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Tracking down the first video game Easter egg, in Atari's Starship 1 (1977)

Nick R

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A fascinating article by Ed Fries (formerly of Microsoft's VP of Xbox game publishing):





It all started with a soon to be released project I am working on called “Fixing Gran Trak 10” about the first car racing arcade video game from 1974. I had completed the electrical repairs and was trying to interview as many people as possible who were involved with making the game. One of the interviews was with Ron Milner. Ron’s an interesting guy. He was an engineer and inventor at Atari’s secret think tank in the mountains – Cyan Engineering from 1973 to 1985. Besides coin-op work he was co-inventor of the Atari 2600 video game system and even helped prototype the animations for the robots at Chuck E Cheese. At the end of our conversation we were chatting about other stuff when he asked:


“Did you ever get a Starship 1 game?”


I said “I know that game! I would love to have one in my collection. I remember playing it when I was a kid.”


Ron explained how he designed an “axial coil” around the neck of the CRT which would cause the stars to rotate when the player turned the control yoke. A pretty neat trick. Unfortunately that feature was cut to save money in the production version of the game.


Ron continued, “That was the first and only game that I ever programmed and I think it was maybe one of the first games with a backdoor in it. I didn’t tell people about this, even within Atari, for at least 30 years, but I had some code in there that if you did a certain sequence of controls it would say ‘Hi Ron!’ and give you 10 free games.”


I was kind of stunned. If this was true it would certainly predate the earliest video game Easter egg that I knew of and the one that is most often cited as being the first: “Adventure” for the Atari 2600 from 1979. I did a little searching online and found that there was an even earlier Easter egg in the game “Video Whizball” which was released in 1978 for the Fairchild Channel F game console.


But there was a problem. Ron didn’t remember exactly how to bring up the Easter egg. He remembered showing it off to some buddies at a county fair when the game first came out, but that was 40 years ago!


This was something I had to pursue! There were only two things I needed to figure out: when was “Starship 1” released and how to actually trigger the Easter egg.


The rest of the article is about his attempts to get it working first on MAME, then on a real arcade machine. It's quite a detective story! :D

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Delving around in those old arcade ROMs can be a lot of fun - I remember finding a set of completely unused (but functionally fine) background graphics in Complex X when doing a remake a few years back. They're really tiny too, so there aren't many places for things to hide. 

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