Steeple Chase (Video Gems, Europe-Only, 1983)
Did the equestrian sport of steeplechase have some kind of burst in popularity back in the early-‘80s that I wasn’t aware of? In addition to a board game I owned at the time, there were no less than two Atari 2600 cartridges dedicated to the sport: this one and the better-known Steeplechase (no space) by Sears (see below). While I still prefer the paddle-controlled Sears version, the PAL-only Steeple Chase benefits from a unique – if somewhat frustrating – dual view of the same playfield.
The goal of Steeple Chase is to jump over a series of obstacles in as little time as possible. The top portion of the screen gives you an overhead layout of the race track, including obstacle locations and width. The side view gives you the height of the obstacles. It’s almost always okay to jump over water bodies as they’re landlocked anyway, but for most barriers you need to consult both maps – an effect that can make you go a little cross-eyed. I liked the top map because it often shows the player how to simply avoid an obstacle, allowing you to build up speed. And once your horsey works up a good head of steam it can really move.
Steeple Chase is a unique take on subject matter that had already become trodden ground (my apologies) for the 2600. It’s enjoyable enough although I doubt I’ll play it again anytime soon. C
Steeplechase (Sears, 1980)
Steeplechase is one of three titles (the others being Stellar Track and Submarine Commander) Atari offered as an exclusive to Sears, which sold the VCS under its own branding. I really shouldn’t be surprised that Steeplechase – like virtually all of Atari’s early titles – was originally an arcade game (apparently, in 1975, the first to include music but I haven’t done enough research to find out for sure). At any rate, Steeplechase is a solid, fun game with some realistic horse-and-rider sprites and a good injection of strategy to boot.
Using your paddle controls (the game supports up to four players if you have an extra set), you jump your trusty steed over steeples of various widths, pressing the red button to jump and rotating the paddle to adjust the height of your leap. The key to success at the game is to not hit the steeples (duh) but perhaps more importantly learn how to make your horse land smoothly and without bearing down. Otherwise, you’ll gradually lose the momentum you need to beat the other horses.
The single-player experience is kind of a mixed bag. While still certainly fun, I found I could almost always beat the first variation while consistently performing poorly in variations which put my horse at a disadvantage. That might just be myself as a player, but it suggests to me that Steeplechase is best enjoyed in couch competition with human players. Hey, if you played Steeplechase along with Superman, you could have your own instant Christopher Reeve-themed party (hey, why are you looking at me like that?). B
Stellar Track (Sears, 1980)
Ah, text adventure games. I remember a brief period of time post-Crash when all of the video game and computer magazines seemed convinced text adventures were the Next Big Thing, which in retrospect seems like a step backwards in the evolution of computer entertainment. It’s strange, because I’ve never heard anyone say they’d rather play the old, ‘70s techie version of Adventure than the Atari 2600 version with actual graphics (as primitive as they may be).
Mind you, the text version of Adventure might be fun – certainly more fun than the text version of Star Raiders which Stellar Track essentially is. The ingredients are all there: battling enemy fighters (albeit in a very convoluted way), keeping track of your energy and docking at bases for repairs – all with the added “fun” of entering never-ending coordinates. Coordinates to warp across quadrants. Coordinates to warp around sectors. Coordinates to fire your weapons. Much of the time the coordinates fall short anyway and they don’t even take you where you need to go. Math can be fun, but it certainly isn’t in Stellar Track.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a little bit of fun playing Stellar Track, but I have a feeling this can be chalked up to having some success in figuring out such a complicated game. The question you really need to ask yourself is whether you’d rather play the same basic game with action and graphics – like in the case of Starmaster or 8-bit Star Raiders (let’s just ignore the 2600 version in this case) – or spend a bunch of time tapping in grid-based numbers (which, incidentally, you cannot change if you make a mistake). For me, the answer is obvious. D+
Strat-O-Gems Deluxe (Homebrew, 2005)
Everybody loves puzzle games. Tetris, Dr. Mario, Bejeweled – no matter how much of a Triple-A game snob you might be, chances are you’ve fallen for their charms. How many of us have wound up in the Candy Crush trap (at least to the point where most of us had to pay money in order to keep on winning?). For pure, unadulterated video game addiction, puzzle games can’t be beat.
There aren’t a lot of these kind of puzzle games available for the 2600, if only because the Tetris/Columns style of games didn’t exist in the console’s prime. However, the homebrew community – in this case John Payson – has answered the call in the modern era with Strat-O-Gems Deluxe. The concept is simple: arrange three or more like-coloured blocks together and make them disappear. There are occasional power-ups which can help destroy a bunch of blocks as well.
The most similar title in the VCS library is probably Acid Drop, but Strat-O-Gems Deluxe looks and plays so much better. Even though there are lots of similar games available on today’s phone apps, there is a special charm to playing a game like this on the 2600. Well done, Mr. Payson. B
Strat-O-Gems Deluxe is available at the AtariAge Store.
Strategy X (Konami, 1981)
Strategy X isn’t exactly the prettiest game out there, but for a 1981 title this adaptation of the Stern/Konami arcade game (both companies get credit depending on the source) is actually pretty advanced. First of all, we’re not in Combat land anymore: Strategy X is a non-head-to-head overhead tank battle game of the sort that would become standardized in late-‘80s games such as Vindicator and the tank portions of games like Ikari Warriors. Second, despite the clearly inferior graphics, 2600 Strategy X is actually superior to its arcade namesake in my opinion, jettisoning by necessity the extra buttons used to control the rotary turret (here represented as a standard forward-shooting 20th century tank). This uncomplicates an already considerably-difficult game, giving the player more of a fighting chance. The fact that the game features actual music (a major novelty for a VCS game of its vintage) is gravy.
Although Strategy X can pretty much be summed up as “see tank, shoot tank,” it’s the smaller details that make the game work. There are green areas you can run your tank over but doing so will kill your fuel reserves in a hurry. The enemy tanks shoot far slower than yourself, but part of the challenge is knowing how to avoid their fire over long distances. Fuel tanks are generally plentiful but they’re frequently destroyed by enemy fire so there’s always a race to get to them on time. The second stage is more of the same, except this time you’re fighting (some particularly ugly) bombers.
My only major beef with the game is that it’s akin to a reverse version of Atari 2600 Berzerk: enemy tanks can fire diagonally but you can’t. This can be frustrating but it’s not a deal-breaker. Strategy X is a glimpse into the future of video games and to my mind holds up as well as later titles in the genre. B-