Saturday, December 21, 2013

Retro Game Review -- Moon Patrol (Atari 5200)

SystemAtari 5200
Publisher: Atari
Year: 1983
Ranking: Three Quarters

When I ordered my Atari 5200 SuperSystem off of eBay, it came with 11 games. Among gems and duds, was Moon Patrol. I don't remember hearing about either the arcade or Atari versions when I was younger, so I didn't spend a lot of time with the game. I played it once to make sure that it worked, and then I put it in the back of the drawer. It probably would have continued to collect dust if it hadn't been selected in the AtariAge Atari 5200 high-score club

Classic game high-score clubs, like the ones on AtariAge, help keep vintage titles fresh. Let's be honest, there is not a lot of depth to many old-school games. Fire-up most any classic and after a few nostalgic minutes, most people have satisfied their fix and will return to playing the latest installment of Call of Duty. High-score clubs help to keep these retro games interesting by creating a community of gamers all playing the same title at the same time. Just like when we used to trade high-scores with our buddies around the block, high-score forums are places where we can post scores, opinions, and advice. Seeing someone score hundreds of thousands more points than you can be humbling, but it also drives you to improve your game. The selection of Moon Patrol in the AtariAge high-score club motivated me to dig it out of the back of the drawer.

In Moon Patrol, you are part of the Luna City Police Department (LCPD). Not to be confused, of course, with the Liberty City Police Department, which has significantly better graphics for their patrol cars. You patrol the lunar surface, destroying invading aliens with laser bullets, jumping gaping craters with anti-gravity suspension, and avoiding menacing obstacles with knee-jerk reactions. The graphics are a bit of a disappointment compared to the arcade version. For example, your patrol buggy is missing an entire set of wheels, and the playing field is bracketed by two columns of blocky graphics that don't make a lot of sense. On the other hand, the sound effects are great and the soundtrack is exceedingly catchy. As you progress along your beat, markers present along the top of the screen tick off your progress. First "A", then "B", etc. Each time you die, you go back to the last marker you passed. It's a nice way to save you from starting at the beginning every time. In addition, if you wreck all of your patrol cars, you have the option to continue at the last station marker. Bonus points are awarded for speed. Blast through a set number of markers quickly, and you can score significant bonus points.

Moon Patrol is the perfect type of game for a high-score club. As a rookie, I was pretty sure that it was impossible to make it past a particularly tricky one-two, tank-crater combo early in the Championship version of the game. If I had been playing the game alone I'm fairly certain that I would have just turned in my badge and gun and quit the force. After checking in with the high-score club forum, however, I saw that nearly everybody had made it past that point and was posting some pretty solid scores. That was all the motivation I needed to make it past my that challenge and far enough into the game to feel respectable.

Moon Patrol is a fun game once you get into it. The most difficult aspect of the game is getting used to the fire buttons. First off, the primary fire button fires both forward and vertical guns. This wouldn't be confusing, except for the fact that the horizontal gun doesn't fire at the same rate as the vertical gun. Every time you press the primary button, the vertical gun fires. On the other hand, the horizontal gun will only fire if there isn't another horizontal bullet on the screen. This can make it difficult to get the timing right when you are trying to shoot things both in front and above you. The second wrinkle, is the fact that the secondary fire button activates the jump. For some reason, I was often confused between shooting and jumping to tragic results. Luckily, the more you play the game, the easier the controls become. I'm happy that the AtariAge Atari 5200 high-score club pushed me to play this game. 

Moon Patrol buggy showing off its mad vertical shooting skills. Notice the incongruous vertical strips bracketing both sides of the main field of play. I'm not sure why the programmers decided to keep these in the final version.

Moon Patrol buggy jumping for joy after shooting down an alien invader.

Looking at the chunky wheels on the patrol buggy, I couldn't help but recall my favorite Lego tires growing up. As final, parting thought, I leave you with my Lego interpretation of the Atari 5200 Moon Patrol buggy.

Lego interpretation of Moon Patrol buggy.

Retro Game Rankings: No Quarters to Four Quarters. It should be noted, that although the going price of an arcade game was a single quarter when many of these games first came out, I feel that true retro game fans would be willing to pay a little bit more to capture the glory of playing some of the truly great ones one more time.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Retro Game Review -- Midnight Magic (Atari 2600)

SystemAtari 2600
Publisher: Atari
Copyright Year: 1984
Released: 1986
Ranking: Three Quarters

When I say, Midnight Magic, the first thought that comes to your mind is probably not "video game", "pinball", nor "Atari 2600". In fact, a quick google search of the expression will link you to the band Midnight Magic. They describe themselves as:
A nine person ensemble bonded by the unwavering desire to make you, the listener, and the rhythm become one; the secret love children of Donna Summer and George Clinton serving up an orgasmic feast of funk, disco, electro and soul.
That's probably closer to the mark.

Despite this branding blunder by Atari, Midnight Magic is in fact an early video pinball game. Midnight Magic was Atari's second video pinball title. Atari's first foray into video pinball came in 1978 when they created a dedicated video pinball home console. Video Pinball included three game types: the eponymous pinball, breakout, and basketball. All three game types would later be released as cartridges for the Atari 2600. While Video Pinball attempted to capture the mechanics of real-world pinball machines, the horizontal orientation of the game screen and wonky physics failed to translate into a realistic simulation.

Midnight Magic was a more mature attempt to simulate real-world pinball machines for the home. The plunger is marked off at regular intervals, so that you can more reliably and consistently launch the ball onto the board to light up the central bumpers, raise the center post, and activate the side kickers. To do all this, you have to hit the indicated drop-target at the top of the board. Failure to do this when launching the ball can cost serious amounts of points. Lit bumpers are worth a whopping 1,000 points. Unlit bumpers are worth a measly 100 points. The center post is also critical to raise. Balls seem to gravitate towards the gaping maw between the lower flippers. Having a raised center post opens up the opportunity for you to perform the eminently cool "chill maneuver". In this technique, you don't use the flippers to stop the ball from going out of play. You simply stand firm and let the ball whiz past the flippers, hit the center post, and bounce back on to the playing field. The maneuver requires nerves of steel, but is necessary to master in order to stay alive long enough to hit all the drop-targets and get the point multipliers. Skilled players will be able to get up to 5x point multipliers.

Midnight Magic is addictive. It saves your in game high score, so you can compete with yourself or your friends to see who can get the highest score in a given session. The drop-targets and point multipliers provide fantastic goals to make the game more exciting. I feel like a complete failure if I don't make at least the 2x point multiplier in a sitting. The game lacks the same level of skill as an actual pinball machine, but there's enough realism to make it enjoyable.

Although Midnight Magic was copyrighted in 1984, it wasn't released until 1986. Like Gremlins for the Atari 5200 (see Retro Game Review -- Gremlins), it's official release was delayed due to the video game crash of 1983. After seeing the success of the NES release in 1985, Atari tried to redirect some of the renewed video game excitement back to their most famous system. Unfortunately, this meant that Midnight Magic was released more than a year after Pinball came out for the NES. Pinball, one of the original 18 launch titles for the NES, had colorful graphics, big sprites, and a scrolling game board. It's a significantly more impressive piece of software and puts Midnight Magic to shame. Maybe it's not fair to compare across platforms, but as a 10 year old boy, I was very sad to be playing Midnight Magic when I knew Pinball for the NES was out there. Now that I'm an old man, I'm just glad that I can play them all.

Midnight Magic for Atari 2600: Starting color.
Midnight Magic for Atari 2600: 2x point multiplier activated. The 2x point multiplier is activated when all the drop-targets at the top have been hit. Flashing colors and a brief musical number announce the multipliers activation.  

Retro Game Rankings: No Quarters to Four Quarters. It should be noted, that although the going price of an arcade game was a single quarter when many of these games first came out, I feel that true retro game fans would be willing to pay a little bit more to capture the glory of playing some of the truly great ones one more time. More reviews can be found here: Retro Game Reviews.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Retro Game Review -- LadyBug (Atari 2600)

GameLady Bug
SystemAtari 2600
Publisher: John W. Champeau (Homebrew)
Year: 2006
Ranking: Four Quarters

"Two-thousand and six!", you exclaim. "But I thought the Atari 2600 died at the hands of a pudgy Italian plumber back in 1985?" 

The longevity of the 2600 is truly surprising. Atari continued to produce, market, and sell the Atari 2600 until 1992, 7 long years after Super Mario and the NES were launched in the US. The last Atari 2600 unit shipped nearly 15 years after the first one rolled out of the factories. Although it may not have been the dominant video game system during that entire time, it developed a passionate following. Once the Atari 2600 factories, such as they were, were retooled for the "superior" 16-bit generation, fans could only look to themselves to continue the development of new titles. Like the prohibition era moonshiners before them, Atari fans around the world took to their studies, basements, and attics to homebrew a new line of titles. Luckily for us, homebrewing Atari titles is less Bonnie and Clyde and more Lady Bug and Master Chief

Homebrew titles come in a variety of flavors. There is a subset that aims to improve tragic, original Atari 2600 releases. The best example of this is Pac-Man 4K by Dennis Debro. This title shows that the original Pac-Man for the 2600 did not have to be a flickering barf-fest. Another category of homebrews aims to bring a completely new game to 2600 fans. In Duck Attack! by Will Nicholes, the player must collect radioactive eggs laid by enormous, mutant, and fire-breathing ducks to prevent a mad scientist from using them to create a doomsday device. Finally, there is a subset of homebrews that takes popular titles of the era that were originally released on other home systems and brings them to the 2600 for the first time. Lady Bug, released for both Intellivision and ColecoVision and ported to the Atari 2600 in 2006 by John W. Champeau, fits into this category.

Lady Bug is a complex game. You control a mild-mannered Lady Bug. Your goal is to eat the delectable flowers that line the garden paths. Sharing the garden with you are several disagreeable bugs. At the start of the game, the inhospitable insects are corralled in the center of the board. A green timer runs along the edge of the board. Once the timer completes a cycle, one of the viscous vermin is released and it starts to chase you through the maze. Up to four insects can chase you. When they are all out, you'll have an opportunity to storm their bunker and eat one of their delicious high-scoring vegetables. As you run though the maze, you'll have the opportunity to open and close the many green garden gates to delay your enemies. If you flip the doors at the right time, you can drive the insects into one of the two death skulls to instantaneously vaporize them. The flipping doors create a dynamic and exciting game board. A smart Lady Bug will take advantage of this to stay one step ahead of trouble.

In addition to the delicious flowers, there are also hearts and letters that you can collect for points and bonuses. During the course of the game, the hearts and letters cycle through three colors: blue, yellow, and red. Collect blue hearts and get point multipliers. Snatch yellow letters to spell the word EXTRA and get an extra life and a bonus cut scene. Finally gather all the red letters to spell the word SPECIAL and you will be transported to a special stage containing only the coveted high-scoring vegetables. The special stage is where your score grows to magical beanstalk heights. As far as I've been able to tell, the letters appear randomly, so you'll have to have patience my young grasshopper, er, lady bug, to collect the bonus words.

I love Lady Bug. It's exciting, fun, and it makes you think. I am amazed that Champeau managed to create such a remarkable port on the limited 2600 hardware. Playing a fantastic homebrew like Lady Bug is inspiring. It makes me think that if I put my mind to it, I could go out and create something new for the system that kindled my love of video games. It's a bit of a stretch, but, hey, it's important to dream.

Start of Lady Bug for the Atari 2600.

Extra life cut sequence: Lady Bug dances a little jig around the screen.

Death for Lady Bug: at least it looks like she's on her way to a better place.

Retro Game Rankings: No Quarters to Four Quarters. It should be noted, that although the going price of an arcade game was a single quarter when many of these games first came out, I feel that true retro game fans would be willing to pay a little bit more to capture the glory of playing some of the truly great ones one more time.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Retro Game Reviews

Game System Ranking
Buck Rogers: Planet of Zoom Atari 5200
Burger Drop Atari 5200
BurgerTime Arcade
BurgerTime Atari 2600
BurgerTime Deluxe GameBoy
Darkwing Duck GameBoy
Eggomania Atari 2600
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial Atari 2600
Gremlins Atari 5200
Lady Bug Atari 2600
Mario Bros. Atari 5200
Midnight Magic Atari 2600
Missle Command Atari 5200
Moon Patrol Atari 5200
Pole Position Atari 5200
Qix Atari 5200
River Raid Atari 5200
River Raid Atari 2600
Skiing Atari 2600
Yar's Revenge Atari 2600
Zaxxon Atari 5200

Retro Game Rankings: No Quarters to Four Quarters. It should be noted, that although the going price of an arcade game was a single quarter when many of these games first came out, I feel that true retro game fans would be willing to pay a little bit more to capture the glory of playing some of the truly great ones one more time.