Video Simon (Homebrew, 2000)
Video Simon by Mark De Smet is certainly the best-looking version of the Simon electronic game for the 2600 (the others being the Off Your Rocker prototype and Brain Games); for one thing, it actually looks like Simon. But damn – someone needs to write an instruction manual for this thing, and seeing as Simon is a pretty intuitive game (it was designed for kids after all) that’s not a good sign.
First of all, I’m kind of lost as to how I’m supposed to push the joystick (or press the keyboard keys as it were) to select one of the four light buttons. This really shouldn’t be a problem – Simon has four light panels and the 2600 joystick moves in eight directions; it’s not rocket science. Oh and what a godawful noise this thing makes if you press the wrong light button – just like the physical Simon except it just goes on and on and on. Sometimes the noise kicks in before you even have a chance to make your move.
Video Simon was Mark De Smet’s first and apparently last homebrew for the Atari 2600. It received a full carted-up treatment done in the style of Atari’s first generation of text labels (it has since gone out of print). I want to offer the benefit of a doubt that maybe I just got a bad ROM, so I’ll refrain from giving the game a letter grade. From what I’m seeing so far, however, Video Simon is unplayable.
Vong (Homebrew, 2008)
Okay, I’m a little confused. Vong is supposed to stand for “Vertical Pong” but don’t the paddles in regular Pong go up and down the vertical plane already? If anything, this is HORIZONTAL Pong, which means it should have been called Ho… ok – on second thought, not gonna go there.
However, a bad sense of direction is the least of this game’s problems. First off, I admit that I played it with a ROM (what is this? Bad ROM week or something?) but in this case I have a good excuse because the cartridge is out of print. I don’t know if it’s just a problem with the ROM or not, but I could not make my paddle move at all. I tried using a mouse (which I find usually works great with paddle games), the left joystick controls and the right joystick controls (just to be sure) and NOTHING worked.
I’m not sure I would have been very impressed with the game anyway. The pre-game title screen features an unholy “screeeeeech” that stood up the hairs on the hairs on the back of my neck. The game could have used a splash of colour – Video Olympics did that and it came out 41 years ago. And with all apologies to programmer Rick Skrbina, the concept is kinda goofy. If someone really does have a strange urge to play horizontal Pong, how hard is it to find a small television, flip it over and just play Video Olympics?
Because of all the technical problems this week, I’m going to add an extra review for you guys.
Wabbit (Apollo, 1982)
I always seem to pick on Games By Apollo, but I swear it’s out of love. The fact is that Apollo had some great ideas but they almost always seemed to fall just short of the mark in execution (in other words, making their games fun). Shark Attack, for example, could have had all the makings of a stone-cold classic maze game but was so hampered by technical and design issues that it’s considered among the weakest games ever released for the 2600.
Wabbit is better than Shark Attack but still falls flat. It’s certainly not the fault of the graphics – which are vibrant and colourful – or the concept, which is cutesy but no more so than many contemporary titles. It’s fast and frenetic (perhaps too much so). Yet, whenever I’ve played it I’ve just wished for it to end regardless of how well I’m doing.
Technically a slide-and-shoot game, in Wabbit you control a little girl – armed with an unlimited supply of rotten eggs – defending her carrot garden against up to three bunnies helping themselves to her produce. A clever thing about the game is the scoring system; the rabbits get one point for every carrot they collect and you get five points for every rabbit you hit. For every 100 points you earn their score is scaled back by 25. Once they reach 100 points, however, the game is over.
The rabbits eventually speed up to an almost impossible clip even as your sprite continues to move back and forth at the same pace. This doesn’t actually matter much, though, because no matter what you do you’re eventually going to wind up randomly lobbing eggs anyway. In fact, you’re almost better off not playing the game at all until you’re down to just a few carrots on the bottom row. At that point you can just rack up points hitting the bunny that keeps on coming out to get them. That, unfortunately, is what passes for strategy in Wabbit.
Wabbit is a monotonous game, but monotonous games can be fun. Demon Attack, for instance, is a monotonous game that’s a joy to play. So why is Demon Attack fun while Wabbit isn’t? A sense of strategy (the good kind, not the stupid kind described above) and a good risk-reward ratio come to mind. While not a total loss, Wabbit just doesn’t offer much incentive to hit the reset button. D+
Wall Ball (Avalon Hill, 1983)
Sometime around the late ‘90s, early ‘00s – having hardly played video games at all for the better part of a decade prior, I had this genius idea of a 3D Breakout in which your paddle can move in all directions and destroy blocks further down the playfield. Well, little did I know that not only had the idea been done, but it actually had been done as far back as the Atari 2600 days. The game in question – Wall Ball – may not have captured the idea very well, but indeed it had been done.
The biggest problem I have with Wall Ball is that there is no definitive way for the player to determine where the ball and your “paddle” (here represented by a blinky yellow box) are supposed to meet. The 2600 always had problems with scaling objects and – in a game like this – smooth, fluid transitioning of the ball is more important than ever. It’s also frustrating that balls frequently get stuck on walls (maybe it was the official game of the band Accept), causing the game to make that awful white noise sound programmers would frequently use on VCS games if they had no other ideas for sound effects. Wall Ball is fun when it finally works up a good head of steam, but getting to that point and maintaining it is a real chore.
Also, why in the world is this a one-player-only game? I would think Wall Ball – in spite of all its technical faults – could have really benefited from two-player action. At least then you could swear at the television with a friend.
I give Avalon Hill a lot of credit for attempting a three-dimensional Breakout game on the 2600, and I think the controller you use can make a huge difference. I used both my keyboard and a mouse; the mouse made for a much more enjoyable experience. The game calls for joysticks if playing on actual hardware, but if any game simply screamed out for a trakball, it’s this one. I have no idea if it actually supported the Atari 2600 trakball, but if you want to play Wall Ball on a real 2600 (warning: it’s rated “very rare” on AtariAge’s 2600 rarity guide) and happen to own a trakball, it’s well worth finding out.
I’m going to give Wall Ball an unofficial “A” for ambition but ultimately a C- for execution.
Wall Defender (Bomb, 1983)
Just like Space Zap (or its unofficial homebrew port Vault Assault), Wall Defender is a very one-dimensional game that can also be very addictive. In fact, it plays quite a bit like Space Zap with an added element of difficulty. As the wall defender, your job is to crawl around the outer wall of a maze-like cube (the maze itself never comes into play) defending it from Kamikazing (how the hell do you spell that anyway?) alien invaders. Sustain seven hits and the outer wall starts flashing; by the tenth hit you’re dead and the game is over.
Like Space Zap, the aliens only come from four directions (although at a number of levels) but get much faster very quickly. Unlike Space Zap, your central base is huge, making it more difficult to defend once things get hairy. The manual flat-out lies; supposedly, the cube is supposed to grow by a wall every time you get through a wave without sustaining any damage. This doesn’t happen, and I’m glad for that because a bigger structure would just make it easier to hit and harder to defend. Doesn’t seem like much of a reward even if it did exist.
Wall Defender is a lame game that I kind of like in spite of so many cromulent reasons to hate it. I like the aliens, for one – the game features a wide variety of colourful creatures and that Demon Attack effect really adds to the game visually. And there’s no doubt it is challenging. It could have used a few game variations to make it more worthwhile (it would have been pretty disappointing to buy this for $20 back in 1983), but it is what it is. C
Wall Jump Ninja (Homebrew, 2014)
Cooking ninjas, hacking ninjas, blogging ninjas , ninja ninjas – everyone considers themselves some kind of ninja these days. But you haven’t seen ninjaing so ninja until you play Wall Jump Ninja.
Programmed by a programming ninja known only as Walaber, Wall Jump Ninja may be one of my favourite 2600 homebrews ever. Over the past two years I’ve realized that a lot of games I thought were completely original frequently had a precedent, but I haven’t seen much of anything like Wall Jump Ninja before. If pressed, I’d compare it to the vine-swinging section of Jungle Hunt, but it would be on a very peripheral level. For all intents and purposes it’s an original creation.
In Wall Jump Ninja you jump through an obstacle course of walls. Land on a wall too far above or below the opening? Jump back to the previous wall, slide if necessary and put yourself in a position to jump through the hole. It’s all about anticipation, some memorization and finesse with your controller.
All that would be hard enough but there’s more. A death beam stalks you mercilessly, making sure you keep your forward momentum going. Spikes in the walls are a continual hazard. Toggling the left difficulty switch (good to see programmers using those again) turns lava on or off while the right difficulty switches between “easy” and hard. The game is a challenge no matter what parameters you use.
If you’re wading into the homebrew waters for the first time, you could do a lot worse than to start with Wall Jump Ninja as a preview of the independent creativity you’re about to witness. B+