Journey to the Planets
Have you ever known someone who had a lot of great ideas, but who lacked the talent, or the dedication, or the people skills needed to find someone else with either the talent or dedication, to make their ideas not just a reality, but something truly great? Maybe they saw someone else do it, and thought it wouldn’t be hard, or maybe they watched a few YouTube tutorials and suddenly became a self-proclaimed expert, or maybe they stuck with it until they got bored and someone else who didn’t care was forced to finish it. And when you see the final product you can tell that, somewhere in there, there’s a lot of passion and love, but it’s buried under a pile of mediocrity and lazy execution. Or maybe it would’ve been a fine piece of work had somebody else been around to do some editing, or say “You know, this part doesn’t work.” I don’t know if this is the case with the creator(s) of Journey to the Planets, but it sure feels that way (though probably not the YouTube part).
So you’re some guy who’s on an unknown planet for unknown reasons. What you gotta do is get in a spacecraft and fly to all the other planets in this sector of space and get valuables from them. Collect enough, and whatever space deities that there are may decide that you’re a bad enough dude to make it back home to your own planet. The premise has potential, and indeed, this could’ve been a quite a good game, if not for a few fatal flaws. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
First, you have to remember to pick up a gun. This is accomplished by walking to the right for several empty screens, picking it up, and walking to the left through the same empty screens until you reach your spacecraft. Lifting off (and more importantly, landing) feels like the old “Lunar Lander” game where you’ve gotta have the proper speed to avoid crashing, which in this game is represented by the color of your status bar (red means you’re going too fast to enter an atmosphere without burning up, yellow means you can enter an atmosphere but not land, and green means you can land). This is if you choose normal landings; the hard option throws in random stuff like wind, random stuff in the sky that you can crash into, and fluctuating gravity, including reverse gravity (yeah, that makes sense). Word of advice: don’t pick the hard option. Just don’t.
Anyway, once you lift off from your planet, you fly around in 64 sections of mostly empty space looking for planets, and occasionally crashing into comets and dying. Once you find a planet you’ve gotta land, and having done that successfully you then need to collect whatever treasure is on that planet. The catch is that each planet has a different obstacle/puzzle/action sequence that you’ve gotta get through. Sometimes there are just things shooting at you that you’ve gotta kill in order to lower the barrier to the next screen, sometimes there are minor inventory puzzles(!), but most often the graphics are too poor to really figure out what to do without a whole lot of trial and error.
This brings up one of the biggest problems with this game: the graphics are atrocious. Now, I know that this is an Atari 800 (or so), not an Xbox One or anything, but these graphics are on par with 2600 graphics, and not good 2600 graphics either. It’s not a port or anything either; according to Wikipedia, this game was made specifically for the Atari 8-bit line, in 1982, no less. Normally, terrible graphics are OK if the gameplay itself is fun, but the problem comes when you try to create puzzles around using various items but you can’t tell what the items are. One planet, for example, had what looked like a tire jack, a rope (maybe?) that you could pick up, and some sort of crab-thing that would kill you if you touched it. Touching the “rope” would cause your character to pick it up, but pressing the trigger anywhere would just make the “rope” disappear and respawn in its original location. How were you supposed to get past the crab? I dunno. I guess I could look it up online now, but in ’82 that wasn’t an option (and I doubt that the one guy who made this had a hint line). So, trial-and-error, I guess?
Even with all that, though, the one terrible bit of this game that crosses the line from somewhat annoying to “throw-the-keyboard-across-the-room” frustrating is how it handles death. Every time you touch an enemy, or get shot, or don’t land quite right, or run into a comet in space, or whatever, the game respawns you back on the original planet. Which means that, every time you die, you have to slowly traverse the empty home planet over to your spaceship, lift off again, fly through space to whatever planet you were working on, land again without screwing it up, start all the puzzles over again, and then die because you still don’t know how to use that rope correctly and your experimenting with it just caused you to die again. I mean, come on! Also the whole time you’re using up energy, of which you have a finite amount (you can recharge on your original planet at the structure that looks like a five-year-old tried to draw the Parthenon, but it costs you points). And let’s not forget that, the entire time you’re in your spaceship, “Anchors Aweigh” plays incessantly in the background, just to get on your nerves some more.
This is a really frustrating game, though not just because the gameplay is frustrating. In parts you can tell that there was some great attention to detail by its ambitious creator. They tried to make each planet unique, and there are certainly some nice graphical touches (like the fact that, when the ship is in the upper atmosphere, the horizon below you kind of looks like a zoomed-out version of what the actual landscape is when you finally get out and explore it). Overall, however, I can’t quite recommend it, as those two frustrating bits I mentioned really killed the experience. It just seemed like the whole thing was a labor of love, but it didn’t get sufficient QA testing (if any). If you do play it, make sure that you play it on an emulator and make a lot of savestates, at least until you figure out how to pass all the puzzles.
Canyon Climber II
“You know what Donkey Kong needs? Angry goats! And crapping birds! And why isn’t Donkey Kong a donkey?!? It says ‘Donkey’ right in his name!” said no one ever.
Well, one guy said that: whoever made Canyon Climber II. You star as some vaguely Pitfall-Harry-looking guy who’s stuck in the bottom of what I assume is the Grand Canyon, what with all the mesas, and plateaus, and red rocks, and, uh, goats. The game consists of three screens. The first consists of you running over four sections of a bridge arranged vertically while angry mountain goats try to butt you off the level. They may have a good reason, however, as for some reason you’re actually setting explosives on this bridge, and when they’re all set then KABLOOIE! goes the bottom of the canyon! Now how are those goats gonna get around? Goats need bridges, damn it!
Having done that, you are now somehow allowed to move up to the second stage, which is literally the first level of Donkey Kong presented in the most boring possible way. Donkey Kong is now an actual donkey, who is kicking, uh, sagebrush, I guess, down at you. Also, there’s nobody to rescue, no oil barrels, and the sagebrush bushes all move straight down the varying levels without taking any shortcuts on ladders. At least there are two virtually useless hammers. My favorite part is that upon reaching the top, the theme music for the game plays as if you finished the entire game, but suddenly cuts out about halfway through as it switches to the next level, as if the game was saying, “Congratulations! You beat the game! You are a super playe–wait, what’s that? There’s a third level? Aw, man!”
Said third level (featured in the screenshot) is mostly just jumping up mesas while birds crap on you from above. It’s the only level to actually live up to the name “Canyon Climber,” at least. When you reach the top, the game finally plays the whole theme song, after which an angry goat suddenly comes out of nowhere and butts you off, causing you to fall back to the bottom and repeat the whole game ad nauseum. Maybe he just wanted to show you that his fellow goats rebuilt those bridges. They were really proud of those bridges. Don’t judge. Either way, you’re stuck in this Sisyphean nightmare and have to blow up those bridges again. You cad.
Canyon Climber II is an OK game, but it’s not terribly great. Aside from the obviously inferior Donkey Kong rip-off level, the other two levels are kind of boring and unfair. The goats in the first level like to randomly switch directions, often when you’re trying to jump over one, leading to many undeserved deaths, and the third one, while unique in that you’re jumping up mesas instead of platforms, is fairly repetitive. The controls are sluggish, and as a result, the pace of the game is mind-numbingly slow. And the fact that they just blatantly ripped off Donkey Kong for one of the levels shows how lazy somebody was on whatever team made this. It’s not even an homage; it’s just a clone randomly inserted in there. I don’t know; it bugs me.
As a side note, out of curiosity, I downloaded Canyon Climber to see the difference between it and its sequel. Oddly enough, they’re nearly identical. In fact, Canyon Climber II feels more like a beta version of the original than a sequel to it. The original has more polished music, the Donkey Kong level has been revamped with Indians shooting at you (fitting the Western theme better), and the graphics, while nearly identical, are a bit sharper. Honestly, if you’re looking for this game, get the first one, not the second.
Rating: D+ (the original would probably get closer to a C, for at least changing up the Donkey Kong level.)
Where Canyon Climber II took a classic game and made it much worse, Serpentine takes two classic game (in this case, Pac-Man and Snake) and makes them far better. You play as a blue, segmented snake (or maybe a centipede, you know, like from that classic arcade game. Mushroom Alley.) wandering around a Pac-man-esque maze, pursued by three enemy snakipedes (centisnakes? Let’s just call them snakes) and must defeat them in order to proceed to the next level. What makes this interesting is that, unlike most games, where the enemy creatures just kill you upon touch for no real reason (unless you have a power pellet or whatnot), the rules that govern your snake apply equally to all snakes. Let me explain.
If a snake runs into a larger snake head-on, the smaller one dies. If a snake head intersects any part of an opposing snake, it eats the segments it comes in contact with, leaving the other snake smaller. A frog also hops around a level, and if a snake eats it, then it grows by one segment. Snakes also randomly lay eggs around the maze, leaving the snake that laid it one segment shorter, but giving that side a chance for a new snake (if an enemy lays it, it will eventually hatch into a new, short enemy snake, whereas if you lay it, it will hatch into an extra life upon completion of the level). However, said eggs can also be eaten by an opposing snake, growing them by one segment.
The genius is that this applies to both sides equally. So in the screenshot above, the blue snake (the player) can just ram into the green snake and devour it whole, destroying it completely, since it has five segments and the green one only has four. Meanwhile, the orange snake directly above can kill the blue one if their heads collide, since it has six segments left, though in this case it’s more likely it’ll just shorten the blue snake by a few segments when it moves down. In short, the orange snakes will kill you, but the green ones you can kill.
I guess I don’t need to explain it in such detail, but it feels like a pretty refreshing spin on the old Pac-man formula. The reversals in fortune happen all over the place, and in the span of seconds you can go from hiding in the corner to boldy pursuing all your enemies to suddenly laying an egg right when you were about to devour an enemy, suddenly making it stronger than you and killing you (fortunately, the game gives you a visual cue right before an egg is laid, so hopefully that won’t happen often if you’re paying attention). You can also change up strategies, either chasing the orange snakes down from behind to try to shorten them, or go for the frog often enough until you’re longer than all the other snakes and can just clean them up in one fell swoop. There are also nine different maze configurations, which is nice, and you start each level at the length you ended the last one at (which means, if you were grinding segments out, you may start with the other snakes already green on occasion).
Serpentine is a great game. The controls are responsive, the graphics are fine, and the sound works well. But the gameplay itself is what really sells it, as it’s different enough to feel fresh, varied enough to never get boring, and a lot of fun, too. Definitely recommended.
At last we come to the final game that I had originally planned on reviewing, as well as the only game to start with a “Q” that obeys the rules of English (I’m looking in your direction, Qix!). Quarxon is essentially a two-player game (though you can play it against an AI) where you play two ships shooting at each other. But the twist is: you’re not actually shooting at each other; rather, you’re aiming for the eight objects behind the enemy ship (I guess they’re drydocked ships, as they also represent your lives), destroying their barrier one shot at a time, a la the shields in Space Invaders. The blue dividing line has holes that expand and contract, allowing you to shoot through it (if you shoot the line itself your shot bounces off and actually damages your own green barriers, so don’t do it!), forcing you to constantly move around to find the holes. Also, if you shoot twice without moving, the game penalizes you by creating a hole that your opponent can shoot through, regardless of whether there’s a spot in the blue line or not. And finally, if your active ship does get shot by either your opponent or your own ricocheting bullet, instead of just your ship blowing up, a red line of doom descends upon your side that instantly kills you upon contact. It normally has holes that you can fit through if you’re careful, but on higher difficulties said holes are either smaller or nonexistent.
All told, Quarxon is pretty fun, at least with two players. The action is well-paced, the controls are responsive, and the twists on the old “shoot your opponent a lot” routine keep it feeling fresh. Much like Serpentine, the new elements introduced in Quarxon help elevate it above similar games. It’s not tremendously groundbreaking or exciting, but it’s good enough for those with a competitive streak. Play it with a friend, though; the AI is either really stupid or nearly impossible, depending on your difficulty setting!
And with that, we come to the end of an era. I’ve now reviewed all of the Atari programs that I had growing up (barring some non-gaming software we had such as Atariwriter), which was my goal when I started this thing more than six years ago (sheesh, this took longer than I thought). I do have at least one more review in the pipeline for a game I didn’t discover until I was in high school in the late 90’s, which is also the best Atari game ever made, in my opinion (which is why I’m giving it its own review post). After that, though, I’d like to keep reviewing Atari stuff, so post any suggestions in the comments and I’ll take a look at them. Until then, thanks for reading!
Coming up next: M.U.L.E.