Tomarc the Barbarian (Xonox, 1983)
Jumping is one thing that the Atari 2600’s lone button could easily accommodate, but leave it to Xonox to complicate even that. It’s something you’ll be doing a lot of in Tomarc the Barbarian, but the jumping mechanism is so haphazard (pretty much broken, actually) that it ruins what little enjoyment a player can derive from the game’s already-flimsy premise.
Tomarc the Barbarian is kind of like two games in one. Sharing eight lives between them, your player character alternates between Tomarc (the barbarian) and the enslaved Senta (the girl). Tomarc’s job is to scour the castle looking for his sword while avoiding indestructible “monster rats.” An annoying sound (it’s supposed to be thunder) is your cue to press down on the joystick to switch to Senta as she bravely fights off vampire bats with her energy stars. The game continues until Tomarc reaches Senta, upon which the process starts all over again, only harder and faster.
I wish my descriptive powers were strong enough to describe just how awful Tomarc’s jumping controls are. I’m gonna let the manual field this one. Trust me – it’s as frustrating as it sounds. My comments are in brackets:
“Press the joystick left or right when the game begins and you will start Tomarc walking. Press the fire button and he jumps (sounds ok so far). The longer you hold the fire button, the higher he will jump (makes sense). By combining a walking motion in one direction and a jump, he will travel in an arc (this is where it gets annoying). With (a lot of) practice you will learn to direct Tomarc through a cave wall entrance (a matter of luck as much as anything) or through a ceiling entrance into another cave.”
The sad thing about Tomarc is that I can totally see it as a proto-platformer a la Castlevania given a few tweaks: a few ladders or stairs here, a few extra platforms there and some enemies with a bit more mobility. The alternating character action elevates the game a little bit, as does the graphical presentation. One thing you could almost always expect from Xonox was a good-looking game; although not on par with the company’s Ghost Manor and Spike’s Peak, Tomarc’s visuals are bright and colourful. Otherwise, broken controls and a number of other gameplay faults make Tomarc the Barbarian a non-starter. D
Tomcat: The F-14 Fighter Simulator (Absolute Entertainment, 1988)
Is it a bad sign when you’re most of the way through the alphabet of a video game console’s library and you find yourself getting a little sick of its quirks, of which the Atari 2600 has so very many?
To be honest, I’m less sick of the VCS itself than I am of VCS emulation. Don’t get me wrong; Stella is great. But using the F# row on your PC in order to play ambitious switchbank-dependent games like Space Shuttle and Tomcat: The F-14 Fighter Simulator is a real pain in the butt. Starmaster’s controls aren’t too bad because you only need to use the switchbank for a couple of things. But the other games I mentioned are VERY reliant on the switchbank. Heck, Tomcat requires you to use the freakin’ DIFFICULTY SWITCHES to perform precise takeoff maneuvers, which is an outrageous move even if you’re playing on a real 2600 manufactured after 1980 (Atari started putting the difficulty switches in the back in ’81 and as the owner of such a model, I can assure you it’s not easy to access at a moment’s notice. Did the Junior even have them? I can’t tell from a photo.)
But alas, it’s 1988 and flight simulators are becoming very popular. In much the same way today’s amateur homebrewers are compelled to push the VCS’ meagre hardware, so too were yesterday’s pros like programmer Garry Kitchen. “Heroism is calling,” I heard rumour he was told. “Will you accept the charges?” I personally wish he wouldn’t have because I’m filled with a misled sense of duty demanding I review EVERY Atari 2600 game. As big a cop-out as saying it might be, though, you might enjoy Tomcat.
The biggest challenge for me in reviewing this game is that I have nothing to compare it to. I have no interest in flight sims and am not sure I’ve even played one on a system better-suited for them. But for the love of God, flight simulation in general must be more fun than what’s on display in Tomcat. Unlike Space Shuttle, I actually gave Tomcat an honest try, which usually amounted to a continual process of fueling, thrusting, taking off and crashing. I managed to get my altimeter high enough to once get into a combat situation, which I admit was kind of fun even though I died spectacularly.
Could Tomcat be easier to play on an actual console? Possibly. Mistakenly thinking it was super-rare, I checked it out on eBay and was surprised to find it was reasonably priced ($20 to $40 range). Just be sure to have your sixer ready because I don’t think Tomcat will be very enjoyable on any other 2600 model. Due to all the variables and black holes in the reviewing process, I’m going to forego a rating for Tomcat: The F-14 Fighter Simulator. Important note for non-U.S. readers: the game was sold as Fighter Pilot in the rest of the world and was released by Activision.
More Info: Tomcat: The F-14 Fighter Simulator on AtariAge. For current listings of Tomcat: The F-14 Fighter Simulator for sale on eBay, click here
Tooth Protectors (DSD/Camelot, 1983)
You know you’re in a strange era of video games when a single console features two games dedicated to dental care (this and Plaque Attack) in its library. Tooth Protectors is among a handful of 2600 carts used to promote a brand, in this case Johnson & Johnson. Much like Kool Aid Man or Chase the Chuckwagon, customers would send in proofs of purchase in exchange for the cart.
“Advergaming” (as Wikipedia calls it) does not hold a very high reputation among game fans because it is seen as a cynical exercise in marketers latching on to a “fad” but failing to develop a playable game to follow. In that sense Tooth Protectors is actually pretty good, featuring better-than-adequate graphics and music as well as a novel approach to standard Breakout-style gameplay. And you can buy it today for the low, low price of . . . oh my. Let’s just say that if you bought it through my affiliate marketing eBay link below, my percentage could probably buy half a tank of fuel (where I live, that ain’t chump change).
You control T.P. (yeah, I know) the “tooth protector” with the big dumb look on his face to protect a row of teeth from sugar cubes dropped by “snack attackers” (the ugly one in the middle of the playfield). You basically deflect the sugar cubes back in the air – supposedly, you can get big points by hitting another sugar cube but I’ve yet to see this happen. About every ten seconds an alarm will sound a warning that a snack attacker is about to dive at you – this attack can almost invariably be avoided by heading for the bottom right-hand corner of the playfield.
In addition to three lives, you get three hygiene assists with an extra one added every 20,000 points. You use one of these every time decay sets in, indicated by a flashing tooth. The tooth is fixed in an amusing little cutscene including a treatment of mouthwash, a brush and a flossing. The game ends either when you lose three lives or three teeth.
Despite being a little on the cutesy side, Tooth Protectors is actually a solid title. Although it would be easy to knock it for being a joystick game when paddles might be more appropriate, the existing setup is actually just fine the way it is (the cubes never fall as fast as they do in Breakout). If I had one major complaint, it’s that it’s just too easy on the first couple of game variations. I played the first variation the other day and was HOPING for the game to end. Most players will probably want to set the game to variation four just to get a proper challenge. B
Towering Inferno (U.S. Games, 1982)
I went into Towering Inferno with low expectations and that benefitted my enjoyment of it. It’s a Quaker Oats (the developers of Raft Rider, Space Jockey and cereal you probably hated as a kid) game, so – as expected – it wasn’t great. But the gameplay is unique and it’s a damn site better than the VCS’ other firefighting game (Imagic’s Fire Fighter).
The game starts with a nice cutscene of a helicopter dropping off your firefighter at a huge burning building. From there you use your unlimited water supply to fight fire on nine stories, with each level ramping up the speed and intensity of the fire and lowering the amount of time you have to rescue the four victims on each floor (represented by stick men in the upper left corner of the screen). Once all the fire on a floor is put out, you receive 25 points for every person saved.
Towering Inferno – aside from the cutscene – is dead-basic from an audiovisual perspective, but the gameplay is okay and gets pretty hairy by the fourth and fifth floor. There’s a variation that allows you to continue a losing game with your existing score, which seems like cheating but I thought it was a nice touch.
The fact that you can only fire your hose up and down is a bummer, and adjusting the direction of your hose frequently causes the player to walk right into a flame, losing a life. And it wouldn’t be a U.S. Game without technical faults like getting stuck to a wall (shades of its fellow title Entombed).
If the credit to 20th Century Fox is any indication, Towering Inferno is a sanctioned licence of the 1974 film of the same name, so I guess that’s as good as any excuse to unleash your inner Steve McQueen or Paul Newman. Towering Inferno is the very definition of a slightly below-average game: fine in small doses but nothing you will form a long-term connection with. C-
By the way, not all Quaker Oats cereal is bad: you can’t go wrong with Cap’n Crunch. But man did I hate Quaker Harvest Crunch when I was a kid.
Toyshop Trouble (Homebrew, 2007)
Toyshop Trouble is a delight and a very obvious labour of love. Designed by some of the biggest names in the Atari 2600 homebrew community, the game – which originally appeared on the 2006 AtariAge Holiday Cart – is challenging for the mind and the reflexes. Throw in a touch of holiday whimsy and a completely nonviolent scenario and you have a long-lasting challenge for all ages.
You’re a lone elf, abandoned by his elfy associates after they did a half-assed – but contract-satisfying – job of painting all of Santa’s toys the least Christmasy colour of all: grey. You have the month of December (before Christmas, at least) to paint the toys correctly and meet the daily quota all by yourself. And with every day adding new toys to the mix – some that have to be painted multiple colours or, even worse, painted multiple colours in the correct order – every day gets harder and harder. Miss one day’s quota, however, and you’re fired (Santa is a bit of a dick boss, apparently).
I can’t say enough nice things about Toyshop Trouble. The toys – which include among many others Godzillas, Star Wars AT-ATs, boats and horns – are beautifully detailed and once painted really pop out of the grey background. The game starts with a wonderful, candy-cane themed title screen accompanied by “Here Comes Santa Claus.” There are too many good games for the Atari 2600 to say Toyshop Trouble is as good as the system gets, but it’s darn close. John Payson, Zach Matley, Bob Montgomery, Thomas Jentzsch and Nathan Strum – please step forward and take a bow. A+ Toyshop Trouble is available through the AtariAge Store.