Night Driver (Atari, 1980)
With its third-person perspective and pseudo-3D graphics, Night Driver blew peoples’ minds back in 1980. For Atari, this cart and its coin-op predecessor represented another notch in their belt of video game innovation. What red-blooded kid didn’t pretend those moving roadside poles looked like Han Solo jumping into hyperspace with the Millennium Falcon? But that was then and this is now. And now, I’m not so sure Night Driver stands the test of time.
It might have helped if Night Driver was actually a racing game, but it’s not. There are cars on the road to avoid crashing into, but you’re not in competition with them. Rather, you get points by passing unseen markers on the road. You also do not have a lot of control over speed – frequently, your choice is to either go full-tilt or stop completely. It all feels a little one-dimensional.
So why am I picking on Night Driver while giving similarly simplistic ‘70s classics like Breakout and Pong a pass? Well, no matter how much you Arkanoid Breakout up, it’s still the same basic game – there’s not much further you can take it without the game becoming fundamentally different. But third-person driving/racing games evolved very quickly; the year after Night Driver was released for the 2600, Turbo was released in the arcade and Pole Position came soon thereafter. It wasn’t long after that we had home versions of Pole Position and Enduro for the 2600. All of these games simulated driving and racing far better than Night Driver, even within the same generation of video games.
That doesn’t mean Night Driver doesn’t have anything to recommend it. First of all, it’s a paddle game and paddles make any game more fun. Second of all, it’s quite a kick to round those wild corners at high speed – as I alluded to before, the poles on the side of the road deliver quite the light show. (I should mention here that you don’t actually control the car – which is inert – but the road itself to create the illusion of controlling the car. That was Atari’s main innovation in the arcade original.) And there’s enough difficulty variation to keep you busy for at least a little while. The main problem is that technology would quickly make Night Driver obsolete. C-
Nightmare aka Stuntman (Sancho, Europe-only, 1983)
A piece of garbage. The objective of Nightmare is a mystery to me, not helped by the lack of instructions online. Best I can tell you jump and climb a series of moving ropes while avoiding graphics ripped off from Demon Attack. You make your way up into a helicopter and you’re on to the next level, where you’re suddenly given a pickaxe to turn what looks like clowns into the aforementioned graphics from Demon Attack. When you die it takes forever for the “action” to start again. Nightmare was actually released twice; that’s why it’s also known as Stuntman by Panda. The only nightmare about Nightmare is playing it. F
No Escape! (Imagic, 1983)
This is one strange game. While No Escape! features some superficial similarities to Breakout, I’m not aware of any game – past or present – that has a similar game mechanic. It’s truly one of a kind.
I’ll spare you the Greek mythology that acts as the backstory of the game. Essentially, your goal is to hit a vertical row of “Furies” (usually shirtless men or vultures) with bricks. The kicker is you can’t hit them directly; you have to throw your shot just right at a Breakout-style matrix at the top of the screen, causing a brick to drop and fall on one of the Furies. If you hit a Furie directly, it will merely multiply into two Furies. Hitting the Furies doesn’t amount to much in the way of scoring; most of your points are tallied at the end of every round and are based on how many bricks are still left at the top of the screen once all the Furies have been eliminated.
Eventually, the Furies start shooting at you, albeit in a way that’s predictable. The hard part, though, comes when they start going back and forth on the screen in increasingly unpredictable patterns. This is where you’re going to need to start angling your shots (direction and distance are key here). The good news is the game becomes easier as you figure out the Furies’ patterns and the right ways to throw your stones.
No Escape! can get a little monotonous until you figure out your strategies, which may need to change considerably between rounds. Otherwise, there’s a lot to sink your teeth into with No Escape! I’m not sure if I want to call it a hidden gem, but it’s certainly worth your while. B
Obelix (Atari, 1983)
Another strange game. Obelix is licensed from the same French comic book that brought us Asterix, but unlike that game (which played exactly the same as Taz except with different characters), Obelix is an entirely original game in more ways than one. It was apparently released in North America in small quantities; Atari Protos speculates that the majority of those carts found their way to Francophone Canada where the market would be more familiar with the characters.
Although titled Obelix, the game also features Asterix in one of the more unique examples of cooperative play I’ve ever seen. You control Asterix, “freezing” Roman soldiers by touching them. From there, you have a few seconds for the lummoxy Obelix to drop a rock on the head of the frozen soldier before it turns into an invincible red soldier. You do this by pressing the action button at the precise moment; however, that is the only way to control Obelix, who lumbers slowly across the top of the screen. You have to coordinate Asterix’s freezing with Obelix’s speed and direction in order to avoid dealing with a red soldier. Every minute or so Getafix drops a magic potion from above that can make Asterix invincible for a few seconds; this is the only state in which he can revert the red soldiers back into blue soldiers.
There are some things about the game the manual does not explain – an oddity among typically-comprehensive Atari instructions. Why, for example, do the soldiers turn into letters after they are hit by a stone and before they turn back into soldiers? Is it some kind of Mouse Trap or pinball kind of thing where you spell something out for an extra life? Even after a couple of hours of play, I can’t see how it amounts to anything.
I really like the cooperative game mechanic. Even though it’s incredibly awkward at first, once you adjust to it it’s terrific fun. My problem with the game is that there’s no sense of completion; once hit, the soldiers simply regenerate. The goal should have been to destroy all five soldiers to complete a level. Maybe they were trying to go for non-violent family fare (yes, violence in video games was an issue among the teeth-knashing crowd even back then) but as it is the game simply becomes monotonous.
Obelix is a game with a fun, original game mechanic that is ultimately undermined by the rest of the programming. Too bad because it could have been a lot more enjoyable than it is. C-
Ocean City Defender (Zellers, 1982-ish)
“Hey bro – I hear you like Atlantis so I put some Atlantis in your Atlantis,” said no one at a meeting of Zellers executives in 1982 because people didn’t talk like that back then, but it’s as good a description of Ocean City Defender as any. The game is a straight-up ripoff of Atlantis with a couple of different ships and city structures. Zellers, which released the cart, was a Canadian department store that sold Atari 2600 games under their own label. However, unlike Atari’s relationship with Sears, this practice wasn’t sanctioned and Atari eventually put a stop to it. AtariAge says all of Zellers’ games were ripoffs, but I always thought Challenge was an original. For collectors, their games tend to be hard to find in the States but can be more easily found in Canada. On a related note, my mom and dad almost bought my first Atari 2600 at Zellers but opted to make the purchase at the mom ‘n pop electronics store down the road. It was a good choice; Mr. Lauzon was extremely patient with the OCD kid (me) who kept on insisting the colours on his system were wrong because they didn’t look exactly like they did on the box. And now you know . . . the REST of the story.
Oh yeah, I was reviewing a game here. Like other wholesale ripoffs of excellent games, the content gets an A+ just like the original but the ethics involved garner an actual grade of F.