Atari 2600 Game Reviews: Lead through Lord of the Rings: Journey to Rivendell

lead_AtariGameLead (Homebrew, 2008)

If you thought an Atari 2600 game couldn’t possibly get more manic than Kaboom!, then you obviously haven’t played Lead. This homebrew by Simone Serra is a virtual adrenaline junkie’s dream; its whole reason for being to test your hand-eye coordination to its very limits. The gameplay and the exemplary, multichannel sound combine to create a wholly immersive experience to which you must give one hundred per cent of your attention if you wish to succeed.

The game includes four modes: “Fire,” “Dodge,” “Scramble” and “Catch” and they’re all pretty much self-explanatory. Over a sparse game screen reminiscent of an overhead Night Driver, aliens rain down upon you at a dizzying rate and you must spray fire (lead?) at them; if even one reaches the bottom, the game is over, although you can continue on your current level while abandoning your score. The “Dodge” mode is much the same except you’re dodging rocks rather than shooting. I didn’t care much for the “Scramble” mode (the obstacles moved like one of those old LED Coleco Mini Arcades and it was hard to tell when a collision was about to take place). I’ve yet to make it to a “Catch” mode.

Lead is a new-generation, next-level challenge for dedicated Atari 2600 fans, one that proves the platform’s ongoing worth. B+

Buy Lead at the AtariAge store.

LockNChase_AtariGameLock ‘N’ Chase (M Network, 1982)

Pac-Man did not appear for the Intellivision until quite late in the platform’s shelf life, so for a time Lock ‘N’ Chase filled a popular demand for similar games on the system. On the 2600, however, it was just one of many such games, and given how many superior alternatives are out there, it comes across as half-baked.

You play a thief attempting to pick up all of the gold bars in a maze while avoiding four police officers. Your only defence is the ability to lock doors behind you, and it’s not a very reliable one (doors sometimes seem to form in random places where you don’t need them and often they’re just as likely to trap you rather than get the police off your tail). There are treasures that pop up in the middle of the screen that you can collect for big points.

That’s pretty much it. There’s not a lot of depth to the game. The audio and graphics are sparse and there are no variations on the original maze – not even a change in colour. Like some other M Network titles (Dark Cavern springs to mind), the B difficulty is a little too easy while the A game is exceptionally difficult. Lock ‘N’ Chase is just kind of blah. If you love maze games you’ll probably want to try it. Everyone else should just stick with Ms. Pac-Man, Jr. Pac-Man or even Alien. C

More Info: Lock ‘N’ Chase on AtariAge. For current listings of Lock ‘N’ Chase for sale on eBay, click here

LondonBlitz_AtariGameLondon Blitz (Avalon Hill, 1983)

London Blitz is a game I really wanted to like. For one thing, its pseudo three-dimensional playfield looks great. It’s a game that requires a great deal of memorization and guesswork, which under ideal circumstances are my personal brain candy. However, it’s just not that great in execution.

The game sets you up on the streets of London directly following World War Two. Your job is to disarm unexploded bombs located throughout the city, using clues supplied by the bombs’ indicator lights. You have a certain number of time and tries before a given bomb explodes. The game is divided between a map view and the “street” view (it’s actually just an orange maze – so don’t expect to see Big Ben or the Thames). The map helps you locate your own location and those of the bombs, while you traverse the maze using a highly non-intuitive directional system that takes some getting used to.

I think the problem with London Blitz is that it’s a little too ambitious for its own good. There was obviously a lot of effort put into the abstract graphics, but it’s hard to tell exactly when or if a game ends or even if you’re winning or losing. And for a game with such high stakes, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of suspense or tension. I, of all people, know that classic gaming – particularly on this generation of consoles – requires a lot of imagination to fill in the blanks, but London Blitz fails to offer crucial information key to gameplay. C-

More Info: London Blitz on AtariAge. For current listings of London Blitz for sale on eBay, click here

Looping_AtariGameLooping (Coleco Prototype, Developed 1983)

I’ve had the bad luck lately of running into several games I’ve found exceptionally difficult, which in turn has slowed down my writing considerably. I realize I’m reviewing a bunch of mostly decades-old games — many of which can be downloaded for free with few legal implications – but dammit, I take my job seriously. So I do my best to explore as many difficulty settings and variations as I can in order to do a fair review. The problem with Looping, though, is that all of its difficulty settings range from hard as ass to harder than ass.

Looping is a side-scrolling shooter with a difference. It reminds me somewhat of Gravitar in that they both feature unconventional and difficult flight schemes. However (as unfair as it might be to compare a commercially-released product to a prototype), Gravitar featured game variations with enormous number of lives to accommodate for its difficulty; Looping offers only five lives, and you will hemorrhage them quickly.

As the title suggests, your plane can only move in clockwise and counter-clockwise formations. Although hitting the top of the screen makes you nosedive towards the bottom of the screen, you can often use this to your advantage, especially when you’re pursuing the first level’s primary objective: destroying the airport terminal. That alone is challenging enough, but you also have these stupid hot-air balloons zipping all over the place that are very easy to run into if you can’t shoot them first.

The graphics and audio are basic but are nevertheless very crisp. As much as I hated the hot-air balloons, I have to admit they look really nice. From what I know (admittedly little) about the coin-op and Colecovision versions of Looping, this 2600 proto seems like it was as done as it was ever gonna get, and thus deserving of a letter grade. I did enjoy Looping to some degree and appreciate its innovative approach, but I personally found it too difficult. For those who are very patient and seeking a next-level challenge, however, feel free to add an extra letter grade. C-

More Info: Looping on AtariAge.


Lord of the Rings: Journey to Rivendell (Parker Brothers Prototype, Developed 1983)

For decades, Atari 2600 players have complained about the Raiders of the Lost Ark game’s dual controller movement and inventory system. The Lord of the Rings: Journey to Rivendell prototype proves that the Raiders system – clunky as it was – offers one of the few ways a programmer can develop an enjoyable RPG on the system. Without it, you’re not doing much more than running around, which is essentially all Lord of the Rings has to offer.

To its credit, Lord of the Rings follows the first third or so of the story of The Fellowship of the Ring – albeit in shorthand. You start out in Hobbiton with your pal Sam Gamgee and make your way through forests and open areas to Bree. There you pick up Boromir, who will guide you to Gandalf, who will help you by casting spells against the Ring Wraiths that endlessly stalk you on your journey to Rivendell. It sounds like quite an exciting journey but in reality it is extremely repetitious. In order to capture the sprawling nature of the tale, Parker Brothers made the game hundreds of screens huge but in reality it’s just a few scenes (town, forest, open area, path, river) repeated over and over again.

And that’s where my biggest beef comes in. Although the title screen comes with a handy map (not to mention a handsome pixelated rendering of the familiar LOTR calligraphy), you can only access it while you’re in a town or forest. This is troublesome because the game gives you a “wound” (basically you lose one of three lives) if you spend too long in the forest.

Avoiding the Ring Wraiths is troublesome. Birds are constantly flying overhead, spying on you and alerting the Wraiths of your presence. You can use the ring to hide from them, but doing so speeds up the Ring Wraiths. Your best bet is to hit the trail and ride like hell away from the Wraiths, hiding briefly in a forest if necessary.

And this is where it would have been nice to have even one weapon. It wouldn’t be true to the story for Frodo to fight the Wraiths, but surely he could use old Sting to take out a few of those pesky birds. But you can’t do that without some kind of inventory system a la Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Some say Lord of the Rings is pretty much complete, but I’m not convinced. It’s worth checking out just to consider what might have been, but as a game it’s pretty boring. No letter grade.

More Info: Lord of the Rings: Journey to Rivendell on AtariAge.

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