Rainbow Invaders (Homebrew, 2006)
Quick – what’s the first game you think of when you think about the Atari 2600? Even if you’re a hardcore fan who’s familiar with all the obscure hidden gems, long-lost prototypes and the console’s growing roster of homebrews, chances are one of the first games you think about is Space Invaders. Space Invaders was, of course, a huge arcade hit when it was released in 1978, but Atari’s 1980 port of the game took on a life of its own, driving a whole new audience towards purchasing an Atari VCS and extending the life of the already three-year-old system.
One thing that is abundantly clear about Rainbow Invaders is programmer Silvio Mongo’s great affection for the Atari 2600 version of the game and its many, many, many game variants. Rainbow Invaders is not a mere hack; it’s a fully-realized tribute to Space Invaders with new, colourful aliens combined with an Arkanoid-style selection of power-ups and handicaps. The game plays just like Space Invaders except for a “special shot” launched by the aliens which triggers a change in the game depending on the graphic displayed at the bottom of the screen (these graphics are available for memorization in the game’s manual, which is a very nice imitation of Atari’s classic-era manuals, by the by). And just like Phoenix, the game offers invulnerability for a few seconds in exchange for rendering your ship immobile.
My only problem with the game is how hard it is to recognize the special shot; in fact it’s just a little larger than the regular shots that will kill you. And although the power-ups offer some cool advantages (I particularly liked super-speed and guided shots), the vast majority of special shot features favour the aliens. Until you have a solid memory of all or most of the special features, I’d recommend just avoiding the special shot completely.
Rainbow Invaders is a nice next-level play on Space Invaders that hardcore fans of the original (both arcade and Atari 2600) will not want to miss. It can be purchased at the AtariAge store. B
Ram It (Telesys, 1982)
If there was any justice in the world, Ram It would have been a wild success back in its day and considered a classic of the golden age of video games today. However, it came out in 1982 when there was a deluge of software – much of it mediocre – being released for the Atari 2600. Video game companies were so cannibalistic back then that even this humble cartridge spawned an imitator: U.S. Games’ terrible Squeeze Box. In fact, that title almost convinced me that I would not enjoy Ram It. Boy, was I wrong.
Ram It has all the hallmarks of a classic arcade game: the concept is simple but the game is hard to master, its gameplay is fast, fun and furious, and its graphics and sound – while minimalistic – are bright and colourful and noisy in a good way. You operate a ship that moves up and down while shooting at colour bars that are closing in on you from the left and right. The goal is to clear the screen of colour bars before the timer runs out, which is easier said than done. If you get trapped or there are still bars on the screen when the timer runs out, you lose a life. Advanced variations feature flashing bars that you can destroy with one hit and in the process give you extra time – trust me, these are your friends in this game.
My only complaint about Ram It is that it can be awfully hard to aim at a particular bar as it’s hard to get the ship to centre with precision, if that makes any sense. While not a complaint as such, I found it funny that the harder variations could actually be easier than the so-called easy ones just for the fact that you get more flashing bars as the action gets faster.
Ram It is a hidden gem that is also unfortunately very rare, but I guess that’s what emulation is for. Try it today. A-
Rampage (Activision, 1988)
Rampage was one of my favourite arcade games back in the late-‘80s. It was a bright, colourful game that offered the misanthropic thrill of playing a movie monster knocking down buildings and eating people, tanks and helicopters. It wasn’t exceptionally hard, but it offered a lot of entertainment value for your quarters. I didn’t even know at the time that I could play Rampage at home on my dusty old Atari 2600. Well, a kind of Rampage anyway.
I give Activision credit for capturing most of the gameplay and overall spirit of arcade Rampage. On the other hand, I have to question whether Rampage was an appropriate title to port to the 2600 in the first place. In most cases I’m of the opinion that graphics are secondary to quality gameplay; however, in the case of Rampage the graphics are almost the entire point. It’s fun to see the reactions on the monsters’ faces when they get shot and the animations of them eating people – the kind of things the Atari 2600 simply cannot capture.
And despite my praise of the gameplay above, this version of Rampage still seems awfully easy compared to the arcade, which was never the hardest game in the first place. For instance, helicopters stay above the buildings, compared to the coin-op where they would swoop down at you. One of the games I played seemed to go on forever. Getting bored over the course of a single game is never a good sign.
I have to give Activision props for the game’s kickass title screen and the nice pixel art on the monster selection screen. However, I wish they would have used those resources to pump up the graphics and challenge of the actual game. C-
Raster Fahndung (Homebrew, 2007)
I can’t for the life of me figure out how to play this game, and it’s embarrassing because Raster Fahndung is the second or third homebrew puzzle game that’s completely stymied me, and I’m someone who generally likes puzzle games. The point of the game – according to the manual – is to locate patterns of six by six squares in a 32 by 20 square playfield. The game features an awesome title screen and a pixel-art self-portrait of designer Simon Quernhorst (apparently designed on a Commodore 64). That’s basically all I can say about the game. No letter grade this time because it wouldn’t be fair. Raster Fahndung can be purchased at the AtariAge store.
Reactor (Parker Brothers, 1982)
Reactor has a polarizing reputation among 2600 fans: it seems like people either love it or loathe it. I’m somewhere in the middle; it won’t come anywhere near my top ten lists in any conceivable category (even ones I make up), but I have to admit that there is something compelling about it that grows with extended play. Reactor also has a reputation for having a difficult concept to grasp – something not helped by the documentation which makes it seem like you need an advanced degree in physics just to play the thing. I prefer to describe it as what would happen if an alien from a low-gravity planet designed a pinball table.
Put as simply as possible, the point of Reactor is to knock a variety of subatomic particles into the “kill wall” with your ship before the reactor core expands and blows up. You can also trap the particles in a set of chambers which can suddenly flip to the top of the screen without a moment’s notice. Your main objective, however, is to knock the particles into the control rods positioned on the left and right of the reactor. You have up to three semi-magnetic “decoys” you can plant in strategic areas to rally the particles where you want them (preferably near the control rods or a chamber). Game variations feature a vortex in the middle of the screen which can easily suck you in, making an already considerably difficult game next to impossible.
One of the main criticisms of Reactor is its extremely sensitive controls, and it’s no lie. Reactor requires such a light touch on the joystick you could blow on it and it would be sufficient to induce movement. I guarantee you will die far more times simply from flying your ship into the kill wall than from the core exploding.
The blocky graphics are a huge step down from the almost-hypnotizing visuals of the arcade original, but the sound has a cold feeling to it which matches the game. The 26 Hunter calls it a “wild thrash metal soundtrack” and that description is not far off.
There are a few of these kind of titles (I call them “particle games”) available for the 2600. Another game with a similar concept is China Syndrome, a game I actually enjoyed more than Reactor. Although I can’t in good conscience give Reactor too high a rating, I do recommend it for anyone desiring a slightly cerebral (and particularly challenging) experience in their classic video games. C