Atari 2600 Game Reviews: Gopher through Gravitar

Gopher_AtariGameGopher (U.S. Games, 1982)

Gopher is one of those games that is certainly fun enough in small doses, especially if you’re playing on an emulator for free. However, the gameplay is very shallow – so much so that had I laid down $20 for it back in the day I would have definitely felt ripped off. Bringing a whole new meaning to “shovelware,” Gopher has your creepy-looking protagonist filling in holes and whacking a persistent varmint on the head with your shovel (Get it? “Shovelware?” Try the pepper steak, folks) in defence of your garden. If the gopher makes it to the surface it will proceed to steal one of your three veggies (or it might not – it’s all pretty random). A duck occasionally drops seeds from the sky for you to catch. I’m guessing these are meant to plant more carrots but it’s hard to figure out how to do so and the manual doesn’t offer much advice. Setting the difficulty to “A” is supposed to result in a smarter gopher – and presumably a harder game – but I couldn’t tell the difference. Gopher is an enjoyable game that ultimately offers little incentive for long-term play. C-

More Info: Gopher on AtariAge. For current listings of Gopher for sale on eBay, click here

Gorf_AtariGameGorf (CBS Electronics, 1982)

I admit that I have never played the arcade version of Gorf (or any version for that matter). What I do know is that it takes a hell of a game to be held in such high regard by Jurassic-era game fans some 36 years on. Going on that alone, the Atari 2600 port of Gorf simply does not measure up. Boredom is the primary emotion I felt while playing it, and that – beyond visuals and sound – is the death knell for any video game. Gorf is basically an omnibus of four (five in the arcade original) different kinds of space shooters; a little Space Invaders here, a little Phoenix there and others I can’t immediately identify. What they all have in common is they’re all slow, all boring and hampered by a maddening firing system that cancels your prior shot upon firing again. I think Gorf is one of those 1982 titles that may have benefited from waiting literally just a few weeks or months for programming solutions to improve to the point where the game could be done justice – that’s just how fast things were moving in the Atari 2600 programming world at that time. As it is, it’s disappointing, to put it mildly. D-

More Info: Gorf on AtariAge. For current listings of Gorf for sale on eBay, click here

GoSub_AtariGameGoSub (Homebrew, 2007)

I would really like to give every homebrew Atari 2600 game a generous rating. I can only imagine the dedication it takes to learn the system’s complicated programming language, develop a game within the confines of very limited memory, cart it up and then attempt to sell the thing to a decidedly niche audience. But at the end of the day, regardless of the passion of the programmer, a game has to be fun. And with all due apologies to Chris Read, GoSub just isn’t very.

GoSub’s game concept is very simple: you navigate a submarine through a maze on your way to retrieve treasure. You have to avoid touching the maze walls (doing so will cost you a sub) as well as an octopus in the “B” difficulty setting. You can “zap” the octopus up to three times per maze to make it go somewhere else on the screen. Once you retrieve the treasure you go on to a different maze with both your lives and number of zaps reset.

The sub drives at a consistent speed without stopping, so the biggest challenge is learning how to avoid running into the maze walls. However, I found that could be done within a fairly short period of time. Although the game has some nice submarine “Morse Code” style noises, the graphics fall squarely within the Atari 2600’s 2K era. I don’t care much about lacklustre graphics as long as the game is fun, but it’s not and a big part of that comes down to a lack of a tangible goal. There is no scoring system and the reward for getting the treasure is simply another maze. Even a change of screen colours would have helped to present the illusion of progress. Also, it would have been nice if the treasure was better differentiated graphically from the maze walls.

The game features a two-player racing variation called GoSub 500 that I imagine is a lot more fun than the single-player default game. It’s an Indy 500-style racer in which you compete with a friend over how many laps you can make around the track. Having an Indy 500-like game that doesn’t require those special driving controllers is the only incentive I can think of to buy GoSub (although the game appears to be out of print anyway). With regrets, I give GoSub a D.

More Info: GoSub on AtariAge. For current listings of GoSub for sale on eBay, click here

GrandPrix_AtariGameGrand Prix (Activision, 1982)

Grand Prix was a pretty popular title on the Atari 2600 in its day, but I think that had more to do with the dearth of racing games available at the time than its actual quality. In fact, the side-scrolling racer was pretty much rendered obsolete as soon as Atari’s port of Pole Position and especially Activision’s own Enduro were released. A big part of racing – be it in a video game or real life – depends on knowing what’s going on ahead of you. Grand Prix robs you of that perspective, forcing you to rely on memorization rather than reflex. I used to hold Grand Prix in fairly high regard and, to be fair, it’s hardly a disaster; the graphics are a treat for the eyes and the engine sounds are Atari 2600-realistic. But thanks to the AtariAge High Score Club I’ve been playing a lot of Enduro and Dragster (which I like more and more every day) lately and Grand Prix just doesn’t measure up. Dragster has far more play depth and Enduro is the game I’m sure David Crane wanted Grand Prix to be but perhaps was not able to develop at that time. Grand Prix played an invaluable role in a brief portion of the VCS’ history but it doesn’t hold up well today. C-

More Info: Grand Prix on AtariAge. For current listings of Grand Prix for sale on eBay, click here

Gravitar_AtariGameGravitar (Atari, 1983)

Most classic arcade games are kid stuff. That’s not an insult. Getting high scores in most games may be difficult, but the vast majority of arcade games were designed to give youngsters a satisfactory experience for their quarters for at least a couple of minutes before throwing the kitchen sink at them. However, there were those few machines, lurking in a darkened corner of your local arcade, which would send the young ones crying in frustration back to the warm embrace of their Pac Mans and Dig Dugs. Say them with me and know fear: Robotron 2084. Zaxxon. Lunar Lander. And Gravitar. For those games we were content to watch over the shoulder of far braver and more mature arcade sophisticates – usually a peach fuzz-moustachioed teenager sporting a sleeveless denim jacket with an Iron Maiden backpatch.

That’s my convoluted way of saying that Gravitar is definitely not kid stuff. In fact, this spiritually-accurate VCS port may be the hardest corporate-released Atari 2600 game ever made (Gingerbread Man is still harder, but it’s a homebrew). It’s also freaking awesome.

Gravitar can best be described as a greatest hits collection of a number of classic games, but harder. You have the thrust-and-rotate control scheme of Asteroids and Space War, the exploration of Venture and the spaceship landing mechanic of Lunar Lander. Your job is to liberate planets by shooting a number of enemies, collecting fuel cells and moving on to the next one through the menu screen. It may sound simple, but it’s not. Every planet has its own unique terrain to navigate, which can be pretty tricky with the game’s aforementioned rotate-and-thrust controls. You can’t just go and pick up a fuel cell, either. Rather, you have to finesse your way over the cell – Lunar Lander style – and pick it up with your ship’s tractor beam. Heck, there is even danger on the menu screen. Getting too close to the sun will cost you a ship and there is a pesky flying saucer intent on engaging you in a dogfight.

The cart’s default variant offers six ships, with one variant offering a whopping 100 lives. While this may seem excessive, it’s really Atari’s acknowledgement of the monstrously-difficult game they had created. Trust me: there is no shame in playing the easier variants (which are hardly child’s play themselves) in order to get a feel for the game.

Gravitar’s graphics and sound are minimalistic, but the arcade original’s colour vector graphics – although striking – were fairly slight as well. To me, exceptional gameplay will trump pretty graphics any time. A

More Info: Gravitar on AtariAge. For current listings of Gravitar for sale on eBay, click here

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