Atari 2600 Game Reviews: Tac-Scan through Targ/Universal Chaos

TacScan_AtariGame

Tac-Scan (Sega, 1983)

After an update full of games that were both hard to play and hard to master (yes – I’m complaining about Swordquest again), I hoped Tac-Scan would follow the golden era video game ideal of being easy to play but hard to master. In reality, though, it’s easy to play, easy to master and overall pretty bland.

Tac-Scan is a paddle-controlled space shooter that’s pretty standard except for one important difference: instead of controlling one ship, you control up to six ships flying in unison. You get a reserve ship for every ten enemy vessels you shoot down. If you have a spot in your fleet, a reserve ship attempts to dock with you. However, if you prefer your current formation or would rather save your reserves for a harder point in the game, you can avoid docking with it.

I know it can be a fool’s errand to compare arcade originals to Atari 2600 ports, but I couldn’t resist. Arcade Tac-Scan’s vector graphics absolutely blew my socks off, and also included a forward-scrolling wave that reminded me a lot of Tempest. The 2600 version’s graphics aren’t bad, but nothing special either. What the 2600 port does well is expose the innately shallow nature of the game in the absence of the flashy graphics that pushed the coin-op over the top. Tac-Scan is really just a shoot-em-up meat grinder with little reward beyond continued monotony. C-

More Info: Tac-Scan on AtariAge. For current listings of Tac-Scan for sale on eBay, click here

TanksButNoTanks_AtariGameTanks But No Tanks aka Tank Brigade (ZiMag, Panda, 1982)

Unless we’re talking about the Atari/Sears special distribution deal (and sometimes even then), VCS games that came out under different names from different distributors are usually shorthand for “this game is gonna suck.” You can usually double that chance if an infamously fly-by-night company like Panda is involved. However, Tanks But No Tanks is a welcome exception to the rule.

Tanks But No Tanks (gotta love that title) is a maze-based overhead tank game that is far more sophisticated than anything you would expect from ZiMag. Enemy tanks (20 per level) move in unpredictable fashion and often seem to work together to draw your attention away from defending the base at the bottom of the screen. The tanks are flickery – like VCS Pac-Man ghost-style flickery) but I’ll let it slide due to the game’s solid gameplay. Tanks But No Tanks is really only a maze game for the first level; after that, protective barriers are stripped away until you and your base are virtually unprotected by the third.

No, the graphics aren’t great (although ZiMag did well by giving each level its own colour set), but the tank explosions are loud and very satisfying as long as you’re not on the receiving end. For a game released by a couple of companies with fairly poor track records, you could do a lot worse than Tanks But No Tanks. B-

More Info: Tanks But No Tanks on AtariAge. For current listings of Tanks But No Tanks for sale on eBay, click here

Tapeworm_AtariGameTapeworm (Spectravision, 1982)

I don’t think I’ve changed and rechanged my mind over a single video game over a 48-hour period as I have with Tapeworm. On the one hand, it’s a charming one-player reimagining of Surround/Snafu/Tron-style gameplay. On the other, it features less-than-inspiring graphics and sound effects designed to make your ears bleed.

The game starts out with an arcade-style introduction of its “characters,” which is a nice touch. Your goal is to collect ten bean sprouts. You must capture each sprout before the travelling spider at the bottom of the screen reaches the far right-hand side or else two more sprouts will be added for you to capture within the time limit. Every bean sprout you grab adds another block to your tapeworm, making it easier for its head to crash into its body. But that’s not the only threat – spiders and birds pursue you relentlessly (thankfully, they can only kill your tapeworm if they touch its head) and bean sprouts placed right next to walls require precision timing to avoid a crash.

Once you’ve collected all the bean sprouts, a fruit appears that you also must capture before the spider completes its rightward crawl. I found the manual quite funny on this point; it describes tapeworms as the little creatures that collect all the leftover fruit from that “other” game you’re always playing. Spectravision’s copywriter must have forgotten that VCS Pac-Man replaced fruit with “vitamins.”

Tapeworm comes in both slow and fast variations. Although the spider just slightly outpaces you in both versions, the fast game really calls on your reflexes to avoid hitting a wall or yourself – by far the two most lethal obstacles in the game in my experience. The third level renders everything except the spider and your enemies invisible, with only occasionally-flashing light appearing to help you gain your bearings. It’s actually not as hard as it sounds and adds a little something extra to the proceedings.

You may have noticed that I haven’t had much bad to say about Tapeworm so far, and honestly still don’t. As I mentioned earlier, the game could be better from an audiovisual perspective, but I’ve given better grades to games with far worse. Despite liking all of the Surround-style games I mentioned above, Tapeworm really doesn’t grab me for reasons I can’t put my finger on. Maybe I was put off by the cutesiness of the packaging – a charge that could be levelled at a number of my favourite video games. All things considered, I think a moderate C+ suits Tapeworm quite nicely – nothing special but not bad.

More Info: Tapeworm on AtariAge. For current listings of Tapeworm for sale on eBay, click here

Tapper_AtariGameTapper (Sega, 1983)

Tapper is one of the best arcade games of all time, or at the very least the golden age of video games. The game is choc-a-bloc with expressive characters with unique personalities; the graphics are capable of wowing you even today, especially fans of the whimsy offered by the Mario series. I never got to play the game as a kid (the machine was often relegated to bars and other adults-only spaces due to its alcohol theme) and never found the family-friendly version entitled Root Beer Tapper. But I did see screenshots in video game magazines and was absolutely wowed by what Bally-Midway had accomplished.

There’s little point wasting valuable bandwidth by repeating yet again that a 2600 port does not come close to the visual splendor of an arcade original, because Tapper doesn’t. However, graphics aside, Tapper is one of the most accurate 2600 arcade ports – gameplay-wise – of all time. It’s all here: you pour soda (intended to be Mountain Dew if the graphics are any indication), serve soda to steadily-advancing customers and catch returning glasses before they break. It even includes the playable cutscene with the Beer (here Soda) Baron, who shakes and rearranges cans of soda and you must pick the one he didn’t touch lest you get a carbonated shower, and – against all odds – all four levels from the arcade game. The difficulty is similar to the coin-op (not something that always happened with 2600 ports) and scales up similarly.

Sega did a heck of a job with Tapper. It’s a pity it’s so uncommon, rating a “6” (Rare+) on AtariAge’s rarity guide. One of the best ports available for the VCS. A

More Info: Tapper on AtariAge. For current listings of Tapper for sale on eBay, click here

Targ_AtariGameTarg (CBS Electronics Prototype, Developed 1983). Universal Chaos, Telegames, 1988)

Targ is one of the few (perhaps only) prototypes for the 2600 that got a second chance at life – not as a homebrew, but as a commercial title during the system’s manufactured existence. Targ is an aborted attempt to translate an obscure arcade game by Exidy while Universal Chaos is the version released to retailers by Telegames. For the most part they’re the same game, although Universal Chaos features some gameplay and cosmetic differences. Overall, it feels more complete.

Looking and playing like an upgraded Slot Racers, Targ is a maze game/shooter that pretty much plays like you think it would just by looking at the screenshot above. This doesn’t make it bad – just basic. A neat feature is the ability to reverse (albeit with some effort). Targ lacks the arcade game’s mini-boss (possibly due to being stalled in development), but it’s restored in Universal Chaos. You score more points the sooner you hit it. I liked the soundtrack to UC, which evoked a very ‘80s science fiction mood (think The Terminator).

There’s little consensus as to whether Telegames legally obtained the rights to Targ or whether they just reverse-engineered the prototype, but given the similarities of the two games I find it hard to believe they built it from scratch. Either way, Universal Chaos is the better of the two, with better colour differentiation and challenge.  It’s not a great game in either incarnation, but it’s a pleasant enough ride. Targ: C. Universal Chaos: C+.

More Info: Targ on AtariAge. For current listings of Targ/Universal Chaos for sale on eBay, click here More Info: Universal Chaos on AtariAge. For current listings of Universal Chaos for sale on eBay, click here

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