Atari 2600 Game Reviews: Turmoil through Unknown Activision Prototype #2: Hard Head


Turmoil_AtariGameTurmoil (20th Century Fox, 1982)

Not since Berzerk and Frenzy has a game been so aptly titled. Turmoil is not only a relentlessly challenging endurance test, but a solid example of design excellence in an arcade-style game (even though it never had a coin-op precursor as far as I know). It’s also one of the best games for the 2600 and certainly marks Fox’s signature moment as a video game distributor, courtesy of developers Sirius Software.

It’s almost become cliché to describe Turmoil as a two-dimensional Tempest, but I honestly can’t think of a better comparison (although Taz/Asterix represent a pretty good entry point as well). Turmoil is a semi-fixed shooter in which you fly a ship up and down an alley at the centre of a series of rows containing all kinds of aliens, tanks and unidentifiable objects streaking back and forth. All of these objects have their quirks: some move fast, some move slow, some can’t be destroyed, some can only be shot in the back. What it means is that you can’t just move at warp speed shooting everything in sight no matter how much you may want to do so.

There are prizes you can collect for big points, but collecting them comes with a risk versus reward ratio. Wait too long to collect a prize (which is always positioned at the far end of a row, because of course it is) and it will turn into a cannonball that can kill you. Naturally, because this is the Golden Age of Video Games we’re talking about, everything mentioned above gets faster and more intense, but in this case to the point of insanity.

So I was mentioning solid game design earlier. Well, Turmoil is a fast-action arcade game featuring a variety of challenges, an entertaining secondary objective and a solid risk-to-reward ratio, just like almost all the classic arcade games of the era. And I haven’t even mentioned the colourful graphics, the psychedelic inter-level splash screen or the audio which – while undoubtedly screechy – actually matches the insanity of the game on display. Turmoil never received a lot of attention on its release, but over the decades it’s worked its way up to hidden gem status and, finally, to an upper-echelon game in the opinion of many VCS fans. And deservedly so. A+

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

Tutankham_AtariGameTutankham (Parker Brothers, 1983)

Tutankham is just a miserably lost opportunity. I’ve never played the original Tutankham coin-op, but I know it’s still held in pretty high regard. Fans at the time were probably encouraged by the involvement of Parker Brothers, which had already become renowned for the strength of its arcade-to-home translations. Not this time, I’m afraid. What’s worse is there’s nothing in the game that couldn’t have been fixed if someone had just consulted a ten-year-old video game fan. The mediocrity of Tutankham cannot be pinned on 2600 hardware – it’s all about fundamental design choices.

The premise is, in theory, a can’t-lose proposition. You’re an archaeologist in a labyrinthine cave looking for treasure. The only object you must retrieve in order to move on to the next cave/level is the key – the others are just point fodder. Of course, the treasures are guarded by a wide variety of creatures – including scorpions, bats, condors, lion heads, mutant viruses (!) and much more – which pop out of the tombs to pursue you with regularity.


Video game crash? What video game crash? Ads for home video games like Tutankham populated the pages of comic books throughout 1983.

Luckily (or not as you’ll soon see), you’re armed with a laser gun to defend yourself against these baddies. And this is where the game turns the bed into a fecal-encrusted mess. You see, someone had the bright idea of only allowing the player to fire left and right. I don’t know much about the original Tutankham, but I do know you could fire in at least four directions ((I lie. As Andy points out in the comments section below, you can only fire left and right in the original as well)). For vertical combat you’re allowed three “lazer flashes” which destroy every enemy on the screen, but you will need many more than that.

But it gets worse. Because your archaeologist never stops moving unless he’s up against a wall, pushing left or right to fire frequently throws you into a creature. I’ve complained about this trope in quite a few 2600 game reviews, but Parker Brothers usually had better quality control than this. Control is sluggish and your character tends to get stuck on walls easily. Between all that and questionable collision detection as well, cheap deaths abound.

As bad as Tutankham is, it’s not a total loss. The various animals and creatures look really good and are animated nicely. And provided you have the patience to beat even the simplest variation, there are eight more degrees of difficulty to sink your teeth into. Otherwise, Tutankham is as dead on arrival as King Tut in his tomb. D

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

UltraSCSIcide_AtariGameUltra SCSIcide (Homebrew, 2005)

If I would have known that Ultra SCSIcide would be so similar to the original SCSIcide, I would have included this more recent version in the latter review (for one thing, I wouldn’t have had to write “SCSIcide” so much). Most of the upgrades Joe Grand has made to his original creation are purely technical. The biggest change is the addition of joystick control. Otherwise, it’s still the best hard drive read head simulator with hexadecimal scoring you’ll ever play, and I mean that with all sincerity. B

Ultra SCSIcide is available in the AtariAge Store. That page also includes a full list of the upgrades made to the original game.

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

UnknownActivision1_AtariProtoUnknown Activision Prototype #1 (Developed 1983)

My first thought upon playing this game – one of two purported Activision games found in a salvage yard in 1998 – was “Was this REALLY produced by Activision?”. We may never know for sure, but my skepticism remains. For one thing, Activision never really went for puzzle games or games that could otherwise be played in real life (exceptions include Bridge and Checkers). They were all about fast-action shooters, proto-platformers, racing games and easy-to-play sports titles – hence the name ACTIVision. Spoofing the Activision logo would have been simple enough; for all we know this was part of someone’s application to the company.

While I appreciate the thought that went into this game, it’s really frustrating. The game plays like an even more complex Rubik’s Cube, and anyone who’s read my reviews of Rubik’s Cube (aka Atari Video Cube) and Rubik’s Cube 3D knows how I feel about that. The idea of the game is to arrange a seven-by-seven block of rectangles back into its proper order using the medium-green rectangle as your game piece. Columns are arranged by colour and rows are arranged by the darkest to the lightest version of those colours.

Moving this rectangle up or down a column (or left or right in a row) causes the last square in the row or column to move behind your square’s new position. It’s a very difficult mechanic to wrap one’s head around, and I have no idea how it’s supposed to result in getting the gamefield back to its original state. What’s worse is there’s no in-game way to refer to the original game board for reference, although hitting the joystick button blacks out the rectangles that are in their correct position.

This entry is more of an acknowledgment of an oddity than a true review. It’s playable (not so much for myself but for smarter people) although the last of the four game variations is either incomplete or designed for demonstration purposes only. As far as it being a legit Activision game, the only factor that points to its legitimacy is its innovation – it doesn’t look or play like any other game by the company.

More Info: Unknown Activision Game #1 on AtariAge.

UnknownActivision2_AtariPrototype(Formerly) Unknown Activision Prototype #2: Hard Head (Developed 1983)

Welp, I’ve recently learned through Atari Protos that the second unknown Activision game discovered by Ben Liashenko in 1998 has a verified name: Hard Head. However, I wanted to keep these two games together due to their shared history rather than put Hard Head in the H’s.

Hard Head’s Activision cred means its partner above – despite my misgivings – was more than likely a legitimate Activision vehicle as well. Who knows? Maybe #1’s lack of Activision “feel” is what caused its cancellation in the first place. Hard Head makes up for it with some good, old-fashioned – if understandably imperfect — Activision action.

Hard Head is a strange little game, but most games of that time were (why does Q*Bert have to jump on all those blocks? Isn’t the method of making hamburgers in Burgertime a little unsanitary? Why is the food attacking you?). In Hard Hat you play a little Space Invader guy (description courtesy Atari Protos) trying to build a ladder of blocks to the top of the screen. His novel approach for doing so is bashing his head against blocks going by on a conveyor belt above. These blocks fly up in the air and eventually form a ladder he can climb. Once that’s done, Hard Head Guy then climbs the ladder to the top, completing the level.

Subsequent levels introduce new quirks and challenges. Ladder blocks start turning yellow and blue in a semi-complex pattern, but the main thing you need to know is that yellow = bad and blue = good. Landing on a yellow block will drop your man down one block while blue blocks give you points as long as you stay on them. But don’t get greedy – you only have a limited amount of time to ascend the ladder before it collapses. The third level introduces aliens – one you can destroy with a block and another that’s indestructible but thankfully easily-avoided.

I have my doubts that this would have been the definitive version of Hard Head simply because the graphics and gameplay lack that unique Activision spit ‘n polish. Consequently, I’m refraining from giving it a letter grade. The game is still highly playable and worth your time to check out. Don’t count on buying it – to the best of my knowledge there’s only one copy and I’m sure whoever has it is holding on to it.

More Info: Unknown Activision Game #2 on AtariAge.

2 thoughts on “Atari 2600 Game Reviews: Turmoil through Unknown Activision Prototype #2: Hard Head

  1. I’m afraid you’re mistaken about the arcade version of Tutakham – you indeed only can fire left or right. It’s the main reason the game is so hard, because you’re forced to plan your moves out to make sure you don’t have enemies coming at you vertically when you don’t have room to maneuver, especially since your guy doesn’t move very fast.

    Liked by 1 person

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