Pole Position, Joust, Moon Patrol and other greats!
By Matthew Ratcliff
With Atari's release of the XE Game System, some outstanding new game cartridges have appeared and some terrific oldies have reappeared. Of course, all these entertainment cartridges work on any 8-bit Atari computer--800, XL or XE.
Newer Atarians may well have missed some of these classic Atari games the first time around, because the cartridges have not always been too easy to find. However, if you can't obtain these titles at a convenient Iocal dealer, you can order them direct from Atari at invitingly low prices.
In this series, I'll take quick looks at some of Atari's all-time best cartridge games and rate them on a four-star system.
The robots are kidnapping all your friends, and only you can save them! Robotron ($19.95) is a good arcade translation, but it doesn't live up to its coin-op ancestor. Because the beasties you're blasting are "character" graphics, the characters "jump" about on the screen, unlike the smooth animation of Player/Missile graphics. This makes it difficult to anticipate the movement of the baddies, so you get killed a lot. Of course, each level has more bad guys which are faster, weirder and tougher to nuke.
MOON PATROL ****
This coin-op port has it all. Shoot the bad guys as you drive over the moon's surface through 26 levels of difficulty. While driving, you can even jump your vehicle over craters and opponents. The neatest feature about Moon Patrol ($19.95) is that you can always continue from one game to the next, so you can play as many games as necessary to get through all the levels for practice, before tackling the entire course in one game. All too many games make you start again from scratch. This one is a must for any gamer's collection, with superbly detailed graphics and smooth scrolling backgrounds.
SPACE INVADERS *** 1/2
I bought an Atari because of this game. It's impossible to "finish" Space Invaders ($6.95)--you always die. You just blast away at the invaders until battle fatigue gets to your joystick wrist, and it's all over. But the sound effects are. . .Wow! As the invaders get closer, faster, and louder, your pulse quickens with each trigger-press. Once you "land" the spaceship you get a neat effect and you continue from there, ad infinitum, until Space Invader Death creeps in. The major inconsistency in Space Invaders is that in the two-player mode, when one player dies, the next gets a turn. When the first player goes again, the entire round must be repeated. This doesn't happen in one-player mode.
Late one night I "mastered" Asteroids ($6.95). This coin-op conversion can handle up to four competing players at once (on a 400/800). Put simply: You nuke asteroids till you die. And in the "combat mode," players can blast one another for fast (typically brief) games. You get an extra ship for every 10,000 points. And after scoring a quarter-million points with over 20 spare space ships, I was about done in. At 2 a.m. I had to decide to go for a full million points, or get a little sleep before work the next day.
The "glitch" in Asteroids is its Pause mode. You can press the [SPACEBAR] to pause play but if the attract mode kicks in, you can't continue. The pursuit of points in a video game loses all its glamour at this point, but Asteroids is still great, with good sound effects and decent graphics considering its 8K cartridge limitation.
POLE POSITION ****
Pole Position ($19.95) is my favorite 8-bit game of all time. It's true to the original coin-op, lacking only some voice synthesis and billboard advertisements. Playability, graphics and sound effects are all superb. You must weave in and out of a pack of cars to qualify for the big race, passing at least one along the way. If you pass them all, you can get Pole Position. From there, the race is on.
Shifting from low to high gear, at around 30 mph, you are racing at simulated speeds of up to 193 mph. The fire button is your brake pedal, but I prefer to hit the median to slow down and get some bite to take some of the sharper turns. Your viewpoint is slightly behind and above the car, maneuvering in an increasingly tighter pack of cars for four laps. You are given a maximum time to complete each lap. Run out of time before completing a lap and the race is over.
Your final score is based upon total cars passed and extra time remaining at the end of the run. The real challenge is to complete a four-lap race with over 60,000 points and no crashes (you can generally afford two or three crashes during the course of one race). This game takes much more skill than luck, which is what keeps me coming back for more.
JUNGLE HUNT ***
A funny thing happened on the way to your safari-- you lost your girlfriend. Maybe Tarzan has stolen her? No, it's worse! Cannibals have swiped her and you're invited as dinner. In Jungle Hunt ($19.95) you must swing through the vines, swim the crocodile-infested waters, climb mountains and finally outwit the cannibals to save your sweetie. This challenging game is reminiscent of Pitfall, but more imaginative and quite playable, and you can actually finish the game. The graphics are very good, but the sound effects remind me of those you hear in old Intellivision games--which weren't too hot.
DEFENDER ** 1/2
Defender ($19.95) is a disappointing coin-op conversion for a couple of reasons. The graphics are rather slow, jerky and not very sharp, which makes it difficult to "anticipate" the moves of your foes. There aren't enough buttons on your joystick, so Atari placed the Smart Romb on the keyboard's [SPACEBAR]. The only time you'll use the Smart Bomb is to nuke a whole swarm of bad guys when the pressure is on. Under such pressure, players tend to pound the [SPACEBAR] as if they were hammering ten-penny nails into an oak 2 x 4. The result is damaged keyboards, many of them.
The revised version for the XEGS will probably use one of the console keys, which are flush with the computer case. If you loved the coin-op Defender and must have a version at home, this will do fine.
Joust ($19.95) for the 8-bit Atari is undoubtedly one of the finest arcade translations ever. This unique game is seldom imitated because of the sophistication required. Mounted on what looks like a flying ostrich (although it's called a buzzard), you and an optional teammate fly against ever more deadly jousting birds and pterodactyls. If you collide with an opponent at the higher altitude, the bird and its rider get zapped. The bird becomes so upset that she lays an egg, which yields more points if you retrieve it promptly. If you wait too long, another jouster is hatched, making life more difficult.
This game replicates the look, sound and feel of the arcade original. If you fly too close to the lava pits, a mysterious hand will grab at you. At various difficulty levels the rock formations upon which you can land vary. As the game progresses through survival (complete a round without dying) and "pterry" waves, your opponents become faster and smarter, too.
An additional life is awarded every 20,000 points. All the opposing birds, seemingly dozens at once, move fluidly. The animation is superb, with only an occasional "flicker" when the screen is particularly full. With two players jousting simultaneously, you will find this a great game to play with a friend (or against, since you can joust each other as well).
CENTIPEDE ** 1/2
Your mushroom garden has been invaded by centipedes which weave their way through the mushroom patch hoping to eat you for lunch. To complicate matters, dancing spiders are interested in ruining your day as well. Top that off with annoying little kamikaze creatures trying to squash you while you're planting more mushrooms to provide additional "cover" from the centipedes, and you're going to have one tough day. As Centipede ($16.95) progresses you have more centipedes to zap, intruding scropions, and other zany critturs out to ruin your garden. This is a successful coin-op conversion. I was never too keen on the original, but if you were then I can recommend this one.
MILLIPEDE *** 1/2
Millipede ($19.95), the sequel to Centipede, was much more popular in the arcades because of its improved sound effects and playability. Besides shooting the millipedes and jumping spiders, you must deal with swarms of interesting bees, dragonflies and mosquitos. Since you've learned from past gardening experiences, you now have DDT bombs in your garden. Whenever a millipede or some other dasterdly insect gets too close, shoot the DDT bomb and take it out. New creepy crawlers include inchworms, beetles and earwigs. It takes a real green thumb, with lightening reflexes on the fire button, for this garden to survive.
Next month we'll take a look at a few more Atari cartridge classics. As these oldies-but-goodies are rereleased by Atari, we'll keep you informed.
$6.95 to $19.95. Atari Corp., 1196 Borregas Avenue, Sunnyvale, CA 94084. (408) 745-2000.