Atari 2600 Game Reviews: Porky’s through Q*Bert

Porkys_AtariGamePorky’s (20th Century Fox, 1983)

It’s not often that I actually look up a programmer’s credentials upon encountering a particularly horrid video game, but Porky’s compelled me. As it turns out, Randall Hyde has an amazing CV: he was a lead guy in assembly languages, having developed the Lisa assembler (which would go on to become the assembly language for Apple II computers) and the High Level Assembly language. However, he has only one video game to his credit – Porky’s – proving that a genius knack for programming and the ability to create a fun game do not always sync up.

After playing Porky’s I began to doubt that Hyde had even seen a video game before taking on this project. Not that he had much to work with, mind you. As the 20th Century Fox video game division counted out its final days bent on exploiting as many of its properties as possible, it was almost inevitable that they’d take a stab at their recent hit film Porky’s. However, the movie – a teen sexploitation comedy – offered little in the way of video game scenarios.

The game starts with a Frogger-type screen in which you attempt to get the protagonist – “Pee Wee” – across a “highway gauntlet” featuring police, boats (on land?), strippers (!), attack pigs, bouncers and . . . more I guess. Chances are you won’t complete this level, and it doesn’t really matter because whether you complete the screen or not you’ll still be sent to the dreaded swamp, where you will be spending most of your time in the game. This screen finds you pole-vaulting around like a moron trying to collect bricks in order to build a ladder that will get you to the shower room, a level which is just ridiculous: your whole goal is to collect objects and throw them down a hole while avoiding a fat and apparently naked woman. If she catches you, back down to the swamp you go.

There’s more, but it’s frankly all just as convoluted and boring. There may have been some fun to be had with this game if the mechanics were not so infuriatingly horrible. Positioning yourself to climb a ladder – something that should be dead easy in any video game – is a Herculean feat here. And it’s bloody hard to get away from the fat woman when she materializes on top of you half the time. I see little reason not to give Porky’s an F, but I admit I had some fun pole-vaulting around the swamp. Hardly cause for a recommendation, though. D-

More Info: Porky’s on AtariAge. For current listings of Porky’s for sale on eBay, click here

PressureCooker_AtariGamePressure Cooker (Activision, 1983)

Pressure Cooker is more than just a “hidden gem” in the Atari 2600 collection – it’s an unheralded classic. Released at some point in 1983 in which even excellent Activision titles (with the possible exceptions of Pitfall II and H.E.R.O.) weren’t selling like they should, Pressure Cooker confused critics and players. One particularly negative review from a contemporary video game magazine basically said “So it’s come to this – a video game where you play a worker in a fast food joint. What’s the point?”

The “point” is exactly what the reviewer missed, however – the appeal of Pressure Cooker has nothing to do with its setting, but rather its rapid fire memorization combined with relentlessly fast action. Programmer Garry Kitchen ultimately got the last laugh as Pressure Cooker developed a posthumous fandom and even gave birth to a small genre of casual games (as much as I loathe that term) focused on fast-paced food preparation.

Unlike other food-focused games like Burgertime, there’s nothing whimsical or fantastical about Pressure Cooker. In fact, it’s remarkably close to the real-life experience of being a short-order cook. You control a Mario-style character attempting to get a series of hamburger orders – displayed on an order board at the bottom of the screen – correct. The problem is that the topping dispensing machine has gone cuckoo, shooting out tomatoes, onions, lettuce and cheese at random. You have to grab the desired toppings with the middle of your body (they’ll explode if they hit your head or feet) and kick back the ones you don’t need. You then must catch a topping bun, grab the completed burger off the conveyor belt and drop it in the correctly-coloured chute. The conveyor belt gets faster and the orders get more complicated as the game goes on, demanding your complete attention and the very best of your eye-hand coordination. The graphics are simply delicious (all puns intended) and the music is next-generation catchy.

Pressure Cooker is one of my top ten favourite Atari 2600 games. It’s a title that wasn’t appreciated in its time that manages to hold up through the decades with its simple but challenging, addictive gameplay. I don’t think it even has any faults, so I give it an A+ without reservation.

More Info: Pressure Cooker on AtariAge. For current listings of Pressure Cooker for sale on eBay, click here

PressureGauge_AtariGamePressure Gauge (Homebrew, 2000)

Pressure Gauge is a fun little homebrew once you figure out how to play it, because unfortunately what little instruction available online is fundamentally and grammatically wanting. Although instructions are not the raison d’etre of this blog, in this case the best thing I can do is try to explain how to play it to the best of my ability.

On the left side of the screen you will see a block. You need to line up a gauge (which is located just to the right of the block) with the block by hitting the controller button the second the block and the gauge line up. You keep doing this until a second gauge reaches the top of the screen and takes you to the next level, signified by a change in colour. If you fail to line up the first gauge with the block, the second block goes down. A third gauge exists only to count down your time.

I hope this helps anyone who is confused as I was as to how Pressure Gauge plays. The gameplay really is dead simple, although the action starts getting awfully fast starting with the fourth level. The graphics are nothing to write home about but I don’t think that was programmer John K. Harvey’s focus (it was apparently designed as a college project). It’s good enough for what it is. C

Pressure Gauge can apparently be purchased through Packrat Video Games. I’ve never heard of the place and therefore can’t testify to its veracity, but check it out if you’re interested in buying the game in cartridge form.

More Info: Pressure Gauge on AtariAge. For current listings of Pressure Gauge for sale on eBay, click here

PrivateEye_AtariGamePrivate Eye (Activision, 1983)

I almost always have good things to say about the games Activision released for the VCS between 1980 and 1984. Even as I write this I have a hard time giving Private Eye too negative of a review. However, it is undoubtedly the company’s worst effort of its classic era and it comes down to one thing: its unbelievable awkwardness.

Don’t let its pretense as a mystery/adventure game fool you: Private Eye is a Pitfall!style map-based object collection game. Nothing wrong with that – I adore Pitfall! However, while the fun of Pitfall! is more in the journey than the goal, Private Eye’s obstinate play mechanics make the game a chore.

You play a private eye driving around city streets looking for “clues” that must be returned to various spots on the map. The streets are littered with obstacles (potholes, knife-throwing thieves, falling flower pots etc.) to dodge or jump over, and this is where the game fails. Y’see, not only does the car jump, but the private eye guy jumps out of the car at the same time so even if you’re avoiding one obstacle, it’s easy for the private eye to hit another one. Either way you lose points. I wish I was a good enough writer to explain just how frustrating this is, but it’s simply exasperating.

At the same time, Private Eye has the potential to offer more play value than the average 2600 cart. The game includes five timed “mysteries” with the longest and hardest one featuring 248 city blocks. From that perspective it’s a map-solver’s dream. I just wish Activision would have focused on the map aspects and jettisoned the silly action game elements. The graphics and music are sharp and on-point, which is hardly unusual for an Activision title of this vintage. I think the biggest problem is that Activision forgot to stick to the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) principle which made games like Pitfall! and Keystone Kapers so much fun. C-

More Info: Private Eye on AtariAge. For current listings of Private Eye for sale on eBay, click here

Qbert_AtarigameQ*Bert (Parker Brothers, 1983)

Parker Brothers (or whatever company they may have sublicensed for a particular title) does not get enough credit for its strong arcade-to-console conversions, especially considering the heavy-hitters they got the rights to: Frogger, Popeye and of course Q*Bert were all ports with high consumer expectations that PB managed to deliver on. They were hit-and-miss when developing their own titles (Montezuma’s Revenge, The Empire Strikes Back and Spider-Man were among the “hits” while James Bond 007, Death Star Battle and Jedi Arena certainly count among the “misses”), but the important thing is they never faced a Pac-Man style PR disaster over their coin-op adaptations. Q*Bert is emblematic of the company’s commitment to getting things right.

I don’t think anyone reading this blog (or anyone, period) needs much familiarization with the pyramid-hopping, snake-avoiding adventures of Q*Bert, a character that ranks alongside Pac-Man and Donkey Kong when it comes to instant recall of early-‘80s video games. The concept is simplicity itself: jump on cubes to change their colour, use platforms to escape Coily the snake and work your way towards more complex challenges. There’s no surprise that 2600 Q*Bert is boxy compared to the cartoon quality of the arcade game, but the gameplay holds up nicely, with the cart featuring both an easy version (no red balls) and a harder, more arcade-comparable version.

My only gripe is that the sprite movement is not very fluid. Characters other than Q*Bert do not clearly jump from one block to the next but instead just appear in a new position like an old LED game. It’s not a huge deal but it can throw a player off ever-so-slightly. Other than that, Q*Bert retains all of the addictive qualities of its forbear. B+

More Info: Q*Bert on AtariAge. For current listings of Q*Bert for sale on eBay, click here

One thought on “Atari 2600 Game Reviews: Porky’s through Q*Bert

  1. Hell yeah, Pressure Cooker is my main game. I got it from a department store post-Crash for like $1. Even my dad was stupefied at how cheap Atari games had gotten. I actually played most of my Atari games on the Colecovision Atari adapter and Pressure Cooker got more playtime than most of my CV games.

    Liked by 1 person

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