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.