Kabobber (Activision Prototype, Developed 1983)
Unlike many game developers for the Atari 2600, Activision didn’t leave behind much in the way of unreleased prototypes. My guess is that’s due to the fact that, unlike those other companies, Activision didn’t shut down and remains a game development powerhouse to this day. However, for whatever reason, Kabobber didn’t make the cut, which is mystifying to me because it’s a unique, addicting creation that plays to the VCS’ aptitude for high-action puzzle games.
A little background as to why we have Kabobber in the first place. The prototype was discovered in 2000 and soon became a labour of love in the Atari fan community, with hackers refining some of the game’s rough edges and AtariAge holding a contest to develop an instruction manual (which can be found at the link below). The purpose is to guide your Buvskies (of which you can have nine on the screen at any one time) around a grid in a quest to rescue Princess Buvsky, who looks like your Buvskies but is pink instead of blue. Along the way you will encounter a variety of baddies that you must either stomp on or avoid. Be careful, though, because the green Buvskies and Cholos can eat one of your Buvskies if they have their mouths open. You can regenerate your Buvskies by hitting the action button; however, they will remain baby Buvskies until you have them jump on a green Buvsky.
If it all sounds a little silly and convoluted, don’t worry – Kabobber is actually fairly intuitive. It’s also a lot of fun. Its graphics and sounds are basic but the gameplay itself is superb. I’m not sure if AtariAge ever released Kabobber as a cartridge, but it is available as a ROM at the link below (I’m also leaving the eBay link just in case there are physical copies out there). Your only option for playing it on original hardware may be to buy one of those nifty Harmony cartridge thingies and load the ROM onto it. However you decide to play it, I think you’ll enjoy it. Although it’s a prototype, I think it’s complete enough for a letter grade: A-.
Kaboom! (Activision, 1981)
One thing I’ve discovered since I started this blog is that it’s far easier to describe why a bad video game is bad than it is to explain why a good video game is good. This correlates to the length of my reviews – I frequently find that my reviews of my favourite games are often quite short compared to those of games I don’t care for. Sometimes it’s just easier to say a game is “fun” because, when it comes to video games (at least classic video games) that alone carries a lot of weight. However, what makes a game like Kaboom! so fun? Mike and James of Cinemassacre have a pretty good explanation at the 15:38 mark of this video. To paraphrase, if video games are all about escapism, then Kaboom! is practically the ultimate video game because you have to focus so intensely on the action at hand – you don’t have the luxury of letting your mind wander.
The game mechanics of Kaboom! should be as familiar to classic gamers as Asteroids or Pac-Man, but just in case you are not familiar with it, the game casts you against a mad bomber who drops bombs which you catch with your three buckets. If you miss one, you lose a bucket. That’s the game. The bombs drop faster and faster with each level until they become so mind-numbingly fast that you fall into the zone Mike and James refer to in the video. Suffice it to say that you need a pair of good working paddles for this game.
I don’t care how much of a serious triple-A game, No Man’s Sky-playing snob you are; if Kaboom! cannot make you crack a smile, there’s something wrong with you at the very depths of your soul. The graphics are up there in the top tier of any game available for any system in 1981 and the sounds – while minimal – are “2600 realistic” (the crackling of the bombs is particularly impressive). Kaboom! isn’t a perfect game – I would like to have seen game variations that allow you to practice at higher difficulties rather than being pushed back to the very easy first level with each reset – but it’s pretty close. A
Kamikaze Saucers (Syncro Prototype, Developed 1983)
There are prototypes (Ixion, smiles, nods head) and then there are prototypes (Kamikaze Saucers, frowns, shakes head). Kamikaze Saucers is, as far as anyone knows, the only game ever produced by Syncro and – with all apologies to Dan Wolf, the programmer credited on the title screen – it really feels unfinished. It plays similar to Atlantis in that it’s a fixed-position shooter that requires a lot of shot-leading to hit the enemy “fighters” (they don’t actually fight back – you only lose when you run out of ammo) but that’s where the comparisons end. It’s hard to criticize it too harshly though; according to Atari Protos, Wolf himself made the ROM available to the AtariAge community, so it’s a freebie. Enjoy it for what it is: a pleasant diversion. As far as I’ve been able to tell, Kamikaze Saucers is only available as a ROM for emulation purposes or to load on a Harmony cart, but I’m leaving the eBay link just in case.
Kangaroo (Atari, 1983)
Most arcade ports produced by Atari – especially in the red and silver label era – were pretty on-point. However, if some of them had one fault it was difficulty compared to their coin-op cousins; although I adore them both, Dig Dug and Ms. Pac-Man were just ever so slightly easier than their arcade namesakes. I don’t know where Kangaroo falls on that spectrum because I have never played the arcade game nor any other home versions of the game. What I do know is that it is ridiculously, inexcusably, unconscionably hard.
At first glance, Kangaroo has all the makings of a classic platformer. You guide a mama kangaroo on her way to rescuing her baby at the top of the screen. Along the way you contend with monkeys who throw deadly coconuts at you that you must duck under, hop over or punch. You can also punch the monkeys, which you’ll want to do a lot of because those guys are jerks. There is also a lot of fruit to collect for extra points as well as bells to ring to replenish your fruit supply. This bothered me a little; you could easily (well, not easily – nothing’s easy in this game) spend the game collecting fruit rather than rescuing the baby kangaroo. Kangaroo is from a time in the history of platform games in which designers had not yet decided whether to emphasize points or object completion – something that would not be perfected until the release of Super Mario Bros.
Kangaroo looks ugly and plays ugly. The mama kangaroo moves slowly. There are apples that drop directly on you that are easy enough to avoid unless you’re on a ladder, at which point you’re a sitting duck. The graphics are not up to Atari’s contemporary standards for coin-op translations and it comes down less to system capability and more to choices: why, for example, have an ugly blue background rather than a black one, which would have been more in line with the arcade game? That was one of many things that dampened people’s enjoyment of Atari 2600 Pac-Man. On the plus side, the sounds and music are above-average.
It’s not often I give a game a low grade due to extreme difficulty but once you consider the game’s poor graphics, sluggish gameplay and higher expectations from the designers, Kangaroo rates a D+.
Karate (Ultravision 1983, Froggo Rerelease 1987)
Kabobber and Kaboom! aside, it’s starting to look like the “k’s” of the Atari 2600 collection may be a pretty spotty bunch. Karate is considered notoriously awful among the 2600 fan community and from that perspective it didn’t disappoint, although I’ve played far worse. The sprites are big, blocky and ugly. It’s almost impossible to tell whether your punch or kick has connected with your opponent unless you’re watching the score meter. The controls are unreliable; as is standard with fighting games on the VCS your moves are made through a variety of directional/fire button combos. However, you’ll frequently find yourself doing an upper cut when you meant to do a high kick. There is some slight enjoyment to be had once you master the moves as best as you can, but it is very slight and very fleeting. D-