1982 Archer Maclean

Platform: Atari 400/800

Dropzone is one of the most memorable games on the Atari platform of all time, created by the genius that is the late Archer Maclean, who sadly passed away in late 2022. With the game, Archer created an impressively smooth title that was heavily inspired by both Defender and Stargate.

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In August 2023, Chris Wilkins (Fusion Retro Books) entrusted Games That Weren’t with the task of preserving all of Archer’s development disks. Whilst doing so, a series of significant discoveries were made which tells a story about how we ended up with the amazing Dropzone, which started with a conversion of the very game that inspired it – Defender.

It has been thought for many years that Archer had created Dropzone after being inspired by many different arcades, such as Defender and Stargate – but this wasn’t fully the case. He was certainly inspired by both titles, though there were beginnings for Dropzone that hadn’t been much known about (if at all) until now.

On a digital CV stored on one of his Atari disks, Archer first reveals that he first brought his Atari 800 and disk drive way back in September 1981. He secured a pre-release copy of De Re Atari and “promptly realised the machine’s abilities due to unique hardware embellishments”.

Over the space of a year, Archer would get to grips with the machine – producing a series of BASIC experiments, in some cases trying to replicate elements of his favourite arcade machines of the time. It wasn’t long until he moved over to Machine Language, where things really took flight.

Archer was a huge fan of Williams Defender at the time, and carried out a number of experiments and test programs in BASIC to see how some of the key elements could work and fit together on the Atari 800, before delving further.

In the Summer of 1982 – Archer would then spend 2 months writing a full prototype for the Atari, with the aim of making it as smooth in appearance as the arcade original. It took a lot of determination and hard work, but Archer didn’t disappoint and managed to get an arcade accurate representation of the game in prototype form, which he would take and demonstrate at the P.C.W 1982 show.

According to Archer’s CV, the prototype received great interest, though the Atari manager at the time told Archer to drop the development, as a cartridge version was already under way in the US (getting released that year). As a result, development ceased, with Archer focusing instead on his academic studies for his third and final year of his degree.

This was certainly not the end of it, and the game was resurrected and reworked into Stargate, after Archer had seen the new arcade machine and was inspired once more to have another crack at getting the gig to do an official conversion. More details can be found here about that version. Eventually, when that too fell through – Archer would decide to go his own way and do his own title inspired by both games (as well as Scramble and others), with Dropzone eventually born and released in 1984.

As for Archer’s original development of Defender – the various builds would sit on Archer’s disks for decades, until Games That Weren’t was tasked with saving his works from the deteriorating media. We have extracted out some of the early BASIC tests that Archer did, and a total of 4 builds of the prototype which you can find in the download below that Chris Wilkins has kindly allowed us to upload. Inside is a note file which gives the start address to run the prototypes.

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The last prototype is the most playable, though features are still missing to allow level completion and more.  It still however shows all of the key elements which makes the game Defender, and it is hugely impressive for its time. Certainly, when compared against the released version (and even the prototype by Michael Colburn), Archer’s seemed to have the potential of creating the ultimate version.

Overall, it is a hugely significant and historical finding, which shows the seed that was planted and which would grow into Dropzone as the years went on. Little did we know until now that Archer could have almost done the official Defender and Stargate conversions for Atari, which is amazing to learn. Had this happened, Dropzone may never have existed!

With huge thanks to Chris Wilkins (Fusion Retro Books) for the loan of Archer’s disks to preserve and permission to add executables to the site, Alan Hammerton for hardware help, Mat Allen for the flippy PC drive loan, Ashley Hogg for assistance in looking at one of the prototypes and Bertrand / Atari Frog for guidance and help with tools and formats.

In memory of Archer Maclean – 28 January 1962 – 17 December 2022.



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