Enduro (Activision, 1983)
Enduro is simply the best racing game available on the Atari 2600, beating Pole Position by several country miles. You start your first day of the race (the general time of day is indicated by sunrises, darkness and sunsets) with the challenge of passing 200 cars. Hitting a car can set your goal back substantially, leaving you scrambling to catch up. Over the course of the day you encounter realistic-feeling icy conditions and even fog, which cuts your visibility by half. The 200-car lap isn’t too bad, but the 300-car requirement on the second and subsequent laps can be quite hairy. There is so much strategy involved in playing Enduro and I highly recommend consulting programmer Larry Miller’s helpful tips in the manual. Suffice to say this is an endurance race; trying to go full-throttle throughout the game is a recipe for disaster. Literally my only gripe with Enduro is its lack of game variations. There is no selection that simply allows you to start the game with the 300-car challenge – you have to go back to passing 200 cars on the first day. In some ways this is not such a bad thing because going back to the easier challenge slowly hones your racing abilities. The graphics and scaling are very nice and the engine sounds are what I call “Atari 2600 realistic” (it’s a “your mileage may vary” kind of thing). Enduro is not only the best racing game for the Atari 2600 but also one of Activision’s finest contributions to the Atari 2600 library and one of the best games for the system, period. A
Entombed (U.S. Games, 1982)
File Entombed under games that may look terrible but are actually pretty good. This game has the player descending into an upwardly-scrolling maze. You quickly have to decide what path to take, even if it ultimately leads to a dead end. Fortunately, you are given one “make-break” at the beginning of the game that can help you break through a barrier. These make-breaks are scattered throughout the maze but you have to be especially careful to use your first one wisely if you have not yet collected any more. If you get stuck at the top of the maze you lose a life (or, in other words, become “entombed”). If that wasn’t enough, there are zombies out to kill you: blue ones can only traverse open corridors but the orange zombies can go anywhere. The difficulty level of Entombed scales quite quickly so it’s recommended that you save as many of your make-breaks as possible for the more difficult mazes. My one major problem with the game (aside from the graphics) is the fussiness regarding movement; you have to position yourself precisely on top of a corridor to enter or else you find yourself running against a wall. This can cost precious seconds, especially as the game gets faster and faster. All in all, though, a pretty good game, albeit not one I think deserves “hidden gem” status. C+
Espial (Tigervision, 1983)
Now THIS might be a hidden gem. Espial is like a precursor to scrolling multidirectional air battle games like 1943: The Battle of Midway in which you had to watch your six, your three and in fact all numbers on the clock in order to shoot and avoid enemy fighters. The formula, of course, was not established at this stage in video game history and is of course limited by VCS technology (although there is a nice variety of enemies, they’re all kind of transparent and flashy), but it’s still an admirable first step for a style of game that would become very popular in years to come. You could probably argue that the previous year’s arcade hit Xevious fired the first shot for scrolling multidirectional shooters, but to me Espial better captures the features that would become typical of the style. It’s also nice that it has its own high score counter – something pretty uncharacteristic of the vast majority of 2600 games. B
Fall Down (Homebrew, 2005)
(Added June 3, 2018) In which two men – much as in real life – compete to fall down a hole, or in this case several holes (hey, I never claimed to be the No-Swear Gamer – expect the occasional innuendo). Fall Down is a wonderful homebrew by Aaron Curtis (who also programmed the great AStar, which I have played but not yet reviewed as of this writing). It may have also singlehandedly restored my enthusiasm for arcade-style action games at a time when my interest in video games in general was at a fallow point (I’m reviewing the Swordquest games – what do you expect?).
My dirty little joke up top is actually a pretty apt description of Fall Down’s gameplay. You (the red guy) and a computer-directed sprite (the blue guy – two-player modes are also available) compete to fall down a series of holes in escalating platforms. You claim a platform for every one you fall through first, adding to your points. In some variations you and your opponent can bounce off each other (sometimes this leads to literal fights over a hole in which someone has to concede – it’s almost always you). Other variations include pass-by mode (you pass by your opponent rather than bounce off him) and invisibility (not my favourite option in any game that has it, this one makes the both of you take turns being invisible).
There’s no level completion in Fall Down – it just keeps going faster and faster with your only break coming from dying and waiting for your opponent to do the same. The game has a nice wraparound feature which allows you to quickly get to a hole on the far sides of the platform if you’re sufficiently on the ball. Regular readers know that I don’t give out the A+ grade easily (even some of my all-time commercial-era favourites have been docked down to an A or A-) but I really cannot find any fault with Fall Down. A+ Fall Down is available at the AtariAge Store.
Fantastic Voyage (20th Century Fox, 1982)
My first impression of Fantastic Voyage was “Meh – River Raid ripoff” but continued play convinced me that it’s a unique, enjoyable game all on its own. Based on the 1966 movie of the same name (which I have never seen, although I have seen the hilarious Archer spoof), you command a microscopic vessel on a mission to travel through the bloodstream of a human body in order to destroy a potentially-fatal blood clot. Along the way you encounter enzymes, antibodies, defence cells, clotlets and bacteria. Some of these objects can be shot, others need to be shot more than once and others need to be avoided because if you shoot them, you compromise the health of your patient. You should also try to avoid touching the arterial walls because doing so produces antibodies which you then must shoot because they will harm your human host (I thought antibodies were a good thing, but I guess not in the world of Fantastic Voyage). The blood clot is the Vanguard-style “boss” of Fantastic Voyage and, much like Vanguard in fact, it is very easy to destroy. Fantastic Voyage is a somewhat derivative game that has just enough distinctive features (not to mention an intriguing concept) to make it a compelling play. B-
Fast Eddie (20th Century Fox, 1982)
Between Fast Eddie, Fantastic Voyage, my-yet-unreviewed but all-time favourite Turmoil plus the around a half-dozen of their games I’ve reviewed so far, I’ve come to the conclusion that 20th Century Fox is possibly the most underrated of the third-party game suppliers for the 2600. I suppose it makes sense – unlike fly-by-nighters like Apollo, they had a reputation in other media to uphold (too bad they didn’t think of that before they launched Fox News, but I digress). Anyway, Fast Eddie is a fun little Donkey Kong-style platformer that won’t win any awards for originality but is nevertheless fast and fun with a respectable range of difficulty. Your goal as the titular Eddie of the fleeting foot is to gather 10 objects (hearts, tanks, etc.) while jumping over and avoiding “sneakers” which race around each of the five floors of the structure. Once you collect the 10 objects you head to the top to collect a key from the boss sneaker, High Top – whose legs grow smaller with each object you obtain – and move to the next level. Eddie moves fast so you have to be very careful with the timing of your jumps relative to the speed of the sneakers. A quirk of the game is the ladders crossing multiple floors; if you’re not fast enough to get off on the floor you want, you can quickly climb all the way up – possibly into danger. One very nice (and rare for the 2600) feature is the ability to pause the game using the colour switch. It’s not a must-have, but Fast Eddie is romping good fun. C+