Picnic (U.S. Games, 1982)
There’s a reason I do my level best to play as many variations of a game as possible before writing a review. One reason is to get as good an idea as possible of what the cart has to offer. Another reason, however, is that it forces me to play a game long enough to find out when the boredom quotient kicks in. And that’s exactly what happened to me with Picnic. Although it started out strong with a unique spin on an old concept, extended play exposed the game as tedious and shallow.
Picnic is a paddle game in which you protect your pic-i-nic basket from animated bea… I mean, flies that shoot their spit (gross) down on your hamburger picnic, sucking up pieces of your food. Rather than swatting the flies themselves, you have to swat the trail of spit, sending the fly bouncing all over the screen. From there you either have to catch the fly or hope it lands in the fly catcher in the middle of the screen, otherwise the fly will respawn. Similar to Demon Attack, only the fly in the lowest row actually spits (shoots) at the food. A boss fly appears at the end of each wave but the only difference is it’s bigger – it doesn’t present any kind of extra challenge.
The graphics are as basic as can be. The burgers are HUGE but undefended can still be destroyed fairly quickly. The fly catcher is just a square block and the swatter just a half-oval. I don’t think U.S. Games even tried to make Picnic better looking than it is. That’s all neither here nor there, though – the question is if it’s fun. The answer is yes – for the first few minutes, that is. After that it becomes extremely tedious. If you’re looking for a good fly-swatting game, seek out Mario Paint for the SNES. D+
(Update May 28, 2018: David Johnson, the programmer of Picnic, recently wrote to me. The stuff the flies shoot at your food isn’t “spit” as I speculated above, but rather the fly’s proboscis, which is kind of like a tongue.)
Piece o’ Cake (U.S. Games, 1982)
If there is one third-party Atari 2600 game producer that – however fleetingly – makes me question my fandom of the Atari 2600 and pre-NES classic gaming in general, it’s U.S. Games. To me, U.S. Games represents the most cynical, opportunistic wing of the 1982 software deluge. You could point to the likes of Mythicon for worse games overall, but I almost wonder if that case was simply a matter of systemic incompetence. Play enough of the U.S. Games catalog and you will see evidence of talent, but there seems to have been little effort put into creating playable, fun games. The company had a couple of proud moments (Entombed and Commando Raid spring to mind) but for the most part its titles seem indifferently designed and technically limited.
Piece o’ Cake is a prime example of a typical U.S. Games title. It’s a handsome, colourful game that at the same time doesn’t bother to make things look like they should even within the abstract world of Atari 2600 graphics. Kind of a cross between future (and far superior) releases Cakewalk by CommaVid and Pressure Cooker by Activision, Piece o’ Cake stars you as a distinctly Swedish Chef-style baker attempting to fill cake orders and drop them onto a conveyor belt. The game does not give any indication of what the orders are supposed to be (is it supposed to be a double layer? A large layer with a smaller layer on top?) but you can salvage any order simply by dropping a cherry on the plate. The game starts out verrry slow; you’ll frequently find yourself twiddling your thumbs while the belt slowly carries your completed cake away. The game gets faster but no more compelling; the increased speed in fact exposing the game’s poor control and collision detection.
If I had bought Piece o’ Cake with my hard-earned allowance money back in the day, it very well may have caused me to give up on collecting video games. And honestly, that’s one of the harshest assessments I could possibly give a game. Even all these decades later it manages to take the wind right out of my sails. A good idea absolutely destroyed by abysmal execution. F
Pigs in Space (Atari, 1983)
Pigs in Space is one great-looking game for the Atari 2600, with graphics and sound effects that manage to capture the unique wackiness of the Muppets franchise. However, Atari, instead of using all of that firepower to create one really good game with goals and increasing levels of difficulty, opted instead to pack the cartridge with three uninspired mini-games that most players will tire of quickly.
The first – and easily the most entertaining – of the three games is a full-on Space Invaders ripoff with Captain Link Hogthrob in place of your laser cannon, chickens filling in for aliens and a hilarious rotating Gonzo head substituting for the spaceship (I find it faintly amusing that two out of the three games use Gonzo as the go-to villain). Maybe it’s just my dirty mind, but I find Hogthrob’s pointy finger and its vicinity to the chickens’ butts to be a little off-putting, but I’m sure the Atari programmers had a good chuckle about it. It’s as good a Space Invaders clone as any, but I must admit the most entertaining part of the game is when Hogthrob is hit by a chicken egg, he turns into a chicken and flies away.
The next game is a bland Frogger/Freeway spoof in which you guide Miss Piggy through an asteroid belt composed of spaghetti and meatballs. Piggy can karate-chop the meatballs for bonus points, but you’re better off just avoiding them as the action control is not the best. The final game is just lousy. Guiding the Swinetrek through an abandoned “pizza mine,” you use a weapon called a Boomeray to shoot at robot Gonzoids. The point of this weapon is to shoot and then guide the missile back towards the Gonzoid, but you’re more likely to shoot yourself in the process.
Pigs in Space works great as a showcase of how the Atari 2600 could be used to capture the spirit of a franchise and I can see it as a unique collectable among crossover Muppets/video game fans. As a fun game, however, it comes up lacking. D
Pitfall! (Activision, 1982)
Pitfall! is simply the most iconic game ever made for the Atari 2600 and one of the most iconic games of that era in video games full-stop. It’s very difficult to describe Pitfall! and do it justice: you run, jump, swing and collect treasure just like thousands of games made between 1982 and today. Many games (notably the Super Mario Bros series) may have perfected this formula, but it hasn’t made the original any less endearing.
What Pitfall! brought to the table back in 1982 was choice. Yes, you had the primary goal of collecting all 32 treasures – a considerable challenge involving the strategic use of underground tunnels and direction. But you didn’t have to take the game that seriously to still have fun with it. You can wrack up some serious points simply going left (generally the easiest direction) and avoiding the passages altogether. Heck, when I was a kid I only had a loose, manual-less copy of Pitfall! and didn’t even know there was a certain amount of treasure you had to collect to win the game, but I still had a lot of fun mastering the James Bond in Live and Let Die finishing move with the crocs and getting the timing of running across quicksand, tar pits and swamps just right. It was a prototypal open-universe game: just play any way you want to.
And the kids went wild over it. For a brief period of time the featureless Pitfall Harry was a multimedia sensation, scoring his own spot on Saturday Supercade, a Saturday morning cartoon featuring a bunch of popular arcade characters plus Harry representing the console-only crowd. There was obviously a hunger among video gamers for what Pitfall! brought to the table, and virtually the entire history of video games from that point hence bears this out.
No, Pitfall! is not as sophisticated, graphically or playwise, as many of the games it would go on to inspire. But it doesn’t matter. Ninety-nine per cent of all popular culture disappears over time. It’s my opinion that Pitfall! will be the last game standing when all of the other hundreds of Atari 2600 games have been lost to history. A must-have game for Atari 2600 fans, video game historians and video game players, period. A+
Pitfall II: Lost Caverns (Activision, 1984)
Pitfall II: Lost Caverns is quite possibly the pinnacle of technical achievement on the Atari 2600. Featuring multichannel sound, a game map of about 32 screens according to my math (which I admit could be faulty) and a manual that’s almost as fun to read as the game is to play, programmer David Crane created an absolute monster of a game which – and I know I say this a lot but in this case it is inarguably true – pushed the capabilities of the VCS right into the stratosphere. I can say this with confidence given that the versions of the game for Atari 5200, Atari 8-bit and eventually the arcade version (in one of the few instances in which a console game was ported to a coin-op) brought little new to the table other than slightly prettied-up graphics.
Having said all that, for all of Pitfall II’s gameplay depth, I still prefer its relatively primitive predecessor. I find there’s less of a just-play-for-fun factor to Pitfall II and more of an emphasis on completing the game compared to Pitfall!. A lot of this comes down to Pitfall II’s innovative checkpoint system which eschewed loss of lives for sending Harry back to his most recent checkpoint upon succumbing to a villain. However, there’s a couple of spots in the game where there is a looooong distance between checkpoints and being sent all the way back with the corresponding loss of points can take the wind out of one’s sails way more than simply losing a man. Going back and redoing a bunch of steps is never much fun.
Other than that, I have few complaints about Pitfall II: Lost Caverns. I should mention that a glowing review of the game in a contemporary video game magazine played a key role in my decision to choose the 2600 as my video game platform even when my parents generously – and surprisingly – offered me a much more powerful Colecovision. I didn’t actually get to play the game until well into adulthood but it didn’t disappoint. A-