Atari 2600 Game Reviews: Revenge of the Beefsteak Tomatoes through River Raid II

RevengeOfTheBeefsteakTomatoes_AtariGameRevenge of the Beefsteak Tomatoes (20th Century Fox, 1983)

Remember those old Imagic ads in comics and video game mags back in the day? They always featured some frazzled-looking nerdy guy accompanied by copy about how such-and-such an Imagic game has turned this bright young fellow into a “vegetable.” That’s kind of how I feel after playing Revenge of the Beefsteak Tomatoes over the past few days. I first started playing the game Sunday – here it is Wednesday and I’m still playing the ridiculous thing and only starting to write a review. In between those days I’ve generally been resentful every time I’ve had to stop playing and engage with the real world.

Revenge of the Beefsteak Tomatoes is not a pretty game. Its limited sounds kind of remind me of an old Simon electronic game (come to think of it, so do the graphics). But its gameplay is – to say the least – unique and it’s certainly challenging, although not in the same way as most video games (you don’t even have a limited number of lives unless you set the difficulty to “A”). The challenge is more in the completion of the task than the standard classic video game where you attempt to get the most points before losing your three to five lives.

The goal of Beefsteak Tomatoes is to build a three-tiered wall of green, pink and gold bricks (in that order) to trap three tomato plants at the bottom of the screen. To do this you must use your tomato sprayer to capture alternating bricks at the top of the screen and place them at the bottom. In the meantime, one thing or another is either shooting at or coming at you from every direction: the plants shoot cherry bombs at you from the bottom of the screen, cherry tomatoes drop bombs from the top and the titular Beefsteak Tomatoes whizz by from the left and right. And just when you think you’ve mastered the basic mechanics of the game, out come the brick-eating tomato plants that will destroy a brick if you don’t shoot them fast.

Revenge of the Beefsteak Tomatoes is a crazy game that would be nigh unto impossible if the control was not so astoundingly smooth – in fact, it’s probably in the top 10 of VCS games in terms of control responsiveness, at least on the joystick side. The action button tends to double-shoot a little too easily, causing you to lose your brick if your spray can is pointed at the top of the screen.

Like I said, Revenge of the Beefsteak Tomatoes is nothing to look at or listen to, but for unique, addictive, challenging and – most importantly – enjoyable gameplay, it gets a B.

More Info: Revenge of the Beefsteak Tomatoes on AtariAge. For current listings of Revenge of the Beefsteak Tomatoes for sale on eBay, click here

RiddleOfTheSphinx_AtariGameRiddle of the Sphinx (Imagic, 1982)

It’s unfortunate that games as complicated as Riddle of the Sphinx do not really fit the posting schedule I would like to achieve with this blog, requiring a lot more effort than I have the time to dedicate to them. Similar adventure games like – ahem – Adventure, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. benefited from my long experience with them, but I’ve never played Riddle of the Sphinx before. I’ve now played it enough, however, to form a general opinion of it.

The game has a long, convoluted backstory but the basic goal of the game is to gather the right combination of treasures to offer Pharaoh. In the meantime you have to fend off thieves, scorpions and thirst. It’s a game where you carry an inventory, and you know what that typically means on the 2600: the dreaded two-joystick game. That wouldn’t be so bad if you weren’t constantly confronted with thieves and other villains that you have to throw rocks at. Imagic needed to decide whether they wanted to make an action game or an adventure game because in this case the elements of both take away from the other.

The graphics are quite striking, with the plain white background really making them pop. Riddle of the Sphinx is an ambitious game, but the two-joystick controls combined with the non-stop action take away from the experience. C

More Info: Riddle of the Sphinx on AtariAge. For current listings of Riddle of the Sphinx for sale on eBay, click here

RiverPatrol_AtariGameRiver Patrol (Tigervision, 1984)

It’s a real treat when an obscure 2600 title not only turns out to be a pleasant surprise, but also winds up being a port of an arcade game I had never heard of before. River Patrol is just such a game – a translation of a long, long forgotten 1981 arcade game by Orca. One of these days I’m going to man up and get MAME going so I can play some of these obscure old arcade games. Because as good as 2600 River Patrol is, the arcade version looks a lot more fun.

River Patrol is a rescue mission in which you, using your trusty if leaky lifeboat, save people drowning in a raging river. In the meantime you have to dodge alligators, whirlpools, boats and assorted debris. Hitting the alligators and whirlpools will cause you to take on water; hitting the shore or anything else causes you to instantly lose a raft. Both the fun and frustration of River Patrol are in the controls – you can’t just go full bore ahead. Well, you can, but you will likely crash into one of the game’s many obstacles. Instead, you often have to let off on the gas and shimmy around them. It’s frustrating at first but quite enjoyable once you get the hang of it.

The graphics are a mixed bag. I think Tigervision should have put less effort into designing the game like a gigantic rainbow and more into making things look like the things they’re supposed to be (there are rocks and TNT in the game but they both just look like blocks of pixels). Having said that, the boats, alligators and whirlpools are recognizable. Getting caught in a whirlpool creates a particularly satisfying effect, causing the boat to spin around and the music to speed up. Speaking of the music, your own mileage may vary but I quite enjoyed the carnival-inspired soundtrack.

The only thing that infuriates me about the game (and causes my grade to drop lower than it would have otherwise) is the fact that once you lose a boat, it sends you right back down to the bottom of the river rather than a checkpoint of some kind. I can’t stand it when games do that.

River Patrol is an extremely hard game to find and very expensive if you do, so your best bet is probably emulation. The game’s graphics do not offer a very good first impression but if you stick with it I think you’ll find it quite enjoyable. B-

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

RiverRaid_AtariGameRiver Raid (Activision, 1982)

I’ve dropped enough hints on this blog about my feelings for River Raid that my grade should come as no surprise to regular readers. Suffice it to say that it’s one of my top five favourite VCS games of all time and – depending on the day – may very well be my favourite. It’s the great-granddaddy of the vertically-scrolling shooter, a genre that would give birth to such awesome games as Raiden and 1943. The graphics are so colourful and flicker-free. The controls and collision detection are perfect. The explosions are epic and the sound – while not hugely different from a lot of flying games – still manage to evoke a flying atmosphere better than any other 2600 game I can think of.

More than anything, River Raid is a testament to the pure, sublime enjoyment of video destruction. I remember wondering as a kid whether I was actually playing the aggressor in this game – after all, no one’s actually shooting at you. Yes, your enemies appear to be on a kamikaze mission – but they could just be in your way as well. Either way, it’s a blast to blow them all up.

There is so much strategy involved just in speeding up, slowing down, shooting or not shooting fuel tanks – it’s the very definition of a game that’s easy to learn but hard to play. Regardless of what video game generation you come from, you owe it to yourself to play River Raid. A+

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

RiverRaid2_AtariGameRiver Raid II (Activision, 1988)

Well, they did it: the aviation nerds in the game programming industry got their grimy hands on River Raid, turning a simple, beautiful standard of video game destruction into a complicated semi-sim in which executing a perfect takeoff and landing and watching your altimeter are all required. You even have to deal with enemy war craft that actually fire back! The nerve!

I speak in jest, but there’s no doubt that River Raid II is a good deal more complicated than its predecessor. Which doesn’t mean it’s a bad game by any stretch – it just doesn’t feel like River Raid. Despite this, aside from the stuff I mentioned above, the basic setup is the same. The good news is this time out you can bomb tankers and enemy structures, which is good because lining up a shot on the trigger-happy planes and helicopters is hopeless. Just like River Raid, you have to watch your fuel gauge intently (fuel is refreshed by touching gold refuelling planes) and I could be wrong, but your gas sure seems to deplete faster here than in the original. There are long, refuelling-planeless stretches in which you just have to slow down and hope for the best.

Despite all my complaints, River Raid II is a good game. There is very little technically, graphically or audibly wrong with it, so I’m not going to give it a poor grade just because it’s difficult. Practice enough and you will have fun with this cart. To be honest I would probably score it higher if it didn’t bear the River Raid name. C+

More Info: River Raid II on AtariAge. For current listings of River Raid II for sale on eBay, click here

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