Keystone Kapers (Activision, 1983)
Here’s a public service announcement (and something of a spoiler alert in the confines of this blog): all Activision games produced for the Atari 2600 between the years 1980 and 1984 are worth playing at least once. Even the relative duds like Cosmic Commuter and (the yet-unreviewed) Sky Jinks have something worth your attention. Of course, some are better than others. Keystone Kapers is one that is better than almost all of them, and by that I mean not just Activision games – the entire Atari 2600 library.
OK, I realize Keystone Kapers is basically Pitfall in a shopping mall, with bags of cash taking the place of jewels; balls, toy airplanes and shopping carts in place of rolling logs and scorpions; and stationary radios filling in for immobile snakes. But throw in a timed cops ‘n robbers caper along with elevators and escalators and you’ve got one of the best platformers in the second generation of programmable video game console titles. It may not be as technically or graphically impressive as contemporary Pitfall II (although it’s no slouch in either department either), but in my opinion it beats it on the pure gut-level fun spectrum.
Almost needless to say, the action gets pretty frenetic as the first few levels are conquered. Shopping carts and other obstacles fly around like mad, although not without clearly identifiable patterns. It gets to the point where every second counts and it pays to develop some strategies around how to jump over and duck under obstacles as time-efficiently as possible. That might be a chore for some games, but for Keystone Kapers it’s a delight. You must own Keystone Kapers. A+
King Kong (Tigervision, 1982)
King Kong is a Donkey Kong clone but it’s a pretty decent Donkey Kong clone. It’s basically the same scenario: gorilla captures girl, guy scales a building to rescue girl, guy jumps over stuff in the process. The difference is that instead of barrels, you jump over bombs that unpredictably zip all over the place (including up ladders), which in some ways makes King Kong more difficult than its source material. There are also “smart bombs” which, upon jumping over them, transport your man up one level. You have to be careful with these because you will sometimes find yourself put right in the way of an oncoming bomb. The graphics are, well, there – the titular King Kong looks as ugly as his Donkey cousin in his 2600 incarnations. Between King Kong, Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Junior we are so far 0 for 3 when it comes to renderings of gorillas in VCS games. Best just to ignore it and focus on this game’s considerable play value. While there are better Donkey Kong-style titles out there for the system (Fast Eddie springs to mind), King Kong is worth at least a couple of plays. C
KLAX (Atari, 1990, Europe Only)
KLAX is a minor masterpiece from the Atari 2600’s late era, as the little Pong console that could soldiered bravely on into the decade of the Weirdly Wide Web, presidential cigar misadventures and Lilith Fair. Released commercially only in PAL format (although there were a handful of NTSC prototypes produced), KLAX is a Tetris-type game that highlights the VCS’ latent strengths as a great platform for puzzle games. Coloured tiles descend from a series of ramps, with the player flipping them into bins to form “Klaxes”: three or more tiles of the same colour in horizontal, vertical or diagonal rows. There are 100 different waves, each featuring its own objective including number of Klaxes, type of Klaxes, point goals and more. It packs a lot of entertainment into a small package. What’s with that manual, though? I’ve seen computer user manuals shorter than KLAX’s instructions, and keep in mind I pretty much just described the entire game. Readers of early entries may wonder why I’m raving about KLAX yet gave a middling review to Acid Drop, a similar game. KLAX’s graphics and sounds are clear and crisp while Acid Drop had a cheesy ‘70s feel despite being released in 1992. It just goes to show that, sometimes, the difference between a B+ and a D is incremental. It’s simply more fun, and a particular recommendation for fans of Tetris, Dr. Mario and similar games.
Kool Aid Man (M Network, 1983)
Most promotional video games are pretty poor (Chase the Chuckwagon anyone?) but Kool Aid Man is pretty solid. I’m not sure if the game was ever available at retail outlets, but there was a promotion back in the ‘8-3 in which kids (or others, I suppose) would send proof of purchase to General Mills in exchange for the Kool Aid Man game. My guess is it was fairly successful – AtariAge rates it a “4” (scarce) for availability, which is pretty good for a limited edition title. Kool Aid Man is dead simple but addictive. The game starts with a cool splash screen that features the titular pitcher of sugar water crashing through a wall just like in the old commercials. From there you attempt to stop some demony creatures called the Thirsties from drinking all the water in Kool Aid Man’s pool by banging into them when they extend their straws into the water. Non-drinking Thirsties will attempt to knock you around the screen, costing you precious time (the good news is you can often take out some drinking Thirsties in mid-flight). Grabbing Kool Aid ingredients (water, sugar, drink mix), however, makes you temporarily invincible. Mattel also released a Kool Aid Man game for the Intellivision but my understanding is it’s much different. Kool Aid Man doesn’t offer a lot of gameplay depth but it’s good, fast fun. B-
Krull (Atari, 1983)
This game was such a lost opportunity. I never owned Krull as a kid but I absolutely fell in love with the game’s graphics and sounds when I saw the game on display. It would be decades before I actually played the game and – wow – what a disappointment. Krull had the potential to be a superb adventure game for the 2600 but instead it failed at the hands of programmers who decided they would rather torture the players rather than design a playable, enjoyable game.
Krull starts with a marriage ceremony at which the boss’ minions make an unwelcome appearance. This is actually quite a fun level as you go around stabbing these guys, but eventually one or more of them will reach the bottom and kidnap the princess. The next screen requires you to pick up a “glaive” whilst on horseback. So far, so good. The horses make some very nice clomping sounds and the whole scene is well-animated.
After that, however, the whole enterprise goes to crap. The game proceeds to rip off a scene from Atari’s own Raiders of the Lost Ark (another movie adaptation released mere months before) set in a spider’s web. While avoiding the spider, you have to jump over its webs (they’ll slow you down if you touch them, and you almost always do) to reach a cocoon in a middle of the screen that will locate the pathway to the next sequence. This level is frustrating because you can only leave the spider’s web level during the daytime (as indicated by a rising and setting sun) and sometimes even then it won’t allow you out. Even once you do, you will still spend an inordinate amount of time on this screen later in the game, but I’ll get to that.
Once you’re out of the spider web level, you’re treated to a version of the second screen, except this time the horses run much faster and the glaives and extra lives are harder to pick up. If you complete this stage before the sun goes down a glimmering castle (which I must admit is quite striking) will rise.
What follows is a tedious boss battle in which you use your glaives to essentially play a game of Breakout against the castle walls as the boss shoots fireballs at you. If you break the princess out you’re rewarded with a weapon that can destroy the boss, but the far more likely circumstance is that he will capture your glaives, forcing you to go back to the previous screen for a sad ride back to the spider web level in order to repeat the process all over again.
I’ve been more descriptive of Krull than I usually am for most games and, to be fair, it is a little more in-depth than your average VCS title. But it also highlights how compelling the gameplay could have been if the designers hadn’t decided to center the majority of the action around that infuriating spider web sequence and put the player in a never-ending battle between its day and nighttime modes. I’m tempted to give Krull an F, but it up-rates to a D simply by benefit of the game’s couple of fun levels as well as its smart graphics and sound effects.