Interview: Ed Fries reveals Halo 2600

Exclusive catch-up with the Microsoft Game Studios vet as he surprises fans with a Halo title that’s straight out of left field.

By Adam Doree, August 3, 2010

Ed Fries writes…

Last fall I was in Philadelphia, speaking at a small video game conference. On the way to the airport I was talking about writing games for the Atari 800 in the early 80s and someone suggested that I read the book “Racing the Beam” about programming the Atari 2600. It sounded cool so I did.

After reading the book I thought it might be fun to play around with writing some of my own code for the machine. I hadn’t written 6502 assembler in almost 30 years but it turns out it’s pretty easy to pick up again since there are so few instructions. I wasn’t sure what to write so I created a little Master Chief from Halo and made him run around the screen. Then I created an Elite for him to shoot at. At this point it wasn’t my intention to make a full game. I was just screwing around.

The thing you need to realize about the Atari 2600 is that it is an incredibly limited machine. It has only 128 bytes of RAM and without bank switching the maximum program size is just over 4000 bytes. There are just two 8 pixel wide monochrome sprites, two one pixel bullets, a “ball” and a 40 pixel wide background (and even that is exaggerating…). There is no memory to store the screen image like any modern console or PC, instead it has to be drawn a line at a time by changing the values of the registers that control the sprites and background. The processor is so slow that only 76 clock cycles occur while a line of the screen is being drawn, and the simplest 6502 instructions take at least 2 clock cycles. So just to draw an image of the Master Chief is pretty tough. To create a complete game while living within these constraints is much harder.

Fortunately the Atari homebrew community has created a wealth of resources for the wanna be Atari 2600 programmer. There is a fine assembler and several excellent emulators that include all the debugging features any programmer would want. There are also hundreds of pages of example code and documentation to aid you on your quest.

As I became more familiar with the machine I thought it might be possible to make something that was actually fun to play. I also ran into some fans of classic games at the Game Developers Conference in March and they encouraged me to keep going and try to make a finished game. At first I had the player battling through a linear series of rooms. You had to kill all the enemies before it would unlock the walls and let you move to the next room. As you can imagine, this got dull pretty quickly. I was doing it this way because it was relatively easy on the Atari 2600 but what if, instead, I could make a 64 room map the player had to explore, kind of like the old atari game Adventure? To implement this would require that I make an “asymmetric playfield” so that some rooms might have a wall on one side but not on the other. It turns out that’s pretty tricky to do on the 2600, at least while you are trying to drawn everything else you want to draw, but I managed to get it working.

I was still worried there wouldn’t be enough variety so I created a completely separate kind of level where you were driving a Warthog (jeep from Halo) across a rolling terrain while Banshees circled overhead and dropped bombs. But as I progressed on this I realized it had two problems: First it was too large. I had given myself the limit of 4K for the entire game and my Warthog section was over 1K by itself and it wasn’t complete. Second, it wasn’t fun. So I cut the Warthog level and tried to focus on making the core game more fun.

To add variety I divided the map into 4 “zones”: outdoor, covenant base, ice world, and final boss area. Each had a unique look and some unique enemies. I also played with the atari’s ability to stretch and duplicate sprites to create some further surprises for the player. Then I added some pickups the player could find to help them on the way.

At the end of the map I wanted to have a Boss encounter. This posed several problems. First, bosses are supposed to be BIG. How to get that feeling across in my game? Second, it had to be exciting. How could I make the boss encounter different from the rest of the game? I solved the first problem by writing a special Boss kernel for the final room. The rest of the game has what is called a “two line kernel” which means that all pixels on the screen are two scan lines high. What if I switched to a one line kernel for the Boss encounter? That would make the Master Chief half as tall which would you feel like you just walked into a big room and the camera zoomed out to be able to show the boss. Of course this meant I had to do all the processing in one line (only 76 cycles…) instead of two, but I had written the Warthog section with a one line kernel so I knew it was possible for me to do it.

To make the encounter different I made a single large boss that moved up and down the screen. He uses the maximum sprite width to be wide and is 24 pixels tall compared to 12 pixels for my other sprites. I also wanted him to be able to shoot 3 missiles at once. Of course that was a problem because the atari only supports 2 missiles and I need one for the Master Chief to be able to shoot back. I solved this by “multiplexing” the enemy missiles which basically means if there are 3 missiles on the screen I draw one each frame for three frames. That has the effect of making them flicker a bit but it’s not bad for fast moving missiles. The great thing was once this was working for the Boss I could also use it in the rest of the game. Up to this point only one enemy could fire at any time because there was only one bullet for them to share, but now they could each have their own virtual bullet and fire whenever they wanted to.

At this point the rough outlines of the game were complete but it needed a lot of polish. For one thing it was brutally difficult. One of my playtesters convinced me to add three lives instead of the original one. Another convinced me that running into trees shouldn’t kill you, and another finally got me to make the walls not kill you if you accidentally ran into them. I added the title screen at this time but had some pretty spastic stars which another playtester finally convinced me to clean up. I also added sound effects and a bit of the Halo 2 theme song on the title screen.

All of these changes were made extra difficult because I was completely out of space. Every time I wanted to fix a bug or add a new sound effect I had to go back through the code and rewrite some part of it to do exactly what it was doing before but with fewer bytes of code. At first there were some pretty easy ways to save space but, as you might imagine, this become more and more difficult when I was staring at something I had already rewritten two or three times before.

When a playtester complained that there was nothing after defeating the boss, I added legendary mode, so that if you beat the game you can play all the way through it again with a few parameters tweaked to make it much tougher.

It’s around this time that I discovered the existence of what I call “Magic Land”. I was working on a bug with the boss encounter and accidentally found myself completely outside the 64 room map. I was wandering through memory that was never intended to be interpreted as part of the map but the code was doing the best it could to interpret what was being thrown at it. Strange, misshapen monsters attacked me in even stranger ways as I wandered through this bizarre land that I had unintentionally created. I left a bug or two in the final game to allow others to find and explore this strange landscape as I did.

One of the last changes I made has to do with the Atari 2600 HMOVE (horizontal move) register. Basically if you want to reposition a sprite horizontally while the screen is being drawn (something I was doing 3 times on every screen.) you have to store a value into HMOVE. You are supposed to do it as the first thing on a scan line and a side effect of doing it is an ugly black line about an inch wide on the left side of the screen. You’ll see those black lines on almost all Atari games. In the old days it was kind of hard to see on a phosphor TV display, but on a modern TV or computer monitor it’s quite clear. Some games hide it by having a black background (not something I wanted to do) or by doing it every single line so the entire left side of the screen is black (also not great for the look I wanted), so I had kind of accepted that it was inevitable and had learned to ignore it, but every time I showed the game to someone who wasn’t familiar with Atari games, one of the first things they would ask me is “what are those ugly black lines?”

When reading through some documentation I noticed that it was possible to do an “early HMOVE” which involved storing to the HMOVE register a few clock cycles before the beginning of the scan line and that in that case it didn’t act the way it was supposed to (things moved in a funny way) but if you could do it exactly on the right cycle (cycle 74 in my case) then the black line wouldn’t ever appear on the screen. I wrote a simple test program with ducks moving back and forth on the screen to prove to myself that I could compensate for the crazy behavior caused by this early HMOVE, make the ducks move as I wanted them to, and never have to see that ugly black line. That gave me the confidence to go back into my main kernel and implement the early HMOVE in Halo 2600 to get rid of the black lines for good.

That’s pretty much the story. I couldn’t have made the game without the incredible resources available on and the many websites it links to. All the work you see in the game is mine except for some of the sprites which were drawn by Mike Mika who was a great encouragement and aid throughout the process. Chris Charla, Colin Williamson, Tom Russo, Ian Bogost, and Albert Yarusso all helped me by playtesting and by trying to talk sense into me when I was being stubborn about not fixing some glaring issue.

I hope you have as much fun playing Halo 2600 as I had making it.

-Ed Fries

Posted in Interviews, News, and tagged with , .

9 Responses to “Interview: Ed Fries reveals Halo 2600”

  1. Edwin says:

    “I’d rather play Halo 2600 than Halo Reach right now…”

    This is because you’re a big wet girl.

  2. Adam Doree says:

    A girl I may be, and wet, most of the time – but big, you can no longer call me!

  3. Porky says:

    Ed Fries rules, I mean seriously how cool is that?
    Never thought we’d see a system seller for the 2600 again!
    Good work vgd

  4. NamelessKILLJOY says:

    well i think how could i get it

  5. Brush says:

    Tsk…you start in the forest not on the ship – continuity Mr Fries!

    i’m not sure this can sate my Reach lust for long…but i am going to head back to the flash site, just to make the chief do his funny walk again.

    who would have thought Fries would do some game coding?…next up J Allard is going to come up with an extreme snowboarding game…with a bit of luck

    Extreme tribal snowboarding

  6. Mattadonna says:

    If you like the game there is also a really helpful website called Halo2600 Area Map( that has laid out all the boards, enemies and weapons. You should check it out.

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