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.