Tumbleweeds, along with Jungle River Cruise, were the only two games made specifically for Atari's Puffer Project. So what was the Puffer Project you ask? Basically, the Puffer was an exercise bike that was hooked up to an Atari 400/800 or 5200 system. The player would control which direction they would move by using two specially designed hand controllers, while the actual motion was controlled by how fast the player peddled. Although the project ultimately didn't get released, the idea was revisited years later by Life Fitness on the SNES. Turns out Atari was once again a little too ahead of their time.
The philosophy behind the Puffer was to try and make exercising fun. Atari figured that if players had to interact physically with the game their enjoyment would increase while their waistlines decreased. Given the problem of obesity in most video game players today, Atari might have been onto something. However since the player was basically using the exercise bike as a giant controller, normal games couldn't be used with the Puffer (although Atari did try and adapt Ms. Pac-Man and Pole Position to use the Puffer), so a series of new games had to be created specifically for the Puffer. The first of these new games was Tumbleweeds.
Unlike Jungle River Cruise, Tumbleweeds is a game that can only be enjoyed with the Puffer. After playing the game for only a few seconds it quickly becomes obvious why this is. The whole goal of Tumbleweeds to peddle towards a set of mountains on the horizon while avoiding tumbleweeds and cacti that get in your way. Without the Puffer to get your blood pumping, Tumbleweeds quickly becomes a dull sprite-scaling demo. Tumbleweeds uses an interesting first person perspective to help give the player the impression that they really are cycling through a barren desert. As the tumbleweeds and cacti come into view the player must quickly move to the left or right (using the handlebar buttons) to avoid hitting them. While there isn't a true objective in the game, the overall goal is to see how fast you can peddle and still avoid the oncoming objects.
While the game may not scream excitement, Tumbleweeds is an interesting example of an alternative use for the 5200. Unlike Jungle River Cruise, Tumbleweeds was designed to be a leisurely simulation game for people who wanted a simple task to keep them busy while they exercised. Unfortunately the only known prototype for Tumbleweeds is a non-interactive demo. The screen displays a nice set of mountains off in the distance with a flat plain in the foreground. Tumbleweeds will quickly scroll down the screen at different angles and if they hit the center part of the screen (where the copyright message is) they will make a beep sound. There are some white dots that slowly scroll right to left in front of the mountains, but it is unknown what these represent. There are also some clouds in the sky also scroll right to left.
Sketch courtesy of Atari Gaming Headquarters
So what happened to the Puffer project? Just as Atari was getting ready to release the Puffer, the market began to fall out for video games (the great gaming crash of 1983). Atari started losing a lot of money and a $150+ exercise bike peripheral suddenly didn't seem like the wisest of investments. Atari did briefly resurrect the Puffer as a fitness tie-in for the 1984 Olympics (of which Atari was a huge sponsor), but Atari's sale to the Tramiels later that summer put an end to the idea and the Puffer project was finally put to rest.