Gyruss (Parker Brothers, 1984)
Ya gotta give Parker Brothers credit. At a time when third-party developers were abandoning the video game industry in droves, Parker Brothers soldiered on through 1984, releasing ports of then-cutting-edge arcade titles such as Star Wars: The Arcade Game and Gyruss as well as original games like Montezuma’s Revenge. By this point the company was releasing games for virtually all the popular consoles and computers of the time, so they might have gotten away with not releasing a hardware-testing game like Gyruss for the 2600. To their credit, they did. The results? As good as could ever be expected and then some.
If you’re not familiar with the game, Gyruss is a 360 degree space shooter similar in some ways to Tempest. Spaceships, aliens and asteroids arise from the center of the screen for you to either shoot or avoid. This, of course, requires a fair amount of scaling – possibly the 2600’s biggest Achilles’ Heel. On top of that, the targets are more like random geometric patterns than anything resembling spaceships and the graphics are overall pretty flickery. None of this is surprising considering the limitations of the console versus the complexity of the source material.
What is surprising is the music – yes, actual music on the Atari 2600. Not only music, but a fine digital rendition of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. This makes Gyruss easily one of the best-sounding games in the entire 2600 library. For a system that frequently causes even hardcore fans like myself to reach for the mute button, it’s quite a feat. The classical piece leaves no room for other sound effects, but I don’t think that’s really a drawback.
Like the best Atari 2600 arcade ports, Gyruss makes up for its lack of graphic capability with a reasonable-enough facsimile of the original’s gameplay. It is, however, a little on the easy side when playing the default variation. For a meatier challenge, set the game to variation three or four. All variations come with a three-or-five life option, which is a nice touch. Although I can’t give Gyruss an “A” for execution, it certainly deserves one for effort. B-
H.E.R.O. (Activision, 1984)
H.E.R.O. is simply awesome. I’m not entirely sure about its exact release date, but if it wasn’t the last Activision-released Atari 2600 game of the classic 1980-84 era, it’s certainly the final classic from that era. And what an encore it is. H.E.R.O. puts you in control of plucky adventurer Roderick Hero (R. Hero – I know it’s quite a groaner) who – much like Tony Stark or Bruce Wayne – has dedicated his fortune towards developing technology to help the less fortunate, in this case workers trapped in a series of increasingly-perilous mines. Using your jet pack, a laser beam and lots of dynamite, you work your way through venomous spiders, snakes and radioactive walls. Much like Pitfall! and its sequel, success in H.E.R.O. requires a good deal of memorization, although not so much that you necessarily have to take pencil to paper to map out your quests. It’s an adventure game with an emphasis on action; once you learn some of the peculiarities of flying R. Hero’s jetpack, zipping through the various mine shafts becomes sheer delight. I can’t quite put my finger on what makes H.E.R.O. so fun – all I know is that it makes me want to hit the reset switch every time my game ends. Not out of frustration (well, most of the time anyway) but out of the pure joy of playing again. For this it warrants a perfect grade. A+
Halloween (Wizard, 1983)
Halloween is one of my favourite movies of all time and is certainly my favourite horror movie of all time, so naturally I was excited to find out that an obscure third-party game developer had obtained the licence and released a game based on the film. As is so often the case in both the past and present with games based on movies, it’s best to keep expectations low and I was right to do so. However, that is not to say the game is a completely lost cause.
In Halloween you take the role of babysitter Laurie Strode rescuing your young charges from the meat cleaver of homicidal maniac Michael Myers. The game perspective is an x-ray view of a two-storey house. The far rooms on both storeys are your “safe rooms” to which you can take the kids and be safe from Michael. In any other room, however, Michael is omnipresent and can pop up virtually anywhere – a callback to the way the film made his location a constant guessing game.
A nice rendition of John Carpenter’s iconic Halloween theme comes on every time Michael appears, which is often. I never thought I would ever tire of that great theme but this game proved me wrong – its frequency in fact became quite annoying.
Rescuing the kids can be quite a chore. There are several circumstances in which you lose the kid simply by going from one room to another. What’s worse is that you can sometimes return to the previous room and he’s no longer there! Michael can be avoided or stabbed if you have the knife that’s located in one of the rooms, although both actions seem more like a matter of luck than anything.
Halloween is far better than one could expect from a fly-by-night third-party developer like Wizard, which can be credited for capturing some of the film’s chilling atmosphere in an Atari 2600 game. The problem is that it’s just not as fun as it could be; its repetition and glitchiness dampen enjoyment of the game. Still, it’s good enough to warrant a modest recommendation. C
Hangman (Atari, 1978)
Hangman is the game you used to play with friends using pencil and paper in breaks between classes – but now in video game form! It’s easy to make fun of Hangman today but it’s really not that bad. You have 11 tries to guess a word before you hang your monkey (get your mind out of the gutter – this isn’t a Mystique release). Although the words are no more than six letters long, Atari didn’t slouch on the vocabulary, especially in the first through high school skill level (other variations include up to third, sixth and ninth grade skill levels). I was surprised to see words like “nebula” in the game’s vernacular. If you’re a word nerd like me, Hangman offers a surprisingly decent challenge. C
Harbor Escape (Panda, 1983)
Not even sure if Harbor Escape even warrants a review, as it’s really just a ripoff of River Raid. I’m not talking about a game that merely borrows ideas from other games, like Demon Attack borrows from Phoenix, for example – Harbor Escape lifts whole sounds, graphics, algorithms, layouts and even Activision’s score-counter house style from River Raid. The only differences are instead of a plane, you’re a sub and instead of collecting fuel, you collect air. The graphics are also less appealing overall. So is Harbor Escape a good game? Of course it is – it’s River Raid, and River Raid is awesome. But then why not just play River Raid instead? Although its source material is closer to an “A,” Harbor Escape puts the F in “theft.”