THROWBACK THURSDAY: Revenge on Yars’ Revenge

Here’s a story I’ve never really told. Back in 1981, I wanted to be a video game designer. I didn’t really have strong knowledge of coding in machine language, which was needed at the time. But, Atari had something they called the Atari Program Exchange which was perfect for me. APX products, as they were called, were user-written programs that could be in BASIC, a popular programming language at the time. Regular folks would submit programs to APX and Atari would sell them and give the programmers a cut.

This seemed perfect to me and I had the perfect project. I called it Shuttle Shootout because the space shuttle was a pretty big thing that year. In this game, a user would move his shuttle-shaped player around the screen, shoot through a barrier, and try to avoid laser blasts from a big bad on the other side of the screen. Sadly, I don’t have any screen shots from it, or even any documentation. You’ll have to take my word for it.

I’m not saying it was an original idea

The idea for this sort of game came from Star CastleGalaxian, and other arcade games. But at the time I was writing Shuttle Shootout, no one had really done anything like it for a home system. I also felt the space shuttle aspect was fairly unique and it was very much in vogue.

So, I set out in my spare time to work through the mechanics of the game. I wrote what I felt was a compelling game that got progressively more difficult and had fairly decent graphics for the day. I tested it with friends who seemed to like it, based on the fact that they played it when I wasn’t asking them to.

After a few all-night coding sessions and a sprint spent writing the user manual using a word processor I also wrote, I submitted it to the Atari Program Exchange. I didn’t have any hope of becoming a millionaire but I did think it would make it in. After all there were some fairly poor quality programs that were listed.

Rejected.

Without any explanation, I received a curt letter about six weeks later saying that Shuttle Shootout would not be appearing in the Atari Program Exchange. There was no recourse, no appeal. I presume that if I had been able to fly to Silicon Valley I could have met with the people but that was far more money than I had in those days.

And then I found out why.

In 1982, Atari released this title, Yars’ Revenge. It went on to become beloved by fans and one of Atari’s best selling games ever. In Yars’ Revenge, a user moved his bug-shaped player around the screen, shot through a barrier, and tried to avoid laser blasts from a big bad on the other side of the screen.  Here’s a YouTube video showing the gameplay.

Yes, those are the original sound effects and graphics. I thought then, and still think, that they sound and look like some sort of mistake. But that may just be sour grapes on my part.

I won’t call Yars’ Revenge a ripoff of Shuttle Shootout. It’s a well-constructed game that was probably well in the works by the time I submitted my game. But that kind of stung, I won’t lie to you. Knowing what I know now, it’s clear that my game was rejected so curtly so that Atari could stop a potential copyright claim on Yars’ Revenge. Had I been smarter about it at the time, I probably could have at least attempted such a claim. But, I was young and I didn’t have a lawyer on retainer.

A lesson for you all

The lesson I learned too late is that you can make a copyright claim without formally filing a copyright. Take your original work and send it certified mail to yourself. This will put a date stamp on the envelope. Don’t open the envelope when you get it. If there is any potential copyright issue, you can go to a lawyer and show them how a government agency acknowledged that your work came before someone else’s. It’s not as good as a copyright or patent, but it’s been known to hold up in court. If I had done that with Shuttle Shootout, I might be a billionaire by now. But then you wouldn’t be reading this blog, so I guess it all worked out.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.