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The Aquaventure Mystery Solved?


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Matt Reichert is the expert on Atari prototypes, and he maintains atariprotos.com, a website dedicated to documenting these unfinished and unreleased games. His thorough research and detailed game reviews are important to the Atari community, and impressive.

I’ve explored several different possibilities on the identity of the programmer(s) of Aquaventure. Interviews with Gary Shannon and Tod Frye made it clear that they were both involved, while an analysis of the code indicated that Nick Turner may have also contributed code. Some new interviews, supported by some additional research, seems to have led to an answer.

The final pieces of the puzzle started to fall into place when Rachel Kaser at VentureBeat picked up on the story of how Atari was searching for the programmer of Aquaventure.  In the comments below the article Gary Shannon wrote:

"I wrote the code but did not design the game. I was given detailed design specs by someone whose name I don't recall. It was my first project at Atari."

This was a bit different than what Gary had told me back in January:

“I had just come to Atari from Sega (coin op "Gremlin-branded" games) and was very new to the 2600, so I was definitely not the lead programmer and did mostly grunt work behind the scenes.”

Intrigued by this new information I got back in touch with Gary in order to dive deeper.  He said that the more he thought about the project, the more details came back to him.  

“As I recall, since it was my first 2600 project, I was given a sort of skeleton to build on. It might have been extracted from another game, but I don't remember for sure. I do remember that I only did coding, no design, and I did not start from absolute scratch, but had a framework to build on.”

This new information probably excludes the possibility that there is a mysterious third programmer for Aquaventure. After a few more email exchanges with Gary and some additional research, I was able to piece together these details.

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New information probably excludes the possibility that there is a mysterious third programmer for Aquaventure. It turns our Gary Shannon was the primary, and probably sole developer on the project.

 After starting at Atari, Gary was assigned to work on the title Miss Piggy’s Wedding. Gary said that after working on Miss Piggy for a few weeks, the project was canceled in late June of 1983:

“Miss Piggy just didn't pan out. Nobody seemed to be able to come up with a playable concept for the game. It was just a maze to run around in with routes that were pretty ugly and didn't resemble Miss Piggy or Kermit. We all tossed around different ideas, but nothing stuck. The 2600 just couldn't deliver on what Henson Associates (HA!) visualized. I think they wanted something more recognizably Muppets.”

After leaving the Miss Piggy project, Gary was then given a new assignment for an original game from the ‘Brainstorming Book’.  The ‘Brainstorming Book’ was a list of ideas and concepts that programmers came up with during meetings that could be used for new games.  Sometimes, programmers would look through the book and pick an idea that appealed to them, other times, they were simply assigned one by their manager.  It was this new assignment for Gary that would become Aquaventure.

Gary was given a design specification with a rough idea of how the game would look and play and a code ‘skeleton’ (a game kernel most likely based on Tod Frye’s code) as a starting point.  It would take Gary about two months, starting in late June and ending around the end of August, to program Aquaventure.  After finishing up, Gary then went on to work on a game based on ESP (Extrasensory Perception) called Mind Race (which was never finished) before he left Atari. 

It has long been thought that Aquaventure was never completely finished, as the currently available prototype (which is dated August 12th) still has some minor gameplay bugs.  However, Gary does think he completed the game before he moved on to another project:

“I do remember quite clearly completing the coding and testing of the game, and moving on to a new project (Mind Race).  The last official word was that it was going to be released. I was paid a "completion bonus" against future royalties. I have no idea why it wasn't released.”

What makes this statement all the more interesting, is that no internal Atari document or memo mentions the existence of Aquaventure.  Not only does Aquaventure not show up on a memo of “Finished Titles Not Released” dated August 2, 1984, but it also is not mentioned in the “Unfinished and Not Supported” section of the same memo.  

If Atari had a finished game ready to go, why not list it as a potential title that could be released?  Did Aquaventure somehow get lost in the turmoil caused by the eventual sale of Atari to Jack Tramiel?  Was it specifically left off the memo for an unknown reason?  Did Atari think it had already been released?  It would appear that Aquaventure has a few more secrets left.

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