This issue, we have two groups of commentary. The first comprises stories yanked from memory about 2600 games, and brief reviews. The second is a ColecoVision section, dealing specifically with Roller Controller titles.
My Commodore 1541 disk drive finally let out its last gasp when I was a Junior in high school (1989). This made the use of my Commodore 128 impossible, so I sold it to a friend of mine for a couple of hundred bucks. My Commodore had been my game machine for years; now I was gameless. I didn't have any other systems. Even my Atari VCS had been sold by my mother a couple of years earlier at a yard sale. What was I to do? Get a game system, and quick!
The guy who had bought my 128 had put his VCS on hold, now having so many games to play on the superior 128. I bought his VCS with about thirty-five cartridges for a song and dance. Just about every game I had always wanted was in that deal. I was overjoyed.
At the time, I used to play Nintendo all night with a friend of mine named Chris Lammert. One night, I spent the night at his house and we played Atari all night instead. He had the driving controllers for Indy 500, so we played that for a very long time -- it was great fun.
Then we plugged in another game, one by Activision: Robot Tank. I had played it before -- after all, it was my cartridge -- but this time was different. You have to picture the situation: We had just been playing Indy 500, which is fun, but hardly worthy of great praise for graphic glory. Now we were looking at Robot Tank, the full-color, all-out best of Activision's graphic efforts on the 2600. But it was more than that.
It was my turn. I played for a while and got hit by an enemy bullet, but I didn't lose my tank. Instead I was having trouble turning, and lights were flashing on my console. Huh? I wasn't used to this. If you get hit, you are supposed to die; yet I kept playing. Shortly thereafter, I did die; but not before taking out just a few more tanks with my own crippled vehicle. Those tanks that I destroyed while mine was hobbling around with broken treads gave me a feeling of triumph that I had felt little in all my gaming experience up to that point.
After a while, Chris and I determined that the four letters on the tank's display stood for Treads, Radar, View and Cannon. The game was great fun to play with a tank that had all of those features individually defined, but the real fun came when the damage started accumulating. Could we lose all of the abilities at once and still make an effort to destroy enemies?
Eventually we were in control of a tank that was slowly crawling about with broken treads, no radar, a view that was flickering in and out of focus and a cannon that seemed to have a mind of its own. Could we possibly get off a shot in near- blindness that would add just one more to our tally of kills? A tank came toward us, firing; we knew that one more shot, no matter how minor, was our doom. We fired at that incoming tank and screamed with delight when the sounds of its explosion reached our ears. To us, it was a hard-earned victory, a testament to our skill at Activision's best action game. We never would have called that shot "luck," but now, well, now I know for sure that it was pure skill...
Yeah, Adam. You're absolutely right. Pure skill. Really.
By the age of 11, I'd been severely impressed with first-person quarter-biters like Battlezone and Red Baron. Like anyone with reasonable experience with the 2600 who observed differences between its titles and their coin-op counterparts, I assumed that any good windshield-view contest at home was technically out of reach. Star Raiders was basically just a well-animated star field with a graphically independent target-shoot going on in the foreground. I found out later, of course, that the 8-bit version was much more intriguing, but that's besides the point.
I saw a screen shot of Robot Tank somewhere. My first response was to be amazed at the graphics. I shrugged it off, though; the green-and-gray-striped ground couldn't possibly scroll with the 3-D manner in which it was drawn. I loved the 2600, but I was realistic about its limitations, which allowed me to enjoy games on their own merits and only disown those that didn't appeal to me on the primal level that defines any excellent classic. I figured that the ground just appeared stationary as your tank supposedly moved around. Another target-shoot.
At least a year later, one of my friends brought the game over. I can't remember who, but he let me borrow it. Sean McCormick, I think. The reason I wanted to borrow it was that it astonished me.
The ground did move in 3-D fashion, in fact, and smoothly. I considered it just this side of revolutionary that the player's tank bumped along with the ground, and I thought that the way the player's demise was illustrated (the melodramatic static) was innovative and unique. The sky changed from daytime to nighttime and back, complete with pretty sunset skies and several intermittent colors. The darkness was actually an aspect of difficulty and strategic readjustment, as was the fog (low visibility) and rain (slower movement). A further element of challenge to factor into your approaches on bad guys was accumulated damage. You could lose any part of your tank's movement, weaponry or vision, and the strategy for handling each was different.
The enemy tanks actually did figure into the player's relationship with the scenery; distance and timing was important, like they were supposed to be in first-person shooters. It wasn't a mere overblown clay duck hunt. And the enemy tank explosion was the most breathtaking thing I'd seen on the VCS so far. Have you ever noticed how small the pixels are in that animation? Alan Miller packed so much into that ROM that I wouldn't be surprised to see a tiny little coin-op machine inside the cartridge if I opened it.
Added realism resulted from actual words on the screen as part of the game, just like in a coin-op: SQUADRON DEFEATED. SWITCHING TO RESERVE TANK. RAIN ALERT. A rare kind of feature in a 2600 game.
This was the first game that made me mad, made me want to hit the reset switch while bent to a demented degree on revenge. I hadn't gotten this angry at a game before; the victories were therefore triply satisfying.
The only negative comment I can make is that it gets repetitive. Well, so does Dodge' Em, and yet I play it again and again. Robot Tank is, with little room for argument, one of the best of the best games ever released for that machine, and it still looks and feels quite amazing. And, speaking of Dodge 'Em...
Isn't it funny how your mind remembers small incidents that happened very early in your life? I usually can't remember what I had for breakfast on a given day, but I can recall silly game- related happenings with ease.
Until I got my C-64, I always played all of my games on a 13" B&W television that I had set up on a small table in my bedroom. It was where I spent many hours conquering the evil jets in Activision's Chopper Command and knocking the head of the pest in U.S. Games's Gopher. My game collection was very limited when I was a kid, totalling a whopping six games at its peak. But the 2600 was a popular machine and all of my friends had it, so I was able to borrow many games that I would otherwise have never been able to play.
I was envious of the neighbors living across the street. They had quite a collection of carts that I didn't have. The tastes of the oldest son, John, were quite different than mine. He was one of the few who would play Chess on his VCS, leaving his machine on all night while it did its thinking (he was also the first person who told me that the game cheats if you wait long enough).
He had an odd game which I loved to play when I went over to his house: Dodge 'Em. It's fun to play alone, but it's great when there's someone on the second joystick. The game stops becoming a fight for points. Instead it becomes what the title suggests: a test of reflexes that keeps the mind racing. It is a very simple game, not holding any hidden charms whatsoever, but it's wonderful no matter how you play -- collecting points or avoiding the headlights of your buddy's oncoming car.
Has anyone noticed that this eat-the-dots game came out a year before Pac-Man?
The game works. I can't put it into better words. The feel of the game ensures its addicting grip on the player, who hits RESET over and over to try and score higher or reach a further screen.
The thing is, all the screens are the same. And yet the game is longetive; one never tires of it, after repeated games, after years. You can find a pattern and repeat it over and over, but the game remains fresh and exciting. There's not much to look at; just that inexplicably exciting, stimulating glow of arcade purple, forming anticipatingly science-fiction-like lines and corners.
I think it's that fire button. That might be what does it for me. Press it, and you go really fast. It feels great.
Some games you just can't put into words.
And now we'll take a look at a couple of Roller-Controller-exclusive ColecoVision titles. Just the fact that they necessitate that rarely-found controller means that they're seldom played by the casual classic gaming enthusiast, so we thought that descriptions from a couple of fanatics like us might be of interest.
Every summer, I would visit my father in New York for about a month. The first week or two, it was always a blast doing stuff with him; but eventually, the newness of staying with Pop would wear off and I would find other things to occupy my time. Most of the time, this meant playing Atari in my stepbrother Chris's room. But even this wore thin after a short while, as Chris had only five or six games.
A few houses down from my father lived a kid about the same age as I (twelve). His name was Raymond. We spent most of our time swimming in his pool because summer is always just about hot enough in New York to melt your skin off. Sometimes, though, we would go inside and play Atari in his dark basement. One summer we went down there to play, but instead I got caught up in his new game system, the ColecoVision.
Raymond didn't have many games; I can remember only three: Smurf, Rocky and Slither. I thought Smurf was fun, Rocky had the best graphics ever, and Slither was out of this world. It was the Roller Controller that did it for me. Slither was the first experience with an alternative controller that I had ever had; I loved it! I remember the game being one of the best I ever played as a kid. That proves that my memory is a bit colored by nostalgia.
Slither isn't a bad game, but it is an easy game. What it boils down to is a complete knock-off of Centipede with an added gimmick. The gimmick is that the player is allowed free movement over the entire screen, which, in theory, makes the game more fun to play. In practice, this theory is blown apart because Slither doesn't give the player any restrictions that make the game the least bit complicated. Not only is the player allowed to move anywhere on the screen, but he can fire either upward or downward. This ease of play aims the game directly at children. Unless the game is begun at the most difficult level, adults will find little fun here.
As the Roller Controller pack-in game, Slither succeeds in showing what the device is meant for. As a game to be played on its own merits, I can only compare Slither to one other ColecoVision game -- Dr. Seuss's Fix Up the Mix-Up. Both are fun, but that fun is only witnessed by those under eight. For a game that is fun to play, is aimed at people over ten, can use the Roller Controller (in joystick mode) and is played on the ColecoVision, there is only one alternative to Slither -- AtariSoft's Centipede.
This looked like a great idea when Adam first showed it to me. It still stands conceptually as the best Centipede clone I've ever seen. You can go to the top of the screen and flip the playfield upside-down, so to speak, by firing downward at everything instead of upward. And the splitting snakes are a logical upgrade of the segmented centipede; soon, little snakes are all over the place, making you dash around manically, trying to separate the dangerous creatures from the harmlessly roving ones; and their unpredictability adds to the game's enjoyment as you try to second-guess their directions. The baby snakes are a neat addition -- shoot the tiny buggers and get a new group of big snakes. The background graphics are also pretty advanced for a 1983 ROM.
But we do have a couple of problems here. The collision detection isn't great. On the faster levels, you don't always destroy the pterodactyl when you shoot it. Fortunately, it also doesn't always destroy you when it runs into you.
The movement of everything but the snakes is also pretty jittery, and the dinosaur-looking-thing, for instance, often just leaps onto you from the border as it enters. Its jumpy movement makes it do this instantly; I don't like game obstacles that aren't avoidable. There should be an available element of evasive strategy when fast enemies are implemented; Slither tries to make up for its ease by putting in fast, erratic extra enemies, and it just winds up feeling confused.
For some reason that I don't understand, this game also uses the Roller Controller. It might be because all four buttons are used, or because the arcade game uses a trak-ball. I really don't know. Whatever the reason, it makes the game very annoying to play.
Victory owes something to the side-scrolling game of the day -- Defender. But Victory isn't a clone of Defender; not at all. What Victory lacks in originality, it more than makes up for in odd quirks. What other game allows the use of a shield that will let you bump into the ground in such an amusing manner? I don't know of any. And it is the only game I know of in which the radar moves the player's screen area and not the landscape (I didn't notice this until Chris pointed it out).
Victory is a game that seems unfinished. There is very little about it to indicate that much thought was put into it. It is a straightforward game that could keep you occupied if there were no other games to play at the moment. Then again, if there were some fresh paint nearby, it might be just as enjoyable to watch it dry as it is to wrestle ongoing enjoyment out of this game.
This one's just a pain in the ass. I mean, it's a good idea, and when I first played it, I liked it. I liked the roto-gun idea, and it was interesting to try and wheel the thing around in the air with the Roller Controller. I also thought it was neat that you could be in either the blue sky above the Scramble-like terrain or in the black outer-space area above. The game should be a lot of fun.
But when I sat down to really play it, it was just a pain in the ass. I really gave it a chance, too. But you have to chase the enemies around; it doesn't seem like they're mad at you. What kind of enemies are those? And when you do find them, their shaky movement makes it tough to anticipate their routes. This should be a challenging aspect, but they jump a few screen inches to crash into you in an instant, and it seems more like incidental movement than deliberate steering.
I also don't like the idea that you can't shoot the ground-based rockets until they launch at you. This could have been a neat Super Cobra-like contest with free four-directional scrolling and varying sky. I've always wanted to play a game like that. Instead, it's tiresome and, on top of that, repetitive if you do succeed in reaching further levels. There are no targets on the ground to blast except the rockets, and by the time they launch, you're looking for your 2600 and Robot Tank.