Before I launch into uncharted waters, reviewing games beyond those I had originally planned, I’d like to take this moment to pull together some interesting numbers from all the games I’ve reviewed (and thus all the Atari games I had growing up) and see what trends develop (excluding the L.E.A.P. Disks and my old BASIC games):
Total Number of Games I’ve Reviewed So Far: 106
Games with spaceships (usually shooting
aliens things): 25 (24%)
Asteroids, Atari Invaders, Buck Rogers: Planet of Zoom, Caverns of Mars II, Cosmic Tunnels, Crossfire, Defender, Embargo, Galaxian, Gorf, Journey to the Planets, The Last Starfighter, Missile Command (kinda), Onslaught, Quarxon, Race in Space, Rescue Mission (Rescue on Fractalus), Star Raiders, Star Wars, Stargate Courier, Starion, Survivor, Turmoil, Vanguard, Zaxxon
Games where you control vehicles other than spaceships: 18 (17%)
Baja Bug, Ballblaster (Ballblazer), Blue Max, Encounter, Flying Ace, Fort Apocalypse, Joust (they’re birds you’re riding, but I’ll count it), Jumbo Jet Pilot, Nautilus, Night Mission (pinball) Pinhead, PitStop, Pogoman, Pole Position, Protector II, Speedway Blast, Submarine Commander, Super Cobra
Games where you control a guy/animal who jumps around or climbs ladders (or trees or whatever), usually viewed from the side: 25 (24%)
Amphibian, Apple Panic, BC’s Quest for Tires, Bruce Lee, Canyon Climber II, Congo Bongo, Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Jr., Fast Eddie, Firebird, Frogger 2, H.E.R.O., Hard Hat Mack, Journey to the Planets, Jumpman Junior, Kangaroo, Lode Runner, Mario Bros., Miner 2049er, Mr. Robot and His Robot Factory, Necromancer, Pharaoh’s Curse, Pitfall II, Popeye, Preppie
Games where you explore or navigate a maze (usually top-down, sometimes 3D): 15 (14%)
(note: this doesn’t count games like Bruce Lee or Pitfall II where you’re freely exploring a game world with multiple ways to go: these are similar to Pacman mazes.)
Games based on pre-existing games, usually either sports or board games: 14 (13%)
Ballblaster (Ballblazer), Gamestar Baseball, Knockout!, Night Mission (pinball) One on One, PitStop, Pole Position, Pool, Preppie, Professor IQ, Reversi, Shooting Arcade, Starbowl Football, Track and Field
Games based on/clones of/sequels to other video games: 23 (22%)
(I may miss some of these if they’re based on games I haven’t played/am not familiar with. I’m also not counting ports from arcade games with the same name, like Asteroids or Pacman.)
- Space Invaders: Atari Invaders, Gorf
- Pacman: Monster Maze, Mouse, Ms. Pacman, Tumble Bugs
- Breakout: Super Breakout, Clowns & Balloons
- Frogger: Frogger 2, Froggie, Pacific Coast Highway, Preppie
- Donkey Kong: Canyon Climber II, Congo Bongo, Donkey Kong Jr., Kangaroo, Popeye*
- Other: Caverns of Mars II (sequel to Caverns of Mars), Jumpman Junior (sequel to Jumpman), Pharoah’s Pyramid (clone of Q*Bert), Pitfall II (sequel to Pitfall!), Protector II (sequel to Protector), Snake Byte (clone of Snake)
*Popeye was actually what Donkey Kong was supposed to be until Nintendo couldn’t get the rights to the characters, so I’m putting it here for that reason.
Games that don’t fit into any of the above categories: 10 (9%)
These don’t add up to 100% exactly, since some games fit in multiple categories. And now: charts!
So what can we extrapolate from all this? Here are some of my conclusions:
- Spaceship games! Boy, were these all the rage! Virtually a quarter of all the games I had were space-based in some way; I’m guessing it was due to games like Space Invaders or even the first video game ever (Spacewar!) being so influential at the time. Plus, the early 80’s was the era of the space shuttle, and I’d probably still consider it part of the Space Age (as opposed to the Information Age in which we are currently living). Space!
- Platformers existed and were a hefty chunk of the market even back before Super Mario Bros. came out, and while almost none of them I would call sidescrollers in the Mario vein (unlike the glut of platformers that came in the decade or so after SMB’s release), the basic elements that would shape the most common game genre of the 20th century (platforming) were already present in a fair amount of games.
- Clones! This isn’t a surprise, really, as one of the causes of the Game Crash of ’83 were tons of badly-done clones of, like, five or six games. The best clones added some new spin that transformed the old game completely, whereas the lesser ones just updated (or, in some cases, downgraded) the graphics or sound, or the new gameplay twists either added nothing or made the game worse. In either case, this kind of thing is still alive and well, from the glut of platformers in the 90’s to the sea of Call of Duty in which we find ourselves today, clones have always been a part of gaming.
- More than 90% of games at the time fit neatly into the four categories I mentioned: space, vehicle, platformer, or maze games (if they weren’t based on a pre-existing game). Sure, there were a few original ideas, but they were few and far between.
- The genre had little to do with quality, however; all of these categories contain both really great and really terrible games. It’s what you do in the genre that counts, not just the genre itself. You couldn’t just make a spaceship game back then and expect it to be a success. Just like you can’t nowadays just make an FPS and expect it to do well on those merits alone. But people hadn’t learned that lesson yet, which is why the Game Crash of ’83 occurred in the first place. Let’s learn from this. Support indie games and all that!
- That’s all I can think of right now. Does anything stand out to you? Post a comment or whatever.
Disk 4: the Mario disk. Three out of the four games here involved the world’s most famous video game character (besides Pacman, possibly).
The debut of both Donkey Kong himself and Jumpman, later renamed Mario, Donkey Kong was, and is, an arcade classic. You play as Mario, working as a construction worker in the days before you went into the plumber business with your brother Luigi and got sucked down a toilet to the Mushroom Kingdom. Here you’re just in boring old Brooklyn, where escaped ape Donkey Kong has kidnapped your girlfriend, Laura Ingalls Wilder (named Pauline in the game, but come on; look at that dress!) Your mission is to dodge barrels, peeved-looking fires, jumpy pogo-weights, and other random obstacles to win back your pioneer girl and give that ape what-for! Hammers help you crush the barrels and obstacles flying around, but unfortunately you can’t climb ladders with a hammer, so the game mainly consists of running and jumping. In the final level you undo rivets under Donkey Kong’s platform, which flips him upside-down and sends him flying to an ignominious end 100m below. The “bump” sound made as he hits the ground is less of a bone-breaking splat and more of a “I just hit my head on the doorframe!” whump!, which, actually, sounds more painful.
The Atari 8-bit version is known not only for giving Mario blue hair and a pointy nose, making him look vaguely like a moustachioed witch, but being the only home version of the game that included all four levels found in the arcade version! That’s right, in addition to the barrel-throwing, pogo-weight-jumping, and rivet-removing levels, you can also play the “pie factory” level, omitted from other home gaming systems that licensed the game. I read somewhere that they’re actually supposed to be cement containers, but man, do they look like pies. Deadly, deadly pies.
Donkey Kong was, of course, a ground-breaker in many ways: one of the first platformer games as well as the introduction game of two beloved characters (Pauline was presumably omitted from later games due to her inability to float, pull up turnips, and command entire legions of loyal fungi). But how does it stack up today? It acquits itself admirably, in fact. The easiest difficulty is easy enough for casual gamers to try it, but the later levels (as speed increases) are enough to challenge a hard-core player. In fact, thanks to Haley’s helpful comment on the previous post, I have been made aware of a movie based around getting a high score on Donkey Kong, called The King of Kong.
If you’ve never tried Donkey Kong, give it a shot, if for no other reason than to smash giant barrels with a hammer. I think we’ve all had days where we’ve wanted to do that.
Donkey Kong Junior
Mario’s back, and this time, he’s violating the laws of PETA. After Donkey Kong failed to keep his damsel in the last game, Mario (strangely dressed in Wario’s color scheme here) locked the poor guy up, chaining his arms and legs so he was no longer able to hide his man-boobs. You play as Donkey Kong Jr., the giant primate’s cute lil’ son, trying to free your father from his imprisonment. Unfortunately, somehow Mario acquired the ability to command alligators and giant blue birds, and as we all know, a monkey-child’s arch-nemesis is the dreaded giant blue bird. Eventually you must unlock all the keys to Donkey Kong’s cage, which allows Donkey Kong to escape and kick Mario’s behind, sending him flying off-screen to presumably conk his head on a doorframe.
Donkey Kong Jr. employs the same kind of technique as the previous game: get to the top of the screen just so your nemesis can whisk his captive off to the next level. In this game, however, there’s more focus on climbing up and sliding down poles and avoiding animals. While Junior can’t really jump worth beans (as you may find out on the second level, where he’s required to jump across some sort of stump-looking things literally inches apart and still regularly miss), his climbing skills are unparalleled, especially with two hands on two poles, which looks uncomfortable but seems to work for him. The game’s jump, climb ‘n dodge approach is just as fun as the original, so I would recommend this game for anybody who liked the first one. Of course, the game might’ve ended differently had Pauline been in it, pleading with Mario to let Donkey Kong go, and then staring into his eyes for hours on end while Mario got eaten by dinosaurs and giant grubs, eventually escaping to form an elementary-school rock band and become a sub-par Mexican wrestler to impress a nun.
While this is the only game on the disk not to feature Mario, it obviously has similarities to Donkey Kong. You play as some red guy with a hat, hunting down the ape Bongo. Why? He doesn’t have your girlfriend or anything. According what I can figure out it’s because he enjoys throwing coconuts at you, which look more like watermelons. This version of the game only has two levels. First, you climb up the stairs, avoiding the watermelons, but not the monkeys for some reason (they don’t really do much of anything besides look cute). When you reach the ape, he flees across a river that you have to jump across, using sandbars and fish as stepping stools. If you reach him again he flees back to the mountain and you’ve got to climb up to him again and again, until you finally reach the Ninth Circle of Hell, where Satan himself sits, frozen, ready to hurl a watermelon at you.
Despite having only two screens, Congo Bongo was a pretty fun game. The watermelons were hard to avoid, since they didn’t actually moved, but flashed from one spot to another like they were animated on one of those old LCD hand-held games (like the famous Game & Watch or Tiger Toys games), so you had to learn how they moved. Also, the isometric view was unique for its time and added a bit of a challenge. Plus, Bongo doesn’t have the man-boobs that Donkey Kong seemed to possess, so it’s a little less disturbing that way. Give it a try, but after you’ve beat the second level there’s not much to go back to.
Mario got sick of construction and ape-hunting, so he teamed up with his brother Luigi (played by John Leguizamo) to rid the sewers of turtles, crabs, and flies. This is done by jumping underneath one and flipping it over, then disposing of the flipped-over creature. (The crabs must be hit twice while the flies jump and are harder to hit). Occasionally a fireball flies in from the side of the screen and burns you up, or as it looks like, covers you in mustard. As the levels go on the creatures get more numerous and varied, and later on googly-eyed blocks of ice start freezing the platforms, making it harder to stop moving. Every so often a bonus coin level comes up where you’re supposed to grab all the coins before the time runs out.
Mario Bros. is a pretty fun one-player game, but it’s the two-player mode that really shines. You can either work together to rid the screen of pests, or, more commonly, try to screw each other over and knock each other around and even into enemies. This type of play ended up being so popular that it was incorporated into many later Mario games, most notably Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario All-Stars, and all of the Super Mario Advance titles. Mario Bros. also introduced many of the elements that would later be used in Mario’s next NES adventure: Luigi, turtles, pipes, and not looking like a witch anymore. Although, with the command that Mario had over alligators in Donkey Kong, Jr., you’d think he’d have full control over any sewers in Brooklyn.
That’s it for side 1 of disk 4. Join us next time for the second side, which features Track ‘n Field (or Los Angeles 1984 Games), Cosmic Tunnels, and One on One with Dr. J and Larry Bird. See you then!