Steve Cartwright's Atari 2600 masterpiece
by Chris Federico
Excerpted from the Classic-Gaming Bookcast
Isn't "Cartwright" the perfect last name for someone who writes console software? Steve had also created Barnstorming and Megamania, not to mention the great Seaquest, which I'll return to in this chapter, as it shares some significant elements with Frostbite. Cartwright would go on to make Plaque Attack, which I believe was his final 2600 game. It seems to have been released just after this one, but don't quote me on that when you're writing your book about Frostbite.
The strengths of the console are skillfully exploited in this amazing 1983 Activision game. It illustrates how underestimated the system was and generally remains, in spite of its prevalence. The terrific and solid-feeling graphics, as well as the smooth movement and precise mechanics, exemplify what the 2600 is capable of, provided that the programmer knows what he's doing.
Like the arcade game Lunar Rescue (which is also covered in the Bookcast), Frostbite combines pre-existing elements to end up being one of a kind. If you were to isolate the two main ingredients herein, you'd have Q*Bert and the top half of Frogger. Mixed together, however -- especially taking into account Cartwright's clever additions -- they make for a unique game.
According to the manual, the player assumes the role of Frostbite Bailey, but I call him Frostbite Frankie, because it's catchier. To be honest, I change his name every time I address him. Not that it happens often; I'm not that out of touch with reality. I can assure you that it occurs no more than twice per day. Anyway, he's building himself an igloo, and he has incredible throwin' arms. Every time he jumps onto a floe, it changes color and he flings a big chunk of ice northward to the shore, building his home from an impressive distance.
As you play this part with the might of your own dexterity, bouncing vertically from row to row, each jump's veering distance to the east or west depends on how long you push diagonally on the joystick. The maximum length of your leap increases over successive levels. The great deal of control is what's chiefly responsible for making the game so enjoyable. Once the first several igloos have been built, you can hurl the guy across nearly a quarter of the screen.
The general game speed escalates, of course, but this is well complemented by your potential bounding coverage. In fact, the entire game exhibits outstanding balance, and the difficulty curve is suitably gradual. In the "merely cosmetic but still nifty" department, the colors of the playfield slowly change to differentiate day from night, and the Northern Lights cycle on the horizon.
You're not stuck in place between jumps; you're able to walk back and forth across an ice floe when this seems useful. You can even accidentally march right off the edge, thus eventually, one imagines, becoming another floe drifting alongside it. Well, it doesn't have to be an accident, I suppose. You can walk off on purpose, if you're not crazy about ol' Frostbite Franz. Perhaps you don't like his hat.
Familiar elements that are merged to render something altogether fresh are found in many an Activision game; so is the superb twist that's introduced a few levels in. This is something that the designers at a lot of other companies (or in a lot of bedrooms) seem to have neglected. Once you feel that you've got the game down reasonably well, a subtle variation is thrown in that changes your whole approach. While it's brilliantly simple, it has quite an impact on the game-play and prevents monotony.
To briefly mention an earlier Cartwright game, the twist in Seaquest is that an Enemy Patrol Sub suddenly appears on the ocean surface. From the third level onward, you're obliged to time the screen-top emergence of your own submarine so that your new and gradually accelerating enemy doesn't crash into you while you're stuck in place, dropping off the divers you've rescued -- and keeping their gold (evil laugh).
The deviation in Frostbite is that a Polar Grizzly shows up on the fourth level, expressing great disinterest in your arrival home for some reason. He doesn't eat you when he catches you; he just wants to keep you away from your igloo. Upon collision, he chases you out of view before you finally die. Maybe this delayed heart attack is due to the severe cold.
Among the elements that make the game's ostensible straightforwardness ultimately deceptive is your ability to pick up the green fish that occasionally swim by in lieu of the standard deadly creatures. The risk-versus-reward aspect lies in determining whether or not it's worth attempting the slight detour often required to grab a quick seafood meal. Frostbite Fernando surely works up quite an appetite while he's undertaking his intense construction project. (I guess that in Frostbite II: Hypothermia, mercury would have been an added hazard.)
The temperature steadily drops, even during the day, so you can't take forever to finish a level; and the time remaining upon igloo completion is even better for your score than the fish are. Whether you care about beating your personal record or not (it depends on the day for me), the actual reason to earn as many points as possible is that you get an extra chance at commanding Frostbite Finnegan for every 5,000 points. The higher you score, the more you can see of this game's level-to-level variety, which hinges on the diverse mixture of floe arrangements, enemy configurations and movement patterns, and overall speed. Cartwright's attention to multiplicity matches his attention to detail.
Speaking of enemies, the weird birds, lobsters and, apparently, hand pliers that swim across the sea don't seem terribly intent on killing Frostbite Phil. They're just going about their business, really. He's the intruder here. And he thinks he's so manly, with those numb, painless throwin' hands and his silly hat.
I usually find time limits objectionable. I like to be free to explore all of the possibilities in the game-play without having to fret about a clock hanging over my be-hatted head. The timer doesn't pose much danger here, however. As in another inspired Activision game, John Van Ryzin's H.E.R.O., it exists merely to egg you on and keep things sufficiently urgent-feeling, so that the end-of-level achievement feels that much greater. The timer appears here in the form of a thermometer. It's got a digital readout, of course. We're not savages, even here in the Arctic. Even in 1983.
You know, it's really all of the simple details in a game that add up to a huge coolness. As a case in point, you can hold the controller in a particular direction to keep jumping. That might not sound like a big deal, but when you're playing, you can truly appreciate being spared the requirement of a separate movement for every intended hop.
You've also been given a last-ditch ability to avoid death. When you push the fire button, you reverse the direction of the row of ice that you're standing on. This is increasingly helpful as the difficulty rises, because the screen doesn't wrap. The planet's circumference isn't that short, even this far north.
The trade-off is that your igloo loses a brick every time you do this. When it's been completed, however, you can change direction all you like without mysteriously dismantling your home. This is handy, as luring the bear away from it becomes ever more necessary; he speeds up along with everything else. If you ride the northernmost floe from side to side, he'll eventually follow you far enough to the west to allow for one more quick reversal, after which you can hop right past him and through your front door.
A bear-safe spot exists. If you jump onto the shore to the extreme west, you're evidently far enough from your igloo to placate him. He runs up, stops and just stands there, staring at you. While this might be an awkward situation, you can jump onto a passing floe when you're good and ready. It only works if you hop onto the shore directly from the south. If you run to the safe spot, the Polar Grizzly will remember that he doesn't like you. At the end of the day -- even the six-month day -- he's not very smart. I like that in an enemy.
In case there's any confusion regarding the completion of your igloo, the front door appears when you're done. The doorway will even flicker if night has fallen; by some means, your character has started a fire from without. Such are the skills of Frostbite Ferg!
Of course, the bear might have started it. Maybe that's why he chases you away: He's got a sauce going in there. All this time, he's only wanted access to your stove. Who are you to interfere with natural instincts? It could even explain why you have to constantly rebuild your igloo: It keeps melting.
There's a funny extra that doesn't quite count as a secret, as it's mentioned in the manual. At 110,000 points, a fish appears below the score. You've gotten lonely up here, so you're keeping just one as a pet instead of eating it. When the score rolls over at a million, it's entirely replaced with the word "FISHES." This doesn't mean that your pet has somehow managed to breed on his own. It's Cartwrightian for "Stop playing the game already! Go outside and get some exercise!"