Who Needs Manuals?


by Adam Trionfo and Chris Federico
(September, 2015)

This is an article about Spectravision/Spectravideo's Gas Hog for the Atari 2600 VCS. The game was written by Mark Turmell and released in 1983.

Gas Hog Screenshot

Adam came up with an awesome idea: to play, in earnest, Atari 2600 games to which we've never given chances in the past. We're seeing if we can figure out all of the mechanics, objectives and character abilities -- without instructions -- and then writing about our reactions. The second part of the article involves our reflections and playing experiences after reading the manual. CF

Before Reading the Manual (from Chris's Perspective)

Neither Adam nor I have ever played Gas Hog seriously (or for more than ten seconds, even half-heartedly), so it's a prime choice for our return to these "Who Needs Manuals?" articles. What's immediately clear upon starting the 1983 Mark Turmell game is that it owes something to Moon Patrol, an Irem / Williams arcade game from the year before. Well, okay -- it owes almost everything to Moon Patrol.

In any game whose "influence" is obvious, however, the differences -- the twists and original elements that the earlier game doesn't have -- can make it an entirely fresh experience, and even the preferred one. Consider Stellar Shuttle. Broderbund's unofficial Atari 8-bit conversion of Taito's Lunar Rescue coin-op is superior, as it includes an initially simple-looking new element that winds up making the game-play more interesting: the astronaut-eating monster.

Gas Hog does introduce elements not found in Moon Patrol, such as some of the most irritatingly high-pitched and jumbled sound effects to be heard on the 2600, but it also takes some elements away. Most notably, your vehicle can't fire upward. This is inconvenient, as a group of bomb-dropping enemies continuously swoops toward and away from the top of the screen, never quite flying low enough to fall victim to your horizontal shots, even while you're jumping.

The unfamiliar attribute that affects the game-play most is, of course, the split playfield. You're required to switch frequently between the scrolling landscapes, as the upper advances you through each level, while the lower contains the fuel. You can tell it's fuel, because it reads as follows: F. (Considering the game's title, you'd think it would be a G.)

Anyway, the fuel provides another inconvenience: You run out so quickly that the annoying fuel gauge, which is annoying simply because it's completely missing, almost doesn't matter. You could simply stick to the lower terrain and continuously grab the fuel that happens to drift by, but the catch, as touched upon above, is that your progress is reversed while you're committing the uncultured transgression of not heading to the right.

The aliens that are within firing range -- those that fly into view at either of two altitudes, the higher requiring your jump-shot -- are fun to eradicate, and the mysterious, floating point values (interesting planet they've got here) provide an extra objective / hazard, if you care about your score: Collide to collect, shoot to subtract. But what causes me to anticipate never playing Gas Hog again is that those damn top-of-screen enemies can't be destroyed. This always angers me to an admittedly irrational degree.

Not being able to kill an enemy who can kill me is an understandable pet peeve, I'd think. It keeps me away from a few other old games as well, including the Game by Apollo called Guardian. Mark Turmell projects are usually better than this (I'm thinking of Turmoil by 20th-Century Fox), so it could have been a rush-job that he traded for Spectravideo's cash.

The game's not unbearable, and the mechanics seem to be precise, but unless I discover something in the manual that I haven't picked up during preliminary playing, it's not worth returning to. It just puts me in the mood for Moon Patrol itself, notwithstanding the could-have-been-cool, bidirectional means of travel.

Before Reading the Manual (from Adam's Perspective)
Gas Hog Box (Front)

In Gas Hog, you play as Joe "Filler Up" Shmoe. In this future, the earth has been abandoned and everyone lives on the moon. Your goal is to ride your big, spacious Real-Live Moon Pig to your humble job as Insurance Salesman, Third Class. You'll have to refill your mobile Pig with Tasty Beans (marked "F" for "Fill-up-the-Swine") many, many times on your way to work.

You'd think that someone would clear a safe path for all these half-wit Pig Riders who, like you, are on the way to their jobs. Instead, you have to make do with shooting numerous miniature asteroids and other Pig Riders who head straight into you. These obstacles move around the moon's surface and the unfinished subways beneath it. In these underground tunnels, time moves backward, and while you're collecting the Beans to keep your Pig's belly full, you're actually heading back home. This means that you'll have to collect the Beans fast and get back to the lunar surface, where you'll be safe. Well, not actually safe; you'll find obstacles there, too.

On the moon's surface are Severe Police, who try to get your attention by distributing pamphlets about the upcoming Policeman's Ball. These police want to get the message across to you clearly, as they drop stone tablets with words like, "Attend, Citizen!" "Slow Down, Mister!" and "Please Turn on Your Lights in the Safety Corridors." Your Moon Pig didn't come equipped with a gauge to indicate Stomach Empty, because Citizens of the Future understand that their Pigs always need to be topped-off with food. Keep this in mind as you ride along, dodging the tablets dropped by the police.

You've got one bit of your own ingenuity in your favor. To counter the Pig's frequent flatulence, you've installed an exhaust pipe on his back that releases puffs of mind-altering (invisible), um, farts up at the police to confuse them. This causes them to drive erratically, moving about the moon at different levels, which sometimes works to your advantage and sometimes does not.

Your only hope to get to work on time is to pay attention. Think back to all that you learned in your required Swine Rider's education class and you'll be fine. This constant interference on your way to work is nothing new to you. You deal with this every morning. It's the drive home that you really don't like; by then, everyone is hurried and it makes the morning commute seem like child's play.

After Reading the Manual (from Chris's Perspective)

This might be a first for these articles, as nothing has been added to the game for me. As a result of the perfunctory text, which was concocted by someone whose third language might have been English, certain details aren't discovered except during game-play. When we fired up the game post-manual, we discovered on our own that the vehicle can be steered during a jump -- i.e. accelerated or decelerated in midair. This means that it's possible to make split-second, Hog-saving decisions quite close to the bone, and this places its overall controls above Moon Patrol's.

The responsiveness is accurate in terms of actual movement, but the firing is erratic. This seems to have something to do with the program's timing; you can hold down the button to effect rapid fire, but if you've happened to release it perfectly between shots, your subsequent press is unlikely to yield a bullet without delay.

Letting your vehicle fall through one of the evenly spaced ruptures in the upper ground is easy enough; you're unlikely to collide with an enemy upon descending. But jumping back up after you've collected fuel requires precise timing, and you usually succeed just as the screen-top swine have dropped a bomb. I experimented with sticking to the higher route throughout the entire game, simply allowing each of my four vehicles to run out of fuel and inexplicably launch into the sky (you'd surely need fuel for that, wouldn't you?). This less risky approach left me with more points at the end than before. It wasn't a lot more, but the comparison was revealing.

Two things keep me from liking this game, even though it is, as stated, playable enough, at least for a rip-off / cash-in (in my opinion, not Adam's -- I think he'd want me to include that). I've already gone on about the player's inability to destroy the sky-borne enemies; to this, kindly add the fact that after dropping into the tunnel for fuel, there's no guarantee that he'll encounter any before his tank's empty. A good fifteen to twenty seconds of warning sounds are heard before the fumes have been exhausted, but sometimes, even that's not enough.

This leaves too much up to chance when it comes to the player's survival, which should always be more about skill than luck. You can practice all you like, but it's not going to make that flying parcel of fuel appear more often. Adam has ascertained that the fuel appears once per life, which makes me wonder: What happens when you've survived long enough to need a second gas-up? Presumably, you're abandoned by the lunar oil companies to get as far as you can before your unavoidable demise. Not the greatest design decision, Marky.

I don't recommend this game, but I wholeheartedly encourage you to read the manual, which is much more entertaining. I'm going to give away the best part, which is the final sentence, so you might want to stop reading here.

At the end, the manual writer has the nerve to give you an order: "Enjoy your game." If you actually have to be told this -- nay, commanded -- then you'll probably want to answer with a simple "No," and play a more appealing game, which won't be difficult to locate. I had a better time laughing at Adam's frequent vehicle demolition, hearing him laugh at mine, and discussing ultimately ineffective strategies.

After repeated plays on his own, Adam found Gas Hog to be much more compelling than I. Once he'd read my half-article above, he challenged me to give the game another try; he felt that the extent to which I was comparing it with Moon Patrol was keeping me from enjoying its more original elements. Such challenges are fair, and in fact expected. It's one of the reasons I enjoy collaborating with him.

So I played a few more times and really gave it a chance. I'll have to insist that my disinterest in playing further doesn't hinge upon comparisons with the arcade game. Even if I'd never heard of Moon Patrol, my inability to avenge my Hog by blasting the enemies far above would kill the game for me.

As I've stated, the twists and good ideas in Gas Hog that Moon Patrol doesn't have are commendable. If only they'd been exploited well. Indeed, what causes me to be so hard on the game is that it exhibits so much promise. It's a nifty idea to make the player readjust to a reversed scroll when he has to change altitudes and collect something that's required for continued play; and it's great that the gas pedal somehow works in thin air. The game has the feel of something that was earnestly conceived and commenced, but ended up being completed in a hurry with scant fine-tuning. Upward firing and better odds for fuel appearance surely would have been implemented.

Partially due to its unfulfilled potential, then, but also because it's simply not fun to play for more than a few minutes, I have to write off Gas Hog as a stinker. (It's almost as bad as that sentence.) I'm genuinely happy that Adam seems to have found another favorite, however. Part of the fun in discussing, recommending and writing about games, in the "community" sense, is that everyone has different tastes. This is how it should be, and why grading systems and number ratings are useless.

Neither of us has reached the end of the first level. I wanted to see if anything happened, so I made sure to survive until the end (with the help of RAM save-states in the emulator). Some very strange musical notes, or perhaps the sounds of piglets inside a clothing dryer, spewed from the monitor speakers. My score rapidly climbed 2,500 points and the top half of the playfield exhibited flashing columns of light. So there's a proper level ending! Good for you, Mark. Now finish writing the game itself. You were really onto something with this one.

After Reading the Manual (from Adam's Perspective)
Gas Hog Cart

When I first played Gas Hog, I saw immediately that it must be based on Moon Patrol. After all, it looks like Moon Patrol. Instead of writing a review of the game, I was making a comparison based on how it differed from Moon Patrol and thus, in my mind, why it was inferior. Not only is Gas Hog not like its similar-looking arcade counterpart, but where it should stick to the Moon Patrol formula, it strays, which makes it more difficult to play. In my mind, at first, this made the game terrible, and I kept longing for Moon Patrol.

For starters, I wanted the ability to be able to shoot the UFOs circling over the player's "Hog." This omission seemed like a bad choice in game design. Then I played some more and began to see the logic of it all. These differences help to create a stronger game. Not stronger than Moon Patrol, but at least much better than a straight Moon Patrol clone could have hoped to be.

Gas Hog does have several programming flaws, or in one case, possibly a design flaw. These flaws are numerous enough that they need to be listed separately, just to illustrate that the game deserves to be played in spite of them:

  1. It's difficult to time the exit from the bottom level when going back up to the top.

  2. Sometimes, there is just no way to catch the fuel refill without getting killed by a baddy. Annoying! Not a bug, but poor design.

  3. I've had shots from the Hog pass through the baddies that come from left and right. This is rare. I've also had shots from the baddies above (those that can't be shot) pass through the Hog. This is also rare, but it only works to the player's advantage. It seems to have something to do with the way the Hog jumps (if I could figure it out when it happens each time, I could try to do it on purpose).

  4. On a few occasions, the Hog's jump will stop working correctly. This is the most annoying bug I've come across in the game. The Hog will stop being able to make a full jump. Instead, it will jump about half as high as normal. This prevents the player from destroying any baddies that require jumping. The flaw doesn't go away until the player loses a life. I'm not sure why this starts happening, but it has now happened to me three or four times.

  5. When the player goes up or down a level, there is a brief set-up when the player doesn't have control. This can cause a shot fired from the baddies above to kill the player. It can also cause the player to be killed by a baddy coming from the left or right. The risk here can be reduced by avoiding travel from one level to another when there is a chance that this could happen. This doesn't seem like a bug, but it's not fair to the player.

  6. Fuel refills only appear once per life, and only immediately before the Hog runs out of gas. You really have gauge the amount of fuel that is left in the tank to make sure that you don't run dry. That's fair, and it's such a basic part of the game's design that the idea is worked right into the title. The trouble is that when the player is being placed on the bottom level, the Hog can miss a fuel refill while it is being re-aligned. Missing a refill will always cause the player to die soon thereafter, because the Hog runs out of fuel. The player is aware of this set-up time when moving from level to level; it never changes. This isn't a bug in the game, yet it is quite disheartening to watch a fuel refill pass directly above your Hog and not be able to jump to retrieve it because the set-up process is still in progress.

I have not been able to reach the end of the first level. I've reached about halfway through, and then the game gets too difficult for me to continue farther. First, the enemies that come from the left and right start to bob up and down as they move toward you. They're doing their best to dodge your shots; I don't blame them. Luckily, you can still jump or drive under them if the Hog's shots can't hit them. Also, the game's baddies speed up as the level progresses toward its conclusion. These are great additions to a game that otherwise seems unchanging.

Once the player gives up on the idea that this game is a clone of Moon Patrol, it can be enjoyed for what it does offer. It is a take on the arcade game (there's no doubt about it), but it's certainly not a clone, and it isn't meant to be one. Although I found Gas Hog to be quite annoying when I first played it, I eventually became semi-addicted to it, starting it over again and again after losing my last Hog. This is pretty shocking to me, considering that I can clearly see the game's faults.

I can usually knock out a game review fairly quickly, especially when the game isn't very good. Here's the straightforward process I follow: First, I'll choose a game to review. If the game is good, I'll play it, enjoy it, and then write the review. If I don't like the game, then I won't play it much, and I'll either write a review or just ignore it, passing it over for something better (or write a scathing review, if I truly despise it -- I'm looking at you, Air Lock). Gas Hog broke my rules; it seems to have created a category of its own. It's a game with problems -- defects, even -- and yet I truly like it and expect to play it for years to come.

(My current high score is 6,970. I hope to someday break 10,000 points, but this game isn't going to make it easy for me -- and I'm glad!)

Helpful Links:
  1. Gas Hog Ending Video - A 24-second video clip of the ending of Gas Hog's first level, created by Chris Federico using emulation save states and a hand-held digital camera.

  2. Gas Hog Manaul - A scan of the original manual.

  3. Gas Hog 4KB Cartridge ROM - This archive contains two different versions of the ROM; they appear to play the same, but have slightly different colors.

  4. Gas Hog Video - A video by ScottithGames posted to YouTube on April 12, 2012. It features "footage of a complete game, showing the (currently unofficial) Gas Hog world-record score of 27,540." New enemies are introduced about halfway through.

  5. www.atariage.com - Thanks to AtariAge for providing pictures of the Gas Hog box and cart.

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