Starmaster, Space Shuttle: A Journey into Space, and Tomcat: The F-14 Fighter Simulator [Atari 2600] – Reviews
April 2, 2013
Like my last article, this one will cover a few games that I passed over writing about, and that my friend and I passed over playing. Unlike Bridge and Checkers though, these three weren’t really meant for competition. All are flight simulators of different stripes. Starmaster is a sci-fi flight simulator akin to Atari’s Star Raiders. Space Shuttle: A Journey into Space simulates a NASA operation and lastly, Tomcat: The F-14 Fighter Simulator lets players act out the role of a top gun.
What’s fascinating about these games is how the designers were able to implement them on the Atari 2600. After all, the platform’s main method of input was a joystick with a single button. My first thought when approaching these was how the heck they were going to make something decently complicated like a flight simulation using a controller with one button. The answer is ingenious.
Turning and pushing the plethora of knobs and buttons found in the cockpit of these flying craft is done by hitting the toggle switches on the console itself. This blew my mind. What a stunning workaround that allowed these simulations be complicated. And really, that’s what players of these games are looking for, right – something complicated?
I wouldn’t know. I’ve never been a fan of flight simulations, although I think I can understand the appeal. Humankind has desired to make flying craft since we first saw birds. For the past one hundred or so years, this has become a reality. Still, piloting airplanes is a task that appears to require a high level of smarts and skill – let alone flying spacecraft. Replicating this act makes for a solid use of the medium.
That being said, I don’t know much about these games having only played a smidgen of them on Activision Anthology. I’ll admit, they seem mighty complicated, so much so that I wasn’t ready to invest time learning how to play them. The manuals for these three range from the average manual size of around eight pages to the gargantuan thirty-two. That last one is Space Shuttle and its manual highlights something that makes these early Activision titles so great. The passion that oozes out of these manuals and the refined gameplay so often found in the games I’ve written about. Although these three aren’t titles I’ll delve into, I know someone has, and they loved every minute of the experience.
These three games were designed by Alan Miller, Steve Kitchen, and Dan Kitchen, respectively and were released in 1982, 1983, and 1988, respectively. When played in Activision Anthology, a commercial and four patches can be unlocked for Starmaster, two patches for Space Shuttle, and nothing for Tomcat.
March 31, 2013
Dan Kitchen (at this point an employee of Imagineering) had the honors of following up Carol Shaw’s impressive River Raid, and even though there were a handful of years separating the two games, not much changed. Released for the Atari 2600 in 1988, River Raid II is a vertically scrolling shoot ‘em up that has the player worrying about fuel and altitude management.
The only gameplay addition to this game over its predecessor is taking off and landing the fighter jet. Without a manual or the internet to rely upon, it can be tricky doing either the first time. It’s a function though, that once learned won’t be much trouble on later attempts. Players still fly over rivers shooting down enemy jets and helicopters, partake in aerial refueling, and eventually, destroy an enemy bridge. I prefer the original game to this one for what I perceive as “tighter controls” but this is a still a pretty good game.
March 30, 2013
Known simply as Baseball in Activision Anthology, Pete Rose Baseball far outpaces any other baseball game on the Atari 2600. Then again, as it was released by Absolute Entertainment in 1988, it was out years after any of its contenders.
Designed by Alex DeMeo, the biggest difference between this game and other baseball games on the Atari 2600 is the perspective. Instead of playing the game like a passenger on the Goodyear Blimp, when at bat or pitching the camera is situated behind the pitcher so that he and the batter are both on screen. This allows for a more realistic simulation of America’s pastime.
With a crack of the bat, the viewpoint switches back to an overhead view, allowing the defense to play the field properly. I’ve got to say that playing baseball games on the Atari 2600 is a much simpler affair than it is on Mattel’s Intellivision. Without a fucking telephone controller to fiddle with, I rarely found myself making mistakes when stealing bases, pitching, etc.
March 29, 2013
While it’s one of, if not the, pioneer of the run and gun subgenre of shoot ‘em ups, I never used to appreciate Commando. Until last year, I preferred the games it influenced such as Ikari Warriors and Guerrilla War. Which is kind of weird liking the former since it plays practically the same; Guerrilla War however is much faster. Last year, when my friend and I were in the heyday of the NES in our still ongoing competition, I realized playing Commando effectively required running and gunning.
If you had watched me play Commando previously, you would’ve seen me shooting from a stationary position. This is a terribly ineffective way of playing this type of game and explains why I never spent much time with Commando, just an attempt or two every now and then. After this epiphany though, I’ve grown to appreciate, and enjoy the game, whether we played the arcade original via Capcom Classics Collection, the NES version, or the Atari 2600 version. Well, about that version…
Adapted by Imagineering employee Mike Reidel and published by Activision for the platform in 1988, this version of Commando is surprisingly recognizable. Despite there being a fraction of the enemies attacking at any given time and the aspect ratio being wider and shorter than its arcade counterpart, the actual gameplay is pretty keen on the source material. Perhaps not though as, ironically enough, I find it harder to run and gun in this version. Stopping and popping is a viable method in this version, so all things considered, perhaps this version is unrecognizable as Commando. A great effort, but there are better ways to play this game.
August 22, 2012
Billed as Nintendo’s first video board game, the Rare developed NES game Anticipation has become one of my go-to multiplayer games since I stumbled upon it at a local game store. I was immediately drawn and disgusted by the game’s dated box art and expected little but was surprised to discover an entertaining multiplayer competition.
Like most board games, in Anticipation players are represented by little figurines. The goal is to correctly guess what the game is drawing and do so on each of the game’s three levels; the winner is the one who completes all three levels first. This can become tricky because the game requires a correct answer from four different themes before moving on to the next level. When it comes down to needing a correct answer from that last theme, it’s not uncommon to go on a lengthy dry spell where landing on the needed space is annoyingly elusive.
When advancement became elusive, I found that I could initiate a level of strategy that emphasized a risk and reward principle. Buzzing in when the dice roll would work out favorably allowed others to buzz in before me, but if they were stumped, I had the opportunity to roll the dice so I’d land on the theme I needed. When all players realize this strategy, the bluffing and screwing of your competition becomes part of the fun.
Of the many games of Anticipation that I’ve played, I’ve noticed that the backend tends to drag on as the drawings get tougher and inevitably, someone requires that last theme to advance or win. Sometimes, I’d rather just turn the game off then sit through a potentially laborious dry spell where no one makes any progress, but for the most part, Anticipation is good fun.
March 14, 2012
Originally released for the Sega Master System in 1988, Phantasy Star was Sega’s attempt to duplicate the role-playing game format standardized by Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. Unlike those games, Phantasy Star is set in the future and in space, although the execution of this setting is poor (treasure chests and fantasy outfits). Still, for those interested in a challenging quest that requires heavy player involvement with little narrative reward, Phantasy Star shouldn’t be overlooked in favor of the previously mentioned titans of the genre.
As Alis watches her brother die, she listens to his final request: kill the evil king Lassic and set things right in the Algol Solar System. Alis’ quest for revenge begins on the forest rich Palma, continues on the arid Motavia, and leads her to the icy Dezoris before finally heading back to Palma and defeating Lassic. Along the way she builds a party of like-minded individuals including the feline Myau, Odin, a warrior turned to stone by Medusa, and the wizard Noah. Getting these adventurers to join Alis’ party was no easy task however.
Gathering leads on these individuals required Alis to chat up everyone she met, and required me to keep a record of what they said. Heck, without the NPCs doling out such vital information, I’d have little reference for towns and dungeons, items, and even where I should be heading. Phantasy Star wasn’t a game I could passively enjoy; if I didn’t keep a record of acquired knowledge or chart out maps on paper, I’d never have beaten Phantasy Star without resorting to a FAQ, which I still did.
Like every other console RPG from the era, I viewed towns and the overworld from a top-down perspective, granting me a large view of the game at a time. But, when Alis entered dungeons the perspective changed and I saw them from her eyes. Without a large view of dungeons, I had a hard time navigating them without getting lost. Some were small enough that I could get through them without much trouble, yet others were so large and filled with traps that it’d take hours if I persisted with trial and error.
An RPG like Phantasy Star wouldn’t be complete without battles and character progression and it has both! Like its contemporaries, Phantasy Star has a simplistic battle system. Battles occurred randomly as I explored the overworld and caves, and these were also viewed from the first-person perspective. I had few options and the two that really mattered were fight and magic. I had multiple types of magic; what I found most effective was the healing kind although there were helpful spells that exited my party from caves or returned them to towns; on top of powerful damage dealing magic. The order of events seemed fairly random, sometimes I’d attack an enemy first, while other times I’d fight the exact same enemy type and they’d attack first; characters had no speed stat.
I didn’t find the early portion of the game very enjoyable. When I started out, my party consisted solely of Alis and in her early state she could only fight a couple of battles before having to be healed. As I accumulated better equipment and experience enemies began fearing me. Especially once I increased my party size. Grinding for experience and mesetas (money) took up most of my time with the game, and that’s just how these older games are. It’s not a bad thing; in fact once my party could withstand a lot of punishment and equally deal it out I enjoyed returning to caves and building up a small fortune. But doing that over the course of twenty or so hours doesn’t appeal to everyone and in fact I ran out of steam at the end of the game.
I liked exploring the caves from the first-person perspective. It seems like a remarkable technical feat considering when Phantasy Star came out. But, keeping track of where I was, was very difficult, especially when caves began growing in size and they had trap floors dropping me a level. I also enjoyed having to personally piece together what my next step was through NPCs, although the lack of character or plot development wasn’t what enticed me to continue playing, it was strengthening my characters. I battled and battled and battled some more and empowered my party to great strengths and this was pleasurable. Battles were very simple, but I was able to speed through the menus and overpower enemies once my party members were of high levels and equipped with good gear. I did run out of steam in the end however. I tend to do that, probably because I’ve proven my strength in the game and the payoff I’ll get for completing an “ancient” RPG like Phantasy Star won’t be revelatory. Still, Phantasy Star was enjoyable, as long as I had the gumption to get involved.
June 9, 2011
Acclaim’s Double Player System is a unique set of controllers for the Nintendo Entertainment System. I wouldn’t consider myself the most versed in the accessories released for the NES, but I know the Double Player System is one of the few options for wireless controllers for NES gamers. Include the turbo and slow motion functionalities and the set seems like a no-brainer, but I did run into some issues.
The Double Player System utilizes infrared technology, the same concept implemented in television remotes. To work, the controllers must point at a receiver plugged into the NES. I initially tested them out by turning on Star Soldier, holding a button, and moving the controller around to see when they lost contact. My radius was very limited and playing with them required a steady hand at all times. While in the thick of Star Soldier however, I noticed that I didn’t move around that much. I remained focused and only lost the signal on a few occasions.
The controllers were quite useful for playing Star Soldier as they had added functionality compared to a standard NES controller. Besides being wireless, the controllers also had turbo and slow motion functionality.
I was not impressed with the slow motion as I couldn’t get it to work. I tried it with both controllers but to no avail. Whenever I’d press the button enabling slow motion, the game would rapidly pause and unpause. I tried it with multiple games as well. Perhaps it was my controllers malfunctioning, I mean these are twenty year old controllers (released in 1988) and who knows how well they were taken care of.
The turbo functionality on the other hand was stupendous. To be fair, these are the only controllers for the NES that I own having turbo functionality so I don’t have anything else to compare them to, but unlike the slow motion, turbo actually worked. The turbo functionality was perfect for Star Soldier where I just mashed the fire button to shoot. To enable turbo I clicked in the turbo button above either the A or B button and that button was now rapid-fire. Instead of mashing on the fire button, all I had to do now was hold the fire button to blow fools away.
While Star Soldier was my primary test subject for the controllers, I did play Guerrilla War with a friend to test both controllers at once. We didn’t encounter any interference between the two controllers, but my friend and I had a bit of trouble figuring out who was player one and player two, even after making the selection on our controllers.
With The Double Player System I had little leeway; if I moved slightly and the controller and receiver lost each other, it could turn out terribly. Terribly, like the slow motion functionality. Maybe it’s the games I chose or maybe my controllers were busted, but the slow motion just didn’t work for me. The turbo functionality however worked like a charm and I can foresee myself picking the Double Player System over a standard controller depending on the game I’m playing, a shoot ‘em up for instance. Multiplayer brought about a slight problem, but one that could be overcome. Playing without wires is nice, but the only reason I’d choose the Acclaim Double Player System over a standard controller is for the turbo functionality.