by Steve Panak
I thought we'd do something a little different this month. Since this time of year is generally slow as far as new software is concerned, and because a lot of you might be relatively new to the Atari scene, I'll take the next couple of minutes reviewing the current state of entertainment software as a whole, one genre at a time, rather than one game at a time. And we'll start, fittingly enough, where Atari began with arcade games.
Unfortunately, once I began to undertake this monumental task, I discovered that not only were there dozens of games out there fitting any given classification, there were also dozens of games, good games, that defied classification. Games that struggled to bridge the gap between two or three genres. And these games tended to be the best of all, which explains why you've been hearing so much about them over the years.
The Atari 800 was introduced in the early '80s. My first machine, which at 48K was illiterate when compared to my ST, cost me $700. The old 810 drive set me back another $500. And one of the first games I crammed into that drive was Night Mission Pinball, from Sublogic. But what is truly amazing is the fact that in the five-plus years since I bought this game (an eon in the high-tech computer biz) Night Mission still survives as one of the best arcade games available. This pinball simulation is fast and furious, and while it lacks the screen-editing features offered by some of its competitors, I've found that I only rarely use the "construction set" portions of any program. What Night Mission does allow is modification of such play parameters as field incline, elasticity, and ball speed. Up to four can compete head to head, with the high score saved to disk, providing a continual impetus to pump in just one more quarter. This game is so real that you can, and will, tilt in your attempts to nudge a few more out of your last ball.
This game is so real that you can,
and will, tilt in your attempts
to nudge a few more out
of four last ball.
Another game that's been around since day one (or thereabouts) is Boulder Dash. This Pac Man/Donkey Kong style game features fast action and graphics that push the 8-bits to their limit. While the latest incarnation features a construction-set feature, steer toward Super Boulder Dash for the finest set of challenging screens available in or outside the arcade. The object is to dig through the earth in search of diamonds, while avoiding a number of dangers, most notably falling rocks. Each maze is a puzzle requiring thought, strategy and, of course, great reflexes to survive. Multiple levels of play keep this thriller interesting for months to come. A very similar game, Bounty Bob Strikes Back, is, despite its average graphics, deserving of an honorable mention. Like Boulder Dash, it has a seemingly infinite number of screens to navigate, all crammed into a single high-speed cartridge.
If your tastes run more toward outer space encounters, Star Raiders II should satisfy your lust for violence. In this game the evil Zylon empire has invaded your star system, establishing bases which pump out wave after wave of deadly fighter ships. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to stamp out this menace. You do this by traveling throughout the system, destroying fighters, protecting your refueling bases, and searching out and eradicating Zylon strongholds. Detailed graphics and fast action are the hallmarks of great arcade games, and Star Raiders II does not disappoint. Your cockpit contains all the dials and readouts you'll need to keep abreast of game developments, and its level of sophistication approaches that of a simulation, making for a realistic and entertaining campaign. Just don't forget your space suit.
While it's not always true that two can have as much or more fun than one, there are a number of programs out there that excel at placing good friends at one another's throats. Indeed, the most enjoyable of the two-player games are those that require opposition rather than cooperation-competition seems to be an inbred quality of mankind. I've found the best two-player games to consistently be the Spy vs. Spy series. Inspired by the popular characters in MAD Magazine, the three games which comprise this trilogy place the two familiar agents in differing locales with one common goal, to be the first to collect and assemble a device, usually a bomb. Rising above a mere search, the game allows the players to slow each other's progress by setting deadly booby traps and engaging in hand-to-hand combat. The graphics are distinct and imaginative, with your spy laughing diabolically as your opponent is incinerated by an expertly placed napalm bomb. And the split-screen layout, allowing simultaneous play when combined with the complex, yet easy to learn set of joystick controls, makes the game effortless to play.
If you prefer a battle of wits, Archon is an Electronic Arts original that combines the strategy of chess with the dexterity of an arcade wrist-buster. It was four years ago that I fast played this game, and it still survives as one of the best. Played on a checkered board, each man has a different attack mode or power, with some pieces being stronger than others. Numerous battle modes are used, from clubs to projectiles to magic. Your men are more powerful on their own color squares-but don't get lazy, as even the board colors are subject to change. As you fight, on-screen life lines keep you apprised of your progress (or demise). Archon and its sequel (Archon II) are classics which, like chess, survive the test of time.
If a traditional one-on-one confrontation is more to your liking, then a couple of packages may satisfy you. World Championship Karate from Epyx outfits you in traditional oriental garb and pits two Kung Fu warriors against each other in a fight to the death. Complex joystick commands unleash a battery of offensive and defensive moves, from simple kicks and punches to elaborate leaps and spins. Intricate and sophisticated graphics keep this game interesting, and I still love the way your computer opponent turns and looks at you mockingly when you are slow to attack. For those that need something to fight for, Datasoft's Karateka pits you against a succession of Karate experts of increasing strength as you attempt to rescue a princess held hostage in a mountain fortress.
If traditional sparring is more your game, Accolade's Fight Night straps on the gloves and lets you go ten rounds against some of the toughest pugilists you'll ever set your sore eyes on. Loosely patterned after the arcade version, in this game you square off against six boxers, from the lightweight "Dipstick" to the super-heavyweight "Bronx Bomber." One or two compete, and a construction set allows you to design and build your own opponents. While the difficult command structure and slow execution makes Fight Night inferior to either of the Karate games, it is still entertaining. Another game that is great for two players is Trailblazer. This sleeper is so different from anything else on the market that it was destined to be a winner even if it didn't have superb, fast graphics. In this variation of the race game, Mindscape's masterpiece puts each player in control of a checkered ball, with the object being to complete a racetrack suspended in space in the least amount of time. This simple concept is supplemented by a number of special areas on the track which speed you up, slow you down, and bounce you over bottomless pits. The split-screen design is ingenious, allowing each competitor complete control over his ball and providing firstperson perspective of the action. You can almost feel your opponent's ball shooting over your head as he passes you.
A number of packages let you take to the air. Probably the most realistic, and most difficult, is Flight Simulator from Sublogic. This complex program mimics perfectly the flight characteristics of a single-engine aircraft, the Cessna 182. So perfectly, in fact, that without flight training you're likely to spend the majority of your time power diving into the Earth-assuming you can take off. And despite the complexity, the program executes remarkably fast. Once you've earned your wings, embellishments include a World War I dogfight battle game, and a number of optical scenery disks covering the entire United States, as well as a number of foreign countries. This is truly a premium program.
If you'd rather forego some of this realism and simply dogfight, a couple of packages will appease you. Ace of Aces from Accolade puts you over Europe during WWII (the big one), where you attempt missions requiring you to fight air to air, air to ground and air to sea, with the Nazis as formidable opponents. Mindscape's Infiltrator sticks you behind the stick of an ultra-sophisticated helicopter, a la Blue Thunder. Both of these programs are complex simulations which push your machine to its limits. And while I thought their attempts to simulate every aspect of their respective missions made the games a little longwinded, the main portions of each are engaging.
Of course, I could go on and on about the rest of the arcade games out there. There are tons of cartridge-based games, many based on arcade blockbusters, others based on movies and cartoon characters. I leave it up to you to peruse though these.
Now, having looked at the entire spectrum of the arcade genre, let's step back a moment and look at one of the latest entrants into this fraternity.
by Datasoft Electronics Arts
1820 Gateway Drive
San Mateo, CA 94404
48K Disk $19.95
Saracen, the latest arcade game from Datasoft, is billed as an action adventure in the Middle Ages. When I first saw the game, opened it and read the slight manual, I started to become concerned. Here I sat, discussing some of the best arcade games I'd ever played, and then I opened this. To say that I was prepared for the worst would be a gross understatement. But my tense trepidation turned to relief when I discovered that Saracen was nowhere near as bad as I thought it would be. Actually, it was pretty good.
Of course, not original by any stretch of the imagination. When the first of the 100 levels appears on the screen, Boulder Dash (see previous page) immediately comes to mind. Each level is basically a maze, through which you navigate in search of the Saracen Chief hidden within. A storyline as thin as the paper it's printed on casts you in the role of Ilan the Crusader, who, like any other redblooded young Christian adventurer, is on a sacred mission to search out and expel the Infidel Saracens from the Holy Land. Play opens with the gallant warrior trapped within a Saracen fortress, longbow in hand, ready for action.
Actually, it's not quite as heroic as this may sound. The screen is a maze, a rather complex and confusing maze, filled with a number of items to keep play interesting. There are arrows which you can pick up and shoot at the soldiers who dog your every move; one-way doors, bombs and cannonballs which slow your progress; and, of course, the Saracen Chief, who stands between you and the next level, and thus must be destroyed. Grab the grenade, place it next to the chief, and shoot it with an arrow, blowing him away. Then move on to the next level and do it again. The graphics are good enough, the speed fast enough that you'll want to attempt each of the 100 levels.
This simple formula is complicated by few options. You can choose to get involved via your joystick or the keyboard, and a pause key allows the obsessed a chance to eat. For the impatient, and perhaps inept challengers, you are permitted to play any of the levels independently-so you are guaranteed a visit to each dungeon of doom. And you'll probably want to drop in for at least a minute on each and every one.
The Eternal Dagger
by Paul Murray and Victor Penman
1046 N. Rengstorff Avenue
Mountain View, CA 94043
8K Disk $39.95
Alternate Reality: The Dungeon
by Ken Jordan and Dan Pinal
19808 Nordhoff Place
Chatsworth, CA 91311
48K Disk $39.95
After months of nothing, we fantasy lovers get not one, but two new universes. Well, not entirely new, but at least new passes to a pair of worlds that many of us have grown (or groan, depending on whether you were able to finish either of these) to love. Each is a sequel to a previously issued game, and each plays pretty much like its respective predecessor. And while there's nothing spectacular to distinguish either of these, they are nonetheless fine additions to the pool of adventure games on the market. We'll start with The Eternal Dagger.
The cover art of the second Wizard's Crown adventure depicts brave warriors stepping through a transport portal to battle against an evil wizard who awaits them, energy pouring forth from his hands. And while it is unlikely you will actually imagine yourself in this position while playing the game, if you take the time to boot up, you'll likely find yourself not disappointed.
First you form a group of up to eight brave souls of varying skills and strengths. If you've played Wizard's Crown, you can at this point transfer in your favorite characters. If not, you can use the eight stock characters, or create your own. Each has familiar D&D attributes, and each can have weapons, shields and armor. Depending on his particular profession, characters also have special powers., such as magic, healing and thieving skills.
Once you begin play, the screen fills with a map perspective, on which your party moves, searches, battles and dies. The sophisticated program supports a mind-boggling level of detail and allows both quick and tactical battle modes. The former displays only the outcome of a given engagement, while the latter allows full control of the altercation, from character position to prayer (when things get really desperate). Graphics are of the standard SSI format, the many command menus and prompts easily readable.
Probably the very worst thing about this game is the agony the setup routines inflict upon the helpless owner. First, format four diskettes (assuming you can find four blank diskettes). These are then inserted into your drive in a 20-minute ordeal requiring you to precisely follow the prompts to avoid starting this hell all over again. I hope you've got the time and patience to sit still to do it.
Those who have played the first installment of Alternate Reality will no doubt immediately recognize the familiar portal adorning the cover of the packaging of Alternate Reality: The Dungeon. In fact, some might even find it hard to discern this game from the original. And, like Eternal Dagger, this similarity continues throughout play.
In Alternate Reality, the scenario is not much different. You have been captured from your dreary life by an alien ship, which blasts off to your Alternate Reality, where you are an adventurer trapped in a strange, primitive world. This time, though, you find yourself in a dungeon rather than a city. After jumping through the transit window, a portal above which spins numbered dials representing the values of your various attributes-the values freeze at entry to determine your skills. Or you can choose to import a character from Alternate Reality: The City. Either way, from then on it's a firstperson perspective as you move through the dungeon.
A small window in the center of the screen is your eyes. At the top and bottom. of the screen are readouts providing game status, displaying prompts and action menus. Each encounter requires some sort of reaction, such as fight, flee or greet. But while you'll never know exactly what hides behind any of the many doors you'll encounter in your exploration, you can be sure that it will take a lengthy disk swap and access to gain entry. Such is a drawback of 48K. It will take you some time to get through each of the three disks which contain the game, and be warned that aggression is not always the best course of action. The ultimate goal is, as you might expect, to return to Earth and/or obtain revenge against your captors.
Actually, it's not quite as heroic as
this may sound,
Even though each game has its own set of superb documentation, I have to award this battle to the The Dungeon. Mind you, this is an aesthetic call, not one based on information content. This is be cause each manual was filled with everything you might want (or have) to know about the game. Each had full descriptions of creatures and locations, as well as tons of hints and strategies. And actually, Dagger's was a little more colorul. I think it's the map that gave it to Dungeon.
Overall, I think Alternate Reality: The Dungeon was a little better. What probably tipped the scales was the graphic orientation of Reality-I prefer the firstperson perspective over a map-oriented game. The Eternal Dagger was much more complex, and hence more difficult to play, but in the end simpler to complete. This is because Alternate Reality is brutal and unforgiving. One mistake, one underestimation of his motives, and you're dead. The hardest lesson you'll learn is the loss of two hours of progress because you were too lazy (or too weary) to save your position. But if you avoid this disaster, both games will provide hours of great adverturing.
When next we meet, I'll move on to simulations, including the latest civil war epic from Strategic Simulations. And stay tuned for a rundown of fantasy games as well. All things considered, it's going to be a great year for Atari gamers, so don't get left out. For now, I'm going back to Saracen. You see, there's that cannonball haunting me on Level 56. Or was it 65? I'll take a look and let you know.