Warlords (Atari, 1981)
Atari saw the future of video games when they made Warlords a one- to four-player game (emphasis on “one”). With fewer interested opponents to play with, video gaming post-Crash would become a solitary hobby for nerds. Okay – maybe some nerds. Okay – I’m only talking about myself.
There’s no doubt that Warlords is more fun with as many people as possible. However, don’t brush off the single-player mode so quickly. I enjoyed it immensely as a kid and still enjoy it today. Also, fast balls, slow balls, catch-and-release and the intervention of ghosts (!) extend the shelf life of the gameplay.
Being one of Atari’s most famous releases, I would find it difficult to believe that anyone reading this blog would not know how to play Warlords, but if you don’t, it’s pretty much Quadrapong 2.0 combined with Breakout. Using your paddle controller, you defend your castle and king against three opponents controlled by either the computer or human players. At the same time, you attempt to blow their castles and kings to hell as well.
Each hit to a castle wall takes a brick out Breakout-style, leaving the king a little more vulnerable each time. Shields from destroyed castles become ghosts which periodically bat the ball around – you can see them every time a brick is destroyed and the entire screen lights up. Whichever king left standing wins the match, while a best-in-five wins the game.
Warlords’ graphics are arguably primitive even by 2600 standards and by the time most of the castles have been either destroyed or nearly-destroyed there’s not much to see on the screen at all. But man – the gameplay is just fantastic. I’ve always enjoyed the aforementioned flash the game makes and the loud explosions which accompany it. It’s a perfect example of economy in game design engineered for maximum effect.
Warlords would be an “A” range game if not for the single-player modes – as much as I enjoy them – being a tad too easy. Otherwise, it’s a class act all the way. B+
Warp Lock (Data Age, 1982)
People have been complaining about the Atari VCS’ graphics ever since it was a relatively new product, and I guess that’s to be expected for a 1970s console which enjoyed its greatest success in the 1980s. Luckily, the system was flexible enough to have its moments of glory in the graphical realm. Few people, however, talk about the system’s sound. The Atari 2600 actually had a fairly impressive sound palette (as demonstrated in the wonderful homebrew Synthcart) but I’m guessing that the system had neither the memory nor the processing power to take full advantage of it, although later releases like Pitfall II and Mr. Do!’s Castle (lousy port but wonderful soundtrack) offered a sample of its capabilities.
Whatever goodwill titles such as those may have gained for the 2600, Warp Lock represents the opposite. Sounding kind of like Pac-Man on Quaaludes, Warp Lock’s sound is just a never-ending high-pitched drone that makes an already-bad game even worse. And what about that game? Boring slide-and-shoot action except played with paddles. Yay. Oh yeah, and the space aliens can come up and attack you from behind. Double yay.
And with Warp Lock, Data Age’s run (at least alphabetically) comes to an end. Although they had some good games (Encounter at L-5, Journey Escape, the Secret Agent prototype) and one great one (Frankenstein’s Monster), their small catalog is marred by some of the most infamously bad games ever made for the system, including Bugs, Airlock and Sssnake. Warp Lock joins that ill-fated category. F
Warring Worms & Warring Worms: The Worm (Re)Turns (Baroque Gaming Homebrews, 2002, 2005).
The Blockade/Surround/Snafu/Tapeworm kind of game goes back almost to the beginning of commercial video games themselves. It’s hard to declare a “final word” when it comes to video games – after all, someone can always come up with yet another variation on the same material – but Warring Worms and its sequel, Warring Worms: The Worm (Re)Turns by Billy Eno probably offer the best bang for your buck for a game of this kind on the 2600.
On the outside chance you’re not aware of the basic genre, Blockade-derived games usually involve two players (although many have variations for one, including the two being discussed here) attempting to trick his opponent into crashing into his or his opponent’s trail, but a less aggressive strategy is to simply wait it out until the other guy messes up. It’s a simple formula that can easily get tiresome, but it’s proven remarkably resilient over the decades.
The Warring Worms two-fer in particular adds so many unique features that it extends the playability of the old warhorse considerably. Of the two, The Worm (Re)Turns (the version currently on sale in the AtariAge Store) offers as much variety as you could possibly want from Blockade, including cannons(!), one- and two-player options, hostile and normal environments, wrap options which allow you to appear on the other side of the screen, all kinds of different mazes, a “tank” option which cuts out the trail and turns the game into something akin to Combat when using cannons – it just goes on and on.
Between the two, The Worm (Re)Turns is the one you should buy; it has everything the first Warring Worms has plus so much more. Some things never change, though: for the same reason I enjoyed Snafu for the Intellivision so much back in the ‘80s, the Warring Worms titles are best enjoyed in competition with a friend, although the computer AI in one-player games has improved exponentially since the days of Atari’s Surround. If you like these kind of games, it doesn’t get any better than these two. Warring Worms: B-. Warring Worms: The Worm (Re)Turns: B+.
Wing War (Imagic, Europe-Only, 1983)
Wing War is apparently the only Imagic game never released in North America. Few people know why, but my guess is the game was a victim of the accursed Crash and a company in rapid decline financially. Which is a shame, because it’s simply awesome (I would call it a cross between Joust and Fathom) as long as you know what to do to get play in motion.
The problem is the manual for the game is hopelessly vague and may not have even been intended for the 2600 version of the game – a rare misstep for Imagic. So with that in mind, the following resources will at least give you as much idea about how to play Wing War as I have:
- The manual. According to a fellow traveller on Twitter, the game’s official manual may have actually been meant for the ColecoVision version. However, it can give you an idea of basic gameplay.
- Wing War map. A guide to the game’s surprising number of rooms. Just keep in mind that many if not most of the rooms require you to complete a goal before entry.
- This document on Digitpress. Whoever wrote this was doing God’s work because – unlike the manual – it describes the actual mechanics of getting to at least the fifth room.
Boiled down to its essence, the goal of Wing War is for your dragon to collect red, blue and yellow crystals (representing fire, earth and wind, respectively) and bring them to the throne room, which is the first screen in the game. Once you collect a combination of red-yellow-blue or blue-yellow-red crystals (red and blue crystals cancel each other out so they can’t be placed next to each other), more rooms and crystal combinations are opened up to you. Along the way, of course, you battle Joust-style with demons, griffins, hydras, beehives and more.
Wing War is the element-themed fantasy action game the Swordquest series should have been, except much more economical, pleasing to the eye and infinitely more fun. It’s well worth your time to check out. B
Wings (CBS Electronics Prototype, Developed 1983)
I couldn’t get through just a few more entries to complete my reviews of commercial games for the 2600 without one more flight sim, could I? What’s worse is that Wings doesn’t really exist even as a complete prototype. There are two ROMs of the game available – an NTSC and a PAL version (don’t ask me which is which). One has some good sound but no enemies to shoot once you’re up in the air, while the other has no sound but you can actually shoot and have stuff to shoot at. In that sense it’s like Starpath’s ill-fated Sweat: The Decathlon Game – a patchwork of unfinished ROMs.
The funny thing is that even on the version where combat is available it’s excruciatingly hard to find any enemy airplanes – something Wings has in common with legit commercial releases like Radar Lock and Tomcat: The F-14 Fighter Simulator. Like Radar Lock, Wings uses a two-joystick setup: the left to control the plane and the right to control your weapons. I can only imagine the chaos that would follow if anyone were to actually play this game on real VCS hardware using actual joysticks.
Still, from what I see, Wings had potential to be better than either of those two games. It certainly looks good, controls more smoothly (at least when using a keyboard and emulator) and the flight instruments are cleaner-looking and more intuitive. Maybe an enterprising home brewer will put Wings together someday, but for now it’s a mere curiosity.