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Unraveling the mystery of Frogger for the Atari Computer.

Somewhere around 1986, my last Atari tape drive failed.  I’ve gotten several boxes of Atari 8-bit gear locally over the years, but never once found another working tape drive.

In October 2007, just 21 short years later, I obtained a working Atari XC12 tape drive.

My first job for the device?  Solve the mystery of Frogger for the Atari Home Computer.

The story:

In the 80’s, converting arcade games into home computer and console format was big business, and Atari was king of conversions.  But Frogger wasn’t an Atari property; it was one of a wave of hits imported from Japan.  This meant that game publishers from all over were able to bid on the privilege to publish Frogger for home computers from Frogger’s distribution rights holder SEGA.

In an interesting twist, SEGA sold the rights to Frogger on a per-media basis.  Home computer software publisher Sierra On-Line obtained the magnetic media rights to Frogger on computers, while game giant Parker Brothers obtained solid state cartridge rights to Frogger – also for computers.

This meant that there were two officially licensed versions of Frogger produced by different publishers being offered at the same time for some home computers!  Unusual, but not unprecedented for the era.  But what’s really strange is there were no less than three versions of Frogger published for the Atari home computers. 

The most common seems to be the cartridge produced by Parker Brothers from their ROM cartridge deal with SEGA.  Next most common is an earlier version on cassette and disk produced by Sierra On-Line as part of their magnetic media deal with SEGA.  This version was written for the Atari by John Harris, and the full account of how it was made is covered in a chapter of the wonderful Steven Levy book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution.   

Clouded in mystery is yet a third version of Frogger, also produced by Sierra for the Atari home computers by a second programmer, Charles “Chuck” Benton, one of Sierra’s early freelance coders perhaps best known as chairman of the US National Commission on Libraries and Information Science. 

Where did this third version of Frogger come from? Any why only for Atari home computers?

The mystery:

Both the magnetic media versions of Frogger have a copyright date of 1981, seemingly indicating that they were in direct competition with one another.  Both were produced by star programmers.  Both were distributed in the same style of packaging, with the only difference being that the documentation, media, and a sticker on the box proclaimed “Atari version by Chuck Benton” or “Atari version by John Harris” depending on which version was in the box. 

It has long been speculated that the John Harris Frogger was the “primary” version of the game, with the Chuck Benton version being coded in parallel just in case Mr. Harris was unable to complete the game in time for the holiday sales window.  It has also been speculated that the Chuck Benton Frogger was never actually released into retail distribution, and that there were no copies of Frogger in the wild.  This seems to have been corroborated by some Atari game collectors who had Frogger boxes and tapes with “Chuck Benton” listed as the author, when in fact the code on the tape was of the John Harris version.

A Conversation with the Programmer:

Once, while going through a large lot of Atari boxes, I discovered one of these Chuck Benton Frogger boxes.  I was assured by others that I was holding a John Harris game in Chuck Benton packaging, and that the Chuck Benton version of Frogger was a prototype.  Not fully understanding the back-story and not understanding how Sierra would have produced this oddity, I opened a dialogue with Mr. Benton to see if I could get more information.  Mr. Benton informed me that he did indeed program a version of Frogger for the Atari computer, and one for the Commodore 64.  He is sure that both formats were sold at retail! 

Certainly, if Mr. Benton coded the Commodore 64 version at a time before any other Commodore version of Frogger was available; he would have seen the bulk of his royalties from this version, not the Atari version.  Was it possible that Sierra somehow paid him as if he had sold both Atari and Commodore version, but only published his Commodore version?

The answer seemed to lie in that copy of Frogger that I had obtained.  If indeed the game were the John Harris version in Chuck Benton trappings, I would have to agree with the other collectors that Benton’s Atari version was never released.  If on the other hand I really had a Chuck Benton version of the game, then I think Mr. Benton’s memory of Frogger is correct, and they only real mystery left is why did Sierra produce two versions of Frogger to compete with one another?

Photos 1, 2, and 3:

Here is the packaging.  As you can see in the close-ups, the cassette, documentation, and the sticker on the box all say that the game was converted from the arcade original by Chuck Benton.  For reference, you can also see an “Atari version by John Harris” tape in these photos.  I have several of these in my collection.  At the very least, the John Harris version of this game is far more common.

Photo 1 - packaging:



Photo 2: Detail - programmer bang



Photo 3: Detail - cassettes




Photo 4
– the moment of truth.  Literally!  It comes up for only 5 seconds before jumping to the game mode select screen, but there you can see it: “PROGRAMED FOR THE ATARI BY CHUCK BENTON”

Photo 4: Programmer Screen

 



Photo 5
– game select screen.  The Chuck Benton version of the game goes to this screen by default.  Notice that the game allows 2 person simultaneous play, the only known version of Frogger to do so.

Photo 5: Game options screen




Photo 6
– game play of the Chuck Benton version of Frogger

Photo 6: Gameplay Chuck Benton version




Picture 7 – for comparison, this is the John Harris version of Frogger.

Photo 7: Gameplay John Harris version

Conclusion:

The Chuck Benton version of Frogger is real.  Sierra clearly distributed the version either just before, just after or in parallel to the John Harris version.  Why was this done?  That’s another mystery.  If the book Hackers is to be believed, it’s very possible that Sierra didn’t have confidence that John Harris would complete his version, so hedged their bets by having another solid programmer convert the game in parallel.  When the Harris version was completed, Sierra would still likely have been obligated to release the Benton version in some form.  I’d love to get to the bottom of this, but for now, I’m pleased to know that we can put the question about the retail availability of the various Frogger versions to rest for good.

But does anybody care about this?

Well, not many.  No revelations will come about from all this.  For the small retro gaming community, these little mysteries are just fun diversions. It's pleasant to look back to the “pioneer days” and see which elements of the process have changed and which elements have stayed exactly the same.

-Rob Barlow

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