Kung Fu Master (Activision, 1987)
Kung Fu Master is one of those games that should have “sure thing” written all over it. One look at the graphics and one listen to the audio and it would appear that way. I do not say this very often, but this game is terrible simply because IT’S TOO FREAKING HARD!!!! I’m sorry, but I can’t always be objective. I can’t always say “Ha-ha – I suck at it, but great game.” I’m human. And I’ve been playing this thing for a week and I have had it! So I’m letting my visceral, gut-level reaction stand. Screw that Yakuza asshole with his knives that steal most of your energy before you even get to the big boss. Screw the way the game sends you back all the way to the start in the likely event the boss kicks your ass. Screw the fact that you can’t do jump kicks. I think it’s clear: between this garbage, Karate, Chuck Norris Superkicks and the Double Dragon port (also by Activision), the Atari 2600 was simply not cut out for martial arts games.
I don’t understand what Activision was doing around this point in time. Why were they even doing coin-op ports? They never needed to in the 1980-84 golden era – they were always capable of coming up with their own ideas or putting interesting twists on existing games. Most of all, though, almost all of their games catered to a wide palette of gaming skill, allowing you to take on higher challenges as you got better. Kung Fu Master offers no such luxury, and it’s a problem inherent in a lot of late-period Atari 2600 games, not just ones by Activision. There was obviously no time or budget to put in game variations – graphics came first because they were competing with the NES and the Sega Master System. Gameplay just had to be set at the highest possible difficulty. Sorry, but it doesn’t wash with me; if it’s not possible to do your best job within certain limitations, move on to greener pastures. I’m giving Kung Fu Master a D- just for the graphics and sounds and for them alone.
Lady Bug (Homebrew, 2006)
Colour me impressed by this absolutely wonderful homebrew port of the classic coin-op Lady Bug. Originally set to be released by Coleco way back in the day, it wasn’t until 2006 that homebrew programmer John W. Champeau delivered this version of the maze game. And considering the hit-and-miss nature of Coleco’s titles for the 2600, in my opinion it was well worth the wait for this quality port.
Now, I’ll admit I haven’t played Lady Bug in a long time (over three decades ago on the Colecovision, in fact), but this version brought back a lot of memories. For a maze game, Lady Bug is a game of surprising depth. Trailing off significantly from the standard Pac-Man formula, the game features multiple objectives. The main one, of course, is to eat all the flowers in the maze while avoiding insects and stationary skulls.
But what really makes the game are the multiplier and special/extra features. Multipliers and letters flash blue, red and yellow but must be eaten while a certain colour in order to work. Spell EXTRA for a bonus lady bug or SPECIAL for a bonus round in which you go around a garden eating veggies for extra points. Vegetables such as eggplant and cucumbers periodically appear in the middle of the screen for big points.
Let’s not forget one of the defining features of the game: the adjustable maze. Going through a green door switches the corridor around, closing the door behind you and creating a neat way to avoid pursuing insects. This is the only maze game I know of (other than Mouse Trap, except this is much better) where you literally create a new maze as you play.
The graphics are bright and colourful with minimal flicker, and the sounds and music are 2600-perfect. If I have one complaint, it’s that on the earlier levels it can take a long time for the insects to clear the center block (similar in concept to the monster house in Pac-Man) and allow the bonus point vegetables to appear. That’s such a minor gripe, however, that I barely found it worth mentioning. Lady Bug can be purchased at the AtariAge store. A
Laser Blast (Activision, 1981)
Meet the game that dares to ask ARE YOU READY FOR SOME FOOTBALL??? (Gratuitous MST3K reference alert.) Seriously, though, I love Laser Blast for a number of reasons. For one, it’s one of the first games ever made where you’re actually the aggressor. Second, getting to the point where you can take out two or three cannons at once is totally OG. Third, the game lets you exact revenge on the cannon that kills you by letting you crash into it and get a score for it to boot.
Laser Blast plays kind of like an upside-down Missile Command. You’re a flying saucer blowing up three earthbound laser cannons before they destroy you. Sounds like just about every Atari game right? Well, the difference is, instead of dodging and firing puny little bolts, you’re actually dodging frickin’ lasers that act like frickin’ lasers: huge beams of concentrated light that will blow you out of the sky without a moment’s notice. The good news is you’re equally armed with the same three-point directional fire, and as you get better it becomes infinitely satisfying to destroy as many of the cannons as possible as quickly as possible.
And being quick is certainly the key to success at Laser Blast. You have to constantly keep moving, anticipating where and when the cannons are going to fire. Unfortunately, this leads to the game’s solitary flaw: you cannot move while shooting and that frequently leaves you a sitting duck. That does make the game more challenging, however, so I’ll leave it up to you whether it’s a flaw or a feature.
Laser Blast’s graphics and sounds are basic but crisp, and the way the ground shakes slightly when you crash is a nice touch – especially for a game released in 1981. Laser Blast is an early classic, released right around the time the Atari VCS was becoming a real force to be reckoned with. A
Laser Gates (Imagic, 1983)
Laser Gates loses points for lack of variety. There’s nothing structurally wrong with it – it’s a reasonably entertaining Vanguard-style scrolling shooter with moderately challenging obstacles and serviceable sounds and graphics. But there’s simply no endgame; as the Video Game Critic pointed out, even a change in screen colour would have worked wonders to interrupt the monotony.
The titular gates are actually the easiest obstacle of all those in the game – it only takes a couple of plays to figure out their timing and avoid them. Harder are the tiny heat-seeking missiles, bats and rock munchers, but the radar mortars are stationary and easy to pick off. Solid rock barriers present some difficulty but you can easily shoot a hole through them via careful movement. The “boss” (I realize we didn’t call them that back then) – such as it is – is a detonator you have to destroy. Cleverly, it’s marked 6507 – a reference to the number of points it’s worth and, more significantly, the type of CPU used by the Atari 2600.
The actual gameplay area takes up only a third of the screen; the rest is consumed by a huge and largely useless instrument panel (shields are the only gauge you need to pay attention to most of the time). Laser Gates isn’t so much bad but bland. Imagic was capable of much better. C-
Lasercade (20th Century Fox Prototype, Developed 1983)
With a little fine-tuning, Lasercade could have been a quality release for the 2600. While its shooting gallery concept is not original, its three-quarter perspective certainly is, as are the deflecting mirrors in the middle of the screen. The simulated vector graphics are quite nice as well. The gameplay, however, leaves something to be desired.
You control an extendable cannon that shoots a variety of targets including lightbulbs, dragons, firecrackers and lamps. In the middle of the screen are three mirrors that can deflect your shot and stun you momentarily. You will most certainly hit these at some point, so you’re better off just aiming at the targets rather than trying to avoid the mirrors. Once you hit all of the targets in a wave, you get a bonus round where you attempt to hit one of the candles on a candelabra.
Lasercade’s collision detection is fairly poor and for that reason I can see why Fox executives may not have been impressed with developer Videa’s efforts here. However, it’s worth a look just for the graphics alone. More information is available on Atari Protos. I echo a lot of the same sentiments as the writer of that piece, but only because I agree with them. No letter rating for this proto.