Thunderground (Sega, 1983)
Take one part Dig Dug, one part Combat and one part – I dunno – Missile Command and you have Thunderground, a tank game with a difference. Besides having a kickass name, Thunderground contains an extra level of strategy which belies its humble appearance. To be honest, it’s the most fun I’ve had playing an Atari 2600 game in some time.
Featuring an underground perspective similar to Mr. Do! or the aforementioned Dig Dug, the goal of each level of Thunderground is to destroy a series of nuclear bases defended by enemy tanks. The white tanks mainly go back and forth horizontally while the blue tanks venture out and try to hunt you down. Also defending the bases is a layer of earth that you need to burrow out without getting shot by a tank. Shooting the tanks themselves is secondary; in fact, sometimes it’s a better strategy to not destroy them. Say, for example, you burrow out half the protective layer; the tanks will often imitate you by digging the other half (they’re not very smart)!
Thunderground is technically a timed game, indicated by a below-playfield white enemy tank advancing towards your reserve tanks. However, the timing is fairly generous. In fact, if I have one complaint against the game it’s that it’s a little too easy for the first several levels. However, around level eight the action starts to build up and by level twelve you have a formidable challenge on your hands, with tanks shooting you the second you’re adjacent to its cannon (echoes of difficulty “A” in Dark Cavern).
Thunderground is a more-than-respectable addition to Sega’s rather spotty Atari 2600 collection. The game features just the right amount of overall difficulty on a game-wide basis and enough strategy to keep players interested over the long term. Recommended. B+
Thwocker (Activision Prototype, Developed 1984)
It’s easy to pick a point of reference for most golden age video games because they tended to fall into just a few categories: slide-and-shooters, scrolling shooters, platformers, puzzles, sports, mazes and a handful of others. For the life of me, though, I don’t know what to compare Thwocker to. Some might say Joust due to the effects of gravity on your character, but even that seems insufficient. Thwocker might be the first whole-cloth video game creation since Pac-Man, which is saying something for a game that was never released upon its 1984 (in)completion and only surfaced in 2001.
The goal of Thwocker is to bounce your smiley-face(!) around vertically-scrolling platform screens in order to collect a series of musical notes in the correct order. A cadre of killer instruments and evil conductors (I never said the game made sense) are out to get you, while you also have to be careful to avoid notes you don’t immediately need. Although the bum notes can’t kill you, they can send you off course and into the path of a killer trumpet (one has so few chances in life to put that in writing that it’s hard to deny the opportunity to do so).
Once you’ve picked up four or five notes, a little ditty starts playing and you now have the chance to exact revenge upon the musical meanies by bouncing into them for points. Presumably, the intention of the exit signs in the game was to allow you to jump to the next level. However, in its existing (and only) form they do not function. The good news is that all the other levels are available through the game select switch. None of this takes away from the playability of the game, but it is an insurmountable obstacle to building up high scores.
Thwocker is a colourful, fun and welcome addition to Activision’s library of superlative titles, and it’s a damn dirty shame it never saw the light of day commercially (likely due to the Video Game Crash, which among golden age video game fans should only be breathed in the most venemous of tones). This world would definitely be a nicer place to live in if we could count on a 1980-84 Activision prototype being discovered every few years, so we should all be grateful we had that opportunity back in 2001. B
Thwocker is available in a number of configurations, including the Activision Anthology for the PS2 which I am linking to below (you still have your PS2, right?). Best to Google (or DuckDuckGo for those of you who resent corporate monopolies) the version best suited for your platform of choice.
Time Pilot (Coleco, 1983)
I didn’t get to frequent arcades as much as I would have liked as a pre-teen. My parents were convinced they were dens of drugs, debauchery and heavy metal music (I never said they were wrong). To make matters worse, we lived in an isolated rural area, so even a surreptitious outing to one of these caverns of sin was a rare thing. Most of the time I had to be satisfied with any coin-op machine I could find in restaurants, convenience stores, truck stops and open areas in malls. Those machines were almost always Ms. Pac-Man, Dig Dug, Galaga and Time Pilot. Of those four, the first two spawned satisfactory 2600 ports (Galaga was never released for the system). Time Pilot? Perhaps not so much.
What’s always made Time Pilot awesome is its dizzying 360-degree action and spray-and-pray firing mechanic that would unleash a flurry of destruction on par with such bashers as Scrambler and Super Cobra. Coleco’s Atari 2600 port misses both those things and more. You can turn your ship in a circle, but in only eight positions. Instead of near-constant shooting, you have these shots that cancel upon each firing – the bane of many VCS games. Plus there are no parachutists to rescue, so forget about padding your score with specials.
I of all people know that Coleco’s Time Pilot is hardly the only 2600 port forced to scrap a few things from the arcade original. The major difference is that I really, really like Time Pilot and this version just doesn’t measure up. Maybe the 1982 coin-op just wasn’t a fit for the 1977 technology. What I do know, though, is that Atari was able to develop scaled-down versions of Ms. Pac-Man and Dig Dug that were still perfectly enjoyable. At best, Time Pilot just barely matches the standard of adequate. C-
Time Warp (NTSC) aka Astro Attack (PAL) (Zellers, Goliath. Year Unknown)
Time Warp has mediocre bargain-bin side-scrolling shooter written all over it, and for the most part that’s right on target. However, it does have some little extra somethings that lift it slightly above the third-party hell pack. The five enemies per wave unfurl from a single alien, which is a pretty cool effect. The side-scrolling shooting action quickly becomes tiresome until it reveals its winning hand: a complex zero-gravity maze you have to navigate your ship through in order to dock with the mother ship on the other side of the screen. If the developers had ditched the battle scenes and focused on variations on the maze screen, Time Warp could have proven more worthy than it is. However, its largely lacklustre gameplay, blocky graphics and screechy sound effects make Time Warp barely worth the effort. D-
Title Match Pro Wrestling (Absolute Entertainment, 1987)
Having missed out on the first round of third-party mania for the 2600, Absolute Entertainment saw an opportunity in Atari’s resurrection of the 2600 as a bargain console – particularly in the case of sports games. Their handful of efforts bordered on really good (Pete Rose Baseball) to downright terrible (Skate Boardin’). Title Match Pro Wrestling holds the fort somewhere in the middle.
Title Match Pro Wrestling actually has a lot of fun features. You can pick your opponent up and spin him around, send him flying towards the ropes, execute a clothesline and jump on his comatose body from the ropes. The game can be played one-on-one or in tag team mode against either a friend or the computer.
As far as control is concerned, let’s just say that Atari 2600 one-buttonitis strikes again. You are constantly having to switch in and out of what the manual calls “joystick mode” and “button mode” which doesn’t make much sense because you still have to use the joystick in button mode, but whatever. The end result for this player is the Atari 2600 version of button-mashing. And then there’s the fact that you are almost guaranteed to lose against the computer opponent.
So why does Title Match Pro Wrestling get a better grade than it probably deserves based on those faults? Well for one thing I just loved watching these pixelated blockheads throw each other around the ring – there was a certain “Atari 2600 realistic” factor that I liked. Also, I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt about its two-player mode; given all the moves available, I think this game would be a blast to play with a friend. There would be plenty of opportunity for trash talk, I’m sure. C