Atari 2600 Game Reviews: Track & Field through Tunnel Runner

TrackAndField_AtariGameTrack & Field (Atari, 1984)

Not that there’s a lot of competition in the space (it’s hard to count Starpath’s aborted Sweat project), but I never thought there could be a better track and field game for the VCS than The Activision Decathlon, so I didn’t hold out a lot of hope for Track and Field.

I was wrong, but with one important caveat. For all of the graphical and gameplay splendour on display in Track & Field, it suffers from a nearly-fatal flaw: fail to qualify in a single event and you’re done. If you see the dreaded “1OVER” message on screen you have no choice but to go right back to the first event (in this case the 100-meter dash). It takes an exceptional game to overcome such a flaw, but Track & Field achieves it due to its unquestionable quality. I admit I’m approaching the game from a limited perspective (I can’t qualify in the &@!% javelin) but hey, I only claimed to be a fan of video games – not good at them.

Track & Field features six events (100-meter dash, long jump, javelin, 110-meter hurdles, hammer throw and high jump) in three difficulty settings (novice, arcade and expert) in both one- and two-player modes. The game can be played with either standard joysticks or the special track & field controller included in the cartridge box. I’m not entirely sure whether Stella emulates the track & field controller or the joystick, but I’ll tell you this much: it was a relief to simply press right over and over again in order to pick up speed, compared to The Activision Decathlon which is just as literally painful to play on a computer keyboard as it is with a joystick (click the above link to the game for the reason why).

Small details push Track & Field over the top. Although figuring out the mechanic can be a temporary struggle, I came to love how the game gives you some control over the angle of your javelin or your long-jumper. Figuring out the connection between speed and angles is the key to success in this game. And unlike so many 2600 games which demand longer-than-usual time commitments, I feel Track & Field is worth it. Although I have to dock the game some points for being so linear, there’s no doubt in my mind that Track & Field is one on-point sports game for the 2600. B

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

TreasureBelow_AtariGameTreasure Below (Video Gems, PAL, 1983)

I know I’m generalizing a significant portion of the world here, but I’ve always liked the attitude European fans had towards the VCS and video games in general. Not only did they keep the system alive all the way to 1992, but reading message boards today it seems like they have a more chill attitude towards video games than American players and typically accepted – and accept – the 2600 for what it was/is.

European players had their own exclusive, PAL-tailored games, only a portion of which I’ve so far been able to review in this space. One of the producers of these games was Video Gems, which was actually a Hong Kong company that distributed games such as Surfer’s Paradise, Steeple Chase and Treasure Below throughout Europe. Most of their games weren’t great, but they generally tried to be original and there’s an enthusiasm that shines through in their packaging and the games themselves. And the fact that they included high score stickers in their packaging so players could reward themselves is simply adorable.

Treasure Below is a simple, fun game. Let out your inner Sea Captain (arrgghh!) by diving for treasure at the floor of the briny sea. Repel seahorses, jelly fish and octopi with your trusty spear. Bring your collected treasure up to your boat and, well, that’s the game. Of course it gets faster with every new screen, although it only makes the game marginally harder because the patterns of the horizontally-floating sea creatures become apparent fairly soon.

There’s not a lot of depth to Treasure Below even by 2600 game standards, but in the spirit of its European audience it’s best to take it for what it is. C+

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

TrickShot_AtariGameTrick Shot (Imagic, 1982)

It’s hard to review games belonging to genres you really don’t care for. In my case, I’ve never been a fan of billiards-based video games, and I’ve been exposed to a few because my wife enjoys them. To be honest, I also find physical billiards frustrating but at least it gives me the feeling of real-life accomplishment when I do well.

So I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t bored out of my bracket while playing Trick Shot – the one and only pool game available for the 2600 (I imagine I had the same glazed-over look Mark from Classic Game Room had in his review of the game). I also can’t deny that it’s really well done with its ambitious, Atari 2600-realistic physics and graphics.

Trick Shot contains 14 variations including one- and two-player variations of trick shot, pool and English billiards plus nine practice trick shot modes. The goal of the trick shots, of course, is to sink all the balls on the table with one shot. However, the game is generous enough to give you a single point as long as you sink one of the balls. The pool games are, well, pool. I don’t understand a thing about English billiards so I had no idea what was going on.

The game’s 32 cue positions are pretty liberal for a VCS game, but don’t expect the fluidity or flexibility you would get from a modern overhead pool app. The angle of your shot is determined by where you place a white dot around the cue ball; shot strength depends on how long you hold the action button. It’s a good system for the VCS joystick and kudos must go out to Imagic for thinking it up.

So bottom line: if you like video pool, there’s something for you in Trick Shot. If not, you’ve probably already made the decision to stay away. B-

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

TronDeadlyDiscs_AtariGameTron Deadly Discs (M Network, 1982)

The explosion of Tron games released around 1982-83 can get really confusing. It doesn’t help that so many of them have similar names but little relationship to each other. Bally-Midway’s Discs of Tron arcade game is completely different from Mattel’s Tron’s Deadly Discs for the Intellivision or the pared-down version of said game for the 2600. The simply-titled Tron arcade game has nothing to do with Adventures of Tron for the VCS, and I have no idea where Maze-a-Tron for the Intellivision fits in to this whole mess. It’s a rabbit hole I’ve avoided until I absolutely had to with this review.

In Tron’s Deadly Discs you fight off warriors in an arena with a flying disc. You play against three opponents you must eliminate to move on to the next, faster level of warriors. If you don’t get them quickly, they regenerate. Astute readers may recognize a familiar cheat on offer here by always leaving one opponent alive on the easiest level (similar to leaving one rock onscreen in Asteroids). However, I don’t recommend it because score values rise with each level of warriors, so you would likely score more points in less time by simply proceeding through the stages.

The manual advises you to create a lot of Pac-Man style portals which allow you to go in one side of the screen and out the other (you make these by firing a disc at a pink door, turning it yellow). I found these portals of limited use, however.

Tron’s Deadly Discs is just okay. Why just okay? Because there was such great potential here for a much better game. Tron moves slowly; I find it funny how Mattel games so often managed to turn the 2600 into the Intellivision with its sluggish, slowly-running sprites. I really liked how you can send a disc flying and retrieve it quickly by pressing the red button. However, this leads us to the game’s singular most damning fault: your disc cannot kill any opponents on the way back to Tron (luckily, you don’t have to make any effort to catch it; the disc always comes back just like Thor’s hammer). This feature could have sent the game off the hook.

The sluggishness of Deadly Discs made me hate the game when I first played it and I figured it would be a D+ at best. However, extended play made me realize it’s actually quite addictive. It’s still only average and could have been so much better with a few simple tweaks, but it’s worth a mild recommendation. C

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

TunnelRunner_AtariGameTunnel Runner (CBS Electronics, 1983)

No matter how bad the game, I have always tried my best to compete in whatever the AtariAge High Score Club threw at me on a given week. Tunnel Runner marks the first time to date that – after a few plays – I just shut it off and said “nope.” Trying to give the game an honest chance still had me shaking my head and saying “nope.”

Tunnel Runner is a 3D first-person maze runner game. The packaging and instruction manual highly tout what an innovative thing this is although I can easily name two other contemporary games – the so-so  London Blitz and Survival Run – which employ much the same technique. The goal of the game is to search a maze for a key, find a key, find a door and escape the maze, all the while avoiding enemy Zots which kind of look like an evil Pac-Man if you were facing him head-on.

Sounds pretty simple, right? In theory, yes. In practice, absolutely not. Pressing the action button brings up a map that’s supposed to help you navigate the maze but – in my case at least – simply causes more confusion. For one thing, your avatar – to the best I can tell – looks exactly the same as the Zots’ so you literally can’t tell your ass from a hole in the ground. However, forgoing the map only caused me to run around in circles.

Tunnel Runner looks really good with its vivid, eye-popping colour and expressive enemies. But for me, the game only reinforces that the 2600 was never the best vehicle for first-person maze runners. D-

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

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