Fishing Derby (Activision, 1980)
Fishing Derby was one of the four Activision launch releases (others included Dragster, Checkers and Boxing) and it’s easy to see why the company became so successful so quickly. Although these titles pale in comparison to what Activision would later accomplish, they are still much more sophisticated than just about anything Atari was producing at that time. Fishing Derby is probably the most innovative of that initial lot.
Playing against the computer or a human opponent, you attempt to catch as many fish as possible – fish that swim the lowest are worth the most points. But this isn’t any regular ol’ fishin’ hole – it’s home to a fish-eating shark (are there any other kinds?) who will gladly steal your hard-caught prey. The game ends when you or your opponent reach 99 points.
Fishing Derby has some of the most sophisticated AI available in any Atari game of the time. The shark speeds up and turns around seemingly at random and the fish actually struggle when you hook them on your line. For the fishing line, programmer David Crane uses the same graphical tricks he would employ two years later on his legendary Pitfall!. Although the sound is sparse, graphically the game was probably the best available for the system in 1980.
Fishing Derby won’t blow your socks off or anything but – much like real-life fishing (minus shark) – it’s a quiet, pleasant diversion perfect for a Sunday morning. B
Flag Capture (Atari, 1978)
Flag Capture is another of those quirky Atari games from an era in which creators still hadn’t wrapped their heads around what this whole video game thing could or should be. The title pretty much explains the game: taking turns against a friend, you move your “explorer” around a grid of white blocks. Press the fire button and you will uncover a flag, a bomb or a clue as to where the flag might be. Variations include moving flags, stationary flags, timed games and wraparound modes where you can go off the grid and appear on the other side. I have a hard time picturing Flag Capture being very entertaining even back in 1978. Other than for novelty’s sake, why would you play a game like this on your television when you could just as easily play it as a board game (I’m sure there was a board game similar to this) or even just use pencil and paper? Games like Activision’s Checkers or Atari’s Video Chess are different – they actually featured some rudimentary AI that allowed people to match wits with the computer, which must have been quite impressive back then. In fact, those games are still playable and fun even today. Flag Capture, meanwhile, will likely only be of interest to collectors and fans of early gaming curios. D-
Flash Gordon (20th Century Fox, 1982)
Defender ripoff with the Flash Gordon licence cynically slapped on (it wasn’t even very good marketing – the Flash Gordon film the box art is based on was released two years beforehand). This could have been a good game if not for a game mechanic that requires you to assess a map at the bottom of the screen while keeping track of the action in the upper half. While that may not sound much different from Defender or Chopper Command, there’s a big difference between having to periodically check a radar on a left-to-right scrolling playfield and relying on a huge, world-encompassing map requiring movement in all directions. Flash Gordon highlights that difference. Navigating this map frequently puts your ship on the right or left sides of the screen, making it easy for you to fly right into enemies. I would recommend Imagic’s Subterranea as a similar but much superior alternative; it’s also a Defender-style game that features both vertical and horizontal movement but without the stupid map. D+
Football (Atari, 1978)
A look at the instruction manual for Football could lead one to believe that this is a surprisingly sophisticated football game in spite of its primitive-even-for-1978 graphics. Well, it’s not. Yes, it’s true that you can program a variety of offensive and defensive plays, but otherwise the game barely resembles football at all. For one thing, to the best I could tell, it’s completely a running game; the “quarterback” (actually, I don’t think the term “quarterback” was mentioned even once in the manual) cannot even throw the ball. I mostly played the variation in which you program in the plays and the computer carries them out, playing both sides because this is a two-player-only game. This was admittedly awkward. I had a lot of difficulty even determining which team was in possession of the ball.
Now, a lot of people who have actually played Football against a live, human opponent love this game, so I admit I’m lacking some information in that regard. Usually that warrants an automatic C (or neutral) grade. However, I still think Football was sloppily designed. Would it have been so hard, even in 1978, to include hash marks, a 50-yard line and something to represent the end zone? This alone cuts off some points from its benefit-of-a-doubt rating. Sports games – especially from this particular era –were never the 2600’s strong point, but better football games were produced later. This Football is a novelty at best. D
Frankenstein’s Monster (Data Age, 1983)
In which the much-maligned Data Age redeems itself by stealing – and stealing well – from the best. Frankenstein’s Monster is like a combination of Pitfall! and Miner 2049er with a horror theme. The aim of the game is to “wall up” the monster by gathering stones at the bottom of the screen. To accomplish this you first have to avoid ghosts, jump over spiders and pits and jump onto logs floating in acid. Once you grab the stone, you then must go back up the screen – facing the same obstacles – and proceed to the second screen where you work your way up towards the monster, avoiding legions of bats that can quickly sap your points. The process then starts again with enhanced difficulty and continues until you’ve built a wall around the titular monster. Contributing to the overall Pitfall! feel, the second level features three logs you must jump over to avoid falling in acid. Jumping on these logs is similar to traversing the alligators in Pitfall! – timing is everything. If you’re a fan of the two games I mentioned earlier (and who isn’t?), I’d be very surprised if you do not enjoy Frankenstein’s Monster. I award it “hidden gem” status. A-