Owning an arcade cabinet was the stuff of legend for many kids growing up in the ’80s and ’90s. Many of those dreams faded with the decreased popularity of arcades around the country. Now, with more accessible game creation tools, some creators’ thoughts turn to making arcade cabinets again. As I walked around BetaCon, a two-day video game convention hosted in Portland, Oregon, I stumbled upon “Expedition Ataahk,” an arcade cabinet designed by a team of high school juniors for the Oregon Game Project Challenge (OGPC).
The OGPC runs in middle and high schools across the state. Teams create games based on a theme revealed in November, submitting them for judging in Spring. This year, the winners showcased their completed projects at BetaCon, giving the public the chance to play their games. Expedition Ataahk won the Judge’s Choice award, but caught my eye with its custom-lit marquee and retro graphics. Five high school juniors from Wilson High School in Portland, Oregon, dubbed themselves “Project Ataahk.” They created the game and prepped it for the cabinet treatment in just a few months. Four members of the team took some time to talk about the project and their work.
Like many high school groups of friends, the members of Project Ataahk have known each other for a long time. Anna Nguyen, the team’s artist, has known the others since sixth grade. Alissa Bergquist, a coder, musician, and programmer, met coders Alec Sautter and Kaden Flick in kindergarten. Inspired by seeing a group with Sautter’s older brother win the contest in the past, the team came together this year to make a game of their own.
Expedition Ataahk takes the graphic style of an Atari 2600 game like Pitfall and mashes it up with the action of side-scrolling action of Golden Axe or Turtles in Time. They created everything themselves except the graphics library and the actual physical housing of the arcade cabinet. They even created and programmed an Arduino to create the flashing light display on the cabinet’s marquee. Sautter and Flick both primarily worked as coders, Alec as the lead and Kaden coding the playable characters. The project also allowed team members to brandish some non-tech skills, too: Alissa used her background in piano to guide her in composing the game’s theme music. Meanwhile, Anna used her mural painting experience to create the art on the cabinet.
Competitions like the OGPC give students a chance to collaborate outside of traditional classes. The OGPC awards nine different prizes at both the middle and high school level, giving students something to shoot for outside of grades. “Almost every year [Wilson wins] a bunch of prizes because we have a really good computer science program,” Sautter said, looking at his teammates. “But last year we didn’t win any, and that was kinda like a, “What happened?” We wanted to show up and win.” Expedition Ataahk took the Judges’ Choice award for the year, one of three Wilson High School teams awarded prizes.
The team credited much of their success to “Bartlo:” Chris Bartlo, a computer science teacher at Wilson. “I think, at the high school level, you want to build love of the game, so you give everyone a lot of opportunities.” Students still do coursework to teach them fundamentals of programming, but the goal is to push them towards self-driven projects. Students at Wilson have created neural networks, VR projects, even a complex, algorithmically-driven version of Tetris. “It’s all driven by student interest and creativity,” Bartlo said.
“…everyone’s always like, “Whoa, high school kids did this?” It’s surprising to a lot of people, but it’s not surprising to me because every single year all these awesome things come out of these awesome kids. I think people sell high school kids short because they think they lack some kind of experience or knowledge, but I think that fearlessness of being young…they haven’t learned how to fail yet, and so they can go boldly and jump feet first…that’s actually what it takes to be creative and innovative and make something special.” – Chris Bartlo
That creativity students harness during the OGPC isn’t just useful for games, though. Most of Project Ataahk doesn’t plan on becoming the next big force in games, though. Sautter talked about getting a minor in computer science, while Bergquist said she’s always dreamed of becoming a mechanical engineer. Nguyen, with a laugh, said she’s probably not looking to make a future in games. Still, these collaborative experiences build skills for all sorts of work, and could set an example for future student projects. Hopefully we’ll see more events like Oregon Game Project Challenge give students chances to show their skills to the world.