Oscar’s Trash Race (Atari, 1983)
I’m really quite impressed with the consistency of quality Atari and the Children’s Television Workshop brought to their series of Sesame Street games for pre-schoolers. Although not as playable by adults as Cookie Monster Munch, Oscar’s Trash Race is a delightful, well-made little game.
Geez, before we even get to the game, can we talk about that manual for a second? It features a full-colour Oscar the Grouch story similar to what you would get from a Little Golden Book. Absolutely beautiful. As far as the game itself, it’s obviously rudimentary, but it has some of the most colourful and delightful graphics available for the console, with a huge variety of ditties to go along with the game variations. Each variation is a spin on the same concept: a garbage truck dumps off a certain number of trash items (shoes, hats, bones, phones and more) and the player picks the corresponding number from the trash cans at the top of the screen. From there you take Oscar and his garbage can down to the items, collect them and bring them up to the top of the screen.
As far as educational games go, Oscar’s Trash Race is a quantum leap over the likes of Basic Math and Math Gran Prix. It’s so well done I’m tempted to give it an A, but that would be a disservice to lesser-graded games that are, um, actually fun. So let’s leave it officially ungraded, and we’ll give it an unofficial “A” as an educational game.
Othello (Atari, 1980)
I’ve never played Othello in real life or with any other computer simulation, so I’m not really qualified to compare this version of the board game to any other. What I do know is that 2600 Othello was great for a beginner like myself and, if the higher difficulties match up as well with more experienced players, this cart should provide hours of entertainment for a wide range of Othello players.
The goal of the game is deceptively simple: with one player controlling the white discs and the other controlling the black, you attempt to change the other player’s colour to your own by “flanking” them (surrounding their discs with yours) until you occupy the majority of the squares on the board and your opponent has no more moves. Your best strategic position is to occupy the furthermost corners of the board where you cannot be flanked but you are in a great position to flank your opponent. You gain points for every square you gain but also lose points for every square you lose to the other player.
Othello is fantastic. For me, it was like never having played chess before and discovering it for the first time. I will be returning to this game again and again. Who knows? It may even inspire me to grow a twirly moustache like the Othello fellow on the box art. I’m reluctant to give Othello full points because I don’t know how it compares to other versions of the game and hardcore players might object. But I’m gonna go ahead and give it an A-.
Out of Control (Avalon Hill, 1983)
Out of Control surprised me with how awful it was. Avalon Hill produced few very good games but I never expected them to release something as awful as this, which is closer to what you’d expect from the interchangeable Panda/Sancho/Froggo trifecta of crap. The problems start literally from the game selection screen; despite being a one-player game, you have to select which joystick you want to use by pushing the joystick (which one?) left or right. Next, in spite of the Atari 2600’s prominent and useful game select switch, the game requires you to select a game variation with the joystick. I know some later Atari games did this too, but I found this particular take on on-screen selection particularly unresponsive. I hadn’t even started a game yet and I was already annoyed.
And then there’s the game. Oh my God, the game. It’s a timed space race with “space buoys” you must go in between or pass on a selected side (it doesn’t help that the graphics are so bad that it takes quite a few plays before you figure out the designs on the stationary buoys are arrows). Even though your ship moves with the rotate-and-thrust mechanic made familiar to gamers through Asteroids, Gravitar, Lunar Lander and others, the control is unresponsive to the point of making the game unplayable. After an hour’s worth of unsuccessful attempts, I simply gave up. Awful gameplay, awful graphics and overall questionable design earn Out of Control an F.
Outlaw aka Gunslinger (Atari, Sears, 1978)
It’s the return of the Lonely Video Game Reviewer as he attempts to review a two-player game all by himself. Not only that, but I have to determine whether a beloved old classic like Outlaw is still fun in an age when you can shoot your friends’ faces off in Call of Duty. First of all, I’m sure Outlaw can still offer some light enjoyment today, especially to hardcore classic gamers. But let’s face it: Outlaw is pretty much Combat in a western setting and, to me, Combat is still fun where Outlaw is not so much. A few points:
- The cowboys are HUGE. Unlike Combat, which kept its sprites to a reasonable size, the gunslingers in Outlaw are massive, which weakens the strategy.
- Combat is more playable. The AtariAge High Score Club recently held a bonus points competition to see who could get the most points playing Combat game variation four solo. It was harder than I thought, and I learned that Combat can be fun even without a partner. However, Combat allows you to score as many points as possible (well, up to 99, but that’s highly unlikely) within two minutes while Outlaw only allows 10 in 99 seconds. It’s a small thing that makes a big difference.
- The one-player options are weak. There are a series of single-player target-shooting variations that I didn’t find very fun. Sure, the target moves and you have to lead your shot, but it was still limited by the 10-point maximum score. To Outlaw’s credit, unlike Combat, it at least has single-player options.
- The colours are awful. Purple on dark blue and green on tan are among some of the retina-searing combos on display in Outlaw. I found these distracting and in some cases they even made it hard to see what was going on.
- It’s been done better on the same system. Gunfight, a 2001 homebrew, corrects virtually all of the problems mentioned above plus it adds some kickass music for good measure.
Yes, it’s possible that I have put an inordinate amount of thought into a simple game from a simpler time. But let’s face it – not everything holds up with time, and your time playing Outlaw could be better spent playing a modern video game, a better Atari game or – heaven forbid – spending quality time with your friends and family. I may come back to Outlaw to judge it more fairly as a two-player experience, but for now I’m giving it a C.
Oystron (Xype Homebrew, 1997)
Oystron is simply the best Atari 2600 homebrew I’ve played to date. Originally developed as an exercise to see how many sprites could be replicated in an Atari 2600 program, the game may seem like a hot mess at first. But give it time and you will discover an action/strategy game that captures the feeling of early ‘80s arcade games yet at the same time feels completely original.
Your goal in Oystron is to shoot space oysters (bear with me – it’s worth it), collect their pearls and trade them in for bombs that you will use to defeat the titular Oystron. It sounds like an adventure game, but it actually takes place in the context of a space shooter. There are a large number of aliens and objects that try to destroy your collection of pearls (you need eight pearls to earn a bomb) and your ship – some can only be shot from behind while others jump all over the place making your life miserable. Eventually the Oystron itself appears; this is when you plant your bombs with the hopes the boss will run into one and blow itself up. And then everything goes haywire (in a good way): the screen flashes, everything moves faster and all objects are worth 100 points.
My hat is off to Piero Cavina who, five long years after the last Atari 2600 rolled off the assembly line, programmed Oystron and in the process helped open up a marketplace for fan-designed 2600 homebrews that thrives to this day. It’s not just one of the best homebrews out there – I would venture it’s one of the top 30 or so best Atari 2600 games period. If I have one problem with Oystron it’s that the levels tend to continue on too long after you’ve accomplished your goal of trading in for six bombs. But that means you should take your time, which is advisable because panicking will not do you any favours. Oh, and you’ll need this – may it serve you well. A
Oystron can be purchased at the AtariAge Store.
Pac-Man 4K (Homebrew, 2012)
(Added to entry June 4, 2018.) It can be said quite fairly that the Atari 2600 homebrew community holds a little bit of a grudge towards Atari’s notorious 1982 home version of Pac-Man for the VCS. Off the top of my head I can think of three versions of Pac-Man developed by homebrewers: Pac-Man 4K, Pac-Man 8K and A Better Pac-Man. Of these three, Pac-Man 4K is particularly on-the-nose where it comes to making a statement about Atari’s original work – programmer Dennis Debro makes a point of keeping himself to the 4K maximum that would have been available to Tod Frye when he programmed the original in 1981.
Granted, there may be programming techniques today that didn’t exist back then, but few of 2600 Pac-Man’s more egregious faults had much to do with memory availability and more to do with design changes. Creating a different maze and changing the location of the warp tunnel, for example, altered the gameplay significantly. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And that’s what Debro goes for here, creating a port any Pac-Man-crazy kid would have been entirely satisfied with back in the day. Pac-Man 4K features a proper Pac-Man maze, all the original colours and sounds and an attempt (a successful one as best I can tell) to emulate the original monster movements.
My only real complaint is that blue monsters tend to lose their vulnerability very quickly, even on the earliest levels. Pac-Man himself seems particularly slow when eating dots (ok, they’re still dashes, but better looking ones than in the VCS original). Consider that an incentive to clear most of the maze before eating power pellets, which many Pac-Man experts recommend anyway. Pac-Man 4K is available at the AtariAge Store, and it’s one I’m hoping to welcome into my physical collection soon. A