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.

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