Star Strike

Star StrikeBuy this gameThe Game: Flying low over an alien installation, you are the last hope for the planet Earth. When the alien space vehicle has Earth lined up in the sights of its launcher, the planet will be destroyed. Your mission is to blast alien defensive See the videofighters and bomb their mothership into oblivion before that happens. (Mattel, 1981)

Memories: Star Strike was one of the games Mattel waved in everyone’s face to prove how superior the Intellivision was to its rival, the Atari 2600. But for its time, and considering that Atari’s biggest hits at this point were chunky home versions of Print new overlaysthe distinctly 2-D Asteroids, Missile Command and Space Invaders, Star Strike‘s Star Wars-inspired 3-D animated trench was quite impressive. However, the game was notoriously difficult for those weaned on the excessive simplicity of the aforementioned arcade adaptations. Continue reading

Tennis

TennisBuy this gameThe Game: Is it Pong anthropomorphized, or is it tennis rehumanized? Two people dash back and fourth across a court, making every attempt to intercept the incoming ball and slap it back into their opponent’s side of the net. As with so many other things in life, he who drops the ball suffers severely. (Activision, 1981)

Memories: Doesn’t really matter how you dress it up: it’s all tennis. Only Activision‘s Tennis cartridge, programmed by Alan Miller, was the first time someone had tried to make the tennis players look like…well, tennis players, at least on the VCS. As one of the very first titles released by Activision, Tennis broke graphical ground, but kept game play simple, often simulating an existing sport or activity – the salad days of innovation with games like Pitfall! were still to come. 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. (Magnavox, 1981)

Memories: UFO! was the first “Challenger Series” game, which usually denoted a game that was an interesting derivative of an existing arcade favorite, in this case the popular Atari game Asteroids. Continue reading

Video Pinball

Video PinballBuy this gameThe Game: Pull the plunger back and fire the ball into play. The more bumpers it hits, the more points you rack up. But don’t let the ball leave the table – doing so three times ends the game. (Atari, 1981)

Memories: I’m just not a huge fan of video pinball simulations – see my review of Thunderball! for Odyssey2 if you have any doubts – but having tried out Atari’s Video Pinball, I can say that it’s more fun than Thunderball! Itself a home version of one of Atari’s late 70s arcade titles, Video Pinball offers some finer graphics than you’d expect from the early waves of VCS titles. Continue reading

Yars’ Revenge

Yars' RevengeBuy this gameThe Game: As the last of a race of spacefaring insects, you must defend yourself from a relentless wave of alien attackers bent on ridding the universe of your race. An alien tracer, deadly to the touch, tracks your every move, though it cannot harm you while you’re in the neutral zone at the center of the screen. You must eat away at the aliens’ shield, which not only reduces their defenses, but builds your energy reserve so you can fire your own powerful weapon, which can wipe out the alien, the tracer – or yourself, if you’re clumsy enough to be caught in its path. (Atari, 1981)

Yars' Revenge signed by programmer Howard Scott WarshawMemories: One of the coolest games ever conceived for the Atari 2600, Yars’ Revenge was a brilliant arcade-style game. In fact, I’m amazed that it apparently never made it into coin-op form (like such games as Lode Runner and Pitfall!). In fact, Yars actually started out as an arcade port – though in the end, it differed significantly enough from its inspiration (Star Castle) that it was a whole new game. Continue reading

Infiltrate

InfiltrateThe Game: You’re trapped in a multi-story building with hostile forces all around. Your infiltration mission has gone from mere espionage to a battle for survival – a battle you’re probably not going to win. Board elevators to reach the opposite level of the screen to retrieve enemy secrets, all while avoiding enemy agents and trying to shoot them down. (This spy business would be a lot easier if the enemy couldn’t shoot back, but generally they’re better shots than you are.) Then a new prize appears at the opposite end of the screen, sending you on yet another dangerous mission. (Games By Apollo, 1981)

Memories: A simple Atari 2600 port of the popular computer game Spy’s Demise, Infiltrate simplifies things a bit more than the computer version and keeps players constantly running for their lives. There’s really no win condition – just a grim countdown to the point at which the player is worn down. Continue reading

Caverns Of Mars

Caverns Of MarsThe Game: The enemy in an interplanetary war has gone underground, and you’re piloting the ship that’s taking the fight to him. But he hasn’t just hidden away in a hole; he’s hidden away in a very well-defended hole. As if it wasn’t already going to be enough of a tight squeeze navigating subterranean caverns on Mars, you’re now See the videosharing that space with enemy ships and any number of other fatal obstacles. (Fortunately, the enemy also leaves copious numbers of helpful fuel depots for you too.) Once you fight your way to the bottom of the cave, you plant charges on the enemy mothership – meaning that now you have to escape the caverns again, and fast. (Atari, 1981)

Memories: Atari wisely realized that some of the best programming talent wasn’t necessarily on its own payroll. With so much of the company’s financial resources devoted to supporting the 2600, this paved the way for the Atari Program Exchange, a program that allowed users to send in their own best work to Atari, who would then list the best of these homebrew games and applications in an official newsletter and handle distribution on cassette and floppy disk. Continue reading

Checkers

CheckersThe Game: The classic game of strategy is faithfully reproduced on the Apple II. Two armies of twelve men each advance diagonally across the checkerboard, jumping over opponents and attempting to reach the enemy’s home squares to be crowned. Whoever still has pieces still standing at the end of the game wins. (Odessa Software, 1981)

Memories: At the time of its release, Odessa Software’s Apple version of checkers was a reasonably big deal, since it had been given its “smarts” by one of the leading experts in programming computers to play chess and checkers. Continue reading

Jawbreaker

JawbreakerThe Game: You’re a mobile set of chattering teeth, gobbling up goodies in a maze as jaw-breaking candies pursue you. If you bite down on one of these killer candies, you’ll rack up quite a dental bill (enough to lose a life). You can snag one of four snacks in the corners of the maze and suddenly the tooth-rotting treats become crunchy and vulnerable. Advance to the next level by clearing the maze of dots. (On-Line Systems, 1981)

See the videoMemories: Atari’s home version of Pac-Man for the Atari 2600 was like a trail of telltale blood in a tank full of pirhanas. It was quickly apparent that there was one wounded one in the group, and other predators quickly closed in for the kill – or, in the case of Pac-Man, provided games for various platforms that duplicated the Pac-Man experience better than Atari could apparently manage to do. Continue reading

Mouskattack

MouskattackThe Game: Plumber Larry Bain is out to earn his hazard pay, trying to run pipes through a rat-infested maze. This wouldn’t be a problem, except that the rats are as big as he is. He can lay a limited number of traps in the maze that will temporarily stop the rats in their tracks so he can double back and eliminate them, but in the end Larry’s best chance of survival is to stay on the run and fill the maze with plumbing. (Sierra On-Line, 1981)

Memories: Cut from the same “let’s do Pac-Man but make it different enough from Pac-Man that we don’t get sued” cloth as his own Jawbreaker, John Harris strikes again with Mouskattack, which was actually advertised as being “by the author of Jawbreaker,” which may be one of the earliest instances of a game being advertised as something that should be bought on the strength of that programmer’s previous works. Continue reading

Sneakers

SneakersThe Game: Alien invaders are descending on your world, taking on unusual forms in the process: sneaker-clad stomping creatures, roaming eyeballs, “H-wing fighters,” flying saucers and more. Try to use their unusual patterns of See the videomovement against them and keep them from destroying your fighter. (Sirius Software, 1981)

Memories: If this description sounds an awful lot like Activision‘s early hit Megamania!, it’s no coincidence – both games attempted to add a dash of whimsy to the basic game play of the ubiquitous arcade sleeper hit, Astro Blaster. Both Sneakers and Megamania! nearly duplicate the unique meandering movement of Astro Blaster‘s alien invaders. Continue reading

Taxman

TaxmanThe Game: As a round white creature consisting of a mouth and nothing else, and apparently somehow tied to the Internal Revenue Service, you maneuver around a relatively simple maze, gobbling small dots and evading four colorful See the videomonsters who can eat you on contact. In four corners of the screen, large flashing dots enable you to turn the tables and eat the monsters for a brief period for an escalating score. Periodically, assorted items appear near the center of the maze, and you can consume these for additional points as well. The monsters, once eaten, return to their home base in ghost form and, after spending some noncorporeal time floating around and contemplating taxation without representation, return to chase you anew. If cleared of dots, the maze refills and the game starts again, but just a little bit faster… (H.A.L. Labs, 1981)

Memories: Alas, the folly of H.A.L. Labs and Taxman. Clearly a copy of Pac-Man – with only the names changed – this game was crippled by keyboard controls that were counterintuitive even back then. The sad thing is, given the graphics and sound limitations of the Apple II, the rest of the game was stellar, a near-perfect port of Pac-Man. Continue reading

TI Invaders

TI InvadersThe Game: It’s quite simple, really. You’re the pilot of a ground-based mobile weapons platform, and there are buttloads of alien meanies headed right for you. Your only defense is a quartet of shields which are degraded by any weapons fire – yours or theirs – and a quick trigger finger. Occasionally a mothership zips across the top of the screen. When the screen is cleared of invaders, another wave – faster and more aggressive – appears. When you’re out of “lives,” or when the aliens manage to land on Earth…it’s all over. (Texas Instruments, 1981)

Memories: A straightforward, no-frills take on Space Invaders, TI Invaders trumped just about every other home computer version in terms of faithfulness to the source material. Continue reading

Tranquility Base

Tranquility BaseThe Game: You are go for landing on the moon – only the moon isn’t there to make it easy for you. Craggy mountains and craters make it difficult for you to find one of the few safe landing spots on the surface, and even when you’re See the videoaligned above level ground, your fuel is running out fast. Do you have the right stuff that it’ll take before you can take one giant leap? (Bill Budge, 1981 / re-released by Eduware in 1984)

Memories: This game was one of the earliest efforts by a budding Apple II programmer named Bill Budge, before he achieved fame as the author of Pinball Construction Set. At the time, Budge was experimenting with interchangeable modules that could be slotted into the code of any number of games, including one for smoothly rotating 3-D wireframe objects – well, smoothly where the Apple II was concerned. The result was this unforgiving homage to Atari’s cult coin-op Lunar Lander. Continue reading

Ultima

UltimaThe Game: You set out alone on an adventure spanning countryside, mountains, oceans, towns and dungeons. You can purchase food rations, weapons and armor in the towns, visit Lord British in a castle for his wisdom, maybe a level-up, See the videoand your next assignment, or you can venture forth into the dungeons to test your skill against the denizens of the underworld. (California Pacific Computer, 1981)

Memories: Richard Garriott has said that the first Ultima game – which was originally marketed as Ultimatum – essentially “uses Akalabeth as a subroutine”, and while that may be oversimplifying how much or how little new code Ultima added to the game, it’s essentially true – the dungeons are practically vintage Akalabeth fare, while the towns and the above-ground portions of the game are literally a whole different animal. Continue reading

Bradley Trainer (a.k.a. “Military Battlezone”)

Atari Bradley TrainerThe Game: As the pilot of a Bradley infantry fighting vehicle, you wander the desolate battlefield, trying to wipe out enemy tanks and helictopers without accidentally firing on your own allies. (Atari, under special contract for the United States Army, 1981)

Memories: You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in the arcade business who’d complain that a game was too good. But Ed Rotberg, designer of Atari’s original 3-D vector graphics tank hit Battlezone, would be the exception. His revolutionary first-person fighting game was impressive enough to attract the attention of the United States Army, and this landed him a very special job he did not want: retooling the game to the Army’s exacting specifications to turn it into a real training simulation. Continue reading

Pac-Man

Coleco Pac-ManThe Game: As a round yellow creature consisting of a mouth and nothing else, you maneuver around a relatively simple maze, gobbling small yellow dots and evading four monsters who can eat you on contact. In four corners of See the TV adthe screen, red power pellets enable you to turn the tables and eat the monsters for a brief period for an escalating score. The monsters, once eaten, return to their home base in ghost form and return to chase you anew. If cleared of dots, the maze refills and the game starts again, but just a little bit faster… (Coleco, 1981)

Memories: When Atari’s VCS translation of the immensely popular Pac-Man debuted to almost universal scorn, Coleco’s marketing division must have cheered. The market was primed for a good game of Pac-Man, and with the first in its line of licensed “mini-arcades,” Coleco had just the ticket every kid was looking for. Continue reading

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