Deadly Duck (20th Century Fox, 1982)
Fairly indistinguishable slide and shooter, albeit with a wacky concept that doesn’t really mean a whole lot considering the 2600’s graphic limitations. You’re a duck shooting crabs (???) while avoiding the bricks they drop from above (!!!). Dragonflies will periodically show up to block your shots and drop bricks of their own. The bricks do not disappear once hitting the ground, which means they can block your fowl in for a period of time. The crabs move in a manner similar to Demon Attack, but most comparisons between the two games end there. There are a lot of slidey-shooters available for the VCS and only a few are essential – although serviceable in and of itself, Deadly Duck isn’t one of them. D+
Death Trap (Avalon Hill, 1983)
Death Trap is one of those quirky games like Reactor or China Syndrome that at first seem kind of confusing or stupid but if you give it a chance you may find yourself sucked in. The goal of the game is to destroy the power generators of the boss robot (identified in the manual as IT – no jokes about your workplace’s information technology department and its predilection towards evil please). The generators are guarded by a series of three horizontal shields. For every torpedo you shoot, a moving shield portion is created that has the potential to stop your torpedoes (it’s kind of like the moving empty spaces variation in Yar’s Revenge in reverse). And that leads us to Death Trap’s intriguing but at the same time frustrating game mechanic: you can actually steer your torpedo by pressing the fire button. However, you cannot move your vessel at the same time, leaving it a sitting duck to IT’s fireballs. Fortunately, these fireballs follow a predictable left to right pattern, but avoiding firepower while periodically guiding missiles provides quite a challenge. I like Death Trap the more I play it. I doubt it will ever be one of my favourite games, but it’s definitely one that makes you set the reset button repeatedly. C
The Activision Decathlon (Activision, 1983)
I remember playing this game at a friend’s place around the time of – appropriately enough – the 1984 Summer Olympics. I don’t remember how well I did, but I remember enjoying the game’s joystick-destroying gameplay (no joysticks were destroyed in that particular session, although I’m sure it helped deteriorate them over time). I went in cocky playing The Activision Decathlon on emu, thinking that tapping on the keyboard would give me a major edge (it didn’t). In that context, the same game that was the great joystick-breaker becomes a recipe for tendonitis. The Activision Decathlon – with events including the 100-metre dash, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400-metre race, 110-metre hurdles, discus throw, pole vault, javelin throw and – the granddaddy of all your pain – the 1500-metre race – is a brutal game regardless of the controller you’re using. It is also one of the all-time best sports games for the 2600. The athletes are wonderfully well-animated and the motion is remarkably fluid for a 2600 game. Due to its similarity to actual physical exercise, it’s not a game I play often (a sad commentary on myself at this point in time), but that does not take away from its status as a remarkable technical achievement. B+
Defender (Atari, 1981)
I’ve been looking forward to this review for some time. Defender was among the five incumbent games I received along with my Atari 2600 on my 11th birthday. And yes, I enjoyed it, blissfully unaware of the controversy surrounding it. That controversy hinged on two main criticisms of the game – one fair and another unfair. First, the unfair: the fact that the Atari 2600 was unable to replicate the button-heavy play of the arcade game. Instead, the programmers had to figure out some rather inelegant solutions to activating hyperspace and smart bombs. The fair: a glitch in the game that makes you disappear when firing, essentially making you invincible as long as you’re in that mode. Even that is a little overrated as an advantage; you stop firing momentarily the second you turn the ship around, and that is something you will have to do often.
Don’t get me wrong: compared to the brutal arcade version, the 5200 version (the only other interpretations of the game I’ve played) or its sequel, Stargate, VCS Defender is pretty easy even in its hardest variations. Ship-flickering aside, part of this has to do with the game’s high-scoring nature combined with its generous extra lives (you get a new ship every 10,000 points and those points rack up quickly). The challenge of the game is less about staying alive than rescuing the humanoids, which I think is as difficult here as in any other version.
Defender has a lot of problems, but as a kid I enjoyed it immensely. It’s also the first game I ever “turned over” (999,999 points). As long as you can overlook its flaws, there is enjoyment to be found in this humble port. C-
Defender II aka Stargate (Atari, 1987)
Wow – now this is more like it. On at least two major occasions, porting arcade sequels allowed Atari to repent of its past sins. Look at what an improvement their Ms. Pac-Man was over their Pac-Man, for instance. And here we have Defender II aka Stargate, which improves on its 1981 predecessor in every possible way: graphically, gameplay-wise, challenge-wise – you name it. It’s such a shame that so many peoples’ memories of the 2600 are built on games like Pac-Man and Defender because by this point, programmers were able to do some things with the system that were truly breathtaking. Look at the dart-like enemies that begin to appear on the second level of this game: the fluid animation of these rotating sprites is at least on par with that of the Colecovision and many full-blown computers of the day.
I’m not sure I agree with the decision to utilize two joysticks, however. You see, in the original Defender, activating hyperspace required the player to fly up above the main screen and press the fire button. Similarly, smart bombs could only be ignited by going down into the city and firing. People hated it, but it was a necessary concession in the arcade-to-Atari translation process. Here, the second joystick is used to activate invisibility, hyperspace and smart bombs. How exactly are you supposed to do this in a game as feverish as Defender II – use your foot? Fortunately, in my opinion anyway, invisibility is usually pretty useless and hyperspace is always a risky proposition (better to use the stargate anyway as it often places you within range of a lander with a captured humanoid). Smart bombs are exploded using the fire button, so you can conceivably use a toe to do that. Really, though, this game is so good that it’s worth the extra effort. A