Besides Kangaroo, Sssnake was the other Atari 2600 game I used to take a break from the Sega Master System. It was developed and published by Data Age in 1982 and it wasn’t much fun.
I played as a big game hunter who had an unfortunate role reversal. Holed up in an Amazonian fortress, I navigated said hunter (represented by a lemon, fittingly) around the inside perimeter of his enclave while all manner of beasts attacked the outside walls. My range of movement was limited to a fixed track the hunter’s cluster gun resided on. Thankfully, the beasts posed no threat and served only as score fodder. Snakes on the other hand would slither along a predetermined path, occasionally entering the hunter’s fortress.
Although the rate of play gradually increased, the difficulty level was never much of a concern. Avoiding the snakes, the sole threat, was easily done since they never varied from their routes. The lack of difficulty meant obtaining a high score wasn’t anything to squawk about, let alone strive for. Speaking of limited variation, the entire game took place on the same unchanging stage, which fit with the backstory, but didn’t do much to keep me interested. Finally, movement was awkward due to direction limitations based around my position on either horizontal or vertical walls. It seemed like the game would’ve functioned better with paddle controllers, but that’s Sssnake in a nutshell. Had a few decisions gone differently, it may have turned out differently.
As is often the case with video games released before the mass use of the internet, hard information on Eggomania is scarce. Best I can tell, it was developed by James Wickstead Design Associates and published by US Games for the Atari 2600 in 1982. Essentially, it’s a clone of Atari’s Avalanche or Activision’s more popular Kaboom! While I’ve only played the latter, this is a style of game that I found to be enjoyable and with additional players, can easily turn into a heated score-chasing competition.
Using the Atari 2600’s paddle controller, I assumed the role of a top hat wearing bear. Normally, this would be reason enough to celebrate. Unfortunately, this particular bear was being pelted with eggs by a swift turkey. The bear’s strategy to combat this was to catch the eggs in his top hat and then hurl them back at the turkey. After a wave of eggs was caught, I had the opportunity to assail the turkey with its own ammunition. But, if I missed catching enough eggs, the egg white and yolk from these would eventually fill the screen and drown the bear, resulting in game over.
Truthfully, Eggomania isn’t a game I played much of, maybe an hour tops. But, within the first minute, I had experienced all I was going to. From there, the premise of topping my score, or another player’s, was the sole appeal. Visually and audibly, the game is impressive, but there’s little variety in what’s displayed in either category. The responsiveness of the bear is great although the hit detection when attacking the turkey left me confused why some of my throws were damaging and others weren’t. Eggomania compares well against its contemporaries and in the right environment, can provide a fun competition.
My Atari 2600 has been getting some love this week! Now that I’m done with Vanguard, I’ve returned to Phoenix, which I was playing beforehand. In fact, it’s the reason I’m playing these games at all; my recent acquisition prompted me to hook up the console and try it out. Like Vanguard, it’s a space-themed shoot ‘em up (you want me to stop there, right?) although being a fixed shooter, it has more in common with its contemporaries, such as Space Invaders and Galaxian. I enjoyed this game’s fast-pace and responsive controls, the most important factors causing my return to it.
As was the case with Vanguard, Phoenix was originally released in the arcades courtesy of Centuri. At least, in the United States; elsewhere it was published by Taito. It was introduced in 1980 and as best I can tell, was the sole output of developer Amstar Electronics. After obtaining the rights to produce a home console version, Atari outsourced development to General Computer Corporation and the final product was released in 1982. A little research reveals Michael Feinstein to be one of the port’s programmers and likely, the project lead.
The objective of Phoenix is to destroy the adversarial mothership. To reach it, players must defeat four waves of birdlike enemies. The first two waves are host to rudimentary foes that could easily be mistaken for Space Invaders fodder. The next two waves feature enemies that move faster along less predictable paths. These foes are larger and have wings that can be destroyed, but they regrow if the core of the creature isn’t shot. Finally, the penultimate stage hosts a large alien vessel that has to be whittled away until the player can eventually strike its alien pilot. With the leader destroyed, the game recycles these stages in perpetuity.
At this point, the game becomes about setting a high score. I wasn’t drawn into playing the game for so long because of this element per se, but having a competitive nature didn’t hurt! I found this to be a challenging game and I believe I’ve only been able to make it past two full sets of stages thus far. Each time I die, I feel like it was totally on me. Because the player’s spaceship moves quickly and is so responsive to input, I’m always left feeling as though I could’ve evaded the shot that killed me. This draws me in and makes me want to continue improving in an effort to get just a little farther. So even though it’s challenging, it feels like the scales are evenly tipped between the player and computer.
Phoenix is a stellar shoot ‘em up and as described is a challenging, fast-paced, responsive game that I wanted to continue playing in spite of the constant death. There’s more to it then my brief descriptions highlight, such as reaping more points for destroying closer enemies, but this tactical element didn’t factor into my sessions. That’s the sort of element that I foresee giving the game a longer tail once I move beyond just trying to see new waves and convert over to strictly score chasing. Until that point, I’m content to continue enjoying the game and my Atari 2600 as I have been.
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.
When you have a video game collection like mine, it can be hard to play all of the games. This is especially true when additions are made on an almost weekly basis. Still, I appreciate nearly every game I’ve accumulated for this reason or that. In the hopes of improving my writing through continuous effort and promoting ongoing learning of these games, I’m going to compose brief, descriptive articles.
If I’m not mistaken, I acquired this game at the 2014 Oklahoma Video Game Expo for about a buck. That was many months ago now and I’ve yet to play it. I don’t anticipate playing it anytime soon either. It looks like a fast playing shoot ‘em up for the Atari 2600, not too dissimilar from Tempest. The player’s ship remains in the center of the screen, surrounded by about five pathways on either side. Enemy ships zoom between each side of the screen while the player attempts to stay alive by destroying or avoiding them.
Perhaps the most interesting factoid about Turmoil is the fact that it was designed by Mark Turmell. He later went on to design Smash T.V., NBA Jam, and NFL Blitz, among others. He was working for Sirius Software at the time and the game was published by 20th Century Fox. It was released in North America around 1982 on the Atari 2600. It also had releases on Atari’s line of 8-bit computers, the Commodore VIC-20 and C-64, and on MSX computers.
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.
It’s time to harvest the backyard garden and all the neighborhood pests know it! Larry Miller’s Spider Fighter for the Atari 2600 has players spraying various pests with repellent in order to protect a burgeoning fruit orchard. This game was a vibrant, fast-paced shoot ‘em up that put the Atari 2600, and players, to task.
Each stage begins with the fruit on the right side of the screen and the pests to the left. The pests begin buzzing and crawling about the screen trying to get closer to what they desire. With ample bug blasters, players dart around the screen and launch poison pellets at the critters in what can only be described at a machine gun rate of fire. It’s necessary though as the game’s difficulty ramps up after some time. Spider Fighter plays like a well-oiled machine and looks and sounds fantastic; utterly top-notch!
If anyone can last 180 and 300 seconds, they’re rewarded with a gameplay mode and a patch in Activision Anthology. Originally, the patch was awarded to players who mailed in a photo of a score of 40,000 points or more – a much tougher feat.
Designed by Bob Whitehead and published by Activision in 1982 for the Atari 2600, Sky Jinks is a time attack video game in which players race their P41 airplane around a few courses. It’s a game not unlike the Red Bull Air Race World Championship that has sprouted up in the past decade.
Flying to the far sides of cones, placed on opposing ends of the game screen, Sky Jinks plays like Skiing, another Bob Whitehead game. Avoidance still plays a large part in posting increasingly better scores but the obstacles are different, well some are; there are still trees but players must also avoid hot air balloons. In what seems to be a slight technical edge over Skiing, Sky Jinks has objects that cast shadows, providing a sense of depth to what players are seeing. Great in short bursts and better yet with a friend, Sky Jinks is another solid Atari 2600 game from Activision.
Lacking an unlockable commercial or even a new gameplay mode, the only goal for players of Activision Anthology to strive for is the unlockable patch, award after completing game 1 in 37 seconds or less, the original requirement.
Another solid title in Activision’s sterling catalog of Atari 2600 video games is River Raid. Designed by Carol Shaw (one of/the first female game designer) and released for the Atari 2600 in 1982, this initial release was followed by ports to many personal computers and home consoles of the day.
Piloting a jet fighter, players shoot down a wealth of enemy aircraft and ships as they fly above a seemingly never-ending river. Occasionally a bridge will need to be destroyed lest progression be halted (they must be enemy bridges). Perhaps the most unique gameplay mechanic of River Raid though is fuel management.
Fuel naturally depletes and can be refilled via canisters scattered about the game. Points are gained from destroying them however so there is a risk/reward mechanic to fuel management. Destroying some if you don’t need them could result in a nice score, but it could also result in an airplane without fuel – in the air. Players can also adjust the speed of their aircraft which also has an impact on fuel consumption.
Scoring 4,000, 8,000, and 12,000 points will unlock an additional gameplay mode (cloud cover mode), a commercial, and a patch in Activision Anthology. I thought River Raid was very well-made and contained a satisfying amount of challenge though so I didn’t stop with those accomplishments. Top-notch!
Of the original designers at Activision, David Crane was arguably the most prolific with titles like Dragsterand Freewayto his name. But I’m not kidding anyone with that succinct introduction; inarguably, David Crane’s magnum opus is Pitfall!. Originally released by Activision in 1982 for the Atari 2600, it was also released for every major video game console of the day, as well as a few personal computers.
As Pitfall Harry, players are tasked with retrieving a slew of treasures hidden all over an expansive jungle – over two hundred screens! Within twenty minutes, the player is expected to navigate Harry through the puzzle-like jungle and overcome obstacles like quicksand and crocodiles. Traversing the (now) technologically primitive, yet, expansive 2D world makes one wish Harry had a GPS or at least a map, but part of the fun is solving that quandary with a map of one’s own making.
What I found interesting about Pitfall! in some retrospective reading, is its introduction of long-form gameplay. If anyone has actually been following along with these articles, the games I’ve been discussing are very simple. The majority revolve around the concept of score attack or time attack, rather than a quest; they’re more focused on competition. Ian Bogost and Nick Montfort describe this game as “a distinction point between the home and video game markets” in Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System. In effect, Pitfall! was one of the first games to bring about what could be considered the evolution of the single player video game.
Anyways, there is an unlockable commercial and patch in Activision Anthology, awarded after 12,000 and 20,000 points which was the actual requirement to get the patch back in the day. If anyone didn’t already know, that’s Jack Black in the commercial.