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.

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