Harem (Multivision Prototype, 1982)
When the Atari 2600 emulates real life: I “score” as poorly in Atari pornographic games as I ever did when I was a single guy. There were a number of reasons for the latter, but for the former I blame abysmal programming (actually, I might be able to blame that for my real life lack of luck as well). Instructions for Harem are difficult to find online, but I was able to get somewhat of an idea of its gameplay from Atari Protos. At any rate, I can’t make it to the lady in order to “score” because it’s impossible to avoid the sniper (it’s a strange, strange game). I’m not really motivated to try to do better, so if you want to know more hit up the Atari Protos link above. I know I give these adult 2600 games pretty short shrift but I’ve yet to encounter one that deserves better treatment. Being a (possibly incomplete) prototype, I’m not providing a letter grade for Harem.
Haunted House (Atari, 1981)
Haunted House seems to be a fan favourite, but I have some misgivings. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a neat little game with some nice touches, but to me it suffers from some of the same issues that sometimes hinder my enjoyment of Adventure, from which Haunted House borrows a good chunk of its gameplay.
Haunted House stars you as a shifty set of eyes tasked with finding three pieces of an urn in a four-storey mansion, each of which contains six rooms. You have an unlimited number of matches to light your way; however, enemies such as ghosts, spiders and bats blow them out as soon as they enter a room and – worse – take one of your nine lives if they touch you. A sceptre is available that can make you invulnerable; the problem is – like Adventure – you can only carry one object at a time. This factor drives the strategy involved in the game. Starting with game variation three, the game features a number of locked doors that can only be unlocked with a key; again, you can only carry it if you’re not carrying anything else.
The default variation – which makes the walls of the house visible – is dead easy but invaluable for getting a feel for the mansion’s various rooms and stairwells. From there on in, you have to feel your way around using only your matches and the occasional flash of lightning.
I found the extended deaths frustrating. To me, deaths in video games should be short and to the point so you can get on with the game; Haunted House turns them into a circus of lightning and crashing sounds. Although I hate being that guy who whines about fairness in video games, I have to say that the way enemies can attack you immediately after ascending or descending a staircase seems like dirty pool. Granted, the game gives you nine lives, but trust me – they can disappear quickly, especially in harder variations.
Haunted House is a well-designed game that will appeal to fans of proto-dungeon crawlers. Those who enjoy mapping will particularly enjoy figuring out their ways around all the locked doors. Personally, I feel adventure games should contain a certain thrill of discovery, but the graphical limitations of the 2600 – particularly in games from this era – kind of thwart that. It’s the same thing that makes me not as big a fan of Adventure as most VCS enthusiasts. I still recommend giving Haunted House a try, however. B-
Holey Moley (Atari Prototype, 1983)
I don’t think I would have appreciated a video game version of Whack-A-Mole very much back in the day, but as a discovery at the 2002 Classic Gaming Expo, Holey Moley is just fine. Using any of the 2600’s keyboard controls (including the kids’ controller or the video touch pad) you whack some rising rodents just like you would on the popular carnival attraction. As expected, there are varying speeds of gameplay as well as bonus rounds where you attempt to hit as many moles as you can as quickly as possible. The graphics are nice and cartoony, although the repetitive music may drive you to distraction. No letter grade for this one, but I recommend giving it a try.
Home Run (Atari, 1978)
I admit I have a major soft spot for the primitive 2K games that served as the Atari 2600 game library in the ‘70s. I love the box art. I love the gatefold packaging that came along with the system’s launch titles. I like the focus on two-player or more games and the marketing which emphasized video gaming as a family endeavour. I like the pure moxie of the programmers as they figured out what a video game was actually supposed to be and worked to develop those ideas within the VCS’ very narrow technical parameters.
The problem is that my respect for these games and the purpose of this blog are at cross purposes. My goal with Woodgrain Wonderland is to attempt to point out the games that still hold up as fun today, not back in 1977. And the sad fact is that many, if not most, of the games released by Atari prior to 1980 are just not very fun. Sure – with enough imagination you can put yourself into the mindset of someone from that era discovering video games for the first time (it helps if you were actually alive, like I was) but for the most part these games’ status as iconic does not necessarily equal being fun.
Which brings us to Home Run. Atari’s early attempts at sports titles were a mixed lot at best; games like Bowling, Golf and their one-on-one Basketball were all passable but their attempts at team sports were uniformly mediocre-to-awful. I would say Home Run is a little better than Football or Championship Soccer for one single reason: it’s not really baseball, and Atari all but acknowledges that by calling it something else. In a perverse way, that allows them to get away with a virtual parody of the game.
Home Run’s graphics and sounds are dead straightforward and completely frill-free. The one- or two-player game features a batter and a pitcher, who not only inexplicably pitches from second base but serves as the entire infield and outfield. There are apparently no fly balls in Home Run; even if your pitcher catches the ball, the batter will still make it to first base unless you touch him or the base. Variations of the default game add from two to three in/outfielders who all move in unison.
So is Home Run in any way fun in 2017? A little, but not much. There are a surprising number of options on the pitching end, with curve balls and even mid-pitch speed adjustment among your basket of abilities. There’s no such variation on the batting side, however, and hitting a “home run” as this game defines it (basically hitting the ball straight past second base) seems more the result of luck than anything else. But like I said, you can derive some fun from Home Run as long as you recognize you’re playing a game called Home Run. Just don’t call it baseball. D
Human Cannonball aka Cannon Man (Atari, Sears, 1978)
Speaking of ‘70s titles, here’s one I have mixed feelings about. Human Cannonball is one of those games where you adjust the speed, angle and distance of a cannon in order to hit a target, in this case a circus performer into a bucket of water. Shooting the man into the bucket seven times wins you the game. Human Cannonball requires thought and patience but, strangely, the more success at the game I had, the more my interest waned. In fact, my interest level plateaued and bottomed out several times over the course of my game session. The graphics and sounds are very, very basic (not that you need much better for this kind of game). I do like the digitized “Ouch!” that displays every time your guy misses the bucket, though. Atari put lots of neat variations into the game (buckets you can move to catch the man after firing, moving windows that further test your skill, a very small bucket in the “A” position that’s almost impossible to hit) but even with all that it just does not seem to be the kind of game to hold one’s interest for long in 2017. C-
An end note: I received an email from a reader about a month ago asking if I knew anything about the specific release dates of Atari games. Gamasutra has a detailed breakdown of Atari’s early years – including game release months – as well as some of the behind-the-scenes drama at the company (spoiler alert: CEO Ray Kassar was a real dick). Enjoy!