Vanguard is a space-themed shoot ‘em up from the early 1980s. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Oh, you have? That’s right; basically every other video game from that period was a space-themed shooter. This isn’t bad in itself, there were many good games that could be reductively described as such, but so many were innovatively lacking. That’s not an issue with Vanguard.
It debuted in the United States during the “golden age of arcade games” in 1981 courtesy of Centuri. In its native Japan it was released by SNK and purportedly developed by TOSE, although they don’t want you to know that. My focus isn’t on that version though (haven’t played it) but instead the Atari 2600 port. It was released in 1982 (or maybe 1983) and was ported by Atari, or rather Dave Payne at General Computer Corporation.
One thing that set Vanguard apart in arcades was its status as a multidirectional shooter. When it was originally released, it featured a joystick to pilot a spaceship and buttons arranged to fire in one of four directions. In essence, it was a dual-joystick shooter, minus a joystick. With a joystick and a single button, the Atari 2600 wasn’t the ideal platform to port it to, but it was the most popular home console at the time, and Dave Payne ultimately made it work.
The solution was to have the button govern the player’s attack along with directional input from the joystick. To fire to the left, push left and press the button, etc. This works, but it does present an issue: the ship continues to move in the direction the joystick’s being pushed. Initially, I found it difficult to attack enemies that were heading towards me since my attempts hastened our collision. Accordingly, evasion became a focus of mine when dealing with faster enemies. Progression, as best I could tell, was dependent upon destroying enough enemies or reaching a points threshold, so confrontation was inevitable. Ultimately, I had to direct my aggression towards easily targeted enemies while zipping around others.
Progression presented another unique aspect of Vanguard: stage variety. There’s some semblance of a story that involves human space colonists attacking an antagonistic alien species on an asteroid they call home. The caves and crevices that the player flies through are set against distinctive backdrops and feature varying enemies. Before each stage, the player is shown their position within a tunnel which corresponds to the direction of forward momentum in the succeeding stage. This entailed the game featuring a mixture of horizontally and vertically scrolling stages, something very rarely seen in the genre.
Despite an awkward control scheme, my time with Vanguard remained fresh thanks to the variety of stages and enemies I had to contend with. I was able to adjust and devise strategies to defeat enemy waves, although I never became totally comfortable within the half-hour or so I spent playing. In this time span, I beat the first set of stages and it’s my belief that they simply repeat in tougher iterations, ad nauseam. It’s a remarkably colorful game and quite detailed considering the platform but is audibly devoid, save for a handful of sound effects. Vanguard is definitely more than just another space-themed shoot ‘em up and is well worth a look for Atari 2600 owners.