Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 41 / OCTOBER 1983 / PAGE 166

Picnic Paranoia For Atari

James V. Trunzo

Ants and more ants march relentlessly upon their objective. Spiders bar pathways while spinning silvery webs, knowing that the threat of their bite will make wary any who wish them harm. Wasps hover and dart about, their seemingly erratic flight patterns only a guise that will better enable them to deliver a painful and harmful sting.

Is this a sci-fi movie about insects gone berserk, on TV at four o'clock in the morning? No, it's Picnic Paranoia, written by Russ Segal and produced by Synapse Software.

Picnic Paranoia is a refreshingly different hi-res arcade game that is much more than just another simple variation on a theme. The only similarity between Picnic Paranoia and, say, Centipedes or Millipede is that insects are the antagonists. But unlike those games and many others, the "villains" in this game aren't out to attack you directly. They are after something even better – your food.

As the title suggests, Picnic Paranoia deals with that universal summer pleasure, the picnic. The game puts you in the role of George, the beleaguered picnicker, arid puts you right in the middle of four rectangular, food-covered picnic tables.

The tranquility of the moment is shattered, however, by the appearance of the first of many black ants intent upon pushing the food off the table, across the lawn, and off the screen. They are aided in their endeavors by spiders (a real nuisance) and wasps (downright vicious) – though neither spiders nor wasps have any desire for your food.

Armed with a flyswatter, you must dispatch the insects as quickly as possible and thus prevent them from carrying off your feast. It all sounds rather simple, doesn't it? Well, it isn't. Without quick reflexes, intent concentration, and some strategy, you are soon overwhelmed by the sheer number of insects scurrying all over the screen.

How George Swats

The mechanics of Picnic Paranoia are, for the most part, clean, and they function without a hitch. George, who is moved around the screen by a joystick, swats the assorted nasties in one of two ways. By depressing and holding the button on the joystick and moving the stick slightly in the direction George is facing, he achieves one slap with the flyswatter. By continuing to press the joystick in a given direction, he walks and swats at the same time. George walks faster when he isn't swatting – something to keep in mind if no insects are in his path.

The only aspect that takes some getting used to is the technique needed to return food to the table after it has been pushed onto the lawn by the ants. This is important because food on the table is worth more points than food on the ground, and at least one food item must be on a table at the end of each round or the game comes to an end.

To return food to the table, George must swat the food, drag or push it to a table, and release it by swatting it again. The fire button must be released before you attempt to drag or push the food.

Picnic Paranoia plays through a series of 90-second rounds. During this time, George can score points in two ways: (1) by killing insects, and (2) by preventing his food from being pushed off the screen. The ants, spiders, and wasps are worth 10, 20, and 40 points, respectively, multiplied by the round just completed. An ant killed on round five, for example, would be worth 50 points. The value of any food remaining at the end of each round can range anywhere from 30 to 100 points times the given round, depending upon the food's final position. Food still on the table is worth twice as much as food left on the ground. After the first 5000 points have been scored, and for every 10,000 points after that, you earn a bonus.

However, unlike most games, Picnic Paranoia does not reward you with an extra player (you are given three Georges at the beginning of the game). Instead, you are given a can of bug spray, which can be brought into play by hitting the space bar on the computer. The can of spray then traverses the screen three times, killing all insects on the screen at the time. Powerful stuff, but no points are awarded for insects sent to "bug heaven" by the spray. Special concepts like the bug spray will make owners of Picnic Paranoia enjoy the contest all the more.

Swatting at hordes of marauding ants while dodging a bee in Picnic Paranoia.

Strategic Moves

Strategy enters the game in several ways. A red "door" is located in the middle of each of the four sides of the playing field. By entering a door, George is able to pop out on the other side of the screen. Making good use of the doors allows you to quickly maneuver him around the picnic grounds, arrive at trouble areas sooner, and often save food from being pushed off the screen.

A second strategy is so obvious that it might be overlooked. Each insect is unique and creates different problems. By recognizing each insect's characteristics, you can determine your best attack at any particular time during a round. The ants can't hurt George, but they are the only insect that can carry off the food. This must always be foremost in your mind.

Spiders can bite George, sending him to the middle of the screen in a state of temporary paralysis. However, the spiders are most annoying for the webs they spin, blocking pathways and thus making movement impossible until the webs are swatted and destroyed. Since speed is an integral part of the game, the webs can exert a significant influence on the eventual outcome of the contest.

Finally, the wasp's sting is more than twice as potent as the spider's bite. It, too, sends George to the middle of the screen, but leaves him immobile much longer. The wasp is difficult to hit, and as soon as one is eliminated, another appears.

A third bit of strategy involves the use of the bonus can of bug spray. For maximum benefit, the timing must be right. Use it too early, and you will still have the greater part of the round left to play. Use it too late, and you may have wasted an opportunity to save it for a more crucial moment in a following round.

The last strategy will be familiar to those who have played such games as Missile Command. In the later rounds, after you have lost several food items, as you undoubtedly will, do not waste your effort defending empty tables. Concentrate on attacking the insects surrounding tables that still have food on them. Just as in Missile Command, where it is of maximum importance to keep at least one city safe (and ignore empty earth), in Picnic Paranoia you must keep at least one piece of food on a table. Therefore, minimize the area you must cover by, for example, zeroing in on the two tables with the most food on them.

Picnic Paranoia offers several options for the gamer. In what has become standard practice with most video and computer games, Picnic Paranoia offers five levels of difficulty. Selecting a higher difficulty level simply starts the game off at an advanced round. Because each 90-second round features more and more insects, by beginning at a higher round, you face a greater challenge right from the start.

The game also offers a day or night option. By selecting the night option, you change the green lawn playing screen to a solid black. This is not to suggest, however, that the night option is simply cosmetic. When you are playing at night, you cannot see the picnic tables, and movement is difficult. It is easy to run George into a corner of one of the invisible tables. Playing at night increases the difficulty of Picnic Paranoia much more than just selecting a higher difficulty level.

Picnic Paranoia also offers some of the finest graphics and sound available today. From the opening song and graphics of the title page – a delightful animation accompanied by a rousing rendition of the "Flight of the Bumblebee" – to the game-ending animation where literally scores of ants push George off the screen and spell out (with their bodies) "THE END," the hi-res graphics are excellent.

Great attention has been paid to detail in all areas: the foods on the table look absolutely edible and are identifiable, not just shapes of familiar objects. George himself is a sight to behold, complete with a tiny brush mustache and hat. Even the insects are finely done, the wasp drawn with constantly fluttering wings, stripes, and stinger. George's face turns red with embarrassment when stung. A cacophony of sounds matches the graphics to round out this fine effort, and, as you would expect, all animation is flicker-free.

Picnic Paranoia is available from Synapse Software in either cassette or disk format. It runs in 16K.

Picnic Paranoia
Synapse Software
5327 Jacuzzi St. Suite 1
Richmond, CA 94804