Bringing Home the
Arcade Game Craze
by Mark S. Murley
Pocket those quarters, America. The arcade machines are vacating bars, malls and shopping centers for the comfort of your own living room. The popular coin-operated uprights are being compressed into palm-sized cartridges and pop-in disks that are compatible with the Atari home computers and the budget-priced VCS units. And much to the delight of joystick-pushers everywhere, your favorite arcade games are making the transition relatively intact.
For about the price of a good dinner for two, and in the quiet of your own home, you can battle the alien hordes of Roklan's Gorf or pluck falling humanoids in mid-drop via Atari's faithful rendition of their own popular coin-op, Defender. You say your earthbound sensibilities are shaken by otherworldly themes such as these? Then perhaps Parker Brothers' Reactor will be a bit more to your liking.
Whichever your choice, several of the most popular arcade games have been extracted from their former domain, reproduced for smaller personal computers and made available to the home user. In the next few pages, we'll be taking a close look at the home renditions of three of the best: Gorf, Defender and Reactor, and how they compare to their arcade counterparts.
My Defender looks different
The primary challenge to a game designer who is converting, say, Defender to the Atari 2600 is largely one of making the most of available memory. For instance, the coin-operated Defender uses dozens of kilobytes of memory to bring the scads of alien ships and other graphic brouhaha to colorful life. However, the memory available to the Atari 2600 is only a fraction of that amount. Therefore, the converting programmer must redesign and trim the original program to fit in the available 4K of memory.
Unlike the ROM-powered programming for personal systems, the coin-operated machines use highly specialized microprocessing units to generate graphics. The microprocessor is designed to execute a single, specific game function, that is, creating a space ship or drawing a landscape. Since the microprocessor has only one task to perform, it generally does it quite efficiently -- the end result being a highly detailed graphic or complex sound effect that would not be possible on a home system.
The Atari home computer does offer considerably more memory than the VCS unit, with the average game designed to run in 16K of memory, although 8K, 24K 32K, and even 48K games are not uncommon. As a rule, the greater the memory required for execution of the program, the more finely detailed the game screens.
Defender: the arcade version
When Atari introduced Defender in 1980, the game mesmerized arcaders everywhere. Defender embellished the basic blast'em-fast theme with a horizontal scrolling landscape, fat sweeps of sound, and graphics that thumbed an electronic nose at virtually anything standing beside it at the local arcade. Interfacing the player to the action was a set of controls featuring a console-mounted joystick and separate buttons for such diverse functions as "thrust," "fire," and the detonation of "smart bombs." The result? A flashy, innovative game that deserved the steady stream of quarters that flowed into it.
Defender is a veritable clinic in game design that's simple but not overtly so. The basic idea is to prevent hovering alien "landers" from picking up the humanoid canisters (which rest on the planet's surface) and ascending to the top of the playing screen.
While the player contends with the advances of the pesky landers, a wide assortment of their alien buddies -- aggressive and non -- will appear as well. Once all of the player's humanoids have been appropriated, the planet explodes in a graphic burst that is nothing short of dazzling!
Defender: Atari 400, 800 and 1200
Happily, the task of converting Defender to the Atari home computer has passed to those who, at least in theory, are most capable of the job -- Atari itself. To be sure, Atari has done an admirable job of transferring nearly all nuances of coin-operated Defender to the home computer cartridge version.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of home Defender is the acute similarity to the arcade version. When you pop the cartridge into your computer and that opening screen flares to life, you know you've gotten your money's worth! And the gang's all here, folks -- humanoids, landers, baiters, pods -- each faithfully emulating the familiar rhythms of the original.
The basic game controls of home Defender have been pared down to three: (1) the joystick handle, which controls the direction and speed of the ship; (2) the joystick trigger button, which fires the weapon; and (3) the Atari space bar, which detonates the smart bombs.
Frankly, enough good things can't be said about home Defender. The pace is brisk; there's ample opportunity to enact a variety of strategic ploys (a good example of this would be exploding a smart bomb when a cluster of point-rich pods appears); and a choice of three skill levels greatly enhances the challenge.
A minor criticism: at times the action gets a bit too fast. Death can arrive with little or no warning in this deadly environment.
For the most part, home Defender meets or exceeds all but the fussiest critic's expectations. The graphics are tight, making the alien ships easy to distinguish, and the sounds are first rate. Well done, Atari!
Gorf: the arcade version
First-time players of Midway's Gorf might well have felt that they had just squandered two bits on a gussied-up rehash of Nintendo's Space Invaders. Not so. True, the opening screen of Gorf is about as close as one could come to parroting the aging Japanese classic, but all doubts are soon tucked to rest with the appearance of three subsequent screens of alien dangers.
Gorf's theme encompasses a single objective: destroy the alien Flag Ship. To get a crack at the Big Cheese, however, the player has to go one-on-one with a deadly sampler of extraterrestrial nasties. This includes columns of descending ships in Mission One; more descending ships in Mission Two -- this time varying their approach pattern; an interesting group of craft that attacks in spiral patterns in Mission Three; and, lastly, the Flag Ship in Mission Four. Dispatching this final danger earns one the right to repeat the four missions; this time at an accelerated pace.
Gorf is a powerful game, if for no other reason than the pace of the action. Many veterans of arcade heavyweights like Defender and Tempest quickly fall by the wayside when faced with the intensity of the various attacking buguboos.
Gorf: Atari 400, 800 and 1200
From the moment that the ominous message "THE EVIL GORFIAN ROBOT EMPIRE HAS ATTACKED!" scrolls across the playing screen, you know that Gorf has survived the passage from the arcade to your home computer.
The player connects to the action via the joystick handle and trigger button, which control the horizontal movement of the fighter base and the missiles respectively. The fun kicks off with the descent of six columns of bomb-dropping Gorf's and Droids. After clearing this screen, the battle picks up again with a Galaxian-like assault featuring attacking ships that peel from formation for kamikaze dives at the player's fighter.
Segueing into this is Spacewarp, the most visually and aurally dynamic of the four missions. The final mission, Flag Ship, demands a direct hit by the player on a small vulnerable area of the passing Flag Ship.
During any of the four missions above, the player can count on a continual barrage from the attacking craft. With each new skill level, the speed and intensity of the attack increases.
Roklan has done an exceptional job on the Atari home computer version of Gorf. The look and feel of the game is superb; it stands firmly on its own as a competent and entertaining piece of software.
Gorf: Atari 2600
Bringing the complexities of four separate screens of action home to the Atari 2600 is no mean feat. Luckily for Gorf lovers everywhere and for CBS Software, the publisher, Roklan Software agreed to tackle this conversion too. The result is a competent, de-frilled edition of Gorf.
A number of elements have been purged from VCS Gorf, including one you'll probably never miss - the scrolling message at the beginning of the game. Other moves at graphics economy include dropping the force field in Mission One and removing a number of the prompts and messages.
Interestingly enough, VCS Gorf manages to fill the holes left by reduced graphic details with some snazzy sound effects and nine separate skill levels that should keep all but the sharpest arcader smiling. The graphics are smooth, the colors vivid, and there is an ample pause between screens to allow you time to catch a breath before the next battle begins.
Reactor: the arcade version
Like yesterday's soap opera or the latest hit novelty song, it seemed that anyone who even drove past an arcade was talking about Gottlieb's Reactor when it emerged. Featuring a Missile Command-like trackball controller and spewing a crowd-stopping synthesized guitar riff when fed a quarter, Reactor lost no time in creating an audience all its own.
True to its name (inspired by the (in)famous Pennsylvania nuclear installation, perhaps?), the game graphically recreates a nuclear Reactor approaching meltdown. As the Reactor heats, its core expands, limiting the playing area and hampering maneuverability. Within this area, the player controls a small ship, which in turn deflects deadly "particles" into the surrounding energized walls and/or banks of control rods. The energized "kill walls" are quite unforgiving; should one venture too close, it will eliminate the player's ship as rapidly as the enemy particles.
Higher levels of Reactor feature variations on the Level One Reactor setting, including invisible kill walls and an unprotected Reactor core whose swirling energy vortex can make short work of the player's ship.
Reactor: Atari 2600
Parker Brothers recently hopped onto the VCS cartridge bandwagon with several original releases and a smattering of licensed versions of existing arcade favorites. Included in the latter category is Gottlieb's Reactor, which has received a, ah . . . glowing reception from 2600 users.
Scaling down Gottleib's Reactor to VCS size must have proved quite a challenge for Parker Brothers. The arcade version is highly sophisticated and brimming with detailed graphics and sound routines -- complex elements to pack into the limited memory format of a 2600 ROM cartridge.
Apparently the programmers at Parker Brothers thrive on such challenge; the resulting product is on par with the cream of the VCS crop.
VCS Reactor is Gottlieb's Reactor cleverly barbered down to the basics. And surprisingly, the game itself is scarcely the worse for wear. The setting is fundamentally the same: a central Reactor core flanked by kill walls and two small bonus chambers. The enemy particles, as well as the player's ship move fluidly across the screen just as if they had actual mass. The explosion that results from the player's ship touching a kill wall is startling! It's practically worth sacrificing a ship just to watch!
Options include eight skill levels -- four one-player settings and four two-player levels. Arcade version buffs can rejoice: The brief synthesized Reactor "theme" begins each new round of play. Another leftover from the original version is the "decoy" feature that allows you to throw a graphic red herring into the fray.
VCS Reactor's main flaw is not in the game itself, but the flexibility of the controlling joystick. The trackball controller of the Gottlieb version is gone, replaced by the lackluster Atari joystick. The stiffness of the joystick makes it difficult to direct your ship with any great degree of precision. This mobile precision is crucial at times, such as whenever moving close to the control rods or entering one of the narrow entrances to the bonus chambers. Joystick problems aside, VCS Reactor has a solid look and feel to it and the wide range of levels keeps the game fresh after repeated playings.
Those who suffer from that heretofore incurable malady, arcadus withdrawalus, can now stave off the pains of coin-op withdrawal in the dignity of their own homes. The major software companies have one eye on your favorite arcade machines and another on your VCS and Atari home computer. Most assuredly, the twain are meeting.
Mark S. Murley writes documentation and ad copy for Adventure International. Among his credits is the saga of Wadsworth Overcash in Russ Wetmore's Preppie! series.