Q&A: W Sean Hen­nessy

A look back at the cod­ing of the Atari 8-bit and Atari 5200 ver­sions of Pengo


Had you played Pengo be­fore you got the job of con­vert­ing the game?

I do not re­call if I’d played the ti­tle be­fore­hand. We reg­u­larly went out on game­play sa­faris to the lo­cal ar­cades. The ti­tle was as­signed/of­fered soon af­ter we shipped Real­sports Ten­nis. I sel­dom re­fused any task Ge­orge [Kiss] asked me to take on – I like to think that’s why he of­fered me a place at Atari and again at Bluesky.

What did you think of the ar­cade game?

It mim­ics other suc­cess­ful coin-op game­play, for ex­am­ple Pac-man. It was cute and ap­pealed to the de­mo­graphic of the home con­sole. How long did the con­ver­sion take?

I think be­tween four to six months. I fig­ure 20 per cent of the Ten­nis core code was reused, re­fined or re­worked to ac­com­mo­date Pengo. The test cy­cle be­tween first playable and prod­uct re­lease prob­a­bly took a month.

What ma­te­ri­als were you given to as­sist in cre­at­ing the con­ver­sion?

The coin-op sat with other games in the ar­cade at 275 Gi­bral­tar, and I had a thick bin­der print out of the source code (Z80, not 6502).

Did you face any mem­o­rable chal­lenges when pro­gram­ming Pengo?

Yes. Firstly, for a coin-op con­ver­sion the as­pect ra­tio of the dis­play is 90 de­grees off. Look at the ar­cade ori­en­ta­tion ver­sus home TV. Those pix­els on the TV are not square. It plays hell with getting the im­ages size and the cor­re­spond­ing rel­a­tive ve­loc­i­ties to match. We wanted it to feel the same as coin-op.

Se­condly, not to be lured by orig­i­nal source code list­ing. Ar­cade coin-ops were pre­dom­i­nantly cus­tom built hard­ware. Sel­dom were the ar­chi­tec­tures even close cousins. The CPU and dis­play chipset were dif­fer­ent. The firmware in­ter­faces to au­dio, con­trollers, and dis­play were of no use. So the source code was a good ref­er­ence for the ac­tor logic, but not much else. We had to be clever about how things were im­ple­mented on our re­source con­strained con­sole. Were there any fea­tures you that were proud of?

Of course we were proud as a team to ship as close as pos­si­ble rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the Sega orig­i­nal. Mimi Rogers (art) did her typ­i­cal awe­some job on the char­ac­ter con­ver­sions. Andy Fuchs (au­dio) de­liv­ered the goods. Mind you, I think Andy did the au­dio for ev­ery ti­tle that came out of 275. Getting your pro­ject on top of the art, au­dio or test­ing depart­ment list of all things to work on re­quired some tact.

One con­tem­po­rary mag­a­zine re­view com­plained about the lack of the ar­cade game’s in­tro­duc­tion se­quence. Can you re­mem­ber why it wasn’t in­cluded?

Bear in mind that the home con­sole is a dif­fer­ent venue than that of the ar­cade. The rai­son d’etre of the coin-op ar­cade en­vi­ron­ment is all about quar­ters. Ev­ery unit in the ar­cade is scream­ing for the player’s at­ten­tion with in­tro­duc­tion that serve lit­tle pur­pose in the home en­vi­ron­ment. That, and avail­able space was fi­nal ar­gu­ment for all things left out.

How did you feel about the fin­ished con­ver­sion of Pengo?

It was the third 5200 ti­tle in roughly two years for me. I was glad to be able to de­liver on Ge­orge’s goal to support the 5200/800 with ti­tles. Con­ver­sions were part of the job and I was pleased to do my bit.

» A younger Sean Hen­nessy striking a pose.

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