MASTER BUILDER (Spectravision)
You've got to be kidding me. You have got to be kidding me. Am I supposed to take the time to build a tower brick by brick like this? It'll take me three hours! And where are the bad guys? Oh. A bird. Boy, I'm just as scared as all get-out. What an oafish, half-baked programming exercise this cart submits. I can't believe stuff like this was actually for sale. I'm starting to agree with Nintendo's insistence on approving any third-party projects for their first system.
MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE: HE-MAN (M-Network)
Absolute junk. There's no reason for any of the following: Another Defender clone that doesn't require the actual defense of anything, another game that demands only one movement pattern executed over and over, another cartridge harboring a high-resolution title screen with sheer rubbish beyond it, or another contest with sparse mechanics and no depth. But all of these things can be found squeezed into just one M-Network cartridge, evidently sold under the corporate impression that licensing a popular character would be enough.
And that's only the first part of the game. It does take forever, driving you to the point of dementia; but once you've flown over the featureless terrain long enough to reach Skeletor's abode, the game turns into a rip-off of the "moving wall" screen in Swordquest: Earthworld (not a game that deserves being copied in the first place, to say the least). After you run through the gaps and touch Skeletor with your ballpoint pen (or popsicle stick, or unbent paper clip...okay, I guess it might be a sword), the game immediately snaps back to the concentric circle of Hell that is the flying segment. It's not even worth seeing your usual "I just want to beat one level" feeling through to the end. It represents a quick, weak effort that's not worth investigating for any reason, other than to show a friend -- for laughs.
MR. POSTMAN (Puzzy/Bit)
Oh, my god! This is soooo bad! This bird is shooting really fast lines at me that are mostly avoided by luck. I run across the screen, climb a tree (pole? antenna? giraffe?) and start swinging back and forth on a vine or something. Now what? I don't care. What a terrible waste of silicon! The movement's terrible, the incentive's nil and the scarcity of the cart is deserved.
I've never figured out how to siphon any enjoyment from this game; but then, I've never been into drugs.
The plain fact is that whatever charm, challenge and competitive vigor some players value in Combat just don't surface here. Maybe it's the diminished maneuverability. Maybe it's the hats. Who knows? I'm trying hard to see it through the eyes of someone who only had Atari's few early games to choose from, but it's still pretty dull. I mean, you don't see any Outlaw tips on anyone's classic games site. What could they tell you? "Make sure that you press the red button on the joystick EVERY TIME you want to fire a bullet." "If your opponent's shot appears to be coming toward you, maneuver your cowboy in such a way that the bullet actually misses you. It's possible to acquire quite a score if you just follow this strategy repeatedly!" Doesn't sing, man.
The graphics are pretty damn good. They also do nothing for the game. It's just as unplayable as its reputation testifies. The problem lies in the manner of intercepting the ball so it can be hit back against the wall; the little sphere casts a shadow on every surface simultaneously (is it the source of light? Are these guys whacking around a light bulb? Why doesn't it break?), but the only shadow worth concentrating on is the one on the floor. This is almost always obstructed by one of the players. It's nearly impossible. This is a sport that never should've been attempted as a video game. (Of course, I don't think any of them should've been, but whatcha gonna do?)
RAFT RIDER (U.S. Games)
Repugnant. The controls don't make any sense. Even if they did, this is slow and tedious. U.S. Games is rapidly sinking on the Chris Meter.
RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (Atari)
I'm sick of reading reviews about this game that claim it "bears no resemblance to the movie." It bears quite a strong resemblance, in fact. What did they expect, digitized stills of Harrison Ford? A Nazi rally, maybe? (Can't you just see it? They could've used the crowd noise from RealSports Baseball.) Anyway, the most important parts of the plot emerge intact in this terrific adventure. Further, Indy's penchant for patient exploration and his skills with whips and guns are nicely incorporated without being mere extras. Let's face it: This game didn't sell very well because it took time, offering no immediate fast action. I consider it the proper sequel to Adventure.
I have only two complaints: When you win, you're treated to a terribly anticlimactic ending (in fact, it's the opening scene!). Also, the mesa in which the Ark is hidden -- one of very many -- isn't selected with enough randomness. One of them, just to the right and below the center of the map, harbors the goal at least 85% of the time. Other than this, the game's terrific.
ADAM: This is one of the best games available on the 2600; I just can't play it that well. Also, the replay value is not all that great (but then, if you got months or years out of it like some people I know, you got your money's worth). The graphics are also well-done. The way you select the inventory is well-thought-out. I can find little to fault. It is just a difficult game that requires a player to think, rather than to just keep pressing that fire button!
REVENGE OF THE BEEFSTEAK TOMATOES (20th Century Fox)
Phenominal! Yet another game proves that graphics really don't matter regarding the addiction level, provided that they interact accurately and everything's clearly delineated. Tantalizingly blocky and straightforward graphics bestow the feel of a late-'70s Atari title, and you quickly get caught up in your quest to build three differently colored walls across the screen in order to suffocate the curiously malicious, spitting plants at the bottom. As you contend with flying tomatoes and other newly animate members of the theoretically most healthy food group, you shoot flying bricks out of the air and then transplant them into their respective brick-rows below. Vines grow into your glowing attempts at carpentry, threatening to munch them into dust unless you inter-vine (if you will).
Although there's a strange feature that prevents you from losing a game unless you limit your life count by switching the left difficulty switch to "A," the constant action, multiple demands and pressing goals put this Breakout-turned-on-its-head on my list of absolute favorites.
ROOM OF DOOM (Commavid)
Putrid. The action's uncompelling and overly repetitive, and the game moves like it took a sleeping pill and drank a pot of coffee and can't decide whether to nap or tremble. Screw these half-baked loaves of fruitcake.
Third-party attempts at making money rather than history were what killed the first gaming craze -- not things like E.T.
SEANBABY (from his site, www.seanbaby.com): This is the video version of the popular children's game "Hide and Seek." This was another attempt by programmers to eliminate the need to have any sort of non-video game recreation. After this game, they released Wash-Body Shower and Eat'n'Potty! Both came packaged with little portable toilets and water hoses that hooked into the back of the Atari. It's too bad the system's popularity died before they could release Muscle De-Atrophier. It could have saved literally sixes of lives.
Player one, Peek, starts to Count. (Each of them has an arm coming out just above his crotch. It's probably why I spent most of first grade trying to pick things up with my penis.) Player two, Sneak, prepares to Hide. Let the fun begin!
I guess the title "Hide and Seek" is copyrighted by elementary schoolers everywhere, so Vidtec had to settle on that Sneak'n'Peek crap to avoid lawsuits. It's a two-player game on the cutting edge of entertainment; both players sit down and decide who's it. This is usually accomplished by putting in the cartridge Decide Who It!
After this, the first player closes his eyes and gets helpfully reminded by the Atari not to peek. Then player two moves his grotesque pixel-man through the house and hides him somewhere. This could be in a closet, or even behind a couch! It's limited only by your imagination and the fact there are only four things to hide behind!
After this fun task is completed, player one tries to guess where the other has hidden. Just like real "Hide and Seek" -- except you don't have to walk, and the name's dumb. I used to win this game all the time by taking out the cartridge when player one wasn't looking and replacing it with Air-Sea Battle. Try to find me now, bitch!
The 2600 programmers at Atari didn't hit their technological peaks until three or four years had passed following the game-industry crash. What's kinda sad is that the late-'80s games were hardly played by anyone outside our community of fanatics.
Doug Neubauer, the guy responsible for the revolutionary Star Raiders 8-bit original back in 1979, spent a couple of years getting this glorious, gargantuan space journey together; every bit of his time and effort shows. Audio/visually, it's hands-down the most amazing game ever released for the system. Fortunately, the game play itself almost completely follows suit. It gets unbelievably frustrating and the player should've been provided with more ships, but everything's otherwise optimally balanced, resulting in the mixture of strategy and action that Neubauer's first, more famous game attempted with less success.
Certain early '80s carts gave the home consumer a chance to exploit his intelligence; programmers bestowed upon us games that you couldn't just plug'n'play. Unfortunately, the average gamer was like the average person in general: not willing to invest any cerebral energy in an object of entertainment. Therefore, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Imagic's Fathom and the like didn't sell much compared to brainless blasters like Activision's admittedly gleaming Megamania. Solaris revealed a hope on Neubauer's part that if anyone actually found and bought his action/adventure, they'd finally be ready to read the manual and challenge the Zylons with strategic savvy and renewed vigor; 8-bit flight simulators had made their mark, so he evidently hoped that the required intellectual involvement would carry over to the 2600. Because, while it's easy enough to figure out if you read the instructions, it's really hard to beat.
It would've been nice to have the aliens and planets set up randomly before every game, even if the maze of quadrants had to remain the same. But this is an essential title if you really want to witness what the ol' VCS is capable of with an enthusiastic programmer's brainwork and patience. I'm not saying the frustration won't catch up with you -- the Cobras' shots are next to impossible to dodge, and a bug exists that often causes your ship to pass right through the key during one of the "corridor" phases -- but at the very least, this is a high-class graphics demo that's fun to pull out once in a while. Once you appreciate all of Doug's elaborate work, you can fire up something better like Imagic's Moonsweeper.
SPACE INVADERS (Atari)
To hundreds of thousands -- perhaps millions -- of players, this is the original version of Space Invaders, rather than the preceding arcade game. Speaking personally, it's the first game I ever played on the VCS. Believe me, I saw nothing lackluster or insufficient about this one as I tried doggedly to score as high as possible, rejoicing in the "bloopbloopbloopbloop" of a destroyed Command Ship or timing a shot just right to finish off that deranged final invader (nickname: The Typist). It's done as well as could be imagined, and it's still surprisingly addictive. The added options of zig-zagging bullets, guided missles, invisible enemies and moving shields automatically boost it far beyond most any other invasion game; it continues to exist as the best home version of this winner in any "Most Influential Game" contest. It also features the single greatest farting sound of all games in history.
SPACEMASTER X-7 (20th Century Fox)
Superb! A very distant cousin of the ancient coin-op Star Castle, this outer-space bout (also released as an 8-bit Atari game called Alpha-Shield) pits the player's ship against a main target surrounded by a diamond-shaped force field: a deadly outline that can't be shot away. It expands to the size of the playfield and then contracts, requiring a well-timed dash through its moving doorway if the player wants sufficient room to evade or zap the increasingly cunning adversaries and bouncing lightning bolts launched from the central station. The station itself has to be shot several times before exploding in gratifying color and resolution and sending the player to the next wave. To make things harder in later levels, the station gradually grows a few indestructible little barricades a couple of inches out from its radius, making the sprint through the doorway a more intricate exploit, since the doorway moves faster and faster. You now have to somehow get inside and take out the station from up-close before the force field contracts back to the center and squooshes you.
Swift activity, faultless mechanics and an inventive premise make this a truly uncommon type of cartridge: a rarity that's actually worth finding!
SPACE ROBOT (Dimax)
Weird-o-rama. Missile Command's graphics have been completely changed; now robots fall from the sky, minus the trails. The sounds are exactly the same as in Rob Fulop's famous arcade translation; I mean, it's the same goddamn code! You can't run out of missiles because there isn't a depot displayed (and the survivors aren't tallied for extra points at the end of a wave), but you still hear all the corresponding "bonus count" noises before a new attack begins. What the hell's going on? Are these people for real?
SPIDER FIGHTER (Activision)
The one word that always occurs to me when I think of this game is OVERRATED. It seems to be one of the most popular carts of its period when one flips back through the high-score pages in old magazines, but there's really not much here. It's an exhausted concept with no improvements except prettier graphics than most; there's a distinction between a copycat with no significant twist and a lovely, pure old game that appeared before innovation became the norm. This isn't the latter.
Something about it just bugs me (no pun intended). It's the same thing over and over, and that thing feels tedious pretty quickly. You find yourself only really playing for the waves in which you get faster firing capability. Even those screens offer more monotony than entertainment, since you're basically following the same pattern and merely hoping that you don't lose your timing and let too many bullets slip by the baddies. That's not much of a conflict.
To be fair, it was Larry Miller's debut performance and he did a remarkable job keeping the action smooth and the mechanics rock-solid. But his Enduro was definitely a major improvement; even if it involved another rehashed concept, it now stands as the definitive 3-D racing game on the 2600. But Spider Fighter strikes me as more of an interactive graphics demo than a game. In this sense, Larry was way ahead of his time.
This is one of the most brilliant ideas ever to surface on the beloved ol' VCS; it's also one of the most addictive games available on any platform. The more you realize what approach you should be taking, the greater the urge to keep playing. Once you've become familiar with the characteristics of the three types of beasties and how their speed differences can be used to your advantage, it's incredibly hard to stop trying again and again to beat your high score. My favorite's game 4 -- you get the best mix of options, yet it still starts slow enough to employ strategy above reflex.
The only down-side is that when you're done playing and you plug in another cartridge, you reflexively attempt to herd any bad guys approaching a border and you blow up.
I've often wondered if Activision operated under a general non-space motif; were the programmers discouraged from adding to the long list of science fiction games or did they just happen to rely on earthly themes from which to contrive their unique ideas? We have a hidden jungle, sweltering desert, hostile river, busy highway, farm, restaurant kitchen and some racetracks at our disposal from this first software-only company; that's not to mention the ice floes, pigs' houses, decaying mouths, falling bombs and plants, flailing prizefighters, serene fishermen, sunny tennis courts, snowy mountains, Hockey rinks, board games and card tables. And this, surely one of the greatest "raw" video games of all time, puts us on a ranch. And a looooong ranch it must be indeed.
(I wonder if Jeff Minter likes this one.)
STAR VOYAGER (Imagic)
Repulsive. This is one of the worst, most awkward 3-D spaceship games ever released for the 2600; in fact, it's second only to 20th Century Fox's The Earth Dies Screaming (actual name: The Player Dies Yawning). Its every aspect, from mechanical to strategic, is bettered by any other windshield shooter that came out in 1982 alone.
SUB SCAN (Sega)
There are probably duller, more sluggish games out there, but for the life of me, I can't think of a single one at the moment. There's no reason for this to exist. It's like an upside-down Air-Sea Battle in ultra-slow motion. I don't even have the patience to wait and see if one of my sinking shots hits an enemy sub, let alone find out if anything else happens later in the game. Fuck this absurd bullshit.
Outstanding. It turned out to be a smashing idea to combine Dig-Dug with Combat. Hidden in the earth that your tank burrows through are high-scoring prizes; situated within the top border is a row of reactors that all have to be destroyed. Ruthless tank duos creep in from the sides just under the reactors and, if allowed to live long enough, navigate the maze you've created below. Divert them in this manner or blast them with your incredibly fast machine gun. Sometimes they decide to tunnel toward you, making their own paths; but the majority of the action takes place along the top row.
This is a fantastic game that should've done well. Or maybe it just allows me to relive the tank sequence in the Tron stand-up. Either way, I like it.
TURMOIL (20th Century Fox)
What a terrific game! This is the sort of speedy madness that video games were invented for. It has just enough stop-and-grab tangents and baddies that require strategic approaches to keep the player out of trance mode. Furious yet somehow not as frustrating as one would think, this sufficiently original battle matches Bill Kunkel's criterion for any good classic: "Easy To Learn, Difficult To Master." It's programmed by Mark Turmell. Ring any bells?
I believe that this is the only game that advances through the cart's variations as you clear waves, leaving you at the game number of the last wave you've reached once your session's over. Of course, game 9's the only one you should be playing if you want a true Turmoil experience.
VIDEO PINBALL (Atari)
I like it. Sometimes I play for hours. Maybe once or twice a year, but still. And yet I don't like the idea of a video game that simulates Pinball. It's a dumb thing to attempt; Pinball's so physical. And the cool thing about video games showing up was that we didn't have to play Pinball anymore! Sheesh.
So I probably like this game because it has about as much to do with actual Pinball as Home Run has to do with Baseball. It's infectious; one obsesses over advancing a roller or bumper just one more number, since the awarded scores for hitting these things can increase to the point at which you're watching your digits being blasted through the sky. (My score actually landed in my nearby Missile Command cartridge once.) And there wouldn't be this much player concentration on accomplishing the especially involved tasks required to earn extra lives until Mr. Do!. Further, there's a suave, minute art to using the fire button to "tilt" the stubborn ball into the path you want it to take; there's a lot more of this than flipper control if you're a good player. I've achieved over a million points and I'm damn proud of it. Once you've gotten a grip on the finite science of getting the ball to obey you, you're hooked. You even forget that it's shaped like a square.