Atari VCS / 2600
Image: Atari

It's no secret that many video games don't get finished and are often leaked onto the internet many years after their cancellation for fans to pull apart and inspect. However, you'd think that all of the unfinished and unreleased games for a console as old as the Atari VCS / 2600 would have been discovered by now – but last year, a title was unearthed which had been forgotten for over 40 years.

The game in question is called Sonar, and a prototype was discovered by Alvaro Arroyo in 2022 residing in the collection of Jim Snyder, who had worked in R&D at Atari in the early '80s. It was the work of programmer Brad Stewart, who also coded the 2600 port of Asteroids. In a 2001 interview, it was noted that Stewart had worked on an unnamed and unreleased Battleship-style game in 1979 – which, it turns out, is Sonar.

While the concept of finding enemy ships is the same, Sonar is a little different to the famous board game from which it takes inspiration – mainly because it would have required two screens to replicate the experience exactly. Sonar instead has both players looking at the same display, but with the ships completely hidden from view. The players, therefore, have to rely on the sonar of the title to ascertain where enemy ships are located. To differentiate the sonar pings of each player, the sound was ingeniously split between the left and right stereo channels.

This aspect of the game is groundbreaking when you consider that Sonar would have launched at a time when the vast majority of TVs had mono sound. Atari's solution was to equip the VCS / 2600 with its own pair of speakers, but this feature was removed shortly before the console launched (original VCS 'Heavy Sixer' models still have mounts for these speakers inside the case), meaning that Sonar wouldn't have been playable for many people – and this perhaps contributed to its demise. It's also possible, as Atari Protos speculates, that Stewart was pulled off the game to work on other projects or that Atari simply decided that Sonar wasn't a strong enough concept for commercial release.

Whatever the reason for its cancellation, it's comforting to know that, after more than 40 years, Sonar is finally getting its chance to find an audience.