Atari 2600 Game Reviews: Unknown Universal Game through Venture

UnknownUniversal_AtariPrototypeUnknown Universal Game (Prototype, Developed 1983)

Again, this is more of an acknowledgment than a review. Atari Protos tells the story best, but this cart is even more of a mystery than the first of two Activision carts previously discussed. Although dubbed “Unknown Universal Game” there’s a strong possibility that it’s actually a 20th Century Fox prototype which may have been intended to be the game based on the Kenny Rogers film Six Pack (and if you remember that movie I hope you’ve started your retirement planning because you’re old). Although the name “Universal” is silk-screened onto the EPROM board, as far as I know arcade game developers Universal never made any 2600 games, so I suspect the TCF theory is probably correct.

The racing-based game itself is pretty clearly unfinished. Atari Protos describes it as a rear-view Dragster and that’s pretty accurate. I had enough trouble wrapping my head around the gear-shifting mechanic in that game but the one used here is just plain whackadoodle. You have to move the joystick left, up and right to get the little guy with the white flag to start the race, then you attempt to shift gears (push down) and accelerate (push up) without blowing your engine. I only have – and only ever will have – patience with any game that puts me through those kind of contortions, and that’s the aforementioned Dragster. Still, it’s a nice curiosity and each new discovery like it carries the possibility of new 2600 stuff appearing from the depths.

More Info: Unknown Universal Game on AtariAge.


Up n’ Down (Sega, 1983)

Despite what it may look like, Up n’ Down is no racing game. You can go as fast as you want or slow as you want, there’s no annoying timer and the other vehicles on the trail are only there to destroy or to destroy you. Just remember that no matter what you do, everything has potentially disastrous consequences.

Up n’ Down is like a demented game of capture the flag – eight flags to be precise. Driving your “Baja Bugger” up four levels of mountain terrain, your goal is to collect eight flags in order to proceed to the next stage. There are also cherries, ice creams, balloons and lollypops to collect for extra points. Sounds like a pleasant Sunday drive out with the family, right? Well, not so much. The other vehicles are among the biggest jerks in all of gamedom and are not above suddenly rolling into you or positioning themselves in such a way that if you jump over them you fly off the trail.

But here’s where the fun part of Up n’ Down comes in. Other vehicles may be able to roll into you or generally just get in the way, but you can jump over them or, preferably, right on top of them – just like in the similarly-titled Bump ‘n’ Jump. There’s no such thing as brakes in this game. You can slow down, but do so too much and you’ll wind up killing yourself by backing into a car or truck.

I’m pleased to report that this Atari 2600 port plays much the same as Sega’s arcade original, with little to nothing sacrificed from a gameplay perspective (in fact it might even be a little more difficult). The cars look like cars, the treats look like what they’re supposed to be and the happy ditty that plays throughout will be stuck in your brain for days.

Not all is well with this game, mind you. The collision detection – a frequent damper on the fun of several 2600 titles – seems to be a few pixels shy and that’s enough to cause more than a few cheap collisions for beginning players. It’s a major letdown for what is otherwise a superb standalone game and arcade adaptation. But all things considered, I think most players will have a splendid time playing Up n’ Down. B-

More Info: Up n’ Down on AtariAge. For current listings of Up n’ Down for sale on eBay, click here

Vanguard_AtariGameVanguard (Atari, 1982)

Vanguard is a game that seems to have been a constant presence throughout my gaming life. I was sure I owned it at one point, but looking back I realized I never did – rather, everyone I knew with a 2600 had a copy and I either played it with them or borrowed it. Even though I’ve never counted it among my favourite games, in recent years I found it to be one of the few games I would play simply for pleasure rather than competition or review – much more so than acknowledged favourites like Pitfall! or Keystone Kapers. That has to say something, especially considering there are levels in Vanguard that are really stinkin’ hard.

Based on the 1981 arcade game, Vanguard is an alternatively horizontally- and vertically-scrolling shooter. The most memorable features of the arcade game were its bright, rainbow-themed graphics, four-direction shooting and the then-novel ability to continue the game for another quarter. The Atari game retains the graphical theme but with the curious addition of a grey background. As a result, the game suffers from a muted look rather than having colours which pop against a black background. I’m not sure why Atari messed with background colours so often, but most of the time they would have been better left alone.

The game features a variety of villains that all behave a little differently. I particularly like the Kemlus, snake-like creatures you can dock with for big points. You can pull this off three times before they finally wise up to your scheme and you simply explode on impact. And then there’s the Gond – a boss so infamously lame that even Atari made fun of him in a commercial – that can be destroyed with a single shot. It kind of makes up for the insane difficulty of the Striped Zone and its nigh-unto-impossible to pass “Floating Paynes” (had to laugh at this comment from the manual: “These look like a rectangle”).

Vanguard’s control is remarkably good for a game that frequently asks you to move in the direction you’re firing. I’m not entirely sure how Atari did it, but they managed to make a two-joystick arcade game work within the parameters of a single one-button controller (or in one variation, no button at all; automatic firing is employed instead).

While it may not hold a place among the all-time classics, Vanguard is a solid standalone title and a reasonably-accurate arcade port. But wow – that grey background really bugs me. B

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

VaultAssault_AtariGameVault Assault (Homebrew, 2001)

I’m not sure where the “vault” in “assault” is supposed to come from, but what I do know is that Brian Prescott’s Vault Assault is a straight-up adaptation of Bally-Midway’s semi-classic 1980 arcader Space Zap. Vault Assault/Space Zap is just shy of Pong as one of the most one-dimensional video games ever made, but that doesn’t make it a bad game. In fact, its brilliance lies in its simplicity.

Because I haven’t been able to find much supporting documentation for Vault Assault (not even on, I’m not sure what kind of backstory Prescott had in mind for his game, so I’ll just go ahead and describe it in Space Zap terms. You control lasers on a spaceship fixed in the middle of the screen. You can only fire up, down, left and right – the same directions the missiles are coming from. Missiles start out slow in the game’s default variation and are easy to pick off before they even launch. As the game progresses, missiles start flying fast and furiously from all four directions and hitting them all (which you won’t) will test your hand-eye coordination to its limit.

If this scenario sounds familiar from a game other than Space Zap, it’s because it’s also the basis for half the gameplay of Imagic’s Cosmic Ark. Apparently, Cosmic Ark started out as a straight-up adaptation of Space Zap but the second, alien-rescuing level was added to break the repetition. Probably a good idea, because Vault Assault/Space Zap can get pretty tiresome after a short while. But played a few minutes at a time, Vault Assault is a fun, fast-action game. B- Vault Assault is available at the AtariAge Store.

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

Venture_AtariGameVenture (Coleco, 1982)

Coleco’s 2600 version of Exidy’s 1981 arcade game Venture is an example of a flawed but fun port of a flawed but fun original game. While it could never be considered among the top titles of its generation, the appeal of Venture was (and is) its pick-up-and-play appeal even as it bears the trappings of a more sophisticated game like Adventure. Yes, there are rooms to enter, treasure to collect and a host of exotic baddies to slay, but it boils down the proto-dungeon crawler formula to the point where it’s more of a run-and-gun game like Berzerk. Your mileage may vary on that point, but to me that simplicity makes it much more fun to play on the Atari 2600 than something like the Swordquest series.

Although a few things get lost in translation, the 2600 port of Venture largely retains the feel of the arcade game. Although it only sports two sets of four rooms compared to the arcader’s three, Coleco at least made the effort to retain the identity and order of the rooms. The two things I miss the most in this version are the original’s wonderful classically-inspired soundtrack and the filling in of a room on the map screen once you’ve beat a room (a practical feature that Coleco inexplicably skipped).

For better or for worse, 2600 Venture also retains some of the faults of the original. Your smiley-faced player avatar tends to move sluggishly in both versions. Cheap deaths such as monsters attacking you the second you exit a room are common in both but particularly exasperating on the port. The moving walls room is actually harder on the 2600 because you can’t even touch one of them without getting wasted (you only got bumped in the original).

Graphically, 2600 Venture is awfully slight but on that count so was the original, which was a 1981 release that looked more like a game from 1980 (that just tells you how quickly graphics capabilities scaled from year to year in the ‘80s). The sound mostly consists of stock 2600 explosions heard in many other games before and after. There’s an overall sense that Coleco could have done more with the VCS’ capabilities, but that seems to be par for the course when it comes to that company’s 2600 titles.

Unlike a number of arcade classics from its era, porting of Venture pretty much ended with the 2600, ColecoVision and Intellivision – meaning it never got to benefit from the processing power of future systems the way, say, Q*Bert did. In some ways that makes this humble port more significant than usual. Good thing, then, that it’s pretty good. B-

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

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