Venture: Arcade vs Atari 2600 vs ColecoVision

It wouldn’t surprise me if Venture inspires more ridicule than the usual “Ermagerd – look how old that thing is!” stock response classic video games get from commoners. We are, after all, talking about a game where your avatar is a smiley-face (named Winky, no less).

Winky may be stinky, but as a game Venture is no joke. A moderate arcade hit for Exidy in 1981, Venture was considered a particularly difficult game even in an era when kids plugged quarters into monstrosities like Defender and Berzerk (that game caused a teenager to drop dead ffs). The game seemed to find its legs more as a home port, particularly on the ColecoVision (more on that later).

Venture is responsible for a number of innovations. The game’s three levels each feature four rooms, all of which include unique enemies, music and layout. Although you must complete every room to “win” the game, the ability to decide the order to tackle the rooms lends a degree of control over game direction not common at the time. The room selection screen is, in fact, a game-within-a-game in which you must avoid HallmonstersTM (yes, Exidy actually trademarked that). And yes, you can lose lives while playing it (quite a few in fact), which means there’s a possibility you could wipe out your credit without ever having a chance to play the proper game.

I don’t think any other video game ever used music quite so extensively before. As I mentioned, each of the 12 rooms features its own theme song: either a play on a classical piece or a standard of some kind. And it’s not just ear candy either; play the game enough and you’ll start to recognize cues in the music which signify the status of the Hallmonster hanging about outside the room (I’ll get to the gameplay shortly so some of this will actually make sense).

Venture was ported by Coleco as a ColecoVision launch title in 1982. Coleco’s ports for the 2600 and Intellivision (not included here) also carry a 1982 trademark, but if I were a betting man I’d say the VCS version landed in 1983 and the Intellivision port may have been as late as 1984 (trademark years frequently did not match actual release dates and the Intellivision was usually the last to get serviced).

The arcade game

Although Venture has all the surface trappings of a strategic game like Adventure (enter rooms, collect items/treasure, battle monsters), it’s more of a run-and-gunner like Berzerk or Frenzy. You have a certain amount of time to enter a room, destroy or avoid the creatures, collect the treasure and run like mad to get out before a Hallmonster wakes up and goes Evil Otto on your butt.

Most rooms follow this template, although the “wall room” on the first level requires you to avoid a set of moving walls rather than fight creatures. A couple of rooms allow you to collect the treasures first and then unleash the beasts. These ones are tricky because the monsters will block your progress towards the exit and shooting them can cause more harm than good. The slain goblin/serpent/two-headed monster/whatever slowly fades away and if you touch a single pixel of the corpse you’re dead. This is doubly frustrating if it was in front of an exit when you shot it and it doesn’t disappear before the Hallmonster comes out and kills you.

Most of your enemies move in an erratic fashion, making it difficult to simply sneak right on by them or shoot them with ease. Even when you think you have enough clearance, the creature may very well make a sudden movement and you’re done for. This is one of the things that makes Venture so hard but also lends it its most compelling visual hook. The fluidity in which the game makes skeletons dance and birds fly is one of the best examples of computer animation from its era.

This is all pretty glowing, but I would be lying if I were to suggest Venture is any kind of perfect game. Cheap deaths abound, particularly when Hallmonsters kill you the second you escape a room because there is no way to detect them beforehand. And why in the world should you lose a life if you run into an enemy with your bow and arrow? Shouldn’t that have the opposite effect? You pretty much have to set your MAME dip switch to the maximum of five lives just to have a fighting chance.

I’ve been struggling to design a ratings system for my comparison reviews, and I hope I have it right this time. Games are judged on three metrics: arcade game similarity, challenge and fun factor. The arcade game will default to “10” in the similarity category, because duh. Unlike previous comparisons, however, the other categories are open season for the arcade version as well. My previous system ran under the assumption that the coin-op version is always the best iteration of the game and this is not always true.

Because I’m completely out of my mind, I try to make my comparison reviews as hardware-irrelevant as possible. I do not factor cross-console comparisons of graphics and sound in the rankings because when you’re comparing three systems with such diverse technology, usually one platform will outrank the others every single time (not to mention that the 2600 would almost certainly lose every single time). If a particular graphic or sound factor in a port makes a difference to my enjoyment of the game, I will rank it in fun factor.

So here are my grades for arcade Venture:

Similarity to arcade game 10

Challenge 10

Fun factor 9

Total 29

ColecoVision version

The ColecoVision version has generally been the most highly regarded of all the Venture ports. There’s good reason for this. In an era when home versions almost never matched their source material completely, there is almost nothing of significance lost in the translation between arcade and CV Venture. It’s all here, with all of the arcader’s strengths and faults. Most differences are trivial: a different colour choice here or there, the loss of the title screen. The serpents are a little large side for my taste and the walls in the wall room tend to kill you on touch, but otherwise it’s all Venture all the way.

One could complain about how the CV controller makes the game feel more sluggish (and it most certainly does – diagonal shooting comes with great effort). There simply were no good pack-in controllers in this era of home video games: between the Atari 2600, 5200, ColecoVision and Intellivision (fans of the Odyssey 2, Bally Astrocade or Emerson Arcadia are welcome to pipe in here), the 2600 probably had the best controls and that tells you all you need to know. So as much as I don’t want to dock it on that basis, it pulls down the fun factor a little too much to just let it slide.

Similarity to arcade game 10

Challenge 10. The game has four difficulty settings. The first is a little too easy and the fourth is darn near impossible. The sweet spot is in two or three, but I can’t pinpoint it exactly.

Fun factor 8

Total 27

Atari 2600 version

Yes, it’s missing the third (I call it the “yellow”) level, but that tended to be Coleco’s (quite realistic) approach to multi-level, varied gameplay titles. The important thing is, unlike Donkey Kong Jr. for instance, all the basic elements of Venture gameplay are present in the two levels and eight rooms we get. True, there is next to no music, but who was expecting it? As much as I lauded the arcade game’s music above, in this case I have to say, “Who cares?”.

Atari 2600 Venture has the feel of the game in spades; I’ve often played it immediately after the arcade or CV versions and have never felt like I was taking a big step down. The game is a challenge throughout its four difficulty variations (at the hardest one you’re lucky to even get into a room before a Hallmonster kills you) and adds some unique elements as well. For instance, this is the only port of Venture I know of that does not reward you with points for killing room monsters until you capture the treasure. I’m not sure why Coleco did this, but seeing if you can sneak past the creatures introduces a whole new level of challenge for high score seekers.

I don’t like how easy it is to get stuck on a maze wall; you rarely have a microsecond to spare in Venture and even a moment of vulnerability can cause a wreck. Winky also moves slower here than in his other iterations, which is a drag because the Hallmonster also seems extra eager to go after him in this go-round. And just like the CV version, the wall room wall kills you on touch, which is just unnecessary.

So, all that said:

Similarity to arcade game: 8. Not counting the lack of the third level here. As an abbreviated version of Venture, this is a remarkable adaptation for a 2600 title.

Challenge: 9.

Fun factor: 7

Total: 24

As you can see, there are no losers here. All three of these games offer a perfectly adequate game of Venture. And even though Venture is not as well-designed as some of the best arcade games from its era, it’s still an excellent game. If you’ve never played it, you need to play one version or another.

Click here for my original review of Venture for the Atari 2600.

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