Orphaned Computers & Game Systems

Vol. II, Issue 8    February 1999

Nolan's Secret Quest

by Chris Federico

Superman, Adventure, Haunted House, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Dark Chambers...a big chunk of Atari's legacy constitutes multi-screen or scrolling adventure games, and the fabulous thing about all of them is that their balance between action and brainwork is optimal. In most gamers' minds, this genre probably stands out beyond all of Atari's other creations for their own machine. Taking all of this into account, it's not surprising that the Atari 2600's inventor marked his return to the industry with an adventure game.

Nolan Bushnell has been responsible for a lot of joyous times. Not only did he found Atari, but he designed Computer Space, the first coin-operated video game, and created the Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza-Time Theater stores around the nation (which contained sizeable video-game arcades, of course). But for at least five years, he was all but completely kept out of the industry.

In 1977, before Bushnell and his coworkers knew how big the VCS was going to be, financial problems drove him to sell Atari to Warner Communications. Challenges by Bushnell concerning Warner's plans for Atari led to his being fired, and he could no longer release titles with the Atari label on them, or -- as a condition of Warner's purchase -- create games for any competing companies. Until 1982, I believe it was, the man who had started it all had to watch from a distance.

But the pro outcome was that he had a few years to design something, and he was able to draw from the successive technological tricks and discoveries made by other programmers as time went on. When Bushnell re-emerged, Sente, his new company, was formed. He purportedly helped to design a 2600 game that was eventually released by Atari (I assume that they simply licensed the title from Sente). The cartridge wasn't released until the late '80s, meaning that it had missed the 2600's popular era; but for us lingering classic-machine fans, it stands as an interesting curio that attempts to combine many of the best elements seen in multi-screen games over the years.

Secret Quest, devised in seclusion and kept from the public for years (due to one Warner pencil-push or another), traps the player within a series of cold and lonely space stations, presumably proffered as logical successors to the old castles and dungeons. Each station comprises a multi-level maze of rooms. What's missing is any incentive to keep entering them. Your onscreen counterpart's movement is very slow, making him highly vulnerable to any of the varied creatures that he encounters, especially from the second station onward. Your weapon is unwieldy, and uses up energy (ammo) far too quickly. Finally, there's a time limit (i.e. your finite oxygen supply). Exploration is called for, but you don't have time for it, which is extremely disappointing.

Rather than being an adventure, it's a memorization game; until you've figured out the exact route that must be followed through each station, you'll keep running out of time and having to start over. And because of your slow movement and cumbersome weapon, the game doesn't feel good to play.

The playfield recalls Adventure -- the simple walls contain centered openings that lead to similar rooms (screens). This should be exciting; it's raw and classic game-like, and your imagination plays a part. The possibility of exploration certainly beckons, but it's illusory. And it makes no difference whatsoever that the square explorer has been replaced with an animated humanoid figure in a spacesuit. He winds up being utterly ineffective with that clumsy light-saber rip-off he's carrying.

As in the lackluster Haunted House, higher or lower floors are accessed via staircases that are found in the corners of certain rooms. An additional floor is added to each subsequent station, which you destroy by entering a code into its self-destruct computer, if you've managed to find this within the time limit. The code itself grows by one symbol per station; each floor contains a different symbol, whose location you also have to locate before running out of time. When the code's been entered, a clock starts ticking down (great...a time limit on top of a time limit), and you have to find the exit and get out of the station before you get killed in the explosion, which would apparently be far too merciful.

An interesting note is that this is the only non-SuperCharger game for the 2600 (that I know of) to use passwords. So you can save your game. Yay. This doesn't make it any less frustrating. The lack of fine-tuning, in terms of balance, represents the overall problem: If you've run out of weapon power, you'll remain defenseless and quickly run out of time, since energy and oxygen only appear after you've destroyed enemies. Not only do you have to deal with that fatal circle, but enemies start surviving a few apparent deaths apiece before they're completely eradicated, making weapon-power depletion an outright inevitability.

It's probably not Bushnell's fault; it's unlikely that he actually had anything to do with the creation of this game or, for that matter, the next, which should have been the released one. Save Mary, available as a completed prototype, is terrific. -- CF