Gamma Attack for the Atari 2600 – Legend, Discovery, and Value

It is often difficult to define the most valuable video game in the collecting community when most of the top candidates have a bit of mystery to their production numbers and methods. It also complicates things when the owners of the known outstanding units don’t easily part with their treasures; without enough sales it is difficult to determine a value for an item.

This dilemma is made especially evident in the case of Gamma Attack for the Atari 2600. This once-mysterious game came out of nowhere to grab media attention by a clever PR stunt in the form of an eBay auction with a half-million price tag. Of course, nobody expects any Atari 2600 cartridge to be worth that much (see our Rare and Valuable Atari 2600 guide), but we will dig into the history of the game and discuss how one can place a value on the title with its circumstances.

Background of Gammation / Rapid Fire Adapters

Gamma Attack was published by Gammation, a company that had a small phone and mail-order business selling two different rapid-fire controller modifications/adapters for the Atari console.

Gammation’s adapter product was called the “Fire Power 100” (also known as the FP-100), an adapter that you would plug your Atari 2600 joystick into and customize a rapid fire speed (up to an advertised 30 shots per second) by adjusting a potentiometer.

Advertisement for FP-100

Advertisement for FP-100

 

Gammation also sold the “Fire Power FP-1” controller add-on, which was installed into the VCS joystick (no soldering required, though). It would be interesting to see this item in person; it may have been the first “controller mod” product on the retail market.

Advertisement for the FP-1

Thanks to AtariComendium for this great index of Atari controllers

Initial Retail of Gamma Attack

If you paid attention to the FP-1 ad, you would notice some small print at the bottom that teases:
“Special Offer: “Gamma Attack” Game Cartridge $24.95 + 1.50 or $14.95 with the order of “FP-1″ units. (For *VCS)”

According to AtariAge user, Slapdash, this advertisement ran only once in Electronic Games magazine in December 1982, but he admitted that “I was afraid to order it, thinking it looked a little fly-by-night.”  (If anyone has a January 1983 issue, it would be interesting to see if there was a follow-up advertisement)

It turns out that Gammation’s owner, Robert L. Esken, Jr. had some programming background and wanted to try his hand at game design. Gamma Attack was a product of his desire to build a complimentary game to support his rapid fire controller devices.

Esken started Gammation in Fairborn, Ohio in 1982 and simply by looking at these two magazine ads, you could tell there was initiative and strategic planning that any entrepreneur can appreciate. Gamma Attack was made available for sale in 1983, but that one little line in the FP-1 advertisement just wasn’t enough to generate many sales. (Nobody is aware of any other advertisements of Gamma Attack other than the company’s own brochures).  Later that same year, Eskin closed down shop. Since only a handful of cartridges were produced, Gamma Attack remains one of the rarest video games ever made.

What the Game Is Like

The game itself is an interesting shooter that puts you in control of a flying saucer that is tasked with taking out tanks on the ground. You can move the flying saucer left, right, up and down, but you can only shoots at a 45 degree angle down and to the left.

The difficulty of the game does increase over time, but the levels are relatively transparent to the player. Tanks start on the left of the screen, but eventually come from both directions. Eventually, new waves of tanks start showing up without additional warning.

Because of the technological limitations of early video games like the Atari 2600, developers frequently had to explain what the on screen objects represented in the manual, and these are always interesting to read about. Here is the in-game story presented in the manual:

“You are the commander of the only Gamma ship in this stellar field. The Vegan war fleet has taken control of your Gamma outpost planet and is defending it with Vegan laser pulse tanks. This planet is the only inhabitable planet in this star system, and you must stay out there and fight the Vegans as long as you can. You move your ship across the surface of the planet and destroy Vegan tanks that you encounter. Destroying all tanks advances the player to the next level. Each laser pulse that your Gamma ship receives reduces your hovering altitude. When your ship crashes, the Gammy appears and your game is over.”

However, no one has been able to determine what “the next level” might be. According to the manual, there is an Underground Enemy Fortress and an Enemy Mothership but no one has found a way to get the game to progress to these areas. The only apparent levels are the enemies moving and shooting faster. It’s entirely possible these areas were never implemented; it was quite common for games of the time to have features detailed in the manuals that didn’t show up in the game proper.

It is worth noting that Eskin happened to develop another Atari 2600 game by the name of Z-Tack for the publisher, Bomb. It also was released in 1983 and puts you in control of shooting ground targets from a flying saucer, but otherwise seems different than Gamma Attack.

What the Game Cartridge Looks Like

The Gamma Attack game cartridge is a very modest presentation featuring a typical black cartridge with two Gammation stickers on it on the top panel and in the main front panel of the cartridge. The two labels are different colors, but it should be noted that they do not actually contain the name of the game — which initially makes it a challenge to identify. However, it helped that Gammation was not known to have produced any other games.
Pictures of game and PCB

Phantom, the AtariAge user who originally discovered the game, was originally nervous about posting any un-altered pictures of the game online for fear that someone would try to replicate it and diminish the value of his original copy.

Legend of the Game’s Existence

The most hardcore Atari collectors are always combing old publications to see if there’s a mention of some title they aren’t aware of. Even though some Atari fans had seen the casual mention of a game from Gammation, there was some skepticism about its actual publication and sale. Some thought that perhaps it was really more of a prototype phase and never actually sold.

Even upon finding an actual cartridge, Phantom had a hard time finding any mentions of the company or the game. Only about four forum posts — one calling it a “myth”.

The Game’s Physical Discovery

Phantom (aka Anthony DeNardo) stumbled on the Gamma Attack cartridge when buying a significant lot of games from somebody his family knew. He didn’t think much of the game, but checked in with the AtariAge community to find more information and get some insights. As you can read from this forum thread, the excitement built quite quickly.

It is also interesting to read his account of his purchase experience and his thought process with his game hunting:

“There’s no real dramatic story. I buy lots big and small to keep costs as low as I can to collect. My Brother in law knew someone that wanted to sell some games so we went and took a look. I have another one to look at this weekend but I doubt i’d find anything worth it at all this time but that’s why I search, for the possibility that something I don’t have is there. A Box for Mr Do’s Castle would be nice this weekend as I’m not shooting for a repeat and doubt it will ever happen again but it still won’t stop me from trying. This is a lot I almost passed on and that’s about the most dramatic thing about it. It came with about 80 other games that I spent a good deal on & I’m tapped at the moment which is why I almost didn’t buy it. I thought it was overpriced. I thought this game was a homebrew and worth $50 tops as I never heard of the company or the name before and it did have a factor in my decision to buy or not. When I got home, I did some research on it and then what you read at the start of this post pretty much sums it all up. It was a complete surprise.”

While it may not be a “dramatic story”, I think it is actually better in reality as it is relatable — something that we could picture happening to us. We all dream of stumbling on some rare collectible at a garage sale or Goodwill store that we visit.  In this case he found what looked like it might be a homebrew cart, but it wasn’t until the discussion on AtariAge that he realized he had chanced upon something special.

How To Value Gamma Attack

Back when originally published our Rare & Valuable Atari 2600 guide in 2009, we had Gamma Attack valued between $5,000 and $10,000. We based this quote at Mr. DeNardo’s personal value estimation in 2008, but he confessed that he had received even larger offers for the title.

Nearly 10 years later, the video game collecting market has taken off quite a bit, so we have been estimating the value of Gamma Attack between $20,000 and $50,000 making it arguably the most valuable video game of all time.

For comparison’s sake, one of the biggest contenders in the game collecting market is the 1990 Nintendo World Championships Gold Edition cartridge for the NES. This cartridge has been selling in the $20,000 to $25,000 range for years. It has a great story (ever see The Wizard starting Fred Savage and Jenny Lewis?) and the brand powerhouse of Nintendo behind it. However, there are said to be 26 of the gold cartridges out in the world (although we have only see a handful in the marketplace in the last decade). To our knowledge, there were only “a handful” of Gamma Attack cartridges ever made, and the survival rate of those cartridges are probably lower than the gold NES Championship cartridges.

Without the lone known copy changing hands or other mystery copies surfacing, it is hard to place a concrete value on it. However, since other rarities in the Atari 2600 library have changed hands, one can start to draw estimates on what one might offer the owner.  In the meantime, we will have to look at some of the cartridge’s peers to hone in on a solid valuation.

Comparing Gamma Attack’s Rarity and Value to Its Peers

The most high-profile game in the Atari 2600 library is currently Air Raid. It gradually showed up in auctions for loose cartridges for a few thousand dollars. With its odd shape, colors, and mysterious history, it got the attention of some of the mainstream gaming blogs. This put the game on the radar of a wider range of collectors, which set it up for a blockbuster sale of $33,000 once a boxed copy surfaced.

There are four other games that seem to actually be rarer than Air Raid (which has about 23 known copies in the wild), and Gamma Attack is in that group. The priority can be up for debate, but the current ranking usually is as follows: Birthday Mania (possibly only 2 known copies), Red Sea Crossing (2 known copies), Extra Terrestrials (not to be confused with E.T. — has 4 known copies), and Gamma Attack (only one known copy).

Valuations:

  • Air Raid: $2,800 – $33,000 (based on actual public sales)
  • Birthday Mania: $6,500 – $16,000 (low price based on rejected offer to owner and high range is conservative estimate if complete copy surfaced. Also based on the sales number of Red Sea Crossing below)
  • Red Sea Crossing: $10,400 – $14,000 (based on two eBay sales. Could be higher if found complete with all accompanying items)
  • Extra Terrestrials: $7,000 – $15,000 (never sold, but estimating based on peers and estimates of production/survival quantity)
  • Want more info on these four games?  Check the full guide

In our Rare and Valuable Atari 2600 guide, we are now recommending a value range of $6,000 – $14,000 if someone is looking to sell one they come across. This is still a relatively wide range but it gives some flexibility for condition of the cartridge and is still a smaller range than the $20,000 to $50,000 range a while back. Since then, the drama has calmed down more and we also have come data and collector consensus to process. If you think about it, this is all very similar to how real estate is priced for the market — evaluating comparable properties, factoring special circumstances of the property, and determining the current buyer sentiment.

So you may be wondering why Gamma Attack is ranked below the others. This was perhaps most articulated by AtariAge user, Supergun (who is a bit more skeptical about Gamma Age) during a discussion about Extra Terrestrials:

“The problem with Gamma Attack, solely when compared amongst these top four elite brothers, is that it’s ‘discovery’ and subsequent ‘reveal’ was far more controversial and suspect then the other three… It is unclear just how many true originals really were actually assembled & truthfully sent/sold to actual real people when it was advertised.

Unlike the designers/programmers/owners of the other three games, who all fit into the similar style category of “I’m an old man now, that was way in the distant past, I don’t care to get involved again, I can’t recall exactly, but I didn’t sell very many of them, it’s interesting you found me, I’m flattered that my game interests you, enjoy it and do what you like, have a nice day”… Rather, the person that we found at the end of the beanstalk on Gamma Attack was…to be polite here…not quite as modest, humble, forthcoming and friendly.

So, as a result of that, the truth remained unclear, not just as to how many were truly sold, but more significantly, exactly what the original (TRUE ORIGINAL) cartridge looked like! To the point where 2 of these “original” carts that he had & showed pictures of to us were totally different!

So, as a general rule, the number one thing to remember is to NEVER pay crazy money for any of these four games! Especially without the presence of 100% flawless provenance from the person trying to sell it.”

AtariAge user Wonder007 then added:

“I own the first Gamma Attack cartridge that was discovered and I can tell you that mine was definitely not done overnight especially with the ‘patina’ that was found in the ‘guts’ of the cart. Mine does not look anything like the 2nd one that was discovered and it looked like it had been done recently, especially with the print on the stickers used on the eproms. There are other features in my cart too that make it obvious that it had been put together many, many years ago.”

Anyway, as you can tell, there is still some skepticism and drama surrounding Gamma Attack. Perhaps if more seemingly legit cartridges surface we will be able to piece together more information to solidify what is “real”.

ROM Release and Reproductions

After the game was discovered, conversation quickly turned to dumping the ROM for preservation for the community. Different people have alternative perspectives on the topic. One side wants to preserve the history and the other side wants to preserve the value of the original (by not allowing reproductions to be created). In the end, the ROM of Gamma Attack was released; the Atari preservation community could rest happily, but reproductions started to surface on eBay.

Gammation Reboot and Official Re-Releases

After all the commotion with the GammaAttack discovery, Robert Eskin, booted Gammation back up in 2008 with the goal of releasing new homebrew games for the Atari community. He unveiled GammAttack4, a re-release of the game for PC emulators.

In early December 2009, Mr. Esken (gamecrawler on AtariAge) listed what he claimed was an “original” cartridge of the game on eBay. It was promoted on this AtariAge thread.  Many AtariAge members were concerned about the authenticity of the cartridge. It ended up only selling for $793 shipped.  Aside from the community skepticism about its authenticity, some other factors that probably hurt the final sale price were…: “Atari” or “2600” was not included in the listing’s title, the label was not attached to the cartridge, and there was not a recent picture of the cartridge included.

On December 29th, 2009, Mr Esken then listed a “limited run” of GAMMA-ATTACK cartridges that were signed and numbered by himself. Many collectors and fans considered these to be reproductions, but since they are from the original source, they could be viewed as a later, but still limited print run.

Mr. Esken included a printed instruction manual with designer notes and a letter of authenticity. The cartridge and the documentation each have a Mr. Esken’s signature, a production number out of 100 and the publication date. The numbers and dates are handwritten and the documentation printed on normal office paper stock and the printing looks like it was printed on a home printer or at an office store.

Since then, these official reproductions have been put up for sale for about $120. I could see the values of these reproductions gradually increasing in value, but the lower-quality documentation makes it a bit concerning when it comes to counterfeits.

Collecting Questions and Economics

At the same time, Gamma Attack in general creates some interesting questions for the video game collecting community. Of course, there have been a number of unlicensed games that command hundreds of dollars (just check our Rare and Valuable Guides for the NES and the SNES Rarities list for examples)

Gamma Attack was obviously not an officially licensed Atari 2600 release with a full production. In fact, Gamma Attack seems more like a small run homebrew effort. It helps Gammation’s status that they produced hardware accessories for the 2600 as well, but it still could be considered an indie/homebrew hardware outfit since they only did small batch production and sold via phone and mail orders.

Another somewhat similar situation, but with different circumstances is that of the 1991 Nintendo Campus Challenge Cartridge for the NES.  It also has only one known copy in the hands of a collector with little hope of anymore surfacing. However, the game was used for a game tournament and wasn’t intended to be distributed to public like the 1990 Nintendo World Championship cartridges (see the NES Rare and Valuable guide ) or even sold like Gamma Attack. On the other hand, the Campus Challenge cartridge was developed by Nintendo as opposed to being an unlicensed indie-developer effort like Gamma Attack.

With this in mind, it opens up the discussion of how limited releases of modern homebrew will be valued in the future. Of course, general economics plays heavily into this supply and demand.

In the end, the only real way to know what a game like this is worth it to have it go up for sale and change hands a time or two.


3 Comments

wa27 says:

So how many copies of this are actually out there?

One confirmed to be owned by Phnatom
One claimed to be owned by Wonder007
One dubious copy sold by the original dev on ebay for <$1,000

Is that right?

racketboy says:

Wonder007 actually bought Phantom’s copy. I actually heard back from him recently and I’ll see if he can clear up more details on the known units.

But through my other hours of combing through AtariAge discussion, I can’t get firm answers on the others. It seems like somebody else one found one a little while back, but I can’t find the info.

CRTGAMER says:

Interesting rapid fire dial. The game looks like a recoded 2600 Activision Laser Blast.

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