I wasn't there when the 2600 and ColecoVision Wing War programmers were talking, but I'll tell you how the conversation went anyway.
"Good morning, fellow programmer. Did you ever get around to play-testing the ColecoVision version of Wing War that I wrote?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact."
"Thanks. I hope you didn't find any bugs, because tomorrow's my deadline!"
"Well, there aren't any bugs, no...but the game is far too easy!"
"It is? But there are all of those screens to explore, and all of those elemental crystals to find, and..."
"Sure, but once I got the hang of it, it was just a matter of flying to the same screens over and over, picking up the same three crystals, which are always in the same places, and bringing them all back to the first screen. It just becomes a follow-the-dots routine."
"But did you play to the end?"
"Yes. After getting all three crystals nine times, I had the nine super crystals that you told me I would need to unlock the treasure screen. It was no problem!"
"Damn! Well, I'd better make it more difficult -- and do it quickly!"
"Hey, I know: Why don't you just make the air crystals nearly impossible to bring back to the lair?"
"How am I supposed to do that?"
"Hmm...well, you could cause any crystal that the dragon's carrying to fall from his grasp if he gently bumps anything at all, or changes direction abruptly. And the air crystal could be the one that never survives the fall."
"Wow! Awesome idea! In fact, I'll even write special routines that make the dragon drop the crystal if he even gets close to a bit of the background graphics, or if the player sneezes in the direction of the screen, or if someone in the house turns on the kitchen faucet while the game's being played..."
"As long as you're doing that, you might as well add a final enemy who's impossible to destroy."
"That's great! Thanks! Anyway, what have you been working on?"
"The Atari 2600 version of the same game."
"Well, I'll be a monkey's uncle. I'll bet that's a difficult undertaking!"
"Nah -- I made it fun. I dared myself to code the whole thing with my eyes closed."
"Does it even run?"
"I don't know. I can't be bothered to test it. I'm leaving Imagic."
"I've accepted a job at Compute! magazine. I'm going to be writing type-in programs."
I'm telling you, that's how the dialogue went. There might have been a couple of minor differences, I grant you; instead of a faucet, maybe it was a clothes dryer.
If you're a particularly perceptive reader, you might have gathered that I'm not terribly crazy about this game. And that would be the correct thing to gather. But it's easy to write about a bad game. In fact, it can be fun. My real problem with both versions of Wing War is that they could have been superb, given the original concept and the intrinsically enjoyable premise.
By "could have been," I don't mean something like "Pac-Man on the VCS could have been terrific, if the cartridge had contained 512K and had been packed with a vertically oriented monitor." I mean that well within the technical bounds of each console, and in fact with the exact same graphics, mechanics and objectives, both titles could easily have ranked among the best -- especially for an exploration-adventure enthusiast such as myself. It's only a few poor design decisions that keeps them from being so.
The 2600 rendition contains reasonably good graphics, a fun "collect the elements" objective, and the screen-to-screen movement that so many excellent adventure games contain. What makes it terribly frustrating is the control scheme. You'll often steer your dragon into an adjacent location without having meant to, and this wouldn't be such a drag if your return to the original screen didn't involve re-killing the enemy (which is too often a matter of luck, due to the selfsame bad controls) to render a crystal. And good luck getting that back to your lair through all of the intervening screens.
It seems as if the programmer didn't want to look like Joust was being ripped off too much, so he slowed down the button-to-wings response and added some counter-intuitive inertia rules. You can "master" the controls and still find them cumbersome and maddening. I think it would have been completely legitimate to, for all intents and purposes, place the Joust bird in a multi-screen adventure. Really -- doesn't that sound cool?
The ColecoVision game involves a gloriously enormous array of locations, beautiful graphics, and player movement that actually makes sense. The controls are a bit closer to Joust's, and they work well enough; and it's fun to flap a huge dragon around the place, rather than a little buzzard.
You begin with a limited amount of fireballs with which to blast the bad guys, and you gain more whenever you bring a crystal back to your lair (the starting screen). Destroying an enemy yields either the fire, water or air crystal -- but if you run out of fireballs, you're merely defenseless. You can still find each of the three types of crystal.
If you're worried about accruing enough damage to lose one of your dragons, wait until you obtain more fireballs, and simply blast one of the flying dragon eggs that can be found in the sky area. Bring this indestructible little fella home, and as logic dictates, you'll acquire an extra dragon.
The game would certainly have been better with what I consider an essential addition to any adventure game: the random element. Your adversaries are always found on the same screens, and even the loose crystals -- those that aren't left by a vanquished creature -- always appear in the same places.
But this isn't what ruins the game for me. Your dragon drops crystals very easily, and the air crystal can't survive a drop from any altitude. You have to fly all the way back to where you found it, wait for a new one to drop out of the blue (enemies don't regenerate, so you're stuck with the loose crystals during the latter majority of your session), and attempt once again to navigate back to your lair through the rock-strewn, stalactite-littered, bat-filled caverns and crevices without touching anything. Or flapping too frequently. Or turning too quickly. Good luck.
Once you've brought fire, air and water crystals to the first screen, you get a super crystal. Collect nine of these to kill the Rock Demon guarding the penultimate screen, which you won't be able to do, because there's very little room there to maneuver into a shooting position without getting shot yourself. If you have a bugged version of the game that actually leads to your victory, you get to fly past and get a diamond (evidently). You can return this diamond to your lair and, if you wish to score higher, go through the whole thing again. Oh, yeah -- on the way back out, the Rock Demon must be killed again. Some demons just can't take a hint!
I'll be the first to buy a copy, and even the console to play it on, if someone actually, finally manages to successfully combine Adventure and Joust. Imagic didn't do it. Don't just take my word for it; recall the imaginary conversation above. What more do you need?