Retrospective: Kabobber for the Atari 2600 (Part 2 - Interview)
By TideGear (Adam Milecki)
I was fortunate enough to contact Rex Bradford, creator of, among several other games, the previously unreleased Kabobber for Atari 2600. I asked him several questions via email and he was very kind in thoroughly answering them.
Retro Thing: “Activision was legendary for making the VCS do what seemed previously impossible. How was it working for Activision? Were you a former Atari employee like some of your coworkers? If so, what was your experience at Atari? Why did you leave Activision? Why did you leave the game industry? What game, that you worked on, was your favorite? Mine are definitely Kabobber, Pitfall II and System Shock. What was your involvement in Pitfall II and System Shock? Would you like to see a System Shock 3? How did you feel about BioShock? What did you think of the later Pitfall games?”
Rex Bradford: “I enjoyed working at Activision. Five of us had left Parker Brothers and had our own Massachusetts office, which afforded if anything a bit too much creative freedom. So I actually had only intermittent contact with the rest of Activision. I met Al Miller and Bob Whitehead and David Crane, but only briefly. I left there due to a combination of frustration at having Kabobber go unreleased, though I don't blame Activision for that (the game always felt a bit unfinished to me too, and also the Atari market was in freefall at that time).
After Parker and Activision, I founded Microsmiths with Charlie Heath and subsequently Ray Miller and Mark Lesser, and we did a variety of ports and original projects for several different publishers. I wrote Mean 18, which was our biggest success. After the game industry got away from our small operation in scale, I worked as an employee and contractor at other places - LookingGlass Studios, MBL Research, Harmonix, Mad Doc Software, and also wrote a book on real-time graphics and animation. The most fun games from the standpoint of writing them that I worked on were the first, Empire Strikes Back, and Mean 18, done a few years later. Many other projects were enjoyable but these two stand out. Which were the best games I will leave to others to decide.
My involvement with Pitfall II was as the sole coder for the Apple-II version of the game. When I "ported" games in those days, the games were simple enough that the procedure was to throw the source code into a drawer, boot up the game, play it a lot, and then recreate it. That process worked quite well then, though would be highly impractical with today's huge games. I had very little involvement with System Shock - I was working on what became Terra Nova at that point - though I wrote several shared libraries that the game used. I've actually not played BioShock, though I've heard great things about it and respect the folks I know who work at Irrational. I similarly haven't seen later Pitfall games. I play only a handful of games these days, mostly Wii games with my kids, and some real-time strategy games with a couple of grownup friends. I don't have the time to invest in many of today's huge games, a lament which is all too common and which the industry is starting to realize is a problem.”
Retro Thing: “Kabobber is a unique game and I feel it could have been a big hit, especially in the arcades. What inspired Kabobber and did you ever consider an arcade version or sequel? Why was Kabobber never finished? Were you the one who released it to the public in 2000? Were you the one to finish the prototype? If not, do you approve of the finished version?”
Rex Bradford: “I don't know how I came up with Kabobber exactly. Partly I was just intrigued by the VCS's sprite replication feature, and realized that with a little clever programming I could make a set of three creatures across that all animated independently. When I first prototyped that and had them all squawking a looking at each other, I laughed out loud and decided it was a good idea. What happened was that I "finished" the game in the standard 4K cartridge size, then Activision said they liked the game and would like me to expand it to an 8K cartridge and keep working on it. I had basically run out of ideas for the game at that point, and resisted. They flew me out to California to hang out with other developers as a way of getting recharged on it, which failed mostly due to my lack of interest (I remember making Kabobber-inspired buttons and handing them out in a lame attempt to market the game to the rest of Activision and have them change their mind about its being done). Anyway, I didn't feel like working on it more, and Activision didn't want to publish it as is (and was probably a little miffed at my attitude, though they never said so), and that was that. The version out there is the exact version as "completed" by me.”
Retro Thing: “AtariAge.com held a contest to write a manual and storyline for the game. How accurate do you feel the manual is and does the storyline have your blessing or did you have something else in mind at the time?”
Rex Bradford: “Can you send me a link? If I've seen this, and I might have, I've forgotten. I certainly didn't write the storyline.”
(I sent the manual link to Rex.)
Rex Bradford: "The various names I used to describe the game's entities (Buvskies for the player's critters, Kabobbers for the main enemies, Cholos for the nastier red enemies were all at one time various nicknames for my dog Jake. The Boots didn't fit this scheme, oh well. The game description you pointed me to is generally correct, though the game received no extra work before being put online."
(He's referring to Part 1 of my Kabobber retrospective. I've since fixed this factual error.)
Rex Bradford: "The "hop or be hopped" dynamic of the game I think worked pretty well as a 2600 gameplay approach at the lower levels, but when the game speeds up it becomes harder to tell who is hopping and who is being hopped. This was my biggest frustration with the game mechanic, and something I never really resolved. I did the artwork for the game myself as well as the programming, and of course it shows, though I think the minimalist cartoon style had its own charm."
Retro Thing: “Was there anything else you or your colleagues worked on that was never released? If so, does code still exist?”
Rex Bradford: “There were many games done at Parker and Activision that never saw the light of day, though many have since been put onto the internet. At one point we had a "dead games" party where everyone brought theirs and we played them. From Parker was an Ewok-based game, Lord of the Rings (Mark Lesser), and several others I forget.”
Retro Thing: “Is there anything else you can think of that might interest fans of all things retro, games or otherwise? What are you up to these days? How's your family? Are you still working? What are your favorite hobbies?”
Rex Bradford: “I found the Atari 2600 a lot of fun to program because it was such a small contained system which you really had to be creative to get to do anything at all. As you may know, if you don't reprogram graphic registers as the TV gun is scanning down the screen, all you get is vertical stripes. I'm proud to hold the record of 13 sprites on a line via on-the-fly reprogramming of sprite replication registers as the gun goes horizontally across the screen (this is in Kabobber, the baby Kabobber strip at the bottom) - Alan Miller had gotten 12 in Robotank I believe. My favorite games on that system were Accolade's: Stampede, Tennis, Ice Hockey, Pitfall II.
Starting around 1990, a single programmer couldn't work on a first-class game anymore. I worked on a lot of team projects and they of course are fun too, but I always found managing teams to be 30% fun and 70% headache. Others' mileage may differ. My last game employment was at Mad Doc Software, as lead programmer for an Empire Earth expansion pack and then Empire Earth II. I like real-time strategy games and these were fun projects, subject to my earlier caveat.
As you may know, I'm one of the people who fell down the rabbit hole of the 1960s assassinations, and in 1999 or 2000 I began scanning and putting online declassified govt. records at my website, www.history-matters.com. A few years ago I joined up with a non-profit foundation and we have expanded this effort at www.maryferrell.org.
considered doing game work again, possibly on the smaller
scale afforded by web games or cell phones. But for now I have too
many projects in the queue, so if it happens it will have to wait
Thanks for your interest.”
Retro Thing: “Thanks for responding so thoroughly and thank you for the great games you've made!”