Atari 2600 Game Reviews: Great Escape through Gunfight

GreatEscape_AtariGameGreat Escape (Bomb, 1983)

Wow – words escape me (honestly no pun intended) as to how bad Great Escape is. It doesn’t seem to have any coherent purpose whatsoever and the manual – which appears to be translated from a foreign language – does not help at all. I think it’s trying to be a multidirectional Vanguard-style shooter, although it only seems to respond to controls when it feels like it. Thankfully, as it’s an extremely rare cartridge and you can likely only play it on emu anyway, it’s easy enough to avoid and I recommend you do. F

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

Gremlins_AtariGameGremlins (Atari, 1986)

Just a quick note about game release dates in the confusing 1984-1986 post-crash era. The title screen of Gremlins, for instance, clearly marks its copyright as 1984 but it wasn’t actually released until 1986 when Jack Tramiel suddenly realized that maybe this video game thing wasn’t just a fad after all. Atari had a lot of abandoned projects in 1984; some never saw the light of day commercially while others, such as Gremlins, were deemed finished enough for a release in the 2600’s second era. I’ve failed at this at times in the past, but I’ll try to base the years of similar games on actual release date, even if that differs from the copyright year in the game material.

Gremlins is generally not well-thought-of among the Atari community and superficially it’s easy to see why. What does a Kaboom! ripoff and a generic shooter have to do with the popular 1984 film? To me, this is a situation similar to the one that arguably hampered the E.T. game: there simply isn’t enough material in the film that easily translates into a video game of the era – it wasn’t like Star Wars which was a natural fit for a whole series of games.

I actually found Gremlins delightful and was pleasantly surprised with how they were able to incorporate the basic story elements of the film into the admittedly derivative gameplay. The first screen has you capture mogwai – indeed, Kaboom!-style – to prevent them from eating the burgers at the bottom of the screen which cause them to turn into pupas aka future gremlins (remember the whole thing about feeding them after midnight?).

Once eight mogwai have become pupas (pupae?), you’re taken to the second screen where you shoot the descending gremlins. If a gremlin makes it to the bottom you lose a life. Luckily, you have a limited number of flash cubes that can temporarily freeze the monsters so you can pick them off. In later levels, the gremlins actually spawn so you have double the creatures to contend with.

The game definitely has its faults. Any Kaboom!-style game should support paddles but Gremlins is controlled by joystick. This is the result, no doubt, of Atari’s decision to no longer pack in paddle controllers with the console. Also, I find it difficult to line up shots at the gremlins, but maybe that’s just me.

There’s nothing really bad that can be said about the graphics and music. The mogwai look like mogwai, the gremlins look like gremlins. There’s not much more you can expect. Gremlins may be derivative but it is still a lot of fun. B-

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

GroversMusicMaker_AtariGameGrover’s Music Maker (Atari Prototype, 1983)

Not much to say about Grover’s Music Maker. It’s not even technically a game – just an excuse for preschoolers to take control of a beloved Sesame Street character (which, given that age group, could be quite fun indeed). Using Atari’s special kids’ controller, youngsters and others so inclined can create their own little musical compositions as Grover dances in time. There are also a number of pre-programmed tunes to get Grover’s boogie fever going – mainly simple fare such as “Old Macdonald.” The colours and sounds are nice and crisp and Grover looks, well, ok if a little worse for the pixelated wear, which may sour younger players used to more high-res fare. Atari actually did a pretty good job with their handful of Sesame Street titles, with all the ones I’ve played so far (Alpha Beam With Ernie, Cookie Monster Munch and Grover’s Music Maker – I missed Big Bird’s Egg Catch somewhere along the way) fitting in nicely with the high-quality Sesame Street brand. However, unlike Cookie Monster Munch, which hid some legitimate video game challenge within its kiddie façade, there’s nothing in Grover’s Music Maker to hold the interests of older players and it’s probably too low-tech for today’s preschoolers. Given that it’s a prototype and not really rateable on any kind of a scale anyway, I’ll forego a letter rating for this one.

More Info: Grover’s Music Maker on AtariAge. For current listings of Grover’s Music Maker for sale on eBay, click here

Guardian_AtariGameGuardian (Apollo, 1982)

While playing Guardian it occurred to me that there is one basic element that separates an excellent space slide-and-shooter such as Galaxian, Galaga, Space Invaders or Phoenix from an average one: the ability to put you into a zone. Let’s face it: with the exception of Pong, video games don’t get much more basic than the horizontal shooter. A game that manages to completely immerse the player even within that humble genre has really accomplished something.

Unfortunately, Guardian does not match that description, but not for lack of trying. It does try to bring something new to the table. Rather than simply avoiding the bombs dropped by the UFO at the top of the screen, your purpose is to protect the force field below your ship which in turn protects three planets orbiting beneath it. If your ship is hit you are briefly rendered immobile. However, every hit to the force field leaves the planets more vulnerable to destruction. Lose all three planets and it’s game over. Make it to 10,000 points and the force field regenerates.

Guardian isn’t completely unenjoyable. The graphics are quite nice, with a variety of sprites represented as bombs (the sound, on the other hand, is almost unbearably screechy). It just didn’t take me to that “zone” I look for in a game of this genre. There are a lot of game variations, but I didn’t really see any appreciable differences among any of them. A valiant effort, but ultimately lacking. C-

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

Gunfight_AtariGameGunfight (Xype Homebrew, 2001)

A nice update of Outlaw-style games – but this time with one-player goodness! The first thing that strikes you about Gunfight is the music: you get a rendition of Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire for an intro, the theme from High Noon when you or your opponent die and the theme from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly when one of you loses the game.

The second thing that hits you are the visuals: although true in spirit to the blocky 1978 original, the colour palette is greatly extended and the cowboys are mercifully smaller. Bullet speed can be adjusted and horizontal bounce can be turned on and off, but doing so takes away much of the fun – this game really starts cooking when there are bullets bouncing all over the screen. Another nice touch is that you have to shoot your opponent twice to score a hit – the first one just knocks his hat off. The game features all the barriers the original did – cacti and wagon trains plus a saloon.

The one-player game is fun and challenging, although it can get tiresome quickly. I can only imagine Gunfight is more fun with two players (it is basically Outlaw, after all). A strong effort and admirable rethinking of an ancient, basic but still oddly compelling game. Buy Gunfight here. B

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

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