Sometimes I wish I had never made this promise to review EVERY Atari 2600 ever made. You know what I’d rather do? Simply declare a pathetic game like X-Man right out of existence. The few times I tried to play this “adult” game by Gamex, I found it pretty terrible. In between that turn and the next I upgraded to the latest version of the Stella emulator, which outright rejected the ROM (Stella has good taste). Instead of taking this for a sign, I continued to try to make it work. This pathetic quote-unquote “game” has – at least in part – delayed this entry for about a month now. No wonder I’m starting to hate video games.
Well, no more. I declare X-Man NOT an Atari 2600 game and thus unworthy of review. Back to our regularly scheduled programming.
Worm War I (20th Century Fox, 1982)
I don’t know that I have ever played a game which provoked such varied emotions as Worm War I. I’ve been playing this game off and on for the better part of a year now and over that time my attitude has ranged from unadulterated enjoyment to savage loathing – sometimes within the space of a single game. Innovative graphics (the worms really look and behave like worms) and original gameplay certainly help the game. Its vast potential for tedium, however, hurts it substantially.
In Worm War I (were there ever plans for II?) you drive your tank through the vertically-scrolling “city” (use your imagination) of Teriyaki blasting giant worms and, in the default obstacle course variation, brightly-coloured blocks. Your tank’s fuel (which starts at 99 units) depletes constantly just by driving, but really drops when you hit a worm or a block. Running over a Pagoda gas station will replenish your fuel reserves a bit. They also act as smart bombs if you blow them up when there are worms on the screen. Although negligible at first, the blocks can get quite dense, making it difficult to traverse your way to a much-needed fill-up. The game ends when your fuel depletes to zero.
There are blockless and invisible worm variations (neither of which I found particularly compelling). All variations come with cooperative or competitive modes. Setting the left difficulty to “A” gives you random-moving worms compared to the fixed moves in the “B” position, while braking is quick and efficient under the right “B” difficulty and slow under “A.” I recommend setting both difficulties to “A” simply because the “B” game is much too easy – even for beginners.
There are lots of repetitive games out there that remain outright classics (Asteroids and Space Invaders just for starters). The problem is Worm War I feels like it should go somewhere but never does. And unlike the classics, its gameplay isn’t strong enough to justify the repetition. C-
Xenophobe (Atari, 1990)
Xenophobe has all the trappings of a modern (for the late-‘80s) arcade game which, of course, it was as a 1987 release by Bally-Midway. What makes Xenophobe an important game for the 2600 is that it introduces some tropes that had become de rigeur on other platforms: weapons upgrades, mutating enemies and mission completion. All of these things had been done one time or another on the VCS but rarely – if ever – in the same game.
In the arcades, Xenophobe’s hallmark gimmick was its split-screen play. I can’t speak to the quality of the two-player variation for the port at hand (although the Video Game Critic calls it a “complete and total sham.”). At any rate, this version of Xenophobe retains the basic look of the arcade game albeit dumbed down for late-‘70s tech.
The premise of this nakedly Alien-inspired game is that aliens have infested planet-defending space stations and it’s your job as a lone man with badly-pixellated hair to mess the MFers up. The first space station features one level and eight rooms (add a level for every succeeding space station up to the tenth) in which you will face critters (which look like some kind of alien space dog, complete with a tendency to bite you on the butt and refuse to let go), pods, tentacles, rollerbabies and, um, “snotterpillars.” The manual isn’t very clear on this, but I’m pretty sure the less-harmful rollerbabies evolve into the legitimately scary-looking snotterpillars. Either way, it’s a good idea not to dawdle; the longer you stick around a particular station the more likely you’re going to have to face these baddies and they’re no easy kill.
Game does not skimp on points, although they’re not easy to earn. In between space stations you get 3,000 per Xenophobe killed plus more points for every artifact you collect. And because there are more targets with every space station, these points build exponentially.
I had a lot of fun with Xenophobe. It’s challenging, colourful and probably one of the best 2600 ports of a late-‘80s arcade game – miles beyond Activision’s pointless Double Dragon or oversimplified Rampage. B-
Xevious (Atari Prototype, Developed 1983-84)
Having the dubious distinction of programming one of the purportedly worst 2600 games of all time (Pac-Man) and one of the legitimate worst (Swordquest: Fireworld), Todd Frye has not always been a favoured presence in Atari history. However, this unlikely prototype port of the revolutionary vertical scroller Xevious proves the man had some mad programming skills. Though stripped down to its basics, this Xevious has pretty much everything you want from the game: the airborne spinny targets, ground targets and scrolling.
I’m not sure which game beat which to market back in 1982, but personally I’ve always thought River Raid achieved vertical scrolling much more elegantly than Xevious, despite the former being a 2600 original rather than a coin-op. That aside, 2600 Xevious does right by its namesake. The fleet ships (the “spinny targets” I kind of stupidly referred to above) look absolutely breathtaking for the technology at hand. Frye employs a common sense solution to the VCS’ one-button problem by using ol’ red as the fire and bomb button simultaneously – no secondary joysticks abused here.
For all its strengths graphically, however, Xevious’ gameplay is pretty repetitive, with targets deploying the same attack patterns over and over again. And I certainly hope Atari was planning to add a little more sound upon its commercial release because as it is it’s a constant “bip bip bip” in rhythm with your ship’s automatic fire. But c’mon – it’s a prototype and a perfectly playable one at that.
To the best of my knowledge, Xevious is available commercially only on the Atari Flashback Portable released in 2017. Other Flashback systems – such as the Atari Flashback Blast Bandai Namco – contain Xevious but I’m pretty sure it’s the arcade version. However you choose to do it, it’s worth a play. C+
Yars’ Revenge (Atari, 1982)
Atari had surprisingly few original ideas throughout the VCS’ lifetime. Even before Space Invaders, most of Atari’s carts were home versions of their own arcade games such as Canyon Bomber or Sky Diver or concepts “borrowed” from other arcade game manufacturers (Outlaw, Circus Atari). Yars’ Revenge is a major exception.
Ported to only a handful of other platforms but never in the same generation as the original, Yars’ Revenge is probably the closest Atari ever got to producing a made-from-whole-cloth exclusive title that people actually wanted (sorry E.T., Swordquest series and Raiders of the Lost Ark – even though the first and third of you were also creations of Howard Scott Warshaw). As for me, it’s one of my favourite games of all time and I’ve waited two-and-a-half years for the chance to review it.
What makes this game so special? Well, the box art certainly commands attention right off the hop. Long before I ever actually played the game, the sight of that fly thing shooting laser balls from its mouth right at the customer made an indelible impression on me. Atari’s cover art tended to heighten expectations a little more than the game deserved, but with Yars’ Revenge they got the balance just right.
Although the neutral zone and the tremendous, colourful explosion that caps the destruction of every Qotile blew all of our minds as kids, the fact is it’s actually just compressed lines of computer code, which doesn’t make the effect any less impressive. Otherwise, the graphics are pretty minimalist (we’re talking about a game where your primary nuisance is a killer dash).
The sounds, however, are tremendous. If you let yourself into the game’s zone enough, you can actually start to feel the coldness of space in the constant “hum” heard throughout the game. The explosions are loud and immensely gratifying; I wouldn’t be surprised if they damaged some tinny old television speakers back in the ‘80s.
Yars’ Revenge is a game that keeps on giving. In fact, I’m still learning new things about it all these decades later. I never had a manual with my copy, so until this very week I had no idea about the existence of “trons” in Games Six and Seven (“Ultimate Yars”). You collect these by chewing on the Qotile’s shield or passing through the Qotile itself. Collecting enough of them allows you to build a Zorlon cannon on the other side of the screen. Speaking of the Zorlon cannon, I don’t think there’s a more satisfying feeling in all of video games than hitting a swirl with the cannon in mid-flight. Not only does it net you some mad points, but you get an extra life to boot.
You may notice I haven’t gone much into the gameplay of Yars’ Revenge. I’m not sure it’s necessary; most readers of this blog have likely already succumbed to the game’s charms, and I don’t think my humble prose could adequately describe the joys of the game to a newbie. Just know that it’s super fun and you NEED to play it. A+