Actually Playing The Leaked Atari Arcade Prototype ‘Akka Arrh’
Recently, an arcade game by the name of Akka Arrh (and don’t ask me how that’s pronounced) made the news. Previously only in the collection of a few arcade game enthusiasts, the memory of the ROM chips on the arcade board was leaked to the internet, and within a few days the files were up for anyone to partake in and play.
One thing I noticed is that while the game was a subject of debate on the forum posts and news articles, mainly due to the questioned ethics of taking a copy of a machine (and therefore reducing its overall value), and yet nobody actually decided to actually play the game, as far as I could see at a surface level glance. So, I did just that.
Thankfully it wasn’t hard to get working. It’s been made playable thanks to the efforts of the team over at the Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator (MAME), with support for the leaked game added as of MAME 0.209. Finding the actual game file was a bit harder, since hosting old copyrighted material is still illegal, but if you know where to look for a full set of MAME 0.209, it’ll have a copy of Akka Arrh in it; it’s hard to believe those 26 kilobytes cause such a fuss.
Dropping the file in the right place and running the game through MAME goes simply enough, but the controls start off…odd. Under the normal settings you’ll find yourself on purely keyboard controls, which is a bit weird for an analog device (the game originally ran on a trackball), and extremely oversensitive. You’ll have to tell MAME to map the trackball to the mouse before you boot the game, and modify the sensitivity while in game, but get it right and you can play the game entirely on mouse. (You can use a controller, but it’ll be a lot harder, for reasons we’ll get into shortly.)
But that’s enough about technical setup and stuff, what’s the actual game?
The evil, evil Jorzon has decided to attack the Atarian (ick) federation, and the last hope of the Atarians is using the ancient Akka Arrh cannon to destroy as many of their forces as possible, represented by unimaginative but at least colorful and identifiable shapes. It’s more or less your traditional arcade wave shooter, but with a few twists.
You reside in the middle of the playfield; a different kind of alien will invade each wave. To destroy them, your Akka Arrh cannon can fire at specific parts of the playfield, destroying every alien inside that part; doing this in further away areas earns a score bonus. If one gets too close, the zoom warning will go off; pressing the Zoom button will give you a close look of your personal space and any nearby enemies, which you can shoot rapid fire with the cursor. If they break through your shield (which behaves like a Space Invaders shield; it’s destroyed in small bullet-size parts) and hit you directly, life lost, three lives with bonus lives for your score.
The early waves are relatively relaxed, with few enemies that pose little threat to a direct shot from your Akka Arrh. Letting too many buy your bomb of death is always a bother, though; damage to your shield carries on until you lose a life, making every little bullet fired off by the enemy matter in the long run. You do get an energy blaster every three waves, which can clear your personal space of any enemies, but it definitely doesn’t clear your worst enemy: the wall builders.
Every third wave of a level is a wall builder wave – they leave behind a small blockade that can block your bullets, making short range defense impractical the more they build. You think that these waves would be a nice, relaxing break, but they end up being the most stressful of all; you can use the time that the wave of builders is retreating to focus on destroying previously placed walls, because even on mouse you’re guaranteed to miss a handful of them.
This turns a typical game of Akka Arrh into a stressful back and forth; each wave begins with you trying to fend off as much of the invading horde as possible, then defending yourself from the ones that got through, and eventual chaos as you try to deal with both at once in the later waves. The enemy ships aren’t dumb; they’ll move all over the place, advance and retreat in packs, just barely missing the region of the screen you just bombed, and the later levels are very complex with their layouts. Eventually you’ll be letting through more than a handful of enemies at any one time, which gets even worse as new types of enemies are introduced in the later levels.
My (non-)favorite is the cross-shaped enemy that slowly multiplies while approaching your personal space, eventually becoming upwards of 16 individual enemies that all bumrush your shield at once, doing massive damage (potentially an instant kill) if you weren’t fast enough at killing them on the outer rims of the level. This is multiplied by many kinds of enemies with different evasion patterns, enemies that blink in and out of existence, and even ones that can fire at you from outside of your personal space, requiring you to pay close attention to the incoming wave. Even the wall builder waves get harder with the introduction of cannon builders; let too many of them through and you’ll have four cannons in your personal space taking potshots at you.
So yeah, Akka Arrh is brutal. The complex levels, delay between an Akka shot firing and clearing a region, and the overwhelming presence of the enemy force ensure you die quickly. Enemies are smart enough to focus their fire on certain parts of your shield, leaving many deaths feeling like a precision assassination more than a lucky glancing blow. You do get bonus lives fairly regularly if you’re doing well enough, but they drain a lot faster than you get them past the first couple of levels. This leads to short games, even shorter depending on your control style.
I can’t even imagine playing Akka Arrh on a traditional trackball (I mean, just look at the control layout Atari was pushing); even with the precision of a mouse, the speed of enemies and just utter chaos of the playfield requires an intense focus to manage. Playing on controller is possible, but you’ll definitely feel the sluggishness on the level itself, and aiming at faster enemies in your personal space is practically impossible; it does that thing where bullets are aimed and fired directly from your cursor, and not just in a general direction i.e. your traditional twin-stick shooter, so being precise is absolutely key; good luck on a trackball, in that case.
The game is also notably beta; while the main game itself is playable enough, there’s a lack of music (this was two years after Pac-Man, so even little things like an intro jingle would be much appreciated). The high score list bugs out after a few games. It definitely feels like some of the levels in the game weren’t properly balanced, with some of the grids being absolutely ridiculous and easily protecting a lot of enemies until they hit your personal space. And really, what is with that name? Akka Arrh? No-one is going to remember that for long. (Two names for it during development were ‘The Sentinel’, which I think might have been confused with Sinistar, and ‘Target Outpost’, which sounds like the name for a generic run-and-gun.)
Akka Arrh was produced in 1982. While a decent enough game in the modern day that’s much more playable thanks to modern-day mice, I imagine the for-the-day high difficulty, short play time, somewhat uninspired design, and general control issues might have been enough to cause it to fail its location testing, leading to the only three machines in existence being stored in arcade collectors’ stashes somewhere. Although, for those of you that know your history, 1983 was the year of the great video game crash. It is only speculation on my part, but I doubt that many machines would have survived the crash anyway.
With all of that said though, Akka Arrh is an interesting piece of history, and I’m glad to have been able to play it and see it preserved. It’s a common line among archivists that the reason we have as much as we do related to video game history is because someone down the line stole them, and Akka Arrh isn’t disproving that rule any time soon. Hopefully other, rarer titles will be freely given up by collectors for the sake of preservation before it’s too late to save them from their older, decaying media.
…seriously, Akka Arrh, how do you pronounce that? It sounds like a cat coughing up a furball next to an angry dog.
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