The Game: Your Vanguard space fighter has infiltrated a heavily-defended alien base. The enemy outnumbers you by six or seven to one at any given time (thank goodness for animated sprite limitations, or you’d be in real trouble!). You can fire above, below, ahead and behind your ship, which is an art you’ll need to master since enemy ships attack from all of these directions. You can’t run into any of the walls and expect to survive, but you can gain brief invincibility by flying through an Energy block, which supercharges your hull enough to ram your enemies (something which, at any other time, would mean certain death for you as well). At the end of your treacherous journey lies the alien in charge of the entire complex – but if you lose a life at that stage, you don’t get to come back for another shot! (Centuri [under license from SNK], 1981)
Memories: Very much like another SNK-originated game from this period, Fantasy (which was licensed out to Rock-Ola), Vanguard was an early entry in the exploration game genre. Sure, shooting things was fun, but this game made it clear – through the “radar map” of the alien base at the top of the screen – that there was a clear destination to be reached. And if you weren’t good enough to get there with the lives you had, you could continue the journey – for just a quarter more – again and again, until you got there.
The controls were no help. Robotron: 2084 was still a couple of years away, and Vanguard could have – and should have – used dual joysticks, one for directional control and one for firing. But alas, your little ship’s lasers were controlled by a compass rose of fire buttons which required almost superhuman agility.
I also seem to remember SNK getting in trouble for using Queen’s blast-off music from Flash Gordon without permission; the song would play whenever you entered an Energy tunnel.
Vanguard was translated for the Atari 2600, where it actually survived the translation (and became infinitly easier since the Atari joystick’s solitary fire button simply threw a volley of electrical death in all directions at once).