Atari 2600 Game Reviews: Winter Games through Words-Attack

WinterGames_AtariGameWinter Games (Epyx, 1987)

My review experience with Winter Games surprised and confused me. I bought the game in a lot about a decade ago and distinctly remember really enjoying it. I was really looking forward to playing it again after such a long time only to find a game that has two events that were really fun, three that were okay but really hard and two that suffered from simply awful controls. Maybe I was initially seduced by the indisputably-gorgeous graphics – some of the best available for the console, really – featuring realistic-looking athletes performing realistic-looking moves.

Winter Games features seven events: slalom, bobsled, ski jump, biathlon, speed skating, hot dog and luge. Of these I enjoyed the slalom event the most (although it’s not much different from Activision’s much-earlier Skiing) followed by the hot dog competition, which is the same as the ski jump except you’re awarded based on style points rather than distance. Speed skating employs the same joystick-wrangling mechanic as The Activision Decathlon but is not nearly as effective. The biathlon controls just seem broken; I couldn’t even get the athlete to move half the time.

Everything else is just hard as balls. I couldn’t get through a single circuit of the bobsled or luge without flipping my implement, but I base that more on my own skill than the game itself.

It’s obvious that Epyx put a lot of effort into Winter Games, and in this case it covers a multitude of errors. But honestly I’ll probably never play it again. C

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

Wizard_AtariGameWizard (Atari Prototype, Developed 1980)

Although Wizard is technically a prototype, it’s more a game that Atari decided not to release at the last minute. According to Atari Protos, the 2K Wizard was ready for release at the exact time Atari decided to move exclusively to 4K games. So instead of ramping it up to 4K they decided to abandon it completely, which is a shame because Wizard is surprisingly compelling.

Wizard is fundamentally a run-and-gun maze shooter where your little guy attempts to kill a creature that looks like one of those glaives from the movie (and game) Krull before it kills him. But it’s more strategic than it sounds. The glaive is not on screen for most of the game; rather, it hides behind maze walls with the player depending on an audio “heartbeat” which gets louder the closer it gets.

Also, you can’t just spray-and-pray; you have to take your shot carefully because once you’re in a weakened position you temporarily lose the ability to fire (indicated by the sprite dimming from bright to pale, which also happens when the glaive-creature hits you). Your health is measured as a number from 0 to 99, with 0 the healthiest and 99 equalling dead. Your guy gets slower and slower the closer his health gets to 99, with his time to regenerate after taking a hit becoming longer.

The same numbering system applies to the creature’s health meter, which starts somewhere in the 60s but drops in subsequent rounds, meaning more effort is required to kill it. Flipping the difficulty to the “A” position introduces a new challenge. This mode causes you to protect your power source from the creature; if the creature takes it, your wizard slows down to a crawl.

From what I understand, the version of Wizard available on every Atari Flashback since Atari Flashback 2 (excluding 2+) features a two-player mode where one player controls the wizard and the other plays the creature. That sounds like it could really be a lot of fun.

Don’t let its appearance fool you; Wizard is one of the best 2K games ever made for the VCS. It’s full of strategy and suspense as you try to determine the creature’s location even as it stalks you (shades of Wizard of Wor reviewed below, minus the helpful radar). If Wing War is one of the best 2600 games never released in North America; Wizard is among the best 2600 games never released at all. B

More Info: Wizard on AtariAge. For current listings of Atari Flashback consoles for sale on eBay, click here. Keep in mind that the first Atari Flashback and Atari Flashback 2+ do not include Wizard.

WizardofWor_AtariGameWizard of Wor (CBS Electronics, 1982)

Speaking of run-and-gun maze shooters, Wizard of Wor might just be the one to rule them all. Although not quite an arcade phenomenon on the level of Pac-Man or Asteroids, anybody in the know considers it a Golden Age classic. And CBS Electronics’ port is remarkably on-point with little of consequence found lacking from the coin-op.

The principle behind Wizard of Wor is simple but oh-so-fun and challenging. You’re in a maze shooting  monsters (preferably in the back where you’re out of range of their fire). Some monsters – like the blue Burwors – are always visible. Others – such as the yellow Garwors and red Thorwors – only appear periodically but are a threat regardless of the form they’re in. You depend on your radar screen to track the invisible monsters, but by a certain point they move so fast you’re left with little choice but to find a corner pocket and just shoot and pray. And you never know at the end of a level whether you will face the Wizard of Wor himself, who appears and reappears at random throughout the maze – including right on top of you.

While understandably not as detailed as in the arcade version, the monsters look good although awfully blinky due to the sheer number of characters on screen. It’s just something you have to accept in a 2600 game. Otherwise, the gameplay is remarkably faithful to the original. I liked the omission of the arcade game’s computer-controlled second player – to me he’s just there to steal points so I usually just wind up shooting him anyway.

This is as good a time as any to mention that AtariAge is planning to release an even more accurate version of Wizard of Wor for the 2600 called Wizard of Wor Arcade sometime in 2019. Stay tuned to this space for more information. In the meantime, CBS Electronics’ Wizard of Wor offers plenty to scratch your maze-shooter itch. A

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

WordZapper_AtariGameWord Zapper (U.S. Games, 1982)

Word Zapper is not a well-liked game among the Atari 2600 community. I’ve seen it appear multiple times on fans’ personal worst-game lists and the consensus among the critic community is pretty chilly. Not to blow my own horn, but with only a handful of commercially-released VCS games left to review, I think I bring a fairly good assessment of the system’s best and worst offerings to the table. And in my opinion, not only is Word Zapper far from one of the console’s worst games, it’s actually pretty okay.

I think the thing that turns many players off even before playing Word Zapper is its identity as an educational game. That is not without merit; unless it carries the Sesame Street brand, educational games for the VCS tend to be pretty dire (Basic Math anyone?). But Word Zapper isn’t really an educational game. Sure, the focus of the game is to spell words but it mainly serves as a mechanic. At heart it’s a fast-action shooter – the game could ask you to remember a random formation of the ducks, owls and rabbits from Carnival and it would play much the same.

Your job in Word Zapper is to spell three words or combination of letters in 99 seconds. You do this by using your ship to shoot down letters scrolling horizontally across the top of the screen while avoiding meteors and asteroids. While most of these are not capable of destroying you (only the Doomsday asteroid can do that but it only comes into play when the right difficulty is set to “A”), they can knock you around and throw your aim off. Switching the left difficulty to “A” introduces Scroller asteroids which temporarily scramble the alphabet up top.

Crucial to the game is the “freebie.” You need a freebie in order to complete a word but you can also use one for a free letter. While some variations give players their first freebie, in most cases you have to earn them by shooting down five asteroids.

There are some justifiable criticisms of Word Zapper. There’s no scoring system; instead, players are rated “rookie” for spelling no words, “champ” for one word, “ace” for two and “zapper” for three. Not every game needs to be a fight for high scores, but this is a game that could have used one to make success a little more rewarding. Also, why limit the game to three words in 99 seconds? Wouldn’t it be more exciting to expand the game by introducing longer, more difficult words? It’s frustrating – especially on the slowest scroll speed – to wait for your letter to come up, but I guess this gives the player a chance to work for those much-needed freebies.

Sometimes I judge a game based on whether I would have enjoyed it as a twelve-year-old video game player. Maybe I’ve always been easily-entertained, but I think I would have enjoyed Word Zapper just fine. B-

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

WordsAttack_AtariGameWords-Attack (Sancho Prototype, Europe-Only, Developed 1983)

Sancho was one of the worst third-party developers for the VCS. Their official releases were bad enough, so you can only imagine what their unreleased prototypes were like. Words-Attack – which was only produced in PAL format – was considered lost until it reappeared in 2002. It should have stayed lost.

Words-Attack doesn’t seem to have a purpose. From the best I can tell, it’s a slide-and-shooter where you’re supposed to shoot letters which are then displayed at the bottom of the screen. Except the game doesn’t give you any words to spell, rendering it pointless. There are objects on the screen such as hearts, pretty obvious phallic shapes and, um, other things that you’re not supposed to hit. Doing so causes you to both lose a life and a letter.

There are three enemy craft at the top of the screen which exist for little discernable reason, although they are worth big points if you can hit one of them. It’s kinda cool that you can steer your slow-moving shot around the objects you don’t want to hit, or rather it would be if Words-Attack was actually a game.

I guess I don’t need to say that Words-Attack isn’t recommended, not that it really matters that much for an incomplete prototype from an obscure (and awful) game company. Am I being too hard on a game that probably wasn’t even finished? Probably. But if I’ve saved even one middle-aged Atari freak from wasting his or her declining lifespan on it, my work is done.

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

One thought on “Atari 2600 Game Reviews: Winter Games through Words-Attack

  1. Never knew Winter Games came out for the 2600 — my main memory of that game was the Atari ST version. There were some interesting twists on the usual “decathlon”-style sports games in that edition — the speed skating, for example, wasn’t a straight waggler, but a game where being rhythmic and gradually increasing in pace was more important than simply hammering your joystick as hard as you could.

    The Biathlon was weird though. On level ground and uphill slopes you had to waggle slowly to push yourself forwards, as I recall, and on downhill slopes you could push down (I think) to give yourself a bit more speed and hope the momentum would carry you a bit further once you reached flat ground again. I don’t know if the 2600 version works the same way, but I recall having a bit of difficulty with it on the ST too!


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