Skate Boardin’ (Absolute Entertainment, 1987)
Wow – the instruction manual for Skate Boardin’ is the most gratingly ‘80s thing I’ve ever read – between “radical,” “gnarly” and “intense” and others I’m not sure there was a single era-specific cliché it missed. I suppose Absolute had to oversell it because the game itself sucks pavement. The goal is to get to school within five minutes by conquering all 30 obstacles in the game’s maze of contiguous screens. Ramps are easy but the tubes may very well be impossible because – in spite of what the manual would have you believe – you simply cannot crouch. You are theoretically supposed to be able to do so by holding the button while pulling down on the joystick, but all that did for me is make the skateboarder go into a turn. Gaining momentum is a shitshow; if you get slowed down on a grassy area, you literally have to crash into an obstacle and get back on the board before you can work up speed again. The only thing I liked about the game was the music, which comes to a jarring stop every time you collide with something. I know this very well may have been the first-ever skateboarding video game, but there are so many common-sense faults in Skate Boardin’ that I can’t even defend it on that premise. F
Skeet Shoot (Apollo, 1981)
God what an awful game. My complaints about Skeet Shoot are pretty much verbatim to Video Game Critic’s, so I’ll let them carry this particular ball (you’ll have to scroll down when you hit the link). Not much more to add except that the game doesn’t even match up graphically or sonically to any of Atari’s largely-humble ‘70s 2K efforts and I have a hard time imagining even inexperienced 1981 gamers getting any joy out of this cart. Games By Apollo was one of the first third-party software producers for the Atari 2600, but that didn’t make them even close to the best. In fact, the only thing keeping them out of Sancho/Froggo/Panda territory are moderately-enjoyable games such as Space Cavern and Lost Luggage. A big difference, too, is the former companies were relatively low-profile while Apollo games stunk up game cartridge shelves all over the place. Ripoff city. F
Skeleton (Homebrew, 2002) and Skeleton+ (Homebrew, 2003)
Eric Ball’s Skeleton and Skeleton+ are close enough to being the exact same game that I decided to include them both in the same review. However, my final grade will be for Skeleton+ because that might as well be the one you play and/or buy because a) it has some invaluable extra features and b) it includes the original Skeleton as a variation anyway.
Skeleton and Skeleton+ are 3D first-person shooters in the most basic sense, but they’re actually pretty unique. The goal of the games is to travel mazes hunting down skeletons before they kill you. There is no radar screen; you judge how far away or how close a skeleton is by the sound coming out of your speakers (indeed, this is by far one of the most sound-dependent games ever produced for the 2600 – Ball’s documentation even promises left-and-right sound effects for consoles modded for stereo sound). There’s an “undead locator” (basically a square that indicates what direction the skeleton is relative to yourself) but I found it confusing.
More than anything, Skeleton is hard – especially in its original version. You get one life and you can lose it easily. Skeleton+ features a better variety of skill levels plus life and skill counters and a difficulty-switch selection between five and ten skeletons per level, so it’s the one I’d recommend. The game is adequately enjoyable but I honestly did not find the gameplay particularly compelling. The graphics are extremely rudimentary and, because your movement is by design choppy rather than smooth and continuous, it often feels like you’re just looking at the same handful of screens over and over again. I often found myself going around in circles trying to find the skeleton only for it to shoot me in the back. That said, I must admit the game’s sparseness made for some genuinely suspenseful moments. Scarecrow+ is available at the AtariAge store. C
Ski Hunt (Home Vision, 1983, Europe-Only)
Ski Hunt is a game that made me laugh due to its sheer audacity. It starts out as a standard – if not exceptionally-difficult – slalom-style game but then turns into mass animal slaughter as you take your fully-automatic rifle to blow away dancing moose, hind-leg-walking bears and cougars. You’d swear it was an American-made game! Designed by Home Vision (they of the surprisingly-adequate Parachute), Ski Hunt is a strange game where it comes to challenge; the slalom portion of the game is extremely easy unless you increase your speed. However, there is no real incentive to do so as you’re not timed and you get the same amount of points either way. The graphics are quite beautiful and fluid and there is actually music that won’t send your fingers flying for the “mute” button. I found the change in tone between the carnival-esque music of the slalom run to the stark, machine-gun mayhem of the hunting screen to be darkly humorous and something that kept me hitting reset. A major fault of the game – if it actually is a fault of the game itself and not just my ROM – is that it tends to become overwhelmingly blinky as it gets faster. Not flickery like many 2600 games, but rather the whole screen blanks out to the point of distraction. However, this may have been the result of playing a PAL ROM on an emulator optimized for NTSC. I can’t recommend Ski Hunt very highly due to its moderate-at-best challenge and its apparent technical faults but I’ll be damned if I didn’t have a heck of a good time playing it. C-
Skiing (Activision, 1980)
Before I get into the review proper, I want to take a second to talk about graphics. In my opinion, video game graphics are like any kind of industrial graphic design: you use the right tools and the right style for the job at hand. There’s no doubt that graphic capability is driven by technology, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. In the end, basic graphic design principles apply regardless of the technological power of the platform.
Which brings us to Skiing. At first glance, Skiing does not look like much: a skier, some red flags and some blocky trees on top of a sheer white background. Put them all together, however, and it’s a minimalist graphical delight. Combine that with immense gameplay and accurate physics and you have a winner.
Skiing features two kinds of runs: slalom and downhill, each including various degrees of difficulty. Weaving between the gates (or the trees in the downhill runs) is a delight and is a perfect example of excellent control in an Atari 2600 game. The harder, faster runs are a blast and quite challenging. I love the “whoosh” sound as you go into a turn and the ability to catch air as you go over moguls in the downhill runs.
Although Skiing is perfectly enjoyable as a solo game, for optimal results it’s best played in couch competition with friends or online contests such as AtariAge’s High Score Club (although they may not be doing Skiing for a while as it was one of last season’s titles). Another Activision winner, and one of the best sports titles available on the VCS. B+