Sunday, January 20, 2013

System-Sellers: Omega Race (VIC-20)

First runner-up... Omega Race.


Back in the day, every game console had its system-sellers; games with quality so good, they justified the purchase of a whole system just to play them.  Omega Race (documentation) is my pick for first runner-up.

The VIC-20 had a lot of good games, and its hardware features were well-positioned to be a leader amongst console manufacturers of the day.  Lacking the power of today's Dolby-Digital THX enhanced photo-realistic multimedia powerhouses, it took some exceptional developers that focused hard on game-play to really develop a truly great game.  Andy Finkel was one such programmer.  I had the opportunity to speak with Andy on November 12, 1996.

Omega Race on the Commodore VIC-20.
Andy joined Commodore in 1980 as part of the VIC-20 launch team.  He actually worked at Commodore US in the marketing department.  He was one of only two programmers on the team. In the beginning, he was responsible for writing the demos; fixing-up the Japanese cartridge software so they could sell them in the US; testing the hardware and software from Engineering; working on the manuals; providing tech support for the TV commercials; talking to developers; etc. 

VIC-1924 cartridge.

Commodore always liked to run lean, so team size was kept small.   Eric Cotton was Andy's junior programmer assistant on the Omega Race project, which was finished in March of 1982.  It was a fun game to do, he said.  With only 8K of binary he could remember the entire source code, so making changes was easy.

"There's a secret key sequence in Omega Race to get the hidden credits.  While the title sequences are displaying, hold down the Control, Shift, and Commodore keys, and press the RETURN key. The game makes a sound, and you'll get an extra page of title screen." - Andy Finkel

On the VIC-20, Andy also did some tape programs, like the Loan-Mortgage calculator and Car Wars.  He ported miscellaneous tools from the PET, like the VICMON machine language monitor.  Aside from Omega Race, he also did the VIC-20 Music Composer, Sargon II Chess and worked on the Gorf cartridges.  Gorf was fairly straightforward, he recalled.  They worked on it right after Omega Race, and reused a lot of the same code and concepts. Some of the later Bally games didn't hold up to their standards for play, so they passed on them.  For instance, there was one called Domino Man that was basically an exercise in frustration. You tried to set up a line of dominoes, and things wandered through trying to knock them over.  Not much fun, so they didn't take that one.  As for Wizard of War, also from Bally Midway, and why it was never released for the VIC-20, Andy said it was kind of late and Commodore was heavily involved in the C64 by then, so the game just kind of fell by the wayside. 
Ron Haliburton
Programmed by Ron Haliburton and released in 1981, Omega Race was Bally Midway's only vector graphics game and inspired by Atari's AsteroidsIn this game you control an Omegan Space Fighter, and attempt to destroy waves of enemy droid ships.  Battle takes place in a post-2003 universe on a rectangular track.  The player’s ship bounces off invisible walls of the track.  The strategy is simple: shoot everything in sight and avoid getting shot.  An extra ship is awarded at 40,000 points.  

Ron was the founder of Arcade Engineering which was later sold to Midway.  He also worked for Atari as a consultant in 1985, when they were suing the state of California for tax reasons. Ron was called as a witness regarding payments received for the pinball game he was designing called, "Big Foot."  He would later go on to invent the flashing / vibrating guest beepers customers receive in restaurants while waiting for tables to become available.

Omega Race was in all of the arcades, which were very popular hangouts for teens back in the early 1980s.  More than 35,000 machines were created, with the average machine taking in over $180 per week in 1982.  Licensed versions of Omega Race were released for most of the home video game consoles of the early to mid '80s, including the Atari 2600 and ColecoVision, as well as the Commodore 64 and VIC-20 home computers.  The best remake for modern systems (OSX and Windows) was developed by S. Borgquist, in 2006.

Omega Fury (2009)
In 2009, Robert Hurst made a VIC-20 follow-on sequel to Omega Race, called Omega Fury, which takes place in a 2010 universe.  Omega Fury is a similar arcade-style space shooter making use of Robert's new VIC Software Sprite Stack.  The download includes source and documentation to the story line and game instructions.

The VIC Software Sprite Stack is a significant development, because the 6560 video interface chip does not support hardware sprites like other video controllers.  For more information on the 6560, which I find quite fascinating, I have a blog entry devoted to its story.  For more information on the Commodore VIC-20 home computer system, please check out my other blog entry: Wednesday, January 2, 2013 - Turning Japanese...   

Mike Maginnis and Carrington Vanston recently reviewed the original arcade version of Omega Race in Episode #14 of the No Quarter: classic arcade game podcast.  Head on over and give it a listen!  For more in-depth information on the original arcade version of Omega Race, check out the  “Killer List Of Videogames” (KLOV).

Are you interested in computer history? Join the irregular regulars Earl Evans, David Greelish, and Carrington Vanston, plus surprise guests, in the show where everything old is news again. Gather 'round a virtual table where today's talk is about yesterday's computers. Get the skinny from the world of vintage computer hobbyists, collectors, enthusiasts, and old school geeks. They cover modern day vintage tech events, new developments for old hardware, the revival of retro tech, the best of 8 bit culture, and take many strolls down memory lane. Head on over to and explore podcasts, review show notes and be informed of upcoming episodes. You'll be glad you did!  

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