The Game: Two players each control a fearsome armored fighting vehicle on a field of battle littered with obstacles (or not, depending upon the agreed-upon game variation). The two tanks pursue each other around the screen, trying to line up the perfect shot without also presenting a perfect target if they miss. In accordance with the laws of ballistics and mass in the universe of Saturday morning cartoons, a tank hit by enemy fire is bounced across the screen – sometimes right off the egde of the screen and into a corresponding position on the opposite side of the field – spinning at a very silly velocity, and battle begins anew. Other variations include biplane and jet fighter dogfights. (Atari, 1977)
Memories: Chances are, anyone who’s my age who is asked to remember their first video game console will tell you it was the Atari VCS – and their first game? Naturally, the one that came with the VCS: Combat, based on the 1974 arcade hit Tank! by Kee Games.
Kee Games? Read More
The Game: War is pixellated, blocky hell on the Odyssey2! In Armored Encounter, two combatants in tanks circumnavigate a maze peppered with land mines, searching for the optimum spot from which to blow each other to kingdom come. In Sub Chase, a bomber plane and a submarine, both maneuverable in their own way, try to take each other out without blasting any non-combatant boats routinely running between them (darn that civilian shipping!). In both games, the timer is counting down for both sides to blow each other straight to hell. (Magnavox, 1978)
Memories: Armored Encounter! is a somewhat standard-issue variation on Atari’s Tank coin-op (which that company later used to launch the Atari VCS under the name of Combat), only with a vastly simpified map. Read More
The Game: Take to the sky for some biplane battle with Baron von Richtoven himself! In a combat environment where banking too sharp can either be a daring maneuver or certain doom, your mission is to take out as many enemies as you can before you yourself accumulate too many bullet holes in the sides of your biplane. Dirigibles also make tempting targets and, for the truly daring, there are land-based tanks nestled near mountains and civilian homes. The game is over when the last of your planes is shot down. (Atari, 1980)
Memories: Emboldened by their first-person tank combat simulator Battlezone, Atari also set out to create the first ever first-person flight combat simulator. (Presumably this fascination with first-person combat sims predated Atari’s shotgun wedding with the U.S. Army that resulted in the Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle Trainer.) And lest you think there’s no connection between Battlezone and Red Baron, take a close look at that cabinet – it’s exactly the same design as the Battlezone cabinet, minus the periscope-style viewer and second joystick. Read More
The Game: In probably the weakest of the Master Series games – Odyssey games which included overcomplicated board game elements, a la Quest For The Rings – you control one of the world’s superpowers, attempting to gain as much influence as possible through political and economic means and, where necessary, warfare. (Magnavox, 1980)
Memories: Well, that’s what the blurb on the box said. When you ditched the magnetic world map and markers and the colorful chips representing your nation’s influence and power, Conquest Of The World‘s video game component was, essentially, little more than an elaborate Odyssey2 version of the Atari 2600 Combat game, with added terrain and vehicular options and fewer goofy options like bouncing artillery. Read More
The Game: Helicopters and planes are dumping paratroopers directly over your land-locked cannon. Your job is to take out both aircraft and paratroopers before the enemy can land on and slowly destroy the rows of buildings on either side of the cannon. Once enemy paratroopers raze a building to the ground, they begin doing something even deadlier: digging tunnels toward your cannon so they can destroy it from below with a giant bomb, at which time your point defense career is over. (U.S. Games, 1982)
Memories: A clever riff on a well-known game, Commando Raid avoids being just another Missile Command clone. At first glance, the element of defending six cities/buildings by covering the entire sky from a fixed position seems familiar, but the gradual enemy occupation of territory beneath the player’s cannon adds an original twist and requires some new strategy.
U.S. Games didn’t exactly make stuff that looked like Activision‘s games, but the audiovisual element of Commando Raid is more than adequate to convey all the information players need. The buildings have several stages of disrepair, from undamaged down to rubble. The sheer twitch factor as multiple incoming targets have to be dealt with is impressive for a VCS cartridge, as is the fact that the barrage of approaching enemies is accomplished with virtually none of the dreaded “flicker” that has plagued countless other games on this platform.
Seasoned Missile Commanders looking for a new posting can do a lot worse than signing up to go Commando.
The Game: You’re piloting a fighter jet on a canyon run through enemy territory. You can’t fly outside the canyon walls, so stay over the river and blast everything in sight. Well, almost everything – flying your plane on top of “FUEL” buoys instead of shooting them puts a little bit of gas in the tank, and if you run out of fuel, you might as well just swallow the next enemy bullet, because you’re goin’ down. (Activision, 1982)
Memories: As you advance through the levels and it gets more challenging, River Raid becomes the same kind of balancing act between self-preservation and going on the offensive that is a hallmark of all-time classics like Robotron. River Raid was the brainchild of Activision programmer Carol Shaw, one of the small number of women who had a vital hand in the early video game industry (such as Carla Meninsky, programmer of numerous early Atari 2600 titles, and Dona Bailey, an Atari arcade programmer who co-designed Centipede). And yet River Raid is a shoot-’em’-up that’ll challenge any hardcore joystick jock. Read More
The Game: Enemy fighters arrive, wave after wave, attempting to outflank the player’s fighter jet and trap it in the path of their fire. The player can only move the jet side to side to avoid incoming fire and attempt to line up a shot on the enemy fighters. Each new wave of enemies brings new tactics, new weapons to evade… and a new batch of targets. (Thunderbolt [under license to Orca], 1983)
Memories: It’s easy to imagine the design and planning meeting for this game. It goes something like this:
“You know what my favorite part of Galaga is? The challenging stage. I hate all those other stages. They’re just there to trip me up on my way to the challenging stage. What if we made a game where the whole thing is like the challenging stage, except they occasionally shoot back at you?” Read More
The Game: You’re piloting a fighter jet on a canyon run through enemy territory. You can’t fly outside the canyon walls, so stay over the river and blast everything in sight. Well, almost everything – flying your plane on top of “FUEL” buoys instead of shooting them puts a little bit of gas in the tank, and if you run out of fuel, you might as well just swallow the next enemy bullet, because you’re goin’ down. (Activision, 1983)
Memories: Early in Activision‘s foray into publishing games for the Intellivision, the company issued a strange edict to its programmers: if it was a port of a game also released for the Atari VCS, don’t make the game look significantly different from the Atari version. River Raid is a good example of what happened once Activision abandoned that extremely odd policy. Read More
The Game: You’re flying solo through the fourth dimension! In what must be the least subtle time-traveling intervention since the last time there was a time travel episode on Star Trek: Voyager, you’re blasting your way through dozens of aircraft from 1940 through 1982. From WWII-era prop planes, to Vietnam-era helicopters, to 1982, where you confront jet fighters with the same maneuverability as your plane, you’re in for quite a wild ride. Rescue parachutists and complete the level by destroying “boss” craft such as heavy planes and dirigibles. (Coleco, 1983)
Memories: Coleco‘s home version of Time Pilot for the Atari 2600 is one of the company’s better arcade ports for that machine, and yet so much of what made the arcade game such a memorable experience was left behind. I can accept the watering-down of the game’s graphics, especially when an effort was obviously made to keep them flicker-free – an impressive feat for this game. But some of what’s left out includes the game’s very objectives. Read More
The Game: The invasion is on, and as usual, you’re the only thing standing between Earth and alien domination. (Ever wonder why no one else is answering their pagers at times like these when the call goes out?) Fortunately, your aircraft is a kick-ass piece of military hardware, capable everything from breaking the sound barrier to hovering, helicopter-like, over a friendly installation to defend from an onslaught of enemy tanks. But the enemy makes up for its occasionally lackluster hardware with impressive numbers – and whether the hail of gunfire is coming from their tanks, their jets, or their motherships (which look suspiciously like little Comet Empires from Star Blazers), you can rack up a fatal amount of damage pretty quickly. (Electronic Arts, 1984)
Memories: To my day, Skyfox is still my favorite combat flight sim. Actually, it’s one of my all-time favorite flight sims, combat or otherwise. Read More
The Game: It’s the Cold War all over again – but worse. Tampering with the timeline has wreaked immeasurable damage with the development of technology, and the result is a new wave of deadly weapons, including Tesla tanks and turrets (which discharge immense electrical energy at their opponents) and Chrono-tanks (which can shift their position on the map instantly for a brief time). You must build and protect your base, produce units necessary to defend and attack, and orchestrate an invasion of enemy territory – all while accumulating as few casualties as possible. (Electronic Arts [developed by Westwood Studios], 1996)
Memories: Westwood’s real-time strategy classic is a major evolutionary leap from the original Command & Conquer, with vast improvements in the artificial intelligence used by both your soldiers and by computer controlled enemies. And it’s a tough game! It’s pretty common practice for me, despite a couple of years of playing Dune 2000 (a later Westwood game which is built on the same engine as Red Alert), to build up quite a nice base and then get my ass kicked big time. Read More