The Making Of: Tempest 2000
Unforgivably labelled a curio by some, Tempest 2000 is often cherished for the wrong reason – namely that it’s one of the few decent Atari Jaguar titles. To own the game is a kind of badge of honour among archivists, but how many have bought the game only to tuck it away until it realises higher prices in the future? Played in its day, Tempest 2000 was a prismatic whirligig of sound, colour and kinetic destruction. Played now, it has lost none of its mesmeric charms or raw spirit.
Indie coder Jeff Minter was given the task of converting Dave Thuerer’s 1981 arcade classic to Atari’s new console. With the benefit of hindsight it was a perfect match, but the original deal was struck in a ludicrously casual manner. “I’d been doing some work for Atari UK,” explains Minter, “stuff like Defender II and Atomic Tadpoles Vs Savage Mutant Weirdos From Basingstoke [released as Photon Storm], and I’d already done a couple of months’ work on the Panther system that never got released. Anyway, Atari held a devcon to introduce the Jaguar system in one of those hotels near Heathrow Airport and during the course of the devcon we were all told about the Jaggy and shown some demos, most notably the rotating cube with a jaguar on. In due course they announced a list of titles to which they owned the rights and for which they were looking for people to convert. Tempest came up and I stuck my hand up and said I’d like to do it. I’d never done any 3D at that point and never so much as touched a polygon.”
Minter’s working relationship with Atari was a joyful one as he was given free reign over the creative content and mechanics of the game, only nudged in certain directions when he “got too crazy with the pixel-shattering bonuses.” Tempest 2000’s balance was exquisite, with a novel save key feature allowing players to get stuck in to the later levels without having to go through the whole game again. Maintaining the integrity of the original was paramount, and though a ‘traditional’ version was selectable from the main menu it was the addition of new enemies that brought a freshness and variety to the experience.
“I wanted enemies as distinctive and fearful in their own way as the Fuseballs and Pulsars were in the original game,” says Minter. “Pulsars in particular make you change the way you play the game when they appear – you can no longer just run around the rim of the web with impunity, you have to time your motions and attacks. The idea with Mirrors and Demon Heads was to break up the flow of play in a similar way – with Mirrors around you couldn’t just ‘fire and forget’, you had to nip smartly out of the way to avoid the reflection of your own shots. And the Demon Heads would throw their horns at you, and the horns couldn’t be destroyed, so you had to shoot, avoid horn, shoot again, avoid horn, then shoot once more to kill. I wanted to introduce things that would force players to change their playing style as the levels evolved.”
Visually, Tempest 2000 was a bewitching kaleidoscope of shapes, colours and hardware effects. Webs would whirl out of space in vermilion and blue, and soon swarmed with strange malignant enemies: Spikers, Fuseballs, Pulsars, Flippers, Tankers. Theurer once said of his creation that it came to him in a dream, a dark hole out of which crawled nightmare creatures. Minter’s interpretation was no less surreal. It’s tempting to get carried away, go overly psychoanalytical, but there’s no question Tempest appeals to a primal part in all of us: the need to protect and defend. Other games introduced similar themes, but Tempest 2000, with its beguiling geometry and cacophonous sound effects, went deeper, sketching out the inner turmoil of a psyche under attack from an unremitting, uncaring force.
Moving from the stark vectors of the original to Gouraud-shaded polygons was the biggest challenge, but Minter found Atari’s new console surprisingly versatile. “The Jag hardware was cool to work with – you had the 68K, of course, but much of the interesting coding was done on the two RISC coprocessors, Tom and Jerry,” he recalls. “Most of my work was on Tom, Jerry being the domain of the audio programmers. You also had a versatile blitter that you could coax into doing interesting stuff. One of the hardware designers later told me off for running the chip ‘backwards’.