Disks 18-22

This post is combining five disks, even though it only has three games. This is because I could never get disks 18-21 copied correctly from my actual Atari to my PC, and also I couldn’t remember exactly what was on disks 19 or 20. Disk 19 had some sort of top-down racing game with oil slicks everywhere that I thiiiink was programmed in BASIC, and I can picture it in my head, but for the life of me I can’t remember the name of it. If I ever find it (or if someone reading this knows what it’s called and contacts me) then I will add it to this post. In addition, starting with disk 21, some of the games were repeats from earlier disks, so I am skipping those ones. Disk 21 also had a game that was called “Wizard” on the loading menu, but never worked right, so I have no idea what game it actually was (probably Wizard of Wor though).

With that said, let’s take a look at the games I could pick out of these five disks:

Wayout

way outI hate this effing game. Hate it with the passion of a thousand suns. My goodness, do I hate it. It. Gave. Me. Horrible. Nightmares! In Wayout you are stuck in a maze and must find your way out (duh). The maze is your standard 3D first-person maze, though you have full range of movement, unlike most “3D” mazes of the time, which only let you turn 90 degrees. Since the walls all look the same and it’s easy to get lost, you also have a compass and an automap function that help you find your way around. However, these aren’t as useful as you may originally think, due to the only real enemy this maze has. Worse than Nazis, worse than demons from hell or interdimensional aliens or whatever other enemies one may face in more modern FPS’s…

…is the Cleptangle.

This horrible abomination of nature at first seems to be just annoying (and probably for most people playing, it is simply annoying and nothing more). It’s just a spinning, flashing rectangle that roams the maze making a horrible random robotic noise, and if it catches you, it steals your compass (the first time it catches you), and then your ability to automap (the second time). After that you have to go chase it down to get your abilities back, but it can then steal them again, and the cycle never ends. It doesn’t show up on your map, and the only way you know where it is (unless it’s right in front of you) is to hear its horrible alarm slowly get louder and louder and higher and higher, while a white line above your viewport gets longer the closer it gets, until suddenly, with a wrenching, schlluuup sound, you’ve lost all ability to navigate in the maze, and are now doomed to wander the identical, seemingly endless corridors in a futile effort to seek your way out…

Forever…

Seriously, even replaying this stupid game to do this review game me PTSD flashbacks to when I played it when I was, like, three. This was my boogeyman, my monster under the bed, this spinning rectangle from the foulest depths of the abyss. You couldn’t do anything about it. You couldn’t shoot it. You couldn’t hide from it. You couldn’t run away from it for long. The only thing you could do was chase it through the endless hallways to get your stuff back, hoping you didn’t get irredeemably lost in the meantime. It didn’t help the creepy factor that, aside from the Cleptangle, the exit, and the sound you made as you slid around the maze, the game was completely silent.

If you are able to make it past that obstacle (and, to be honest, most people playing this above the age of three probably weren’t bothered by it), you still have to find the exit, which is harder than it seems, considering it’s at a random place in the maze (not always on the outside), and it also makes a horrible sound when you draw near. To complicate matters, there is also a wind that blows in a constant direction in every maze, which can sometimes block your movement (the intro maze in particular has the exit six feet in front of the entrance, but you have to loop around the whole maze due to the wind tunnel between the two points) and is represented by little yellow flecks blowing about at all times.

Wayout was a technical marvel of the time, with its ability to do true 3D movement (unlike, say, Ball Blazer, which was still limited to 90 degree turning), but other than that, it’s mostly just a simple “get out of this maze” game. The game does track your steps made and saves the high score to the disk, so there’s at least some replay value (since there are 26 mazes that never change). If you want to get a three-year-old to never sleep again then show this game to him; otherwise, there are more interesting maze games out there.

Rating: 3/10

Blue Max

Blue MaxSomething fun about doing these reviews is going back and playing games I haven’t played for years even though they form a big part of my childhood, and discovering all-new things about them I never knew because, as a kid, I wasn’t good enough of a player to find them out. Such was the case when I replayed Blue Max here, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Blue Max puts you in the oversized aviator goggles, leather jacket, and awesome scarf of a British WWI pilot (the game tells you you’re British by blaring “Rule, Britannia!” at you the instant the game finishes loading) flying deep into enemy territory to perform bombing and strafing runs. At first I thought the pilot’s name was Max, or that Blue Max was some sort of title or nickname (similar to “Red Baron”), but no, apparently it’s the name of a medal that you’re trying to win. Kind of like if Call of Duty was actually named Congressional Medal of Honor, or Star Wars was named That Thing That Princess Leia Puts On Everyone’s Neck Except For Chewie’s ‘Cause Screw Him.

You fly over two basic terrain types: a river and its banks, and a street and its, uh, stuff on the sides of the street. The game autoscrolls isometrically, with your movement confined to left-right and up-down (handily, the game lets you decide between normal and inverted controls for that extra bit of aircraft realism), where shooting is accomplished with the trigger, and bombing with the trigger and pulling down. The best way to rack up points, though, is to fly close enough to the ground to just strafe everything in sight (too far down, though, and you end up crashing into buildings and trees). AA guns, boats, and enemy aircraft are firing at you, and if you’re hit your bombs, guns, fuel, or maneuverability are compromised one by one, and if you’re hit when all four of these have been damaged you simply blow up (dying is also accomplished by ramming headfirst into an enemy plane or crashing into the ground due to not paying attention). Damage can be repaired and your fuel can be topped off at a runway that shows up every so often (make sure you press the trigger to lower your landing gear; otherwise, you’ll just kamikaze right into the runway, which would probably be a pretty embarrassing way to go). Nobody explains why there are friendly runways all over the place in enemy territory, but at least it’s a flying game where refueling doesn’t consist of shooting a fuel tanker, unlike pretty much every other game with fuel I’ve reviewed so far.

When I was young I was never good enough to get terribly far in this game, but replaying it recently revealed that there’s actually a third section beyond the river and street portions: an actual city with gigantic buildings. Three obvious colored bombing targets are scattered about in this city, and bombing them all and landing on the next runway causes the game to actually…

wait for it…

END! That’s right, this game has an ending! No “everything changes color and moves faster” for this WWI sim, no sir! True, the ending is just a score ranking and another rendition of “Rule, Britannia!” but that’s more than we usually got from these old Atari games! Well done, Synapse! I can forgive you for Slime and Nautilus now!

Even without this plot twist of the plot…actually ending…, Blue Max is a pretty great game. It has been described as a Zaxxon-esque shooter due to its isometric scrolling, but I enjoyed Blue Max way more than I did Zaxxon. The graphics are sharp, clean, and colorful; the controls and gameplay are fun, addictive, and challenging without ever being frustrating; even the sound effects have the perfect level of bite to them. If Blue Max isn’t the best autoscrolling shooter for the Atari 8-bit lineup, it’s right near the top of the list.

Rating: 8/10

Survivor

survivor(Disclaimer: I will not be making any references to the Survivor TV show. I’ve never seen an episode, and I don’t really plan to, even just to make jokes about it in a review of an obscure Atari game. I apologize in advance if you were looking forward to some brilliant bon mots in this vein. If it makes you feel any better, I doubt the TV show has made any references to this game or my review of it either. If that changes in the future, I may reconsider my position.)

Survivor stars what appears to be the ship from Asteroids flying around space, targeting and blowing up what I can only assume are space stations, since “irregular 90° shapes covered in guns” doesn’t sound as exciting. There are four stations in all, each protected by its own color-coded cat-food-shaped shielding. Your job is to break through the shields and shoot all of the guns. Said guns also unwisely function as load-bearing apparati, as blowing them all up causes each station to violently self-destruct. Also, on occasion, a red, blue, or green spinning thing (and sometimes two or all three of them) appears on the screen with a wobbly whine and tries to kamikaze into your ship. These don’t directly home in on you, though (’cause that would make them easier to shoot, you see), but instead kind of wobble around drunk in your general direction, as if the aliens in charge of these stations were deliberately trying to rid themselves of the morons in their society by putting them in suicide ships that they clearly can’t fly correctly. Fortunately for you, and unfortunately for these drunken bombers, you shoot out both the front and back of your little ship, so destroying them just takes a bit of careful maneuvering. In addition, they are also destroyed by shots from the guns on their own stations, furthering the theory that nobody liked them anyway.

After destroying every station, the game suddenly dumps you back to the title screen, making you manually have to select a harder difficulty in order for the game to make everything move faster. That’s pretty much it.

Survivor is a decent little game. While the layout is the same every time, the action isn’t half bad, and dodging the homing guys can be challenging. Destroying the stations can get somewhat tedious, though, especially since two of them have some guns in little interior sections that require you to perform a pixel-perfect maneuver to even reach the guns (which immediately shoot you as soon as you get in there anyway), and heaven help you if a kamikaze tries to get you at the same time you’re slowly creeping into one of those spaces. It’s still fun enough for a quick diversion.

Rating: 4/10

That does it for this wide spread of Disks 18-22, barring somebody telling me what that racing game on disk 19 is called. Next up we narrow our focus back to a single disk, with Disk 23 covering Firebird, Embargo, and Monster Maze. Until then!

Disk 17

Clowns & Balloons

clowns & balloonsHave you ever been playing a game of Breakout and thought to yourself, “You know what this game needs? More clowns!” Well, boy howdy, have we got a game for you!

Clowns & Balloons is exactly what it claims to be: a game with clowns and balloons. You control two guys holding a trampoline running around underneath a clown (or possibly trapeze artist; I don’t think it’s the clowns who do the death-defying physical stunts at the circus) who bounces up in the air, popping balloons in a series of three lines that scroll past the upper half of the screen. Adding a bit of flavor (read: frustration) to the game is the fact that you have to pop the lines in order; if you pop all the balloons in the middle or upper lines before you’ve finished the lower one, then that line simply replenishes itself, forcing you to pop it again before moving on. Every time you finish a line, a short ragtime riff plays, and when you finish an entire level, a monkey does this:

monkey

Which is adorable. Also, ECCAMF.

While this is basically just a goofy version of Breakout, it’s still pretty fun. The clown can move really fast at times (sometimes too fast for you to actually keep up), so it can get frustrating at higher difficulty levels, but the goofy music that plays when your poor clown plows headfirst into the cold, unforgiving ground pretty much makes up for it. Play it today, and pop some balloons/kill some clowns in style!

Rating: 5/10

Snake Byte

snake byteHave you ever owned a Nokia phone? Did you have a computer any time before 1995? If so, you’ve already played this game, so what do you need me for? Snake Byte is a version of that classic snake game where you’re a short snake who grows in length every time you eat something (in this case, “apples”) but can’t run into the wall or your own tail lest you smash your head and end the game. In this version there are several levels with different wall layouts, and you have the option of between 0-2 “plums” flying about the level, which also can smash into your head and kill you. Why can a snake eat apples but not plums? Don’t snakes actually eat, like, rats or something? Also, there is a time limit in which you need to eat a certain number of apples in order to advance to the next stage, after which the required number jumps up (but so do the number of apples strewn about). So that’s a thing.

This is a decent version of the simple snake game, but there’s nothing exactly groundbreaking here about it, especially since you can probably play this game on, like, 1st-generation Zunes or something. Are those even still a thing? I dunno.

Rating: 4/10

Knockout!

knockoutHave you ever had the experience where, in a game of Wii Boxing, a small relative of yours, perhaps a 4-year-old girl, flailed around with the Wiimote randomly and still totally took you down? Did you think to yourself, “Boy, I’d sure like to put that little girl in her place with a boxing game from more than thirty years ago!” What? You didn’t? Well, you probably won’t be interested in hearing about Knockout! from the creatively titled “Microcomputer Games, Inc.” You wouldn’t want to hear about its straightforward gameplay where two boxers can only either punch high, middle, and low, or block high, middle, and low. You couldn’t care less about the fact that these boxers seem to only be made of muscle and embarrassingly short shorts since the graphics are terrible (also the game is almost entirely silent apart from the opening bell and barely audible punching sounds). And you certainly wouldn’t want to know that, despite it being likely the most generic boxing game ever created, there is still more strategy and skill involved here than in Wii Sports. You’d probably want to take the loser’s way out by “sparing her feelings” or “letting her feel good about herself.” Well, guess what, Mr. or Ms. Coward? Quitters never win! (Also, she’d probably beat you in this game too.)

Rating: 2/10

That does it for Disk 17. For the next post, I will be combining a few disks together, since we’re nearing the end of these disks and I’m cutting out some repeats. Next up, Disks 18-22, featuring Wayout, Blue Max, and Survivor. Until then!

Disk 16, Side 2

Baja Bug

Baja BugA “Baja Bug”, according to Wikipedia, is an old Volkswagen Beetle modified to go off-road, presumably to compete in races across sand dunes and whatnot. In this game you are driving one of these crazy vehicles through some sort of desert race course, trying to get first place out of the eighty(!) racers you are competing against. Fortunately, you’ve evidently souped up your old bug with illegal mods and some nitro boosters, as you can hit speeds of about eighty miles per hour while all other racers can’t make it past forty. Unfortunately, this means that you’ll be bashing headlong into the racers ahead of you frequently if you don’t brake well, and while this doesn’t make you crash, it does bump your speed immediately down to 20 and it takes a few seconds to accelerate back up to full speed. Hilariously, though, if you pass a racer and then bump into the one ahead, sometimes the one behind bumps back into you, causing you to suddenly jump back up to 60 MPH or so, a tactic I wish could be used whenever somebody’s going slow in the left lane on the freeway.

The course itself is mostly just yellow lines that scroll past you and occasionally curve, much like PitStop. There are two courses (well, three if you count the one marked “R”), though the only difference between them is where the road curves, but since there’s no map or real 3D perspective it’s kind of a moot point unless you memorize the courses or something. The only clue you have to where you are in the race is the indicator on the bottom right of the screen, which not only gives you your current placement in the race (“61″ in the screenshot), but shows how close you (the red dot) are to the first place bug (the white line).

Baja Bug is all right. It’s not really that bad of a racing game, but there’s nothing really unique or special about it to differentiate it from other similar racing games other than maybe the type of vehicle you’re driving. But since that has no real effect on the race (oddly if you go outside the lines of the race you slow down dramatically, even though Baja Bugs are specifically off-road vehicles) and the graphics are too crude to really tell what kind of car you’re in anyway, there’s not that much to recommend. It is what it is.

Rating: 3/10

Kid Grid

kid gridYou’re a kid! On a grid! It’s Kid Grid!

Oh, you want more of a description? But that says it all!

Fine, fine. Kid Grid stars you as a kid, maybe(?) with giant glasses who navigates a grid, turning dotted lines into solid ones and making boxes. Pursuing you on this juvenile lattice are four of the most sinister and evil enemies you will ever encounter. There’s Old Gray Googley-Eyes, the Dancing Purple Two-Headed Twinkle-Toes, Indifferent Turquoise Man, and the Red Orb of Spinny-Bladed Doom! All of these enemies behave in basically the same way, which is traveling along the grid trying to kill you. You get a certain number of stuns, however (the default is five), which will stun all the enemies at once for about half a second, letting you through if you get cornered, so that’s nice. Also, a question mark pops up and moves about randomly on the playing field, and if you box it up you get bonus points. If you finish a level, ECCAMF.

That’s Kid Grid. It’s like if Pac-man had an incredibly boring maze design. That notwithstanding, it’s still a somewhat entertaining timewaster. Also, the title screen plays Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No. 5, for you classical-music-on-the-Atari enthusiasts.

Rating: 4/10

Protector II

protector iiOur good friends at Synapse Software, makers of such strange games as Drelbs, Pharaoh’s Curse, Nautilus, Slime, and Claim Jumper, have yet another creative spin on a few old classics, in this case Defender and Choplifter. In Protector II (which is basically just a graphics update and level redesign of the original Protector), you play as a jet fighter plane attempting to save some hapless citizens from an invincible UFO who likes to pick them up and drop them in a volcano for kicks. You start with eighteen people who are scattered about a small cityscape (consisting of about four building ripped straight from Nautilus, sans underwater skyscraper people) and have to carry as many as possible to another city on the other side of the volcano where the UFO can’t go because, I dunno, it smells bad over there or something. You can’t actually kill this UFO, though shooting it stuns it for a bit, giving you enough time to grab as many citizens as you can before they’re all kidnapped. The fewer people that remain, however, the faster the UFO goes, to the point where he’s speeding along faster than you and only stays stunned for maybe half a second, requiring you to have insane reflexes to save everyone. Oh, well, I’m sure he only sacrificed Steve from H.R. to the volcano gods. Nobody liked Steve anyway.

When all of the citizens have been either rescued or immolated, the UFO gets really pissed and flies off, but not before inducing those wacky volcano gods to erupt and bury the new town. Now you’ve got to transfer everybody back out of the city you just put them in into a secret underground bunker before the lava creeps over from the volcano to bury everyone in molten rock and ash. I mean, didn’t we just do this? The other twist now in this back half of the game is the gamut of laser beams that you must now dodge to reach the underground base (you can destroy the guns shooting the lasers, but it’s not an easy task). So it’s different. Why didn’t we just fly everyone to the underground bunker in the first place? Because there was a force field over it that inexplicably got removed when the volcano blew up, of course! Duh!

Throughout both halves of the game there are some Defender-esque enemies pursuing you, including rotating obstacles called “pulse trackers”, turrets that are only destructible about half of the time, and flying chomper heads. They don’t actually eat anything; they’re just disembodied heads with chomping teeth, just floating around, doing their thing. In addition, the volcano likes to erupt and spew a cloud of ash into the air at random intervals which it seems to like to do just as you’re flying over it. There’s also a fuel element to the game (you must fly back to your starting station to refuel), as well as a slight pull of gravity, which you may notice the first time you play the game and immediately crash into the ground upon takeoff.

Protector II is a decent little game. While it obviously has elements lifted from Defender and Choplifter, it also has enough unique twists on those formulae to give it its own identity. The gameplay is solid, difficult without being too frustrating, and the replayability factor is fairly high, as you want to save as many people from that darned UFO as you possibly can. Also, the title screen plays C.P.E. Bach’s Solfeggietto No.2 in C minor, for you classical-music-on-the-Atari enthusiasts.

Rating: 6/10

Thus ends disk 16. Next up: disk 17, containing Clowns & Balloons, Snake Byte, and Knockout!. Until then!

Disk 16, Side 1

Pharaoh’s Pyramid

pharoahpyramidThis game answers that age-old question that mankind has been puzzling over for decades now: What would happen if somebody combined the book of Exodus with Q*Bert? What kind of treasure troves of inspiration, information, and wonder would one behold if such a cosmic event truly were to occur? Perhaps the entire Judeo-Christian-Islam belief system would be radically altered, creating a new faith, one simply titled “@!#?@!”.

Or, alternatively, someone would make a pretty good Q*Bert clone.

In this game you are playing as a slave named “Little Achmed” building a pyramid for a pharaoh (hence the title). You do this by jumping around on a pyramid, filling in each tile with a color until the entire pyramid has been filled, while a snake and some other creatures/obstacles pursue you, just like Q*Bert. Unlike Q*Bert, however, the enemies have biblical ties, such as the snake being Moses’ snake, and other obstacles being named after the ten plagues of Egypt (frogs, locusts, flies, fire & hail, and even the Angel of Death, who, despite his ominous name, acts pretty much just like the frogs and locusts and stuff). In addition, you are also building a second pyramid at the top of the screen, which is done by collecting bricks laid out at the bottom of the first pyramid (along the river Nile, I guess) and bringing them to the top. Constructing this pyramid takes six rounds that cycle through the plagues, at which point you proceed to the next level where the spaces on the bottom pyramid now cycle through more than one color when you jump on them. Also, of course, everything changes color and moves faster, but do I even need to say that anymore? Isn’t there an acronym I can use?

ECCAMF [eh'kamf]: Everything Changes Color And Moves Faster (otherwise known as what happens at the end of every video game made before 1985).

Also, apparently, there is a love story/triangle/something going on between Little Achmed and the Egyptian deities Isis and Osiris, as between every level a cutscene depicts Achmed and Isis with a heart between them, only for Osiris to steal Isis away while sad music plays. You know, assuming Isis looks like the outline of a diamond (which admittedly morphs into some sort of Egyptian princess or something), and Osiris is actually a cross between an alien and a pancake. Hey, they’re deities; I suppose they can manifest themselves however they want. Osiris sometimes also shows up in the main game to screw up the spaces that you’ve been trying to get changed to the right color, so he’s kind of a jerk. I’m also not entirely sure how both Egyptian deities and Old Testament plagues can co-exist peacefully, so as a distraction from that conundrum I will mention that there’s also a crocodile in this game.

Pharaoh’s Pyramid does exactly what a good clone should: it preserves the core gameplay that made the original game fun, while adding enough distinctions that give it its own identity. The plagues are an odd, but interesting tweak to the enemies from Q*Bert, while the act of building the second pyramid add a unique twist to make it more fun. All in all, a solid game.

Rating: 6/10

Mr. Robot and his Robot Factory

mrrobot

Mr. Robot and his Robot Factory plays as an alternate-universe version of Miner 2049er where OSHA still existed and mankind gave its dangerous, you-must-walk-across-all-the-floors-of-a-place-where-everything-is-trying-to-kill-you jobs to unfeeling, expendable robots. You are the eponymous Mr. Robot who has been placed inside your rainbow-colored robot factory (which, despite the name, neither produces robots nor is much of a factory beyond having some conveyor belts in it) in order to walk across all the floors, eliminating white dots as you go. Much like Miner 2049er, if you fall too far you are immediately killed, though sadly in this game there’s no hilarious squashed-inside-your-hat animation.

Your main antagonists are angry fires!

As levels progress more obstacles are added, such as conveyor belts, elevators, teleporters, magnets that allow you to make large leaps, trampolines that not only bounce you but allow you a safe landing from heights, and, somehow, classically-shaped bombs (you know the type: the round ball with the fuse coming out one end) that serve as explodey platforms. You also make an annoying “beep-boop” sound with every step you take, but fortunately you can turn off the sound effects in the first level by collecting a music note which not only kills that horrible walking noise, but is worth 50 points, to boot!

There are 22 levels in all, though the difficulty ramps up fairly quickly toward the beginning and I’ve never beaten the game without savestates. This is mostly due to the unforgiving controls. Many jumps have to be precision jumps, as often the difference between death and a safe jump is merely a pixel off, and sometimes jumping to a platform below you won’t kill you while just falling to it will. Many levels have only one path through them that isn’t immediately apparent, forcing you to analyze and plan out the whole thing, or waste a few lives doing it wrong until you see what you need to do. The worst levels in this regard are the ones made up almost entirely out of bombs, because if you make a single mistake, well, the platform blows up and you’re totally screwed. Did I also mention that it’s really hard to plan out later levels due to the time limit that only gives you 99 seconds, and that you only start with four lives (though you can get more as your score goes up, and there are some extra lives in a few levels, but not many), and that sometimes you have to act immediately upon entering a level, lest a fire burn you up, or a bomb blow up under you, or some sort of conveyor belt leads you to your doom? Yeah, life for Mr. Robot is not an easy one.

Even with all these challenges, though, the game is still fairly fun. Helping buoy it up a bit is the inclusion of a level editor a la Lode Runner, which is where I spent most of my time just fooling around making Mr. Robot bounce around on trampolines or blow up a lot, though you can create legitimate levels too if that’s your thing.

Rating: 7/10 (mostly for the inclusion of the level editor, otherwise it’s closer to 5/10)

Starion

starionStarion. The game that the Internet forgot. In this game you are a flying saucer of some sort, cruising through a space fort for some reason, in order to accomplish some purpose. The game autoscrolls, much like Caverns of Mars and its sequel, but unlike Caverns of Mars you can actually speed up and even move in reverse (though you can never stay still). Your way is blocked by various laser beams, asteroids, and other obstacles too crude to figure out what they are. Also, in time-honored Atari tradition, shooting a fuel tank refills your fuel gauge, which still makes no sense but whatever.

Here’s the problem with this game. After you make some progress into the game you come across a cavern filled with people that you should be able to somehow rescue, a la Choplifter!. The game even makes your trigger send out some sort of beaming device downward toward the people, instead of shooting your gun. However, it is impossible to beam anyone up. You can sit there, hovering over someone with that trigger pressed until your fuel runs out, trying desperately to save this person from whatever horrors can be visited upon a man standing in space somewhere waving his arms while remaining stationary, but you will never be able to rescue him. Ever. This also means that the “castaway” bar at the top will never diminish, and the game becomes somewhat pointless.

I figured I was missing something. So I went online to try to find out what I was missing. What stupid button or keystroke did I have to press in order to get these jerks to get on my spaceship? Unfortunately, it was ultimately a futile task. The only mentions of this game on the Internet at all were on sites like Atarimania, which consisted of a ROM dump and a few screenshots (and no manual). So I still have no idea how to progress in this game, other than flying forward and leaving all those castaways to wave in perpetuity, until either death or the end of time.

Some of the level design was creative, but in the end I was so frustrated by this game’s flaws that it really wasn’t worth it.

Rating: 2/10

That’s it for this side of the disk. Next time: side 2, featuring Baja Bug, Kid Grid, and Protector II. See you then!

Disk 15, Side 2

Monster Smash!

monster smashAnyone expecting this game to represent someone working in their lab late one night when their eyes behold an eerie sight may be somewhat disappointed. However, this game is representative of something that a lot of pre-1983 arcade and home console games excelled at and were most remembered for: simple action that, for some reason, sucked you in for a long time trying to rack up the highest score that you can without ever seeming too repetitive. Your goal is to smash as many monsters as you can (the monsters in this case being either squat, pink garbage can-looking things with antennae and rotating eyes, collections of dots, or occasionally an egg that hatches into a lizard if not smashed). Said monsters run to the right and down through this, uh, graveyard, I suppose (it is a graveyard smash!) Your only controls are rotating one corner of the fence, creating paths that direct the monsters either down or across, and smashing all the gravestone/flipper/smashy things at the same time! You get points for every monster you smash, but if you let more than a certain amount escape, it’s game over! Each wave makes more monsters appear, and each level makes them go faster.

It’s a simple hand-eye coordination/reflex game, but it’s a lot of fun, too. If it had better graphics it’d be a top seller on iPhones, iPads, and Android devices today (though I hope the theme song would stay the same, as it’s pretty goofy on its own).

Rating: 6/10

Obligatory not-remix

Stargate Courier

stargate courierHere’s some trivia for you: A Google search for “Stargate Courier” brings up three things in order: the Tok’ra couriers from a Stargate: SG-1 RPG supplemental book, the classified business ads from Abu Dhabi, and finally, this game. In other words, this game was obscure enough to be beaten by both a little-known entry in a supplemental RPG book and ads from halfway around the world (at least from where I’m writing this). So, this game, famous? Nope!

What it is is a weird mesh of several different games/sci-fi franchises. Your job is mainly to fly around space and shoot twelve enemy ships that look like giant 80′s hoop earrings that mostly just suck your fuel away if they get near you (although they may shoot at you too).  If you run low on fuel then you have to fly back to Earth (wait, this is taking place in the solar system? Why all the densely-packed stars, then?) where, in true shoot-em-up fashion, you’ve gotta shoot some fuel tanks to refill your supply. The Earth segments are hazardous, though, as not only are there turrets that take potshots at you, but also the occasional angry Sphinx (which I suppose is somehow tied to Stargate, but since this game came out at least a decade before the movie I suppose it’s a moot point). Also, for some reason, the Millennium Falcon is flying around and gives you 1000 points if you shoot it. So there’s that.

All this weirdness could be forgiven if the game was any good. Sadly, it’s a mess. The graphics are uninspiring, the sound is fairly stock, the controls are broken in the outer-space portion of the game (you move forward at a set speed and one push on the joystick sends you spinning at an insanely high rate), and, while the Earth segments have much better controls, they’re also pretty boring, as you’re stuck in an endless loop of fuel tanks, turrets, and Sphinxes, until you decide to lift off into space again. About the only thing it’s got going for it is a half-way decent heroic jingle that plays when you start the game, but it’s not worth much. There are better shoot-’em-ups out there, and if you want a good Stargate Courier experience, stick to playing the Stargate RPG or maybe starting your own business in the United Arab Emirates.

Rating: 2/10

Obligatory not-remix

That’s it for Side 2 of Disk 15. Coming up next: Pharoah’s PyramidMr. Robot and his Robot Factory, and Starion.

A word about ratings

So I’ve gone back and added scores out of ten to each game I’ve done a text review for so far (excluding the L.E.A.P. disks) and I will continue to do so for the rest I plan on reviewing. However, I’d like to explain a little about what the numbers actually mean.

First of all, the score is an overall score of how much I would recommend this game to someone who has never played it before. This doesn’t necessarily mean it was or wasn’t a groundbreaking or famous game, or that its graphics/sound/music/etc. were great/crap, but that the overall experience was good enough that I hope you’ll check it out, or bad enough that I’d say “don’t bother.” Also, I’m grading on a true ten-point scale, which means that 5 is average, not bad; and that 7 is pretty good, not just average. Or, in other words:

  1. Don’t bother. This game sucks and you suck if you like it.
  2. Not really recommended for anyone.
  3. I didn’t like it much, but you may.
  4. Eh, it’s OK. Play it if you’re bored.
  5. This game is average. I’d play it every so often, but I probably wouldn’t seek it out.
  6. Above average. This game probably made it into my regular Atari-playing rotation.
  7. Very good. You will most likely enjoy this quite a bit.
  8. Excellent! A top tier game.
  9. Games that make it here are the cream of the crop. If you haven’t played this game yet, stop reading and go get it!
  10. So far I have only given out two 10′s. Both of them are games I still play today, even though my main Atari-playing days are behind me. Everything — the graphics, sound, music, controls, gameplay, replayability factor — all comes together perfectly, resulting in nothing less than the most stellar game it could possibly be. (As a side note: if I were to review M.U.L.E., it would also receive a 10.) (Also as a side note: one of the two games I gave a 10 to I readily admit I am heavily influenced by nostalgia and you may disagree with my rating. The other one, though, I think most people should agree with.)

These are all subjective, of course, and you’re welcome to disagree with any of them. Also, keep in mind that these scores are specifically for the Atari 8-bit versions of these games. If you’re mad that I gave a low score to, say, Pacman, keep in mind that it’s just because this specific version wasn’t all that great. There may be better versions out there for different systems.

Disk 15, Side 1

Super Breakout

I don’t think anyone who has ever owned a cell phone in the last four years hasn’t played Breakout, or some version of it. Its most basic form is very simple: you control a paddle at the bottom of the screen, and a ball bounces around that you have to reflect back into bricks that cover the upper portion of the screen. Once the bricks are gone, you move to the next level, where the ball moves faster and sometimes the bricks have been rearranged. I imagine this game was invented when some lonely programmer was sick of playing Pong by himself and decided that, instead of becoming some sort of hand-eye coordination superman that could control a paddle in each hand simultaneously, he’d just close off one end, add some bricks, and call it a night. There, now he doesn’t have to make any friends to play video games! Problem solved!

In this version, Super Breakout, there are four versions of the game: classic (break eight lines of bricks, then move to the next faster level), double (where you control two parallel paddles and have two balls bouncing around, shown in the screenshot), progressive (which has six lines instead of eight which keep slowly creeping downward on the screen), and cavity (same as classic but two balls are trapped inside the bricks and can be freed). It’s a decent port, especially for the time, but these days you don’t need Atari emulation to play this game. If you own an electronic device, chances are you’ve already got a version of Breakout somewhere on it. Don’t, like, microwaves come with this game on them now?

Rating: 2/10

Star Raiders

OK, I’ll admit, as a kid I never really played this game. First of all, the disk it came on only worked sporadically. Secondly, without the instructions I just flew around in one quadrant of space with nothing to do but shoot into nothingness because I didn’t know the controls. It wasn’t until recently that I finally was able to look the controls up online and actually play this classic game correctly. So no nostalgia filter here for me!

With that said, it’s easy to see the influence this early space fighter had on numerous games that came after it, such as Space Battle for the Intellivision, numerous early Star Trek games, The Last Starfighter (which then got retconned into Star Raiders II), and even parts of Ultima I. You flew a Star Cruiser ship, trying to protect the galaxy from the evil Zylon empire (I said Zylon, not Cylon! It’s an original creation, like Ricky Rouse or Monald Muck!). You accomplish this by first looking at a map of the galaxy (an extremely small galaxy), divided into sectors, each showing an icon if there are friendly starbases or enemy ships in them. If all the sectors surrounding a base get filled with enemy fleets, then it’s KABOOM! to that starbase if you don’t save it within a minute! To do so, you must hyperwarp to whatever sector the enemy ships are in and blow ‘em all up. Sounds pretty simple, right? Well, it is, but the beauty is in the execution (haha, little homicide humor there).

To begin with, warping to another sector is somewhat of a game in and of itself. Once you engage the warp drive, a little crosshair appears in the middle of your screen and starts moving about erratically (the farther away your destination the more erratically it moves). You’ve got to keep it in the middle of the screen once hyperspace finally kicks in (about five seconds or so after you engage the engine), lest you end up somewhere completely different in the galaxy. You know, in case you ever wanted to relive that moment from the Apollo 13 mission where they only had enough juice to fire the engines for a few seconds and had to keep the ship pointing at Earth lest they drift off into the cold, hard vacuum of space and freeze to death. You know, fun!

Once you make it to a sector with some baddies you basically just shoot at them until they explode. This is easier said than done, however, as you’ve got four different views to keep an eye on and switch between: the normal front view, an aft view, the computer targeting view in the corner of the screen, and a long-range third-person view. Also, make sure your shields are up or you’ll just die the instant you get hit by anything. In addition to losing energy every time you get shot at, each enemy shot can also damage one of your systems, rendering it either inoperable or only partially working (for example, the long-range scan suddenly starts showing ghost images). Also, if they damage your shields then you’d best get the hell outta Dodge before they get another shot in, or you’re toast. To replenish your energy and fix your systems, warp to a friendly starbase and dock for a few seconds, and you’re good to go.

Star Raiders surprised me. I had heard of its good reputation, but I’d never really sat down to play it until recently, and it was a lot better than I had expected, especially since it came out in 1979 and the graphics are pretty much crap. The controls are fairly intuitive, yet complicated enough to not just be a shoot ‘em up. You’ve got to be strategic about how and when you engage the enemy, when to disengage if the battle is going poorly, and when to visit a starbase vs. engaging more enemy fighters. While some of the controls are a little redundant (I mean come on, did anyone ever turn off the targeting system?), the breakneck action is difficult to master, but a lot of fun, too. Definitely recommended.

Rating: 8/10

Asteroids

I don’t think anyone who has ever owned a cell phone in the last four years hasn’t played Asteroids, or some version of it. Its most basic form is very simple: you control a ship in the middle of the screen surrounded by asteroids, and must shoot them all. Each time you shoot one, it breaks up into smaller asteroids until shooting the smallest sized asteroid makes it disappear completely. I imagine this game was invented when some lonely programmer was sick of playing Spacewar! by himself and decided that, instead of becoming some sort of hand-eye coordination superman that could control a paddle in each hand simultaneously, he’d just get rid of one ship, add some rocks, and call it a night. There, now he doesn’t have to make any friends to play video games! Problem solved!

In this version, creatively titled Asteroids, you can play with up to four players, and either play co-op, competitively, or on teams. It’s a decent port, especially for the time, but these days you don’t need Atari emulation to play this game. If you own an electronic device, chances are you’ve already got a version of Asteroids somewhere on it. Don’t, like, refrigerators come with this game on them now?

Rating: 4/10 (mostly for multiplayer)

In any case, that does it for side 1 of disk 15. Comin’ up next: the second side, featuring Monster Smash and Stargate Courier. See you then!

Disk 14, Side 2

Bruce Lee

To start off, I’m woefully unequipped to compare this game to actual Bruce Lee movies, genre conventions, or tropes. I know very little other than that he was one of the greatest martial artist actors of all time and that since his passing tons of people have tried to build off his popularity to make a quick buck. Among those people trying to cash in were the creators of this platformer, in which you play as Bruce himself, kicking and punching his way into some sort of fortress, stealing lamps or jewels or something off the walls. Pursuing you through most of the rooms are two sinister enemies: a ninja wielding a katana or staff or something who is so stealthy that he doesn’t even have a face, and some sort of mooing green sumo dude (apparently named The Green Yamo) who, despite weighing probably over 300 pounds, is as accomplished a martial artist as Bruce himself. For a really fun twist, a multiplayer mode allows one player to control The Green Yamo, who can either fight against Bruce or work with him (by keeping the ninja off his back), making the game either much easier for beginners, or quite a challenge for veterans.

The fortress consists of twenty, vaguely Chinese-related screens, each with a completely different layout, and although you mainly must proceed through them in a linear fashion, they are laid out in such a way (and you have to backtrack enough) that it gives the game somewhat of a Metroidvania vibe to it (even if it’s not explicitly that sort of game). In many of these rooms there are moving obstacles that can be anything from a single white dot, to a giant collection of spears flying across the screen, to, uh, some sort of bush that erupts out of the ground, that immediately electrocute Bruce, causing him to freeze up with a noise that sends chills down the spine. These traps will also kill the ninja and the sumo dude, though in their case they will just respawn about three seconds later, and in screens where precise timing and/or jumping is required to navigate these obstacles the game is merciful enough to just remove the two enemies completely.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the art style in this game, which is probably the most unique part. Despite the limited hardware, every screen is vibrant with a definite Asian style. Everything, from the floors to the walls to the ladders to the deadly electrocuting bits, has some sort of intricate pattern to it, and there’s just enough representational artwork to keep you guessing about the more abstract bits. For example, the first few screens obviously take place in the courtyard of some Chinese mansion, with the mountains in the background and some statues of, cows, maybe(?), up on pedestals. As you descend deeper into the fortress it becomes less and less clear exactly where you are or what things are, for that matter. In the screenshot above, for instance, the column in the middle acts as a moving ladder, but I have no idea what it’s really supposed to represent. It gives the whole game a sort of mystical feel; like watching a Miyazaki film: all the weird stuff probably has some sort of significance, but heck if I know what it all means, it’s certainly pretty to look at and ponder about. At one point in the game you may be descending into hell (though it may just be a basement), and at another point a giant demon throws magic at you until you hit a dynamite plunger and blow him up, and at the end you finally find either treasure or a room that’s burning down.

I really like this game. Even though there’s not much to keep you playing after you’ve beaten it once, it’s still pretty fun and surreal. Plus, grabbing a friend to play as The Green Yamo can really transform the game into something unique and especially fun to play. It’s even got a PC remake, so you’ve got no excuse! Play it today!

Rating: 9/10

Encounter

First, a tiny bit of history: The Atari 800 was built to be a gaming machine, and had custom hardware designed specifically for that end. Sadly, it kept the price tag high, which is one reason it eventually lost most of its market share to its competitors such as the Apple ][ and especially the Commodore 64 (it was kind of like the PS3 of its day). Most of these computers had nearly identical libraries of games as the Atari (especially the Commodore), so most consumers opted to buy the cheaper machine, since many games played fairly similarly on both platforms. There were a few games, however, that really showed off what the Atari was capable of, especially compared to counterparts on other machines, and Encounter was certainly one of those games.

Encounter is basically an early first-person shooter, somewhat reminiscent of Battlezone, where you are shooting various aliens (I think, though they mainly take the form of colorful floating diamonds) that come out of warp holes dotted about a landscape. Most of the aliens just move around and occasionally take potshots at you, though on occasion a red one appears that tries to kamikaze right into you at high speed, dodging erratically while a tense, frustrating sound plays (see here at 0:50). Most of the time, this will cause you to go into panic mode, frantically backing away from the suicidal maniac trying to shoot it, and heaven help you if your back suddenly gets stuck on one of the many pillar-like obstacles dotting the playing field; you’re basically toast at that point.

After offing a certain amount of enemies, a black door of doom opens up and you must proceed into it, where you are suddenly flung at high speeds into a field of giant balls or bullets or something which you must dodge for about half a minute. Failure means you have to repeat the level you just finished, but if you make it past that stressful obstacle course, another door opens to a different-colored landscape, where you must now kill some more aliens. These aliens don’t just change color and move faster, however; in later levels they start shooting multiple rounds at a time, and some are even bombs that, if not killed quickly enough, explode into about a dozen or so projectiles that basically cover the landscape. Those red kamikaze guys, though; they’re always around, no matter how high up you climb in the levels. Seriously, screw those things.

Encounter is a game with great atmosphere. The aliens make some weird, sing-songy noises that get louder the closer you are to them, but other than that (and the sound of you moving), it’s absolutely still, making for a tense situation. The graphics actually aren’t all that hot (nearly comparable to the graphics on the 2600 really), but what separates the Atari port from the other computers of the time is the smooth scrolling and sounds which create the atmosphere. Compare that video I linked to earlier with this one from the Commodore and you’ll see what I mean: the Commodore version looks and sounds surprisingly generic, where the Atari one just oozes with tension and danger.

In any case, Encounter is a wonderful, if highly difficult, game. Even the novice setting can be quite a challenge, if only because of those red kamikaze guys and the between-level super-fast warping sections. Definitely recommended, but not for those with faint hearts.

Rating: 8/10

Pacific Coast Highway

And now we come to yet another Frogger clone! This one’s called Pacific Coast Highway, and this time you play as a bunny instead of a frog. The basic gameplay is the same as Frogger: cross the busy highway, then hop across boats/rafts/etc. to cross the water. The main difference are that the two sections of the game are actually split up into two screens, and if you get hit or drown, a little ambulance (or an, uh, ambulance boat, I guess?) rushes to the scene to pick up your bunny corpse. I assume this was added after the programmer’s 5-year-old daughter asked, “Daddy, what happened to the cute hopping bunny? Why isn’t it moving anymore?” and the dad, not wanting to explain death to his little princess, programmed in the ambulance so he could say, “Don’t worry, sweetie, the bunny just got a boo-boo. See, the little ambulance is just taking it to the bunny hospital, where the bunny doctor will make it aaallll better!” thus preserving the innocence of little girls everywhere. See, media watchdogs? Some programmers really do care!

You can also play in a multiplayer mode, where the other player controls a turtle (really just a palette swap of the bunny). Interestingly enough, you actually play at the same time, though it’s somewhat confusing as to why, as it’s not a race (or at least you don’t get extra points for beating the other person and the game waits for both of you to finish before moving on anyway) and you can’t affect the other player at all. But it’s still pretty fun, and certainly one of the better Frogger clones out there.

Rating: 6/10

That takes care of Disk 14! Coming up next: side 1 of disk 15, featuring Super Breakout, Star Raiders, and Asteroids!

New domain name

I changed the website URL to atarieviewer.com, mostly because the previous one was spelled slightly differently (and had wordpress.com in it, but that’s neither here nor there). Update your links!

B.C.’s Quest for Tires – the video review!

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