Tag Archives: alan miller

Starmaster, Space Shuttle: A Journey into Space, and Tomcat: The F-14 Fighter Simulator [Atari 2600] – Reviews

Here we have three deep and different flight simulators for the Atari 2600. And no, that's not an oxymoron.
Here we have three deep and different flight simulators for the Atari 2600. And no, that’s not an oxymoron.

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.

If you know what this is, you're infinitely more prepared then I am to conquer Starmaster.
If you know what this is, you’re infinitely more prepared then I am to conquer Starmaster.

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.

I love how the double windshield is replicated.
I love how the double windshield is replicated in Space Shuttle.

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.

That guy better watch out!
That guy better watch out!

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.

Bridge and Checkers [Atari 2600] – Reviews

Let's play spot the differences.
Let’s play spot the differences.

Bridge and Checkers are two of Activision’s earliest games. Designed by Larry Kaplan and Alan Miller respectively, both were released for the Atari 2600 in 1980. These should’ve been some of the first games I wrote about, but I skipped over them because they’re not that interesting. They’re self-explanatory and lack any wacky modes that set them apart from other simulations of these games. If this article was written in 1980, it’d be another story. Having the ability to play bridge or checkers without having a human opponent and do so in the comfort of my home would’ve been great. Chances are though, if you like either of these games enough, you have a friend or two who is similarly into them.

Which one's which?
Which one’s which?

Honestly, I didn’t play enough of these to render a qualitative judgment either. For the 2012/2013(/2014?) Game-a-Thon Olympics, my friend and I passed over these, opting to have them as “in case” games. You see, if one of us barely won the Atari 2600, the other could then ask for a competition in one of these, hoping to sway the platform. Thus, I can’t speak to how the computer AI is in either of these games, or even how to play bridge, which would be the most useful information from a review. Sorry.

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”.

Tennis [Atari 2600] – Review

Alan Miller, turning it around with this one.
Alan Miller, turning it around with this one.

When I realized that Tennis was designed by Alan Miller, I had low expectations for it. Ice Hockey was also designed by him and that is my least favorite Activision game from this era, thus far. I was pleasantly surprised though as Tennis has some of the briskest gameplay I’ve seen on the Atari 2600.

Playing matches against a human opponent was great. There’s not much variety in the way of different shots (only one button on the Atari 2600) but the sheer speed more than made up for this. With a little practice, my friend and I were having contentious volleys that were won on errors more often than not. Playing against the computer is another story though. The computer is adept and winning a volley takes a lot of effort. More than I was willing to put in.

I’d like to think the more my friend and I trash talk each other, the more comfortable we feel with a game, and the more we like it. If that’s a positive sign then Tennis is one of the best multiplayer games we’ve played on the Atari 2600.

Gameplay was fast and fun with a human opponent.
Gameplay was fast and fun with a human opponent.

Winning a match against the computer nets both the commercial and the patch for Tennis in Activision Anthology. I could not triumph and so inserting the hyperlink to the commercial will also be the first time I view it.

Ice Hockey [Atari 2600] – Review


I found plenty to like in Activision’s catalog of Atari 2600 games, but Ice Hockey didn’t really rank for me. Designed by Alan Miller and published by Activision in 1981, this two-on-two representation of the sport didn’t have the control or speed I was looking for.

Teams were comprised of two players, of which only the one closest to the puck would be controlled by the actual player. Also, the goaltender couldn’t exceed the middle of the rink; the other skater could be on both ends, but it got a little sketchy when both teammates were on the same side. What irked me was their movement.

They moved as though they were walking on the ice rather than skating on it, fumbling around trying not to fall. Basic control of the puck I found to be “off” as well, or perhaps, required a greater knowledge of the mechanics of the game. A player could hold the action button and flail about without repercussion; in fact, I found this to be a pretty solid defense. It was hard to be offensive like this, ironically enough. What worked was a more subdued presence on the rink and some strategy to have the opponent “misplace” their offensive player in a spot away from the fray. This was done by hovering around the center and forcing the opponent to alternate between their two skaters.

Spider-Man (Men?) vs. Brazil!
Spider-Man (Men?) vs. Brazil!

Regardless of understanding a valid strategy or two, Ice Hockey wasn’t my cup of tea. That doesn’t mean I didn’t unlock the related patch and commercial in Activision Anthology though. All I had to do was win a game against the computer and score four points in less than two minutes against the computer. After all, how else would I have figured out a valid strategy or two?