Entombed: An archaeological examination of an Atari 2600 game

John Aycock1 and Tara Copplestone2

The Art, Science, and Engineering of Programming, 2019, Vol. 3, Issue 2, Article 4

Submission date: 2018-05-26
Publication date: 2018-11-07
DOI: https://doi.org/10.22152/programming-journal.org/2019/3/4
Full text: PDF


The act and experience of programming is, at its heart, a fundamentally human activity that results in the production of artifacts. When considering programming, therefore, it would be a glaring omission to not involve people who specialize in studying artifacts and the human activity that yields them: archaeologists. Here we consider this with respect to computer games, the focus of archaeology’s nascent subarea of archaeogaming.

One type of archaeogaming research is digital excavation, a technical examination of the code and techniques used in old games’ implementation. We apply that in a case study of Entombed, an Atari 2600 game released in 1982 by US Games. The player in this game is, appropriately, an archaeologist who must make their way through a zombie-infested maze. Maze generation is a fruitful area for comparative retrogame archaeology, because a number of early games on different platforms featured mazes, and their variety of approaches can be compared. The maze in Entombed is particularly interesting: it is shaped in part by the extensive real-time constraints of the Atari 2600 platform, and also had to be generated efficiently and use next to no memory. We reverse engineered key areas of the game’s code to uncover its unusual maze-generation algorithm, which we have also built a reconstruction of, and analyzed the mysterious table that drives it. In addition, we discovered what appears to be a 35-year-old bug in the code, as well as direct evidence of code-reuse practices amongst game developers.

What further makes this game’s development interesting is that, in an era where video games were typically solo projects, a total of five people were involved in various ways with Entombed. We piece together some of the backstory of the game’s development and intoxicant-fueled design using interviews to complement our technical work.

Finally, we contextualize this example in archaeology and lay the groundwork for a broader interdisciplinary discussion about programming, one that includes both computer scientists and archaeologists.

  1. aycock@ucalgary.ca, University of Calgary, Canada

  2. tjc528@york.ac.uk, University of York, United Kingdom