Thursday, December 11, 2014

Retro Game Review -- Skiing (Atari 2600)

Game: Skiing
SystemAtari 2600
Publisher: Activision
Year: 1980
Ranking: Three Quarters

December has arrived, and my thoughts turn towards winter. Well, the winters I used to know. I now live on the Gulf coast. The closest I come to winter in this hot, soupy climate is holding a polar punch snow cone. Luckily for me, I can rekindle frosty, alpine memories by firing up Activision's Skiing on my old Atari 2600. 

Activision's biggest claim to fame, well after the phenomenally popular Call of Duty series, is that it was the first third-party video game developer. Started back in 1979 by a group of disgruntled Atari employees, Activision quickly showed the world that hardware developers weren't the only ones who could make innovative, exciting, quality games. Activision rewarded and acknowledged their game designers. Lead programmers received royalties and their names were prominently displayed on the games. Activision even went so far as to turn over a full page of the manual to the lead programmer. This portion of the manual often provided helpful tips or interesting insights into the development of the game. Bob Whitehead, lead designer of Skiing, offered the following advice:
The keys to success in Skiing by ACTIVISION, just as in real skiing, are learning to control the tips of your skis and anticipating and avoiding trouble.
Activision innovated in other ways as well. Today we take PlayStation's trophies and XBox's achievements as ordinary and expected. If I don't get a bronze trophy for completing the first mission in a modern game, I feel dissatisfied and let down. It makes me wonder why I even bought the game. Back in the early 1980s, however, accolades like these were only possible on the high-score screens at the local arcade. There were multiple reasons for this. First, the games themselves did not have the memory to store extraneous, non-game code. Second, and more importantly, there was no internet to verify and broadcast your accomplishments. If you were going to tell the world of a serious feat, you needed another method. Enter the Activision patch.

The Activision patch was a simple idea. Gamers who achieved certain in game goals for select titles could take a picture on film (!?) of their accomplishment and then snail mail it to Activision. Activision would then "verify" the accomplishment and send the gamer an achievement patch. In the case of Skiing, posting a score of 28.2 seconds or less on game three would qualify you to become a member of the Activision ski team. As a kid, I was completely unaware of Activision patches. After returning to the Atari 2600 years later and hearing about this promotion, my mind was blown that any video game company would do something like this. But, I suppose this was the era when cereal and Cracker Jack boxes came with honest to goodness toys, so a patch doesn't sound like that much of a stretch given the time period. 

Skiing offers two types of courses: downhill and slalom. In downhill you race downhill as fast as possible while avoiding obstacles. In slalom you navigate your way through a series of gates in the least amount of time. Game 3, the patch qualifying game, is a slalom course. Each of the 30 gates must be hit at expert speed. Miss a gate and take a 5 second penalty. Hit a flag or a tree and take a second or two to get up. Take a wide turn, and you might as well head right into the shower after your run because you're not making the podium. The first time I tried this event, it took me about 43 seconds. I was pretty sure getting to 28.2 seconds was going to be impossible. 

It turns out I was wrong. The key is to first memorize the course and then follow these three steps: 
  1. Make every gate,
  2. Always keep skis pointed straight down, and
  3. Use the absolute minimum amount of left and right movement to make it through all the gates.
Step one is easy and will likely get you into the 30-35 second range. Step two is more difficult and will have you finishing in the 23-25 second range. The third step is the most tricky and takes the most time to master. My qualifying video is attached below to show exactly how I did it. My final time came in at a blistering 28.17 seconds. My knuckles are still white from gripping the joystick.

Skiing is a simple game. There's not a lot of bells and whistles. The only sound effects are "whoosh" as you fly through a gate, and "crunch" as you hit a tree or gate post. Graphics are sparse, but colorful. The red skier, green trees, and blue gates all stand out from the snowy mountain. Controls are crisp. I always knew that it was my fault when I missed a gate. Skiing might not be the greatest game on the Atari 2600, but it sure is moguls of fun.

Activision's Skiing for the Atari 2600: you can tell that you are at fairly high elevation given the relatively diminutive size of the trees compared to your skier.  
My qualifying run on Game 3. 

I'm legit! My official Activision Ski Team patch arrived today! Now I just need to decide if I should put it on my Jansport backpack or my foam and mesh ball cap. 

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.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Retro Game Review -- Yars' Revenge (Atari 2600)

SystemAtari 2600
Publisher: Atari
Year: 1982
Ranking: Three Quarters

Yars' Revenge summons up memories of visiting my cousins. When I was young, someone once told me they lived in an old whaling captain's house. The house was large and square and rose from a high hill. Stone terraces ringed it like breakers at the beach. The top floor was a tiny square room wrapped in windows. Presumably, this was where the captain's wife watched and waited for her husband to return. I didn't see it. First, the house was miles away from any body of water. Second, it was surrounded by massive trees, limiting all views. Finally, not once did my cousins or I ever find an old harpoon, a decorative piece of scrimshaw, or a massive whale mandible out in the backyard while making delicious mud pies. My confusion about the origin and nature of the house extended to one of my older cousin's favorite games, Yar's Revenge. Eight year old me had absolutely no idea what was going on in this bizarre, unique game.

Year's later, shortly after my Aunt and Uncle sold the house and moved into a more modest, conventional home, I reintroduced myself to Atari games. A quick Google search quickly revealed the greatest Atari 2600 game of all time to be Yar's Revenge. As someone who tends to go with the flow, I found a copy, slid it into my console, and was just as lost as I was when I was eight. Thankfully this time around I was armed with the power of the internet. I studied the manual, read the comic book, and listened along with the storybook record. It was only then that I returned to the game with the singular goal of defeating the ruthless Qotile and avenging the destruction of Planet IV!

The premise is simple. You are a Yar. Your goal is to destroy the Qotile. Protecting the Qotile is a magic, er, destroyer missile and a red shield. The destroyer missile relentlessly follows you across the screen until you are, well for lack of a better term, destroyed. The only place safe from the destroyer missile is within the colorful spectrum of the neutral zone. The destroyer missile will not be able to damage you, nor will you be able to fire your own weapons at the shield and Qotile while you remain in the neutral zone. When the game starts, the red shield is in a static configuration around the Qotile. You'll need to disintegrate the shield block by block to get at the Qotile by either firing your weapon or eating through it with your Yar. Occasionally the Qotile will transform into a Yar seeking Swirl. Avoid the Swirl or loose a life.

These are the easy, self-evident bits.The confusion starts after you have blasted away the shield. No matter how may times you shoot the Qotile with your energy missiles, they do nothing. Dollar store safety goggles will have a better chance of protecting your eyes from a tsunami of radioactive waste, then your pea cannon will have hurting the powerful Qotile. This is where I would get stuck as a kid. Obviously you don't want to touch the Qotile. Nor was I stupid enough to try to eat through the shield. Staying that long in one place was a sure fire way for the destroyer missile to zap you out of existence. Unfortunately, both of these counterintuitive actions are how you arm the pulsing, scintillating Zorlon cannon. After arming, the cannon appears on the left hand side of the screen, and will track your Yar's motion up and down the battlefield. Your Yar has become the targeting computer for the powerful cannon. To fire activate, arm, and then hit the fire button. Beware, however, because the Zorlon cannon will destroy everything in it's path, including your Yar. For big points hit the Swirl while it is flying towards you. After destroying the Qotile you move on to level two, where the destroyer missile speeds up a bit and the shield now dynamically rotates around the the Qotile. From this point on the shield will rotate between static and dynamic configurations.

While the game is certainly not as intuitive as Pac-Man, it is colorful, complex, and fun. I'll go against the grain and say this isn't my all-time, number one favorite, but it's still a good game. The only mysteries that remain for me these days are how the heck did a whaling house get so far inland and why the fruit doesn't Qotile have a "u"?

Yar's Revenge: attacking the Qotile's shield. The destroyer missile can be seen making it's way toward the Yar on the lefthand side of the screen. The iconic neutral zone wraps across the center of the screen.

Yar's Revenge: the Swirl attacks! The destroyer missile has also changed to an angry hue of red.

Yar's Revenge: the Yar has succeed in destroying the Qotile. The black line on the very far right of the screen is presumably the "Ghost of Yars".

Post-script: When writing each blog, I first play the game a few times to summon back the foggy memories of youth. I then throw together a straw house of words and hope it sounds vaguely interesting. The next step is to go back to the game and get some interesting screen shots. I finish it off with a round of final editing. A funny thing happened when capturing the screen shots this time around: I FOUND THE EASTER EGG! 

Okay, I know what you're thinking. Big deal. If you go to the Wikipedia article, it "clearly" states how to get the Easter Egg. An excerpt:
After killing the Swirl in mid-air, a black vertical line will appear on the screen across the spot where the Swirl was shot (the line is referred to in the manual as the "Ghost of Yars" and warns the player to stay off its "mean streak"). If the player moves vertically along that line and is slightly below the middle of the screen when the explosion closes, the game will end and go into the Game Select screen with programmer's initials, HSW, shown both forwards and backwards in place of the word Select.
When I read this, my eyes glazed over, and I skipped ahead to the next paragraph. In all my playing, I never once noticed a vertical black line, and even if I did, I wouldn't ever be able to keep my Yar on it. I'm just not that precise. Well, lo and behold, the first time I hit a Swirl mid-air, I trigger the Easter Egg. Seriously, I couldn't have gotten this if I tried. This might be the first time I've ever found an Easter Egg accidentally. Here it is screenshot in all its 8-bit glory:

Yar's Revenge Easter Egg screen. This was achieved the old-fashion way: dumb luck.

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.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Retro Game Review -- E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (Atari 2600)

SystemAtari 2600
Publisher: Atari
Ranking: Two Quarters

Like many young Atari owners in the early 1980s, I remember getting E.T. for Christmas. I was pretty young when the movie was released and only had a vague awareness of its immense cultural impact. I was, however, smart enough to recognize a wrapped Atari game under the Christmas tree, and I most assuredly tore it open with reckless abandon. As soon as my mother deemed it socially acceptable, it was in my wood-grained Atari and I was off to the races. Well, actually, I was off to the bottom of an endless torment of pits.

What is up with all those pits? I don't remember pits being an essential element of the movie. In the video game, poor little E.T. falls into them faster than Boba Fett getting sucked into the Sarlacc Pit. The worst part was that you had to deliberately fall into these death traps in order to beat the game. Hidden at the bottom of a very select few of these pits were the three pieces to E.T.'s transgalactic telephone that he needed to call home. Surprisingly, the 11 page manual fails to explain how the pieces ended up in the pits. I like to think that it was because E.T. smashed his phone to pieces after his buddies left the planet screaming, "Dear, God, why did you leave me in this game?"

It has probably been commented on many times before, but it is ironic that one of the most enduring myths about this game is that millions of unsold copies ended up IN A PIT in New Mexico. The story goes that E.T. was so bad that it single handily brought down the entire video game industry. The correlation equal causation argument runs that prior to E.T.'s release, North American video game revenues were $3.2 BILLION. Less than two years after E.T.'s release, revenues had plummeted to $100 MILLON. Things were so bad that rather than sell E.T. for pennies on the dollar, Atari thought it was a better idea to bury the millions of unsold copies. It's a tall tale for a short alien.

Over the years, classic gamers loved debating the veracity of the myth like two teenagers playing Pong at a bar in the early seventies. If it wasn't for Fuel Entertainment, it is likely that the debate would still be going on today. Partnering with XBox Entertainment Studios and Lightbox, Fuel Entertainment set out to reveal the truth behind the myth. They would find the site, excavate the pit, and document the experience. After a protracted approval process, they received permission from the city of Alamogordo, NM to dig at alleged burial site site on April 26, 2014. In the presence of many luminaries, including Ernie Cline, writer of Ready Player One, and Howard Scott Warshaw, creator of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, they uncovered the truth. Ernie's blog entry is a great first-person account of the event.

It turns out that for all these years E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial was indeed buried in a pit. Major news outlets declared, "Myth confirmed!". Alas, the subtleties of actual facts were once again lost on the mainstream media. While E.T. was buried in the pit many, many more games were buried alongside the lovable little alien. These titles included Adventure, Star Raiders, Ms. Pac-man, Space Invaders, and Yar's Revenge, arguably the most critically acclaimed game for the Atari 2600. E.T. wasn't even the most plentiful game. Copies of Defender, a blockbuster seller at the time, far outnumbered E.T. It appears that rather than covering up a singular critical flop, Atari was trying to pull the reset switch on their company console and start the game over again.

At the time of the burial, Atari was in a hard spot. The floor had fallen out of the video game market, and they were sitting on warehouses of games that nobody seemed to care about or even want. In order to cut their losses, the sharp business folks at Atari felt it would be a good idea to close extraneous warehouses and dump the goods in landfills. Alamogordo was the final resting place for the products from the El Paso, TX warehouse. Odds are likely that there could be other, unknown, Atari graveyards scattered across the United States. If we, like the intrepid extra-terrestrial in the video game, were only to fling ourselves in pit after pit across this great country, we too might just discover some long forgotten retro-game treasure.

Personally, for all my antagonism towards the pits, I do not think that E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial single handedly brought down the video game industry of North America, nor do I think that E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial is an especially bad game. I fondly remember the colorful, vibrant graphics and the pitter-patter of E.T.'s feet as he shuffled across the screen. The difficulty range was large and selectable. At the easiest setting any player that can spot the true-blue alien hiding in a pile of stuffed animals can succeed. On the other hand, I suspect you'll need the intelligence of HAL to beat the most difficult setting. In the middle, is a Goldilocks zone, where with perseverance and profanity, you can save little E.T. from the terrifying NASA scientists. At least for a time...

And that gets to the true tragedy of this game. After dodging thieving F.B.I. agents, fleeing probing scientists, levitating out of a moon's worth of craters, and collecting all the telephone pieces you are gratefully picked up by your extra-terrestrial friends and carried off to your adoring family. Or so you had hoped. Horrifically, rather than taking you home, your bastard friends drop you off in that same pit-infested wood around that nice boy Elliot's house to do it again, and again, and again...

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial "completed" game screen: back at Elliott's home. 
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, March 22, 2014

Retro Game Review -- Buck Rogers: Planet of Zoom (Atari 5200)

SystemAtari 5200
Year: 1983
Ranking: Two Quarters

Example Gameplay: YouTube - Buck Rogers: Planet of Zoom

Before Spiderman, Captain America, Wonder Woman, Batman, and perhaps the greatest superhero icon of the 20th century, Superman, there was Buck Rogers. Created in 1928, Buck first appeared as Anthony Rogers in the Amazing Stories' novella Armageddon 2419 A.D. by Philip Francis Nowlan. Buck is a modern day Rip Van Winkle. After falling into a mysterious stupor when exposed to radioactive gas during a cave in of an abandoned mine, Buck, like Rip before him, wakes years later to find a world completely different than the one he left.

Armageddon 2419 A.D. doesn't hold up as well as the other classic origin stories. First, it's seeped with jingoism. The final line of the book, "...unless you and I [Buck] are killed in the struggle, we shall live to see America blast the Yellow Blight from the face of the Earth.", still has me cringing. 
The "Yellow Blight" that Buck refers to here are the Hans, a technologically advanced society from central Asia that has swept across the globe in the centuries Buck has been sleeping. While the great superheroes that came after Buck were well know for defeating malicious and malignant enemies, never did they target an entire human population for annihilation.  

The second, and not quite as morally damning, shortcoming of his origin story is that it is completely devoid of any space drama. Sure we have ray guns, disintegrator beams, and inertron belts (nifty devices that allow their users to defy gravity), but there is not one space ship, space trip, or space alien. Buck Rogers, a name synonymous with outer space adventure, gives us none of this in his inaugural title. Luckily Buck's legacy was saved by the comic strips, movies, radio dramas, television shows, video games, and books that followed.

In the early nineteen eighties, Buck was experiencing a revival. The property had a TV show and a movie. While the TV show only lasted two seasons, it was enough to spark imaginations. SEGA, not afraid of scooping up sci-fi properties, e.g., Star Trek, acquired the rights to Buck Rogers and produced his first video game: Buck Rogers: Planet of Zoom. The only references to Buck were 1) the title and 2) the flashy painting of a super-sized Buck launching spaceships from his hands. The fancy cockpit conversion arcade didn't even get a painting of Buck. The game was a third-person forward-scrolling trench shooter. As it was, it didn't add much to the Buck Rogers cannon, and, in fact, appeared to have more in common with Luke Skywalker's X-Wing flight over the the first Death Star than anything Buck Rogers had done. Surprisingly, the Atari 5200 manual, often a rich source of context and background, also doesn't delve much into the story either. It simply states "It's the 25th century. You are Buck Rogers fighting the battle of Planet Zoom. This is a race against death! Your ultimate and most powerful enemy is the deadly MOTHER SHIP". This game could have really just been called "Planet of Zoom", and nobody would have missed a beat.

I'll admit that when I first played the Atari 5200 game, I wasn't impressed. The space ship swoops over a surface of banded blue lines. Off in the distance, snow cap mountains loom. Ringed electron posts appear, and ostensibly, you must slalom through them. I say ostensibly, because this is a video game, and that's what you are suppose to do. On the first level of the game, however, there is no immediate penalty for missing a gate. If you don't fly through any of the 
electron posts, you won't be credited with defeating and enemy and will never reach the end of the stage. You will simply blow up when you run out of fuel. I think that it's a little sad that our cars don't blow up when they run out of fuel. It would make driving a lot more exciting when the low-fuel light pinged on. Back to the game. Since there's no immediate penalty to missing the electron posts, I recommend avoid them when you are in doubt. They are squirrelly devils and appear to behave non-linearly when you get close. Just when you think there's enough room to fly past: WHAM, you've slammed head first into one. 

After the first stage, alien saucers fly past you to the horizon and then come back down the screen to attack you again. It's easiest to shoot them as they fly past the first time. While this game purports to have three-dimensions, it's only worthwhile to fly at the top of the screen at maximum speed. This will cause all the alien saucers to initially fly underneath you. Luckily your blaster can blow them up from any level. Eventually, space hoppers will also lumber towards you. Blast these when they are as far from you as possible. It's important to always fly as fast as possible, otherwise you will run out of fuel and not have enough to fight the MOTHER SHIP at the end of the forth stage.

The dreaded MOTHER SHIP is unique. She can only be destroyed if you hit her dead center, presumably where the pilots are. If you fail to hit the ship in its one vulnerable location, your energy pulse will ricochet back at you! Why the antagonists in the battle of the Planet of Zoom didn't think of caking their entire ship in this marvelous material is beyond me. Succeed in blowing up the enemy ship, and the entire screen will flash with its destruction. Or is it your destruction? At the end of every level, when the screen flashed, I always had to ask myself, "Did I just blow-up?" Victory music would be more rewarding than an apparent explosion.

Eventually, I started to enjoy the game. While it bears no resemblance to the jingoist hero introduced to us in Armageddon 2419 A.D.Buck Rogers and the Planet of Zoom for the Atari 5200 let's you pretend for a moment to be that legendary pilot portrayed by Gil Gerard in television series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. 

Buck Rogers: Planet of Zoom for the Atari 5200: Opening screen. Beware the innocuous looking electron posts. They have a strange attraction to Buck's ship. 

Buck Rogers: Planet of Zoom for the Atari 5200: Explosive stage ending. Did Buck just blow up, or did I just successfully finish a stage?

Buck Rogers: Planet of Zoom for the Atari 5200: The deadly MOTHER SHIP. Be sure to hit the center module; otherwise, your photon torpedoes will ricochet back at you.

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.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Retro Game Review -- Mario Bros. (Atari 5200)

SystemAtari 5200
PublisherNintendo by way of Atari
Year: 1983
Ranking: Three Quarters

Before Mario starting dating Nintendo exclusively, he was open to relationships with all sort and sundry video game consoles. In the mid-1980s the first eponymous Mario game, Mario Bros., was released in the arcade and on the BBC Micro, the ZX Spectrum, DOS, Amstrad CPC, Apple II, Commodore  64 (two versions!), all major Atari systems (2600, 5200, 7800, and 8-bit computers), and, as one would expect, the NES. This can be compared to Super Mario Bros., the second eponymous Mario game, which was only released in the arcade and on the NES. I'd like to think that Mario's libertine youth is what ultimately lead to him to finding true and lasting love with Nintendo.

Mario Bros. was not the first game Nintendo published featuring its world famous mascot. That honor resides with Donkey Kong, a game more famous for its antagonist than its protagonist. In fact, Mario didn't even have a real name in Donkey Kong. He was only referred to as Jumpman. He wasn't even a plumber. He was a carpenter, ostensibly due to the fact that he was chasing Donkey Kong though a construction site to save his beloved Pauline. In Mario Bros.Mario and Luigi are trying to clear pesky pests out the pipes in their house so that they can take a relaxing bubble bath. Owing to Mario's potent pipe cleaning proficiency, Shigeru Miyamoto, Mario's legendary creator, said in a 2010 interview in USA Today that this was the game that decided his career. Interestingly, all three Atari home system manuals for Mario Bros. list Mario's occupation as carpenter. The NES manual is surprisingly silent on his occupation. This implies, to me, that the decision to make Mario a plumber was a bit of a retro-fit. If anyone can find primary source material from the mid-1980s (e.g., manuals, press-releases, etc.) that mention Mario was a plumber, please post a link in the comments below! 

Mario Bros. is a one or two player game. Players can choose between going it alone with Mario, or opting for a cooperative or competitive game with Mario and Luigi. The game play is very similar to Midway's classic Joust. Players are confronted with a single battle screen. Enemies swarm down the screen, and Mario and his brother need to eliminate them before they themselves are eliminated. Enemies are familiar, but are referred to by obscure names. Koopa Troopers are Shellcreepers, Crabbies are Sidesteppers, and Freezies are Slipices. The one exception is Fighterflies. They retain their moniker in later games. The familiar mechanic of raining death down from above is replaced by punching destruction up from below. Pipe clogging pests must first be flipped onto their backs and then kicked off the screen before they have a chance to flip themselves over. Shellcreepers require one punch to flip over. Sidesteppers require two punches. Fighterflies also only require one punch to flip, but it has to be carefully timed to coincide to when they are touching the ground. Defeat an enemy and a coin with exit from one of the pipes. You can collect it for bonus points. Take too long to defeat your enemies and two fireballs will start roaming the screen looking to roast Mario and Luigi. You can either choose to avoid them, or attempt to punch them from below for big points. If you get frustrated and there are just too many enemies on the screen, you can hit the "POW" button to flip over all the enemies touching the ground. Be judicious though, you can only hit the "POW" button three times before it disappears until the next bonus screen. Bonus screens come along every so often and are filled only with coins. You'll get extra points for collecting all the coins within a prescribed time limit. 

Mario Bros. was the only Mario game released for the Atari 5200. The game play is solid and the difficulty increases at an enjoyable rate. While the single player mode is entertaining, the game really shines with two players. Although it is possible, I suppose, to play a cooperative game, the real fun is trying to bounce a Shellcreeper onto your opponent. My only complaint is that the colors are a bit murky. I would have preferred to see the bright, lime green pipes we have come to know and love in more recent Mario games. Mario may have married Nintendo, but I am sure glad that he went out on at least one date with the Atari 5200.

Atari 5200 Mario Bros. start screen. 

Shellcreepers (Koopa Troopers) and Sidestepper (Crabby) descend upon Mario in the Atari 5200 version of Mario Bros.

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.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Retro Game Review -- Missile Command (Atari 5200)

SystemAtari 5200
Publisher: Atari
Year: 1982
Ranking: Four Quarters

It had the best controller, it had the worst controller.

The notoriety of the stock Atari 5200 controller cannot be overstated. It had a floppy, non-centering joystick. Fire buttons were mushy, unresponsive, and stopped working after a few intense sessions of your favorite shooter. The design was so bad, if fact, that if you did mange to keep it all working, you were pretty much guaranteed to develop an RSI within a week owing to the abominable ergonomic design. The stock controller was ranked as the 10th worst video game controller by IGN editor Craig Harris. I am truly surprised it did that well. 

On the other end of the spectrum was the Atari 5200 trak-ball controller. The Atari 5200 trak-ball is big and heavy: it's nearly as big as the Atari 2600! The ball is about the size of a tennis ball, so while it's not "arcade-quality" it's a lot more substantial then the standard ping-pong sized balls commonly used for home trackball controllers. Most importantly, the Atari 5200 trak-ball works fantastically with all compatible games. The most recognizable of which is the 1980 arcade classic Missile Command.

Atari 5200 trak-ball controller (left) shown with the Atari 2600 (right) for scale.
One would think that Missile Command needs no introduction. Looking over the decades-old manual, however, I found a provocative and rich back story. You are a missile commander on the resource rich planet of Zardon. Armed with antiballistic missiles from a central missile bunker, you aim to defend the six principle cities of this peaceful planet. Unfortunately, the neighboring Krytolians stuck on the resource poor planet of Krytolia, have decided to launch an all out war on Zardon to capture its precious resources for the glory of Krytolia. As the commanding defense officer, you must deploy quick thinking and strategy to defend Zardon against the Krytolian onslaught. Missile Command is more than just a simple shooter, it is complex, hot-conflict simulation, modeling the fallout of the Krytolian's greed to seize the Zardonian's valuable resources at any cost. 

To be honest, this was already a fantastic game on the Atari 2600. The relatively straightforward arcade graphics translated very well to the more modest capabilities of the Atari 2600. Two simplifications, however, were made. First, the number of missile bases was reduced from three in the arcade version to one in the Atari 2600 version. Second, many users used the standard Atari 2600 joystick to move the targeting icon around the screen rather than the slick trackball that the arcade version used. While the Atari 5200 version has one missile base like the Atari 2600 version it also has a massive trackball to help you aim your antiballistic missiles with pin-point accuracy. Playing Missile Command on the Atari 5200 with its "trak-ball" controller is about as close as you can get to reliving the early 80's arcade experience without the arcade cabinet. 

Unfortunately, the Atari 5200 trak-ball is getting harder and harder to come by. I purchased my Atari 5200 in March 2013 through eBay, and quickly tried to buy my own authentic Atari 5200 trak-ball. After several unsuccessful eBay bids, I contacted Best Electronics. Best Electronics specializes in replacement parts and accessories for all Atari Game Systems. The webpage looks a bit dated, and ordering can be a bit convoluted, but their extensive inventory makes the effort worth it. When I contacted them to see if they had any Atari 5200 trak-balls in stock, they told me that after 27+ years of selling the Atari 5200 trak-ball, they ran out of stock the week before I emailed them. Talk about poor timing. In the end, I did find one on eBay, but I paid a little bit more than I would have liked. The good news is that even without the 5200 trak-ball controller, the game still plays well with the stock controller. 

As with most early arcade games, ultimately, resistance is futile. The Krytolians invasion is just too powerful, and all major cities eventually fall. I'd like to think that as the last explosions wipe out the final defensive position, a few proud, strong Zardonians survive to continue the good fight. 

Opening screen for the Atari 5200 version of Missile Command. The central antiballistic missile compound and six cities to defend can be seen along the bottom of the screen. Practically speaking there is little difference between this screen and the Atari 2600 version.
The Krytolian offensive begins. An enemy satellite can be seen exploding in the center of the screen. 
The famous Missile Command game over screen. The words "THE END" are engulfed in a  final nuclear bombardment. 
The finest way to play old-school Missile Command on the small screen: Atari 5200 with the 5200 trak-ball controller.
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.