Moonsweeper (Imagic, 1983)
Moonsweeper is a unique little space shooter that kind of reminds me of a third-person-perspective version of Defender with a touch of Gravitar for good measure. You start out in space, dodging and shooting aurora flares, photon torches and, um, “space bullets” (don’t look at me like that – it’s in the manual). Much like Phoenix, you can erect a temporary shield by pushing down on the joystick. Your goal at this stage is to land on a planet, which you should do as soon as possible as the outer space component of the game can be relentless.
Once on the planet, your goal is to rescue six miners while battling surface destroyers and avoiding or destroying towers (you can go from very slow to very fast here – I recommend going very slow if you’re a beginner). Enemy satellites appear at the top of the screen from time to time Space Invaders-style; they don’t fire at you but are worth big points if you hit them. Once you collect all six miners, you must then fly through a series of accelerator rings in order to blast off from the planet. In easier variations these rings are placed all in a row, making it easy to escape. The game throws a monkey wrench in the works in harder variations by making you snake your way through the rings.
Moonsweeper is a beautifully-designed game. Like most Imagic games, it looks like you’re playing a console at least one generation more powerful than the Atari 2600. I like how you can guide your missile to shoot at an angle, creating an almost heat-seeking-missile effect. The downside of the game is that once you complete a mission there’s not much more for the game to do but get harder. I realize I just about described every Atari 2600 game in that sentence, but Moonsweeper has such an epic build-up that it feels like there should be more to it. Still well worthwhile. B
Motocross Racer (Xonox, 1984)
Before I get to my review of Motocross Racer, I just want to share something that happened today that reinforces my preference for classic gaming. My wife is a big Minecraft fan. Her preferred platform for the game is the PS3 (I know – a pretty ancient console itself at this point). It looks like the game’s most recent update destroyed all of her worlds. It’s a First World problem, to be sure, but that doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking because it amounted to the loss of literally years and years of work. Yes, we should have saved the data on an external device – it’s too late for that now. I’ll always prefer the days when games came complete right out of the box, whether it was on a cartridge, a floppy disk or a CD. I know it’s a fool’s errand to compare little 4K games to the incredibly sophisticated titles of today, but I still have so much more fun with these old games and, as was reinforced today, there is so much less risk.
Anyway, Motocross Racing is one of those games that by any metric should be a slam-dunk but isn’t. It features three modes of play, nice graphics and Atari 2600-realistic gameplay, and yet it’s kind of blah. I find this to be a bit of a trend with Xonox games, a company most famous for its two-games-in-one double-ender cartridges (I’m not sure if Motocross Racing was given that same treatment or not). Xonox’s Spike’s Peak, for example, also features decent graphics and a variety of gameplay but also feels dull as dirt. Both games are hampered by sticky, frustrating controls (particularly the Hill Climb portion in the case of Motocross Racer) which play a large role in their mediocrity. The rest is just a certain je ne sais quoi of boredom.
There’s not a lot of information out there on Motocross Racer, so I feel some duty to share what I know. The first screen is a third-person perspective qualifying race. You must avoid crashing into cacti, creatures and rocks while keeping up with your pace time. With every crash your bike becomes a little less powerful – five crashes and the game is over. Make it through that stage and you’re on to the Hill Climb; this is where the controls become really sticky. It’s really easy to go off track and slow down to a crawl. I admit I’ve never made it past that level, but apparently the final stage is a Beach Sprint from a top-down perspective. It’s entirely possible that this level made up for the wretched second race, but frankly I’m not motivated to find out. I wish Xonox would have just made each of the races selectable. As it is, Motocross Racer just feels half-baked. D+
Motorodeo (Atari, 1990)
While it always kind of tickles me that Atari was releasing games for the 2600 as late as 1990, it kind of saddens me at the same time. If Atari could have weathered the Crash, released the 7800 in 1984 like it was supposed to and released a next-gen system to compete with the NES by ’86 or ’87, they may have been ahead of the market. Instead, they waited until 1986 to release the by-then inferior 7800 and continued to promote the ancient 2600.
That’s neither here nor there for Motorodeo, which is a pretty okay game. It’s kind of like Excitebike except with monster trucks and a lot more obstacles and scoring opportunities. Not to say it’s as good as Excitebike, but it’s not bad. Racing against the computer or a friend, you jump over ramps, hit platforms, perform awesome stunts, plow through mud, break down walls and more. There’s actually a lot of action going on, but the challenge is reasonable. Good number of difficulty variations as well, with practice modes focusing on each of the obstacles. Players can compete for either time or points.
Motorodeo’s controls are nice and responsive. Its graphics and sound are okay though nothing special. Atari and other companies had proved they could get better graphics out of the system by this point, but with this game Atari opted to enhance gameplay instead, which was ultimately a good choice. While not essential, Motorodeo is a fun little cart that is worth your while, especially if you like racing/stunting games. B-
Mountain King (CBS Electronics, 1983)
I must admit I’ve been dreading reviewing Mountain King for some time because it’s one of the most convoluted and difficult games available for the 2600. At the same time, it’s a very good quest/platformer game with lots of depth but hampered by difficult controls and frequently unrealistic expectations of the player.
The goal of Mountain King is to retrieve a crown from deep within the depths of a mountain. The first thing you must do is retrieve 1,000 points worth of diamonds. Once that is achieved, you must find the flame spirit that will allow you to access the temple where the crown is located. This part is pretty neat as it’s one of the few examples in an Atari 2600 game where music plays a crucial role in gameplay – the louder the music is, the closer you are to the flame spirit.
So, flame spirit in hand, you enter the temple and take the crown. So far, so good. Now you must make your way back up the mountain, and this is exactly the point where everything goes to hell. Jumping to higher platforms in this game is difficult because you essentially have to take a running jump at your target platform. The problem is many of the platforms are not long enough to accommodate this action. In the middle of all this messing around, you are more likely than not going to have your crown stolen by a bat, at which point you have to begin the whole process of collecting diamonds and finding the flame spirit anew. Oh, did I mention you only have eight minutes to do all the stuff I mentioned above? Yeah, it’s a MFer of a game.
Mountain King is a game I appreciate more than I enjoy. I admire the thought that went into the gameplay and the audacity it took to design such a complicated game for the 2600. On the other hand, I feel CBS Electronics fell short on delivering on the technical end of the game, particularly where it comes to control. But for those of you patient enough to invest lots of time and effort into a game, Mountain King could be quite rewarding. C+
Mouse Trap (Coleco, 1982)
Back in my Lady Bug homebrew review I kind of took a swipe at this similar but much older Coleco production. As maze games go I still prefer Lady Bug, but repeated plays of Mouse Trap have won me over.
In Mouse Trap you play a mouse making its way through a maze of cheese (mmm – maze of cheese) while avoiding a quartet of feline foes. Although similar in gameplay, the element that differentiates Mouse Trap from Pac-Man is the fact you can switch the maze corridors around – usually to your advantage (coincidentally, this is the differentiating factor in Lady Bug as well). Mouse Trap’s version of power pellets (in this case crudely-rendered bones) is also unique; rather than having to use a bone to pursue the cats immediately after eating one, you can save up to four bones for later use. Better yet, you can carry them over across levels. Oh yeah, and the bones also turn you into a hungry cat-eating dog, with surprisingly realistic kitty screeches to match their fates.
There are only a couple of real problems with Mouse Trap. For one, it suffers from Atari 2600 one-buttonitis; to switch the maze around you hold down the action button for about a second, but to activate a bone you need to lightly tap on that one and only button. This takes some getting used to, but to the game’s credit the system is surprisingly fluid once you get the hang of it. I also found the game a little easy once I had figured out a few basic patterns, making long-term play a bit monotonous. It would have been a nice touch if Coleco had altered the colours of the maze between levels, but I suppose that’s no different from arcade Pac-Man, which certainly never suffered for that fact.
Mouse Trap is an above-average maze game with virtually flicker-free graphics, nice sprite animation and even some brief but effective music. Although it comes down a little on the easy side with practice, figuring out the patterns that work is still a lot of fun. B
(Update 10/10/2018: I just played arcade Mouse Trap on MAME for the first time. Good game, but sometimes only having one button can be a GOOD thing.)