Archive for July, 2011

Atari Games with ‘Star’ or ‘Space’ in the Title: Part I

Hoo lordie, can you believe this humble blog has lasted long enough for a SECOND post? I honestly can’t, and I’m still skeptical because I’m still in the process of writing it, right now. I could very easily hit the X on my browser and prove myself right. But I’m not going to do that. I will suffer the art of writing, and writing poorly about video games no one cares about anymore and shouldn’t care about, for you, Dear Reader.

A hero for the ages

Yesterday, I was feeling a little guilty about mocking early Atari games. Lambasting their primitiveness is not exactly brave or clever satire, especially when comparing them to today’s latest grey first-person shooter whose TV ad features some rap artist I couldn’t bear to know the name of. Honestly, I could do without today’s generation of games, knowing its target audience has been co-opted by urban mall rats perpetually clad in large billed hats and stylized neon shirts. Listen cool kids, stop encroaching on our territory and go “party” or whatever. Video games are reserved for the socially damned.

Sorry, tangent. As a change of pace (seeing how this is my 2nd post and all), I decided to couple today’s games with a theme close to my heart, Space Games!

So join me, and astrophysicist/cyborg Stephen Hawking as we explore… the cosmos of the Atari system.

The earliest of these games, Star Ship was actually a launch title; a more depressing thought I could not dream of. Get this, the launch titles for the 2600 included the following downers: Air Sea Battle (slow and boring), Basic Math (even slower and more boring), the previously trashed Blackjack (boring and not even a proper game of blackjack at that!), Combat (fun for two seconds), two racing games (horrible), Video Olympics (a game that dares to disguise ten different ways to play Pong as legitimate sports! Nice try Atari, but Basketball doesn’t involve a ricocheting ball and paddles!!), Surround (looks like Snake, which is boring) and Star Ship.

Easily, Star Ship sounds like the winner of the bunch. Star Wars was released by then and had inoculated the world’s consciousness with space fantasies. And thanks to Atari, you could relive the movie right in your own home. Let’s take a look:

Okay, this isn’t quite the game I imagined. The cover of Star Ship promised me a decent facsimile of a space battle, but instead, they gave me what looks like a simulation of a bad house party.

The starfield in this game is no more than four stationary white blocks, blinking intermittently. The only real clue that you’re actually moving forward in space is the fact that the enemies, every now and then, get bigger. Speaking of which, just how creatively bankrupt were the game designers back then? The enemies in this game are horrible to look at! I feel like I’m trying to break through a naval blockade, what with all the blue ships moving toward me. Every now and then, a pink alien (who I imagined has suffocated in the vacuum of space and is really just a corpse floating around) and inexplicably an Enterprise from Star Trek will appear.

The shooting aspect of this game is a little odd. You’re expected to move your cross-hairs over an alien/naval ship/Enterprise and press the fire button, and if you’re successful, the “action” pauses for a moment while the target blinks on and off, then disappears. You don’t really get the sense that you’ve destroyed anything, and the whole game ends up feeling like a remedial version of the old Star Wars Arcade game.

Oh sure, if you tire of that nonsense, you can always select another game option. Frankly, if you’re desperate enough to hit the Game Select switch hoping for some variety, you already know you’re fucked.

Stephen Hawking sez:

Unlike the rest of the games on this list, Star Ship is slow enough for me to play. Despite being almost completely immobilized, I was able to bark commands to my graduate student manslave, who then inputted my commands into the joystick, pressing the firing button when applicable. I grew bored of this after three minutes, and decided my time would be better spent reneging my retraction of a Unified Theory of the Universe. I found the answer, it’s “blue.” If you don’t believe me, then prove me wrong, smart ass. I dare ya.

The next game on our list is Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator. Now, this is actually a pretty good game, though I have to mock the title for not being entirely accurate. This is probably the most twitch-action Star Trek game ever made, so don’t let that nonsense about “Strategic Operations” fool you. There is no strategy in this game. Not only that, it’s barely anything like the show; no diplomacy, no arduous Prime Directive nonsense, no cardboard alien worlds and no Shat.

In Star Trek: SOS, you have two action screens, one which shows your swift-moving Entership flying around space in an overhead perspective, and the other showing a first-person view from the bridge. Your goal is to shoot endless Klingon ships, and occasionally save star bases from said Klingon ships. The action is fast, and the Atari does a commendable job of translating the game home.

Now, I was pretty familiar with this game from playing the Apple ][ version in my youth, which compared to the Atari 2600 version was like playing the game on Quaaludes. It was so mind-numbingly slow, but I was convinced if I played it long enough, the pace of the game would pick up, but it never did, Betty! It never did!

I don’t have much else to say about the game specifically, so I’ll briefly mention the commercial for it. The ad mentions the game was so challenging, it came with a controller overlay. It’s a neat add-on, but the idea behind is complete bullshit. If you’ve played Asteroids, you already know how to play Star Trek: SOS. Thrust, fire, turn. Repeat.

Oh yeah, and check out that smug kid at the end, dressed like a Vulcan. Boy, I’d like to beat the living hell out of that priggish little shit.

Stephen Hawking sez:

Being a huge fan of the show, I was asked to guest star in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where I played poker against Sir Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein and Data, the show’s jaundiced idiot man-child. As I recall, I won.

Later, I was able to take a tour of the Enterprise bridge set, where I was allowed to sit in the captain’s chair for as long as I wanted. It took ten minutes for my cadre of graduate student manslaves to hoist me into the seat, and less than one minute to want out. I’m ashamed to admit, I made a mess in the chair. As I understand, it was never cleaned up out of spite. Sorry Patrick Stewart.

What, you want me to talk about the game? Well, what about it?

Our third and last game… eugh… is Space War. It’s another one of those early Atari games where anything that could go wrong does so in a spectacular fashion.

Upon first seeing the game, I’m reminded of the famous Van Halen story where they demanded in their contract rider that each venue have a bowl of M&Ms without any brown candies. The thinking was because their stage show demanded so much technical (and electrical) detail be taken into consideration, that should the venue failed to address a single aspect of the contract, they might’ve failed to address other aspects of the contract and therefore disaster was just around the corner. If the boys arrived and found a bowl of candy without any brown M&Ms, that meant the promoters read the contract front and back and could safely accommodate them.

Now then, the reason I bring this up, is because if you program a game with ‘Space’ or ‘Star’ or ‘Cosmic” or whatever in the title, it better adhere to the following:

  • Game must have black background and star field somewhere
  • Game must have spaceships
  • Game must be exciting

Now look at that screen! Do you see a black background and star field anywhere? For Pete’s sake, that’s the easiest aspect of the game to get right, and you fucked it up royally Atari! I don’t care if this game was programmed in assembly, how hard can it be to simply change a GREEN background to BLACK? Change a register or whatever, speckle around some white dots and viola, you’re done!

My point is this: if Atari failed to get the easiest and most blatant aspect of a space game wrong, what chance is there that they actually got anything else right?

Space War is essentially Combat mixed with Asteroids, with Pong bullets! I’m sorry Atari, but not every game can be Pong! At some point, we have to evolve, or else we’ll never get to Super Mario Bros. and that means no Legend of Zelda and that means no Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time Best Game of All Time.

Anyway, as I was saying, Space War is Combat mixed with Asteroids. Two people fly Asteroids-like ships while attempting to shoot each other for the vain goal of having more points than the other. Unfortunately, it controls like a dodgy version of Asteroids; attempting to thrust your way into any direction will takes minutes off your life and because the game fails to provide precision aiming, shooting your opponent will quickly prove frustrating.

There are other game options, some involving a yellow dot with a gravitational pull that the game tries to pass of as a “sun” and others featuring squares that fly aimlessly, accomplishing nothing. All in all, bad game.

Stephen Hawking sez:

I was able to play the original Spacewar! while visiting MIT in 1962 for a lecture on stars or some shit. At the time, I had not totally fallen victim to Lou Gehrig’s true legacy, ALS, and so was able to compete against other players. My motor skills were slowly falling by the wayside though, which caused me to lose each and every match. The nerds chided me endlessly for being such a bad player. “It’s not my fault, I have ALS!” I cried, but they wouldn’t listen. After absorbing several minutes of their taunts and abuse, I wet myself. I tried to explain it was just another symptom of ALS, but deep down, I knew that wasn’t the case.

Fuck Space War.

So there you have it, three Atari 2600 space games with varying levels of toleration. If you hadn’t noticed by the title, where will be more of these in the future, so be sure to tune in for more cosmic crackups on Tele-Games 2600! Goodnight America!

Early Games of the Atari 2600

Everyone? Everyone?

*taps glass with spoon*

Please be seated. Tony, don’t stick your finger in the candle wax.

Welcome to the inaugural post of my latest “to-be-abandoned” project, Tele-Games 2600. Soon my attention toward it will waver and it will join such past interests as my Estes rocket collection, Jackson Pollock, and my dog Columbo.

I miss you most of all, Estes rocket collection.

Recently, I managed to snag a sizable collection of Atari 2600 games and consoles (three of them!) for one tendered President Franklin. I swooned at the sight of this archaic device; the 2600 was home to a boss collection of original games and the ports, while not perfect were icing on the cake. Right?

This is where things fell apart for me. Being reunited with the system was euphoric…for about a minute. No, make that forty seconds.

Okay, thirty-nine.

Growing up I thought my schoolyard’s slide was absolutely massive, but when I revisited it ten years later, I was able to step over its apex without breaking stride. In clearer terms, things change, and these childhood classics aren’t quite the pinnacle of home gaming anymore, except from maybe a scholarly point of view.

…nah, even Nolan Bushnell is blushing.

But make no mistake, the Atari 2600 deserves its place in gaming history, thanks to its extensive library. Everything wasn’t peachy keen at the beginning, though, as evidenced by its starting lineup.

Frankly, I feel for those early game designers, having to grapple with a system designed to only play Pong or Tanks That Shoot Pong.

The first game I’d like to talk about that’s not Pong – because frankly Pong is boring – Combat, is actually quite nice. You and another person each control a tank, ducking and weaving behind blocks like a tank would, attempting to shoot each other. Should a tank be hit by a Pong, it will spin wildly, resulting in a point for the opposite player. If you find fighting in tanks boring (I can’t imagine why you would), you can choose the option of fighting in biplanes, “the Tanks of the Sky.” Like redressing an ugly mannequin.

I’d be remiss and have to take to my bed without acknowledging the artwork of Atari’s games. Atari went the whole nine yards in attempting to explain just what you’re expected to see on-screen with a luscious piece of art displayed on each and every cart. Although, as was the case 100% of the time, their artists often went overboard. Just how am I supposed to surmise an entire Theater out of two dayglo “tanks” bumbling their way around a hedge maze?

Still, it’s better than the alternative, specifically Sears’ variant covers and names. Sears – God bless their stainless steel soul – couldn’t be any less helpful or imaginative when it came to their cartridge artwork. Just look at the difference between Combat and it’s Wisconsin cousin, Tank Plus. Where’s the pizazz, Sears? Tank Plus looks depressingly like was liberated from a former Soviet republic. At gunpoint.

As I said above, the discrepancy between the artwork and what was seen in-game was often immense. Just look at the artwork for our next game.

Ohh yes. F-Zero before the SNES. Kids, have you ever dreamed of driving some sort of space Camaro in the year 2015? Well, then Slot Racers is the game for you.

Wait a minute. Slot Racers? Sounds like a carnival game… Now hold on..

No!! I’ve been tricked by the Atari Gods once again. It’s merely Combat on a fixed track! And although I’m thankful that Atari is slowly making its way away from Pong variations, I’m still quite pissed that I’ve wasted my allowance on this.

Slot Racers is marginally better than Combat, if only because it can be so unpredictable. The gameplay is thusly; two slot cars race around on tracks, shooting bullets at each other. You can switch tracks further inward or outward to your advantage. Because of this, the real skill is in determining which track you’re on. All the same, dreadful game.

And even more dreadful are the graphics, which look downright pornographic to me. Because I am a pathetic manchild, I can’t help but think I’m controlling a blind penis who makes his way around by running his head against the walls of the maze. The bullets are ejaculations, which shoot at an incredible rate and distance, with debilitating results.

Oh, and by the way, the Sears version is called Drive Block.

Just kidding.

Our last game, which doesn’t have an ounce of Combat-y gameplay in it, is Blackjack. The main reason I’m “reviewing” this game is to bring up an interesting point about Atari’s library. I’m under the impression that a game like Blackjack or Video Checkers was made for the Atari 2600 as a gateway drug for non-gamers to invest their time and money in buying other much better games. No kid in their right mind would B-line for a game of Blackjack, no matter how many copies of Combat he had. But Grampa Hal might.

Unfortunately for Gramps, the achilles’ heel of a system designed to play Pong, Combat, and Compongbat reveals itself once again. With only one button, Blackjack becomes as tedious as TEN Combats! And get this, according to Wikipedia, the game is obscenely difficult to play:

“This game employs a variant of blackjack rules that is so extremely unfavorable to the player, that it would almost certainly never be seen in a real casino because no one would play with them.”

It doesn’t get much clearer than that. Grampa has one of two options at this point; cut his losses like any smart gambler would and pass the game and the system off to his grandchildren so they can buy more cartridges, OR buy more carts himself to ensure a better investment in his space-aged Atari system. Either way, Atari wins.

Speaking of Video Checkers a while back, check out the artwork for it:

I… I don’t know where to begin. This was truly a litmus test for finding the smarmiest losers in your class. Who looks at this cover art and decides they want to imagine playing chess in medieval times with your own mother cheering you on?

King: Well done, Chessmaster. Well done.

Welp, that’s about all I have to say on these three Atari games. I have to admit, I don’t know how to end this blog entry, so I’ll do what I would’ve done in high school.

In summation, old Atari games were very bad.