Stampede (Activision, 1981)
As day turns to night, night turns to day, me giving a high rating to an Activision game released for the Atari 2600 between 1980 and 1984 is about as predictable. But even in such esteemed company, Stampede stands out. When it came right down to it, Activision was good at two things: creating better – or at least competitive – variations of arcade ports Atari had already put out (Chopper Command equals Defender while Robot Tank equals Battlezone, for example) and coming up with brilliant ideas out of whole cloth. Stampede is an example of the latter.
The goal of Stampede is to rope as many “dogies” as possible while not letting any more than three get behind you. The problem is that some calves move slow, others move fast and some stand stock still. Managing the different kinds of calves (differentiated by colour) is key to the game, meaning you have to herd some while roping others. Mike and Bootsy of Cinemassacre have a pretty good primer on how to play the game that is better than anything I could describe with written words.
Stampede is an amazing non-violent action game, full of strategy and difficulty variation. The “clopping” sounds are convincing and the animals are wonderfully-animated. And it’s completely unique – I cannot off the top of my head name any other video game based on a rodeo event. The only thing it could have used is a break in the action or a change in colour to indicate level change. Otherwise, it’s an A all the way.
Star Fire (Xype Homebrew, 2003)
For a franchise as perfectly-suited for video games as Star Wars, Lucas and company were pretty slow in getting official games to market, with the first home game – Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back – not arriving until five years after the first film and Star Wars: The Arcade Game not hitting game palaces until 1983 – six years after Episode 4. Note, however, that I said “officially.” Arcade entrepreneurs Exidy were not about to let Star Wars-mania go unexploited – copyright infringement be damned – so in 1979 we got Star Fire, complete with image-perfect renditions of Tie Fighters, Star Destroyers and a title screen stylized in the familiar Star Wars font. This homebrew by Manuel Rotschkar (who also gave us Gunfight and Seawolf) is a long-overdue port of this pioneering space-based first person shooter and it’s a good ‘un.
Star Fire is a very basic space shooter, calling more for reflex action than the strategy later, similar games such as Star Raiders and Starmaster would focus on. But as it is it’s a hoot. Although it depends mostly on shoot-and-avoid tactics, you still have to watch your heat bar to make sure your cannons don’t overheat. Diamonds appear on the screen which you can fire at to replenish your shields. Shooting a warp tunnel will send you to the next level.
I had a blast with Star Fire. While we’re on the subject, however, I’d also like to recommend playing the Star Fire arcade game on MAME or whatever software you use to play long-dead arcade games. It’s a timed game which – much like onions on belts – was the style at the time. It’s really cool, though, and I think you will be impressed by Exidy’s ballsy lack of concern for intellectual property. Star Fire (the 2600 homebrew) is available through the AtariAge Store. B+
Star Fox (Mythicon, 1983)
When I first heard that a game called Star Fox was held in poor regard among 2600 fans, I got it mixed up with Solar Fox and wondered how anyone could hate that game. I don’t know how common this mix-up is, but please, please do not confuse this crock of crap with the awesomeness that is Solar Fox. One of only three games produced by Mythicon (Sorcerer being the only one that was half-decent), Star Fox is a shallow horizontal shooter with poor controls and little incentive to play even after just a couple of minutes. Here’s one of those games where you can fire continuously to create a virtually constant flow of laser fire and STILL not hit your target. In fact, most of the time you have to ram your enemy with your ship while firing, and that only works in the easier game variations. As far as enemy movement is concerned, it’s almost like the programmer played Chopper Command, noticed how frantic the enemy aircraft were and decided to make his aircraft ten times more frantic. However, because the planes fly in few if any discernable patterns, this causes the game to become more aggravating than pleasantly challenging. What’s worse, you’re supposed to collect gems from the bottom of the screen, but as soon as you try you abandon left-to-right movement, leaving you a sitting duck for a shot from above. Just about everyone hates Star Fox; I wanted to find enough redeeming qualities in it to give it at least a D-, but I just couldn’t. F
Star Raiders (Atari, 1982)
Getting Star Raiders for my thirteenth birthday was a pretty big thrill. Everything about it seemed big: the box, the keypad controller which necessitated the big box, the epic DC comic which came with it and – last but not least – the promise of a galaxy-spanning adventure. And back then Star Raiders delivered on that promise, at least in a lowered-expectations kind of way we had to settle for given the hardware at hand.
But as much as I liked Star Raiders, even then I knew something was off. Shooting enemy vessels seemed like a matter of luck more than anything and the radar system seemed overcomplicated and inaccurate. Playing it recently – armed with the knowledge of better, similar games for the console – reinforced that opinion. Star Raiders’ targeting is terrible; seriously, even the targeting on the humble Star Ship (see review below) is more accurate. The knowledge that Activision was able to program its non-action functions into the 2600 switch bank made me resent the unnecessary keypad. And if this is a space shooter game, why am I getting pelted by asteroids more than anything else?
Star Raiders may have been the first strategic first-person space shooter (it was originally released for Atari 8-bit computers in 1979) but that doesn’t make it the best, at least in its 2600 format. Starmaster did this kind of game way better. Solaris – while not technically a first-person shooter – made the strategic elements more enjoyable while looking about a hundred times better. Star Raiders just doesn’t hold up well over time. C-
Star Ship aka Outer Space (Atari, Sears, 1977)
Sometimes I wonder if I’m the best person to be judging whether ancient games have any appeal for modern gamers. For one thing, I’m a member of a generation that is still somewhat fascinated by the ability to play games on a television screen in the first place. Secondly, I have a lot of respect for those early programmers who – without any kind of direct training – managed to create simple games like Star Ship virtually out of the ether, causing me to go easy on Atari’s earliest creations.
So no, there is not a heck of a lot to Star Ship. It’s as basic as a first-person space shooter gets (but to be fair, it was quite possibly the first one). The scaling and graphics are laughable and it’s hard to tell when you’re going to collide with a spaceship or asteroid. Still, it is possible to have a mild amount of fun with Star Ship as long as you lower your expectations way, way down and choose the right game variations. The easiest versions of the basic first-person shooter and space chase games are altogether too easy and will try your patience even within the confines of a two-minute, 16-second game. Select the harder variations to keep things interesting. The warp drive and lunar lander (no similarities here to the Lunar Lander arcade game, which was bad enough) games are boring and stupid, respectively, and best off avoiding completely.
Star Ship belongs in a museum more than it belongs in your Atari 2600 game collection, but considering the small amount of time commitment it demands, you can have some fun with the game with the judicious use of the game select switch. D+