“You and your team of archaeologists have fallen into the ‘catacombs of the zombies’.” A miserable situation, to be sure. But this was the chilling trial that faced players of Entombed, an Atari 2600 game, according to the instruction manual.
The catacombs were an unforgiving place. A downward-scrolling, two-dimensional maze that players had to navigate expertly in order to evade the “clammy, deadly grip” of their zombie foes. An archaeologist’s nightmare.
Released in 1982, Entombed was far from a best-seller and today it’s largely forgotten. But recently, a computer scientist and a digital archaeologist decided to pull apart the game’s source code to investigate how it was made.
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There was always something intriguing about Entombed, recalls John Aycock at the University of Calgary, in Alberta, Canada. And because it had fallen into obscurity, it hadn’t been pulled apart and analysed in depth before – one the main reasons Aycock and his co-author Tara Copplestone at the University of York, UK, were drawn to Entombed as a subject to study over the other 500 games made for the Atari 2600 console.
The pair are among a growing number of “video game archaeologists” who are unearthing long forgotten pieces of software and pulling them apart. Inside they are finding clues to how the early days of video gaming came about, but also secrets that can help modern programmers with some of the problems they are facing today.