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The Aquaventure Mystery Deepens


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Matt Reichert
 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. Matt took the time to share his research on the origins of Aquavanture, one of the three prototypes Atari XP is launching on cartridge.

We know that Gary Shannon and Tod Frye each played a part in programming Aquaventure. There may have been at least a third programmer involved. That developer's identity remains unknown, but we do have a lead.

I reached out to Dennis Debro and Thomas Jentzsch, two prominent Atari 2600 homebrew authors, for help looking through the Aquaventure code for any hints on the identity of the programmer.  

They could not find the programmer’s identity hidden in the code, and they could not identify any easter eggs, so solving this mystery wasn’t going to be easy. 

The only legible text in the code are the words ‘Looney’ and ‘Hot’.  Dennis and Thomas think those words are comments left by the programmer to designate the locations of the bank switching hotspots. Bank switching hotspots are placed in the code to tell the game when to switch out the current code in memory for another section of code.  Programmers did this as a work around to the 4K block memory limits of the Atari 2600. While interesting, this didn’t help shed any light on the identity of the programmer.

Digging deeper, they discovered that some of the code used in Aquaventure was also found in other Atari 2600 games.  These snippets formed a ‘digital fingerprint’ of code created by a single author that spans multiple titles.  It was not uncommon for programmers to reuse small blocks of code that they had developed to do common functions, such as setting up startup vectors, display lists, and other ‘housekeeping’ tasks that were common to all games. 

Aquaventure shares code fragments with several Atari 2600 games, including Demons to Diamonds, Frog Pond, and Super Breakout, all games that were worked on by programmer Nick Turner. Nick started working at Atari in 1979. He worked on Super Breakout in 1981 before working on Demons to Diamonds and Frog Pond in 1982.  After finishing Frog Pond in late August of that year, there is a six to seven month gap in his programming timeline before we know he started pre-work on Snoopy and the Red Baron.  It’s possible that Nick worked on Aquaventure during this period.

The use of common code across the four titles certainly suggests this is a strong possibility. The timeframe would also explain why Gary Shannon cannot recall who wrote the code, as Gary didn’t come into contact with the Aquaventure project until after Nick left Atari in May of 1983. 

So far this is only a theory because I have not been able to track down Nick Turner.  It could also turn out that the unknown programmer simply reused some of Nick’s code, or that the code in question was part of a library that was shared by several programmers at Atari. 

The search continues. If you have information to share about Aquaventure, please contact Atari through one of our social channels.

View the full article on the Atari® XP website

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