Did a vigilante ROM leaker go too far to ?preserve? a lost Atari ROM?
Long hoarded by collectors, Akka Arrh prototype is now part of MAME.
by Kyle Orland - Apr 26, 2019 12:30pm CEST
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Paramount Pictures / Aurich Lawson
Earlier this month, the digital preservationists at The Dumping
Union made an important announcement in the world of arcade game
emulation. The collective had gotten its hands on a ROM image
of Akka Arrh, an extremely rare Atari arcade prototype and one of
the most prominent remaining cabinets that had, to that
point, never been available through emulation on MAME
(the Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator).
That alone would have been notable news in the world of gaming
history?the Dumping Union suggested as much by titling their
forum announcement "Sit down on the toilet before reading this or
else you will shit your pants." But the story might require
another round of toilet sitting, because what started as a
rare-game reveal has turned into a credible "heist" tale,
perpetrated by an alleged MAME vigilante, no less.
A bit of history
The story of Akka Arrh (also known as Target Outpostduring
development) dates back to 1982, when the game was created by
Atari's Dave Ralston and Mike Hally, who would go on to work on
plenty of well-remembered arcade games for the company (the title
is supposedly a mangled initialism for "Also Known As Another
Ralston Hally"). After a small test-market release in 1982, Akka
Arrh's rotational take on Missile Command's trackball targeting
was reportedly deemed too complicated for the masses at the time.
So even though Akka Arrh was practically complete and had its own
unique cabinet art and design, wide release was scrapped in favor
of more promising Atari titles.
The existing test-market prototypes were at some point rescued
from the refuse of Atari's warehouses?likely during or after the
company's spectacular crash?and over the years made their way to
the hands of some extremely private arcade-cabinet collectors.
Only three such cabinets are believed to exist, and only two
are registered in the Vintage Arcade Preservation Society's
census of nearly 8,500 collectors.
A demo of Akka Arrh being played via MAME.
Perhaps because of that rarity, the ROM chips comprising Akka
Arrh's game program had (until recently) never been publicly
dumped and cataloged in the Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator's
massive database. That's bad for the historical preservation
community, but it could be good for the value of these extremely
rare machines. After all, collectors might not be willing to pay
quite the same premium for a rare cabinet if they (and anyone
else) could just play the same essential game on an
But Akka Arrh's few owners haven't hoarded the rare game
completely to themselves. The cabinets are occasionally set out
for free play at conventions like California Extreme, which
provide the only public opportunities to experience the game.
Still, many in the emulation and preservation communities have
expressed dismay over the years that such a singular piece of
Atari history is essentially inaccessible to all but a few very
A shady tech?
All that context should highlight just how big a deal it was to
finally see Akka Arrh dumped and playable via MAME earlier this
month, 37 years after it was made. But where exactly did that ROM
come from, and why was it dumped now?
The Dumping Union's CEO, who goes by Smitdogg online, says only
that the dump came from an anonymous donor. But a MAMEWorld
forum-goer with the handle "atariscott" had an explosive
accusation on that score (emphasis added):
There were only three machines ever built. All are in high-end
collections. One collector had a tech come and work on some of
his games. The unscrupulous tech copied the ROMS without
permission. The game was not broken and not one he was supposed
to "fix." The owner is reviewing a couple of months of security
video to see if he can catch him in the act. This is the first
time that someone has actually had the balls to steal ROMS from a
Without context, there are reasons to be skeptical of this story.
For one, the accusation is the only post from "atariscott" on the
MAMEWorld forums. The account behind it, though, was created back
in 2005, which would be a pretty long setup for a random
Safe Stuff / Internet Archive
Two Akka Arrh cabinets, as they looked in the collection of Scott
Atariscott is also the public Internet handle of Atari collector
Scott Evans, who uses it to post on otherretro game forums online
(as well as Instagram). And Evans is in a good position to know
something about the state of Akka Arrh preservation, being
well-known in the collecting community for owning a number of
rare arcade prototypes over the years. That list at one point
included not one but two Akka Arrh cabinets (at least one of
which seems to have been sold to another collector since
Evans also owned two cabinets of Marble Man, the prototype sequel
to Marble Madness which is seen as another "undumped" grail
inaccessible to the emulation community. And then there's Bradley
Trainer, a version of Atari's Battlezone modified for US military
training. Evans apparently discovered the only known extant
cabinet for that "next to a dumpster outside the closed offices
of Midway," as the story goes.
Aside from cabinets, Evans also collects Atari information. He
recently donated a nearly complete set of Atari arcade source
code to The Strong Museum of Play, also apparently sourced from
Midway's garbage. Evans has also maintained an online
clearinghouse of classic Atari arcade information, first at
Safestuff.com and later at AtariGames.com.
Is it true?
If the "atariscott" posting on MAMEWorld is Evans, there's ample
reason to give credence to his story. Evans has not responded to
multiple requests for comment from Ars Technica via a variety of
But that forum post is not going up in a vacuum. One well-placed
arcade collector with direct knowledge of the extant Akka
Arrh cabinets and their owners (who asked for anonymity to "avoid
burning bridges") told me "it does sound like this really
happened." That source tells me that the victim of the alleged
theft is sharing essentially the same story as atariscott with
other Akka Arrh owners (who, unsurprisingly, all know each
"They were told it was theft from the tech who had access, and
apparently there were rumblings about this tech being shady ahead
of this release," the collector tells Ars. "It wasn't their board
that was dumped, but [they] were pretty upset when the ROMs were
released, given the rarity of the machine."
It's far from direct evidence or on-the-record testimony
confirming the "unsolicited repair tech copy" story. But this
might be the closest we're able to come for now, given the
insular and secretive world of rare arcade collecting.
And just because the story is being passed around this world
doesn't mean it's true, either. The "theft" could be a cover
story for an Akka Arrh owner (past or present) just deciding to
release his own ROM dump voluntarily, for instance.
Arcade Heroes blogger and arcade owner Adam Pratt has his own
take, which he shared with Ars:
As it comes across online, it sounds like something is missing...
That a technician would come in to a collection to fix something
else, break into the Akka Arrh machine, pull out all of the ROMs,
burn them one-by-one (which requires a ROM burner and a
computer), then put everything back unnoticed doesn't seem
plausible to me. Chances are, [Evans] or one of the other two
collectors happened to have backed up the ROMs when they first
got the machine and that backup either got out, or one of the
collectors finally decided to anonymously upload the
Does it belong in a museum?
An Akka Arrh prototype is seen as part of Joe Magiera's collection
at about 12:24 in this video from 2014.
Story or no, the allegation alone has refocused a long-running
debate in emulation circles. Is there a moral imperative for
collectors of rare games and prototypes to release their code for
the good of preservation? And if they refuse, is there any
ethical argument for literally sneaking into a private collection
to make an unsolicited copy of the game for posterity?
"All the ROMs are way past their lifespan for holding data,"
Dumping Union's Smitdogg writes in a MAMEWorld post. "It's
amazing that the data can still be extracted if the ROMs are
original. A miracle. The first thing any sane tech would do is
dump the ROMs. It's amazing to me that people think they own the
data on these, like [they] own the copyright."
Dumping the ROM, Smitdogg argues, just makes Akka Arrh "identical
to every other game that has ever been emulated in the past 25
Others disagree. "If what he alleges is true, the collector who
was allegedly bilked has every right to be absolutely
furious," MAMEWorld user Mooglyguy said. "A person's private
goods, acquired through private transactions, are sacrosanct. We
can sit here and dither about moral imperatives as they pertain
to preserving history, but at the end of the day, these
collectors either need to come around to the Kindergarten-level
concept of sharing on their own, or they need to be left well
alone. Forcing their hand, so to speak, is an incredibly bad
And just because a game isn't available to the emulating public
doesn't mean an individual owner isn't protecting it for history.
As Evans himself put it in a 2009 forum post, "everything does
not need to be in MAME for it to be 'preserved.'"
If atariscott's story about the Akka Arrh ROM is true, Pratt says
the repair tech's actions were "the right thing to do, but the
wrong way to go about it." On the one hand, Pratt says he's
"happy that the game will be preserved and more available." On
the other, "there is a level of trust you put into someone to
come in and work on your games."
It has yet to be proven whether the MAME release will even reduce
the collectible value of what are still some extremely rare
prototype cabinets. "In my view, Akka Arrh's presence on MAME
won't diminish the value of the existing machines," Pratt said.
"If anything, it will probably enhance it, since more people will
know about it now."
"Arcades are more than just the software," he continued. "When
cabinets are specially tailored to a game experience, it makes
that game stick with you more than playing a digital-only game on
Steam... Akka Arrh's cabinet is unique, so if I ever had the
chance, my preference would be to play it on the original cabinet
over emulation any day."