Minus two kidneys and one long hospital stay later, I’m back!
Pete Rose Baseball (Absolute Entertainment, 1988)
If anyone needs proof of just how far the Atari 2600 had come in the ten years since Atari published the super-rudimentary Home Run, just show them Pete Rose Baseball. Look at that screenshot above – it looks like it’s for a completely different system.
Atari’s own baseball offerings (the aforementioned Home Run and RealSports Baseball, although I admit I haven’t played the latter in a long time) were pretty half-assed offerings. Although it has its faults, Pete Rose Baseball is the most satisfactory video game baseball experience I’ve had on a classic console since I played the Intellivision’s Major League Baseball at a friend’s place lo these many decades ago.
Pete Rose Baseball offers multiple, television-style camera angles, graphics that actually compare nicely with its Atari 7800 counterpart (although it could definitely use more colour) and an exceptional range of pitching options. My biggest complaint – and it’s one shared by many – is the fielding. Not only does it require quite the learning curve to select the infielder you want to use, but there are these terrible invisible horizontal walls that lock in each player. For example, say the ball is closest to the guy on third base; if the ball is even slightly on the wrong side of this invisible “wall” you have to select the catcher who is significantly further away. It’s a pretty awful feature which almost ruins the whole game.
I mentioned that the game could have used more colour. Personally, I would have been satisfied if Absolute would have at least had different colour shirts for the two teams rather than dressing every player in white. This alone created a lot of confusion when I was still getting my bearings with the game. Catching the ball in general requires some significant practice, but the key (just as in batting) is to follow the ball’s shadow.
Pete Rose Baseball is not an easy game. It has its design quirks, but it’s the closest you’re gonna get to a full-fledged baseball game on the Atari 2600. With practice, it can get to the point where it’s a lot of fun. B-
Phantom II (Homebrew, 2006)
There’s a reason why Atari made such a big deal about the VCS’ colour capabilities when it first came out; almost all the games in the arcades – including Atari’s own – were still in black and white (or, more specifically, featured greyscale raster graphics). This is a subset of video games that has largely been lost to history, but programmer David Weavil captures the era well with his independently-produced Phantom II, a port of the 1979 Midway arcade game of the same name.
Not surprising considering its age, the objective of Phantom II is very simple. You shoot down as many enemy planes as you can within 60 or 90 seconds depending on the variation. The planes don’t fire back but can be tricky to hit, especially when you enter “radar” mode and you only see them flash for a second or less at a time. Your missiles are semi-guided and react in much the same way as the “B” difficulty setting of Megamania. Reaching the bomber (the boss of the game) and shooting it three times earns you extra time. The game features a number of variations, including a couple in full colour, but I preferred the greyscale entries.
Graphically, Weavil does the best he can with the technology at hand. I say this because the arcade version of Phantom II features easily some of the best graphics of any arcade game that came out in 1979, be it colour or greyscale. Even with the strides that have been made with the Atari 2600 throughout the decades, any programmer would be hard-pressed to recreate Phantom II’s graphics for the VCS.
Phantom II is a fun game but doesn’t really feature a lot of depth. I admit I enjoy it more as an homage than an actual game. Still, Weavil did a fantastic job of translating this ancient title and helping rescue it from complete obscurity. C
Just a note: Phantom II is paired on cartridge with another game called Pirate. For the life of me I cannot figure out how to play it and cannot find instructions online. If anyone knows where I can find some, I will happily review it. Phantom II/Pirate can be purchased at the AtariAge Store.
Phoenix (Atari, 1982)
Of the big four arcade slide-and-shooters (Space Invaders, Galaxian, Galaga and Phoenix – I’m probably missing one or two equally important ones) I’m beginning to think Phoenix may be my all-time favourite. The birds in Phoenix are not in a rush to dive-bomb you like the aliens in Galaxian and Galaga – they toy with you. They look like they’re gonna Kamikaze you into oblivion and then stop short, but if you get too complacent you bet your ass one or two of them will go in for the kill. It’s this unpredictability that makes Phoenix stand out among similar games of its day, and the Atari 2600 port captures all of the original’s arcade goodness.
There are so many small details in this game that I love. The way the big birds in the third and fourth levels regenerate their wings is done so smoothly that it’s actually a tiny bit frightening. The movement of the birds combined with the “doo-WEE-doo-WEE” background sounds create an almost hypnotic effect. The controls are smooth as silk, allowing you to gracefully slide back and forth between laser fire. And blowing away the master ship at the end of each round is always extremely satisfying.
And yet Phoenix is often overshadowed in Atari fan circles by Imagic’s Demon Attack – a very similar game that lacks Phoenix’s boss battle (at least in its Atari 2600 incarnation). I like Demon Attack but I very much prefer Phoenix. Honestly, though, both games should be in your collection. But if I had to pick one, it would be Phoenix all the way. A+
Pick ‘n Pile (Ubisoft/Salu, PAL, 1990)
I’ve played this European-produced puzzle game several times now, achieved what I think is a decent score, and yet I still don’t completely understand what’s going on. It’s basically a game where you pile two like objects on top of one another to make them disappear, but Pick ‘n Pile throws so many different monkey wrenches at you. Some objects behave differently from others, while other objects can sometimes only disappear if they’re in a certain spot on the screen. There are score multipliers that work except when they don’t, and objects that just sit there getting in the way. My biggest peeve with the game is that the cursor which moves the various objects around is sooo slow, which doesn’t help matters considering it’s a timed game.
Pick ‘n Pile might best be described as “Tetris on LSD” – a whimsical notion reinforced by the number of unique colourful objects on screen at any one time. Less whimsically, it could also be considered a very early take on what would become the Bejewelled style of games. Pick ‘n Pile is far less intuitive than those games and my best advice is to just exercise trial-and-error until you get the hang of it, because it actually is pretty fun. As the (unhelpful) manual says, “Say adieu to your sanity.” B-
Pick Up (20th Century Fox Prototype, Developed 1983-ish)
What’s this? An “erotic” game for the Atari 2600 that’s actually playable? This is because Pick Up was not released by Mystique or Playground but is rather a fairly-complete prototype developed by 20th Century Fox. It’s also because Fox put less emphasis on the dirty deed and more on gameplay, in the process honing it into an original, if only mildly entertaining, shooter.
You play a horny dude trying to win over a girl – classic story. To do so, you have to accumulate a variety of objects to win the lady’s affections: a heart, a car, a smiley face (?), perfume, a flower and a wine glass (the game is not exactly progressive in its interpretation of what turns a woman on, but hey, it was 1983). You accumulate these objects by shooting them – just like in real life. The problem is you can only hit any of these objects once – hit them twice and it will cost you one of five chances (or lives). This is very easy to do because these objects bounce all over the place like the Space Invaders aliens on bath salts. Every once in a while an object will start flashing, meaning you must hit it or cost yourself a life. Once you successfully accumulate all six objects, you take the girl to a hotel on the next screen for some (tastefully off-screen) boinking and the whole process begins anew.
Ultimately, 20th Century Fox deemed Pick Up too racy for release, and that is probably just as well because even though it is a reasonably fun game, it gets tedious quickly. Pick Up is certainly original but the gameplay is pretty limited, pushing it into potential shovelware territory which would have been a black mark on Fox’s generally strong record. C-