What Is Zorfon Patrol?

New York's hottest club is a mysterious Atari cartridge.

Here's a neat story from the annals of Atari history, courtesy of video game historian and preservation enthusiast Rob Wanenchak (@AtariSpot on Twitter): 

https://medium.com/@atarispot/the-zorfon-mystery-6d1f58544254

I was very happy to see this go live as I was lucky enough to get part of the "oral history" version in person last November, before he succeeded in making contact with programmer Noelie Alito, and so I had been eager to hear how it had ultimately ended. 

When I heard he was shopping around the finished piece, I did my best to flag it to the attention of people who might know a home for it, and then when I launched this here newsletter endeavor I even offered to buy it myself. Ultimately he decided to maintain control over the piece by publishing it himself, which is a decision I immensely respect. It's his journey and it's an engaging one.

As Stefon would say, it has everything: a mysterious and unique cartridge in an odd lot auction box, an internet detective story, a no-nonsense MIT-trained female programmer, a first-hand account of the cabinet-to-cartridge days of game development...

At the time that Wanenchak was looking for a home for the story, I thought it very timely that it happened to come together in the midst of another vector-graphics-shooter-in-a-teapot on Twitter over the idea the place of women in video gaming, but of course it would be harder for it to not do so. I don't even remember the specific brouhaha that was going down at the time I made my offer, but less than a week after he posted it, we have the developers of Escape from Tarkov explaining that their game will not feature female player characters because of super important reasons of realism and backstory, and also because it's hard and they really don't wanna.

Many pieces have been written about how coding was coded as female when it was seen as basically a form of secretary work and then women were pushed out as it became seen as for-real computer science. It's interesting that even as Alito describes her male-dominated software classes, it peaked at being one-third female, which I think is more than most of the revisionist dudebros would imagine, and also about the threshold for where men will perceive a crowd as being predominantly female. 

When Rob told me the early part of the story last year, the thing that struck me the most was the fact that the cartridge was signed. This was the big lucky break that allowed him to track down the creator and get her insights and recollections, but to me it stood out even more than the custom title. Early corporate-produced video games just did not have credits. The overlords didn't want individual programmers to receive recognition that might inflate the value of their services. The thing that is credited as the first Easter egg in a video game was a hidden room in the game Adventure (the one with the freaking duck, not the one with the colossal cave) for Atari. The room can only be unlocked with a "key" that is a single pixel the same color as the background, and it contains the message "Created by Warren Robinett".

Now, if you read the Medium piece and read Noelie Alito's description of coding the bitmaps for her custom title screen by hand and all the different optimizations they had to go through to fit a video game into the ROM and RAM limits of the hardware they were working with, you begin to understand the amount of effort it took to add this personal flourish, which was done in direct defiance of his employer and at risk of his continued and future employment. All that to add his signature to a game. Here was a cartridge, even a non-production model that was by all appearances intended for internal use, and it was autographed? Dang if that didn't sound like a story.

And dang if it didn't turn out to be one. If you didn't read the Medium piece before continuing this, I won't give away the explanation, though it does make sense by the end. Another interesting wrinkle of the early days of cartridge gaming I would never have thought of. Prosaic as it is, the whole thing did put me in mind of a YA (I think, or maybe middle grade) book I read as a kid called Space Demons. I swear I've got half a cosmic horror story written in my head that borrows the start of Rob's odyssey, the part about finding a cartridge that shouldn't exist of a game with no record in an old drawer of games being auctioned on the internet and then beginning a correspondence with the author.

I'd like to close this by encouraging you to read and heed the coda on the story about video game history. This is part of our culture and part of our heritage. If you ever read up on the provenance of some of Shakespeare's plays or surviving prints of old TV shows or once-lost films like the works of Georges Méliès or the recalled-and-destroyed Dracula knock-off and seminal vampire film Nosferatu, you know how tenuous the strands of fate that connect us to the artworks that have shaped our world can be. We lost a lot of film history and even films because as a medium they were seen as temporary and disposable. Everything from episodes of Doctor Who to the actual moon landing has been taped over in the name of economy. In a world where there's an ongoing debate about the meaning of the first word of Beowulf, primary sources or contemporaneous notes on the creation of a created thing can be rare and precious. 

Kudos to Rob Wanenchak for his keen collector's eye and dogged determination in following the threads to a great Easter egg.

Thank you for reading!

Your support makes my newsletter happen.

Share