Dishaster aka Dancing Plates (Zimag, 1983)
Some games are just plain boring – Dishaster (or Dancing Plates depending on the cart you happen to get) is one of them. Much like the circus act, you balance a variable number of plates on sticks and stop them from falling. Let three plates fall and the game ends. By reading that, you just played the game. If it still sounds interesting, by all means play it. Me? I was bored out of my bracket midway through my first round. It’s certainly original, but that doesn’t make it fun. F
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Dodge ‘Em (Atari, 1980)
Here’s a marked contrast between the prevailing ethos in games today: a game in which you actually avoid hitting cars rather than purposefully crashing into them. Dodge ‘Em is a car chase maze game in which the player drives over a maze full of dots while avoiding a computer crash car determined to play a decidedly fatal game of chicken with you. Your car moves in a counter-clockwise direction (as opposed to the crash car which only moves clockwise) by itself – you have control over acceleration and turning into different lanes (one while accelerating, two if not). It sounds dead simple but the game is quite a challenge. Timing is everything and more often than not you’ll avoid crashing into the computer car by a fraction (that is, once you actually learn how to not crash into it in the first place). Dodge ‘Em is a very fun game based on (or outright ripped off from) a number of similar arcade games released around 1978-79, most notably Sega’s Head On. Two-player variations allow you and a friend to either take turns against the crash car or one player controlling the survival car while the other attempts to crash into you. The graphics are predictably rudimentary but the sounds of engines revving and tires squealing are very cool. Dodge ‘Em offers some pretty big entertainment wrapped up in a deceptively simple package. B+
Dolphin (Activision, 1983)
This is another game I owned as a kid, although I don’t think of it quite as fondly as many others in my collection. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad game – in fact, it’s quite unique and innovative – but there’s always just seemed to be something “off” about it. Video games being a mini-macho domain even back then, maybe I thought of the friendly dolphin as being too wimpy for a proper game protagonist, but that would be a little hypocritical as a lot of my favourite games were not about blasting everything in sight.
Gameplay-wise, Dolphin is unlike any video game I can think of. For one thing, I don’t think there was any other 2600 game so dependent on sound. You play as the titular dolphin on the swim from an electric eel. Even as you try to keep as much distance as possible between yourself and the eel, vertically-inclined schools of seahorses conspire to slow you down. However, each of these schools has a space you can swim through, and you get advance clues to their locations with corresponding high- to low-pitched sound effects. “Currents” in the form of left- or right-pointing arrows can either slow you down or allow you to swim faster. Some clever maneuvering can place the eel in the path of the slow currents. A magic seagull (the “power pellet” of this game) flies by periodically and if you catch it, the eel is vulnerable to your touch for the next few seconds.
Graphically, Dolphin finds Activision in contemporaneous fine form. It’s wonderfully colourful and well-animated (the eel even seems to have a mischievous expression on its face). So with everything it has going for it, why do I still feel a little lukewarm towards the game? I think it’s because there’s no endgame – the chase just goes on forever with no objective in sight. Even in a repetitive game like Space Invaders you still get a sense of accomplishment from destroying a screen full of aliens; Dolphin only stops either when you die or you touch the eel in your magical state. Still, I give Activision credit for doing something truly different, and it’s still a fun enough game to warrant a modest recommendation. C+
Donkey Kong (Coleco, 1982)
I was all ready to rip into Donkey Kong for the 2600 with so many of the usual suspects: it was another high-profile release that disappointed fans, Coleco purposely made it bad in order to bolster Colecovision sales, it’s too easy etc. But guess what? Playing it today I found myself having fun – as much fun as any other version of Donkey Kong I’ve ever played. Yes, it only has the two levels, but that’s nothing unusual for Donkey Kong; just about every console/computer of the time got gypped by at least one level. Even the NES version – on a system that could have certainly handled the entire game – only included three of the coin-op’s four screens. What’s important is what is here is just fine. This isn’t a Pac-Man situation where fundamental elements like the maze have been changed; this version may be bare-bones, but it is recognizably Donkey Kong. No, the difficulty does not scale as fast as the arcade version (there’s a reason why the coin-op high score for Kong is still highly sought-after) but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. In fact, the fireballs on the rivets level are arguably more unpredictable than elsewhere. Yes, the ape himself looks awful, but Mario and the princess look fine, as do the well-animated rolling barrels. Just enjoy it – it’s an easy-to-find cart that you’ll probably wind up getting several duplicates of if you buy your VCS games in lots. B-
Donkey Kong Junior (Coleco, 1983)
If you think I’m going to offer Coleco’s Donkey Kong Junior the same leeway as their Donkey Kong, I’m sorry to disappoint you. The reason I liked Donkey Kong is because there was nothing fundamentally missing from the couple of screens on offer. Despite having three levels, Donkey Kong Junior ignores a fundamental gameplay element from the arcade original: the fruit that can be dropped on enemies. Control is awful; it can take what seems like ages to jump onto a vine – long enough for Mario to send one of his Snapjaws down to kill you. Honestly, I can’t say I was ever a huge fan of the original, but this version disposes of the elements that made it appealing in the first place. D+