The 2600 programmers at Atari didn't hit their real technical peaks until three or four years had passed following the game industry crash. The '86 to '88 games even matched Activision's titles in quality, and in a couple cases actually surpassed them. What's unfortunate is that those later cartridges were hardly played, or even known-about at all, by anyone outside our community of fanatics.
Blame it on the release of the 5200 back in 1983, marking Atari's first failure to dominate the home industry; or attribute it to the 7800's terrible promotion once it did finally come out, and the Jaguar's lack of games, both things being finally fatal for the oldest programmable console corporation. However you see it, Atari's last contests for their first and most endearing system were released at a time when the company's death was imminent and they weren't trying very hard to sell anything.
So here it is: A trade-off series of commentaries on Atari's final 2600 games, those barely-known but ironically astonishing gems that didn't even get the chance to collect dust.
The Game Reviews...
Solaris (Chris) - Doug Neubauer, the guy responsible for the revolutionary Star Raiders 8-bit original back in 1979, spent a couple of years getting this glorious, gargantuan space journey together, and every bit of his time and effort shows. Audio/visually, it's one of the most amazing games ever released for the 2600. Fortunately, most of the game play itself follows suit, although it's rather off-balance in the "major difficulty" category.
Certain early '80s carts revealed a chance given to the average game consumer to exploit his intelligence and involvement; programmers bestowed upon us games that you couldn't just plug'n'play. Unfortunately, the average gamer was like the average person in general: not willing to invest any mental enthusiasm in an object of entertainment. Therefore, Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Imagic's Fathom and the like didn't sell much compared to brainless blasters like Activision's admittedly gleaming Megamania. 1986's Solaris revealed the hope on Neubauer's part that if anyone actually found and bought his latest action/adventure, they'd finally be ready to read the manual thoroughly and challenge the Zylons with renewed vigor; 8-bit flight simulators had made their mark, and he evidently hoped that the required intellectual involvement would carry over to the 2600. It's easy enough to figure out if you read the instructions, although it's certainly not easy to beat.
We can only guess at how well Solaris would have done commercially if it had been given the chance. It probably would have sold well based on its graphics alone. As soon as you press the fire button and watch your ship launch at a dazzling speed over the impressively landscaped planet surface, you're hurtling through space, planets of different types and sizes zooming at you (and you can blast 'em!).
Here, there isn't just the one quadrant (i.e. scanner screen full of gridded sectors); there are sixteen! You can leave the map at one end and reappear in a totally new one. And you have an actual goal besides protecting your planets: Find Solaris, the main globe targeted by the baddies.
We do have the old windshield perspective here, but unlike with Star Raiders, you're not looking out from the cockpit; you see your ship in front of you. In my opinion, it works better. Photons still come out of both sides of your ship anyway, and it's much easier to aim at the undulating bad guys when your shots travel straight up instead of coming from the side borders. Granted, it wouldn't work for an 8-bit classic like Elite, but on the VCS, it's left the programmer enough room for fine-tuned battle mechanics that make the space confrontations thrilling instead of marred by the tedium one associates with 2600 Star Raiders.
The aliens are finely detailed and trickier than most other 2600 villains; it's a very worthy series of opponents for even the best gamers, and we're supplied with a much wider range of differently acting and looking aliens to wipe out than in the prequel. Also, you can actually find the enemies once you're in an occupied sector; the computer works like it's supposed to, unlike in Star Raiders.
There are numerous elements added, all of them kept high-quality. There are wormholes that let you leap over route-blocking star clusters, corridors that look like Tempest-ish interstellar highways manned with one-eyed guardians that could be offspring of the Drelbs hero or the talking antagonist in Space Fury (you have to find a key and blow up the planet at the end of each corridor...talk about your engaging tangent! If only the collision detection always worked in that segment of the game!), surface battles as you challenge new types of aliens once they've landed and are threatening to blow up a friendly planet, enemy planets on which good guys wave at you, begging to be picked up (if you get 'em all, the planet blows up in a wondrous display of color recalling Defender's Armageddon), whole sectors made up of minefields, and little sub-aliens that suck your fuel instead of damaging your ship.
All of these things are well-balanced, meticulously drawn, smoothly implemented, fast and furious. One complaint is that you can't leave the sector of a planet except by backtracking on the map, even if the far sector's clear. I'm not sure why he implemented this goofy idea into the admittedly maze-like scanner maps. Also, it would have been nice to have the aliens and planets set up randomly during every game, even if the maze of quadrants had to remain the same.
This is an essential game if you really want to witness what the 2600 is capable of with an enthusiastic programmer's brainwork and patience. -- CF
Gravitar (Chris) -- This could very well be the most difficult game available for the 2600. It's enormous, comprising almost a dozen planets, each with a different layout and aesthetic theme. Some are easy, threatening only with hills and valleys; but some are actual mazes, making them almost impossible to navigate (and yet possible just the same...and what a feeling to get through them!). You have to boost your ship around with an Asteroids-like thruster to compensate for each surface's pulling gravity, and achieve the goal of wiping out all of the little bunkers on each planet.
For those not familiar with the original 1982 version, a multicolor Vector coin-op, the object is to visit several planets spread out over a few solar systems, destroying each by taking out all of the bunkers scattered along its surface (or platforms, as the case may be -- sometimes a bunker's situated on the underside of a big rock, hanging upside-down). If you don't want to visit any planets, you can directly attack the Alien Reactor Base of each system (called the Red Planet in the arcade version), a screen consisting of a spiral-shaped tunnel that's almost impossible to get through in the allotted time, considering the gravity that makes each wall pull you in. In the center of this base is the reactor (evidently imported from the Surround universe -- it's the only instance of boring graphics in the game); if you can blast it and get out in time, the current solar system is vanquished as if you'd blown up every planet, and you get to attempt the next system. Unfortuntely, there's no neat explosion or anything when you achieve this. You just appear on the next level. I guess I'm being picky; the programmer couldn't have possibly had enough memory left to interject any further spectacle.
In fact, whoever designed this 1988 home version used every single byte to his utmost advantage. It's a huge game, with no mechanical compromises. At the beginning and after you've blown up a planet -- THIS rewards you with a nifty explosion, at least -- you're presented a full view of the current solar system, including the revisited killer sun from Space War that sucks you in if you're not careful (here, it's actually an animated, flaming sun, not a dot), the Alien Reactor Base, and the spread-out handful of planets that you have to visit. They're all shaped differently on this map view as well as up close. You can pick where to go. While you're trying to get close enough to a planet to attack it, the Alien Reactor Base is sending out ship after ship, and they fire at you in most variations. It's cool -- if you get close to one of these interplanetary jerks, you both enter your own screen and duel it out.
Once you get close to a planet, the screen zooms in on that surface (or maze, or series of canyons), and you get the WONDERFUL pleasure of fighting off frustrating gravity forces while trying to thrust around and shoot at the bunkers, which have accurate gunners themselves. If you decide to linger too long at the top, reluctant to approach the merciless landscape, a little flying saucer comes out of one of the borders and tries to kill you.
The game is so gigantic because of the amount of different planets you can attack; every time you see a new landscape, you think, "Sheesh, they haven't run out of memory YET?" The mechanics are impeccable, featuring accurate bullet-collision detection (thankfully; the bunkers are hard enough to aim at). You have a neat tractor beam that allows you to quickly pick up fuel and thrust the hell away. The game play itself feels huge as well, because they made your ship really small to make the planet landscapes seem ominous.
The programmer made a brilliant move to compensate for the game's difficulty: He included a variation in which you get 100 ships. This is the only one I play; you often have to embark on a suicide run by thrusting at a bunker, blasting it or crashing into it, and saying "Damn the consequences." You see, you can't leave a planet until you've taken out all of its bunkers. This is not a game for temperamentals (including myself, although I thankfully have yet to pull the cart out and throw it at the wall). One kinder aspect is that it gets really funny, watching ship after ship crash. You don't really care in the 100-life variation; it's more than enough.
The main reason that the game's so hard is that the gravity centers are wonky on certain planets. Since the creator tried to give each and every surface or platform a gravity force, you're not sure which way you're about to be pulled. Another gripe is that the strength of the gravity seems to fluctuate, and at its strongest, your thruster is practically ineffective.
The 100-life variation makes up for this, so on balance, what we have is an excellent home translation of a notoriously difficult game. There's a neat twist four solar systems in: The gravity is reversed, so the planet surfaces and medians actually repel your ship.
It's certainly fun to play, when you're in the mood. It's just really, REALLY not for little kids. -- CF
Gravitar (Adam) -- I have never seen the arcade version, but I do know that it is a color, vectored game. I imagine that it would look similar to Asteroids. Smooth animation without clunky block-like graphics is a vectored game's specialty. Even when the Atari 2600 was extremely popular, it was never known to have fantastic screen resolution. Gravitar was a potential disaster waiting to happen on the 2600.
A large amount of screen area is needed to simulate the coin-op playfield. If the Gravitar ship had been larger, it would have ruined the home game's mechanics. Fortunately, though, the programmer found the perfect ratio between ship size and screen landscape. This places Gravitar past the first hurtle that could have pulled it down into mediocrity.
Controlling a miniature Asteroids-type ship through incredibly small crevices is very difficult. The option that gives you 100(!) ships makes a game that would be frustrating and far too hard into a game that is pleasant. Indeed, a smile wraps my face when my ship is used as a kamikaze weapon to destroy the gun turrets on a planet's surface. This 100-life option, combined with the well-designed screen ratio, smooth animation and great collision detection make this game very fun. Try it! -- AT
Jr. Pac-Man (Chris) -- To start off irrelevantly, aren't you sick of seeing whichever Pac-person a game stars being drawn on the box, book and label with a friendly, happy face? Just once I'd like to see a Pac-simile frowning in demented anger, eyebrows lowered and jaws slavering for colorful-monster blood.
Jr. Pac-Man is, after all, one mean mother-sequeller. He goes faster than any of his Pac-cestors, which makes the game a lot more fun. The faster the protagonist, as far as I'm concerned, the better. I play the hardest variation of any Pac-Man on any system for this very reason. Sure, the monsters go faster too, but it's not much harder if your synapses are firing well. This makes any rendition of Jr. Pac-Man my favorite over the prequels, because he's ALWAYS faster than his relatives (have you played the "Turbo" variation in the C-64 version? WOW!).
The mazes change like in Ms. Pac-Man, except they're more interesting because they're so big that they scroll. The scrolling is done smoothly, and there are no control compromises; I can't find a single flaw in this game. The monsters are actually smart (it's definitely the toughest Pac-daptation), the animation absolutely superb. There's just nothing wrong with the sparks in this double ROM, folks.
In fact, 2600 Jr. Pac-Man is, from my standpoint, the best home version of any Pac-game, barring maybe 7800 Ms. Pac-Man. There are enough different mazes, difficulty levels (whew...have a tossable coin handy) and varying strategies to keep this title incredibly longetive, not to mention the aesthetic fascination one holds for the scrolling and the unbelievably minute graphics and mechanics.
You can just hear the ads, can't you? "Sorry about the first VCS Pac-Man. But really, buy this one. Come back to Atari and see what we have now. Please? It's not too late, is it?"
Get even with the first Pac-tridge on which you spent hours as a kid by acquiring this game however you can. You'll be astonished.
(Hmmm...Pac-yard? Holy Packeral? Nope. I think I hit all the good ones.) -- CF
Jr. Pac-Man (Adam) -- Pac-Man must be the game with the most sequels. Although some modern games are closing in fast (Squaresoft is working on Final Fantasy VIII), few games have as much variety from sequel to sequel as Pac-Man. The first Pac-Man only has one maze. Can you imagine that? But Ms. Pac-Man is completely different: It has four different mazes! In fact, each game is so unique in its own right that if the name Pac-Man weren't contained within the titles and the characters weren't drawn in their same general shapes, it would be impossible to know that they were sequels to the simplistic Pac-Man.
Jr. Pac-Man is a perfect example of this. It is almost the complete opposite of Pac-Man! The maze scrolls! Game-play-wise, that erases any relation to the original!
Jr. Pac-Man is the best of the three Pac-Man games available for the VCS. The scrolling screen makes spotting the ghosts difficult, but this element actually makes the game more fun to play. The only reason that it seems difficult at first is because the player is accustomed to knowing where all four ghosts are at all times in every other Pac-Man. The change only takes a few plays to get used to. Careful watch of the movement of the ghosts while they are visible on the screen will allow the player to know the positions they are likely to be in when offscreen.
The essential game-play does not change in this version, but there are a few variations that make the game different, other than the already-mentioned scrolling. For example, the prizes now move around the screen and can destroy your Power Pills if they run into them. This is an added incentive to get the few extra points from a prize. They also change small dots into large dots, which are worth more points, but which slow down our hero as he eats them.
Every version of Pac-Man has that special quality that requires the player to get just one more dot, one more screen, one more ghost. The VCS version brings home the arcade experience better than any other translation, including the unreleased 5200 version (which I played on an Atari 8-bit) and the poor Commodore 64 conversion. This game makes the original Pac-Man look even more pathetic. Even if you don't like Pac-Man, you must get this game just so that the first Pac-Man cartridge (which everyone owns -- admit it) is not the best VCS Pac-Man you own. -- AT
Dark Chambers (Chris) -- This is a fantastic game in both its 2600 and 7800 incarnations; the former is actually just as much fun as the latter. This is mainly due to the fact that they're two different games, both tailored for their respective systems and exploiting their different capabilities well. This says a lot about real programming skill (as opposed to that which bequeaths the scanned-in backgrounds in a PC game, for instance).
It's basically a Gauntlet clone, albeit an interesting one with enough differences to be unique. I can play this on the 2600 for hours; all said and done, it's Adventure II! There are, for instance, dozens of keys and doors, and you have to walk around blocky mazes full of little chambers, seeking the cleverly-hidden exit from each level. One type of enemy even flickers like the old dragons if there are enough things onscreen (hardly a shortcoming in this nostalgic context! Talk about mystique!). You can even reincarnate; after you die, the next game starts on the same level (good thing; there are twenty-six of them). Granted, there are strength-updating foodstuffs and mere score-incrementing treasures instead of a bunch of useful, manipulative objects like in Adventure, but what's neat is that instead of a sword, there are firing-speed enhancers and firepower-ups. There's even an occasional smart bomb to find (and it's actually a bomb; no corny spells for this treasure-hunter!).
My only complaint is that your guy moves a little too slowly for the amount of exploration involved.
This is a must-play (just do yourself a favor and play the hardest variation), and it marks a fitting end to the 2600's legacy of multi-screen adventure games.
Key kids! Fun Fact (although just barely related): Did you know that Warren Robinett named the Adventure dragons himself (Yorgle, Grundle and Rhindle), and, although it didn't appear in Steve Harding's manual for the game, Warren named the bat Knubberrub? It's true! WOW! -- CF
Dark Chambers (Adam) -- This is as good as Atari's Gauntlet ever was. I had thought that Dark Chambers was a complete clone, but it isn't.
The introduction is a very impressive title screen. Upon first seeing this, I thought that all of the memory that could have been used for the game itself had been wasted. Is the title screen really needed? Of course not. But Dark Chambers is one of the few 2600 games that has a title screen that doesn't intrude upon memory.
The Atari 2600 version of this game, unlike the 7800 one, is very different from Gauntlet. I imagine that it was the limitations of the VCS that made this necessary, but it makes for a better game. Gauntlet, while fun, is very trigger-happy. There are some places where there are countless enemies; you fire over and over again, with no relief in sight. 2600 Dark Chambers is nothing like that.
There are never more than a few enemies on the screen at once. When there are a few extra objects around the character, the screen begins to flicker somewhere around the magnitude of Adventure's flickering (but nowhere near as bad as 2600 Pac-Man's). The screen never becomes so full of flicker that the game-play suffers, though. The number of enemies was carefully planned so that this would not happen.
The animation is well-drawn. While nothing stands out as fantastic, even for the VCS, the player can easily recognize and even presume what all of the sprites are supposed to be. The ghost, the skeleton, the key -- they are all drawn with enough detail to let a player know what everything on the screen is without reading the manual. The player's character is rather big -- not nearly as small as Pitfall Harry or the character in Frankenstein's Monster. The ratio between character size and room size is important -- it works well here.
The character moves about the chambers slowly. It hurts the game in the most minimal way. It is only worth mentioning because when there are no enemies or items in a room, it bogs down the game-play, because trudging through empty rooms gets boring quickly.
One of the most brilliant features of this game is the way in which player shots affect an enemy. Some enemies require several shots before they are destroyed. There had to be an easy way for the player to know how many more hits a creature could take. This could have been solved in many ways, a common method being that an enemy's color changes with each hit. Here, the enemies shift graphics from most-difficult-to-hit character to easiest-to-hit character. This is a great method to display enemy damage.
Dark Chambers is one of the best games in the 2600 library. It is a great example of what the hardware of the VCS is capable of. Chris thinks that this game is worthy of being the sequel to Adventure. I agree completely. Dark Chambers is a great game that deserves a place in everyone's collection. -- AT