River Raid II [Atari 2600] – Review


Now that's an eye-catching box!
Now that’s an eye-catching box!

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.

The aircraft carrier that begins and ends stages.
The aircraft carrier that begins and ends stages.

Pete Rose Baseball [Atari 2600] – Review

Sailing alone, around the room.
Sailing alone, around the room.

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.

Pete Rose Baseball is an adequate contemporary to its NES peers.
Pete Rose Baseball is an adequate contemporary to its NES peers.

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.

Commando [Atari 2600] – Review

Is that the guy from Rogue Trooper?
Is that the guy from Rogue Trooper?

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…

Two enemies is about the most that are ever on screen at any given point.
Two enemies is about the most that are ever on screen at any given point.

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.

Title Match Pro Wrestling [Atari 2600] – Review

Such attention to detail was paid to the hair illustrations.
Such attention to detail was paid to the hair illustrations.

Adapted from Alex DeMeo’s Atari 7800 original, Title Match Pro Wrestling for the Atari 2600 is more of a conversation piece than an enjoyable game. Published by Absolute Entertainment (formed by a wealth of Activision employees) it was released in 1987. 1987! This game came out ten years after the Atari 2600 launched, amidst the heyday of the NES, and just two years before the Sega Genesis. I find it bewildering to consider games were still being commercially designed for a system that Atari had already released two successors to.

Regardless, it was included in Activision Anthology thanks to Activision’s later purchase of Absolute Entertainment. The most enjoyment to be gotten from this game should stem from the multiplayer, but my friend and I didn’t have much. Honestly though, I can’t speak too much to the game’s quality considering my limited exposure with it.

It's not wrestling until there's someone in bondage.
It’s not wrestling until there’s someone in bondage.

For me, one of the big downfalls of older wrestling games like this one is the limited or confusing move sets, brought about by the limited number of buttons on a controller. I find that to be the case with this game. My friend and I spent very little time playing Title Match Pro Wrestling, and even with a single button and a joystick, we didn’t divine much information about the controls. Some more time spent with it and its manual would likely alleviate this issue, but whatever. It’s a functional game, is technologically proficient considering the platform, but most of all, surprising considering when it was released.

Robot Tank [Atari 2600] – Review

Dang. And I wanted to play this on my Atari 7800 too.
Dang. And I wanted to play this on my Atari 7800 too.

Serving as Alan Miller’s last game for Activision, Robot Tank is a game that’s… familiar. Very much Activision’s answer to Atari’s Battlezone, Robot Tank plops players down in their very own tank and has them countering an invasion of enemy tanks onto U.S. soil. The ultimate objective is to prevent the enemy force from reaching Santa Clara, California. With gameplay that’s just as good as the majority of Activision’s catalog, it’s the heads-up display and mechanics that merit the most discussion.

The heads-up display is a big part of Robot Tank. The actual “window” looking out of the tank is arguably more important, but without the dash of devices housed inside the tank, players wouldn’t get far. The radar is a must as eyesight will only detect so much, especially in unfavorable weather conditions. Damage sensors assist in knowing what functionality has been lost – if it wasn’t already apparent. There’s a clock relaying the time and a counter of the enemy tanks destroyed as well as how many lives are left in the player’s stock.

One of the coolest mechanics of Robot Tank was the deterioration of the player’s tank. Rather than a one-hit kill scenario, the tank slowly lost functionality as it was barraged. There were a few parts that could be destroyed – video, cannons, radar, and treads – and when they were, the corresponding function would no longer work. It seemed random as to what would be destroyed, but it was challenging having to manage the tank when it wasn’t operating completely. Every kill in this weakened state was all the more enjoyable.

With that noted, one of the weirdest mechanics of Robot Tank, and probably one caused by the technology of the Atari 2600 rather than this game’s design, is the ability to guide the cannon fire. After being shot out of the cannon, it would move from side to side if the player did. This is something that has been present in quite a number of Activision’s games. It makes for interesting offensive and defensive maneuvering, but strips away any sort forethought into planning when and where to aim and shoot. The employed method is more in line with the fast-paced gameplay though, more so than one that would require thoughtful timing.

There's a lot on the HUD for the player to take in.
There’s a lot on the HUD for the player to take in.

I wasn’t captivated with the gameplay of Robot Tank, but I appreciated the handful of interesting features and think it deserves a place in Activision’s catalog of quality Atari 2600 games. Originally there were three tiers of patches to earn. Each was awarded after destroying 48, 60, and 72 enemy tanks. Only the first is present in Activision Anthology. Although there is an additional gameplay mode to unlock with 37 kills – “breathing mode”.

Pitfall II: Lost Caverns [Atari 2600] – Review

I love the opaqueness of the box art. It hammers home the feeling of exploring a cavern, even if the gameplay isn't totally represented as such.
I love the opaqueness of the box art. It hammers home the feeling of exploring a cavern, even if the gameplay isn’t totally represented as such.

Pitfall II: Lost Caverns is the sequel to one of the most popular and prolific games on the Atari 2600. Released in 1984 for that platform and a handful of others, Lost Caverns is even more advanced and expansive than its predecessor.

While the core gameplay of tracking down treasure via exploration and platforming is the same, there are many differences from the first game. Players are no longer racing against the clock to complete the game, nor are they limited by a set number of lives. This time around, when the player is injured, they’re taken back to the most recent checkpoint; Harry has an infinite life as it were. This makes it less of a burden to explore the caverns that Harry has found himself in, although that doesn’t make it an easy game.

Thanks to the game’s setting, it’s logical that the environment is deeper than it is wide. The caverns are eight screens wide but an astonishing 24-plus levels deep; because of this, Lost Caverns offers a style of platforming not seen in Pitfall! – vertical movement. Personally, I found it had a lot in common with Metroid, a game I played through and mapped out shortly before starting My Brain on Games. Again, because of the verticality of Lost Caverns, there’s much tougher navigation due to the increased possibilities for dead ends and tricky ways to enter rooms.

Lastly, just jumping and evading enemies is a challenge. Even in Pitfall!, I was surprised by how accurate players had to be when jumping over enemies. I felt like I had to wait until the very last moment to successfully complete jumps. It’s no different in this game, but it seems like there’s increased risks from flying enemies. Evading these requires a keen eye on their patterns and swift timing to take advantage of their upward movement.

Pitfall II: Lost Caverns is very appealing to me. The expansive environment is begging to be mapped out on graph paper and the elimination of a time limit and set number of lives should make it a more manageable task. More than that though, it’d be an entertaining and challenging trial.

The red cross represents a checkpoint and that feller down there is Quickclaw, Harry's cowardly cat.
The red cross represents a checkpoint and that feller down there is Quickclaw, Harry’s cowardly cat.

When played in Activision Anthology, achieving scores of 45,000 and 99,000 points will unlock a new gameplay mode and patch. Again, this patch requirement matches what player’s originally had to strive for.

H.E.R.O. [Atari 2600] – Review

At first glance, I thought this was an elderly lady.
At first glance, I thought this was an elderly lady.

This article will mark a doubleheader of sorts for John van Ryzin. My previous review was another of his games – Cosmic Commuter. While in that article I mostly praised the manual over what the game actually had to offer, H.E.R.O. itself is just as good as its manual. If not better!

Assuming the role of Roderick Hero, or R. Hero for short, players navigate him through dilapidated mineshafts searching for trapped miners. Utilizing his propeller pack, R. Hero can hover about and swiftly maneuver around bats, lava, and other nuisances. A few other items like a microlaser beam and dynamite come in handy very often.

Each stage has a trapped miner at the end of it and players are scored for the amount of enemies they destroy (bats and snakes, etc.) and for how quickly they can rescue the miner. With a limited number of lives and stages that progressively take more time and maneuvering to get through, H.E.R.O. could be considered an early puzzle platformer. At the very least, it’s a lesser known classic in Activision’s library of Atari 2600 games.

What I find most appealing about this game is the process of solving stages. A lot of the game is trial and error; for instance, dropping into a room via one of two entrances only to find an enemy occupying that shaft results in a lost life, but knowing not to take that shaft again. Many of the “puzzles” revolve around progression like this so not a lot is made the first few attempts, which may not suit everyone. But there is satisfaction in making it just a little farther each time.

As R. Hero drops into the mine shaft, his first priority is to destroy that wall with dynamite.
As R. Hero drops into the mine shaft, his first priority is to destroy that wall with dynamite.

In Activision Anthology, there are two related unlockables. Scoring 25,000 and 75,000 points will unlock a new gameplay mode and the game’s patch, respectively. H.E.R.O. is in the minority of the games in this compilation as its patch requirement matches what players originally had to score.

Cosmic Commuter [Atari 2600] – Review

Dude's shoe incorporates the familiar Activision rainbow.
Dude’s shoe incorporates the familiar Activision rainbow.

These Activision games on the Atari 2600 have such fantastic manuals. Rather than a rudimentary guide detailing basic information in a bland format, these manuals have some character in the back stories they lay out and the way they explain the games. Cosmic Commuter is no exception. Its manual is designed as an employee handbook for those entering the Galactic Transit Authority.

It opens with a humorous bit about the visionaries of space travel and their lack of foresight when it came to traffic jams. That’s where the player comes in. Piloting a futuristic space bus, players pick up commuters in sets of eight and blast them off to their next destination.

Even though this game doesn’t offer the mechanically rich gameplay of Pressure Cooker or the repetitive, yet addicting gameplay of Demon Attack, it’s still neat thanks to its zany premise.

It's important to note the Route Scanner Strip on the lower left-hand side of the screen.
It’s important to note the Route Scanner Strip on the lower left-hand side of the screen.

Designed by John van Ryzin and released for the Atari 2600 in 1984, scoring 6,000 points will unlock the “Tilt-o-Vision” gameplay mode in Activision Anthology. This is the first, and one of the few Activision games to not have a related patch.

Seaquest [Atari 2600] – Review

Reminds me of Sealab 2021.
Reminds me of Sealab 2021.

Seaquest is a very straightforward game. As the pilot of a submarine, the player’s sole task is to rescue treasure-divers from the clutches of sharks and enemy submarines. Shooting enemies and rescuing allies provides points for as long as a player has lives.

Taking place on a single screen, players evade or destroy waves of enemy subs and sharks as they enter view. Occasionally, a treasure-diver will float onto the screen. With six divers onboard, returning to the surface will end the “stage” and players will begin anew with a full supply of oxygen. Oh yeah, players have an ever-depleting supply of oxygen they need to be wary of.

The simplicity of the gameplay coupled with the relatively unimaginative concept of the game lead to me losing interest quickly. Not Steve Cartwright’s best.

Enemy subs and sharks need to be avoided or destroyed.
Enemy subs and sharks need to be avoided or destroyed.

With a score of 35,000 points in Activision Anthology, players will unlock the “Sub Club” patch. Originally players had to achieve 50,000 points. For me, this would be a futile effort reminiscent of scoring 100,000 points in Laser Blast. I say this because that was another game that I found less than stellar, yet I still went after the patch. I’m not going to do that anytime soon with Seaquest.

Private Eye [Atari 2600] – Review

Activision began moving away from their original box art template in 1983.
Activision began moving away from their original box art template in 1984.

Taking inspiration from Pitfall!, Bob Whitehead’s Private Eye is a video game with simple gameplay mechanics, built around a larger, single-player orientated adventure. As one would suspect from the title, this game is about sleuthing.

Pierre Touché is on the trail of Henri Le Fiend but to book him properly, he needs evidence. Controlling Pierre, players travel through an expansive (in Atari 2600 terms) version of New York City tracking down the required items to proceed with a criminal prosecution. There are five cases in the game and they’re outlined well in the manual. Also outlined in the manual is a rough sketch of the city, helping players navigate without getting lost or being forced to make their own.

I think a big factor in my preference of Pitfall! over this game is platforming. Conceptually, both games are practically identical. I wouldn’t say it’s reductionism to call these games fetch quests in a large environment. A core conceit of the former is platforming. While the objective is to collect treasures, the platforming involved in this task takes up the bulk of the game. It’s challenging and getting timing down can be fun. I don’t see the same emphasis placed on platforming in Private Eye, and without it, I don’t find it as fun.

The little platforming required sends Pierre launching out of his 1935 Ford Model A.
The little platforming required sends Pierre launching out of his 1935 Ford Model A.

Originally getting the “Super Sleuth” badge required players to complete the third case in Private Eye. In Activision Anthology, all that’s required is to start it. So yeah, games are way easier than they used to be.