Shootout of the Video Game Systems
Atari vs. Nintendo and Sega
By DAVID PLOTKIN, Antic Contributing Editor
I'm going to let you in on a secret. Even though I'm a grown-up engineer for a Fortune 500 corporation--I LOVE to play video games.
This is quite well known around the Antic offices and causes much kidding by the more "serious" computer users there. So I was understandably delighted when the editor of Antic called to ask if I wanted to review the three premier video game systems currently available--the Atari XE Video Game System, Nintendo Entertainment System and Sega Master Game System.
Today's game systems bear little resemblance to the pioneer models such as the still-available Atari 2600. They are far more powerful, with more colors, more animation, more complexity overall--providing a far superior gaming experience.
I: SEGA MASTER SYSTEM
$150. Sega of America, Inc., 573 Forbes Blvd., South San Francisco, CA 94080. (800) USA SEGA (National). (415) 742-9300 (California). Includes: 2 Controllers, Adapters, Light Gun, Safari Hunt/Hang On cartridge.
Sega, now distributed in the U.S. by Tonka Toys, sent us their standard Power Base with two control pads, a light gun called the Laser and a superior game cartridge with two games built in. The control pads consist of a handheld box with a tiny nub of a toggle-stick and two buttons. Personally I prefer a real joystick.
But Sega's optional Control Stick, a heavy-duty responsive joystick, was a joy to use. I also tried out the Sports Pad--which is a trackball, supposedly most suitable for sports games. Strangely, the switch had to be set to "Control" rather than "Sports" for it to work correctly with the sports games I tried.
The Sega system was easy to set up, and even included a special cable that hooks up to a computer monitor for clearer graphics than a TV set. The Sega light gun was the best one I tried. It was very accurate.
The most unusual accessory was a set of 3-D glasses for simulated three dimensional games. While I found the 3-D effect to be only moderately successful (there was some image separation), the game using the glasses benefited quite nicely from 3-D.
Quite a variety of game cartridges is available for the Sega Master System and can be found easily at many local retailers. The system actually takes three different kinds of cartridges. The Sega Card looks like a credit card and uses a separate slot in the Power Base. Then there are the Mega Cartridges and the Two Mega Cartridges.
Sega boasts that the card holds 256K of memory while the Mega holds 1 MEG and the Two Mega cartridges hold 2 MEG. Most reviewers are fooled into thinking that these numbers refer to the number of bytes of memory in the cartridges. In fact, they refer to the number of bits. So the three cartridges hold 32K, 128K and 256K. This is still pretty impressive, considering that the early computer games like Star Raiders were only 8K!
The games for the Sega tend to be high quality with a good variation of arcade, adventure, and sports. Safari Hunt and Hang On are together on the cartridge included with the system. Safari Hunt is a simple shooting game which uses the light gun to plug away at a variety of animals as they move through three different scenarios.
Hang On is a very good motorcycle racing game. The view is from behind and slightly above your rider. Your cycle has an accelerator and gear shift.
The motorcycle races through an impressive landscape including deserts, night cities, and open country. The graphics are similar to Pole Position, but tend to have some flicker. Obstacles include opposing riders, some nasty curves and poles/cactuses along the side of the road.
Outrun is a car racing game on a Mega cartridge, but you wonder what they did with all that memory. The track has numerous splits, so you can race a different course each time. The graphics of your car are very sharp and realistic, especially when you flip over after hitting a curve too fast. Control is like steering on ice--the car slides around too much. The background graphics have considerable flicker, and the illusion of motion is poor.
Atari owners will recognize the next title-- Choplifter. Again, you must rescue the hostages from their barracks by blowing the baracks open and landing your chopper, then transporting the hostages back to a safe haven.
Enemies include other choppers, fighters, anti-aircraft guns (both fixed and mounted on trucks) and missile launchers. The ever-present tanks are more of a nuisance than a threat. The graphics are well-defined, but again tend to flicker. Controlling the helicopter is easy because of the two buttons on the control pad.
F-I6 Fighting Falcon is a Sega Card. It uses two controllers to operate the direction, speed and weapons of a flight/combat simulator. A "Heads-Up Display" summarizes your weapons status (cannons, missiles), range, and warns of enemy missiles. Your fighter is equipped with electronic countermeasures, two kinds of radar, compass, altimeter and airspeed indicator. The higher levels of difficulty feature more enemy aircraft which dodge your efforts to shoot them down more adepty.
Missile Defense 3-D uses the 3-D glasses mentioned above, along with the light gun. Each side launches missiles at the other. You have three different scenarios for attempting to shoot the missiles down. If any get through and hit their destination (the other side's capital city) the game is over. Firing your light gun at the screen causes a small explosion to appear on the screen which will destroy a missile if it hits it. Though I find the concept of the game pretty chilling, the gameplay is good and fun.
Great Baseball is a one-or-two player baseball game. You can choose your team and pitcher characteristics (preferred pitch and stamina). You use the controller pad to select a pitch. In Level 1, your fielders move to get the ball automatically, in Level 2 you must control the fielder closest to the ball.
Once the fielder has the ball, you can select which base to throw to. When it is your turn to bat, you press one of the buttons to swing at the ball.
II: NINTENDO ENTERTAINMENT SYSTEM
$99. Nintendo of America, Inc., 4820-150th Avenue N.E., Redmond, WA 98052. (800) 422-2602 (National). (206) 422-2602 (Washington). Includes: 2 Controllers, Adapters, Super Mario Brothers cartridge.
The smallest of the three systems is the Nintendo, but there is a lot of power in this box. Cartridges are loaded from the front via a lift-up door and seated by pressing down into the machine. This takes a little getting used to, but is not too difficult. The standard system comes wifh two controllers and the Super Mario Brothers cartridge. The controllers are similar to the those supplied with the Sega, and I again did not care much for them.
Optional hardware is available for the Nintendo. Sent with our system was a joystick called the Nintendo Advantage. It has a large base and is very responsive. In addition to the two fire buttons and the Start and Select buttons, this device features a turbo button for each fire button. When this turbo feature is engaged, the fire buttons shoot continuously when held down. The rate of firing is adjustable. There is also a switch which allows the single joystick to control either player 1 or player 2.
The graphics of the Nintendo games were impressive. Although most of the games did not seem as complex as the Sega offerings, the graphics were generally of higher quality and much more flicker-free. The Super Mario Brothers cartridge included with the system was a lot of fun and could keep you entertained for many hours.
You guide Mario through scenery which scrolls to the right. He can jump over a multitude of enemies (turtles and a few other things I couldn't begin to identify), or try to jump on them, squashing them for extra points. Blocks with question marks appear overhead in many scenes. Jumping up to hit these with his head gets him extra points and sometimes frees items which can help him. The mushroom, for example, turns him into Super Mario, able to leap further, break bricks with his bead, and survive one encounter with an enemy.
Metroid is another game with superb animation. You guide an armed robot through an underground fortress. He can jump (turning over in midair--a very nice effect), shoot in three directions, and duck. Along his quest, he will encounter a variety of power objects which give him extra lives and more powerful weaponery.
Kung Fu is one of the best martial arts games I have seen. Your hero moves through a five-floor fortress to rescue his maiden Sylvia. On the way, he must fight thugs, ninjas, snakes, dragons, and some very mean sword-wielding characters.
In Kid Icarus you guide an Angel, jumping from platform to platform, shooting enemies with your bow. Enemies turn into hearts when shot, and collecting the hearts allows you to use them in later stages to buy extra supplies. Touching an enemy robs the angel of some strength, and when it is all gone, you die.
A large number of sports simulations are presently available for the Nintendo. In Golf you use your joystick to control which club you use, then the force of your back swing, foward swing, and the moment of impact. You can also choose the direction you want to aim your ball.
If you misjudge the swing's force or use the wrong club, you may end up a long way from the hole. Misjudging when to hit the ball could also hook or slice your shot.
Pro Wrestling is a gas to play. You choose who you want to be from a slate of wrestlers, each one with a specialty for wreaking havoc on an opponent. You also select an opponent to be controlled by the second playrer or the computer. Quite a number of realistically animated moves are available using the joystick and two fire buttons.
The Slalom ski racing game has a view from behind and above your skier. You guide him down a large variety of runs. To continue the game you must make the qualifying time on each run. There are flags which you must ski through for maximum speed, and you can accelerate and slow down, steer, even jump.
Baseball can be played against the game machine or another player. The screen switches between two views. The a closeup of the infield is used during batting and infield plays. If you manage to knock the ball into the outfield, the screen switches to a view of the whole ballpark.
Tennis can also be played solo or against another player. When played solo, you select the level you want the machine to play at. You control your player as he runs around on the court. Pressing the fire button makes him swing (either forehand or backhand, depending on where the ball is). Rushing the net is good strategy in the lower levels.
The Legend of Zelda adventure game is the flagship of the Nintendo line. Packaged in a gold cartridge, it even features a built-in fiveyear battery to save games! The hero is named Link, and the object is to find the eight pieces of the Triforce, kill the evil Ganon, and rescue Princess Zelda.
Link must negotiate the areas above-ground until he finds the entrances to eight different underground labrynths. A large variety of the oddest creatures to grace a video game are constantly trying to do poor Link in.
III: ATARI XE VIDEO GAME SYSTEM
$149.95. Atari Corp., 1196 Borregas Avenue, Sunnyvale, CA 94084. (408) 745-2000. Includes: 1 Joystick, Light Gun, Adapters, Flight Simulator II cartridge, Bug Hunt cartridge.
The Atari XE Video Game system can be looked at as either the newest or the oldest product. It's the latest of the three units--about the size of a 65XE computer.
And in fact, that's what it is.
The XE Game System is a cosmetically redesigned two-piece 65XE. And in turn, of course: the 65XE is simply the newer version of the Atari 800XL, the computer model used by over 30% of Antic readers. The XE Game System is very pretty, with large round pastel function keys on the Atari gray shell. The full keyboard is detachable and sits in front of the main unit. The XE Game System was premiered with elaborate fanfare at the June 1987 Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago. Atari executives at CES made it clear that they thought repackaging a version of the 65XE/800XL as a "high-end game system" was Atari's best--and perhaps last--chance to move a lot of 64K computers into homes via today's mass marketing outlets.
The standard Atari cartridge slot is on the top of the main case. The two joystick ports are hidden underneath the top lip and are extremely inconvenient to get at. The system comes with a light gun and the standard Atari joystick.
I found the light gun to be very inaccurate, even in a carefully darkened room. Unlike the Sega gun, the sights are useless. The point which is hit on the TV screen is off to the left of where the gun was aimed.
If you own an eight-bit Atari computer, you have a pretty good idea of the excellent archive of games and the high quality of graphics available from the Atari XE Game System. The system comes with two cartridges. Bug Hunt uses the light gun to shoot bugs and frogs on a grid. There is a satisfying sound if you fry a bug, and you get extra points for accuracy.
The second cartridge is the best-selling Flight Simulator II. This is a complex game that can be used for serious pilot training. It has decent graphics, virtually identical to the computer version. I'm impressed that they could stuff all the program information into a 128K cartridae. Atari utilizes bank-switching to pack as much as 256K of memory into its new generation of cartridges.
In Flight Simulator, you pilot a small Cessna airplane, with an out-the-cockpit view. The keyboard is necessary to control the plane, with throttle, trim, stabilizers and other controls at your command. The joystick is used for banks and turns, as well as climbing and descending. A full instrument panel is presented on the screen, with artificial horizon, turn and bank indicator, airspeed and others.
I only had Atari's two included cartridges to test with the XE Game System, although the literature boasts of a large number of games which are to be available. Most of these titles are familiar from 8-bit computer disk versions, but many have never been released on cartridge before.
I found that my existing Atari computer cartridges work fine on the XE Game System, which makes for a large base of software. Of course, avid garners don't even have to wait for new cartridge releases. They could find Atari 1050 disk drives selling for less than $100 and use this "XE Video Game System" as a full-fledged 65XE-computer.
Here is the Atari Corporation's latest list of new cartridge software adaptations that are on the way. Atari will be selling these titles for about $19.95 each. Just as this story went to press, Atari's Lode Runner cartridge arrived at Antic.
For arrival by January 1988, Atari now expects: Star Raiders II, Blue Max, Battlezone, Ballblazer, Rescue on Fractalus, David's Midnight Magic, Hardball, Fight Night, Barnyard Blaster, Archon and One-on-One Basketball.
By March 1988, Amri expects to release: Food Fight, Desert Falcon, Crossbow, Necromancer, Ace of Aces, Gato.
All three of the game systems examined here do a good job of entertaining. All three systems should have an adequate number of high quality game cartridges available by the time you read this. I thought the Nintendo had especially good graphics, but the Sega's games were perhaps a bit more sophisticated.
Any one of the three would be a good choice, if you are positive that the only thing you will ever want to do with your equipment is play games. But of course--as the Atari Corp. is counting on to boost sales--the XE Video Game System is the only one that can be connected to a disk drive to function as an outstanding 8-bit personal computer.