Company: Atari
Model #:
John Dunn
Year: 1978?
Found in 2022


When programmer John Dunn (of Superman fame) gave an interview back in 2000 he mentioned working on another game at Atari that never got released called Snark.  John described Snark as "A combination maze solver and shooter".  Unfortunately John didn't have a copy of it anymore and the game was believed to be lost.  Fast forward to 2022 when a previously unknown prototype labeled Snark was found in the collection of Jim Snyder (who worked in research and development at Atari in the early 80's) by Alvaro Arroyo. 

Snark can best be described as... well it really can't be described in terms of another game.  Snark it truly a unique idea, at least for the time.  Each player controls a tank which must shoot a block called the Snark for points.  Each successful hit on the Snark is worth 3 points and scoring more than 21 points will win the game.  Sounds easy right?  Not at all!  At the start of the game the Snark will simply sit there waiting to be hit, but the second one player shoots it the Snark will begin to move randomly around the screen.  Once the Snark starts to move each player must make sure not to come into contact with it or they will lose 5 points.  Since the Snark is pretty fast, the best strategy is to hide behind some of the blocks and take pot shots at it lest you find your score dropping to zero points rapidly from all the unintentional collisions.  Shooting your opponent will take a point away from them, but if they don't have any score yet it will actually give them a point!  It's unknown if this is a bug or an intended feature.  

The shooting controls in Snark can take a little getting used to.  In order to shoot the player must hold down the fire button, point in the direction they want to shoot, then release the joystick (not the fire button!).  Making things even more difficult is the fact that your shot will ricochet off the walls at various angles.  Your tank only has one bullet so you'll have to wait until you get it back to fire again.  If you're holding down the fire button when your bullet comes back to your tank it will simply pass through it, which can be a nice strategy if you don't want the bullet to keep going.  Once your bullet hits either the Snark or the second player it will automatically reappear in your tank, however in the Continuous Shot variations (2, 4, 6, and 8) your bullet will continue to bounce around until you grab it.

There are two different mazes in Snark, although triggering the second maze's appearance is kind of odd.  In order to be taken to the second maze the player must either shoot the Snark or be hit by the snark while the screen is flashing due to the other player either shooting or being hit by the Snark.  If these conditions are met the players are suddenly taken to a second maze where the Snark constantly moves back in in a caged off area in the center of the screen.  The passageways in this maze are very narrow and hard to navigate through.  Each time the player shoots the Snark on this screen they are returned to their starting position.  This may be an attempt to keep each player from waiting by an opening in the 'cage' and constantly shooting the Snark.  There appears to be no way back to the first maze from this screen, although it may have been planned but not implemented.  For some reason Continuous Shots are disabled in this maze, perhaps this was another attempt to keep players from continually shooting the caged Snark?


Snark has eight different variations and uses both difficulty switches.  Variations 1, 2, 5, and 6 are two player, while variations 3, 4, 7, and 8 are one player.  In the one player variations the computer controls a bullet that tries to hit the Snark before you do (the second player tank itself is missing), but the game plays the same as the two player variations.  This is one of the earliest examples of a computer controlled opponent in a 2600 game (Surround was the first).  Below is a matrix showing all the variations.  In two player games the difficulty switches control the behavior of the walls when your tank touches them.  In position A the walls are 'sticky' meaning that once you touch a wall you must push off of it in the exact opposite direction in which you touched it or you'll go nowhere.  When the switches are in position B the player can move off the wall in any direction.  In one player games the left switch still controls the wall behavior for the player, but the second switch now controls the speed of the second computer controlled player (A=Fast, B=Slow).

Variations 5-8 have what John called the 'Video Spin Mode'.  Video Spin Mode is just a fancy way of saying a flashing background.  In these variations the background will quickly cycle through colors making it flash constantly.  While flashing backgrounds were nothing new in 2600 games, the flashing usually only lasted a second or two.  In Snark the flashing is continuous, even in B&W mode.  Not only does this give the player a headache after a short time, it has the real possibility of inducing seizures in sensitive people.  It's unknown what the point of this mode was as it doesn't seem to have any effect on the gameplay.  Perhaps John was looking for a way to make the game a little more difficult (it's does indeed make the screen hard to look at) or maybe he thought it just looked cool?

So why was Snark never released?  According to John Dunn:

"It had a video spin mode that caused the screen to color cycle really fast, and release was held up because there was some worry this would cause people to have seizures (I know, it's bogus - but this was the early days of video games, and that kind of intense color cycling was unknown territory)."

While many people may think the risk of video games causing seizures is overblown, the concern in this case is quite warranted.  The 'Video Spin Mode' variations flash colors so fast that the possibility of seizures is very real (it's not particularly fun for non-seizure sufferers to look at either).  Why John didn't just remove the Video Spin Mode is unknown.  The game seems complete and there doesn't seem to be any space left for more features (there are zero bytes free!).  However there are a few unused features in the code that hint at possible ideas that John had been playing with such as different sized bullets.  The game also has some oddities which may be bugs such as shooting a player with zero points will add one point to your score and the game will always take the player to the second maze if they are still on the first maze and about to win the game (the winning shot simply won't be counted and the second maze appears).

After  completing Snark, John quickly moved on to programming Superman (using Warren Robinett's Adventure engine) before leaving Atari for Cromemco in 1980.  After working at Cromemco for a few years John started his own company (Time Arts) in 1982 and eventually moved on to designing music software and hardware.  John died in 2018.

Special thanks to Alvaro Arroyo for finding, dumping, and sharing this prototype and to Thomas Jentzsch for helping figure out how to play the game!


Version Cart Text Description
4-30-78 Snark 430

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