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Disk 12, Side 1

Ballblaster (Ballblazer)

Ball BlasterOne of the most well-loved game companies of the ’90’s was LucasArts. From Star Wars flight sims to hilarious pirate adventure games, the company was a wonderful purveyor of top-quality games. However, not many people know that before they were LucasArts, they were Lucasfilm games, and they even created two of the most impressive games to be found on the Atari 8-bit system, both of which are found on this disk.

Let’s start with Ballblazer. On the surface it seems simple enough: two triangles with bases are playing some sort of one-on-one soccer match where the goalposts move and get smaller every time a goal is scored through them, and the farther away you are from the goal when you shoot the ball, the more points you score. This premise could easily and quickly be accomplished using some sort of top-down static view. But these guys take it to the next level. Not only is it the only first-person-perspective scrolling game for the Atari (as far as I know, anyway), but it scrolls incredibly smoothly for the hardware, with no skips, jumps, lag time, etc. The graphics themselves are fairly basic by today’s standards (checkerboard, ball, posts), and even the two players are little more than a triangle on top of another triangle with a triangle in the middle, but just the fact that they scale according to perspective in 1983 ought to count for something. That’s almost ten years before Wolfenstein 3D came out! There’s no real rotation, however, and the perspective changes at 90-degree jumps, which can be disorienting for new players.

The sound also deserves mentioning. During the match itself there’s this sort of hi-hat sounding “rat-a-tat” pumping up the tension that gets a little more subdued whenever someone is in possession of the ball. Also, when the two players get too close to each other there’s a weird buzzing sound, like when a bee flies into your ear (except quite a bit lower, like when a mutant bee flies into your ear). But the most amazing part is the theme tune, which is possibly one of the most creative theme tunes I’ve seen anywhere, not just on the Atari. There’s a repeating bass and harmony pattern, and layered on top of it is an undulating, jazzy improvisatory solo. But wait! How in the world can a computer improv a solo? Well, it’s actually not a programmed-in sequence of notes; instead, it uses a fractal-based algorithm to simulate a solo that, according to one reporter quoted on Wikipedia, sounded like John Coltrane was playing it. (Incidentally, the same article includes a snippet of the C64 version of the theme. No disrespect to the C64, but its version of the theme sucked compared to the Atari 8-bit’s so I’m including how it should sound here.)

The game itself is also infectiously fun. While you can play against the computer at varying skill levels, the best is to go against a friend. Being a Lucasfilm games, it also received an unusual amount of backstory thanks to corporate synergy. Apparently in some future year in some future space, players mount their “rotofoils” (the triangles) to shoot the “plasmorb” (the ball) into the “goals” (the goals). They even made a sportscast video to advertise, featuring the most annoying sportscasters this side of Greg Proops in The Phantom Menace. If LucasArts ever makes a sports game, I sure hope they hire outside people to do the commenting (although, as a rule, sports game commentators are always annoying. How many times must Lee Corso tell me to keep the CLOCK running?!?!? Sorry, had to get something off my chest; I’ll be OK.)

Some may notice that I actually titled this “Ballblaster” not “Ballblazer” and I said it came out in 1983, where other sources state 1984. This is because the version I had was actually a pirated beta version that was missing several frills (although the gameplay is unchanged) such as flashing skies when a goal was scored, the loser spinning out at the end of a game, the entire AI system (you were forced to play against a friend), and, sadly, that awesome Coltrane-like line on top of the theme song. Even with those omissions, it was still an incredible game, and I give it extremely high marks! Get it now! Also, don’t get the Nintendo version! That one sucked!

Rating: A+

Obligatory remix (language warning!)

Rescue Mission (Rescue on Fractalus, or Behind Jaggi Lines)

Rescue MissionIn some future time, in some future space, some humans were waging a war against evil aliens called “Jaggis.” Some of the most brave, heroic pilots faced off against these evil foes on their inhospitable planet, Fractalus. You, however, apparently weren’t as awesome (or foolhardy, depending on your point of view) as any of these pilots, so you get to fly the rescue ship to pick up these poor saps. The atmosphere is toxic, and day lasts something like nine minutes or so, plus the Jaggis keep shooting at anything that emits energy, so you’ve got your work cut out for you. Once you’ve picked up enough pilots you signal the mothership to come pick you up and fly into its docking bay, which looks oddly like a football field, where you advance to the next level. Lucasfilm, however, doesn’t just speed up the enemies and change their color. Instead, every few levels they add a more intimidating obstacle, such as suicide saucers, that day/night change where you have to fly blind (use the altimeter!), and perhaps the reason I’m still scared to live sometimes (but I’ll get to that in a second).

Once again, Lucasfilm blew away the competition with this game. The graphics are quite innovative, with the landscape being generated fractally and therefore consisting of random jagged mountains. (I wonder if it’s the same fractal algorithm used in Ballblazer to make the theme tune. If you fed these mountains through a sound processor, would you get a solo worthy of Coltrane? Should the game be subtitled “Behind Jazzy Lines?”) When you spy a downed ship, you must land and turn off your engines so the pilot can approach and knock on the door. You must then open the airlock (if you don’t the knocking gets slower and eventually stops, showing that the pilot’s suit melted in the atmosphere and he is now dissolving into a gooey pile of flesh. Nice job, Hero.) and let the pilot in. Those Jaggis are a sly bunch, however, and sometimes they pull the most evil stunt in video game history (yes, even scarier than Doom 3):

You’re dead. The end. This actually happens a lot in later levels. The one memory I have of when this first happened to me led me to never play past about level three. Dude, you want to give a kid nightmares, this is the way to do it.

That aside, it really can be a fun game, although it’s actually kind of slower-paced, due to the flying being rather skippy thanks to hardware limitations. I recommend it for anyone without heart problems.

Again, you may notice that the title I gave this game was “Rescue Mission” and not “Rescue on Fractalus.” This is because, once again, we owned the pirated version, which didn’t have all the graphical frills done. That stupid alien was still in it, though.

Rating: A

Obligatory remix

That’s it for Disk 12, side 1! Coming up next: a whole slew of games, including Jumpman Junior, H.E.R.O., Java Jim, Froggie, Shooting Arcade,and Star Wars. See you then!