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Tomcat: Atari's Lost Vector Game


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I highly recommend this article.  I'd heard of Tomcat but didn't know anything about it.  Some excerpts below:

After working on Star Wars, Jed [Margolin] started on a new project in 1983. Monikered Tomcat, he took the role of lead programmer, with support from Hans Hansen and Doug Snyder who worked on graphic design. The game was intended to run on new colour vector hardware, bespoke built by Jed in order to cope with the vision he had for Tomcat.

...he decided to scrap the project and start again, this time using a processor made by Motorola, the powerful 68010.  A TMS32010 Digital Signal Processor was utilised for math calculations, a sound section used what was at the time new Yamaha FM ‘synthesis’ integrated circuits, and an revised Analog Vector Generator which vastly improved the look of the vector lines drawn on screen. And it was all squeezed onto one board – truly state of the art gear at the time.


Considered a research project, Atari was initially unwilling to assign a full complement of project personnel to the game, so Jed ran largely solo. As part of what Atari called the “Applied Research Group”, his brief was to develop new hardware to run the game, then write some 3D software to demonstrate its capabilities. Assuming that was achieved, he could then pitch what he had internally, and recruit a team to get the game built.

What was created was a demo that was pretty rudimentary (there were no goals as such, no scoring or sounds, and nothing really to actually do), but the player did have full 3-axis control – something not present in the largely “on-rails” shooter Star Wars. Jed had managed to take things a stage further by demoing two cabinets linked together, with both players flying around the same playfield in true WW1 Dogfight style!


Thankfully Jed has captured the demo in action. The following video gives you an idea of what Jed had achieved. Bear in mind this is a raster scan recording on a camera. Capturing an XY display in raster scan creates artefacts. Compressing the video for YouTube creates even more artefacts. I’m told the visuals themselves were stunning – way ahead of other vector games, all thanks to Jed’s cocktail of new hardware which made the vectors smooth, bright and compelling. This is the only footage of the game known to exist:


Sadly, events conspired against Tomcat: Jed was unable to persuade any of Atari’s designers to work on the game, some of the hardware he was using was effectively scrapped by the companies producing it, and it was very clear that Atari were starting to regard vector games as a thing of the past. Cost, reliability and little desire to innovate by 1983, were all factors in the decision making process. Throw into the mix the small matter of a certain laser disc game called Firefox that was imminently launching, but had run into deep technical problems. Jed’s bosses were literally begging him to help get that sorted out and released instead.


But all was not lost. Jed was soon invited by Rick Moncrief, project lead of a team developing what would become Atari’s Hard Drivin’, and was able to take his prototype with him, and use it to build an early vector version of the game (yes, Hard Drivin’ started life as a vector game).

Tomcat now lives in Jed’s garage housed in a Star Wars upright cabinet (Tomcat never got to the point of having it’s own bespoke cab built). The remaining hardware, which still works incidentally, is testament to what could have became Atari’s final swansong to arcade vector releases. Who knows what impact the final game could have had on the market. What a shame it was just too late for Atari to get behind it and develop the game further. I suspect we would have been in for a real treat.


But with the way things panned out, if we regard Hard Drivin’ as the final output from his demo, it is hard from where I’m sitting to regard Tomcat as a failure.


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