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The Making Of Frostbite

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Released: 1983

Genre: Platformer

Format reviewed: Atari 2600

Publisher: Activision

Developer: Steve Cartwright

When you look at the Activision of today, with its yearly releases of popular franchises, it’s hard to imagine that it was once a thriving hotbed for innovation and creativity. Effectively the industry’s first ever third-party publisher, Activision was formed after a dispute between David Crane, Alan Miller, Bob Whitehead, Larry Kaplan and Atari’s CEO, Ray Kassar. After the developers failed to secure royalties and credit for their Atari 2600 games, David, Alan and Bob formed Activision, alongside Jim Levy and Richard Munchmore, and went into business for themselves. Activision quickly built a reputation for releasing excellent games, primarily for the Atari 2600, and was soon attracting other talented coders who were eager to receive credit for the games they were creating (a policy Atari was strictly against at the time).

Among these talented coders was Steve Cartwright, who not only joined Activision in 1982 as a designer/programmer, but also released two games, Barnstorming and Megamania, that same year. “Things had gotten so crazy at Activision due to the rapid expansion,” he recalls. “The four designers (Dave Crane, Bob Whitehead, Al Miller, and I) had split off into a spall office several miles from the main office. It was known as the Cupertino Design Center (across the street from the current Apple offices). That was actually the genesis of the ‘Design Center’ concept… putting small groups of people who worked well together into their own separate location.” 1983 would prove to be an extremely productive year for Steve and he worked on no less than three new games, Seaquest, a fun submarine-based shooter, Plaque Attack and the excellent Frostbite. “[Frostbite] was a three-to-four-month project,” he tells us. “Back then, all games were entirely designed and created by one person.”

If you touch the polar bear he’ll comically chase you off the screen.
If you touch the polar bear he’ll comically chase you off the screen.

Steve’s previous three games had all been shoot-’em-ups of various descriptions, making Frostbite quite the new experience for him. The aim of the game was to guide Frostbite Bailey across ice floes, collecting ice from each floe in order to build an igloo. Once the igloo was completed, Bailey could move across to the next level. While many assumed the game was inspired by Gottlieb’s Q*bert (the tiles would change colour when you stepped on them) which had been released in late 1982, Frostbite’s origins came from an earlier arcade game… “I think the idea for Frostbite came from playing Frogger,” admits Steve. “Frostbite came out at the same time as Q*bert, so people naturally thought that’s where the idea came from due to the nature of jumping and turning the colour of the landing spot. But I never saw Q*bert until Frostbite was finished.”

While it’s easy to make comparisons with Q*bert, we’ve always seen Frostbite as an excellent take on Frogger, so it’s great to see our suspicions confirmed by Steve himself. There are no busy roads to cross in Frostbite, but the premise was equally as perilous. Frostbite Bailey had been commissioned to build igloos in Alaska, but the fauna of the area had other ideas. Initially, Bailey only had to worry about flocks of snow geese that occasionally appeared onscreen and harassed him as he jumped across the floes, but as the gameplay progressed, Alaskan king crabs, killer clams and even polar bears all began to make an appearance. Interestingly, Steve reveals that the limitations of Atari’s 8-bit console helped decide what Alaskan fauna would make it into his game. “Since we were limited to 8-bit graphics – it was mostly about ‘what do I think I can make in just eight bits’”. Although the distinctive Alaskan setting worked really well, Steve reveals that he originally had a far hotter location in mind for Bailey’s debut adventure. “Hmm… I think the original idea was about jumping on rocks across a lava flow,” mulls Steve, “but the blue and white colours worked so much better on the Atari 2600.”

If you don’t build your igloo within 45 seconds you will freeze to death.
If you don’t build your igloo within 45 seconds you will freeze to death.

If deciding to switch from a volcanic setting to an icy one was a relatively easy task. The coding of Frostbite proved to be a little trickier for Steve, as he faced all the common problems of a programmer from his period. He had plenty of great ideas for his new game, but he was battling against the hardware constraints of the system it was appearing on. It helped that Steve, like the other coders at Activision, was incredibly talented and able to truly push the Atari 2600’s hardware to its limits, but pushing those boundaries wasn’t always a simple task… “The difficulties of working on the Atari 2600 are well documented,” begins Steve when we quiz him about the teething difficulties he encountered whilst ironing out all the issues of Frostbite’s gameplay. “There were always memory issues and screen timing issues,” he sighs. “Megalomania was still the toughest project technically, because of the nature of the display, but Frostbite turned out to be difficult because of the overall game logic and rules – something that is extremely easy with higher programming languages, but presented real problems when writing code in 6502.”

Frostbite might have proven tricky for Steve to code, but you wouldn’t be able to tell that from playing the game. It was a wonderfully slick product that took the DNA of the aforementioned Frogger and adapted it into a brand-new game that proved to be just as challenging as Konami’s classic arcade game. As with Frogger, the water that Frostbite Bailey has to cross was incredibly dangerous and he’d instantly drown if he fell into it. The ice floes that Bailey could cross were fairly small in size, meaning Bailey is quite limited in his movement on certain stages. Some levels featured smaller ice floes that allowed for far easier horizontal movement, but for the most part Bailey would constantly have to hop forwards and backwards in order to avoid the many hazards that were intent on pushing him towards a watery grave. Bailey wasn’t completely defenceless, though, and he was able to reverse the floe’s movement in opposite direction, hopefully giving him enough time to jump to a nearby floe and avoid whatever creature was trying to push him into the dangerous water. While this move was incredibly useful, it also came at a cost – a block of ice would be removed from your current igloo, meaning more jumping in order to restore the lost piece. It’s a clever mechanic, but sadly, its origins have long been lost on Steve. “Gee… I can’t even remember,” he mulls. “Is that how it worked? It was almost 30 years ago…”

The enemy patterns become a lot more challenging on later levels, with bobbing crabs being added to the mix.
The enemy patterns become a lot more challenging on later levels, with bobbing crabs being added to the mix.

Although Steve is sadly unclear on how the movement of ice floes worked in Frostbite, he’s a lot less hazy on why you were unable to continue to add blocks to your igloo until all the ice floes were the same colour. “That was one of the game logic difficulty I mentioned earlier,” he recalls. “It prevented a player from just going back and forth between two ice floes.” It’s a great mechanic and does indeed make you think about how you tackle those four floes. As with Frogger, you’re constantly battling against a tight time limit in Frostbite, so you need to make sure that you don’t leave an unmarked floe idle for too long, as it will drastically affect your chances of finishing your igloo within the allotted time limit. The time limit was a clever addition to the game as it ensured that Bailey was always constantly moving, looking for ways to cross those floes as quickly as possible so he could reach the next level. When you’re in the ‘zone’ Frostbite becomes utterly mesmerising, more so when you realise that you have a fair amount of control over Bailey when moving him between ice floes. The game constantly pushes you to take risks and rewards you handsomely when those risks pay off. “One of the tricks I employed that made Frostbite play so well was the fact that as the game increased in speed, the controls increased in sensitivity,” Steve continues. “This was groundbreaking in the field that is now known as UX. It made the player feel as if they were getting better and more skilled right along with the increasing challenge.”

It’s a nice touch, to be sure, but Frostbite’s greatest strength at the time of its release was in how much it felt like a proper arcade game. Sure it’s nowhere near as technically impressive as arcade games of the time were, but it had the same level of polish and the slick gameplay mechanics that made so many classic games such a joy to play. It felt like a lost arcade game that had somehow made its way into your home, like many Activision games felt like at the time. Steve feels its success was down to one thing – rigorous playtesting. “Frostbite was one of the most tested games we ever did,” he reveals. “The speed of the game increased to the point where objects moved and wrapped around the screen so fast that the appeared at times to be moving backwards – kind of like those old Westerns where the wagon wheels appears to be turning slowly in the opposite direction. Amazingly, if you unfocused your eyes – fell into a ‘zone’ and played by instinct alone – top players could actually play the game at a pace that was far beyond the ability to visually process what was happening.”

If you're not careful you'll fall into the icy waters and lose a life.
If you’re not careful you’ll fall into the icy waters and lose a life.

Frostbite launched in August 1983 and proved to be extremely popular with gamers. Like many Activision games of the time, it featured the chance to win an embroidered badge if you were able to achieve a certain score (40,000 points, if you’re interested). Sadly, despite the fact that it was an excellent action game, Steve feels that it didn’t receive the acclaim it deserved and poor timing meant that Frostbite Bailey never get to star in any additional games… “Frostbite was released right at the time the Atari game market collapsed,” admits Steve, “so any plans for a sequel quickly died.”

Frostbite would mark the last Atari 2600 game that Steve would work on for Activision, but he continued at the company for several more years, working on games such as Hackers, before moving to Accolade in 1988 and Electronic Arts in 1993. He remains in the industry today, but has fond memories of the Atari 2600 games he made at Activision, including Frostbite. “May people consider Megamania, Seaquest, and Frostbite to be the three best fast action games ever done for the Atari 2600,” he proudly tells us. “I certainly would never argue with that.”

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