‘Hero:’ Internal Atari documents provide details on the canceled Vicious Circle

My previous update to the Vicious Circle feature originally on GemuBaka mentioned developer Alexander Villagran, who mentioned working on an Atari title named “Hoop Fighter.” Having never heard of this game, I started doing online searches, and getting a specific string of words to give me a hit provided a full-on Atari document discussing the Hoop Fighter arcade game project.

It turned out the site hosting this document belonged to none other than Gary Stark, formerly of Atari. Gary hosts a web site that preserves information and images for Adolph Sutro’s Victorian Cliff House, but, tucked away on this site is an “about me” page with other information. His site states he works as a software developer for a construction company, but he “did videogames in a past life” – a phrase which contains a link to various Atari documents he has uploaded online.

This site is crazy, featuring focus group and player surveys of Pit-Fighter testing, documents and blue-screening photographs of the characters for Guardians of the ‘Hood and media for T-Mek. However, Gary collected other packets for games pitched internally at Atari.

I dug through the pitch document for the Beavis & Butthead arcade game, Hoop Fighter, Thunderjaws and a “Shaolin Vengeance” concept.

However – one of these packet sets was labeled only as “Hero.” To my surprise, these documents for Project Hero were full-blown concepting and approval documents for what would eventually be known as Vicious Circle!
Gary was kind enough to respond to a message, stating he knows nothing more about the game other than what was pitched. He said he has the initiation packets for games other than his own due to being involved with producer meetings.

He said he felt the documents would be more useful uploaded to the internet rather than being stashed away in an attic.

“Useful” is an understatement to me, personally, considering we now know the plot of the game and leads as to why some character inconsistencies exist in the prototype version of the game!


Project initiation

In Vicious Circle’s initial concept stages, the following team was organized to work on the game: Lyle Rains as producer; Dave Menconi as programmer; Chuck Eyler (art director), Steve Blevins, Sara Petty, Hector Fajardo and David March as animators/artists; Don Diekneite as composer/game designer; Haywood Beaird as game designer; Derryl DePriest as product manager; and Brian McKee as electronics engineer. Listed as “to be determined” team members, plans were to eventually assign an additional programmer and animator/artist, as well as a technician.


From jump street, the project initiation called for two releases of Vicious Circle – the initial release would feature seven characters plus three bosses, and an expansion release would eventually add three more characters, balance the game, add finishing moves and introduce even more Easter eggs for players. Seeing as the prototype version of the game ROM features nine characters, two bosses and the tease of a third boss, these assets were likely fleshed out ahead of time, and were going to be held onto following the first version of the game’s release.

The game was pitched at costing $3,000 for a family cabinet, with JAMMA kits at $1,500 ($1,300 in the original concept pitch document).

According to the cover sheet, the initiation document was pitched March 31, 1994, with the goal of a second field testing done in April 1995 in order to produce a finished product in July 1995. The slated “major update” was planned for an October 1995 release.

Focus group research was done prior to this document, whittling down potential characters to 23 prototypes. The product aimed for a “comic book feel,” which is the premise behind the body proportions and “skintight” costumes of the characters.

The game’s plot finally revealed!

Playing the prototype, the only bits of plot come from the game’s attract mode, which features balls of light dispersing from a sort of pyramid/temple and then imbuing themselves into fighters. A secondary attract mode video also shows some sort of gem that casts the reflection of a woman who is not in any way referenced in the prototype.


Taken directly from the initiation document, the following occurs in “an exotic ceremonial chamber at night:”

“Starting at large taloned feet, we pan along an immense stone statue of an insect/man lying on a pedestal. At one of its eyes, assorted prisms dance within a force field sphere as a beautiful woman’s hands move over it.

“A door bursts open, as a storm rages outside. A hooded figure enters, slamming the door firmly behind. Throwing back his hood, he reveals angry eyes above a powerful physique, encased in bullet proof armor. He approaches her with dangerous intent from the opposite side of the statue.

“The woman, her trance broken, whispers ‘Dreddlok! No! Too soon!’ She backs easily away from him step-for-step, keeping a precise arms-length between them.

“His anger flares. Through gritted teeth, he whispers, ‘Celeste.’ He reaches suddenly out to her. She pulls away, her robe falling off in his hands. He is momentarily confused.

“She is again at the sphere; it gets LOUDER. She begins merging with it.

“Confusion turns to understanding, then to fury. Screaming, ‘NO!’ he leaps over the statue. She dematerializes, merging completely into the sonic sphere just as he smashes it with his armored fist.

“Her SCREAM becomes the RINGING of the glowing, twirling prisms as they fly, dissolving before they hit the floor.”

In an extended explanation of the game’s story, Celeste is performing some sort of ceremony, and, to escape Dreddlok (who is named Dredlok in the prototype of the game), she melds with the sphere of prisms as he smashes it. With the prisms scattered, each prism chooses a “person in need.”


While the initiation document mentioned the character focus groups, the team was clearly going toward at least 10 character archetypes that would be integral to the overall story of Vicious Circle.

The documents for Vicious Circle indicate there would be a very heavy story approach to the game that isn’t present in the prototype. Two character teases, likely for the attract mode, were provided on how characters would come across the prism and embrace its powers.

“Malcom’s knocked to the ground by six attackers. As their shadows fall across him, a glowing prism appears beside him. He grabs it and moves at lightning speed.”

“A glowing prism appears on Kraav’s grave. The skeleton hand from below clutches it, becoming a pale flesh fist wearing a gauntlet.”


The initially-pitched roster included “inner city ninja” Malcom (likely who eventually evolved into Edge); Chromite, a highly-adaptable liquid metal special agent (likely evolved into Mallus); Kraav, a vampire cannibal; Taera the dark witch; blind tattooed monk Tatu (likely evolved into Lo Chi Sun); Stiletta, originally concepted to be an “icy cruel femme fatale,” which explains the appearance discrepancies in the mutilation video and marquee; and Flint, a proclaimed “champion of outlaw bikers” (likely evolved into ChainSaw).

The initiation document states the individual attract movies play once a character is chosen in single-player mode. With the planned story elements, the chosen character affects the order in which the player encounters other characters. There was intended to be dialog before and during the fight to learn more about the characters, with a “secret” about the relationship between the characters revealed if players use a control combination to take their prism. Other planned control combinations were planned for alternate finishes to the fights. A character’s “friends” are reserved for the end of the arcade ladder.

The story synopsis goes over their character traits, but it goes a little more into detail to state Taera was raised by Celeste.

The player character goes through the arcade ladder with the goal of taking every other characters’ prism. In explaining the fights against Waryar, the mid-bosses, the document states that, after every three prisms, a member of the Kl’Klakt swarm awakens in an attempt to take the prisms away from the player.

Dreddlok bides his time waiting in the ceremonial chamber, knowing someone will eventually come to claim his prism. The prisms magnify the characters’ abilities and it is said the drive to acquire more power from the prisms is too addicting for the characters to deny.

In the prototype, defeating Dreddlok only shows a teaser screen featuring what is assumed to be the true final boss – a new insectoid character. The documented story provides a swerve, revealing the identity of this character.

When Dreddlok loses his prism, the sphere is regenerated and Celeste once again takes form. Dreddlok again charges her, but, without hesitation, Celeste kills Dreddlok. Laughing, Celeste begins morphing into a female Kl’Klakt. At this point, the player learns they were not out to save Celeste, but, instead they were a pawn in her plan to gain the power of the Kl’Klakt.

“Celeste’s plan is now complete,” the document reads. “She’s gathered the powers of all who’ve been defeated. The player only now realizes he has created his own worst and most difficult enemy …”


Game design

In pitching concepts for uniqueness, Vicious Circle was planned with bullet points that included “active blocks” to turn defensive moves into offensive moves (these are later referred to as “reflective blocks”), taunts, reversals and struggle mechanics for grabs, and playfield-specific moves. Hidden rooms in playfields and playfield interactions were also pitched. Later information on the document clarifies this could mean smashing characters through walls with fierce hits to open up new arenas.

From the beginning, it was pitched that the team could save a lot of time by utilizing code and resources available to them from Primal Rage. (Given how the game controls and feels in the prototype, I’m led to believe this refers to the Primal Rage II project).

“Specifically, the schedule assumes that we will be able to use the Primal Rage code as a basis for the fight engine and that we will be able to use the basic concepts and much of the code for the various editors and tools,” the document reads. “We are also counting on Mike Albaugh’s assistance in developing the overall game structure. We may have an opportunity to reuse even more code. We may be able to quickly and efficiently port the motion object driver that is being used in Primal Rage to the Jaguar. Our ability to do this depends primarily on how quickly we can port the low level motion object functions, on which the Primal Rage motion object driver is based. If we can do this, we will be able to start with most of the Primal Rage code running immediately (we will have to convert some of the code to deal with our data, of course). We will also be able to use most of the editors and tools for Primal with little or no effort spent rewriting them. Future CoJag products can start with the motion object driver and the basic code created for Hero.”


A motion capture process was pitched for the animation production schedule to provide animators a starting place to generate the exaggerated animation desired, which would shorten to time to generate the character movement.

Much of the planned dialog scenes are not included in the prototype, and this includes mentions of the characters’ prisms speaking to them. It was also pitched to have each character featured with a musical theme, which would be combined into underlying music as characters fought each other. When one character starts gaining the advantage, their general music texture starts emerging more, and fades back as they start losing.

In compiling all of the development details and challenges, it was reported a development budget of $2.1 million was estimated for the initial project, with another $400,000 going into phase two. It was added, if the initial release was “weak,” the second phase of the project wasn’t likely to materialize.

Marketing – More bullet points!

Derryl DePriest was tasked with Vicious Circle’s marketing, and the initiation document includes a number of bullet points that sum up some of the initial ideas crafted for the game:
*Characters will have over 60 moves each, and, when stunned, vibrate to the movements of the joystick so players can actually “wake up” their characters.
*Fluid combo ability based on the Primal Rage system of controls.
*The storyline is such that each of the characters has a relationship with the others, and events decided by the players determine the outcome for up to 42 different game endings.
*The Insectoid was a popular character during focus groups. It was theorized the popularity of this character could lead to a sequel taking place on another planet for a science-fiction approach.
*Bonus rounds were concepted to allow players to fight a series of bosses, rounds where players can practice special moves and combos on items such as Insectoid egg pods and more bonus rounds for two-player games.
*Character morphing for multiple characters, such as turning into a skeleton, Insectoids or an ice creature. It was also pitched that players could eventually learn special codes to morph into a special “good” version of an Insectoid to fight their way through the remainder of the arcade ladder.
*In speaking on Easter eggs in the game, there were plans to spark rumors on the internet and possibly integrate a calendar chip into the game for date-specific events.
*The CD-ROM format was touted as a way to deliver quick and inexpensive updates to the game. The “phase two” update to the game was planned to be made available at a cost ranging from $99-$299. Tournaments would have also been encouraged, with a possible tournament link package that would add a “tournament only” Insectoid homeworld background.

The concept approval

Two months prior to the initiation document, a concept approval for “Hero” was reviewed, which sheds some light on some of the elements that were shelved, mostly the character prototypes.

While the CO-JAG hardware was settled on for Vicious Circle, the concept pitch indicated considerations were also made for the SEGA Saturn (through its SEGA Titan Video [STV] format, a.k.a., the “Die Hard Arcade hardware”), 3D0 and Atari Games GT formats.

The appendix to the document features the Hero preliminary character list, which includes 23 originally-concepted characters for Vicious Circle:
*Hannibal the Cannibal – From 15th Century Eastern Europe, he can steal energy and eat victims. His shadow is independent and he can turn into a skeleton with abilities of shooting eyes from sockets, a boomerang arm throw and telescoping arms.

*Kamille – A reptile/chameleon character with fangs and a forked tongue. She is from the Egyptian desert and is poisonous, can be translucent in order to hide, has hypnotic abilities and “does things with her tongue.”

*The Twins – Chinese acrobats that can throw each other as a weapon. They have telepathic communication and can feel the pain of the other twin being hit.

*Hacksaw – Wears two wrecking bars that form an “X” on his back. He is a truck driver/cowboy trope, who is a bar fighter with “piston fists.”

*The “Evil Buffed Witch” – A wraith with a third eye who works for a New York City law firm during the day. She was penned to have either a “breast laser” or an evil eye from the bust. O_o She wears a crystal on a pendant that could have acted as a weapon and she can morph into a “wart monster.”

*Celeste – Penned to be the game’s “good girl,” modeled after Joan of Arc. She appeared to be equipped with different, flexible kicks, including the trademark Cynthia Rothrock overhead kick, and she apparently had a light staff, plasma daggers, energy hands and “super hair.”

*Sable, “Cat Woman” – Modeled after a panther with red, glowing eyes. A fashion model by day, she has retractable claws and a wild sonic howl.

*Dreadlok (now spelled a third way) – Essentially intended to be The Predator. Dreadlocks, shoulder rocket, stealth.

*”Neuromancer exoskeleton” – Concepted to be someone inside of an exoskeleton, this character was designed to have an arm that rotates to different weapons. Designed to be a long-range fighter.

*Clint – A Mad Max-style character with an overcoat and sawed-off shotgun. Designed to have special grabs, including a crotch grab. The document specifically goes out of its way to state this is not a crotch hit, but an entire grab and lift of the crotch.

*Gunger – A “capoeira monkey man” who is “wild and in your face.” Gunger would have fought low to ground, using handsprings and kicks. He has a mandrill face and can use a bola as a weapon and shoot webs that glue opponents to the floor.

*Leviathan – Another character pitched as someone who could be the game’s “good character.” The character would have worn monk robes, and have abilities to teleport, hover and use telekinesis.

*”Bear man” – A very strong Russian with short legs and huge upper body that can use a bear hug. A very Zangief-style concept, but this design would also feature a possible meat hook or claws as a weapon and more of a desire to bite and slash as opposed to using punches and kicks.

*”The General” – A “clean fighter with honor,” so, not The General from Kaiser Knuckle. A “Darth Vader” description is given to him, noting various equipment such as pads on the legs and arms, headphones, a chin guard and an antenna for cellular communication.

*Chromite – A contortionist who can melt, being liquid and flexible. His arms can morph into different weapons and he practices aikido.

*Earth man – A person with powers based on plants and rock. He can grow vines, crack the ground and turn into dust.

*”Bane/Pierce” – A criminal mastermind who fights with one hand behind his back. He is a masked character who is described as “ridiculously big and monstrous.”

*Ginzu – A ninja with access to smoke balls, energy stars, jacks and a grappling hook.

*Stiletta the Ice Goddess – The document lists this character as “male or female” and they can combine their ice power with wildfire. Ice shields and daggers can be used as well as defending with a blue gas flame.

*Silver Wolf – Said to resemble Image Comics’ Warblade or Ripclaw. Silver Wolf would have been of Native American descent, with very tropish concepts such as a war drum, wolf-head hat, loin cloth, and a ready pose dance with abilities to call rain, lightning or wind.

*Yakuza “The Poser” – Modeled after the “bad guy in Bloodsport,” he is covered with tattoos and body piercings. He has an affinity for knives and could make his tattoos come off his body to attack.

*Insectoid – A human/insect combination with wings, wasp head and compound eyes. Swarms of bees could come from the eyes or mouth, and they for some reason were concepted to have a “flying penis sting.”

*Smoke (Hellspont) – An anguished ghost spirit that wears a smoke jacket and has a number of smoke-inspired abilities. Smoke was concepted to be able to go through opponents, turn into smoke to block, go into an enemy’s mouth and exit their ears and become a tornado.

An amazing find, I am very grateful to Gary Stark for uploading these documents! If you have free time, be sure to surf through these amazing snapshots of video game development history:

The main menu of gaming materials uploaded by Gary Stark from Atari

The “Hero”/Vicious Circle concept approval document

The “Hero”/Vicious Circle project initiation document

(All of the document media in this feature is courtesy of the uploads done by Gary Stark. I’m still adjusting to the “block” feature of WordPress, and, for some reason, I can’t add captions to the photos in classic mode.)

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Arcade enthusiast and game collector. Affiliate Twitch retro streamer and games archive writer at Gemubaka (http://gemubaka.com). For business only: gemubaka at gmail


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6 Comments on “‘Hero:’ Internal Atari documents provide details on the canceled Vicious Circle”

    October 23, 2020 at 6:27 pm #

    Really excellent stuff here, thanks for posting. I enjoyed reading the pitch behind the game and the scope of it’s final release (if it had happened) as well.

  2. David March
    February 15, 2021 at 8:11 pm #

    As one of the animators on the team I’m fascinated to see the history of this game emerging 25 years later. The team was told it was meant to be Atari’s first Hi-resolution 3D game. Of course, the 80K-polygon figures now are eclipsed even by games for bitty little kids… But even though several of us had worked with 3D previously the whole team spent a week training at Wavefront’s Santa Barbara HQ learning their Kinematics app in the last months before they and Alias premiered the first release of MAYA. Took most of us more another month after training to get the beast to behave. I’ve learned and used and taught Lightwave and Maya since, and those have gradually become more intuitive, but they are all fiendishly complex.

    Every day we sent our animation from our SPARC stations to render overnight on a Silicon Graphics Onyx, we still spent almost as much time doing pixel surgery and palette optimization as actual animation. Final screen resolution was 320×240 pixels!!!

    Paul Lewis helped the team enormously, joining us after working on the CG for the film “Lawnmower Man.” But the thing that really hurt the production was simple. We couldn’t get the specs we needed for the intended game engine. In the end, a British group got a similar game to market before we could work out the communications blockage between Coin-op division in Milpitas with the people who had the game engine. The game was cancelled and everyone was assigned to other projects. Sad, really. There was a lot of good game play there.

    • February 16, 2021 at 5:20 am #

      I’m glad you found the website. It’s my goal to eventually do similar features for other games so people can learn about the hard work people put into games even if they did not release!

      Learning more about Vicious Circle has been quite fun as it was a very promising project based on the technology at the time. There were a lot of interesting ideas put to paper for Vicious Circle, but I understand how those don’t always make their way into the product. Still, I find that the video scenes and characters in Vicious Circle look pretty nice.

      It’s always great to offer ways to let the developers on these projects know that people enjoy the games, even if they are unfinished, all these years later. I believe there are still a lot of stories that can be told from the point of arcade game development, especially in the U.S. The past handful of years have seen a lot of great stories surface on older arcade projects, so I hope the internet is able to better preserve this history!

    February 16, 2021 at 5:35 pm #

    Fantastic read as always, about this obscure unreleased game. Know it never made it out fully complete and as an arcade machine as intended but at least it’s been preserved in some format and that will always be a plus in my book 🙂


  1. | A breakdown of the canceled Vicious Circle (arcade)GemuBaka - December 11, 2020

    […] **This feature was updated on Oct. 18, 2020, to add contributions including photos of the Vicious Circle prototype board and a few comments/details provided by a couple of developers of the game. This additional content is highlighted below, following the list of finishing moves in the game. We have also recently come across developer documents for Vicious Circle – under the codename “Hero” – thanks to an online archive hosted by Gary Stark. That trove of information can be found on our Vicious Circle developer document page! […]

  2. | The Best of GemuBaka in 2022GemuBaka - January 30, 2023

    […] that GemuBaka has massive features on the gameplay of Atari’s Vicious Circle, as well as the development of Vicious Circle under its project name “Hero.” Because of these features, I occasionally get someone contacting me to let me know they have […]

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