Atari 2600 Game Reviews: Video Checkers through Video Pinball

VideoCheckers_AtariGameVideo Checkers aka Checkers (Atari, Sears, 1978)

Wow – the Video Game Critic really dislikes the entire concept of video game checkers, giving the Atari version at hand an F and the Activision version a D. I agree that checkers isn’t the most exciting game out there (especially as a video game), but I accept that classics like checkers and chess are an inevitability on almost any game-playing platform. I’ll probably never bother to check for sure, but I’m certain that deep within the online Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo online stores lie versions of all your favourite classic board games. And why not? Great-gramma needs something to play too.

Seriously, though, back in their day games like Video Checkers played a really unique role. Think about it: how many single-player checker games were available back in 1979? There were a few fledgling physical electronic chess units available, but I don’t even know if electronic checkers existed and if so, I can’t imagine them being anything but ludicrously expensive. By comparison, a $20 Atari cart – especially with the variety of challenge on offer here – would have been quite a bargain.

Historical significance aside, my modus operandi is judging how fun a game is today. Keeping it simple, do you like checkers? Well, then you should have fun. But in the opinion of an amateur who doesn’t know the ins and outs of the video checker genre, I think beginner to intermediate (and maybe even some advanced) players will have more fun with Activision’s Checkers; it has a simpler, cleaner interface, more attractive graphics and far easier controls.

The latter is a particular sticking point with Video Checkers; the controls feel slow and sluggish and employ a two-step piece selection and movement process. Meanwhile, Checkers’ controls are smooth and responsive; all you have to do is place your cursor where you want your checker to go and it goes there – just aim and fire.

But before you blow Video Checkers off, do realize that it contains game variations where the computer examines up to nine future moves (albeit hampered by a 15 minute wait time that I doubt few but the most dedicated will have the patience for). I can’t stand a chance beyond the easiest variation. Geez, just check both games out already – the cart is easily found online and Activision’s Checkers (while a little rarer) is hardly super-scarce. C

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

VideoChess_AtariGameVideo Chess (Atari, 1979)

Video Chess is certainly one of the most unsung revolutionary games in the history of the Atari 2600 and possibly video games in general. Both its backstory and its programming process are fascinating. According to the rumour mill, Atari was sued by someone who claimed false advertising against the company because the original VCS packaging pictured chess pieces even though no chess game was available for the system (I see him looking like the guy on the Video Chess box, pictured).

VideoChess_Color_front

If this doesn’t scream “too smart for his own good ’70s guy” I don’t know what does.

Programming luminaries Bob Whitehead and Larry Wagner got to work on the game but it wasn’t an easy ride. The 2600 was only designed to place two sprites on a given scanline at any one time and chess required considerably more. The answer lied in “Venetian Blinds” in which the position of each sprite changed every scan line, with the change barely perceptible to the human eye (in this case anyway – Pac-Man not so much).

They also developed a “bank switching” Video Chess prototype. I’m not going to try to explain how this works, but the technique essentially ushered in the next era in VCS programming in which many cartridges were released with more (sometimes considerably more) than 4K of memory. Although Video Chess was ultimately released as a 4K cart, the legacy of bank switching cannot be underestimated.

“Ok thanks for the history lesson, Woodgrain Wondernerd,” you say. “Is the game any good?” Well, on the bright side, it features eight levels of difficulty. On the bad side, the computer has reputably taken up to TEN HOURS to make its move on the most difficult variation (not a problem with me – I stuck with the easiest ones). On the bright side, the computer logic seems as sound as any modern chess app (and I’ve played a few). On the bad, the chess pieces are barely recognizable and the board only takes up half the screen. If you can see past those drawbacks, however, I think you’ll find Video Chess a perfectly fine game of chess for beginners and perennial novices like myself. C+

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

VideoLife_AtariGameVideo Life (Commavid, 1981)

In which we see the invention of the screen saver, more or less. The point of this unbelievably rare game (it was only made available to those who purchased Commavid’s MagiCard programming cart, which itself is extremely rare) is to draw pictures and then let the computer expand, embellish and otherwise manipulate your drawing. The only problem is you can only draw in one colour – purple – so it’s not exactly a substitute for Microsoft Paint (I admit I don’t know much about painting programs so that reference is likely pretty dated). Although it’s kind of neat in context, the whole single colour thing combined with limited utility (not to mention out-of-tune music) make Video Life strictly a collectable (God bless you if you buy it through the eBay link below) or museum piece. D

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

VideoOlympics_AtariGameVideo Olympics aka Pong Sports (Atari, Sears, 1977)

How do you review Pong? It’s kind of like reviewing water – not a specific brand of bottled water or the quality of the water in your hometown – but water itself. As long as water is wet and quenches your thirst, water has done its basic job. And much like water (at least in the First World), Pong is something we all take for granted – in one breath spoken of with respect for its role in bringing video games to the masses while in another often snickering at its ultra-rudimentary nature.

Pong is getting awfully close to a half-century old, so it’s a fair question to ask whether it should be relegated to the museum or if there is still joy to be derived from the old fossil. One thing is certain: Video Olympics was pretty much Atari’s last word on Pong, including every variation that the company had ever released as an arcade machine or dedicated console into one handy cartridge. So if you just want a version of Pong in your collection and don’t feel like hunting down endless on- and off-brand dedicated consoles, Video Olympics is probably your best bet.

Video Olympics actually has two one-player games (or “robot” modes) but they’re only available for standard Pong. I wanted to play the two-player games legitimately for once, so after much cajoling I managed to get my wife to sit as my opponent.

We tried to play all the variations, although some didn’t make much sense. The games we enjoyed the most included Soccer, Foozpong and standard Pong. Hockey was okay but hard to score in. We had no idea what was going on in Handball, while Volleyball was just a hot mess. We tried playing Quadrapong but it wasn’t very fun without four players (the game supports two sets of paddles). Basketball seemed promising but by that point my dear wife had lost patience with the whole experience.

So did we have fun? I would say yes for the most part. While there are some lame variants of Pong on Video Olympics, the original game and a few of the better spin-offs can still be highly enjoyable to play with a friend. I think for as long as people are willing to veg out and whack an onscreen ball between each other, Pong will live on. B-

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

VideoPinball_AtariGameVideo Pinball aka Arcade Pinball (Atari, Sears, 1980)

Video Pinball does not resemble any real-life pinball machine and in fact – based on its physics – couldn’t possibly exist in the real world. The ball’s motions almost create the feeling that you’re playing an upright pinball table combined with some weird version of Pong. The game not only condones nudging but actually encourages it over using its weak, almost-useless flippers – allowing a generous tilt threshold in the process. In fact, you can play entire games without once using your flippers.

So for a pinball geek like myself, Video Pinball should be an abomination. But it’s not. In fact, I enjoy it more than its later, technically- and graphically-superior cousin Midnight Magic. As it turns out, the generous nudging the game allows is a feature rather than a flaw, even as it creates a game that is not exactly pinball in the traditional sense but still pretty damn fun.

The playfield consists of a plunger, two flippers, three bumpers, two spinners (which actually slow your ball down), three drop targets, two rollovers, one drain and a lit target that fetches big points. Aside from the flippers and the plunger, none of these things look remotely like their real-life counterparts.

The three bumpers and the left rollover are just boxes with numbers inside (the numbers on the bumpers refer to the current table multiplier while the number in the rollover represents the bonus multiplier). The right rollover with the Atari symbol inside earns you a new ball every four times the ball rolls through. Hitting the three drop targets at the top of the screen increases the table multiplier by one.

Playing on the “A” difficulty adds two extra drains on either side of the flippers. In variations one and two (the second is two-player) the bumper values accrue throughout the game while in variations three and four the values are reset with each new ball.

I know you could have got all that from the manual, but I wrote it to illustrate that – as abstract as it may seem – Video Pinball has virtually everything you could expect from a pinball machine of its era. They’re just sometimes used in an unconventional way. I think it’s great fun. B+

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

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