Frostbite (Activision, 1983)
What do you get when you cross Frogger with Q*Bert? In this case, absolute action-puzzle game brilliance. Meet Frostbite – an undeservedly-obscure Activision title that borrows liberally from those two aforementioned games but adds its own considerable dollop of charm. As Frostbite Bailey, you are attempting to build an igloo. Somehow you accomplish this by hopping on ice floes while avoiding geese, crabs, clams and a polar bear. The first three will push you off the ice into the freezing water, while the bear (from the fourth level on) will thwart your attempts to get into your constructed hut. Frostbite has been a consistent favourite of mine ever since my rediscovery of Atari some eleven years ago. I find it’s often harder to describe what is good about a game than what is wrong with it, but there is very little wrong with Frostbite. The action is fast but reasonable, the graphics are well-animated and colourful (basically standard for Activision games of that era) and the sounds, while minimal, are at least not grating. My Frogger/Q*Bert comparison stands as my foremost recommendation – if you enjoy either of those two games, chances are very, very good you will like Frostbite. A
Funky Fish (UA Limited Prototype, Developed 1983, Atari Age, Released 2003)
Another recently-discovered prototype (the other being Cat Trax) from the mysterious UA Limited. Who were these guys anyway? Were they an actual video game division of the United Artists movie studio (then-distributors of the James Bond and Rocky movies among others) which was often referred to as “UA”? I can’t seem to find anything out about them online. Not surprising, really – neither Funky Fish nor Cat Trax were ever actually released for the 2600; the ROMs have surfaced in recent years and are both available for free from AtariAge for the curious. Unfortunately, playing either one will likely only satisfy curiosity as neither game is very good.
There is a germ of a good game in Funky Fish. To the best of my telling (no instruction manual available, obviously, although AtariProtos.com does its best), you’re a fish with a mission to destroy four monsters in order to advance to the next level. The “monster” (represented onscreen by a square box) shoots out a variety of fish and other macguffins that you have to shoot with your bubble blaster. Once shot, these macguffins turn into cherries that you have only a few seconds to eat before they turn back into their original form. You must shoot and eat all the whatzits before you can “destroy” the monster (you basically sit on him to recharge your energy). After that, you proceed to the next monster.
Funky Fish is not a bad game in concept but it’s soooo slow. The sounds and music – such as they are – are grating. And this is a problem I have rating prototypes: would these problems have been fixed had it gone further into production – who can say? I’ve never had a consistent policy regarding protos. You might recall that I declined to provide a letter grade for Elevator Action because I was familiar with other versions of the game and there were some obvious flaws that I’m sure Atari would have fixed further on in development. I have no idea if UA Limited had that level of quality control seeing as they never even released a game, at least for the 2600.
To summarize this (too) long review, you’re not losing anything but time by downloading and playing Funky Fish. It is worth a play, although I can’t picture anyone going back to it very often. That’s the best recommendation I can give it, because in this case I’m not going to compare it to completed, commercial games by giving it a letter grade.
G.I. Joe – Cobra Strike aka Action Force (Parker Brothers, 1983)
Hey kids – like doing more than one thing at the same time with a single controller? Well sir, then G.I. Joe – Cobra Strike is the game for you. You have two jobs in this game: defend the soldiers running across the bottom of the screen from enemy fire (produced by an actual cobra – a little on the nose there, eh Parker Brothers?) with your shield and attempting to shoot the Cobra cobra right between the eyes with your turret gun (there are also options where you can actually play the cobra, but I haven’t figured out how to do so). The problem is you can only do either one of those two things at any given time with your paddle; as soon as you press the fire button the action turns towards the cannon and the paddle controls your shot. Hitting the cobra a certain number of times will eventually destroy it, which – along with the far higher point rewards for hitting the head of the snake – may tempt you to focus exclusively on firing at it rather than using your shield. However, doing so will cause your men to get picked off fairly quickly by Cobra’s bombs and eventually frickin’ lasers. Volleying between these two actions is pretty much the key to mastering G.I. Joe – Cobra Strike.
If the game is awkward, at least you’ll have a fun time looking at it while figuring it out. Graphically, it’s one of the best available for the 2600, which is unusual considering that Parker Brothers – despite producing some great arcade ports for the system – rarely tried to stretch its visual capabilities. The cobra looks legitimately threatening and the G.I. Joes are animated to at least Intellivision quality. G.I. Joe – Cobra Strike features four game select-based difficulty levels plus difficulty switch options and can support up to three players. C
Galaxian (Atari, 1983)
Few games put me in a “zone” as much as Galaxian does. The patterns of the various aliens are actually pretty predictable, but in higher levels when they start criss-crossing in front of you at breakneck speeds all bets are off. If you were born on a different planet and are not familiar with the basic gameplay of Galaxian, let’s start by saying that the original 1979 coin-op of the game was the next step up from Space Invaders in terms of the progression of left-to-right space shooters. Like Space Invaders, the aliens are in a formation at the top of the screen. Unlike the older game, they also descend on you individually and in groups, forcing you to either evade them and the bombs they drop or shoot them in mid-air (shooting the aliens in mid-air gives double the points versus shooting them stationary). Galaxian for the Atari 2600 is a technical marvel (let’s just say there’s a reason why it took so long to appear on the system) and is overall a fine port of the arcade original. There are things that bug me, like the size of the cannon (too large) and the fact that the programmers decided to put an orange wall around the playfield. Minor quibbles, though, for a game that is just as much Galaxian as any other version of Galaxian (in the case of the Atari 5200 version, perhaps moreso considering that port feels like an entirely different game even without taking into account the awful controls). A-
Gangster Alley (Spectravision, 1982)
The Atari 2600 does not offer very many opportunities to yell “Boom! Headshot!” but Gangster Alley provides that in spades. Gangster Alley is basically an old-school target shooting game that probably would have been better served with a light gun had any such thing been developed for the 2600. As it is, though, it’s okay.
Your targets are a rogue’s gallery of stereotypical mobsters who rise up in the windows of an apartment building. You have to take this opportunity to shoot them because once their full bodies are in view they will proceed to shoot you – often more than once. Complicating matters are the hostages – accidentally killing one of them will cost you dearly in points. While all this is happening you also have to scan the rooftop to see what a Mad Bomber-style maniac is doing – if he pulls a grenade and you don’t shoot him in time, it’s immediately game over.
Given the control system, in some ways it’s good that your shots don’t have to be too precise. Often you can shoot to the side of the villain and see the bullet ricochet towards him, which means it’s not a collision detection problem. I have to give a shout-out in regards to the visuals. While blocky and not particularly pleasant to look at, I like how Spectravision was able to assign some degree of personality to each of the gangsters using only blocky pixels and negative space. On the downside, the night scenes – where you can only see the windows when there’s gunfire – were a stupid idea because you’re more likely to shoot a hostage than not. Gangster’s Alley is a decent game but not one I’d suggest going to great effort to track down. C-