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.