Z-Tack (Bomb, 1983)
Being so close to the end of the mainstream North American Atari 2600 catalog, it’s really easy to become cynical. After all, I have now – to the best of my knowledge – reviewed every single market-flooding, market-crashing and kid-robbing VCS game ever released on these shores. So when I opened up the ROM for Z-Tack and contemplated its graphics – sitting there looking like the blocky, illegitimate child of Gravitar and Atlantis – I knew I wasn’t going to like this game.
And I didn’t, at first. But continued plays slowly started to win me over and by the time I attempted the advanced difficulty variation, I was hooked. Despite its extreme rarity (rarely a good sign) and its release by an uber-obscure third-party developer, Z-Tack is a game that would have been right at home in any arcade during coin-ops’ peak from 1980-82 (although it wasn’t as far as I know).
Z-Tack is played by using your jet/spaceship to drop bombs on . . . aliens I guess? (The manual isn’t very clear) . . . that reside on top, beside or deep within a series of canyons. Some of the things shoot back and others don’t. You can see why it would be easy to get off to a shaky start with the game.
But then, around the third level, sets of skulls and crossbones start appearing in the upper playfield. They don’t do much at first. You can shoot them (resulting in a surprisingly colourful explosion) but they gain you no points. Just when you start to wonder what they’re even there for, you realize they’re there to create a nuisance, stacking themselves on top of each other to prevent you from hitting your target and regenerating every time you blow them away.
And then, a few levels later, they evolve into missiles that fly at you horizontally. Just like when they’re in their skull and crossbones form, you can shoot these jets but you won’t get any points. This is an inter-game time waster par excellence and it adds some significant flavour to what would have been a shoulder-shrugger of a game.
Some of the aliens made me wonder if Z-Tac suffered from a collision-detection problem, but as it turns out you just have to hit them dead-center. Whether this is a feature or a flaw is subjective, but I choose to look at it as making the game more challenging.
So, unlike so many super-rare games by obscure companies, Z-Tac gets a C+. Not a great grade, but still, if it was a test grade it would be between 77 to 79 per cent. You can do far worse.
Zaxxon (Coleco, 1983)
A lot of classic game fans won’t like to hear this, but I really don’t like the original Zaxxon very much. Yes, its scrolling, isometric playfield and colourful, detailed graphics were revolutionary in their time, but I find it unnecessarily difficult. And I like a lot of incredibly hard arcade games I can’t master: Sinistar, Defender, or any number of late ‘80s, early ‘90s side-scrolling shooters like R-Type, Mystic Riders or just about anything by Irem, really. But for whatever reason, Zaxxon just doesn’t do it for me.
So with that in mind, it doesn’t really bother me that Coleco’s take on Zaxxon only bears the most rudimentary resemblance to its source material. Not that Coleco didn’t try. Although the company has long been accused of half-assing their Atari 2600 efforts in order to make the ColecoVision look better (completely unnecessary considering how much more powerful the CV was), if anything they went above and beyond to provide as much of a Zaxxon-like experience on the VCS as possible. But good intentions still could not preserve the isometric view or touches like rockets firing from the bottom of the playfield. The good news, though, is that 2600 Zaxxon – while not without its share of challenge – features a difficulty range that allows for actual enjoyment.
The translation from an isometric to a top-down view introduces some annoying but not insurmountable technical difficulties. With little to no visual cues offered by the game, navigating through holes in walls and force fields becomes an exercise in trial, error and memorization. It’s not pretty or elegant, but it works. Although the graphics in the structure scenes are blocky and full of questionable colour schemes (pink, blue and orange – really?), the space scenes look quite nice with well-rendered and -coloured spaceships.
The titular space robot looks okay, although only slightly more difficult to beat than Vanguard’s infamous Gond. The game features four difficulty levels based mostly on the speed of the gameplay. Even the hardest is a walk in the park compared to the original.
Coleco’s Zaxxon isn’t the best game ever, but it’s a respectable effort both as a standalone game and the best version of the original possible for the time and the hardware at hand. C
Zippy the Porcupine (Homebrew, 2014)
I’m at a bit of a disadvantage here. Homebrewer Chad Spry’s Zippy the Porcupine is in all but name Sonic the Hedgehog for the 2600. The problem is *ducks head* I’ve never played Sonic and currently have no physical hardware or platform to emulate it upon. What I do know, however, is that Zippy is a jaw-dropping achievement and it’s remarkable that a cartridge this graphically adept and detailed can be plugged into OG Atari hardware and played in any kind of style bordering on the original Sonic game (hey, I only said I never played it, not that I don’t know what it looks like or its basic concept. I simply wasn’t interested in video games at the time – I wasn’t dead).
That said, the appeal of Zippy may be more in its novelty than its actual gameplay, even though it carries one hell of a novelty value. The graphics are appropriately cartoonish and expressive and I don’t think the VCS’ sound has ever been used to better effect than here. But man, the controls are REALLY BAD. As ignorant as I am of the Sonic universe, I do know that it’s the kind of game that requires precision and the ability of controls to handle rapid movement. But Zippy’s controls are so sluggish and static they would probably have a hard time handling Combat.
Zippy the Porcupine is a massive 56K: 27 times larger than the earliest VCS games – and it shows. There’s a whole world of gaming to unearth in Zippy and it may very well represent the maximum point to which the 2600 can be pushed (although I’ve been surprised before – the homebrew community are a crafty bunch). But bells and whistles can only cover for fundamentals like control so much, and Zippy is a virtual case study in this truism. Zippy the Porcupine promises way, way more fun than it actually delivers. C
Zoo Fun (Home Vision, Suntek – depends on who you ask, PAL, 1983)
Zoo Fun is one European language or another for “The hell if I know what’s going on in this game.” No instructions that I can find and not exactly intuitive. F
And that’s it: the end of the alphabetical reviews. But there’s still a lot more to do. I’ve decided against incorporating the (many) holes in the reviews so far in favour of a random, non-alphabetical approach going forward. This way all new reviews will be new posts as well so you don’t have to go searching for the new material. I also want to figure out a more user-friendly cataloguing system. ‘Til then, keep your eye on this space.