Submarine Commander (Sears, 1982)
You know the best way to know you’re playing an exceptional game? When you can’t stop playing it. Although that sounds obvious, I was not prepared to like Submarine Commander as much as I did and was legitimately surprised by how much I hit the ol’ reset button. One of three carts designed by Atari but sold exclusively through Sears under its Tele-Games label (the others included Steeplechase and Stellar Track – if there were any others please correct me), Submarine Commander is an FTS (first telescopic shooter – I just made up my own term) requiring you to shoot down as many enemy boats as possible both above and below the water line.
It sounds simple, but there’s a surprising amount of strategy involved. You have to be careful with your torpedoes as firing too much will both burn fuel and overheat your launchers. Enemy ships drop depth charges in more advanced variations, causing you to rely on your depth charge detector. A hit by a charge will cause loss of fuel as well as the whole screen to shake. The three kinds of enemy boats – tankers, destroyers and PT boats – all behave differently. PT boats are the fastest but only require one hit to sink, while tankers move the slowest but take two hits to drop into the briny sea.
Submarine Commander’s graphics are the elephant in the room – this is one ass-ugly game. The ships’ appearances are only a marginal improvement over the by-then five-year-old Air-Sea Battle. I do, however, like the ship-sinking effect which recalls Pitfall Harry meeting a watery or quicksandy demise. The sounds may be basic but the explosions are loud and satisfying. Don’t let appearances fool you; Submarine Commander is a dark horse triumph among Atari’s creations. A-
Subterranea (Imagic, 1983)
Subterranea is one of the most unjustly ignored titles in Imagic’s 2600 catalogue, if not the entire system library. Released to little fanfare in 1983, it may have simply been another victim of the Crash (a time that, to be fair, there were still plenty of hit games being produced), but one would think carrying the same label as Atlantis and Demon Attack would count for something. Thank God for second chances then, because Subterranea quietly reinvents the by-then tired conventions of the Defender-style side-scrolling shooter.
The game begins with a sequence featuring the hideous Hexuplex (the fact that there’s enough detail in a 2600 game that you can tell it’s hideous scores some extra points for the game), which shoots Aerobots at you. The trick to this level is to keep enough distance between your ship and the Aerobots as you get the rhythm of where the Hexuplex shoots and when. Once you destroy enough Aerobots, you are awarded a gem which gives you access to the caverns below.
From there the game follows a standard format: shoot down a different wave of aliens in three caverns, gain access to the laser gate that will take you to the cavern below and, finally, have it out with the Hexuplex and his minions once again. Imagic was always really good at creating enemies with distinct patterns of movement and Subterranea is no exception; their behaviour may seem random at first but each alien has a weakness you can exploit. Those who enjoy timing and puzzle-solving will like the laser gate components, with each set containing a different and more substantial challenge.
As can generally be expected from Imagic, the graphics are bright and colourful and the sound effects, while occasionally grating, are serviceable. Subterranea is highly recommended. A
Summer Games (Epyx, 1987)
I really tried to give Summer Games a chance, but ultimately it bored the hell out of me. Of the seven events – hurdles, swimming, skeet shooting, 100-yard dash, swimming relay, gymnastics and rowing – I only liked hurdles and skeet shooting. Some of the events were mechanically sound from a control perspective but were simply not to my taste (I found the swimming events and gymnastics particularly yawnworthy), but others – such as the 100-yard dash – were just disastrous. In that case, the controls amounted to wrangling the joystick around in all directions like a madman. I don’t know if Epyx thought that would be an improvement over the palm-on-joystick back-and-forth of The Activision Decathlon, but if they did they failed miserably.
I would really like to give Summer Games a better rating because – some questionable control schemes aside – it’s technically very good from an audiovisual perspective. Personally, though, I prefer the funkier sports in California Games (also by Epyx) and the winter games in, well, Winter Games. C-
Super Baseball (Atari, 1988)
Well, as of Super Baseball Atari is now 0 for 3 for 2600 baseball titles (1 for 3 depending on how much you enjoy the inaccurate but campily-enjoyable Home Run). Six long years since RealSports Baseball and all Atari does to make a “super” baseball game is marginally brighten up the graphics from that title. Otherwise, going by the one-player experience, it’s the exact same horribly flawed experience. In spite of what the manual says, you have precisely one pitch option that will almost always result in a ball; otherwise, the pitcher winds up throwing the ball to a fielder. Super Baseball is simply garbage. We’ll see how Mattel’s Super Challenge Baseball shapes up in the near future, but so far your only choices for playing baseball on the VCS are Home Run and Pete Rose Baseball. F
Super Breakout (Atari, 1982)
Nineteen Eighty-Two was supposed to be the year Atari – not content with having taken over the world – would take over the galaxy. And why would they not think that? Look at all they had on deck that year: a lineup of undeniable arcade ports including two already-minted classic games in Pac-Man and Defender, two blockbuster movie licenses in E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and a series of fantasy games that promised no less than a solid gold sword as a grand prize to the winner. To top things off, they had a brand-new console!
We all know what happened, though. Of the five games mentioned above (I’m counting Swordquest as one game), two (guess which ones) are still rightly or wrongly considered among the worst games of all time. The others are generally considered massive disappointments at best, although my personal mileage varies. As for the 5200, questionable design and marketing decisions ensured its short life on department store shelves.
And yet there were some rays of light as the golden age of Atari entered its twilight in 1982. Berzerk was a fine home version of a great arcade game. Vanguard and Phoenix were also good renditions of their source material. But perhaps the true dark horse hit was a version of a simple game from a simple time when colour video games were a novelty: Super Breakout. Few games truly deserve the “super” adjective but Super Breakout beats the original Breakout in every single way: it looks better, sounds better, plays better and features more intriguing variants. The cavity and doubles games offer the closest thing to pinball’s multiball experience in video games up to that point, while the progressive game – with its descending sets of blocks – adds an extra layer of intensity to the old Breakout war horse.
Of all the poor decisions Atari made that year, the decision to release Super Breakout was not one of them. The basic Breakout formula continued to hold appeal throughout the ‘80s with Arkanoid and continues even to this very day in countless phone and watch games. For my money, though, few beat the stellar VCS Super Breakout. A+