Orphaned Computers & Game Systems

Vol. II, Issue 7    December 1998

Have You Played Archaeologist Today?

Exploring Atari's Multi-Screen Adventure Games

by Chris Federico

While it's inarguable that the average 2600 game from any one of the major third-party companies (namely Activision, Imagic and Parker Bros.) contains superior quality to the typical title released by Atari themselves, I find the outright dismissing of Atari's own games as compared to others' to be awfully generalized and off-base. This is partly because my favorite type of video game is the multi-screen adventure; but even excepting those kinds of games, Atari has created some fantastic action bouts that easily rival any third-party contest. Yars' Revenge, Krull and the Joust adaptation are examples of earlier masterpieces, while Gravitar, Solaris and the translated Jr. Pac-Man are gems from the later era in which Atari, to a sadly diminished audience, outdid themselves.

But Atari's creative pool boasted one handful of games that, in my opinion, was the cream of the crop from the very beginning of the first gaming boom, and continues to outlast similar efforts by other companies. This article will discuss Atari's adventure games for their own machine -- my favorites out of all VCS titles. I'm doing this partly because I don't agree with the bashing that's constantly discharged upon some of these games.

First, we should establish what "multi-screen" means. Donkey Kong and Tutankham are two quests that could be considered multi-screen, but not by my definition. The former engagement basically features only one screen that is renovated with a new layout after the conquering of each previous one, and the latter harbors a playing area larger than one screen's worth of space, but which scrolls like a moving window to fit everything in. The sort of game I'm talking about contains a variety of stationary, screen-sized rooms that are entered and exited via passages or doorways on the screen borders.

The object of such a game usually involves exploration -- finding certain objects and doing required things with them. These games are usually completed, rather than continuous. Regardless, some of them keep score by some means.

The first such game ever released was Superman, in 1979 (although programmer John Dunn used the screen-switching engine from Warren Robinett's earlier but still unreleased Adventure). Considering Atari's other offerings of the day, this was quite a complex game with over-average graphics. As Superman, the player flies from screen to screen (city block to city block), hunting for arch-villain Lex Luthor and his five toadies. When the Man of Steel flies into one of these bad guys, thereby picking him up, he has to fly to the jail screen and deposit him behind bars.

Simultaneously, the player searches for the three scattered pieces of the bridge blown up by the baddies at the game's beginning. Unlike the wandering rogues, these pieces are always on the same screens. The only change I would wish on this game is a random scattering; but it doesn't take away from the pleasure to know where they are. It's fun flying quickly to their locations (some of us have had the city's weird layout memorized for years) and making blinding haste to the bridge screen to see the magical reconstruction take place.

In fact, the coordinative pleasure centers of the brain that VCS games often trigger (Dodge 'Em, Astroblast, Solar Fox), that curiously primal release felt by controlling something quickly and smoothly, certainly applies to Superman. A game aspect that is often overlooked is this: Does it feel good to play? Some games are addictive in that context, even if they cheat (Stampede), they're old and they've been "improved" in numerous clones (Doom), or the onscreen flickering occasionally curtails collision detection -- and speaking of Superman (again), it does indeed feel good to smash through screen border after border as the loud rush of wind echoes repeatedly.

A neat thing is that the bad guys all have different speeds; the fastest is really a bitch to catch, even if you've found him. Lex is of course the most devious, zipping from city block to block with his weird little backpack-helicopter. But what's really well-done, especially considering how early the game was created, is the random temperament of the bad guys. I've been playing this game since 1982; I still can't always second-guess where they'll all be hiding. There's a set amount of collective movement patterns, I'd imagine; for example, almost half the time, Lex and a couple of specific criminals always start out in the screen to the right of the jail. But they all scatter so quickly and disparately that even knowing the game like the back of your hand won't necessarily guide you directly to each guy.

Hindering Superman are floating Kryptonite satellites with no less impressive movement patterns than those of the bad guys. The other nuisance is a helicopter that flies around at random, picking up and relocating the bridge pieces. It also picks up Kryptonite satellites and Lois Lane (the antedote for a touch from the former), but this isn't as bothersome.

Once the bridge is rebuilt and all six bad boys are behind bars, Superman has to return to the phonebooth on the game's starting screen, change back into Clark Kent, walk over the newly rebuilt bridge one screen to the right, and make his way to the Daily Planet. Three tones signal the end of the game, prompting you to hit reset and try to beat your last time (my record's 1:17 -- without the cheat I explained two issues ago). It's almost impossible to play this game just once per sitting. [Feb. 2012 update: Now my record's 0:57 -- without cheating in any sense, including taking advantage of the occasional "slowly starting timer" glitch. Screen shot available. So there.]

Adventure came out in 1980 and, more than the hectic Superman, forever changed the way designers approached action/adventure games. Like its antecedent, it has a plot that must be resolved. But it has no scoring whatsoever, it leaves more time for contemplation and, also unlike Superman, it employs a wholly logical room layout. This game fascinated me when I first played it in the late summer of 1982, and continues to captivate me; it feels mysterious and "too quiet," and the quest feels momentous. The simple graphics add to the game's raw fixation on the completion of a straightforward act by way of exploration and the manipulation of objects.

A stolen chalice has to be found in one of two evil castles and returned to the hero's castle. Along the way, you have to find keys to the castles, and you might have to find and use the magnet to pull one of them out of a wall, or locate the portable bridge in order to search the closed-off part of the maze inside the White Castle. Finding the sword and killing the three variously tempered dragons makes the search easier. A bat -- the equivalent to Superman's helicopter -- flies from screen to screen, displacing objects. But unlike the helicopter, you can't snatch anything away from him; you have to persuade him to trade what he's carrying for something you don't need at the moment.

A unique thing about Adventure is that the player can reincarnate his onscreen counterpart if he's swallowed by a dragon. Being eaten doesn't end the game or decrement a depot of lives; it just limits the player's movement to the small space inside the dragon's stomach! The program itself doesn't even seem to care that you've been swallowed. Everything proceeds normally, meaning that another dragon might happen by and steal you from the belly of the first beast, or the bat may show up and grab the dragon you're trapped within, giving you an airborne tour of the Kingdom that other partially digested foods can only dream of.

Game variation 3 places the objects and characters in random locations, so this is the only one I play. It makes Adventure a true game, rather than just a connect-the-dots exercise.

1981's Haunted House has the player searching for three pieces of a vase that, rebuilt, must be carried out the front door. There are four floors, designated by the colors of the walls, but these are all that change when you ascend or descend via staircases. The playing area scrolls up or down as you move, but it's contained on a single screen horizontally. It's made up of mini-rooms separated by doorways that can't all be entered and exited at will (depending on the variation you're playing, and whether or not you possess the universal key).

There are ghosts, spiders and bats wandering around. They're all deadly to the touch, but in some variations, the bat also steals and re-deploys any vase pieces that you're carrying. If you can find the sceptre, it will render you immune to baddies; but you can only carry one object at a time, unless you count the separate pieces of the vase.

The game's not as complex or consistently interesting as Adventure. In fact, if you're hoping to keep track of your "score" (the less matches used, the better), you're not going to have much fun playing this one. I'm not as big about scoring high as having fun in the moment, but it tends to get repetitious and frustrating: Encountering a creature makes your match go out, and the bastard follows you around once he sees you -- so you wind up just colliding with him and losing a life so that he goes away and you can get on with exploring. You can only pick up objects while holding a lit match, you see. Also, you often can't avoid being killed, since you're given no chance to evade a creature who's popped out of a doorway or staircase niche. The only truly nifty thing I can think of is that you control a pair of eyes that looks in whichever direction the joystick's pushed (even when a session's not in progress).

Howard Scott Warshaw's Raiders of the Lost Ark entrances me almost as much as Adventure. This 1982 achievement returns to the room-by-room ways of that de-facto prequel, but doesn't have such significant randomization. If you wait until the theme song reaches its highest pitch before you start the game, the program will have time to move the Ark from its default location (one mesa to the southeast of the central Mesa Field) to a random one -- but that's about it. Everything else is down to memorization.

By way of compensation, though, the game involves many more objects (it introduced action/adventure gaming's first dynamic inventory) and some careful, proficient joystick work. It's spooky, larger than life for a VCS game and, to me, consistently enjoyable. And the rooms behave strangely and altogether ominously. It's got the sort of graphical abstraction (cf. Yars' Revenge again) that provokes the player to interact beyond the controller; he brings his imagination to the visuals, and completes the environment himself.

When E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial came out in time for Christmas of 1982, it evidently disappointed a lot of players -- but not me. Not only was I relieved that it wasn't corny and cute, like the movie had been (in fact, it's one of the most alien-looking VCS games made by Atari itself), but I also became captivated for apparently the exact reasons it didn't sell well: It was complicated compared with what we'd all been used to, and it required more brainwork than button-bashing. You also had to read the manual to know what was going on. That's why I haven't gone into the objectives of Raiders of the Lost Ark in very much detail, either -- if I were to merely reword the manual, it would be rather tedious for us both. It's easily available to you online. [Feb. 2012 interjection: For something even better, check out the Strategy and Solution Compendium -- the link beckons you from the front page of this website.]

I don't know about you, but getting a new Atari cartridge was a major event in my young life. It wasn't a frequent occurrence. I always read the manual. And the back of the box. And the sides. I wanted to get the whole experience.

The game is extremely original, and definitely contains random elements. The icons that appear as you traverse the ground are always found in different places, and the extra-life flower and three phone parts are never inside the same wells. Younger people who have heard or read that E.T. is the "worst game ever made" have jumped onboard the death ship, parrot-like. They might give it a few seconds of play to reaffirm what they've heard, but won't even figure out how to play. For those of us who like multi-screen exploration/adventure games, it's really good. Beware the cattle instinct.

In fact, without even giving it a lot of thought, I can immediately name several games on the VCS alone that are much, much worse -- and actually contain bugs, as opposed to E.T.: Picnic, Coconuts, King Kong, Warplock, Airlock, anything by Froggo or Puzzy, any Activision arcade conversion, any Xonox game, and of course the Swordquest travesties. Not only should the object of a game not expire, thank you, but those aren't even adventure games. They're loosely connected groups of mini-games, each of them a Frogger or Kaboom! rip-off. They're sort of like really bad Gorfs. Swordquest: FireWorld is especially wretched. Counting the glitches should have provided the true, contest-winning number.

Dark Chambers is an attempted Gauntlet clone that moves far too slowly to be any fun, whereas the bitter-tasting cherry on Atari's multilayered cake of adventure (that's probably the worst phrase I've ever written) is Secret Quest, released in 1989 and supposedly conceptualized by Atari founder and video-game pioneer Nolan Bushnell. The game and the story behind its creation will be covered in a full article next issue. Seeya then! -- CF