The Game: Players control a lawman hot on the trail of a notorious bank robber – a notoriously messy one, it should be noted, since his loot is scattered all over the place. Using the controller, pieces of the maze can be shifted (even while one of the characters is on it) to allow the sheriff to recover the money and capture the bad guy, but while leaving a character going in circles momentarily, letting him wander into the open gap in the maze will cost a precious life. Clearing the maze will restart the chase anew, on a bigger and more complex maze. (Activision, 1983)
Memories: The first Activision title for Intellivision that wasn’t simply an Intellivision version of an Atari 2600 game, Happy Trails raised some serious hackles with the makers of the machine it on which it was designed to run.
Mattel had paid handsomely for the rights to produce a home version of Konami‘s coin-op Loco-Motion, which had already used the same basic setup as Happy Trails, except the arcade game’s setting was a series of train tracks. But Activision got Happy Trails out the door first, and the legal machinery within Mattel Electronics rumbled to life briefly – just long enough to figure out that, even if there was a clear-cut case of infringement, Mattel would be hiring lawyers to recover money for Konami instead of itself. Nothing was ever filed.
As was often the case with games by Activision and Imagic in these freewheeling days before look-and-feel lawsuits became commonplace, Happy Trails took the basic idea of Loco Motion and made it better. After the first level – which is an introductory tutorial screen of sorts – the player is tasked with keeping control not only of his sheriff, but of the bad guy as well, dividing the player’s attention and making things far more interesting. In Loco Motion, you’re just racing the clock and the inevitability of making a mistake with the placement of the maze tiles, while Happy Trails gives you two elements to keep in play.
In the end, Mattel’s short-lived exploration of a legal option to keep Happy Trails off the store shelves smacks of sour grapes. The eternal curse of the first-party publishers in these early days of the industry was not only that they’d be beaten to the punch with a similar game, but – as was the case with Happy Trails – one that was also superior. Activision got the hint too: Intellivision owners were happy to be able to play Pitfall! on their machines, but the machine was capable of much more than its underpowered competition.