51 Shades of Geek

Pachinko!

Pachinko!The Game: In a game that bears some slight resemblence to a Japanese offshoot of pinball, you control – for lack of a better description – a man stuck in a gigantic Pachinko playing field. You attempt to keep your ball in play, scoring points as often as possible by landing the ball in one of five cups marked with a point value – some targets can score zero points, others as high as ten. The other player – either a human being or the computer – can temporarily take over your ball by touching it, just as you can with theirs. (There’s nothing quite like making someone else’s balls work for you.) And a third man roams the playing field as well, grabbing your…well, let’s start that again. If the computer-controlled third man grabs a ball in mid-flight, he’ll relaunch it in a random direction, maybe to you, maybe to your opponent. Whoever accumulates 100 points first wins. (Magnavox, 1980)

Memories: Hey, we do requests here at Phosphor Dot Fossils, and this one’s overdue. A reader recently wrote to remind me that the Pachinko! review has been “coming soon” for a dog’s age, and wanted to know if “soon” was getting any sooner. I’m glad he wrote in, for I discovered that I had never actually played this game. I’ve had the cartridge sitting on my shelf forever, but I hadn’t plugged it in until now. Continue reading

Showdown In 2100 A.D.!

Showdown in 2100 A.D.!The Game: Get out there and draw! Your cowboy faces off against another player, or the computer, in a fight to see who can draw their gun the fastest – and who can run away the fastest! (Magnavox, 1979)

Memories: This strange, slow-moving slice of the wild west seems eerily similar, in a few respects, to War Of Nerves. Take away the robot armies, add a couple of six-shooters, and you’ve got Showdown in 2100 A.D. (a title derived from Magnavox’s attempt to make the gunfighting game family-friendly by explaining that the combatants are, in fact, robots – welcome to Westworld!). It’s also the Odyssey2 edition of the classic arcade shootout game, Gun Fight. Continue reading

Star Battle

Star BattleThe Game: As a lone space pilot flying down a seemingly endless trench, your job is simple – blast or bomb all of the vaguely-bow-tie-shaped space fighters that you see. If your fighter is on the lower half of the screen, you’re blasting See the videostraight ahead/upward; if you move your fighter near the top of the screen, you can bomb any fighters below you. The game ends when you run out of ships; fortunately you never seem to run out of ammo. (Bally, 1979)

Memories: With arcade games such as Star Fire (with its obvious TIE Fighters and Star Destroyers) and Starhawk (with its own animated trench) gobbling quarters, it might just be that Star Battle for the Bally Professional Arcade is where it all begins in the console realm – the sub-genre of the Star Wars-inspired space game. Continue reading

Superman

SupermanThe Game: It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a vaguely anthropomorphic heap o’ pixels with a red cape! Lex Luthor has hatched one of his deadly schemes to overthrow Metropolis – and, naturally, the world – starting with the destruction of a bridge in the city. Deal with Luthor’s thugs, save Lois, and put Lex himself behind bars – but keep an eye out for Kryptonite. (Atari [under license from DC Comics], 1979)

Superman adMemories: A product of the corporate synergy between DC Comics and Atari – both freshly acquired by the Warner Bros. empire in the late 1970s – Superman was one of the first attempts at a multi-screen adventure structure on the Atari VCS, something which would be honed more sharply with such games as Adventure and Haunted House (and trashed once again with top-heavy, overambitious later efforts like E.T. and the Swordquest series). Continue reading

Thunderball!

Thunderball!The Game: It’s all the thrills of pinball, minus approximately 75% of the excitement! Use your joystick to control the plunger tension and launch your ball into play. Use the action button to pop the flippers, keeping your ball on the See the videofield and out of trouble. The bumpers and spinner score big points…well, relatively speaking. (Magnavox, 1979)

Memories: Ya know, I’ve always thought that video pinball was just a bad idea from start to finish. Thunderball! is very much representative of most early attempts at this doomed genre – it’s not exactly a load of fun, and not even remotely exciting. Continue reading

War Of Nerves!

War Of Nerves!The Game: You’re the commander of a small squad of robots, and your opponent – be it a second player or the computer – is commanding a similar platoon o’ droids. Your job is to avoid the enemy’s robots while you wait for your robots to See the videoreach the enemy commander. Of course, the enemy’s robots could reach you first, but that’s another story. The only control you have over your robots is to press the action button and call them toward you. The robots fight hand-to-hand, rather than shooting, and your robots may become incapacitated. You can leap into the fray and touch one of your malfunctioning robots to repair it and return it to the fight, but in so doing, you run a risk of being captured by enemy robots. (Magnavox, 1979)

Memories: This is a game about the Arnold Rimmer vision of combat.

In the Marooned episode of Red Dwarf, Rimmer says “Generals don’t smash chairs over people’s heads. They don’t smash Newcastle Brown bottles into your face and say ‘Stitch that, Jimmy.’ They’re in the nice white tent, on the top of the hill, sipping Sancerre and directing the battle. They’re men of honor!” Which is pretty much your function in this game. Continue reading

Star Raiders

Star RaidersThe Game: Zylon warships are on the rampage, blasting allied basestars out of the sky and wreaking havoc throughout the galaxy. Your orders are to track down the fast-moving raiders and destroy them before they can do any more See the videodamage. You have limited shields and weapons at your disposal, and a battle computer which is vital to your mission (though critical damage to your space fighter can leave you without that rather important piece of equipment). The game is simple: destroy until you are destroyed, and defend friendly installations as long as you can. (Atari, 1979)

Memories: The original version of Atari’s Star Raiders leaves very few doubts as to its origins; in a sense, it’s a new take on the old grid-based Star Trek mainframe game, only with ample opportunities for arcade-style action. Oh, and – astonishingly, even back then – the game kicks off with a title screen showing a spaceship obviously based on the Enterprise from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which also appeared in 1979. How the lawyers missed that one, we’ll probably never know. Continue reading

Astro Invader

Astro InvaderThe Game: Those pesky invaders from space are back, and this time they’ve devised a handy delivery system that drops entire columns of kamikaze invaders and motherships through a series of airborne chutes from an orbiting Stern command ship. Players can try to intercept invaders as they plummet toward Earth, but as their impact sends a cloud of debris spreading outward which can also destroy the player’s cannon, avoidance is a perfectly acceptable (if not exactly high-scoring) survival strategy. (Stern [under license from Union Denshi Kogyo Company], 1980)

Memories: As with numerous other big names in the industry at the end of the 1970s and the dawn of 1980, pinball maker Stern‘s angle of entry into the burgeoning video game business was a remix of Taito‘s Space Invaders. Yes, even the company who brought us Berzerk and Frenzy – as well as numerous licensed imports from Konami, among others – rode Taito’s coattails into the video game business. Continue reading

Balloon Bomber

Balloon BomberThe Game: Why worry about space invaders when there are more pressing earthly threats? Players guide a mobile cannon at the bottom of the screen, trying to take out a constant barrage of balloon bombers dropping live bombs. A direct hit to the cannon costs the player a “life,” but if the player allows a bomb to hit bottom, the results can be almost as dangerous: bombs crater the surface that the player’s cannon moves across, and allowing those pits to collect on the surface can severely limit the player’s movements, to the point of leaving the cannon a motionless sitting duck for the next round of balloon bombs, or a plane that periodically drops cluster bombs from overhead. (Taito, 1980)

Memories: One of the more obscure exponents of the same basic hardware platform that brought us Space Invaders Part II, Balloon Bomber is an interesting twist in the slide-and-shoot genre that’s based on a real (and very strange) footnote in history. Continue reading

Berzerk

BerzerkThe Game: You’re alone in a maze filled with armed, hostile robots who only have one mission – to kill you. If you even so much as touch the walls, you’ll wind up dead. You’re a little bit faster than the robots, and you have human instinct on your side…but even that won’t help you when Evil Otto, a deceptively friendly and completely See the videoindestructible smiley face, appears to destroy you if you linger too long in any one part of the maze. The object of the game? Try to stay alive however long you can. (Stern, 1980)

Memories: If Berzerk sounds a little bit familiar, it’s no coincidence. To some extent, the running-alone-through-an-enemy-filled-maze premise had been mined by Midway’s Wizard Of Wor (a game released around the same time), which even looked somewhat similar. Unlike the glut of Pac-Man clones, it’s probably not so much a question of plagiarism as a question of several game designers arriving at the same good idea at the same time. Continue reading

Carnival

CarnivalThe Game: Step right up, put your quarter on the table (well, okay, technically in the slot), and take your best shot. There are plenty of targets to hit, but no big plush bears to win. If you don’t take out the ducks before they reach the bottom row, they don’t cycle back to the top like the other targets – they start flying and can take See the videoserious amounts of ammo off your hands and end the game early! (1980, Sega)

Memories: In the wake of virtual shooting gallery games like Space Invaders, Carnival arrived on the scene to make the shooting gallery metaphor more literal. Well, more or less – killer ammo-grabbing ducks aren’t exactly standard issue at the state fair. (But seeing how much finesse they add to Carnival, they should be!) Continue reading

Cosmic Guerilla

Cosmic GuerillaThe Game: The invaders are back, and this time they plan on making quick work of Earth’s defenses. Columns of alien invaders descend from space, staying safely outside of the range of the player’s cannon. A few aliens at a time break formation and attempt to reach the player’s floating stockpiles of ordnance and extra ships floating in the center of the screen; if the aliens are able to reach these items, the player will lose a life. The only option is to take out the invaders before they succeed. (Universal, 1980)

Memories: In the beginning, some of the most respectable future names in the video game business got their start cranking out clones of Pong. The ubiquitous success of Space Invaders had a similar effect; some of the earliest arcade efforts from some surprising names (including Nintendo) either remixed Taito‘s quarter-grabbing mega-hit, or copied it outright. Universal, the future makers of Mr. Do! and Ladybug, was not immune to Space Invaders fever either. Continue reading

King & Balloon

King & BalloonBuy this gameThe Game: Manning a fairly agile cannon located on a platform at a castle, your task is simple: protect the King! However, there’s a flotilla of even more agile balloons above you who are there to kidnap his royal highness. As the King is hoisted away by his assailants, he yells “Help!” If you shoot down the offending balloon, the King See the videoshouts “Thank you!” as he floats back to the safety of the castle via an umbrella. The balloons can ram your cannon kamikaze-style and flatten it for a few seconds, but curiously, you have an unlimited supply of cannons. However, if the balloon marauders get three Kings off the screen, your game ends. (Namco, 1980)

Memories: One of the most bizarre and obscure entries in the resumè of Namco (also responsible for classics like Galaga, Xevious, Dig Dug and a little thing we call Pac-Man), King & Balloon comes across as nothing so much as a bizarre attempt to repurpose Galaxian into a cutesy game. The one-shot-on-screen-at-a-time, the attack patterns of the balloons and some of the sound effects hammer the similarities home. Continue reading

Magical Spot

Magical SpotThe Game: The good news: Darwin was right, evolution is a thing. The bad news: this does not work in your favor. You man a laser cannon trying to intercept alien insects making their way toward the bottom of the screen; at the most inconvenient times, the bugs revert to a pupal stage during which they’re either impossible to hit or invulnerable. They then emerge in a newer, faster, deadlier form bent on destroying you. (Universal, 1980)

Memories: Evolution is a pretty interesting idea to try to frame in the context of a game; almost without exception, it’s been used as an excuse for the game to suddenly make either the player’s enemies stronger and faster. The strangely titled Magical Spot – referring, perhaps, to the single-pixel points on the screen upon which enemy bugs can perch and shrink down to un-shootable size – is a prime example. Continue reading

Moon Cresta

Moon CrestaBuy this gameThe Game: As commander of the three-stage fighter rocket Moon Cresta, your job is to ward off endless varieties of evasively weaving space attackers. Every time you knock out two consecutive screens of assailants, you’ll have an opportunity to dock your ship to another one of Moon Cresta’s three stages, until all three See the videoportions of the ship are combined to create one bad-ass weapons platform. But you can also lose stages very quickly, ending your game – a bigger ship makes a bigger and easier target. (Sega/Gremlin [under license from Nichibutsu], 1980)

Memories: Moon Cresta had a very cool idea which was ripped off by a handful of its contemporaries – instead of giving the player a set number of “lives,” players had three rocket stages. Losing even one stage could seriously hamper your life expectancy in the game in later levels, and you could lose a stage to anything from enemy fire to not lining your stages up correctly during docking. This actually made Moon Cresta a very challenging game – but also a very fun one. Continue reading

Rally-X

3-D computer rendering of Rally-X cabinetThe Game: Go, Speed Racer, go! (Well, almost.) As the driver of a high-powered race car, you rocket around corners and down straightaways, trying to pick up every yellow flag in the maze-like course and avoiding deadly collisions with pursuing red cars. Watch out for rocks and oil spills, and use your smokescreen See the videoBuy this gameonly when necessary to distance yourself from the red cars. (Bally/Midway [under license from Namco], 1980)

Memories: Namco released Rally-X at the same time as Pac-Man, and like Pac-Man, Namco licensed Rally-X to Midway. In fact, the major buzz at that year’s AMOA (Amusement Machine Operators’ Association) annual trade show – where arcade owners tried to figure out which would be the hottest new games to buy for their establishments – was for this dandy little racing/maze game, and Pac-Man was considered an also-ran, perhaps a little too abstract for the U.S. market. Continue reading

Radar Scope

Radar ScopeThe Game: Why is it that, when aliens invade the Earth, you’re the only person on call? Doesn’t the front office have a more recent phone list? At any rate, wave after wave of aliens attack, dive-bombing you repeatedly and – providing See the videoyou don’t blast them out of the sky – rejoining their formations to attack anew. These aliens are a particularly nasty breed, as they can fire while diving and retreating. If you can clear the screen of extraterrestrial nasties, the invasion begins again. Are you getting overtime for all this alien-blasting? What are the benefits like? (Nintendo, 1980)

Memories: A pretty obscure entry from Nintendo, this 1980 rip-off of Galaxian adds some cool touches, such as the odd perspective which barely hints at 3-D, and the turning, tumbling alien ships. When one considers that Zaxxon was at least two years away with its primitive (but at the time impressive) isometric graphics, Radar Scope‘s obscurity is not well-deserved. Continue reading

Space Chaser

Space ChaserBuy this gameThe Game: It’s got dots and a maze, but this is no Pac-Man. You’re trapped in a symmetrical maze with an enemy homing missile, and the maze is littered with rows of dots. You must maneuver your ship over these dots to collect them, while avoiding any collision with the missile. If the missile locks on to you from the other end of a long corridor, it will speed up drastically and hit you (unless you can round a corner first). You have no defense against the missile – just avoid it. If you survive long enough to clear the maze of dots, you get to try again – only this time with an additional missile (later screens add even more enemies for you to avoid). You can give your ship a boost by activating your engines, but such speed changes are both short-lived and very costly to your already-dwindling fuel supply. (Taito, 1980)

Memories: It seems like around 1980, everyone had a variation on a similar idea. Somewhat resembling Targ and Spectar in the basic tenet of its ships-chasing-each-other-in-a-maze premise, Space Chaser is perhaps the most challenging of its genre for giving the player no option except to flee. Continue reading

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