Death Race

Death RaceThe Game: Two players control one car each, careening freely around an arena filled with zombies. Faced with zombie-fication at the pedestrian crossing of the undead, the drivers have only one option: run over their opponents! See the videoEach zombie that’s squashed leaves a grave marker behind that becomes an unmovable obstacle to zombies and cars alike. Whoever has run over the most zombies by the end of the timed game wins. (Exidy, 1976)

Memories: Death Race, which didn’t even come within shouting distance of having anything to do with the movie of the same name, was the arcade game that sparked the very first protests about violence in video games. Those protests go on to this very day, with games like the latest iteration of Grand Theft Auto and Bully drawing fire for depicting various kinds of real world violence. Compared to those much more recent games, it’s almost laughable to think that the abstraction of Death Race was where some parents first drew the line. Why? Because Death Race was the first person to put stick figures – a representation of a human being – on the screen and let you do something nasty to them. Continue reading

Reactor

ReactorThe Game: In a bizarre combination of pinball, zero gravity, and nuclear physics, you pilot your “ship” around a reactor chamber, trying to eliminate rogue radioactive particles (which are about the same size as your ship). Anything touching the outer walls of the chamber will be destroyed, including your on-screen alter ego. Two pairs of See the videofive rods can be used to cool down the ever-expanding nuclear reaction at the center of the screen, but you can only push the rods in by bumping the particle into them head-on. Trapping particles in either of two cul-de-sacs in the upper right and lower left corners of the playing field will earn you bonus points, and the best way to accomplish this is to plant one of your limited number of decoys at the entrance to one of the smaller areas. In early levels, you can keep your back to the reactor and hug it as you bounce the particles off of it, but in later levels, the reactions are exposed and become just as deadly to you as to the walls are. (Gottlieb, 1982)

Memories: A decidedly weird but incredibly addictive game. You may find yourself spending ages on it before you know it, and getting better and better at the game. This is a game which would probably be a hit in a graphically updated edition – providing the game play was left as is. Then again, adding detailed graphics would probably rob Reactor of a lot of its mystique. Continue reading

Reactor

ReactorThe Game: In a bizarre combination of pinball, zero gravity, and nuclear physics, you pilot your “ship” around a reactor chamber, trying to eliminate rogue radioactive particles (which are about the same size as your ship). Anything touching the outer walls of the chamber will be destroyed, including your on-screen alter ego. Two pairs of five rods can be used to cool down the ever-expanding nuclear reaction at the center of the screen, but you can only push the rods in by bumping the particle into them head-on. Trapping particles in either of two cul-de-sacs in the upper right and lower left corners of the playing field will earn you bonus points, and the best way to accomplish this is to plant one of your limited number of decoys at the entrance to one of the smaller areas. In early levels, you can keep your back to the reactor and hug it as you bounce the particles off of it, but in later levels, the reactions are exposed and become just as deadly to you as to the walls are. (Parker Brothers, 1982)

Memories: A game attempt at translating Gottlieb‘s sleeper hit coin-op, Reactor for the Atari 2600 may lose some of its first audiovisual grain in the translation, but it’s still Reactor – well, kinda. The rockin’ music is mangled (though I have to give the programmers of the 2600 port some points for the effort of even trying to mimic it), and its free-roaming action was never intended to be confined to the clumsy control of a joystick. (Though after playing Reactor with the Wico Command Control trakball, I still have to say that this is a long way off from playing Reactor in the arcade with a trakball.) Continue reading

Joust

JoustThe Game: As a fearless pile of buzzard bait encased in armor, you pilot your trusty steed – who happens to be an ostrich, by the way – in an effort to impale your opponents – who also happen to be riding ostriches – before they can lance you. Other dangers include a pterodactyl who periodically arrives to thin out the ranks of on-screen See the TV adwarriors if things are taking too long, and platforms that disappear under your feet, plunging you into a sea of molten lava. (Atari, 1983)

Memories: Joust is an incredibly fun and addictive game with a loyal cult following, and Atari did it “joust-ice”. Many of Atari’s home versions of arcade games from this period, whether programmed in-house or farmed out to General Computer, seemed to follow a tenet of getting key graphics and gameplay right above all else, and Joust is a good specimen of that. Continue reading

Mario Bros.

Mario Bros.The Game: As Mario (or Luigi, if you’re playing with a second person), you’re trying to rid the sewers of such pests as evil lobsters and turtles. Try to grab as many coins as you can (it’s amazing what people let fall down the drain and into the sewer system sometimes), and always be on the lookout for the fireballs which bounce from level to level. Just how did all these things get into the sewers, anyway? (Atari, 1983)

Memories: Atari snatched the home video game license for Mario Bros. and proved that it could successfully port the game to the Atari 2600, as if to thumb its nose at Coleco for the mediocre (and that’s being charitable) 2600 version of Donkey Kong Jr.. Mario Bros. turned out to be one of the better Atari arcade adaptations. Continue reading

Robin Hood / Sir Lancelot

Sir LancelotThe Game: In Sir Lancelot, players assume the role of the legendary knight atop his flying steed (who knew that the Arthurian mythos could be mixed with the Greek legend of Pegasus?), battling a sky seething with dragons. Killing all the dragons on the screen will advance Lancelot to another level featuring a “boss” dragon and a damsel awaiting rescue.
In
Robin Hood, players don’t exactly get to rob from the rich and give to the poor; instead, the game involves hiding in the forest and exchanging volleys of arrows with the Sheriff of Nottingam and his thugs. (Xonox, 1983)

Memories: Other games archived in Phosphor Dot Fossils were produced by companies that had never produced video games before, and have never produced video games again – companies like Purina and U.S. Games, owned by Quaker Oats. Many of these johnny-come-lately entrants in the video game race knew they weren’t in it for the long haul: they were simply cashing in on a fad, and taking advantage that games could be made for the Atari 2600 without Atari‘s permission or oversight. The glut of low-quality product had a lot to do with the crash of the video game industry, but not everyone who got into the video game biz circa 1982 or ’83 was consciously pumping out stinkers. Continue reading

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

The Texas Chainsaw MassacreThe Game: You’re Leatherface, the notorious killer, and your job is pretty simple: track down those meddling teenagers (a See the videoprerequisite for every horror flick) and slice ‘n’ dice them with your chainsaw. Simple enough, right? It would be if not for obstacles that block your path (some of which you can also dispose of with your chainsaw), and the fact that – get this – these kids scream and run away from you. The nerve! But you can sever that nerve, and all the others, with your chainsaw…at least until it runs out of fuel. (Wizard, 1983)

Memories: Wizard Games was a short-lived outfit that sprang up during that fleeting, fertile window of time when it seemed like anyone could make a mint doing Atari 2600 games – or at least everyone thought they could. With this and a similar game based on John Carpenter’s legendary Halloween (in which the player tried to escape from killer Michael Myers), Wizard put itself on the map instantly. Not with great games, mind you, but with pure controversy: at the time, these games were decried for gore and violence! Continue reading

UFO

UFO!The Game: As the pilot of a lone space cruiser, you must try to clear the spaceways of a swarm of pesky and relatively harmless drone UFOs, but the job isn’t easy. You can ram the alien ships with your ship’s shields, destroying them (but See the videoforcing your shields offline for a few precious seconds during which anything could collide with your unprotected ship and destroy you), or shoot them (which also forces your shields down for a recharge). To that screenful of bite-sized chunks o’ death, add an unpredictable Killer UFO that likes to pop in and shoot at you, and suddenly being an interstellar traffic cop ain’t so easy. (Philips, 1983)

Memories: I’ve been complaining about the small library of Odyssey2-games-in-new-clothes developed as Odyssey3 launch titles quite a bit, but here’s a game I can actually get behind. UFO is the combination of a strong game in and of itself, with a background graphic that doesn’t completely obscure the in-game action. Continue reading

Buraco Negro! (“Black Hole!”)

Buraco Negro!The Game: This is a tale of a futuristic society advanced almost beyond belief. A black hole has been trapped behind a force field, where its gravity won’t snag the chains of space outposts lining the top and bottom of the screen. That gravity will, however, attract stray asteroids, which naturally can do a number on the space stations. This is where you come in: as the captain of an interplanetary street-sweeper, it’s your job to grab the asteroids and deposit them in the maw of the black hole. It’s tricky, business: letting go of an asteroid too far away from the black hole will allow it to drift toward the space stations, but putting your own ship too close to the black hole will put you in harm’s way (and may still let the asteroid escape). The more asteroids you put in the black hole, the bigger and more powerful it becomes (did anyone really think through this method of disposing of the trash?), which will attract more asteroids and cause them to move faster. You can also shoot asteroids, but this will add no points to your score, and stray missiles could destroy space stations. If your ship plummets into the event horizon, or too many space stations are destroyed, there’s suddenly a vacancy for the most dangerous garbage disposal job in the universe. (GST Video, 1984)

Memories: As a rule, I try not to be too critical of a game’s programmer, but this rare title – initially released only in South America, and then later dressed up with a spacey background and released in Europe for the Videopac G7400+ under the incorrectly-translated name Neutron Star – offers so little reward for so much effort that one can only assume its designer was a masochist. Continue reading

Motos

MotosBuy this gameThe Game: This contest places you in a vehicle on a grid suspended in space. Going over the edge of the grid is bad news, and yet that’s exactly where you must ram every other object on the screen. Be careful: Isaac Newton’s laws of motion apply here, and every action begets a reaction, namely your vehicle being bounced as far back as your target has been knocked ahead. And depending on the configuration of the playing field, which eventually evolves to include gaps in the middle of the screen which can only be jumped with the proper combination of “power parts” and “jump parts,” ramming an enemy can put you over the edge too. Later levels introduce more aggressive enemies which will leave you almost strictly on the defensive. (Good tip? Position yourself between two enemies and let the recoil from attacking one help you put another one out of the game as well.) Lingering too long on the playing field will cause whoever’s in charge of this genteel sporting event to hurl projectiles at the field, blasting holes out of the grid which must then be jumped or avoided – and even your own jumps can weaken or destroy other squares on the grid. (Namco, 1985)

Memories: Say what you like about Namco, but they’ve probably introduced more singularly addictive games to the arcades than any other company out there, and those games cover a more diverse palette than today’s never-ending smorgasboard of fighting and sports titles. Continue reading

Katamari Damacy

Katamari DamacyOrder this gameYou control the pint-sized Prince, whose dad, the massive King of All Cosmos, seems to have inadvertently blotted out every star in the night sky. Now, your old man is sending you on a mission to go down to Earth – a planet blessed with a lot of stuff – to gather that stuff into large sticky clumps called katamari. You start out small, picking up tiny everyday items like pushpins and matchsticks, but as your katamari grows in size, it can pick up larger objects – frogs and mice, crabs, dogs and cats, people, cows, cars, trees, and eventually even things like buildings and giant squids. At the beginning of each stage, you’re tasked to accumulate enough stuff to grow your katamari to a predetermined diameter, and once the timer runs out for that stage, your katamari is either launched into the sky to become a new star See the video(don’t ask us about the astrophysics on this one, because this game’s universe throws the whole hydrogen-and-helium thing out the window), or the King of All Cosmos returns to chide you for your puny efforts and makes you start again. There’s also a split-screen battle mode where two players can not only build up their katamari, but hurl their katamari at each other; a katamari of sufficient size can engulf your opponent and his katamari too! (Namco, 2004)

Katamari DamacyMemories: I love Namco. When I go looking up my favorite classic arcade games of all time, they’re almost all by Namco. And some of them are so strange. I mean, think about Pac-Man on a purely conceptual level. Or Dig Dug. Or Phozon. Now apply the same attempt at a logical explanation to Katamari Damacy. (Good luck.) Give up? Even a generation later, Namco’s still turning out some great, offbeat, innovative, fun games. Continue reading

The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction

The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate DestructionOrder this gameThe Game: Hulk Smash. Okay, he runs, jumps, punches and throws stuff too in this action-packed game, but mostly he just smashes. Instantly theraputic for anyone who’s ever wanted to hit anything, The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction allows players to use the Hulk (and just about any item he comes across) to destroy his enemies and the environment around him. (Vivendi Universal, 2005)

Memories: Within five minutes of launching this game for the first time, I had destroyed a dozen tanks with my bare fists, knocked two helicopters out of the sky by throwing boulders at them, and killed an enemy soldier by beating him to death with a cow. If that’s not a recipe for fun, I don’t know what is. Continue reading

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