Rabbit Transit (Atari Prototype, Developed 1983)
With the addition of Rabbit Transit to these pages you may be wondering if yours truly finally invested in a Starpath Supercharger (ha – I wish!) or at least got the Stella Gets a New Brain software. Unfortunately, no. However, as it turns out Atari made a deal at some point to port Rabbit Transit onto cartridge. Although never released, Atari Rabbit Transit is a very complete – and very fun – translation with just a few minor changes made to the cassette original.
Rabbit Transit is a mash-up of Frogger and Q*Bert. The first screen (the Frogger one) has your rabbit jumping through the “Mysterious Meadow” full of – depending on which round you’re playing – snakes, butterflies and other bad guys who want to kill you. Your goal is to jump on the back of the friendly turtle at the bottom of the screen, and then it’s on to the Land of Ledges level (the Q*Bert one) in which you turn green ledges to yellow while avoiding rocks thrown by what the manual calls “a heartless man.” By the third go-round the man’s rocks can change the colours of the blocks back to green, making the game appreciably harder.
The Land of Ledges is followed by a cut scene that shows your male rabbit and a female companion (unless it’s the other way around – who can tell?) jumping off the screen, only to return with a bunch of baby bunnies. This is a fun, nicely-animated little cut scene, and you’ll notice that as the game goes on the number of baby bunnies increases every time the cut scene appears.
Rabbit Transit is nothing terribly original but it’s a well-done, fun game with above-average graphics and music. It’s an addicting game that offers just the perfect amount of challenge, with an average player generally able to get at least a little better with each consecutive play. B+
Racquetball (Apollo, 1981)
I was expecting a real treat when I saw Racquetball pop up on the screen in front of me. The game’s pseudo-3D graphics look really good, especially for a 1981 game not designed by either Activision or Atari. However, the gameplay is just a hot mess and at the risk of repeating the Video Game Critic (but only because I agree so much with him/her), Racquetball is virtually unplayable.
What really turns Racquetball into a frustration burger is the shadows. I don’t know how light worked in the world of an Apollo programmer from nearly 40 years ago, but in my world objects tend to create a single shadow depending on the position of the light source. In Racquetball, the ball creates a white (!) shadow on the roof, the floor and both walls. So with all that visual white noise how do you figure out which one of these balls is the one you’re supposed to hit? Even if you can get past that, it’s still hard to tell when you’ve hit the ball or where you’re hitting it.
Games by Apollo was one of the first third-party software developers on the VCS scene (and also one of the first to go bankrupt). Unlike Activision and Imagic, its roster of programmers did not cut their teeth at Atari and likely did not know the tips and tricks required to get the most out of the system. Apollo had good ideas and a good visual sense but often failed to deliver on good or even adequate gameplay. Racquetball is a prime example of this. I’m going to give it a D- for that striking playfield but gameplay-wise it’s closer to an F.
Radar Lock (Atari, 1989)
I’ll be honest with you: I’m not really a fan of flight simulators (combat or otherwise) and pretty much dread ever having to play one. It doesn’t matter whether it’s old or new – I even struggle with the flight missions in the Grand Theft Auto series. There’s always some complicated take-off, landing or refuelling mechanic that I battle with when I just want to get into the air and shoot other planes. I’ve always found it interesting that it took a woman – Carol Shaw – to finally produce an airplane game (River Raid) that gave players exactly what they wanted without the influence of the aviation fanboyism that seems to pervade game programmer circles.
Radar Lock has some of the usual problems I hate in flight combat sims, but I’m going to focus on the good first. First of all, it looks great. The colour palette is spectacular, which is hardly a surprise to we 2600 fans who have always been amazed at what this little system can do. The dogfights themselves (when you’re actually in them and not just flying around looking for enemy planes) are actually quite exciting.
But that’s where the good stuff ends, so here’s the bad. It’s a two-joystick game, with the right-hand joystick used to toggle between machine guns, guided missiles and proximity missiles. I could accept the dual-joystick setup in Raiders of the Lost Ark because it wasn’t a fast-action game anyway, and I tolerated it in Defender II because a) it’s awesome and b) aside from smart bombs you really don’t need your inventory that much anyway. For most games, though, it’s an aggravation, and Radar Lock is no exception.
However, my biggest problem with the game was the difficult refuelling segment that ended each wave. I had a heck of a time trying to get within the proper reach of the refuelling ship and I’m not sure how I managed to do it even once I actually did. But why make it so complicated? Why not just let the fuel ship come to you? Why not just blow up fuel cells and call that refuelling (can you tell I like River Raid?). It’s not like you’re really going to learn how to fly a fighter jet by playing a video game anyway – why not just let us have fun?
Enough whining from me. Today, Radar Lock is a game without an audience; for fans of flight sims there were better ones being created at the time and that has continued to this day. For players like myself who generally dislike flight sims it’s practically a non-entity. It deserves a C- for its solid graphics and good – if elusive – dogfight sequences.
Raft Rider (U.S. Games, 1982)
In real life, rafting – particularly of the whitewater variety – can be a fun and thrilling experience. As a two-dimensional Atari 2600 game, not so much. Raft Rider is exactly what the title implies – a raft ride down a river where you avoid being capsized by rocks, cut-down trees and the ugliest excuse for a moose the U.S. Games programmers could manage. There are also gold nuggets to collect: capture three of them and you earn an extra raft. I found this part the most frustrating part of the game because you have to position yourself just right to collect the nugget or else wind up capsizing your vessel. One thing I liked was the challenge of having to start maneuvering around obstacles well ahead of getting close to them, which is pretty much what you’d have to do in real life.
All in all, though, Raft Rider is a pretty lame ride. Apart from the pleasant musical intro the sound effects are annoying and the graphics pretty ugly, and what should be the most fun part of the game (collecting gold) turns out to be an enormous struggle. Raft Rider is an original game idea but ultimately not very fun. C-
Raiders of the Lost Ark (Atari, 1982)
I owned Raiders of the Lost Ark as a kid and thought it was the most epic video game I had ever experienced, with screens that seemed utterly unattainable while the game itself appeared unbeatable. Some of my fondest childhood memories involve playing cooperatively with my mom with her controlling the left (inventory) joystick and me controlling Indy with the right. We never beat the game, but we had a lot of fun.
Well, time has minimized Raiders’ impact a little bit. The whole game is maybe ten to twelve screens and can be beat semi-easily in a matter of minutes (to be fair, we did not have any game guides or YouTube walkthroughs back then). The good news is that it’s a perfectly enjoyable adventure game (rappelling through the mesas in particular is still a lot of fun) with some handsome graphics and on-point (if a little off-key) music. The bad news is – you guessed it – the dual-controller system which is even more aggravating than I remember it. I had forgotten how relentless the snake in the entry room and marketplace could be, and unless you buy and use your flute quickly it can kill you very easily. This, of course, requires a lot of volleying between the two controllers.
Getting the hang of the two controllers can be a learning curve in other ways as well. In one instance I found myself in a trap I could get myself out of with my whip, but instead of using the whip with the right joystick button I pushed the left, deleting the whip and causing me to restart the game. There’s no way to correct your mistakes, so you just have to be patient.
The goal of the game is – unsurprisingly – to find the lost ark by collecting and buying helpful items, rappelling across mesas, skydiving, and whipping and shooting all manners of thieves, snakes and assorted vermin. Although the manual pretty much tells you how to beat the game, it’s written in a somewhat coy way as to leave it open to interpretation. It’s obvious that Atari and game designer Howard Scott Warshaw wanted players to figure the game out for themselves, which may have contributed to its somewhat-poor reputation among players. Not an E.T.-level reputation mind you, but it shares some of the same complaints with that game and adds some of its own.
Raiders of the Lost Ark the movie, of course, was absolutely huge the previous year so expectations for the game were high. However, players were expecting something that better captured the high-octane action of the film. I don’t think the kind of action the Raiders film offered would have ever scaled down to the 2600 anyway, so to me the decision to focus on the treasure-hunting elements of the film was a wise one. And there’s still plenty of action, with lots of things to whip, shoot and run away from. The only other option would have been to appropriate an existing game genre and market it as a Raiders of the Lost Ark game (much like Alien did with Pac-Man) which I don’t think would have pleased gamers of the time either.
Raiders is a fine, fun adventure game that requires a lot of experimentation, and as such may not be for everyone. It’s hampered by a frustrating two-joystick system which will try your patience. However, applying that time and patience is your best bet for enjoying the game. B-