers could produce on their machine. The game even had a 25Khz sample of "Calling Dick Tracy..." and 3-voice music with percussion coming out of the single bit Apple-II speaker. So here is another game where I exceeded the limits of the hardware and it was never released.
DP: Do any of your other games have any differences or glitches in them?
Steve Baker: I try to think about the logic first and work it out in head. By the time I code it, I know it will perform as planned - figure 90% design and about 10% coding. I do not like bugs...yuck.
DP: Did you ever have a game ship and later found a "bug" or something in it, which led to another version being made/released?
Steve Baker: No games. Apple computer changed ROMS from "stock" to "plus" and I had just dup'ed 14,000 service disks. Now they didn't work on the new Apple-II Plus versions. So back to drawing board and pulled out the refs to the old monitor ROM code. But I did find bugs in both hardware and software from pushing limits on some IBM microchannel computers.
DP: Besides the known "Easter egg" to
reveal your initials (on the half-pipe event), it's rumored that Peter Engelbrite's initials
may also be hidden. Is this true?
Steve Baker: Not on that title...(code space) was very tight...I got mine in because I used part of Half Pipe as code and saved enough bytes to add “SAB”. As far as I know, Peter never put initials in or any tricks...but then again.... ;-)
DP: Besides Cali Games, do any other games of yours have your initials in them, or possibly some sort of hidden trick/secret?
Steve Baker: Sporting News Baseball for Apple-II and Pilgrim Quest both have hidden secret pics and animations, but it’s been so long I have forgotten the "keys" (to activate them).
DP: Do you still own any of your games for these systems? Any early versions (i.e. prototypes) of these games in your possession, or that may be out in "circulation" (that you know of)?
Steve Baker: I have a copy of everything I have done....a true pack rat!
DP: Would you have any interest in releasing your 5200 Stargate or Apple II Dick Tracy to the gaming community, or selling copies of them? Or have they already been released?
Steve Baker: There are some T-cards with Stargate floating around...I have seen screenshots of my game. Dick Tracy is not mine to sell. Not sure if Atari ever released Stargate.
DP: Were you responsible for writing the instruction manuals for your games?
Steve Baker: Just a few words here and there.
DP: What have you been involved with, since working with Epyx?
Steve Baker: An educational
program here and there, doing more Sound Design work, little bit of graphics-
making Rotographs and playing with 3D imaging. Then came the Internet...
DP: Could you please describe your website/business, SABgames Arcade (http://sabgames.net/) ?
Steve Baker: It’s just a forum to present my games to the world - always free. Many games can be downloaded and placed on websites for free. Others have a small one-time license fee. I found myself using the same snippets of java code over and over, so I decided to combine them into a single applet package called SABfx, and then started writing code in SABfx. It has all the benefits of java without the complex headaches or compiling. It just uses plain text.
DP: What are/were some of your favorite games?
Steve Baker: Probably driving games. Atari’s Hard Drivin’, also the IBM Stunt Driver version that had a "course builder"...May have been called just “Stunts” or “Stunt Driver” (Ed: Microprose’s Stunt Car Racer). It was one of early IBM driving games. Pinball is great. Just got a PS2...very cool. SSX for the PS2 is awesome...very well done. Driver for PS also was a very cool, goal-oriented game. Stargate and Defender are always cool!
DP: Unfortunately, the whole arcade coin-op industry seems poised for extinction. Stories have recently circulated about Midway's demise, and the remains of Atari (i.e. Midway West). What's your take on that whole situation, and your predictions for its future (if any)?
Steve Baker: Home gaming hardware is now at or exceeds most arcade machines in the market place. Pinball machines are the most unique, as far as games. Having a BIG screen to play in arcades or racing head-to-head is getting more common, or having a seat for "watchers" - some new “big rig arcade game (Note: Sega’s 18 Wheeler) was very fun to watch as it was to play. That is what I find missing from most arcades - room for the "watchers" to watch. The games most popular have room around for others to watch and wait to play next.
DP: Since you have a PS2, do you try to stay “current” with what’s out there?
Steve Baker: Nah, I just have tons of PS1 titles! I find the PS1 games run very smoothly and have no hardware "chunkiness" on the “slower” driving games. The Final Fantasy cut scenes run full speed, and have very nicely smoothed graphics free of pixelization. And what the heck, throw in a CD player and DVD player to boot. It’s a great upgrade. Hardware in hand and game support is what counts. Having a graphics processor twice as fast with no games is not much fun to the end consumer. Games must lead the industry again. Aside from QuickBooks and Video Professor, I have not seen any other ads for computer software. Most are video game ads for N64, PS1, and PS2.
DP: How would you describe your experiences working with Atari and Epyx? Any stories or anecdotes from those days that you recall off the top of your head?
Steve Baker: Crazy! It was at a time when talent was scarce. Atari hired me away from Apple Computer with a offer I couldn't refuse. Even the long time friends at Apple said "Go for it". So I did... that was '82. I’ve been working at home ever since. Other Atari experiences, shall we say, are best left unsaid...LOL ;-)
Steve has a page on his site, detailing his prior work experiences and accomplishments, along with his current projects, at: http://sabgames.net/resume.htm
|"backgammon" or "microgammon"?||Apple II||not released|
|Defender||Apple II||Atarisoft||not released|
|Dick Tracy||Apple II||not released|
|Frenzy||Apple II||not released|
|Photar (aka Nightcrawler)||Apple II||Softape||released|
|Sporting News Baseball||Apple II||released|
|Star Mines||Apple II||Softape||released|
|California Games||Atari VCS/2600||Epyx||released|
|Summer Games||Atari VCS/2600||Epyx||released|
|Winter Games||Atari VCS/2600||Epyx||released|
|Microgammon SB||Atari 400/800/5200||Atari||not released|
|Miniature Golf||Atari 400/800/5200||Atari||not released|
|Stargate||Atari 400/800/5200||Atari||not released|
|Passport MIDI software||C-64|
Return to Digital Press Home