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Phoenix [Atari 2600] – Review

Phoenix

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.

Phoenix - Atari 2600
The Atari 2600 version.

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.

Phoenix - Arcade
And the original Arcade version.

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 - Atari 2600 - Boss
The mothership of the enemies.

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.

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Vanguard [Atari 2600] – Review

Vanguard

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.

Vanguard - Action
Many games on the Atari 2600 utilized a rainbow color palette and I’d say these games look vibrant.

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.

Vanguard - Cave System
Before each stage, the player is alerted to their position within the asteroid.

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.

Pac-Man and Galaxian [Atari 2600] – Comparison Review

Released a year apart from each other, it was enough time for Atari to redesign their box art template.

The Atari 2600 was host to plenty of arcade ports. None of them were able to 100% duplicate the original arcade game due to comparatively paltry processing power, but many were successful to varying degrees. Two games that well highlight the stark differences between landing on either end of the quality spectrum are Pac-Man and Galaxian. Ironically both of these titles are based on Namco arcade games.

The story behind Pac-Man’s development is an interesting one. Having previously obtained the rights to develop home versions of Namco’s arcade games, Atari sought to capitalize on the success of Pac-Man. Tod Frye, a programmer within Atari, was tasked with the game’s development, not with the most capable tools though; reportedly, rather than using a newer cartridge, one with more memory, his work was confined to the smaller cartridge to reduce manufacturing costs. This factor, along with the reduced processing power of the Atari 2600 compared to the Pac-Man arcade cabinet, compromised the game’s quality.

Pac-Man, fixing to eat some… fruit?

What Frye produced is totally playable, and resembles Pac-Man undeniably, but its differences are negatives. The maze is unchanging, the ghosts constantly flicker, they’re indistinguishable, the sound effects are grating, the game doesn’t have as good a sense of control over Pac-Man, and so on. It went on to be a great seller at the time (a whopping 7 million copies), but it’s a game that nowadays is best left for those with nostalgia or a deep interest in the medium.

Galaxian on the other hand was released a year after Pac-Man in 1983 on the newer, larger cartridge which provided more space for the programmers to work with. The improvements are night and day. Firstly, Galaxian resembles its arcade brethren to a striking degree (considering it’s a 2600 game). There’s a lot happening on-screen, the graphics are vibrant, and the action is smooth and brisk. Both games are of the score chase variety, but Galaxian is a more enjoyable experience thanks to its more appealing visuals and quality gameplay.

Now details surrounding Pac-Man’s development are well-known and easy to find, but not so with the Atari 2600 version of Galaxian. With some digging, I was able to find out that it was developed not directly by Atari, but rather by General Computer Corporation. GCC was initially a company that modded arcade games; in fact, they’re responsible for Ms. Pac-Man, not Namco! Anyways, Atari filed a lawsuit against GCC but later settled and began outsourcing projects to them.

Upon further digging I was able to determine that Mark Ackerman was the project lead for Galaxian and was assisted by Glen Parker and Tom Calderwood. Mark Ackerman also worked on the 2600 versions of Ms. Pac-Man and Moon Patrol before overseeing the development of a few Atari 7800 titles and leaving game development. Now a professor at the University of Michigan, I emailed Mr. Ackerman and got some feedback on Galaxian’s development.

The contrast between the graphical complexity and palette of colors between the two games is astounding.

Of note were a few programming tricks that resulted in a better game. Utilizing the random number generator from Donald Knuth’s The Art of Computer Programming resulted in smoother gameplay over Pac-Man. A more advanced algorithm was used to reduce the amount of flicker caused by movement – it definitely works! Lastly, Mr. Ackermen devised a way for eight characters to be displayed on screen when, technologically, the system wasn’t capable of displaying more than six. For this feat he was awarded a patent.

Bottom line is this: I wouldn’t be sad if I could only play the Atari 2600 version of Galaxian, not the case with Pac-Man.