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Homebrew of the Year
Every year, as I look back at the amazing achievements of retro-programmers and I play the incredible games created in the past year, I tell myself that this has been the year of the homebrew, that I am seeing modern classic gaming at its finest. And each year, somehow, is better than the one that came before it. Somehow the games get better, the programming gets smarter, the technology grows further beyond its capabilities. I wish I had even a shred of clue how these amazing people do what they do, how they breathe such new and vital life into a game system that should barely be able to execute Pong. Truly, we are living in the golden age of homebrewing and the games released in 2004 reflect just how great it is to be a fan of new Atari 2600 games. It is also why my job, in picking just one to be the Homebrew of the Year, is next to impossible.
 
Homebrew of the Year

Seawolf

Seawolf
Programmed by Manuel Rotschkar
Download ROM

Does this guy do anything other than sit around making incredible games? I hope not, because he is managing to produce some of the top work in the 2600 retro-programming field. Seawolf is a marvel. Where to start? How about "addictive." The mark of a good game is that you refuse to put it down. "Just one more try, I know I can do better." Seawolf is this and more. As with the very best games, the premise is simple. You are the famous submarine "Seawolf," your job is to take out the enemy ships on the surface with your torpedoes. A simple shooter, right, should be easy. Well, it starts off that way, yes. The enemy ships are slow and sluggish, and you can pick them off at will. To make things a bit more challenging, mines float between you and the ships. No big deal, just blast them too. Excepting that you have a limited number of torpedoes, and if you waste too many blasting mines, you'll have none left for the ships.

A-ha, a challenge! So shoot around the mines and take out the enemy ships, so far so good. But once you think you have that mastered, the ships speed up, becoming increasingly harder to hit. And now, new types of ships begin to appear. Quick mosquito boats begin to dart across the screen, hopping waves and avoiding your blasts. Enemy subs appear on the surface, but speedily descend below. Large, hulking battleships loom on the horizon, it will take more than one torpedo to sink these suckers! And just as you are getting used to all of these new targets, you hear a depth charge headed your way! Enemy Destroyers have snuck up from nowhere and are trying to take you out. Not only do you have to shoot the enemy, now you are being shot at as well! So blast away, right? Not so fast. Red Cross ships also patrol these waters. Not only is shooting them morally questionable, but they can actually rebound your own torpedoes back at you! Now you have to juggle a variety of enemy ships, some that shoot, a host of torpedo-wasting mines, a limited number of torpedoes, and the bloody Red Cross! Oh, and did I mention you have a limited amount of fuel as well? Just a simple shooter right? Ha!

Did I say "addictive?" Seawolf is extremely simple to play, you simply point and shoot, but thanks to the many diverse game play elements described above, you'll quickly become engrossed in the near-misses as that enemy sub sinks just as your shot was about to hit its mark, the off-the-cuff blast that wings a mosquito boat, that triumphant double torpedo volley that sends a Battleship to Davey Jones Locker. And when your fuel runs out, or you miss the much-needed refill pod, you'll find yourself reaching for that reset switch, "Just one more try, I know I can do better." Addictive. But that's not all Seawolf has to offer. In addition to its enchanting game play, Seawolf also looks and sounds incredible. From the opening (and closing) theme song to the ping of the incoming depth charge, Seawolf makes the most of the 2600's sound capabilities. Big ships sink with a splash and smaller ships explode in the water. But the game doesn't overwhelm you with sound, either, sometimes the sea is eerily quiet as you wait for the enemy to appear.

Graphically, the game is like Activision on crack. The screen is alive with color. A beautiful sunrise/sunset bathes the sky in reds and violets, as the sea beneath is layered in hues of blue. The sprites are incredibly well rendered as well. Enemy ships are faithfully drawn to resemble their real-life counterparts. Submarines dive, mosquito boats rise and fall on the crests of waves (yes the ocean playfield has full motion wave action), and the mines are spikey balls of peril that linger just before your torpedo hold. The game just looks marvelous.

Seawolf has got it all. Its fun, its simple, its addictive and it looks amazing. Its the whole package. And in addition to being a great game, the production values on the cartridge are exceptional as well. Seawolf comes with a full-color, illustrated manual created by the ever-talented Dave Exton. The cartridge itself is translucent blue plastic in keeping with the aquatic theme. Everything about Seawolf exemplifies the best homebrewing has to offer today. That is why it is the 2004 Homebrew of the Year.

 
The Other Incredible Homebrews of 2004:
 
Climber 5

Climber 5

Climber 5

Climber 5
Programmed by Dennis Debro
Download ROM

Every year I wish I could give out more than one Homebrew of the Year Award because there is always more than one game that deserves it. Climber 5 proves that more than ever. This game is amazing. It debuted two years ago at PhillyClassic 4 in an early prototype form. At that convention, AtariAge staple Big Player played the game, learned its patterns, and effectively mastered it. As a result, the game immediately went back to the drawing board, and one year later, at PhillyClassic 5 a much bigger, much more complex and challenging game emerged.

As unlikely as it sounds, at a local baseball game, a home run ball is sent out of the park and comes to rest atop a nearby construction site. Your task, as ball boy, is to retrieve the ball. Problem is, the ball is several stories off the ground on top of a partially constructed building! This is going to take some careful climbing! Fortunately, the construction crew has left ladders from floor to floor to make your life a bit easier. Unfortunately, they have also left girders roaming freely on each floor threatening to send you tumbling to your doom! But don't lose hope, thanks to your incredible bat boy powers, you can, to a limited extent, change the direction of the encroaching girders and avoid getting knocked silly. That doesn't mean your job is any easier however, in addition to the problem of the girders, random objects are also falling off the top of the building; some of them good, some of them not so good. You'll want to catch the happy butterflies and teddy bears, but you'll want to dodge the heavy lunch pails, bricks and hammers. And just when you think things couldn't get more insane, if you don't hurry up and get that ball, it just might roll to a different part of the building, sending you scrambling to reach it all over again!

Climber 5 is fun, fast-paced, mad-capped action that keeps you coming back for more. The game play is very addictive. Just as you reach out to grab the ball, it will vanish and appear three floors below you and on the other side of the building, and as you turn to chase it, smack! a girder pops you in the face! To add further challenge, there are incredible score bonuses to be earned if you catch the "good" falling objects in the correct sequence. But don't dally too long catching those objects, or the ball will move and you'll run out of time! There always feels like there is more to see and do with Climber 5. At its heart, Climber 5 is a simple pattern game, but even if you learn and master the patterns there are more than enough challenges in the game play to keep you playing. Best of all, the game features three very different levels of game play. The "Original" mode allows you to play the version Big Player mastered at Philly 4, you'll not have the ability to change the girder movements, nor will you have to worry about falling objects, but don't think that makes this version easier. In some ways it can be much more challenging. If the original is not your cup of tea, you can always play the "Normal" version, although it is my opinion that you truly get the most out of the game going full tilt in the "Advanced" mode which features all of the craziness I have described above. This is where Climber 5 truly shines!

Climber 5 comes with a beautifully crafted full-color manual designed by Jason Dvorak, complete with a nifty little comic strip fleshing out the story of Climber 5! Best of all, Climber 5 holds the coveted "Stan Guarantee." If you buy Climber 5 and don't think it is one of the best homebrews you have ever played, I'll personally buy it from you for what you paid! I'm that sure, it's that good.

 
JoustPong

JoustPong

JoustPong

JoustPong
Programmed by Kirk Israel
Download ROM

Yes I know we can no longer call it by this name, but too bad, my awards, I'll call it "Sam Houston" if I want to! (I'm not selling anything and I don't make a dime off these awards so power hungry capitalists have no reason to come after me.) This spectacular homebrew is an odd blend of two timeless classics. Bored with the rather repetative play of the original "Pong?" Still mesmerized by the flapping action of the "Joust" ostriches? Would you like to see the best of those two games all rolled into one fast-paced, smooth looking game? Well, your prayers have been answered. JoustPong takes the simplistic game play of "Pong" and ramps it up with the erratic flight methods of "Joust." A perfect party game, but just as challenging against a smart computer AI. The game looks slick, the game plays slick, the game is slick. A great addition to any collection.

JoustPong was first released at last year's PhillyClassic 5 along with a slick JoustPong T-shirt. Since that time, Infogrames, the company that now holds the rights to many Atari properties has taken note of the small homebrew and hack community's goings-on and has clamped down on any use of anything remotely close to their copyrighted material and trademarks. For that reason, JoustPong was ripped from the shelves and is currently undergoing a revision to remove all traces of the games it pays respectful homage to. While unfortunate, we must bow to our capitalist superiors in times like these. However the spirit of the game remains strong! The current working name for JoustPong is "FlapPing." Look for it to re-emerge later this year!

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