Sprintmaster (Atari, 1988)
Although Sprintmaster may look like a cheap effort superficially – box art ripped off from Pole Position, no special driving controllers a la Indy 500 – it’s actually a perfectly fine effort. Atari released a lot of these kind of overhead racing games in arcades in the ‘70s and Sprintmaster is pretty much the same but updated for the one-player era. There’s a large selection of tracks that can be played on blacktop, dirt or ice; you can even decide between bouncing or crashing (the latter is not recommended for beginners) when you collide with the side of the track. My biggest complaint is that joysticks are not optimal for this kind of game; I can see why Atari wouldn’t want to package its Indy 500 driving controllers with Sprintmaster in its bargain era, but they could have at least made the game backwards-compatible with them. Unfortunately, Atari was never good at those kind of decisions in any of its eras so what we got is what we got. And what we got with Sprintmaster is just fine, as long as you’re willing to put in the work with the control scheme. B-
Spy Hunter (Sega, 1984)
Spy Hunter for the 2600 is a mixed blessing for me. The good – no, great – news is that it’s pretty on-point as a recreation of the arcade title’s gameplay. The bad news is that it also recreates the things I didn’t care for in the original. To be honest – at the risk of sacrilege – I’ve never been a big fan of Spy Hunter. I’m not sure why – it has so much I like: a spy theme, vehicular destruction and that awesome Peter Gunn soundtrack. It could be a matter of its insane difficulty, but it’s a virtual walk in the park compared to Sinistar, which I like. For some reason it just doesn’t “click” with me. Having my choice of similar games, I’m more inclined towards the likes of Bump ‘n’ Jump.
It’s pretty easy to describe the gameplay of Spy Hunter. It’s a kill-or-be-killed overhead driving game which asks you to shoot cars with your mounted machine guns, knock them off the road or make them crash with your James Bond-style oil slicks or smokescreens. You also have to avoid rocket-launching helicopters which you can shoot with your missiles. Eventually the game winds up on water but the basic idea remains the same. I’m not crazy about the speed control – it seems like you’re either going at a full clip or stopped entirely. I also found the loadout van which deploys your car and weapons to be a little intrusive. I had both of these are issues with the arcade original, so your mileage may vary depending on your appreciation of the arcade game.
Speaking of which, arcade Spy Hunter was a control- and button-heavy beast which included a steering wheel, a gear shift, an accelerator and weapon buttons. Sega did a great job of recreating that experience with Atari joysticks; the original cartridge was packaged with a special brace in order to hold both joysticks (the second joystick action button is used for backward-firing weapons such as oil slicks and smokescreens). Spy Hunter is a superb port of a game that is simply not my cup of tea. C+
Squeeze Box (U.S. Games, 1982)
It was a review of Squeeze Box in a 1980s video game magazine which served as my first witness of a savage take-down of a piece of entertainment media. The review absolutely shattered the game, coming just short of blaming it for the Video Game Crash of 1983. Modern reviews of the game haven’t been particularly kind, either, so as a result I was fully prepared to hate Squeeze Box.
But you know what? Squeeze Box isn’t as awful as its reputation would suggest. In fact, it can be quite enjoyable in moderate doses. Perhaps I should have known that the game would not be a miserable experience for me; after all, I gave Telesys’ Ram It – a very similar game – a stellar review just a few months ago. I don’t think Squeeze Box is as good as Ram It, however, for reasons I’ll describe below.
In Squeeze Box you’re a prisoner trapped in a room with colour bars growing out of the walls (that’s a really odd sentence to write). You must shoot back the bars until you destroy all of them and go on to the next room. If a bar touches you, you lose a life. The biggest problem in the game is the prisoner – one of the biggest, ugliest sprites to ever inhabit not only a 2600 game but possibly any video game made, ever. He is completely out of proportion to the playfield and to top it off is slow and somewhat difficult to control.
Beyond that, however, Squeeze Box is a moderately entertaining game. I found it more monotonous than Ram It – which had a few extra features to keep things interesting – but not a disaster. Maybe I’m a dunce, but I find some kind of primal satisfaction in knocking out video bricks in much the same way Breakout scratches such an itch. The game even features a game-ending appearance by the Prince of Darkness himself for some reason, which is good for a laugh. If you like Ram It or Breakout-style games, I see little reason why you couldn’t get some enjoyment out of Squeeze Box. C+
Squish ‘Em (Homebrew, 2007)
God bless you, Bob Montgomery. Squish ‘Em was exactly what the doctor ordered after struggling with the highly-technical River Raid II (this week’s entry in AtariAge’s Atari 2600 High Score Club): a highly-addictive video game that’s easy to learn but hard to master. A virtually identical remake of an Atari 8-bit computer game I had never heard of before (seriously, check out this video and then watch this – they’re almost exactly the same), Squish ‘Em is kind of like Crazy Climber but much, much better. The goal of Squish ‘Em is to climb to the top of a building to grab a bag of cash. Along the way you have to either avoid, jump over or – my favourite – squish all manner of wee beasties who wish to end your quest prematurely. There are also bricks dropped from above that you must outmaneuver and objects you can pick up for extra lives. And with 19 or 20 game variations, it’s a simple concept with a lot of play value.
Bob Montgomery’s other homebrew efforts include Reindeer Rescue (which I liked), Go Fish! (which I liked less) and a whole bunch more I have yet to play. He certainly outdid himself here. Squish ‘Em is available at the AtariAge Store. A
Sssnake (Data Age, 1982)
Imagine Centipede. Now imagine Centipede if you couldn’t kill the centipede but only the bonus-point insects, but not for mad extra points but for one point each. You get one life, and instead of a 360-degree range of motion at the bottom of the screen you have to move around a fixed square at the center – and it’s lame. Data Age achieved quite a feat with Sssnake: they managed to take literally every single thing about Centipede that worked, did the opposite, and produced a singularly awful game.
Sssnake even manages to flip conventional wisdom about reading instructions on its head; you’re better off not reading the unhelpful hints. The manual encourages you to shoot at the snake to make the game easier; in actuality, you’re better off not shooting at the snake at all because it will split up and box you in. Honestly, though, I’m not sure why you’d want to play Sssnake for any other reason than to laugh at the inept game design. It’s pretty much the opposite of fun. F