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.
Caverns of Mars II
The original Caverns of Mars game starred a plucky space adventurer heading deep into the underground of Mars. On he plummeted downward, shooting tanks of fuel to get fuel (yet again) and generally trying to avoid the wall in an autoscroller. The sequel here is pretty much the same game. Except they switched it sideways. And you aren’t in a cavern anymore. Also, Mars suddenly got a lot browner. That’s, uh, pretty much the game. Autoscroll sideways, don’t run into anything, blow up rockets for points, and shoot “fuel” for fuel. Type “help” for help. Oh, and get a high score that gets reset when you turn off the machine. That’s always fun.
Also (and I am totally serious about this), after all my years playing this game as a kid, and even playing it again for this review, I did not realize that the markings on the front of the fuel containers actually said the word “Fuel” until as I’m literally writing this paragraph and looking at the screenshot. Really. Since it’s all smooshed together my brain always interpreted it as some sort of alien markings, or simply a kind of cool design or windows or something. Amazing the things you learn twenty-five or so years later.
Night Mission Pinball
I’ve always had a problem with pinball video games. Part of the fun of pinball is that it’s real; those flippers are actually there, the ball is an actual ball, and those buzzers and bells are there to be heard (unless you’re Tommy). More importantly, there are certain things you can do in real life that just don’t work in the virtual world, like bang on the cabinet to get the stupid ball to go the right way, taking extra care not to cause the dreaded “TILT” message to shut you down. Oh, sure, some pinball video games have a button you can press to simulate bumping the cabinet, but it’s completely uncontrolled and only works a few times. There’s just something satisfying about playing real pinball that’s never transferred over to the computer or console versions, even if they do have extra gimmicks.
This phenomenon gets worse the farther back in time you go and the worse the graphics get. Take a look at Night Mission Pinball here. There are no helpful messages that pop up and tell you what you’re hitting with the ball or what effect it has on the game. I can’t even tell what most of that stuff on the screen is. The flippers and bumpers are fairly easy to make out, but what’s that thing in the top left corner? An altimeter? Why is there an altimeter? ‘Cause this game has a plane theme? What do I do with it? Are those white lines with the brown under them supposed to be bumpers or flippers? How am I getting points? How did I activate that multiplier? Those chutes at the top sometimes have numbers? I think? Are we dropping bombs on Germany or something? How come the bombs aren’t moving? How do I get them to fall? What is this game?
You could take the time to observe every single hit the ball makes and figure out what it does on the screen to change things. Or you go play something like Sonic Spinball instead. Sure, that game sucks too, but at least you can tell what’s going on.
Anyone who doesn’t know what Space Invaders is probably a space invader in disguise. Aliens are descending in several rows and dropping things on you (bombs, I hope). You are in a ship/tank/something that fires upwards, destroying them. As each one dies the rest speed up until the last one is going about Mach 3 or so and you end up losing. Ha ha, sucks to be you, and not have superhuman reflexes!
In the rare event that you do destroy them all, then they come back moving even faster! Beat your high score! You know, the one that gets erased when you turn off the machine!
This particular version of Space Invaders, termed Atari Invaders, was created by some guy named Joe Hellesen. Joe apparently had a mild seizure when writing the word “joystick” on the main screen here, but fortunately the space invaders moonlight as spelling Nazis and they destroy the extra letter pretty quick. Presumably the reason they’re invading Earth in the first place is because they’ve been reading peoples’ texts, Facebook statuses, Twitter accounts, etc. and they just can’t stand it anymore! Its all you’re fault that their coming!
Yet another game from Synapse Software, Slime puts you into a boat that you don’t actually control, fighting off the evil forces of, um, acid rain, I guess? Your boat is floating in what I guess is slime, and you control a glowing blue cursor that moves all over the screen. Instead of firing projectiles, however, each time you hit the trigger a small, triangular wedge appears. Deadly rain falls out of the sky at an increasingly faster-paced rate, and the wedges serve to divert it to the left or right, depending on what side it hits. Your goal is mostly just to survive, but also to make as many drops as possible fall into the drains on either side of the screen. If too much rain falls into the, uh, slime ocean? I guess? Whatever it is, if too much rain falls into it instead of the drains, the water level rises, destroying any wedges that now fall under the water line and moving you boat closer to the death rain. If the boat gets hit, it sinks and you lose a life.
Slime is certainly a unique game, especially for the time. Unfortunately that doesn’t mean it’s a good game. While it starts out fairly enjoyable, as time goes on it simply gets more and more frustrating. You’re never given any warning as to when the slime level rises; it just suddenly jumps up, completely messing up your structure, and forcing you to rebuild both sides as quickly as possible to divert the rain again. Often this turns out to be nearly impossible, as the previous structure was built at a certain angle that now causes a one-square gap at the end that is impossible to fill (like on the left side of the screenshot) without destroying the whole thing one piece at a time and rebuilding. Also, sometimes the game pulls awfully jerky moves like having lightning randomly strike and destroy your wedges (or your boat if the water’s high enough), or having a UFO suddenly fly onto the screen in an erratic pattern, destroying whatever wedges it hits. Even worse, on occasion, the UFO drops a drain plug into one of the drains that is impossible to remove, rendering it useless until a helicopter shows up (completely randomly) and removes it.
All in all, this is one of Synapse’s weaker entries into Atari 8-bit games. It’s creative, but ultimately the deck is so stacked against you that it’s impossible to get very far, especially later when ten bad things happen one right after another and there’s absolutely no time to react. It’s basically the Atari version of getting hit by a blue shell right before the finish line in Mario Kart. No matter how well you do, the game randomly screws you over anyway.
That’s it for side 1 of disk 14. Coming up next: side 2, featuring Bruce Lee, Encounter, and Pacific Highway. Hopefully I’ll get the next review out in less than a year this time!