Solar Fox (CBS Electronics, 1983)
Solar Fox quickly became a dark horse favourite when I rediscovered the Atari 2600 about twelve years ago. The game is fast, furious and seriously addictive. Although a little different from the 1981 arcade game by Bally-Midway (you don’t have the ability to shoot in this version), it’s a pretty stand-up game all on its own.
Solar Fox is kind of a cross between Pac-Man and a space shooter (minus the shooting). Your goal is to collect as many solar fuel cells across a matrix (or “rack”) as quickly as possible while avoiding the fireballs fired by the Sentinels at the top and bottom of the screen. If you complete the screen before the “Skip a Rack” meter runs out, you get to skip the next screen but still collect all the points from that rack. In the “B” difficulty the action button causes you to go faster while in the “A” position you fly fast automatically and press the button to slow down. An easier variation (which the manual hilariously describes as “parent play”) features far fewer fireballs than the default game.
This game is an example of one that wasn’t fully appreciated in its day – either in the arcade or at home – but later found life as a fan favourite. Play it and you’ll soon see why. A
Solar Plexus (JessCREATIONS Homebrew, 2005)
Solar Plexus is a homebrew from JessCREATIONS that not only shares half a title with Solar Fox but some elements of its gameplay as well. But hooboy, is it ever a lot harder than even that not-exactly-a-walk-in-a-park-itself game.
The goal of Solar Plexus is to collect an object (a fuel cell perhaps? I don’t have access to the manual) with a ship before a timer runs out or you are hit by a “sun” (looks more like a pinwheel) that bounces madly all over the screen. Once you capture the object, your timer is refreshed but the sun (what kind of universe is this anyway?) gets faster and more unpredictable. Like Solar Fox, you can go fast or slow. That’s it. It’s a pretty fun game, but I have to deduct some grades for the AWFUL sound that accompanies the game over screen – it sounds like feral cats fighting. I wish the developers would have put a little more effort into the graphics of the game itself (the objects you collect are particularly uninspiring) rather than the intro and game over screens. Not sure how you can buy Solar Plexus these days – it doesn’t seem to be available through the AtariAge Store. B-
Solar Storm (Imagic, 1983)
By 1983 most video gamers had had their fill of space slide-and-shooters. We weren’t going to say no to a port of one of the classics, like Galaxian, but the general feeling was the genre was spent. Which is probably why Solar Storm is a relatively obscure title. The game doesn’t offer much new to the genre, but Imagic’s typically strong graphics and a decent level of challenge rescue the title.
Played with paddle controls, Solar Storm has you protecting your unidentified planet from a range of attackers including ships, solar flares and sunspots. Every attacker that lands adds a little more damage to the planet, measured by identical heat gauges on either side of the screen. A bonus screen follows each set of enemies. On this screen you must hit five fleet ships with your rotary cannon before the counter goes down to zero. If successful, you earn an extra ship.
Solar Storm isn’t anything particularly special but it’s a solid space shooter. The ships, flares and sunspots are finely-detailed in that particular Imagic way. I like the way the entire screen flashes when a laser is fired, a feature that can become irritating in some games but is just right here. Also cool is the fact that enemy ships only have one chance to fire at you, giving you a chance to take it out without fear of being hit. Much like Laser Blast, both your and the enemy ships’ lasers aren’t projectiles but straight lines of light, so there’s no way to dodge them if you’re in the line of fire. Solar Storm is worth a play or two. C+
Solaris (Atari, 1988)
Even though Solaris was released by Atari, in reality it feels more like the culmination of the efforts of three companies and three games over four years (seven if you go back to the original Star Raiders on Atari 8-bit). Solaris is basically a more compact version of the same galaxy-hopping gameplay of Atari’s Star Raiders and Activision’s Starmaster, but with no annoying keypad controls or incorporation of the 2600’s switch bank into gameplay. Toss in the planet-rescue element of Imagic’s Moonsweeper with some absolutely jaw-dropping graphics and you have one of the most remarkable specimens in VCS history.
By its packaging, though, you would never know that Solaris was Atari’s crowning technical achievement for its aging console. The box art simply recycles the image from Star Raiders and the instruction manual doesn’t give you nearly enough information for such a complex game. Why, for example, does the game kick you off an enemy planet if you miss one or two of your enemies, causing you to have to warp speed back to the planet and wasting fuel in the process? Why does your ship suddenly start to move right when you push left and vice versa? The game was programmed by Doug Neubauer in 1986 (says so right on the opening screen, which in itself is unusual for a VCS game) but not released until 1988, so it’s not like they didn’t have plenty of time to optimize the manual and develop some unique cover art, but then again this was the era of downsized Atari.
My advice for Solaris is just to sit back and enjoy the ride. Few Atari 2600 games offer this level of depth and exploration, so even if you don’t entirely know what all the icons on the map screen mean, just roll with it. It’s worth it every time you jump into hyperspace (a towering graphical delight in a game full of them). It’s definitely one of those games with some long-term play value. The only reason Solaris doesn’t get an A is because this particular genre of space shooters isn’t entirely my cup of tea, although I like it well enough (I think it has something to do with the annoyance factor in keeping track of your fuel levels). B
Sorcerer (Mythicon, 1983)
Check out the kickass cover art for this game – kinda looks like something Uriah Heep would use for an album cover. Anyway, Sorcerer is a title from the much-maligned (and deservedly so) Mythicon, who unleashed Fire Fly in its all its atrocity upon the world. Sorcerer, however, isn’t that bad. There’s no doubt that it’s a strange little game but once you get the hang of it, it’s oddly playable.
Sorcerer is kind of like a platform game without platforms (unless you count the flying platform you hop on at the beginning of the game and each subsequent life). All you do in the game is shoot nameless – but very colourful – baddies with your lightning bolt, turning them into treasure you collect for points. Each type of bad guy behaves differently so it’s well-advised to study how they move and shoot because shots come at you quickly in this game (Mythicon included a scoreless variation with unlimited lives for just this very purpose). Every few screens you have to dodge lightning bolts – a bit of an aggravation considering you get no extra points for avoiding them.
Although Sorcerer is more fun than anyone could have ever expected from Mythicon, it’s still pretty monotonous, although the variety of enemies makes up for this somewhat. The graphics are unexpectedly amazing and the classical-style ditty that plays throughout is strong, although it may wear on some players after a while. Sorcerer is worth a play or two but don’t expect anything that will keep you engaged for hours. C-