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Medieval Mayhem for the Atari VCS

Last Updated November 1, 2009

Last update: updated links to AtariAge.

During Christmas of 2005 I played Warlords with my nephews and their friends. It's one of the few 4 player games made for the Atari VCS(also known as the 2600). In seeing the graphics, their friends were initially unimpressed with the Atari as they'd grown up with Playstations and Xboxes. They were quickly won over by the game play and we had a blast.


I'd long wanted to write a game for the Atari VCS and decided to do a remake of Warlords that had more of the features found in the original arcade game. Features I wished to add were multiple fireballs, a greater range of fireball movement, and the launch dragon. I also wanted to add an options menu - back then you'd look up game variations in a matrix in the game manual to figure out the game number you wished to play. When Warlords was written 4KB was the norm and a menu would not have been feasible. Medieval Mayhem ended up utilizing 32KB, 6KB of which was the menu.

Medieval Mayhem
Main Menu Launch Dragon
Multiple Fireballs Round Winner

Programming for the Atari VCS is a lot different than anything I've ever programmed for before. The biggest difference is there's no video memory - the CPU draws the screen in real time. It even controls the TV sync signals required for a stable picture. Other obstacles to overcome are 4KB of ROM space, limited graphic capabilities and just 128 bytes of RAM. Not megabytes, not kilobytes, just bytes.

The Atari does have a graphics chip, known as TIA, but unlike modern systems with video RAM, TIA only has registers which control the drawing of a single scanline. If the CPU doesn't change the TIA registers then each and every scanline would show the same thing. Less than half the CPU's time can be utilized for game logic because it's so busy updating TIA with what to display.

The Atari can only address 4KB of ROM - so I'm sure you're wondering how Medieval Mayhem could be a 32KB game. This is accomplished by special hardware added into the cartridge that supports bankswitching. The 32KB of ROM is split up into 8 4KB banks. When the game code needs to access something in a differant bank it accesses a trigger location which tells the cartridge to select a different bank for the Atari to see. This is similiar to how you turn pages to view a different part of a book.

While the Atari was colorful for it's time(128 different colors vs 15 for the Colecovision and 16 for the Intellivision), it only supported 2 sprites, 2 missiles, a ball and the very pixelated playfield graphics. In Warlords, the sprites were used for the player's shields, the missiles for the kings, the ball for the fireball and the playfield for the castle walls. The 2 sprites and 2 missiles are reused while the screen is drawn in order to draw 4 kings and 4 shields. Medieval Mayhem draws the kings using the playfield graphics and uses the SCORE MODE of the Atari to color the kings differently than the rest of the castle. This frees up the 2 missiles to be used as fireball 2 and 3. The 2 sprites are used an additional time in the center section of the screen to draw the dragon.

Developement History Screen Shots
Main Menu Game Screen

As good as I am at programming, I'm not that good at creating music or art. David Vazquez did the dragon, knight and king graphics and Erik Ehrling coded music, Druid Chip.

You can download the ROMs below to play on your computer via an emulator such as Stella, but be warned that the mouse makes a poor substitue for paddles. Medieval Mayhem can be purchased for play on a real Atari for $25 at

LinkWhat's There
Play Online thanks to JStella
Video 1 17.2MB, 7:40 minute video of Medieval Mayhem
Please note - video capture software made the paddle readings jittery.
Video 2 3.2 MB, 1:17 minute video of Medieval Mayhem
Please note - video capture software made the paddle readings jittery.
Medieval Mayhem Blog Entries development history of Medieval Mayhem
Homebrew Discussion Thread Additional development history. Not as technical as my blog, but does contain information not found in the blog.
NTSC vs PAL vs SECAM Medieval Mayhem on the different TV system.
Label Contest Label contest for the cartidge
Dragon & Knight Graphics David Vazquez created the dragon and knight graphics for Medieval Mayhem
Graphic Converter Utitility I wrote to convert the dragon graphics to the format needed by my code
NTSC ROM NTSC version of Medieval Mayhem
PAL ROM PAL version of Medieval Mayehem
Source Code Source Code for Medieval Mayhem
For Sale Cartridges w/manual are available for purchase from Atari Age
How-To Fix Atari Paddle Controllers The Longhorn Engineer shows how to clean your paddles so they're jitter free.

Retro Gamer
by Mat Allen
90% Issue 39, page 14, not available online

As simple a game as Medieval Mayhem is in concept, it provides a hugely entertaining multiplayer experience of immense longevity. The colourful graphics and chunky sound are mere icing on the cake of this excellent game, one that deserves to be a part of your collection.
Atari Age
by Jason Bardis
5/5 Much more fun than Warlords. Lots of options to customize gameplay. Multiple fireballs are great. Music is cool & catchy.
Classic Video Gamer Magazine
by Doug Dingus
A+ Premier Issue, pages 8-9. Article is not online, though a digital-download is available for purchase for $1.95

Medieval Mayhem is one of the best show off your retro gaming gear titles there is. When I have friends and family over, all I have to do is set this one up, turn the TV on and wait! People never fail to pick up the paddles and start playing this one in earnest! Soon they are into it, yelling, having fun and as engaged as they would be a modern Xbox or PS2 game!
Atari Times Review
by Daniel Kloss
100% This is, in my opinion, the best and most playable 2600 version of warlords to date and highly worth owning. The straight forward game play refined with a level of polish rarely experienced on this platform, with explosive sound f/x, catchy music, liquid smooth animations and stereo sound gives it that much more entertainment value.
Atari Age
by Joseph Kollar
5/5 Medieval Mayhem is an absolute "must have" game for the VCS. Based on the gameplay of the classic Warlords but with amazing enhancements, this cart is amazing. ... Up to four players can battle at one time making MM a great party game. I was concerned the single player game wouldn't be so good but I was completely wrong. The computer AI is very good and keeps this game challenging. ... The opening volley dragon looks more like a C64 graphic than anything else on the VCS.
Video Game Critic
by David Mrozek
A+ Each round is introduced by a colorful "launch dragon". Rendered with personality and animated with loving care, this dragon may be the best looking thing you'll ever see on your Atari 2600. ... Every time I play Medieval Mayhem, it turns into a crazy, raucous affair. My friend Jonathan commented that it was one of the best multiplayer games ever! And that was after a bunch of us had been playing Halo 3 for hours on end! Heck, this game is even fun with one player, as I learned when I faced three CPU opponents and got my ass handed to me. ... If you're a classic gamer, do whatever it takes to get Medieval Mayhem into your collection. It is outstanding.
Atari Age
by John Payson
5/5 It may appear to just be Warlords with some eye candy, but the gameplay enhancements are far more important than the graphics. ... Comparing this game to Warlords is like comparing a Porsche 911 to a Model T Ford.
Atari Age
by Nathan Strum
5/5 Medieval Mayhem is a complete re-invention of the 2600 version of Warlords - one of the most highly regarded games for the system. So how do you make it better? Improve the graphics, improve the computer players, add more options, and make it closer to the original arcade game. This is exactly what Darrell Spice has accomplished with Medieval Mayhem.
Atari Age
by Midnight Synergy
5/5 WOW - this game is FUN! ... The graphics, animation, music, all are really quite a marvel. Big thumbs up!
Planet Atari Review
by Michael Tausendpfund
8.6/10 Ein wahrer Pflichtkauf für das Atari 2600: Neben den spannenden Duellen gegen drei Computergegner entfaltet sich der wahre Spielspaß erst bei einem Kampf gegen drei menschliche Spieler. Durch zahlreiche sinnvolle Optionen und eine für VCS Verhältnisse fabelhafte Grafik wird man so einige XBox und PlayStationzocker auch noch dafür begeistern können.

translation by Christian R. Conrad

A true Must-Buy for the Atari 2600: Besides the exciting duels against three computer opponents, the true joy of the game only appears in a fight against three human players. With its many sensible options, and graphics that are fabulous in the context of the VCS, this game should attract quite a few XBox and PlayStation gamers.
Atari Age
by Raul Torres
5/5 eye candy alone is well worth this games price

© 2007 Darrell Spice Jr.