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Bob Polaro Interview

Interview with Bob Polaro, creator of Bugs Bunny for the 2600

By Sarah Szefer
Photos by Pascal Reeves and Albert Yarusso

Bob Polaro was responsible for writing several games for the Atari 2600, including Defender, Rampage, Desert Falcon, RealSports Volleyball, Road Runner, and Sprintmaster. His previously unreleased game Bugs Bunny was launched at PhillyClassic 3 on April 27, 2002. I sat down with him at PC3 and talked about his previous work and the history behind the Bugs Bunny game.

Bob Polaro and Sarah Szefer
Bob Polaro and Sarah Szefer

Sarah Szefer: First, Defender. There's the whole flickering question [the ship disappears when the player shoots a missile]. How do you explain it?

Bob Polaro: There are two objects or players for this system, and one object I used for all the aliens, the flickered, alternating objects, and the other player was used for the ship. But when you press the button, the ship went away and turned into the missile, so that's why you get the flickering.

SS: I've noticed that you also ported Rampage to the 2600. Did you have to deal with any particular challenge in porting that game?

BP: That game was actually very difficult for all the developers for all the platforms, for the Commodore 64, and the Apple, and the PC, because the game involves moving these monsters in almost any position possible on the screen, jumping up on buildings and smashing them. Since there was so much freedom of movement for the objects, there were so many ways to have a buck, so every game spent a lot of time in testing, and my game on the 2600 was no exception, it's dealt with the same problems.

SS: After you left Atari, which companies did you work for, and which projects did you work on?

BP: After I left Atari, I started my own company, developing educational software, self-publishing that, and I did that for about three or four years. And then, there was a resurgence of the 2600 due to Nintendo, I believe, and then I got into contract 2600 games, first for Atari again, and then for Mediagenics, which was Activision, and back to Atari. That's what I did in the short term. Then eventually, I got into Sony Playstation and Super Nintendo, and now I'm doing Java Internet games.

SS: Tell me more about Bugs Bunny for the 2600. First of all, why was the game shelved in the first place?

Bugs Bunny for the 2600
Bugs Bunny for the 2600

BP: We developed that game off-site in the satellite office. At that time, we had a group of us in Santa Cruz, but the company was still in Sunnyvale. We developed Bugs Bunny there and then, when it was somewhat completed, they [Atari] playtested it against Snoopy and The Red Baron with 14-year-old boys who kept liking The Red Baron better because they're 14-year-old boys, so they [Atari] shelved the project. Then I continued work on it to the version that you have now. After I left Atari and became a contractor four years later, I brought the game back to Atari to see if they wanted it and they shelved it again. This is finally a way to get it out on the market.

SS: But the game was completed originally, right? Or was it completed more recently?

BP: The second time around, it was complete. The first time, when it was playtested, it wasn't. So the version that's out in the public [non-commercial version] is the first version that was playtested, which didn't have two-player and didn't have the gameplay of stealing the bullets. It didn't have the house or anything like that. Now it's a complete game, but it was finished in around 1984.

SS: And was the easter egg originally included in the game, or was that a later addition? Is it a sort of homage to Warren Robinett, or was it just for the heck of it?

BP: When Warren put in his easter egg in Adventure, he was the first one and there was a big hullabaloo about that, it was mostly negative, but they [Atari] found out that having an easter egg in there increased sales, they decided to make that part of every project. So every time we'd develop a game, Marketing would say, "What's the easter egg gonna be?". I know that the graphics exist in the game for the easter egg, but I don't recall the action you have to take to cause the easter egg to happen, and I can't look at any source code, so it's a mystery to me as well as everybody else. [Ed: This mystery has since been solved].

SS: So there's really no possible solution available from yourself to find it.

BP: That's right. And there's a possibility that the graphics for the easter egg is there, but never gets executed.

SS: In terms of packaging, is it self-published, or was it published through a given company?

Bob Polaro watching a fan enjoy his game.
Bob Polaro watching a fan enjoy his game.

BP: It's through Atari2600.com, who was able to take on the project of manufacturing it and distributing it. They did their own packaging and manufacturing of the ROMs. It's pretty much out of my hands and I just wanted somebody to be able to get it out on the market, and they're doing it.

SS: I know that the graphic quality of Bugs Bunny is quite up to par, considering that it was completed in 1984. What was the size of the ROM chip, because it seems to be pretty advanced graphically?

BP: As far as I know, it's only an 8k game, which was comparable to most of the carts of that time. But the difference is, the two players, Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny, are on different vertical positions, so you don't have to flicker or alternate the characters. So you have a lot of cycle time left to change the color of the graphics on every line. And that's what we did, and very few games had that, because they're horizontal games. But this is completely vertical, so we were able to get pretty good animation with that.

SS: What about copyrights? Since this game was originally developed for Atari, and now that it's with Atari2600.com, was there any problem? Did you retain the rights for the game, or did you have to somehow get the rights back to get the game released?

BP: [Regarding] the Atari copyrights, we're not really concerned about that. The Warner rights, as far as I know, have been taken care of. I'm pretty much out of that loop. The Atari problem doesn't really exist, because the Atari game doesn't exist. So we're pretty much going with it.

SS: I didn't know that rights with Warner were secure, so that it wouldn't be a problem releasing it and then getting into trouble over this.

BP: The legality of it was taken care of quite some time ago.

SS: …Do you think we have uncovered so far most of the prototypes and the unreleased and unfinished games, or do you think there's quite a few left, as far as you know?

Bugs Bunny display at Atari2600.com's booth
Bugs Bunny display at Atari2600.com's booth

BP: There's quite a few unfinished or shelved games out there that never saw the light of day that may or may not come out. I still have a few of them that I'm not going to mention now. But the problem is, they might be using a controller that most people may not have, so it remains to be seen what's going to happen with those projects. But I'm sure there's a lot of them out there that were either partially finished or got shelved, and may come out. And there might be a whole new resurgence of the 2600, 'cause it did have the best gameplay of the many game machines out there, and that's what people are going after.

SS: Do you think there's a chance of someone picking up someone else's unfinished project and completing it if the original programmer is no longer interested in working on it?

BP: It's very hard to get a development system together, as far as I know, to finish a project, although there are a few hackers out there who are able to change some lines of code through disassembler. I know the Sprintmaster game I did a long time ago was modified by somebody in Germany for the use of the driving controller. Somehow, he dug into the code and changed the inputs and was able to use the driving controller with it. But he probably just replaced code rather than adding code, and I think that's where the problem is: to add code, you need to have a full development system for that.

SS: Thanks a lot for the interview. It was great talking to you.

BP: Thank you. That's All, Folks!

More information about the PhillyClassic Bugs Bunny release can be found here, and take a look at our Philly Classic 3 Photo Gallery if you'd like to see more pictures from the show.