Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Atari, 1983)
I had to resist the urge to use this entry to go into a screed about Disney’s monopolistic practices (a little hypocritical considering I like most Marvel movies and enjoy the new Star Wars features for all their faults) but I digressed. Disney was a far different company back in 1983, relying mainly on their legacy of classic cartoons and the occasional new feature. Like just about everyone, it was only a matter of time before they threw their hat into the video game arena and with Sorcerer’s Apprentice they did just that.
Although I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Sorcerer’s Apprentice, it is not what I call an intuitive game – I kept on having to return to the instruction manual to figure out what the heck was going on. Considering this was a game meant for small children – whose reading comprehension skills have generally not developed very far – I thought this was kind of odd. Maybe it makes more sense if you remember much about the Fantasia segment the game is named after, which I admit I do not.
Sorcerer’s Apprentice features two modes of play. The first one has Mickey catch or shoot stars which turn into buckets (huh?) which you use to save the cavern in the other scene from being consumed by water (a water level guide at the bottom of this screen lets you know, well, the water level). If you miss a falling star, living brooms are created which interfere with your buckets’ ability to collect water. You can fight back the brooms by going to the cavern and walking over them (this is the second mode of play). The game ends when the cavern is completely filled with water.
There is a lot to like about Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Mickey is rendered very nicely and I just love the animation of the dancing brooms. There’s nice music from the film, although it frequently stops and starts over again. Although the game starts out as literal kids’ stuff, it eventually gets fast enough to try the patience of even seasoned video game vets. Some stuff I didn’t like included the lack of anything telling you how many buckets you’ve collected. It’s also frustratingly easy to fall off the side of the cavern (fall off a cavern? I guess you just gotta roll with it, man).
Ultimately, Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a fun if somewhat convoluted game that may be better off in the hands of older kids or adults rather than the tykes it was intended for. C+
Space Attack (M Network, 1982)
Games like Space Attack are THE reason the Intellivision was not my first choice for a game console back in the day. Space Attack (a port of the Intellivision game Space Battle which no one ever asked for) has all the makings of a really good first-person space shooter. And in fact it is; your controls are more fluid and precise than just about anything Atari came up with in a similar category pre-Solaris. The problem is Mattel had a bad tendency to overcomplicate things. The struggle required to get to the “good” part of the game almost makes it unworthy of the effort.
Y’see, there’s this radar you use to select the alien fleet you wish to attack. Let any one of the three fleets enter the middle of the screen and the game is over. The problem is the system is extremely clumsy and the manual is no help at all: it doesn’t make clear the difference between “dispatching a squadron” and “taking a squadron into battle.” There are times my fleet seemed to float right on by my selected enemy grouping. Actually getting into battle was a matter of luck at best.
The first-person shooting gameplay – although relatively satisfactory – is not without its faults either. You’re pretty much a sitting duck; you only have control over your reticle and there’s no way to move your ship out of the way of the enemy’s fire (although I think I was able to shoot down their shots a couple of times, but this method seemed inconsistent). Finally, there’s no scoring – you either win the game or you lose. I can accept that in some games, but for games like this I prefer to have a less binary metric of success.
I actually owned Space Attack as a kid; in fact, it was my last-ever purchase of a 2600 game at retail in 1988. I evidently had more patience back then because I remember figuring out the game, enjoying it and if I remember correctly even winning it. Today, however, I know there are much better games in this general category just on the VCS alone. D+
Space Battle (Homebrew, 2006)
I feel I should start out this review with a disclaimer. Game design is not an easy job, especially on a platform as limited as the Atari 2600. Attempting to do something original is even harder, especially as an amateur and especially with a genre as played-out as slide-and-shooters. My hat is off to anyone who even tries, but at the same time we must recognize that most homebrews are still a commercial enterprise – albeit a limited one – and if a programmer cannot create a fun game out of these limited conventions then one is forced to ask if it’s worth bothering with.
That is my roundabout way of saying – with all apologies to programmer Dave Neuman – that Space Battle is simply not a very fun game. You know you’re in trouble when the Lunar Lander component of a game is its most enjoyable, because Lunar Lander is rarely enjoyable. The game asks you to land your ship on a small, moving platform while avoiding an enemy vessel. It’s challenging but playable.
Which, unfortunately, is more than can be said for the rest of the game. The slide-and-shooter portion is plagued by insufferably slow missiles on the player side combined with an infuriating refuelling mechanic. Essentially, you have to let yourself be hit by an enemy shot in the hopes that it will turn into a fuel pod at the last second. To say the least, it’s not optimal. I honestly have no idea what happens during the boss battle even though I played it. Not a good sign.
If you really want to play Space Battle, it’s available from the AtariAge store (where, in fairness, you will find reviews more positive than mine) with instructions available here. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. D
Space Cavern (Apollo, 1981)
Space Cavern is probably the best title Games By Apollo ever produced. Not only does it feature a cornucopia of colourful aliens to rival even the likes of Demon Attack, but the game adds an extra element of challenge by having threats come from both the left and right (press joystick up to fire left and down to fire right) as well as from the middle of the screen. It’s a seemingly minor gameplay element which makes a big difference.
That said, Space Cavern still doesn’t have the “spark” that classic slide-and-shooters like Galaxian and the aforementioned Demon Attack brought to the table and in fact can crumble into monotony long before those titles ever do. But you gotta give Apollo credit for getting as much out of the game’s limited gameplay as possible. Undoubtedly inspired by Atari’s revolutionary Space Invaders cartridge, Space Cavern features no less than 24 game variations (each with a two-player counterpart and two difficulty settings) ranging from coma-inducing boredom to some of the most punishing action in any 2600 game ever. Regardless of the company’s past and future failures, Apollo was determined to give Space Cavern players the best bang for their buck. While not up there with the classics, for a slide-and-shooter you could do a whole lot worse than Space Cavern. C+
Space Instigators (Xype Homebrew, 2002)
The Atari 2600 port of Space Invaders was awesome, but there were some differences between it and the arcade original. Some were merely cosmetic (the look of the aliens) while others were more significant (the number and size of the attackers). With Space Instigators, programmer Christopher Tumber has corrected these disparities and created a Space Invaders clone more faithful to the version that took arcades by storm back in 1978. Although Space Instigators is accurate for the most part, there are some minor differences that rank it shy of perfection. For example, the spaceship flies across the screen too often and too fast, making it something of a nuisance compared to other versions. Also, the aliens do not have to make it down to the very bottom of the screen to end your game, which was a little frustrating. Otherwise, this is a great homebrew and really, can you possibly have too much Space Invaders in your life? Space Instigators is available for purchase at the AtariAge Store. B+