Devil World (NES/Famicom Review)

When I recently did my in-depth review of the infamous Atari 2600 disaster Pac-Man, I noted that without the chase being fun, maze chases don’t work. I then asked myself if there’s any maze chase game that isn’t true of? I couldn’t think of a single example. The only one that came close is Nintendo’s Devil World, where the chase elements eventually add to the excitement, but they take a while to get warmed-up. Devil World is the 1984 Shigeru Miyamoto classic that was his very first console-exclusive and also the only game of his that still, to this day, has never officially been released in North America. Why’s that? Well, allegedly Nintendo had a strict probation on religious symbols being used in their games, which meant no crosses or bibles. Devil World is a game based entirely around those things. It was too religious for Nintendo of America and thus it never came out stateside. Europe? They got it, because they all live in hedonism and are doomed to burn anyway, I guess. They even got it on the Wii’s Virtual Console in 2008. But, while Nintendo of America re-released many formerly Japanese exclusives, Devil World STILL was kept out of the New World. It’s funny that so many gamers make a big to-do about games that never came out in America. Often, they don’t live up to expectations. But, Devil World is one of the exceptions. Had it come out in the United States when the NES launched, it’s arguable that it would have been the second-best Black Box game behind Super Mario Bros.

I think the Devil is due for a comeback. Make a Yoga game with him! He’s used to doing the poses anyway!

Even by 1984, the maze chase genre was very tired. Nobody really had any fresh ideas and lots of games just recycled the same formula. Pac-Man begat Lock ‘n Chase, K.C. Munchkin, and others. Then someone had the idea of adding gates and turnstiles, and thus games like Super Pac-Man, Lady Bug, and Mouse Trap came along. Having played a lot of these, it’s remarkable how samey they all feel. They all sort of blend together. Then came Nintendo with this maze chase and there’s never been anything like it since. Anyone who has played Smash Bros since assist trophies became a thing will recognize the Devil and the twist in formula he brings. As you roam the level, the maze itself scrolls independently, and you’re at the mercy of it. Also you can now become crushed by the scrolling, which can lead to nail-biting close calls of nearly getting stuck between walls and the edge of the screen. The maze is only slightly bigger than the screen, so as the Devil scrolls the action from, say, left-to-right, if the last dots you need are on the edge of the right side of the screen, in a second or two they’ll pop-out the left side of the screen. It’s a BRILLIANT, one-off twist that has never been replicated and it works wonderfully (well, most of the time). In years and years of playing this genre, this is the only good maze chase where the maze itself is the highlight.

You actually only control the direction of the maze during bonus stages. I really suck at this part and it makes me grateful this isn’t part of the main game.

Mind you, the actual CHASE aspect of this maze-chase game can also be exciting, but at first, it feels like a secondary element. You start with two pursuers, both of which can be easily dispatched. Eventually one of the monsters is replaced by a mini-Devil that can’t be killed (though he’s not on every stage). Finally, after three cycles, one of the green monsters is replaced by a red one that more actively chases Tamagon, the hero of the game. Normally, I’d find the slow escalation of the pursuit to be annoying. But, Devil World’s one-of-a-kind gimmick actually needs to ease you into it. A big part of that is the game is one of the slower-paced maze chases. Tamagon sort of waddles through the stages, and while it’s never too slow, it’s a noticeably more leisurely pace than maze chase fans might be used to. You feel it right from the start too, which I think is another reason why this might never have caught-on the way it should have, and possibly the reason why Nintendo chose not to bring it out to the cocaine-filled masses of North America.

When you’ve messed up, you see it coming. And sometimes, you have to wait.. very.. slowly.. for your death by smooshing.

There’s three alternating level types in Devil World. The first is a traditional “collect the dots” challenge, but even that has a twist to the gameplay. There’s no power-pellets like in Pac-Man, but you also can’t just scoop-up the dots willy-nilly. There’s various crosses scattered around the maze. You have to get one of the crosses to begin collecting dots. While you have a cross, you can also defend yourself by spitting fireballs that turn the enemies into delicious fried eggs that you can eat for points. Eventually the crosses will wear off, but they respawn, and they’re also scattered all over so locating them isn’t really that big a deal. You have to eat all the dots to clear the stage. Despite Devil World nearly being forty years old, and the dot-collecting formula being well-over forty now, this still feels fresh because of the scrolling mechanic. Plus, the characters are loaded with charm and you can make believe like Tamagon is the dinosaur from Bubble Bobble after he goes to Hell for all the cold-blooded murders he committed in that game.

Admittedly, sometimes Devil World can be pretty frustrating. The devil shifts the scrolling at random, and sometimes the screen becomes oriented in a way where you literally can’t do anything except wait for the Devil to pick another direction. Here, I can’t get the final bible into the slot because I physically can’t fit into the gap. What you’re not seeing is the Devil kept scrolling up and down, but not side to side. I had to wait quite a while for the tide to turn even after I shot this screen cap.

The second level is a completely new take on genre. There’s four bibles that sort of just hover in the corners of the screen. You have to retrieve them and insert them into the four sides of a base that’s usually guarded by a mini-devil (they can leave the interior of the maze, but usually they stick to the base). There’s no dots or crosses in these stages, but the bibles grant you the same fireball ability as the crosses do. You can only take one bible at a time, and because you have to get to the very edges of the screen to collect them, these stages are the most exciting. There’s only three stages Devil World cycles through, and when I say the third stage of that sequence is probably the most intense maze the genre has ever seen, that’s not hyperbole. You have to pick-and-choose your spots to make your move, especially since large sections of the maze feature long straightaways and the high potential for getting squashed. This formula works so well they could have honestly skipped the dot collecting and based the entire game on this. It’s a lot of fun and it’s so satisfying every time you lock a new bible into its spot. After that, you play a bonus stage with six mystery boxes, one of which will have a free life. After you’ve cycled through the three mazes, the game loops until you game over.

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I adore Devil World. It’s everything you want from an early Nintendo Entertainment System release. It certainly does a much better job of creating a fun and exciting take on the maze chase than Clu Clu Land did. Yet, Nintendo of America wanted nothing to do with it, claiming religious symbolism was off-limits. I don’t get it. I really don’t. There’s tons of religious symbols in US Nintendo games, even ones made by Nintendo! They were all over from the start. Link’s shields on the NES Legend of Zelda have crosses on them. Castlevania has a famous cross too. It’s that thing that clears the screen of enemies. As for the Bibles, again, Legend of Zelda has a book with a cross on it that adds a flame to the end of the otherwise totally useless Magic Wand. “Okay, so it’s the Devil that got this ixnayed, right?” Then how do explain all the devils and a final boss literally named Lucifer in Ghosts ‘n Goblins being a-okay? You know what *I* think? I think Nintendo just didn’t want the NES to be seen as too Atari-like. Devil World is the most Pac-Man like game, and people would associate Pac-Man with Atari and the old guard of home gaming. The only other option is falling in line with the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. Which again, would hold water if a game like Ghosts ‘n Goblins was banned in the United States. But it wasn’t, so I think my theory is accurate. I wish Nintendo would finally put out Devil World for North America. It’s long overdue. Besides, we’re all going to Hell anyway.

Devil World was developed by Nintendo

Devil World is Chick-Approved

 

Journey (1983 Arcade Review)

No, not THAT Journey. I already did that one.

This is one of my all-time favorite stories from the Golden Age of Arcades. Between 1982 to 1983, Ralph Baer, creator of the Maganox Odyssey and thus video games as we know them, more or less, was working with the famed toy maker Marvin Glass & Associates. They were the creators of such legendary playthings as Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots and board games like Operation and Mouse Trap. They had recently become a partner of Bally-Midway and created video games like Tapper. Baer had already partnered with MG&A to create the legendary electronic game Simon, and he was with them again for a new project. Baer, always the engineer, invented a relatively low-cost digital camera that could be installed in arcade games to take pictures of players who got high scores. Midway loved the idea of having actual pictures of players. It’s the perfect special attraction for a game, right? Bally-Midway installed a prototype into a game (I couldn’t find confirmation but I believe it was Marvin Glass’s Domino Man) and put it on a popular route they used for testing. As the story goes, day one, the test went great! An otherwise under-the-radar game drew an audience and the test looked to be a success.

On the second day, someone pulled up a chair and stood on it, dropped their pants, waved to the camera, and the test was over. It was the most obvious result in human history, but the contracts were already signed and they had to use the camera somehow. And, it just so happens, Bally-Midway had just made a deal with the band Journey. So, they used the camera to digitize the likeness of the band and shoehorn them into a genre Smörgåsbord that’s recognized as one of the worst games of the Golden Age of Arcades.

Full disclosure: I’m not a Journey fan. My expertise on the actual band begins and ends with the finale for the Sopranos.

Journey is one of those games that’s historically-maligned. I don’t think it’s really good, but it’s also not that bad. It’s one of those “we couldn’t figure out what kind of game this would be, so we just did every game!” situations that produced a jack of all trades, master of nothing game. In it, you select one of five levels, each of which is divided into two parts. In the first part, you must guide one of the band members to their instrument through some kind of unique gameplay mechanic. In the second part, you gain the ability to shoot and you have you have to blast a path to your spaceship. Or, sometimes you can ignore the enemies and just sprint for the literal finish line you need to reach to beat each stage. I found that was often just as effective. So, let’s look at the five mini-games.

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Neal Schon: This is one of those “lightly feather the joystick with a jetpack” games. You have to carefully navigate a cave to grab your guitar while the “song” Chain Reaction plays. Actually it’s an almost unrecognizable chiptune that neither of my parents, both of whom listen to Journey, could tell what it was supposed to be. As the stage begins, you have to begin to thrust right away, because once you start to have any speed, the gravity is too heavy to really stop you from crashing into the sides or the ground. Once you have have guitar, bugs come out of the sides of the wall and you have to navigate your way to the line at the top of the screen. Once you get the hang of how heavy the gravity is, this isn’t too bad as far as games like this goes. Plus it does give you a teeny bit of mercy, as your collision box isn’t quite as big as you head. Once you’ve run through a cycle, you have to go lower and deeper into the cave to retrieve the guitar. It’s not awful but it’s pretty bland. Actually, that really could describe all five games.

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Steve Smith: While listening to Wheel in the Sky, you must bounce off each trampoline that’s randomly floating around the screen at least once. The trampolines turn blue after you’ve done one bounce and disappear after a second bounce. After you’ve turned them all blue, you get your drums back and have to blast your way to the finish line at the bottom of the screen. I found this to be the most interesting of the five mini-games, and it gets BRUTAL on the second cycle. The thing that bugs me is Journey is such a slow game and the jumping here feels like moon physics. If I hadn’t seen gameplay footage from a real coin-op, I’d of thought my emulator wasn’t handling it good. Is it fun? Not really, but I did have to think about it this time. I mean, not too long. It’s just south of dull, but dull nonetheless.

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Steve Perry: While an alleged version of Don’t Stop Believin plays, you have to first make your way through deadly turnstiles to grab your microphone. Then, the turnstiles turn into full-scale walls that also scroll across the screen and you have to blast your way through them. They spawn really fast, and creating enough distance for your body to squeeze through is probably the toughest challenge of all the games in the first cycle. As you complete more cycles, more get added during that second wave that spin faster in the first part and respawn faster in the second part, and I never finished it. The cynic in me noted how it’s funny the lead singer’s stage is clearly the hardest. Seems like people would be more inclined to choose the singer’s level first, and what do you know? It just so happens to be the one most likely to eat lives and thus force players to drop more quarters! Fancy that.

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Ross Valroy: Probably the most original idea in the game. You start on these boxes that have.. uh.. rainbow-colored robotic dongs that launch you upwards, and you sort of have to spring up to the top of the stage to grab your guitar while listening to the MIDI version of Keep On Runnin’. Once you reach the top, the platforms spring cannons and the game becomes an almost bullet hell, but the point is the same as all the other games: shoot your way to the finish line. It took me tons and tons of tries to get past the cannons on my second cycle, and that was after missing the platforms on the way up. Journey gets teeth after you finish each round once, that’s for sure. Oh, and even though you can literally destroy the platforms the cannons sit-on with enough shots, even those begin to respawn. Okay, maybe this is a terrible game.

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Jonathan Cain: While listening to a bastardized version of Stone in Love, you play a mini-game that’s like a combination of reverse Donkey Kong meets the hurdles event in Track ‘n Field. While automatically running down a series of slopes, you have to press UP on the joystick to jump over miniature lightsabers. Once you reach your piano, you have to shoot your way through a series of balls to reach the finish line. During the second cycle, the bottom row of hurdles starts moving so comically fast that, even while cheating, I couldn’t get past it. There’s so many points during this whole game where I was like “jeez, they ran out of ideas.” Then I came to realize that, there’s only five games and yet I had to say “they were out of ideas” like six or seven times. That really says it all about Journey, huh?

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Journey certainly doesn’t belong on any WORST ARCADE GAMES list. It doesn’t play bad enough for that. It doesn’t control bad enough for that. Okay, maybe it sounds bad enough for that, which has to be embarrassing since the only reason anyone in their right mind would be interested in playing this is because of the musical ties, and it failed completely at that. Going into this, I wondered why they didn’t try to tie this more into some kind of musical gameplay, but the answer became obvious quickly: it couldn’t even if it wanted to. Not with this technology. So, instead we got a really uninspired hodgepodge of mini-games that feel like they’re deleted scenes from Bally-Midway’s Tron game. None of them are offensively bad by any stretch, which by itself is disqualifying for WORST GAME status or even consideration of it. Hell, this doesn’t even feel like a typical music act’s ego-stroking video game. It’s a stupid collection of unrelated game tropes that, together or separate, just plain ain’t fun. I don’t even really think it had potential for fun, either. This feels like a game nobody wanted to make and had no idea what to do with it. Really, the only interesting aspect is the Ralph Baer camera story. Sure, it’s a boring game, but it’s also a game that only exists because someone stood up on a chair and flashed their privates at the first digital camera they ever saw in their lives. Come on, that’s objectively hilarious!

Journey is not Chick-Approved.

Journey was developed by Marvin Glass and Associates
Published by Bally-Midway

Fire and Rescue (NES Indie Review)

Yea, it only took me to the second installment of New Arcade Mondays to wildly stretch the definition of “New Arcade” but hear me out. The launch-window NES library, AKA the thirty Black Box games, were all basically arcade games at home. If an indie developer wanted to make an authentic Black Box-type game, the only way to make it convincing is to have a tunnel-visioned arcade concept. One novel play mechanic that the whole game is based around. It’s tougher than it sounds. Actually, the most common mistake made by games that try to recreate the look and feel of Black Box releases is being too ambitious in their gameplay. The most advanced game in that series is the original Super Mario Bros. If you’re going to make a platformer, skip that Black Box malarkey, because you won’t stand out in that genre if you don’t go bonkers. For all other developers, if you want authenticity, you have to keep it simple. Of course, that also means you’re married to one gameplay mechanic, and if that mechanic isn’t very fun or exciting, you’re kind of screwed.

“Fire and Rescue? Wasn’t that one of the Fisher Price games?” Actually, no. I was thinking of Fisher-Price: Firehouse Rescue.

Fire and Rescue.. actually FIRE AND RESCUE in all-caps like you’re yelling it, but I think it’s a crime to yell “FIRE AND RESCUE” in a crowded review blog.. does authentically feel like an NES Black Box game in terms of graphics and gameplay. Well, sort of. It uses realistic 2D logic of, gasp.. having to actually walk through the threshold of the building you’re entering! So in this game universe, there’s genuine architecture to buildings. When this review is done, you’ll understand why most games toss that kind genuine logic out the window. The object is to put out all the fires and rescue people trapped inside the houses. There’s five levels that keep repeating while slightly escalating in difficulty every time you restart the cycle until you reach Level 7, at which point it just keeps going back to stage 71 until you get bored. Don’t worry, you’ll already be bored and ready for it to be over by that point.

Do you know what breaks the illusion of being an authentic lost Black Box game? Had this been a real Black Box, that would have totally been Mario fighting the fires.

While I admire the authenticity Skyboy Games achieved, Fire and Rescue is a complete snoozer. This is mostly due to the constant need to weave in and out of the building to refill your water. If you correctly line yourself up with the fires and time your release perfectly, you can stretch the water out, but you’ll still need to refill. Thankfully, you can jump out windows without dying as a shortcut. It’s the only concession the game really makes to avoid the busy-work. You can only rescue one person at a time, and when you do, you have to bring them all the way back to the start of the stage. I couldn’t believe they didn’t include more means to enter the building. Even after playing thirty levels, I was convinced I was just doing something wrong when I tried to enter through the bottom right window of levels. Apparently you can’t. Plus, these are buildings that don’t have fire escapes being fought by fireman who don’t have fire hoses or fire ladders. Maybe this was set in the 1920s?

Stage 4 and 5 on each level has the water source on the opposite side of the screen, for even more winding-around. Sigh. Also, note the the bottom of water left of the center in this pic.

Sometimes rescuing a person also gives you a water refill. But, the refill spawns where they had been in the stage, and only after you’ve dropped the person off at the ambulance. In three of the five stages, the hydrant is right there anyway. It’d be nice to leave the refill there so you can grab it as needed later, but the only stage you might want to do that, it appears right in a door frame, where there’s no means to jump over it. Only in the two stages where the hydrant is on the other side of the screen do the water refills provide any real usage. But, in those stages, they’re practically laid-out in a way where it’s impossible to miss them. You’re going to have to rescue the first guy, then it’s going to spawn the refill. It’s also possible I was just plain good at this game. So, the item is functionally useless. The whole refill system and the way it was implemented seem to have been a decision made only in service to the co-op mode that I didn’t play. Also, it’s not always a refill. Sometimes, the rescue will spawn a helmet that restores you hit point if you’ve lost it, or give you points if you haven’t. And.. that’s the whole game. As a single player experience, there’s absolutely zero excitement or tension in Fire and Rescue. None.

The closest it comes to that would be the timer. Unless you’re really taking your sweet time, it doesn’t matter early on. Eventually, as in after several cycles of the same five stages, the timer starts low enough that you’ll be tidying up the final aspects of the stage with twenty or so seconds left. Tense? Well, no. I have no problem with recycling stages, but the peril of doing so is players should be able to quickly figure out how much time it takes in each stage to get from Point A to Point B. By the point where levels had a shorter timer, I’d played the stages enough times that I knew how much time I needed, and I knew I’d be fine. And I was! Even playing extremely recklessly, I never came closer to timing-out than in the above clip. This really compounds the biggest issue: the gameplay feels like busy-work after a while. The one-at-a-time rescue situation could mean that, after you’ve put out all the fires, you have to grab one of the people, jump out a window, then return to the building, weave your way through it to the last person, and jump out the window again. It becomes less a game and more of a chore. Gremlins on Atari 5200 had the same “run out of action before you run out of objectives” issue, but at least there the gameplay was fun before the action ran out. Fire and Rescue is a game that is technically fine and works but just plain isn’t fun.

See what I mean? The fire is all out, but I still have to make my way through the whole level, going up a ladder, a room left, up a ladder, two rooms over, down two ladders, grab the guy, then jump out the window and walk the length of the screen. For god’s sake: didn’t anyone issue this firehouse a frick’n axe? We’re fire fighters dog garn it, and we’re allowed to chop through people’s houses to rescue them! It’s heroic destruction!

Fire and Rescue needed to do a lot more than it does. There’s a downward spurt move that I never even needed to use once and I still could breeze right through the levels. I don’t even know what the point of it was. For a moment I was like “oh, this is how you jump up through the window to get into the building and save time.” But that’s apparently not the case either. It’s also actually a pretty easy game. After a cycle or two, one of the fires in a stage will start spitting projectiles at you, but the spitting rate is slow enough that it just becomes a minor annoyance. The only life I lost was from not scooting backwards to give myself enough clearance from a fire after climbing up a ladder. As far as I can tell, there’s no ticking clock element with the people you’re rescuing. Sometimes they appear to be standing right in a fire, but I could still take my time getting to them. This really should have removed the “deliver the people” element and just had the homeowners vanish when you collect them. Turn Fire and Rescue into a puzzle game based on conserving resources or a more action-oriented game where the fires can kill the people and spread more aggressively. Apparently this was made mostly for score chasing in mind, but as an NES game (one that you can literally order as a physical cart) there’s no online leaderboards, so what’s the point? Besides, if a player can make it to level seven without dying, it’s unlikely their game would end at all. Don’t get me wrong: Fire and Rescue isn’t atrocious by any means. It’s just boring. How do you even make fire boring? That shouldn’t be possible!

Fire and Rescue is not Chick-Approved

Fire and Rescue was developed by Skyboy Games
Point of Sale: Itch.io, NES Cartridge
$5 died in a fire in the making of this review.

Dragon’s Lair Trilogy: The Definitive Review (Complete 3 Game Review + Rankings)

2023 marks the 40th Anniversary of Dragon’s Lair, a pioneer of “more fun to watch than play” gaming. I was born in 1989, and while Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp technically counts as “my lifetime” really, two-year-old me wasn’t playing anything besides peek-a-boo by that point. Fast forward to the 2000s, when we ended up owning Dragon’s Lair on DVD. “Have I got a game for you!” Dad said to teenage me. He threw it in and handed me the remote control (which was NOT a very good controller) and it was just about the worst thing I’d ever experienced in my life. Even Dad admitted that playing it with a DVD remote control was not the smartest idea. We tried it on a game console but it kept clicking-through to the DVD control menu. Fast forward to Christmas morning, 2010, and waiting for me under the Christmas tree, again from Dad, is Dragon’s Lair Trilogy for the Wii. The look on his face was so precious, a look that continued later in the day when I threw the disc in and proceeded to get totally demolished by the games.

Dragon’s Lair, Space Ace, and Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp are games that never stood a chance against the test of time. They’re famous for three things: being beautiful to look at, being difficult, and barely qualifying as video games. They served as little more than novelties, or “attractions” for arcades. Well, Dragon’s Lair did. In my eleven years on social media, I have never once heard a single person trade a tale of Space Ace in arcades. Not once. On the other hand, I had one reader describe Dragon’s Lair’s reign as king of arcades like a bright, beautiful shooting star. Look away for a moment and you risk missing it completely, but if you saw it, you’ll never forget it. No game that has aged as badly is remembered so fondly by the generation that experienced it in-person in arcades. Sadly, it’s a phenomena I’ll never be able to fully understand no matter how hard I try. When Dragon’s Lair 3D: Return to the Lair released in 2002, to 13-year-old me, it was just another game, and not even a good one. The excitement of actually playing Dragon’s Lair was lost on me and my generation. A “you had to be there” we can’t understand.

Or, maybe not? The only way I can know for sure is to put these games through the wringer.

This is pretty much how my reviewing appears to developers.

Dragon’s Lair Trilogy retails for $19.99 on PlayStation, Nintendo Switch, and Xbox, with each individual game being sold separately on platforms like Steam for $9.99. Since that’s the sold-separately price, we’ll round it up and say a quality game in this set is worth $10 in value. I’ll round up the $19.99 price and say Dragon’s Lair Trilogy must get $20 in value to win my Seal of Approval. But, before I figure up the value of the games, I need to look at the slate of extra features in the set. Oh, before that, I have to mention the menus of Space Ace. Take a look at this screenshot from when you pause the game.

What option do you think is highlighted here? Believe it or not, “Continue” is the highlighted option, while nothing is highlighting the bright “quit” option that stands out a lot more in this screen. This is such a obviously bad choice that I’m convinced it’s an accident. That they MEANT for the brightened option to be the highlighted one, but whoever designed the menu accidentally crossed their 1s with their 0s and got it backwards. By the way, in every menu option where there is only two choices, this problem is there. Why not have an arrow? You know, that time-honored symbol you use to point at something and say THIS ONE! The other menus aren’t that much better. For Dragon’s Lair, is purple THIS ONE, or is it red? You would know from the front menu of the game since there’s more than two options to choose from and only one is a different color. But, if you weren’t paying that close of attention when you started the game, you wouldn’t know. Combined with the distinct lack of options for one of the extra features that I’ll get to and you can tell they just didn’t really care all much about presentation. I would have looked past it and just called this lazy, but then I keep going back to the gold/faded gold highlighting decision. I’ve been playing games my entire life and that’s the absolute worst menu select choice I’ve ever seen. I’m fining Dragon’s Lair Trilogy $5 in value for this. From here out, this will be the standard Definitive Review fine for bad menu design in classic game collections.

EMULATION EXTRAS

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Dragon’s Lair Trilogy provides a few options for playing the games, though the one I wanted most is notably absent. You can choose three or five lives for each game. It really sucks that there’s no option for unlimited lives and a modern-style death counter for these games. There is every possibility that such an option might have made the difference between winning and losing. The lives system only makes sense if this is trying to suck money from players in $0.50 intervals. These days, the fun is in seeing how many times you croak before reaching the ending. It’s been years since this released, but if Digital Leisure wanted to attempt to appeal to modern gamers (and why wouldn’t they? We spend money too!), you don’t have to lower the difficulty. You just have to, you know, make it fun to die.

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There’s also adjustable difficulty for the first Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace and a cabinet mode for all three games that I didn’t like one bit. Having played a lot of retro collections, there’s something about how this set handled scan lines on a TV screen that I found unconvincing. Dragon’s Lair allows you to play either the “Arcade” or “Home” versions. In the arcade version, you move to another screen if you die, whereas in the home version you have to repeat the stage until you complete it. Also included is a “Director’s Cut” option to play Dragon’s Lair II that changes the second-to-last level, making it shorter and nowhere near as memorable. I’ll talk about that more in the review of that game.

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The most important addition is the “move guide” that you can optionally add to the bottom of every game. This is not the same as the flashing-light indicators the games originally utilized to guide your actions. It’s a directional overlay that tells you the exact button press, and you simply have to be quick on the draw. The cabinet mode also has lights that tell you which direction to press located around the joystick. Unless you have the games memorized, you basically have to play with either the move guide or the cabinet mode turned-on. Especially the first Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace. Take, for example, the very first scene in the entire game. Dirk falls through the rotten wood on the drawbridge and a monster pops out of the moat. You’re supposed to swing your sword at it, but the sword doesn’t flash yellow. You’re just supposed to know to use your sword, I guess. In fact, both Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace don’t always use the yellow indicators for both the action and the movement, and sometimes you just plain have to make an educated guess. By time Time Warp came around, they had included it with every move, but even with it, I found I couldn’t make progress at all without the move guide.

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Of course, the downside is, they cover up the animation, which is the whole point of playing these. Instead of watching the whole screen, you’ll inevitably stare at the bottom of the screen waiting for the next prompt. I suppose you can think of this as a trainer to memorize which moves you do on what screen, but that’s assuming you actually want to get THAT good at forty-year-old games. Either way, the move guide is a welcome inclusion, but I’m not at all satisfied with the lack of options. Given how you can watch each scene bit by bit in the media extras, why not let people play and practice them? Why not have the option for a death-counter instead of lives? I would hope a modern re-release of a Dragon’s Lair collection (which would hopefully solve licensing issues and include more games) would do more in the future. As for this specific set, for all the emulation extras, I’m crediting no extra value to Dragon’s Lair Trilogy. If they gave you the option to replace the lives system with a death counter, I would award $5 in credit towards the set, and $2.50 for being able to practice individual scenes.

MEDIA EXTRAS

“The fish was about this big..” “That’s not how a big fish story is supposed to go, Rick!”

Dragon’s Lair Trilogy comes with a couple media extras, the highlight of which is an interview with Don Bluth, Gary Goldman, and Rick Dyer. It runs a little over twenty minutes and, if you’re a fan of this stuff like I am, it’ll leave you wanting a lot more. Not because this lacks the good stuff, but because the interview is so well done. Dyer especially comes across as a cool guy. The type of guy you want to see succeed. A mad scientist who, more or less, invented the FMV format as we think of it today. For better and for worse, I suppose. The problem with this interview is that there’s no option to rewind or fast forward. There’s volume issues, and if you mishear something, you have to restart the whole video and watch it again. That really sucks and I have to cut what I would reward this feature by half as a result. I wish it had been broken into separate segments. It makes no sense why they didn’t, especially since the actual feature does have title cards for each different part of the interview.

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Dragon’s Lair Trilogy’s only other notable extra is a deleted scene for Dragon Lair II: Time Warp. It runs under a minute and is a partially voiced storyboard for a level set on a pirate ship, complete with what parts would flash yellow to indicate an action. The scene looks like it would have been dull. What’s frustrating is that the original Dragon’s Lair had many deleted scenes, including a full new “room” where one-eyed gargoyles hurl spears at Dirk. The scene is shown in the interview above, but you can’t watch it separately. Even more disheartening is the scene was apparently completed and colored by Digital Leisure, presumably with the intent of making it playable, but it’s nowhere to be found outside the interview. A quick glance at YouTube also makes it appear that there were multiple unused death animations that never made the game. It sure would have been swell to have all those. Space Ace gets no deleted scenes.

Dirk the Daring: the one hero in gaming who has irrefutable proof that he actually scootilypooped with the damsel he rescued. Of course, this leads into one of the great mysteries of video games: how the hell did Princess Daphne squirt out ten kids in what looks like a span of ten years and still maintain her figure? Clearly she messes around with the dark arts, which would explain why the forces of evil are always trying to kidnap her. They want to know her secret!

In fact, Space Ace feels pretty unloved by this set overall. Right before I finished this feature, I found out that a conversion kit for Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp was created in 1991 that could turn it into a more difficult version of Space Ace that used diagonal moves. This is not included in this set. Space Ace’s only two “special features” are also included for the other two games: the attract screen and the ability to watch the full game without having to play it. That last one is the best feature, and it really says it all about this set, doesn’t it? That the best part about Dragon’s Lair Trilogy is the ability to just watch it without playing it.

They never mentioned which drugs produced the concept for Dragon’s Lair II.

Also, they got the three main guys behind the trilogy together to do a really good interview. Why stop there? DO AN AUDIO COMMENTARY!! Like, duh, right! Angela, future Spielberg of her generation, has helped me to rediscover the greatness of a well done feature film audio commentary. Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace especially could have benefited from hearing how game designer Dyer and animation expert Bluth came together to make one of the most famous games of all time. At one point in the interview, they touch upon how Bluth would interpret Dyer’s storyboards and create animation that didn’t work from a video game perspective (suddenly I have a hunch what went wrong with Dragon’s Lair II). Which scenes? In which ways? We don’t find out, and an audio commentary could have corrected this. Maybe we’ll get one eventually. Anyway, for all the media extras, I’m crediting $2.50 in value to Dragon’s Lair Trilogy. Had they offered more flexibility with how to watch the interview, I’d of called it $5.

THE ULTIMATE VERDICT ON THE COLLECTION

For those not familiar with my way of thinking of how retro games should be reviewed, I take NO historical context into account. I don’t care how important a game was to the industry, because that doesn’t make a game worth playing today. The test of time is the cruelest test of all, but every video game must face it. I might not be here if not for Space Invaders’ success, but I wouldn’t want to play it today. Not when there’s better options. Therefore, when I review retro games, every game gets either a YES! or a NO!

YES! means the game is still fun and has actual gameplay value when played today and is worth seeking out.

NO! means the game didn’t age gracefully enough to merit playing today and is not worth seeking out, and certainly not worth spending money on.

For Dragon’s Lair Trilogy, the final score was as follows:

YES!: 1 ($10 in Value)
NO!: 2
$2.50 in Extra Value
$5.00 in Fines
TARGET VALUE: $20

TOTAL VALUE: $7.50

Dragon’s Lair Trilogy does not earn my Seal of Approval. With only one game worth playing today, and a game that you can buy separately on a few platforms, it’s not worth buying the whole set. Frankly, I’m still stunned that I could give any game in Dragon’s Lair Trilogy a YES! at all. I had previously planned to have “I HATE FMV GAMES” etched on my tombstone. But really, there’s no reason to own all three games, one of which isn’t THAT bad but not good enough and one of which is one of the worst coin-ops ever made. I suppose you can still feel free to grab this set REALLY cheap. Like, under $10 cheap. Even then, I’m sure you can get Dragon’s Lair by itself even cheaper.

GAME REVIEWS

Dragon’s Lair
Released June 19, 1983
Designed by Rick Dyer
Directed by Don Bluth

One of the problems with adapting Dragon’s Lair today, in the 2020s, is people would have a cow about a character like Princess Daphne. As if friendly but vapid airheads don’t exist anymore. Or perhaps they wouldn’t if not for portrayals in media, like this? I think that’s the argument. Frankly, I don’t care. Besides, Dirk himself is completely brain dead too. They are gaming’s most fit couple.

Man, did I ever get it wrong about Dragon’s Lair. I got fixated on the whole “it’s really just playing Simon Says with animated cues” aspect. Which, by the way, is still there. As far as elephants in the room go, this is an especially large one that’ll always be around, like a photo-bombing woolly mammoth. But, when you really stop and look at the set pieces and the timing and themes of Dragon’s Lair, you realize that, more than any FMV game ever made, Dragon’s Lair succeeds at creating the illusion of video game-like interactivity. Not only that, but it does so in a way that is practically clairvoyant. That read the tea leaves flawlessly on where video games would go eventually. It’s ironic that the sequel is called Time Warp, when really, it was the original game that saw the future. The type of boss fights and challenges in games that didn’t exist in 1983 but do now. Come to think of it, many were probably inspired by this!

I think one of the aspects that makes Dragon’s Lair stand out is literally every single character is memorable. It’s such a shame that nobody has managed to make a truly great game based on this franchise in the forty years since the original. All the pieces are certainly in place.

You can’t talk about any of these games without talking about the Don Bluth animation. Before we start, I want to qualify myself: I am NOT an expert at animation. I just watch a lot of it. People talk about Dragon’s Lair like it’s right up there with The Secret of NIMH or An American Tail or The Land Before Time. But, it’s actually not that high of quality. It’s somewhere between a really expensive Saturday morning cartoon and a feature film. Whenever a corner could be cut, chances are it probably was. There’s a lot of reused animation throughout the game. People, including myself, overlook that, but when you’re paying attention, they stand out. Space Ace is worse about it, but it’s there throughout Dragon’s Lair. On the other hand, I love the use of color and I think the backgrounds are just beautiful. I think they went a long ways towards making Dragon’s Lair work. It feels like an adventure because it looks like one.

The later Dragon’s Lair 3D tried to recreate set pieces like this to various success. Had Dragon’s Lair 3D featured the smooth controls and lightning-fast responsiveness of a game like Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, for all we know, it might have gone down as one of the all-time greats. But, Dragon’s Lair 3D had sluggish controls, a problematic camera, and this RIDICULOUS recoil whenever you ran into a wall or object. AND YET, it still managed to be just a little bit alright, but nothing special. For a game with that many problems to still step across the “alright” threshold makes me wonder what if? about it. What if it had good play control and didn’t have that absolutely stupid recoil? Would it have been an unprecedented hit and reignited the franchise? We’ll never know, I suppose. I’m sure eventually they’ll re-release it, but I hope they don’t in its present state. Dragon’s Lair 3D turned twenty-years-old in November, and gaming has come a long ways. Scrap it and go again with modern technology and maybe, at long last, Dragon’s Lair will be the franchise it deserves to be.

Having said all that, I think the understated part of what makes Dragon’s Lair work, besides the beautiful use of color and the striking backgrounds, is that every room creates the illusion of an interactive video game. The last third of Space Ace and pretty-much all of Dragon’s Lair II come across like watching a movie that someone shoehorned button prompts into. That happens in Dragon’s Lair too, but it’s most rare in this game. The rooms are designed like video game challenges. Swinging left to right (or right to left if the room is mirrored) across flaming ropes. Dodging giant, rolling balls that are set to a pattern. You’re always acutely aware you’re not really controlling Dirk the Daring, but Dyer and Bluth did everything in their power to suspend your disbelief anyway. They even manage to succeed in some rooms, where the framing and directional options are unambiguous: the challenge is right, so move left. The beast is coming at you, so use your sword. It takes proper staging to pull off, but sometimes they did, and suddenly, Dragon’s Lair ain’t too bad a game at all.

The rafting sequence is one such area. The timing of when to press the prompts and the various hazards that take place during this sequence just plain work as a magic trick that makes you feel like you’re in control of an already animated cartoon. I love using the magic trick analogy with Dragon’s Lair, because you never forget what you’re doing isn’t real. It’s not immersive at all. Instead, it becomes okay to allow yourself to play along anyway. That’s what makes stage magic fun, and Dragon’s Lair is basically stage magic as a video game. We know the score, but we’ll pretend we don’t, because we want to have fun.

Dragon’s Lair has more moments like that than any FMV game I’ve ever played. But, that doesn’t always mean the results work. Some of the rooms don’t do enough visual cues to make it predictable what the move will be. Moments where, logically you would think you’re going to press one direction, but really, you’re supposed to press another. Take this moment:

Assuming you weren’t using the move guide, which tells exactly when to press a button and what to press, what way would you press in the above screen shot? The flashing thing is to the left of you, but also in front of you. Hell, in theory, it’s also lower than you, would could imply you have to jump downward towards it, right? Well, the correct answer is you’re supposed to press UP. Even though the flashing target is in the lower left hand of the screen. I can’t imagine how many quarters a person would have needed in 1983 to commit this to memory. One reoccurring story I keep hearing from people is gathering around to watch someone in an arcade who could run through the entire game effortlessly. I’d not had the patience to get that far at all. I did make a good faith effort to play without the guide, but I couldn’t figure out what moves to do, and frankly I didn’t have any fun trying to figure it out.

In some areas, there’s frankly no way to anticipate what move could possibly be the next move. You have to wait for a cue, or just watch the guide. Well, at least with Dragon’s Lair, I found I could do both.

Oddly, Dragon’s Lair is the only game in the trilogy where you can play with the guide on and still watch the cartoon too. It’s not a visually complex story. There’s not a lot of screen clutter. You don’t have dozens of moving objects, or even if you do, they’re staged correctly to not distract from the point of PLAYING the game. It’s a “clean” presentation that remembered what it’s asking of players: enjoy the show, but also do things based on what the show does. That’s why Dragon’s Lair succeeds even forty years later while Space Ace and especially Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp crash and burn. It IS an interactive movie, like few attempts at such a thing have been able to pull off. Even with the guide, you won’t miss anything with Dragon’s Lair. It’s something I didn’t appreciate until I played the other two games. How I tested this is I replayed each game a third time in three days and had my father and sister quiz me on details of the games. NOTHING unfair, and they understood what I was aiming for and went for details anyone playing the game should notice. For Dragon’s Lair, I answered six out of seven questions correct. For Dragon’s Lair II, it was two out of seven. For Space Ace, it was only one out of seven, with the one that I got right being from early in the game.

This memorable scene is an example of “this would be so cool if you could actually play it!” that certainly was NOT cool to play when you really could in Dragon’s Lair 3D. And actually, the scene is a little overrated in the arcade game. The patterns the knight taps out on the floor don’t always seem to make logical sense in terms of which button you’re expected to press.

Let me be clear: Dragon’s Lair isn’t a great game by any stretch. Besides the occasional “why would you press that direction at that moment?” issues, the game also makes you eventually repeat each room, only with the animation mirrored so every left/right move is reversed. Of course, if they didn’t do this, a game of Dragon’s Lair would only take about six minutes to complete. The biggest knock I have is against the historically terrible finale sequence. The rooms are all relatively short, which serve as logical checkpoints if you lose a life. In fact, I consider the smallness of the rooms to be a highlight of the game. It makes it feel like a real castle you’re exploring.

That’s probably the most underrated aspect of what makes Dragon’s Lair work: some rooms can be as short as one action. None of that minute-and-thirty-second short film that you have to replay over and over crap from the sequel.

Except for the final room with Singe the Dragon, which has no checkpoints, and the game grinds to halt and becomes agony. First, Singe nearly wakes from his sleep, which takes a while of just waiting around and doing nothing. AND THEN, FOR NO REASON, Princess Daphne very slowly explains that you need to retrieve a magic sword that’s in the room and use it to get the key around Singe’s neck. And she’s doing stripper poses the entire spiel. Mind you, this explanation was totally unnecessary. If it was a new and unique gameplay method, FINE, but it wasn’t, so what the hell were they thinking? You’re not doing anything different than you were doing leading up to this. You’re still just pressing buttons based on prompts. If you die.. and you probably will since the timing of this room can be brutal.. you have to watch this whole sequence again, from Singe’s nearly waking up to Daphne’s striptease-instructional video. No means to skip it. It’s torturous to sit through even once since a game about constant acton-reaction now suddenly has you just standing around waiting for the game part to start again. AND YOU HAVE TO REWATCH IT EVERY TIME YOU DIE! I get they probably wanted this room to feel climatic, but when you’re playing a game called DRAGON’S Lair and you slay a dragon and rescue the girl, that ought to be climatic enough. It’s one of the worst finales to a game I’ve ever seen. It ain’t a deal breaker, but it almost was. I had to think about it.

I actually didn’t kill Singe here. He died of old age after hearing the unskippable dialog for the three-dozenth time.

Okay, so Dragon’s Lair didn’t exactly stick the landing in its final act. But, everything up to that point is a lot better than I’ve ever given it credit for. It’s not fantastic or anything, but I enjoyed my time with it. Just think, all it took was basically creating the perfect FMV game to get me to finally say YES! to one of these things. And yet, I still wasn’t sure why the generation before me holds this up so fondly. Why they still get starry-eyed as they share tales of epic failure and sessions that lasted under a minute, or gathering around to watch that one weirdo who blew his life savings memorizing every sequence. Despite its relatively short window of fame, brutal difficulty, and all the truly-awful games in the franchise that followed, Dragon’s Lair is still is a game you want to enjoy. Why is that? I have to believe it’s for more than just the Don Bluth animation, or the hilarious yelps and squeals of Dirk the Daring, or what is just alright gameplay that is ultimately probably the best the format is capable of. So, I again asked myself: what could have possibly made those memories of Dragon’s Lair echo so loudly across the decades?

These two would go on to have ten kids.

I think I have the answer. Because the set pieces and art and characters all came together to make what players in 1983 wanted games to be like, but they weren’t. Not yet. Although it wasn’t their intention, Dragon’s Lair feels like a promise to gamers: this is where the medium is going. One day, games will look and sound this good and have action this exciting, only it will be you in control. Well, we all know what happened over the next forty years. Dragon’s Lair survives through history because it represents the promise of gaming kept.
Verdict: YES! **FLIP**

Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp
Released June 16, 1991
Designed by Rick Dyer
Directed by Don Bluth

Pictured: Cathy’s brain melting from peeling back all the layers of awfulness from Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp.

If I was too hard on Dragon’s Lair before, I wasn’t hard enough on Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp. Talk about losing the plot! This sequel forgot literally everything that made the original game (and some of Space Ace) work. Dragon’s Lair, for all of its FMV-based flaws, still does everything in its power to look like a video game adventure. Time Warp doesn’t at all. It’s a series of disconnected animated vignettes that completely fails in every imaginable way. In the annals of bad games, it’s astonishing that nobody ever brings this one up. Perhaps because it’s an FMV game and that’s too low of a low-hanging fruit. Perhaps because the Don Bluth animation is so beautiful and vibrant. Perhaps because the nine segments of the game are so memorably bonkers that you wonder if the game was co-written by cocaine. But, actually playing Dragon’s Lair II, it’s shocking how many different ways a simple FMV sequel to the FMV game of the Golden Age could be so bad. How it could get it so wrong?

Time Warp starts off with Dirk’s mother-in-law trying to murder the man who rescued her daughter in the first place and is likely the only person capable of rescuing her again. In terms of intelligence, the apple fell about two inches from the tree on that one.

The most obvious problem with Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp is that this really doesn’t make any effort at all to feel like a video game. In Dragon’s Lair, the game randomized all but the first and last levels of the game. It worked there because they were all short and they all flowed seamlessly into each-other. Time Warp’s nine levels are longer, linear, and with the exception of the first level, have no checkpoints at all. They’re also all, more or less, self-contained animated shorts that don’t fit-in with each-other. The moments where it feels like they were trying to animate some form of a video game trope in order to invoke the expectations of what a game should be like are few and far between. In Dragon’s Lair or Space Ace, whether you were swinging across ropes, timing when to move between spikes, leaping across platforms, or fighting monsters, the designers created the illusion that you were controlling Dirk and Dexter (well, until they forgot to do that in Space Ace too). Time Warp feels like a totally disconnected animated short that someone surgically grafted button prompts onto.

This is Eve. As in Adam & Eve. As in the Garden of Eden, which is the fourth stage of the game. Whereas Dragon’s Lair felt like an actual video game where a knight searches a castle looking for a damsel in distress, Time Warp feels like a series of two-minute-long Silly Symphony clips that someone attached a video game to long after the fact. Which isn’t far off from the truth. The Alice in Wonderland sequence for Dragon’s Lair II debuted on television in 1984 and the game was apparently fully completed between 1984 and 1986. It never came out until 1991 thanks to the bankruptcy of Cinematronics.

They must have realized how poorly flowing this would work as a video game, so in Time Warp, every single move does the yellow flashing prompt. You’d think that would make this the most playable game, but often the actions are too brief and the visuals so loud that you might need a couple lives to see them. Of course, every time you die on a stage, even if it’s the very last move on that level before you finish it, you have to start all the way over at the beginning. These aren’t teeny tiny rooms, like in Dragon’s Lair. These levels last over a minute of basically non-stop quick-time events where one mistake means you have to start over from the beginning. What’s especially annoying is they seem to have animated each level with moments that were clearly meant to be checkpoints. In the first level, you go from being chased by your mother-in-law into entering the castle from the original game, and if you die after the dungeon, you restart from there. Makes sense! Well, even though there’s a moment like that in each of the animated segments that follows, like a turning point in the action, it’s not utilized and you have to start over if you die.

Dragon’s Lair has lots of beautiful art, but it also remembers that players are focused on the game itself. All the stuff happening on the screen is done in service to the gameplay. Dragon’s Lair II is filled with sight-gags and small details that you will die if you watch, because you’re not focusing on the next button prompt. I’m sure this was done in service to the days where people would gather around and watch someone play the game, but it’s a game that constantly forgets it’s game.

It stinks of game has no interest in giving players value. Instead, Dragon’s Lair II is completely focused on trying to squeeze as many quarters as possible. But, if you thought the lack of checkpoints was greedy, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp gates players out of the final two levels unless they find all eleven magical items that are hidden throughout the first seven stages. It’s a sleazy move that made me feel unclean as I played it. Imagine playing through this in an arcade in 1991 and being interested in it enough that you spend enough money to GIT GUD and make it past the Ancient Egyptian level (ironically the only level in the entire game that feels remotely like the first game), and then suddenly the game just restarts from the beginning because you didn’t gather all items. In a game where you have a single second to make a decision, and ten times it will flash in two directions at once because one of the choices has the item, and you have to choose correctly, going ten for eleven, or else you.. keep going but actually will now have to replay the whole game from scratch eventually too. What a load of crap. Also, yes, ten times. For the playing card in stage three, they didn’t bother to animate the indicator that it’s one of the items you must get. Even worse: because of the Alice in Wonderland theme of that level, you wouldn’t even think that it’s THE item. It’s just right there and blended seamlessly with the rest of the design. Actually, some of the items that do flash do so in very visually-loud sections. The butterfly in the Beethoven stage is practically invisible!

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I should also note that the arcade game had a scoring system that was removed completely from the home version. I didn’t even know that until I started researching whether the arcade game actually told players anywhere that they HAD to get the treasures to finish the game. It does.. at the bottom of a three-second long instruction screen that is briefly seen during the extended attract mode that runs on an over one-minute long cycle. It’s shamefully greedy on the same level that Ghosts ‘n Goblins forced full-replay was. Even worse: logically the way to not screw players is to make them only replay the levels where they missed an item, right? Well, Dragon Lair II has contempt for its players, so you have to replay the whole game from the start. Wow. Leland Corporation’s bankruptcy was well-deserved after pulling crap like that, and good riddance.

The best scene in the entire game is the eighth level, where Mordroc actually gets the Death Ring on Princess Daphne, who turns into Ganon if Ganon were a drag queen. BUT, if you play the Director’s Cut, this never happens. It starts exactly the same, with Mordroc clearly putting the Death Ring on Daphne and Dirk throwing his sword through his arm. Then, the scene changes from the original, and suddenly Daphne is out of the shot and the Death Ring isn’t on her. In a shorter, more plodding and less fun scene, you dodge Mordroc’s attacks before knocking the ring onto his finger. The one good call this game made was going with the Monster Daphne sequence. Too bad everything leading up to it was an unprecedented disaster.

So, that’s Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp. I have nothing positive to say about it as a game. Dragon’s Lair wanted you to feel like you were in control of Dirk. Dragon’s Lair II feels like it wants you to appreciate the amazing art of Don Bluth while it shakes you down for quarters. We can do that without this button prompt stuff or the schoolyard bully robbing you of your lunch money routine this game pulls. The on-screen action feels completely disconnected from the controller. The item collecting system and lack of checkpoints practically makes Dragon’s Lair II a mugging. It’s astonishing to me that the same people who crapped all over the Sega CD’s Mighty Morphin Power Rangers game for having absolutely nothing to do with the on-screen prompts rewarded Dragon’s Lair II with raving reviews when it did the exact same thing. If you want to know whether a game critic is shallow or not, see if they did a review of Dragon’s Lair II, and if they did, see how much they focused on the incredible art work and not on how it factors into video game logic. Because this is BAD. As in I literally can’t believe nobody brought this stuff up in 1991. Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp should be listed among the worst arcade games ever made. Sure is pretty, though.
Verdict: NO!

Space Ace
Released December 21, 1983
Designed by Rick Dyer
Directed by Don Bluth

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I spent the last three days going back and forth on whether Space Ace would get a YES! or a NO! On one hand, I think it’s the most beautiful game in the trilogy, with a fun theme, an awesome concept, and a white-knuckle pace. On the other hand, like Dragon’s Lair II, it forgets it’s a video game and not an animated short about two-thirds of the way through it. It’s also the most frustrating from a technical point of view, as with-or-without the move guide, the timing of Space Ace in certain aspects feels like it genuinely isn’t lined-up properly with the on-screen action. This game was rushed through production, and it shows.

Fun Fact: Don Bluth himself provides the voice of both the villainous Borf and Dark Dexter, while animator Will Finn (who later worked for Disney during the 90s on basically every one of their good movies from that time period) provides the voice of Ace. I’ve been playing video games my entire life and, trust me, I know how bad things can be when developers grab whoever is handy, be it Sally in Accounting or John from Human Resources to do voice work. For someone who is NOT a professional voice actor by trade, Finn does a dang good job voicing Dexter. I’d genuinely never guessed this wasn’t his actual profession.

As always, the animation is jaw-dropping gorgeous, and the characters are memorable. The story and gameplay also have a tiny bit more going for them. The heroic dude-bro Dexter, aka Space Ace, is emasculated by the villainous Borf and turned into a pathetic weakling. Borf then kidnaps Kimberly and you must go on a daring adventure to rescue her. The twist is that sometimes you can “energize” and turn back into the big, buff, cocky Ace. There are times where, if you don’t do this, you die. But, most of the time, energizing branches the game into different types of sequences. There’s also a lot more “choose a random direction” moments, but since you’ll have to play out every scene anyway, there’s no point in having these. It only creates the illusion of unseen areas. It’s fine, but the problem is that Space Ace doesn’t put it all together properly and sort of ruins the whole experience in the process.

When Space Ace tries to invoke video game tropes like patterns and timing, it might actually be better than Dragon’s Lair. Take this scene in the first “level.” I mean.. look at that! That looks exactly like something you would see in a video game, right? A 2D timing challenge. If you’re going to do a fully-animated FMV video game that aspires to create the illusion that you’re actually controlling the character, yep, that’s the way to do it. But, at some point, it forgot to do these parts.

Like Dragon’s Lair, you have to repeat every major set piece and room once. But, unlike Dragon’s Lair, instead of mixing up the order, in Space Ace (at least on the highest difficulty setting), every sequence that repeats is done back-to-back. You play a room once, and then the screen goes black for a split-second and then it just repeats, only mirrored. It’s so lazy and jarring and it takes the wind right out of Space Ace’s sails. I cringed every single time it happened. Honestly, in Dragon’s Lair, I came to appreciate the mirrored levels. “Alright, I’ve done this room! What was the order?” I’d ask myself. That excitement wasn’t there for Space Ace because I literally just did this section. And, unlike Dragon’s Lair, which is set in a castle that would have many rooms, in Space Ace the narrative doesn’t lend itself at all to the repeating rooms. Not one bit. It’s Dexter running down an identical corridor, begin caught in an identical plastic bag, energizing at the exact same moment with the exact same pose.. it’s just so badly done. Not even comically bad, but just sadly bad.

The flashing that was used in Dragon’s Lair and especially Dragon’s Lair II occasionally happens in Space Ace, but sometimes it doesn’t. Like right here, it doesn’t at all. I can’t imagine playing without the move guide, where the timing is totally guess work. In fact, I’ve heard Space Ace machines had the joysticks wear out a lot from people slamming them in the direction repeatedly. If you were wondering, here you would press LEFT.

And then you get to the areas where the on-screen action stops feeling like a video game and starts feeling like an animated short that someone just super-glued button prompts onto. This is the game I could make the least progress on without the guide. The game just plain quits helping sometimes, and guessing which direction was the correct direction, or WHEN to press the buttons for that matter, was purely luck-based. But, even when the indicator lights do flash, at some point a clear disconnect between controller actions and story narrative happens. The motorcycle sequence and the battle with Borf feel like just an ordinary cartoon that you have to press a button every couple seconds to make play. It’s no longer directed like a video game. It’s just a cartoon by that point. Which.. I guess that’s what all three of these games are, but what I mean is that it no longer feels like you’re playing Space Ace. You’re just advancing it.

The end sequence sealed the NO! for this one. As an animated short, it’s satisfying, but as a video game, it’s a bit of a nonsensical disaster.

To Space Ace’s credit, it provided one final gaming highlight for me in 2022. I’d partially written these reviews for an abandoned article in 2021, and I needed to replay the games just to make sure I could. With my reaction time fading, it was basically now-or-never for this feature. While playing Space Ace, I game overed fairly quickly. Well, it turned out to be my only game over. To my absolute shock, I ran the table from there, losing a couple lives but still beating the game without needing another continue. What the fudge? ME? Are you kidding me? That felt really amazing. No joke. The lives I lost were of the “something about the button timing and the animation doesn’t seem to match-up at all” variety, but I didn’t mess-up after that. It felt great!

By the way, there’s both a Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace animated series by Ruby-Spears. In the Space Ace cartoon, which unlike Dragon’s Lair was done as part of the Saturday Supercade lineup, Kimberly is voiced by Nancy “Bart Simpson” Cartwright. I tried to watch these cartoons but I found them to be poison for the brain.

On the other hand, I pulled this monster final score off by not even watching the cartoon at all and instead focusing completely on the move guide. That’s what ulimately made the difference with these two games. With Dragon’s Lair, you can both enjoy the spectacle and play the game at the same time. It’s not a visually busy game. Space Ace always has a LOT going on, and if you take even a microsecond to appreciate that, you might find yourself losing a life. And now, it makes sense why nobody trades tales of Space Ace despite looking every bit as visually impressive as Dragon’s Lair. The fact that the first game proves you can get away with a visually nice animated game guided by a series of quick time events means I can’t excuse it for Space Ace. It needed to take a less-is-more approach, and it didn’t. Most telling of all: while I thought Dragon’s Lair II was more distracting, I actually scored lower on Space Ace in my quiz test. This was the game where Dyer and Booth lost their way.
Verdict: NO!

FINAL RANKINGS

How I determined the rankings is simple: I took the full list of games, then I said “I’m forced to play one game. Pick the one I could play the most and not get bored with.” That goes on top of the list. Then I repeat the question again with the remaining games over and over until the list is complete. Based on that simple criteria, here are the final rankings. Games above the Terminator Line received a YES! Games below it received a NO!

  1. Dragon’s Lair
    **TERMINATOR LINE**
  2. Space Ace
  3. Dragon’s Lair II: Time Warp

I seriously can’t believe I did that score though.

LCD Games VIII: LCDs Take Manhattan

INDIE GAMER CHICK’S LCD GUIDE: PART I – PART II – PART IIIPART IVPART VPART VIPART VII

Who would have thunk it? My four LCD features were some of my most-viewed in 2022. It turns out, I didn’t QUITE tap myself out, as there was a handful that I skipped. So, as one final thank you for making 2022 my biggest year in almost a decade, here’s one last plunge into your childhoods with eight more LCD games. Suddenly, I wish I had my Game Boy Color here to kiss it and say “thank you for not being these.”

PENGO!!
Bandai (1983)
Gameplay Type: Action-Arcade

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I figured there was no way that an LCD could recreate the block-shoving, enemy crushing gameplay of Pengo and I was.. absolutely correct. Oddly, it’s not the lack of animation that makes this fail. In fact, they solved any potential issue that could cause by having enemies be frozen in place the moment you shove a block. If they’re lined-up with the block when you press the button, it’s a kill. That was a wise choice. The problem is the playfield is just not big enough for the game to work. There’s only a couple blocks you can actually shove, with the rest being stuck against the wall. With a playfield only seven columns across, that’s just not enough. Miss even a single time and you’ll probably lose. This is made worse by the fact that enemies can destroy the blocks too. It’s not worth getting the hang of because the game feels too cramped and low-energy. This was a bad idea to attempt.

ASTRO COMMAND!!
Epoch (1982)
Gameplay Type: Shmup

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A typical LCD shmup with the twist being one extra type of enemy and a weapon to deal with it. You shoot enemies on the right side of the screen while also dropping bombs on the enemies who will strut underneath you in the bottom row. The issue is the enemies positively spam the screen with gunfire, but when you fire any of your ammo, you’re locked in-place until the bullet hits, which makes it impractical to weave through their barrage of bullets. Also, this is one of those games that absolutely required animation that the format isn’t capable of. The timing of when you can and can’t dodge out of the way never felt consistent, as sometimes I pulled off a skin-of-my-teeth evasion, and sometimes it felt like I was practically instakilled by a bullet. It’s not a total wash. Picking off the enemies has a satisfying blink/ping, but this needed more fine-tuning to get the timing more intuitive.

APOLLO 13!!
Tiger Electronics (1995)
Gameplay Type: Quickdraw-Dodger

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Houston, we have a problem. We sat around trying to figure out how to play this game for an hour. Or, rather, Dad did. I quit after like five minutes. Finally, we (well, he, but hey, we’re a team, right Daddio?) figured out that, to beat the first level, you have to line up the LEM and with the crosshairs and press the capture button five times in a minute. If the movement controls or thrust controls do anything here, we couldn’t notice it. In the second level, you have dodge rocks, but here we kept gaming over in just seconds. We were colliding with rocks so quickly that we didn’t even have time to figure out if we were supposed to be using the directional pad or the left/right thrust controls. The problem with the Archive is it didn’t include the instructions. I tried to track down the instructions, but go figure, this is one of the very few games that has no listing at the comprehensive Handheld Museum. They certainly were ambitious here, but the resulting game isn’t remotely intuitive, and honestly, the first two stages aren’t fun. Presumably there’s a third stage where you deploy a parachute but we couldn’t survive ten seconds on the second stage to find out. If you’re going to make a complicated game that requires instructions, make sure it’s fun. Apollo 13 appears to be just run-of-the-mill LCD gameplay, only overly cluttered and rendered unintuitive.

VINDICATORS!!
Tiger Electronics (1989)
Gameplay Type: Shooter

Based on the 1988 Atari Games coin-op, it’s a three-channel shooter where you can move left and right while aiming your gun three different ways separately. It’s a nice twist and it actually works. Once the enemies start firing upon you, you have to quickly bob and weave your way around. Some enemies can be picked-off from multiple angles, while others you to position yourself under them AND aim your turret correctly. You can only move forward (with extremely poor scrolling.. seriously this is motion-free) in the center channel, and sometimes I found it better to just ignore enemies. Tiger added some elements to make it feel true to the arcade game, like having to get a key to exit through the gate. I always appreciate it when they make that extra effort, even if it’s a teeny tiny thing that ultimately doesn’t affect gameplay that much. Vindicators isn’t mind-blowing or anything, but it’s a nice little time waster.

NEBULA MASK MACHINEMAN: LIGHTNING STRIKER!!
aka Machine Man

Bandai (1984)
Gameplay Type: Dodger/Shooting Gallery

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I was worried at first this was just a rehash of Ultraman. It almost was. The gameplay is split into two parts. In part one, you’re a car that has to dodge bullets fired from a factory. To the game’s credit, it’s yet another LCD (or in this case, VFD) that proves that I was wrong: this format absolutely can create a sense of speed. It just needs the right “animation” and sound effects. So, Machine Man has that going for it, and it’s one of the most convincing illusions of movement I’ve seen yet in over one-hundred LCDs. Unfortunately, the gameplay isn’t any good. You have to make your way to the factory, with the speed increasing the further right you move on the screen. While you do this, the factory lobs bullets at you that you have to dodge. It’s really dull. Once you get to the factory, you transform into a robot and the game becomes a simple five-channel gallery shooter that doesn’t nothing original. According to the Handheld Museum, this is one of the rarest LCD/VFDs out there, and knowing what goes into making these emulated versions, I’m heartbroken I didn’t like this at all. It’s really boring. Great sense of speed, though! Can’t stress that enough.

ZACKMAN!!
Bandai (1982)
Gameplay Type: Action-Arcade

Zackman, which is apparently based on an arcade game called The Pit, is sort like Dig Dug. You have to burrow through blocks to reach a purple canister and return it to your ship. The Dig Dug aspect comes from the various rocks scattered throughout the level that you can use to crush enemies. There’s also a gun hidden on the stages, but in a dozen or so sessions, most of which I went several levels deep, I only found it once. It’s bizarre how many obscure coin-ops got the LCD/VFD treatment. Maybe it came with the contract when you sign-up to make arcade games. “Sign here to acknowledge your game will eventually be trashed forty years later by a silver-spoon licking California girl. And sign here to have your game completely bastardized and made into an LCD or VDF that’s barely recognizable for all the hard work you’ll be putting into your arcade game. And please initial underneath that to assure that also will also be trashed forty years later by some silver-spoon licking California girl, possibly the same girl but that’s subject to availability. Congratulations, you’re now officially an arcade game maker and OH look at that, the arcade market crashed. Sorry for all the paperwork.” Anyway, it’s nice that Zackman’s playfield is actually scrolls. I wish that Pengo did that too. But the game is just not fun.

HOOK!!
Tiger Electronics (1991)
Gameplay Type: Combative

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Based on the Steven Spielberg movie that he hates but I’ve always kind of adored, this is a game played in three parts. In part one, the Lost Boys launch garbage at pirates, and.. I’m not even sure you can lose this section. You just hit the fire button and they come at you in a straight line and just keep pressing fire. Eventually, Captain Hook will show up and raise his sword up and down, but if this is an attempt to block your projectiles, it never worked for me. Even when it seemed like I might have mistimed things, I still got the pirates and never took damage in this section. This whole “level one” goes on forever, with only one part of your soul escaping to continue playing to the next level. The rest of my soul is stuck just pressing one button with no challenge for all eternity. The bit of my soul that moved onto part two had to swing back and forth on a rope and kick pirates in the face while avoiding their sword attacks. You need to collect two keys to begin the section where you battle Captain Hook as Peter Pan. Here you cross swords, dodging and attacking and trying to knock Hook’s health down. In multiple attempts, I never got a single hit in. I would have kept trying to but the sheer agony of having to play to that part is like being stuck with an unstoppable cut scene. It seriously is a couple minutes, and it’s misery. What were they thinking? You earned no BANGARANG on this one, Tiger!

SKELETON WARRIORS!!
Tiger Electronics (1994)
Gameplay Type: Combative

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The total inconsistency of Tiger’s ambition is so weird. Hook, a movie based on a grown-up Peter Pan? Three unique levels that all play differently. Skeleton Warriors? Just press the button when something is next to you to kill them. I suppose you do have to walk right too, and they try to have LCD debris scattered around to create that illusion, but it fails badly. There’s almost no ambition here, like their mandate was to just dump something out using Game Template #2B so that this reaches the market in time for the cartoon’s premiere. There’s a sword to pick up, but it doesn’t seem to do anything besides change what weapon you stick out when you kill things. If it does more, I didn’t need it. There’s no ammo, and in fact, I only needed two gameplay sessions to be able to play this without taking any damage. Hell, the only reason I took damage the first time was attempting to capture screenshots. It feels like it was aimed at really young and possibly brain damaged children. When Tiger Electronics phoned-in a license, they REALLY phoned it in. This is just lazy and shameful.

Atari 50: The Games They Couldn’t Include – The Definitive Review (Part One)

I wanted to post a Christmas treat for everybody since my readers made 2022 my biggest year since 2013. What can I do?

Well, I wanted to do something really special. For the last month, I’ve been making my way through Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration, and writing a review using my Definitive Review format (see my reviews of Capcom Arcade 2nd Stadium or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Cowabunga Collection). With over one-hundred games to play and review in the set, it’s been a monster undertaking, and I’m not close to done yet. I have to inspect the PC version of it and test different control schemes for it. I’ve also accepted an invite from Atari to do a feature for their blog on finding the most comfortable control settings on the console versions of Atari 50 for the games that have analog control, such as trackball games or dial games. It’s the first time I’ve ever accepted an invite from a developer or publisher to go onto THEIR turf and contribute something for them. It’s something I normally feel, as a critic, I should not be involved in. But, given the fact that Atari has been such good sports about what have been some brutally frank critiques, I feel like this is a project I can do without violating any ethical standard of separation of church and state, or rather, critic and game maker. Besides, it’s my way to contribute directly towards the discussion of improving and expanding these control options. I want EVERY set from here out to offer as much flexibility as Atari 50 offers, and also as simply as they offer it. All of this has been contributing to my Atari 50 project taking a little longer than I expected, so my plans to post this review on Christmas Day have been pushed back a week, and honestly, I wouldn’t be stunned if the review isn’t up until mid-January. So, Christmas is cancelled, right?

“Have you played your Atari today?” Yes. Yes I have. And the day before. And the day before that. And the day before the day before that..

But, with Atari 50, I’ve been doing a little more than people realize. Only a couple friends knew what I was up to. In secret, I’ve been working on this supplemental feature of the games Atari couldn’t include in their collection. Iconic games made by Atari that they simply can’t use because they don’t have the rights to them. The stuff you would expect: E.T., Star Wars, and Space Invaders, etc. I had intended to post this a couple days after the Atari 50 review, but, when I realized this feature was closer to being done than the Atari 50 review was properly, I decided “hell, why not post this Christmas day?” Except, even that feature wasn’t done. It’s basically doubling the games I’ve already reviewed. I sat down to start editing these reviews on on Friday, and then being absolute deranged, I wasn’t happy with most of them. So, I ended up just rewriting them. Which means the other ones, some of which were incomplete and some of which (like E.T.) I haven’t even started yet. So, I’m breaking this up into parts. This part will have the thirty reviews that are complete-complete. Meaning I’ve probably rewrote them a third or fourth time by now.

RULES: Most of the games featured here were made by Atari but for IPs they don’t own or can’t just re-release, many of which are unlikely to ever get ported anywhere ever again. I didn’t include Activision games. I didn’t include any games that Atari could just release without having to worry about doing any licensing. Most releases tied to Atari Games, the company created by the Warner Bros. sale of Atari, are not included. However, while I’m not including any Activision games, I am including some games that Atari didn’t develop themselves. Just for fun. It’s my feature! I will fully confess that I didn’t put as much time into all these as I did Atari 50. Well, so much for that. This had around fifty total gameplay hours for just the thirty games featured here. Well, thirty-one, depending on how you view what comes up in the Space Invaders review.

There’s three sites who I want to thank for all their contributions to gaming, for whom I owe a LOT of this project to, even if they have no clue who I am. Atari Age, AtariMania, and AtariProtos. Their hard work has provided me with lots of wonderful stories and anecdotes and made this such a blast for me to do. Without them, this wouldn’t have been anywhere near as good as it is.. or at least I hope it is. Thank you! Seriously, go browse their sites. Well, maybe not AtariProtos, which can be downright depressing. I mean, it’s not THEIR fault, but it’s like a graveyard for games, many of which were 100% completed but never released anyway. Some of which actually weren’t half-bad, especially for the Atari 5200. Spoiler: you’ll be reading about a few of them in a few minutes.

GAME REVIEWS

For those not familiar with my way of thinking of how retro games should be reviewed, I take NO historical context into account. I don’t care how important a game was to the industry, because that doesn’t make a game worth playing today. The test of time is the cruelest test of all, but every video game must face it. I might not be here if not for Pong’s success, but I wouldn’t want to play it today. Not when there’s better options. Therefore, when I review retro games, every game gets either a YES! or a NO!

YES! means the game is still fun and has actual gameplay value when played today and is worth seeking out.

NO! means the game didn’t age gracefully and is not worth seeking out, and certainly not worth spending money on.

Atari Video Cube
Platform: Atari 2600
Year: 1982
Designed by Josh Littlefield

The famous story with this game goes as such: Steven Race ran the international wing of Atari’s consumer division. He was the man who would later go on to drop the famous “$299” bombshell for PlayStation at the first E3. Someone asked him what he thought about distributing Atari Video Cube across Europe, which Atari avoided a lawsuit over by taking an official license from the Rubik’s people. “Absolutely not” he said without a hint of hesitation. He was asked how he could come to the decision so quickly, to which he offered the following curt response: “Well, you’re going to have to help me understand why a $40 electronic rendition of this product is better than the $3.98 rendition that is more portable and that I can take anywhere I want.” The man had a good point, but nobody listened. Video Cube was, of course, a major money loser for Atari and an unsung contributor to their role in the Great Video Game Crash. BUT, hand over heart, the game isn’t bad. It fact, it’s the best puzzle game I’ve played on any Atari platform. Swear to God. Cross my heart and hope to die! Stick a need in my eye.

A big misnomer about Atari Video Cube is that it’s just a straight port of a Rubik’s Cube. It’s not, and rather it’s a logic puzzler with a goal that’s the same as the popular novelty toy/puzzler: turn all the colors of a cube the same way on all sides. However, it’s impossible to play this as anything but a video game.. at least without an unscrupulous contractor and a generous amount of liability insurance. You don’t rotate different wedges of the Cube to solve it. Instead, you’re a dude who walks on the cube and you must pick up one color (or, more accurately, begin the process of swapping colors) until you finish the cube. There’s a rule to make this work as a puzzle: you can’t walk on top of the same color you’re currently carrying (which you become that color). That’s it. That’s the only real rule. And it works WONDERFULLY! This is actually a very clever take on a handheld toy that I frankly think is one of the most boring things to sit and fidget with.

I’m not sure why they made the character look that way. Just make a stick figure. It looks like a plump Robin Hood who lost a leg in a bear trap.

I can’t believe Atari caved-in and took a license. Which they did, re-releasing it as Rubik’s Cube in even more limited quantities than the original game got, which wasn’t a lot. According to Atari Age, both games are very, very rare, but the officially-licensed one that carries the Rubik’s name is the slightly rarer one. Also, apparently they were working on an actual translation of a Rubik’s Cube, presumably to smooth-over the angry owners who felt Atari was riding coattails. Those oh so valuable Rubik’s Cube coattails (while editing this, Angela discovered there was a Rubik’s Cube cartoon in the 80s. What? No.. that can’t possibly be true. Not even the 80s could be that shallow. Oh for F’s sake, it’s true!). Also, Cathy, it’s tangents like this that cause these things to take so long to write. Granted, I have a right to be POed. This should not be buried. They shouldn’t have to license this. It has almost nothing to do with the source material. The precedent set by the Data East/Epyx lawsuit should cover this, shouldn’t it?

First game in and the first shocking result: Atari Video Cube is actually a solidly good and original puzzler. Heck, even the rotation between sides is satisfying to watch.

History has maligned Atari Video Cube. In actuality, it ain’t a bad little game at all. Once I got the hang of the movement rule and realized there were actually 10 of the blue squares (like.. duh, Cathy! Of course there would be! The game would be unsolvable if one of the colors didn’t have an even number, you dumb ass!) I started to make progress and it actually felt good solving it. I enjoyed my time solving it too! I don’t think every mode is a winner. There’s one where you can’t see any of the squares without making a move, which allows you to briefly see the playfield. Like, what’s the point? High score chasing for one of the most stupid ideas? WHAT IS WITH Atari games and invisibility as a way to pad the mode count? Space Invaders. Breakout. Etc. Ugh. Anyway, yea, was Atari Video Cube a dumb idea? Probably. Is it a bad game? Not at all. Honestly, this is one of those games Atari should check and make sure they can’t just re-release. There’s no way the Rubik’s people can claim they were ripped off, even if Atari was riding the fad. This is an original concept that deserves to be compete in a free market. Or, in this case, be included in a set that celebrates the history of the company that was nearly killed by making dumb moves, like licensing $40 video games based on $4 toys and then barely manufacturing the damn thing when this brain-dead licensing idea somehow turns out a very good puzzle game. Man, we’re off to a good start. This was originally a one-paragraph review.
Verdict: YES!

Battlezone:
Platform: Arcade
Year: 1980
Designed by Ed Rotberg

I’ve made a ton of friends out of legendary game developers. As a little girl who grew up loving video games, it’s absolutely surreal for me to be friends with so many legends of gaming. One of my favorites is Ed Rotberg, who is an absolute sweetheart. It was a thrill just having him talk to me the first time, let alone when we started talking regularly. I’m such a huge Battlezone fan, and I don’t think people appreciate just what an achievement he pulled off with it.

While not all vector graphics games in Atari 50 are hits, most of the best arcade games in the set use vector graphics. Yet, one game is conspicuous by its absence. That would be Battlezone, the 1980 Ed Rotberg classic that absolutely blasts the test of time. This shouldn’t hold up at all. You’re placed in an abstract arena and must fight a continuous stream of spawning tanks. When you score a hit, holy smokes, is it ever satisfying. Also satisfying is seeing a torpedo coming straight at you and just BARELY managing to dodge out of the way. It’s not always a game that plays fairly. Sometimes the game will spawn a tank right in front of you that can get a shot off before you can react. Even more frustrating is when you die and respawn right in crosshairs of a tank. Dirty pool, Edward. Dirty pool. Of course, those frustrations are muffled by one of the most thrilling and immersive Golden Age games. The granddaddy of all 3D games, and a game that aged beautifully.

I would LOVE to actually get to play the Bradley Trainer. Wouldn’t that be something if they could release that publicly?

So, why isn’t it in Atari 50? Well, because Battlezone.. specifically Battlezone.. was purchased by a company called Rebellion Games when Atari went out of bankrupt in 2013. So, I want to make an appeal directly to Rebellion Games: license this to Atari (and let them include the Atari 2600 port AND the unreleased Atari 5200 prototype) for $1 and no royalties and let them just include it in Atari 50. It’s not too late. While I’m sure you’re proud that you own one of the all-time great games, it’s not worth anything without the historic clout. Atari 50 didn’t need Battlezone to still be Atari. But, YOU actually do need people to be nostalgic for Battlezone for it to be worth ANYTHING as a franchise, and not having your game in these sets is going to hurt its potential. BADLY! As much as I love it, from a historical perspective, Battlezone is a B-Lister. It’s not Pong. It’s not Space Invaders. It’s not Pac-Man. It’s not Donkey Kong. It’s a really great game that really isn’t anywhere near the forefront of arcade nostalgia. Nobody is going to buy Atari 50 just because it has Battlezone in it. It’s not happening. You make the deal, and you make it for $1, so that people of all generations can look at it and appreciate it. You can do a press release saying you made the deal on the cheap, out of respect to gaming history. THAT is fan service, and the best publicity $1 will ever buy you. Or, you can just sit on your dead franchise. It’s YOUR franchise now, after all, to do with as you see fit.
Verdict: YES!

Battlezone:
Platform: Atari 2600
Year: 1983
Designed by Michael Feinstein

For my money, Battlezone might be the best looking first-party game ever on the Atari 2600. For what they were limited to at the time, it’s gorgeous, plus it has smooth scrolling AND one of the most stylish and impressive death animations ever, for any era.

A lot of Atari 2600 games that are based on vector graphics titles are completely stripped of their charm. Battlezone 2600 designer Michael Feinstein wisely decided to not attempt an exact one-to-one translation from the coin-op and instead tried to capture the spirit of the arcade game. He succeeded beyond any reasonable expectation and made what might be the 2600’s best arcade translation. Pulling the camera back to a third-person perspective works wonderfully here. The thrills of near misses from enemy fire are retained, and very little satisfaction is lost from the combat itself. My biggest knock is that dodging bullets is a lot harder, to the point that if the enemy gets a shot off from mid-range, you’ll almost certainly die. There’s just not enough time to dodge out of the way. It’s relatively rare, but it happens.

Good draw distance too. This really is a remarkable achievement for the Atari 2600.

To counter that, Battlezone 2600 actually plays faster than the arcade game, which means the quick-draw aspect is more intense. Yea, dodging enemies who are within range is a little tough, so, just blow them away before then. When you get on a roll and start to tag one enemy after another as soon as they spawn, it’s a thrill. Thus, this becomes the rarest of the rare on the Atari 2600: a home port that, in some aspects, exceeds the arcade original. That I even had to think, even for a second, as to whether this was better than the arcade game speaks volumes. It’s not, but I did have to ask myself that. Despite the changed angle, this feels like an incredibly close approximation of the arcade game, so much so that it’s one of those games where I actually feel happy for kids who owned an Atari in the early 80s. Had Battlezone 2600 been included in Atari 50, it would have had a very good chance of being the #1 ranked Atari 2600 game.
Verdict: YES!

Battlezone
Platform: Atari 5200
Unreleased Prototype

This is the most nitpicky thing in this whole feature, but wow! That’s some extraordinarily ugly, unpleasant color scheming they went with for the menu.

If you want proof that Atari learned their lesson from Pac-Man 2600 and E.T., look no further than Battlezone 5200. When I found out a completed (or “complete enough” depending on the source) prototype existed, I was thrilled! I loves me some Battlezone. It was slated for release in December, 1983, but then Atari pulled the plug on it. Weird, right? Especially with the Atari 5200 hurting for software. It even looks like it has actual vector graphics, too, a first for Atari’s home games. But then I played it, and it took only seconds to realize why Atari put the kibosh on its release. It’s a TERRIBLE effort. Sluggish and unresponsive, with the smoothness of a high-grit sandpaper. The thrilling combat of the arcade is completely muffled behind a game engine that feels like it could collapse at any time. You’ll marvel at enemies getting stuck behind the various scattered debris on the field. I could see how people playing this could think this was incomplete, but no, apparently this was after polishing and buffing up the gameplay. Yipes! So, when people say Atari didn’t care about quality games, maybe that was true once, but by 1983, it clearly wasn’t anymore. Had Battlezone 5200 come out, it would barely be a step above Pac-Man 2600 in the all-time awful arcade ports pantheon.
Verdict: NO!

Berzerk
Platform: Atari 2600
Year: 1982
Designed by Dan Hitchens

A fun quirk of the Atari 2600 is that many games use flickering to have more moving characters than the console is capable of animating. So, for example, here both the player character and the infamous villain Evil Otto (which is, frankly, just an emoji.. albeit before those were actually a thing) aren’t on screen at the same time, and the frame simply switches really quick. It makes taking screenshots a pain in the ass. So, I cheated and spliced Evil Otto into this screen.

Berzerk in arcades is famous for being the first video game to kill one of its players. It didn’t. The person in question was 18 and had scarring on their heart and was fated to have a massive heart attack at any moment anyway. But hey, what else would it be famous for if not for being credited with a body count? The gameplay actually translated relatively well to the Atari 2600. In arcades, it talked. The Atari 2600 version doesn’t have that, so it has to survive on its endless robot-murder and the tension of Evil Otto. Oddly enough, he doesn’t show up in the first game mode. Even weirder: he can be killed in the second mode. This is a character known for being unkillable in arcades. I had to consult the instruction book to figure out which mode was the closest to the arcade version, which is very annoying. Doesn’t it make more sense for the first mode to be the closest to the arcade’s gameplay? Isn’t that why anyone would buy this in the first place?

Sometimes it spawns you practically right on top of the enemies. Sometimes Evil Otto spawns right on top of you. Why, it’s enough to give a person a heart attack! OH BOO YOURSELVES! What, too soon?

Regardless, Berzerk is a shocking shallow game. Weirdly, I have played it and I do remember it being better. But, actually putting it through the wringer, there’s just no stakes to it. The enemy robots are dumb as rocks and will walk right into walls, which kills them. Which sort of feels like balancing the cosmic scales to make up for the constant cheap spawns the game does to you. Meanwhile, there’s exits in the rooms, but it doesn’t matter which door you run to. You’re not trying to get anywhere. Berzerk just keeps going indefinitely, and that makes the door concept feel lame as hell. Why not just keep you in the room until you kill the last enemy? Berzerk doesn’t play badly by any means, but it’s just dull, repetitive, pointless, and lacks the sense of catharsis that would absolve it of those first three problems.
Verdict: NO!

Berzerk
Platform: Atari 5200
Year: 1984
Designed by Carlos Smith

I actually think the enemies are dumber in the 5200 version. I once saw four die from, I think, walking into each-other at the exact same moment.

I could take the lazy way out and say Berzerk for the Atari 5200 is the same game I just wrote about above, only with a few limited voice samples, but that’s not entirely accurate. Berzerk 5200 is slower, for one thing. A lot slower, in fact. Movement has a sluggishness that wasn’t part of the 2600 game. To make up for this, Evil Otto spawns more fairly. Multiple times on the 2600, he spawned literally on the space I was standing. Pack your bags in your penis-shaped luggage because that’s a DICK MOVE! Well, that doesn’t happen on the 5200. However, sometimes it does seem to spawn YOU in with enemies placed in a way where I’m not even sure the situation is survivable. Unless the enemies all just clear each-other out with their own bullets or walking into each-other. That happens. I do like how the enemies practically shatter when you shoot them in this version. It’s much more satisfying, but otherwise, Berzerk is still a very overrated game. The best thing I can say about it is that you can only shoot in the direction you’re walking. That’s not a good thing here, but it’s a great thing for gaming history. Eugene Jarvis found that system so unsatisfactory that he created the twin stick shooter with Robotron as a response. So, you’re overrated and kind of boring, but hey, thanks for inspiring one of the all-time greats, Berzerk!
Verdict: NO!

Bugs Bunny
Platform: Atari 2600
Unreleased Prototype
Designed by Bob Polaro and Alan Murphy

Who the hell are you winking at, Bub?

Game production at Atari was a haphazard process. A lot of games, even licensed games, started production and never actually came out despite being 100% finished. As the story goes, after Atari took a pasting at the end of 1982 and Warner Bros.’s stock cratered almost entirely because of Atari, they suddenly had to pay attention to the costs of manufacturing and distributing games, since their budget was being slashed. They had two action games aimed at a younger audience in development that were supposed to be staked in small part by the Sesame Street people and published under their new Children’s Computer Workshop label. The two games were Bugs Bunny and Snoopy and the Red Baron. Well, the Sesame Street money dried up, and now that Atari was bottoming out, it was decided they would only release one of the two games. They used focus testing to determine the winner, and Snoopy was the nearly unanimous choice among all demographics, and Bugs Bunny was never released. Never mind all the bad stuff I’m about to say about it: can you imagine working hard on a game, completing it, and then watching it get shelved FOREVER? It’s rare these days, but it was practically standard operating procedure at Atari at this point.

It’s a reverse gallery shooter where you’re the target. And it sucks.

Having said all that, it’s not at all hard to see why the focus tested children chose Snoopy and the Red Baron to such a degree that it probably caused hurt feelings. While Snoopy’s not exactly the deepest game, it’s, you know, alright and even fun. Meanwhile, Bugs Bunny is one of the dumbest ideas for a game I’ve ever played. It’s so stupid that I think even little kids who were huge Looney Tunes fans would be annoyed by it. You pick one of three channels, and a dog yanks you out of a hole and the object is to jump back into it. And it’s right there. I mean, like, RIGHT THERE! Not exactly next to you, but close enough that you shouldn’t need more than a second or two to jump back in. That’s it! That’s the whole game. I guess the challenge is supposed to come from the fact that you jump at an angle that you don’t actually aim yourself, but I grew up in the post-Mario era. It ain’t that hard to judge a jump. You can also jump through the edge of the screen and come out the other side to avoid Elmer’s gunfire, which does increase to absurd degrees as you go along. But, there’s really nothing to collect in the middle and bottom channels. In the top channel, you can grab Elmer’s ammo from under his house, which temporarily stops him from shooting at you. Otherwise, this is such a nothing game. You really can’t know if something will work until you try it, but this should have been killed early in production. If this had been a Mario Party mini-game it would STILL have been pitiful. There’s a lot of horror stories with focus testing in gaming, but this is one that got it absolutely right.
Verdict: NO!

Circus Atari
Platform: Atari 2600
Year: 1980
Designed by Mike Lorenzen

Circus Atari (Japan, USA)-221224-123204

WEEEEEEEEEEE OW OW OW THE PAIN! THE PAIN! OW! WEEEEEEE!

UPDATE: Circus Atari is on Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration, but only on the Atari VCS as an unlockable. BOOOOOO!

One of the more interesting takes on the Breakout formula, and probably one of Atari’s better paddle games, you have to launch acrobats up to pop what are balloons in the arcade game. Oh and yes, there’s an arcade game, only it’s not by Atari. Exidy, who did games like Venture and Mouse Trap (both of which I’ll be looking at in part two despite being done by Coleco), made the arcade release. Exidy isn’t credited in any documentation on Circus Atari, which makes one wonder if this was authorized or not. I can’t get a clear answer on that, but Circus Atari hasn’t shown up in one of these collections in a long time, so maybe not. Shame, because it’s actually a really solid game. It’s not great. Sometimes it’s tough to build up the momentum for your character to actually launch high enough to hit the blocks. At one point, I did probably in the neighborhood of a dozen passes in a row with the character not so much as hitting the bottom row, which had me screaming and cussing. But, once you get the hang of Circus Atari, it’s actually really satisfying for your character to bounce around the blocks, clearing out multiple before they come back down. Honestly, this is probably the VCS’s best brick breaker. It’s also a game that makes me hope somebody puts together an Exidy collection.
Verdict: YES!

Choplifter!
Platform: Atari 5200
Year: 1984
Designed by Dan Gorlin

Do you know what I realized about the Atari 5200 during my run through Atari 50 and all these left-out games? While it’s not always true, it has some truly ugly use of color. Some games are fine looking, but they also lack the charm or personality the Atari 2600 had. The games for it just look drab and low-tech. I mean, look at this! That’s as sad looking as any game I’ve seen. It barely looks better than an Atari 2600 game.

I keep encountering Choplifter! in these retro runs. I always wince when it comes up. It’s probably the game with the least flaws that I just plain don’t like. You fly around, shoot tanks and jets, and then land and load over a dozen people into a tiny helicopter. Is it a TARDIS? For the Atari 5200 version, I mostly just cruised around with the helicopter facing the screen and rained bullets down on the tanks, turning only to shoot down the jets and satellites. As a game, Choplifter! doesn’t really do anything major wrong. It is fickle about where you have to land to drop off the people you rescue. If you park right next to the building, they won’t get off. Choplifter has been around forever. On the 5200, ugly as it, it’s a fine port of the game, I guess. I just never liked Choplifter. I appreciate the attempt to twist the Defender formula. But, Choplifter replaces the intensity of Defender’s skin-of-your-teeth rescues with the agony of stop-and-go gameplay as you watch humans with absolutely no survival instinct slowly load into the chopper. An act which apparently causes tanks suddenly gain super speed because they’ll always just zoom right into the frame while the morons load in, and that’s assuming the jets don’t fly in and blow clusters of them to smithereens. Choplifter isn’t crappy or anything, but I prefer my shooters to not grind to a halt as often as it does. Full disclosure: at around twenty minutes, this is the game I played the least in this feature, and also the one I wanted to write the least. Be honest: you can tell, can’t you?
Verdict: NO!

Defender
Platform: Atari 2600
Year: 1982
Designed by Bob Polaro

This is one of those games that relies on flicker to function so much that any one screenshot doesn’t really show anything. EVERYTHING is blinking, at all times. Your ship and all the enemies on screen and most of the enemies on the radar completely disappear whenever you fire. It’s that bad. It completely nullifies any potential satisfaction to the combat, because really you just aim, fire, and then reality itself ends and when it phases back into existence the thing you were shooting at doesn’t phase back in with you. Sigh.

Oh, my precious Defender. What have they done to you? Look, I appreciate the effort to bring my all-time favorite coin-op to the Atari 2600, but maybe in this one case they should have just said “we can’t possibly do it justice” and taken a mulligan. The combat lacks the satisfactory OOMPH that I adore so much about the coin-op. The enemy designs are now abstract and dull to battle. It’s almost to the point of being a deal breaker by itself. But, actually, where it really, really goes bad is the defending part. You know, that part of the game that entire goshdarned game is named after! The humans are replaced with tiny rainbow-flashy dots, and the 2600 version does manage to somewhat capture the thrill of shooting down a ship that has a human in its grasp before they can merge into a mutant. But, then you actually have to catch the humans on the way down, and the 2600 version of the game has too sluggish of controls, and especially too poor of an ability to make tight turns, to successfully make the save most of the time. Honestly, this was a truly admirable attempt. It really was. I mean, it failed as completely in every imaginable way, but hey, A for effort!

Ahem.

YOU BASTARDS! HOW COULD DO THIS TO ONE OF THE ALL-TIME GREATS?! AAHHHHH!!

Sorry for that. I’m fine. I’m perfectly fine. I don’t take this too seriously. I swear!
Verdict: NO!

Defender
Platform: Atari 5200
Year: 1982
Designed by Steve A. Baker

Combat on the 5200 version of Defender looks like it takes place on an Etch-a-Sketch. Or possibly an old monitor with pixels bleeding-out.

Now this a decent port. I can’t possibly imagine trying to play it with an analog joystick that doesn’t self-center, but hey, I don’t have to deal with crap. I get to just enjoy the game that feels like the unsung star of the 5200 launch window. Sure, it’s a bit sluggish, but Defender is one of the most fast and intense coin-ops of its time and the Atari 5200 feels like a console that never got a hug. I wasn’t expecting a one-to-one translation over here. Which is really great because this sure as hell isn’t one. But, in some ways it’s kind of better. Like a person who buys a sports car because they have a tiny penis, Defender 5200 really goes overboard with the particle effects of your cannon fire. When you blow up enemies, YOU BLOW UP ENEMIES and make it rain pixels all over the screen. I LOVE THAT! That part is actually more satisfying than the combat in the arcade game because it just kind of lingers on the screen like you covered the world in your foe’s guts. Also I might be a high-functioning psychopath.

Like the 2600 version, the vertical movement isn’t well done and it makes rescuing a slight pain the butt, but it plays MUCH better here.

Defender 5200 was probably the best game early adopters could get, at least from what I could tell. It also served as a dire warning of what to expect from the console. One consistent theme from all the games I’ve played so far is that the 5200 doesn’t handle speed all that well. The best game I’ve played for the 5200 so far, Gremlins (coming right up), is also remarkable low-urgency. So, when you’re translating a game as white-knuckle as Defender, you’re going to take a hit. In fact, this feels like Defender if Defender was set underwater. Hey wait.. that actually happened, and it played fine! Okay so that wasn’t the insult I was aiming for, but hey, it’s Christmas Day and it’s the thought that counts! The biggest issue is movement really lacks the precision of the coin-op, which itself has a problem or two. In the arcade, you can overcome it with time. I don’t think you’ll be able to totally on the 5200 without completely changing your fight-or-flee strategy. See, while you’re moving sluggishly, the enemies don’t lack for their arcade attack patterns, which is naturally going to make for an unhappy union when you encounter a wall of enemies and tight squeezes. Defender on the Atari 5200 has so many problems that TMZ has its own hashtag for it. But, it’s still pretty dang fun. And I loves me those laser booms! Good laser booms this has.
Verdict: YES!

Gremlins
Platform: Atari 2600
Year: 1984
Designed by Scott Smith

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I promise a good Atari Gremlins game is coming up in just a paragraph when I look at the 5200 version. Comparatively, Atari 2600 owners got hosed (well, heh, actually 5200 owners certainly got hosed on Gremlins too for completely different reasons). They got a two-screen game that rips off Activision’s Kaboom! and bastardizes their own port of Space Invaders. In the first screen, Mogwais come flying off the roof of a building trying to dive onto food, which will turn them into Gremlins. You have to catch them to prevent this. They will turn into Gremlins regardless, because Billy Peltzer was an objectively careless pet owner. After just a couple stages, they come in faster than anyone would rationally expect. In the second screen, the cocoons hatch and you must pick off the Gremlins one at a time. It’s such a bore of a game. It controls far too loosely and just has no joy to it. I get the feeling Scott Smith must not have wanted this assignment. It’s one of the worst games Atari published to the Atari 2600 because I have nothing positive to say about it. There’s no way to spin it: Gremlins is a monster that should blown up in the microwave.
Verdict: Gizmo Gaga! (That would be NO!)

Gremlins
Platform: 5200
Year: 1986
Designed by John Seghers

If you were to make a game about the first Gremlins movie, where do you begin? In that sense, Gremlins the 5200 game might actually be the best movie-to-game adaption of its era because it takes a hard-to-adapt concept and setting and makes it work it a way that it truly believable as a movie tie-in. There’s nothing cynical about this game. It helps that the game is awesome.

Gremlins 5200, a completely different type of game than its 2600 cousin, actually has quite the story to go with it. It’s the final release for the Atari 5200 and, like so many 100% fully-developed Atari 5200 games from this time frame, it almost never came out at all. Despite the fact that games like Super Pac-Man were completed before it, Gremlins was the only one of the late-stage 5200 games that was sent to manufacturing, on literally the day before Jack Tramiel took over Atari. By this point, Atari had already axed the 5200, and Tramiel ordered all production on cartridges for it cease immediately. But, it was too late to stop manufacturing Gremlins. It wasn’t even made in limited quantities, either. According to the experts at Atari Age, it’s fairly scarce, but by no means a rarity. So, they might as well have sold it right then, while the movie was still red-hot, right? Nope. It sat in a warehouse for two years, much to the dismay of Steven Spielberg. Spielberg loved both the Atari 5200 and the 5200 version of Gremlins and offered to personally purchase the inventory to release himself. Jack Tramiel, ever the savvy businessman, refused. After Nintendo created a resurgence in the video game market, Tramiel restarted production of Atari carts and ordered the distribution of all previously warehoused carts. Among them was Gremlins, making it the final new game for the Atari 5200 during its “natural lifecycle.” In this case, the definition of “natural lifecycle” has a bit of an asterisk.

It’s hard to think of a game that Gremlins 5200 is like, because really, I’ve never played anything like it. The closest to it is probably Robotron: 2084, especially as you make progress. After a relatively slow start (which you can bypass, as the game usually starts on Level 3, with levels 1 and 2 especially being a tutorial), levels will start with you stuck somewhere in the center of a very cramped screen with action all around you. I wish the intensity would remain, but as you clear levels out, sometimes the gameplay grinds to a screeching halt.

Gremlins’ role as the Atari 5200’s endling is tragic, because it might actually be the best game for the entire platform. Not only that, but it’s one of the most clever movie-to-game adaptions I’ve ever played. A one-off unlike any game I’ve played before. A single-screen action game where you have to collect the wandering Mogwais one at a time and place them in a pen in the corner of the screen. There’s puddles of water and food all over the screen. If one of the Mogwais touch the water, it will become two Mogwais. If they touch the food, they become Gremlins and you must kill them with your sword. If the Gremlins get to the pen, they’ll open the door and release all the Mogwai you’ve already rescued and you’ll have to round them up again. There’s various malfunctioning appliances that shoot food onto the playfield, like a popcorn machine. If one of its projectiles hits the Mogwai, they turn into a Gremlin. The level ends when you clear the screen of all Gremlins and/or round up all the Mogwai. Oh, and there’s a clock and you have to do all this before the sun comes up and fries everything. It’s a truly inspired idea that works wonderfully, so much so that I can’t believe they didn’t turn this into a full-fledged arcade game. It would have been so good as an arcade game.

Screens can be positively spammed with enemies, and the start of stages especially can be breathtaking. You know, part of me wonders if this game had guardian angels at Atari who realized Tramiel was going to shut down production of all 5200 games, and recognized that Gremlins was easily the best original game for the platform and pushed to save it at the literal eleventh hour by pushing it into manufacturing. God bless them if that’s the case, and I suspect it is.

It’s not perfect by any means. Some stages can have agonizingly slow ending sequences where you have to slowly make your way around barriers carrying the Mogwai. Movement is moderately slow, and after the initial opening mayhem of a packed stage, the pace becomes what I’ll generously call “deliberate.” Also, the game loads the dice against being able to rescue all the Mogwai in each stage, as some start the level practically on top of food or the water. Finally, I kind of wish the combat was more satisfying. You kill the Gremlins with a sword, but there’s no OOMPH to it, and the collision detection feels a bit spotty. On the other hand, you’re not just swinging a sword. Even if you’re carrying a Mogwai, you can pick-up the food to make the level safer. You can also freeze everything by using a flashbulb, and Mogwais who walk in front of a TV will stop wandering and watch the idiot box. If not for those (relatively rare) instances where gathering the final Mogwai requires you to walk the full circumference of the level and back (especially annoying when there’s an entire cluster of the damn things), I’d say Gremlins never gets boring. It’ll have to settle for being really fun and mostly not boring. I don’t know what’s the biggest tragedy: that Atari 5200 fans didn’t get this in 1984, or that it’s unlikely to ever get a wide release again.
Verdict: YES!

Jr. Pac-Man
Platform: Atari 2600
Year: 1986
Designed by Ava-Robin Cohen

This is one of those “follow the spirit of the original” ports that doesn’t try to accurately copy the original. I wish they had done more of those during this era.

Atari’s home ports of Jr. Pac-Man for both the Atari 2600 and 5200 were done and finished in 1984 and ready to ship. Then Jack Tramiel took over the company and put the screws to all new releases. Fast forward two years: Atari’s home computers aren’t profitable and Nintendo has helped video games to recover from the Great Video Game Crash. Although the 5200 port would never see the light of day since barely a million units of the Atari 5200 existed, there were still thirty million Atari 2600 owners, with over three-quarters of them not yet having upgraded to the NES. And, what do you know, there were a handful of completely finished games ready to ship to those hungry owners! Suddenly, Jack Tramiel loved video games, and Jr. Pac-Man was released to the masses. Well, at least the Atari 2600 version. It’s a stripped down port of the “lost” standard maze-based Pac-Man. Whereas the arcade version scrolled horizontally, Jr. Pac-Man 2600’s mazes scale vertically.  It’s also a much faster feeling game. The “mega dots” from the arcade version also carried over. I don’t think this is a great port by any means. The mazes just aren’t as intense or exciting as the incredible arcade game and its sublime 5200 version that never saw the light of day. But, I’m happy hungry VCS owners in 1986 got one last Pac-Man game, and one that carries over many aspects of the game, like the mega-dots. I think Ms. Pac-Man 2600 was the best Pac-Man on the 2600, but this wasn’t that bad at all.
Verdict: YES!

Jr. Pac-Man
Platform: Atari 5200
Unreleased Prototype
Designed by Mike Horowitz

I really wish whoever the hell owns the rights to this.. I think it’s AtGames these days.. would stop letting Jr. Pac-Man wallow in obscurity. How in the hell do we live in a world where Nintendo’s 1983 Baseball game has gotten over a dozen re-releases but Jr. Pac-Man hasn’t seen the light of day except, apparently, one Jakks Pacific plug and play that wasn’t even one of their more famous ones. God, it’s such a frustrating situation.

The Atari 5200 got two Pac-Man-based releases that were mediocre at best and two ports that were remarkably arcade accurate. Well, it’s the Atari 5200 we’re talking about, so guess which two games were the ones that never actually got released? While Super Pac-Man can feel free to eat poison, Jr. Pac-Man never coming out is an absolute gaming tragedy. It was completed 100%, and had it actually released, it almost certainly would have been the best game for the Atari 5200 that was based on an arcade game. Jr. Pac-Man is already a historically-underrated title that added multiple layers to the concept that actually worked wonderfully. This time around, the maze is bigger than the screen. The exits are gone, so you actually have to use the maze layouts to outwit the ghost monsters. It doesn’t seem like a massive change. Hell, if anything, it was the logical progression of the series when you really think about it. I mean, duh! Make the maze bigger than the screen! What else could they do? Add a terrible physical pinball machine to it and have the action jump from a terrible video game to a terrible pinball machine? Why would they do that? That’d be a stupid idea! Cough.

The seven mazes of Jr. Pac-Man are, frankly, the best in the series. Some of them are absolutely bonkers, like this one. Look at the area around the power pellets. That’s an intense squeeze right there. But, unlike the Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man, it works here because there’s other places to scratch-out enough distance to make a play for those sections. Plus, they always have power pellets in the more nail-biting, multiple-out areas.

Pac-Man’s formula only works if the chase is fun. For the chase to be fun, the mazes have to be oriented for close calls and nail-biting races. General Computer already proved they understood this a lot better than even Namco did with Ms. Pac-Man, but they absolutely crushed it with Jr. Pac-Man. The franchise has never had better playgrounds for zigging and zagging around the maze trying to just scratch-out enough clearance between you and the ghosts! And there’s SEVEN mazes this time! That by itself would have been enough, but then Jr. Pac-Man found yet another method of adding tension: the bonus fruit. It hops around the maze, like in Ms. Pac-Man, but with a twist: it converts any normal dot it passes over into a mega-dot that scores more points. BUT, it takes longer to eat the mega-dots, as you pause ever so slightly when you pass over them, which can lead to incredibly tense moments if you have ghosts right on you and all that’s left to eat are those type of dots.

Namco’s treatment of Pac-Man in the wake of the original reminds me of George Lucas with Star Wars, where he later showed that his understanding of why people loved the franchise was completely wrong. In Namco’s case, they really thought the eating and collecting aspect was the appeal. It wasn’t. It’s primarily the chase, with the turning the tables aspect with the power pellets being secondary to that. That’s why their official sequels in the early-to-mid 80s all sucked, while General Computer, who fundamentally understood the appeal, created two stellar sequels that hold up to repeat play even four decades later. It wasn’t until Pac-Mania that Namco finally figured out what makes Pac-Man tick.

Oh, and there’s one final twist: you can’t just let the bonus fruit (or toys in this game’s case) bounce around, converting dots. You HAVE to eat them, because they’re actually weaving their way towards the power pellets, which they destroy if they touch. It leads to situations where you end up rushing towards the toy, eyes wide open in terror, hoping it doesn’t make it to the pellet before you do, and it’s so good. It’s genuinely heartbreaking that nothing is being done with Jr. Pac-Man. It has not clout. It gets no re-releases. Why? Who knows. All I do know is that the 5200 port of Jr. Pac-Man is damn near perfect. It controls like a dream. The ghost AI is the best on the console. It got the timing of the mega-dots perfectly. It doesn’t even feel like they made any concessions at all. Really, as a port, the only knock I have is that the 5200 port doesn’t have the positively adorable cut-scenes of Junior becoming besties with a shy ghost monster toddler and the two crushing on each-other. Seriously, that shouldn’t have warmed my heart as much as it did, but they were just so damn cute! Not so cute is that this, probably the best arcade port on a console with a library comprised mostly of arcade ports, has not seen the light of day. Will someone fix this, please?
Verdict: YES!

Ms. Pac-Man
Platform: Atari 2600
Year: 1983
Designed by Mike Horowitz, Josh Littlefield

I wouldn’t even be born for another six years when this came out, and yet I feel retroactively happy for those huge fans of Pac-Man who only owned an Atari 2600. I sure hope they got their hands on this.

Ms. Pac-Man 2600 isn’t a direct port of the arcade game. The mazes aren’t arcade accurate at all. In comparing them, I realized what they don’t do that the arcade version does: cross sections to walls. So, there’s no barriers shaped like Ts, Hs, or +s. Bummer, right? Well, the thing is, they all still feel like a close cousin of their arcade counterparts, created in spirit of the original levels. They’re spiritually accurate. Of course, the difference maker is this port was done by the same people who did the actual Ms. Pac-Man coin-op. While it does have an unshakable feel of someone finally saying “eh, that’s close enough!” it’s still a game that makes feel all warm inside. Like, this was the best possible make-good that could have been made in the wake of the Atari 2600 Pac-Man. While this sold nowhere near as many copies as the original game, almost two-and-a-half million people bought this version, and it’s solid. Great play control. Good mazes. The thrill of the chase is present and awesome. There is something about this specific port that feels like it has a soul. That the people who made it played the Tod Frye Pac-Man and had a wrong to right. This port is a labor of love, and a game that feels worthy of wearing the title of Ms. Pac-Man, one of the all-time great arcaders.
Verdict: YES!

Ms. Pac-Man
Platform: Atari 5200
Year: 1983
Designed by Allen Wells and Steve Szymanski

It looks the part, right? Well, just read. This was notable in a way I’m honestly floored by.

I’ve been playing video games now for over a quarter of a century, and I’ve never experienced anything like what I’m about to describe to you. When I booted-up Ms. Pac-Man, I found it to be a visually accurate but quite slow and sluggish approximation of the Ms. Pac-Man arcade game. In fact, while playing the first maze, I found it SO skippy and laggy and badly animated that I shook my head and said “wow, the 2600 version plays better than this. And Pac-Man 5200 was certainly a better translation from a gameplay perspective.” I just wanted to be done with it and decided I would run through every maze and then just do a single-paragraph review noting that it feels like a rough, rushed port that feels like the 5200 can barely sustain without catching fire.

I’ll take this time to note that the ghosts are actually not slouches. I figure that’s worth mentioning. Also worth mentioning is the mazes aren’t a 100% accurate take, but they’re so close that it’s negligible.

AND THEN.. on the fifth maze.. it happened. I noticed the ghosts just dashed out of the starting gates at a reasonable speed. Then I realized I, too, was moving at a reasonable speed. What.. the.. fudge? Yea, the sluggishness, out of nowhere, just goes away and the game becomes a reasonable pace from there out. Well, except when one of the fruits starts dancing around the maze, at which point the performance takes a slight dip, though it’s still much faster than the first four levels, where the arrival of the fruit makes you fear that your Atari 5200 is going to pass away of natural causes. Now, to make sure that it wasn’t some PC-related performance, I started over. I rebooted the computer. I tried this on an entirely different emulator on a different computer. It happened every time. It’s not the emulator. This is a thing the game does. Did nobody at Atari notice this?

This was supposed to be one of the easy reviews. I need to stop assuming this. It always comes back to bite me in the ass. Like when I bought the unicorn coloring book game with the intent of doing a joke review and it ended up being so putrid I had to do a real, actual review of a goddanged children’s coloring book game. When I assume, I make an ass out of me, and u get to read the results. That’s not how that saying goes but screw it, it’s 9:23PM on Christmas and I’m still editing this damn thing.

Twenty-six years of gaming and this is a problem I’ve never before encountered. Those opening levels aren’t just a little teeny tiny bit sluggish. They’re sluggish to the point that its jarring. What’s especially weird is that this doesn’t end when you switch to a different maze. It’s the third (and final) level in the second maze that suddenly it pops the gear and actually becomes a decent version of Ms. Pac-Man. Before that? It’s not an enjoyable at all. So, how the hell do I evaluate this? It feels weird that you actually have to make an effort just for the game to run at its fullest potential. I don’t like the idea of that one bit. I initially suspected Ms. Pac-Man was rushed to the market to beat the 1983 holiday season, but that’s apparently not the case. Either way, yea, in my opinion, those first four stages were a deal breaker. A historically one-off problem I hope to never encounter again.
Verdict: NO!

Pac Man
Platform: Atari 2600
Year: 1982
Designed by Tod Frye

Let me preface this by saying that NO ONE GAME is responsible for the Great Video Game Crash. It was a long, drawn-out series of events culminating in Atari head Ray Kassar selling 5,000 shares of his Warner Bros. stock literally 23 minutes before Warner announced that Atari had a much less successful fiscal quarter than they had publicly projected. If any one thing crashed the game industry, it was that stunt which, frankly, should have landed him in prison. Of course, nobody wants to talk about that because it’s more fun to blame E.T. 2600. But, if I were to pretend one game crashed the game industry, well, the clear choice is Pac-Man 2600. It’s the best selling game on the VCS, and I think it shook consumer confidence. Imagine you saw your child play the arcade Pac-Man and then you got them this abomination and it’s awful and they don’t want to play it. Would you trust any other arcade port that came after? Or any game at all for that matter? Atari carts were expensive. Game rentals weren’t a big thing back then. There weren’t a lot of ways to try a game out. Pac-Man 2600, more than any other game, made each new game a risk. So, yea, blame Pac-Man. But, really, blame Kassar. Adjusted for inflation, Martha Stewart went to federal pokey and then had to wear a stylish ankle monitor for five months over less money. “Hmmm, what’s the difference between her and Kassar?” said Cathy as her gaze slowly stared to pan down to the space between her own legs. “Oh, right.”

One of gaming’s most oft-told urban legends is that Pac-Man 2600 was barely out of the alpha phase when Ray Kassar ordered it straight into manufacturing as-is. Even I’ve repeated it, even though it’s likely not true. Designer Tod Frye insists that nobody within the bullpen at Atari told him the game sucked, and Atari developers did have a reputation of telling each-other when something was crap or not (which works, by the way. That practice turned a boring Space Invaders knock-off played from a different camera angle into Tempest). Yet, the “Pac-Man 2600 was a prototype” legend is totally believable. This is a TERRIBLE port. The stuff of nightmares. How did this happen? Pac-Man 2600’s badness is so multi-faceted that I can’t believe it’s not studied in game design school. The most obvious flaw is the maze isn’t oriented for exciting chasing, which is what Pac-Man absolutely needs to work. In fact, I think it has the single worst maze of the entire franchise, and I can show why. First, what makes a good Pac-Man maze? You need straightaways, bends, and “elbows” with enough areas that are closed-off by walls to be able to scratch-out enough distance between you and the ghosts to either make progress on the side of the maze you’re on OR to lure the ghosts to one side of the maze, then go through the exit and safely work on the other side the screen.

None of that works in the 2600 version because of the shape, size, and rules of the exits. The walls are too small and have too many gaps, which creates shortcuts for the ghosts. Why can’t they be shortcuts for YOU, too? Because the ghosts outnumber you and you’re always within spitting distance of enough pathways to accommodate them. No matter where you go to clear the distance, they can always just cut you off at the pass because there’s not enough straightaways and the areas along the sides have too many gaps. In the above picture, count the amount of gaps in the two circles I’ve made, and then remember that there’s four ghosts, with two sets of behavior. You’re left without any room to dodge out of the way because you’re always dodging into an area that has multiple points of entrance that are right on top of you. Plus, the maze is just too small in general, so getting distance AT ALL is a chore.

Finally, the exit just doesn’t work because Frye didn’t seem to understand the point of it. The exit (or “warp tunnel”, whatever) is done vertically instead of horizontally and there’s seriously no walls between the two except one teeny-tiny corner “door” in front of each side that’s so small and so quick to get past that it doesn’t even qualify as an inconvenience. The only two straightaways are two full-screen ones laid out in the center of the maze? When the exits are vertical? What the ever loving hell? When I played and tried to use the exit, the ghosts didn’t bother following me. They just took the literal straight path with no resistance up to the other side. The size of the maze being too short is further made worse because there’s a large delay when using the exit. The time it takes you to pop out the other side means that, by time you do, the ghosts are basically as close to you now as they were on the other side. It takes so long to come out the other side it completely undoes any advantage of using it, especially when the ghosts never take it themselves (hell, I don’t even know if they CAN use it!). Why even bother having them? They’re functionally useless! Hell, they might as well have just stuck a cot there and let the poor guy take a nap.

And why the hell does Pac-Man have eyes? The original was a circle with a wedge removed from it. HOW HARD IS IT TO DO THAT? This is like Atari played the telephone game with Pac-Man. They formed a daisy-chain of twenty people. The first on the left side played Pac-Man for sixty seconds then described what it was like to the next person, who described it to the next person, who described it to the next person, and so forth, and so forth, until the worst video game ever made came out the other side. Because, having forced myself to play this for a lot longer than my previous five minute sessions, yea, this is the very worst video game ever made. It’s not just the gameplay but the cost to the industry.

Everything that made the arcade game work is gone here. This is Pac-Man that doesn’t understand Pac-Man at all. Plus, the charm is completely gone. The sound effects are my idea of what Hell must sound like. The infamous flicker makes it look like your monitor is going out. Hell, even the collision feels like it’s too loaded for ghosts, where they practically can get you despite being catty-corner from you. It’s a game that makes you want to believe prototype story. Because, if it’s not true, it means nobody gave a crap. I hear Tod Frye is a nice guy, but this is NOT the Pac-Man that people would have ever wanted. It’s not even in the ballpark, which makes me wonder if they bothered to buy a cabinet and place it near his office. Pac-Man 2600 feels like a bootleg! The exact kind of knock-off that Atari vigorously sued other game companies to stop from being made. And don’t say that it was the best they could do at the time. I get that Pac-Man was a very complicated game that used technology far ahead of the Atari 2600. I’m not blaming Frye. This should have been a company-wide project. Don’t put it on one guy to get it right. What the heck is that, even? Why did they do games that way? Oh sure, sometimes they’d have separate graphics and sound people. But really, a license this big, at this time, should have been a “drop what you’re doing and work on Pac-Man NOW” situation. Frye made over a million bucks from his royalties on this, and good for him on that because this wasn’t his fault. Nothing short of a morning-after pill would have helped with this one.
Verdict: NO!

Pac Man
Platform: Atari 5200
Year: 1982
Designed by James Andreasen

It looks like Pac-Man if Pac-Man, maze and all, was run over by a steamroller.

In 1982, the Atari 5200 cost about $600 in today’s dollars, and its marketing mostly centered around Pac-Man. If you owned the Atari 2600 version of that game and then saw THIS, which has the iconic blue-and-black maze that’s MOSTLY the right shape, the right-shape for character, a lack of flicker, the correct orientation of the exits, and distinct items, that would be the best advertising for the 5200 imaginable. Of course, $600 is a LOT of money to spend on a game that, frankly, gets old fast. Now, I played this with a PlayStation 5 controller (these days, it’s my default emulation controllers. Comfy controller is the PS5 pad), so I didn’t have to experience what is reported to be the misery of playing Pac-Man with a joystick that doesn’t self-center. I’ve heard from a lot of 5200 owners that Pac-Man was nearly unplayable because of that. But, I don’t think the issue was JUST the Atari 5200 controller. Playing this with a modern top-of-the-line controller that worked just fine in every other game, I still couldn’t take corners accurately. To make sure my timing wasn’t just way off, I tried the arcade Pac-Man. Worked fine. So, actually, The Atari 5200 version is problematic beyond the hardware. Also, it has some of the dumbest ghosts in the entire franchise. Pac-Man 5200 is a big improvement over the Atari 2600 version, but then again, that’s a game that’s improved by a firing barrel, a gasoline canister, and a match.
Verdict: NO!

Pigs in Space starring Miss Piggy
Platform: Atari 2600
Year: 1983
Designed by Michael Sierchio

Make sure to say it right: PIGSSSSS IN SPAAAAAAACEEEEE! Hell, I was born in 1989 and even I knew to say it that way. Anyway, this is the best Space Invaders game on the 2600. Yes, for real.

Pigs in Space is kind of like Gorf run through a Muppets filter. Actually, it’s genuinely the first mass-market video game satire. I think. 1983. Was the medium old enough for someone to release a winking tongue-in-cheek parody of games like this before? It’s three completely unrelated classic arcade tropes thrown into one cart. It doesn’t even feel like it’s optimized for children, either, like you’d expect it to be. It’s true to the satirical nature of the source material, the Muppet Show, making this one of the most accurate licensed games too. It’s also one of the strongest games based on a movie/TV property on the Atari 2600. Weirdly.. and seriously, I can’t stress enough how surprising this is.. it might have the smoothest and best take on Space Invaders in the entire VCS library. And it’s genuinely fun, controls great, and has a charming facade covering up the tired, old gameplay. After the first wave, things get pretty intense. The humor, by the way, is spot on. This might be the first home console game aiming for deliberate comedy, and it absolutely scores. You get turned into a chicken if one of the chickens successfully poops on you. Chickens are funny. It’s a default thing, mostly because we disassemble them, batter them, fry them, and eat them. And there’s nothing they can do about it.

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The other two games aren’t as strong. Especially Miss Piggy’s game, which is a send-up of crossing-the-road games like Frogger, only it’s completely toothless. Which.. yea, so are the Muppets, come to think of it, but I meant it’s not a hard game to win. In it, you don’t lose a life if you collide with any of the objects, and instead you only fail if you can’t reach the ship before it leaves the screen. Not that it’s bad or anything, but I had runs of it that only lasted a couple seconds before I won. The final segment features the Swinetrek and satirizes shmups, and it has a truly weird attack method. When you shoot, your bullet hooks to the left or right, depending on which direction you last pushed. Getting the hang for the physics of this was actually neat, and there’s another slapstick twist worthy of the source material: if you miss, your own bullet could come back down and could kill you. This part had the most potential, but it crawls along at a snail’s pace and only has one type of enemy (plus you die if you touch the walls, which you will). So, how do I rate a game like this? While it was intended as a joke, you know what? It ain’t boring, that’s for sure. There’s some good gameplay in here, especially the first segment. You can take the games in any order too, and if you only want to play one of the games, just don’t choose the others! Do you love Space Invaders? This is the best Space Invaders-like on the console. So yea, Pigs in Space ain’t bad at all. Who’d of thunk it?
Verdict: YES!

Red Baron
Platform: Arcade
Year: 1981

Red Baron: excellent video game, inedible frozen cardboard pizza.

Okay, okay, I’m cheating here. Atari absolutely COULD release Red Baron, but I wanted to include it in this feature anyway. For me, the most shocking missing game from Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration was Red Baron. It previously was in Atari Flashback Classics and was one of only six arcade games I gave a YES! to for that set. Using the same technology as Battlezone (which Atari has permanently lost the rights to), I actually think Red Baron is the stronger game. It has more variety and satisfying combat. I don’t know what it is about aviation dog fights that capture my imagination, but I really wish there were more games like this. I played a TON of Crimson Skies on Xbox Live in my teens. Maybe I was a fighter pilot in a past life? It’s remarkable how much this holds up. My one knock on it is that being able to tell what bullets are going to score a hit on you can sometimes be hard to judge. Plus, the enemy fire gets positively spammy after five minutes. But, Red Baron feels like it’s really ahead of its time and still manages to be a joy to play even forty years later. It’s a shame that it slipped through the pages of history to such a degree that even Atari left it out of its prestigious collection. Had to make room for Evolution Dino Dudes, I guess.
Verdict: YES!

Snoopy and the Red Baron
Platform: Atari 2600
Year: 1983
Designed by Nick Turner

For a game aimed at kids, Snoopy and the Red Baron is actually a little more intense with its main villain than you’d expect.

How in the heck are there not one.. not two.. but THREE games based on the running gag from the Peanuts comic strip where Snoopy imagines himself as a fighting the Red Baron in World War I? Do you know what’s even weirder? All three of them were actually somewhere between decent and genuinely very good. I liked Snoopy vs. The Red Baron for PlayStation and Snoopy’s Flying Aces on Xbox Live. This is the OG Snoopy flying game, and it’s simple and shallow but, actually, not a bad little game at all. As I stated in the Bugs Bunny section, Snoopy was the surviving child in Atari’s version of Sophie’s Choice. Actually, Snoopy and the Red Baron is so obviously better that I can’t believe they wasted the time and money with focus testing to decide its fate. You’re Snoopy flying on his dog house and you have to shoot down the infamous Red Baron in a never-ending series of dog fights. I mean the kind between airplanes, not the Michael Vick kind.

Occasionally, the Baron will fly up into the clouds and drop items for you to collect, which actually does work at breaking-up the repetitive gameplay.

Surprisingly, this actually does successfully feel like dog fighting. This is owed to the fact that the Red Baron isn’t just cannon fodder. He uses strategy and evasive moves as he tries to position himself to be able to fire onto you. He has advantages over Snoopy as well. You can’t fly up into the clouds, so he’ll spend a LOT of time just above your line of sight. I thought maybe it was too much time at first, but then I realized you have to be a little manipulative and not always just tail right behind him. Because the Baron actually feels like it has some intelligence, it’s pretty satisfying to shoot him down. This is a game that survives on charm too. Snoopy’s scarf vibrates in wind, and the Baron’s shots register as bullet holes in your dog house, straight out of the comics and cartoons. Hell, the game even gets teeth after you complete two waves of four Barons, with him becoming a lot faster and more aggressive. It’s not a deep game by any means. With the exception of the brief one-second sections where he drops points you have to catch, the entire game is fighting this one enemy over and over again. I wouldn’t want to be stuck with it for hours, but if it were to ever be part of a collection like Atari 50, it wouldn’t be an unwelcome addition at all.
Verdict: YES!

Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Platform: Atari 2600
Year: 1983
Designed by Peter C. Niday

The mountain scene. You shoot the fireworks with magic and catch stars. And yes, a stripped-down, Atarified version of Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas plays during the game.

This was yet another in the series of licensed Atari 2600 games aimed at young children that isn’t that bad. Based on the famous Mickey Mouse scene from Fantasia, Sorcerer’s Apprentice is kind of like a spinning-plate game that’s divided into two screens. The first one is sort of like a retro demake of the PlayStation 2 launch title Fantavision. You use magic to shoot what looks like fireworks out of the sky while also catching falling stars. Any stars you don’t catch turn into brooms that contribute to the flood happening in the basement. Shooting the fireworks in the first screen creates empty buckets that helps bail out the water that’s flooding the basement in the second screen. Here, you only have to touch the brooms to stop them, and any buckets you’ve made will lower the water level. The game keeps going until the basement fully floods. It’s an incredibly simple and shallow game that’s clearly made for younger children. Well, yeah, obviously. Remember, this came out in 1983, back when Disney was DISNEY dagnabit!

The basement scene. You just touch the brooms to stop them. If you give this a shot, don’t bother with the first mode. Go to Game 2. I think Game 3 is comically fast and Game 1 is comically slow. Game 2 is just right. Oh and there’s a children’s mode in game 4. Seriously, how young is THAT mode aimed at? Fetuses? Because this isn’t the hardest game, except maybe on the third mode.

But, I actually did enjoy the unique concept. Which took me by surprise because I’m not the biggest spinning-plate fan in the world. It’s doubly surprising because Sorcerer’s Apprentice takes far too long to build up a sense of urgency that makes spinning-plate games work to begin with. Even on the higher difficulties (I found Game 3, the highest difficulty, shot the moon and was too fast) you don’t feel any pressure. Once the tension finally kicks-in, I started to be wooed by the unique concept, the charming graphics, and cathartic nature of the gameplay. I wish it had more going for it, and I wish the targets in the shooting gallery were more clear and less abstract, but as far as games made for small children go, this ain’t too shabby. It feels like the basis for a Game & Watch release that got stretched into a full-sized Atari cart.
Verdict: YES!

Space Invaders
Platform: Atari 2600
Year: 1980
Designed by Richard Maurer

I think the second one from the top is kind of adorable. And also, it looks like you’re shooting the invaders with a Douglas Fir.

This was it. This was the game that blew-up the Atari 2600. I hate when older people exaggerate tales of Space Invaders. No, the Japanese didn’t have to mint more 100-yen coins. Think of how stupid the logic of that myth is. So many coins in these machines.. the most profitable machines in the world.. that they had to make more coins. Do these people think the machine owners just held onto the coins? Because, like, isn’t that the only way that would possibly cause such a shortage? Another myth is that there’s never been a response to a game like Space Invaders, either in arcades or the 2600 version. Were that true.. and it’s not.. it’s like saying the last episode of M*A*S*H* will never be beaten in the ratings. Well.. yea. It had to compete against like three other channels, not hundreds of cable TV channels and the internet on top of that. Space Invaders was maybe the first big deal for a cart-based console, but.. like.. someone was going to be, right? Had it not been Space Invaders, it would have been Pac-Man, which outsold it by nearly two million units despite being terrible game.

While I was doing Space Invaders, I just had to give the legendary Pepsi Invaders a try. 125 copies of this were made for the workers of a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Atlanta, GA. It’s Space Invaders, set on a three minute timer, where you shoot the the letters in PEPSI along with one of the aliens. It’s the holy of holies of Atari collectors. If you live in Atlanta, I’d be checking out garage sales. Oh, and when time runs out, the words COKE WINS appear on screen. Oh, I’m confident coke won when they came up with commissioning this idea.

No, do you know what I think is the REAL story with Space Invaders? Not that it was the first killer app, but rather the standard it set to what a killer app SHOULD be. Atari had a lot of arcade translations by this point, but Space Invaders came with a much higher degree of difficulty than any of those games had to get the home version right. With Pac-Man, we’ve seen how that could go disastrously wrong. In the case of Space Invaders 2600, they nailed it. It’s a very good translation of the most popular game in the world, at least at the time. Would I want to play it in the 2020s? Oh, god no. Hell, I wouldn’t have wanted to play it by time I started gaming in the 1990s. Gaming has come so far and this formula has been done better so many times. I don’t even like Galaga, but I’d hook an IV to my arm and mainline Galaga before I was forced to play Space Invaders.. or so I thought.

Not so good were the invisible modes, which I think are lame as hell. And I just found out these are actually kind of popular in retro circles. I don’t get it. Maybe because they’re all on the cusp of being senior citizens and can’t see anymore, anyway?

Being a prime-era Atari 2600 cart, they threw in some nice twists to Space Invaders 2600. I like the modes where the shields move back and forth. I like the modes where the Invaders’ bullets come at you from diagonal angles. I really like that there’s an option for doing both those things at the same time. Is it enough to save Space Invaders from the NO! Pile? Actually.. YES! I’m as surprised as you are, but it was just enough to keep my eyes glued to the screen. Like so many games during this run I’m on, I intended to play this for fifteen, twenty minutes and I ended up going an hour. But, of all the games I’ve done that with, none surprised me more than Space Invaders. I thought “there’s no way!” Oh, there was a way. That’s one thing I admire about the Atari 2600 during this period: they sure loaded the carts with every imaginable variation on the game to give people their money’s worth. These days, you’d get nickled-and-dimed for all those extra modes as paid DLC. Hey, I never said EVERY aspect of gaming is better today!
Verdict: YES!
And hell, throw in a YES! for Pepsi Invaders too because I like competitive modes set to a timer.

Space Invaders
Platform: Atari 5200
Year: 1982
Designed by Eric Manghise

The aliens actually change shape in this one every couple rounds. Well, at least it breaks up the monotony, I guess.

Oddly enough, Space Invaders for the 5200 is not a straight conversion of the arcade game. Same basic principle: aliens march at you and you shoot them. There is a couple twist this time though. The most noticeable.. and it’s a weird decision.. is having the aliens march-in from outside the left side of the screen. So, when a round begins, you have wait for them to actually enter the screen. I don’t get why they did that. It certainly doesn’t make the game better. If anything, it detracts from the purity of the game by forcing the player to move left and start pinging them aliens. The other twist is having mutating invaders begin to show up in the forth wave. As far as I can tell, they don’t actually behave differently, but if you kill them when they’re in their in the middle of morphing, they score no points. Space Invaders 5200 uses a color-coated scoring system, and if you care about that stuff, the morphing enemies fails completely because, again, the way they march from out of the screen forces you to shoot and shoot quickly. You don’t have enough time to time it, because this version of Space Invaders has an emphasis on the automatic game over from the aliens reaching the bottom. This is because the aliens are physically too big while the playfield is too small.

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Trying to change the formula was nice, I guess, but this is not a good port of Space Invaders. The bizarre choice to have the enemies appear from outside the screen all but eliminates the ability for players to come up with their own strategies for playing. That’s one of the aspects of Golden Age games I put the highest premium on, because you need that flexibility to be immersed in the gameplay. It’s also not a well-balanced Space Invaders take, either. Right from the start, the faster-paced aliens and their low proximity to the ground means you have to shoot very accurately to assure they don’t reach the bottom. It’s too cramped. I was stunned at how fast things escalated in the first couple stages. My father’s theory is that they had the aliens start off-screen so that it would educate players to take out full columns instead of pinging them off row-by-row. It would be a sound theory, except that only makes sense for the first level. My theory is that they made the aliens too big and the playfield too small and the game over would have happened even faster if they hadn’t waddled in from the outside. What a disaster. Space Invaders was the Atari 2600’s killer app and I’m sure Atari figured everyone buying a 5200 probably owned it already, so they wanted to change things up. That’s not the worst idea, but how they went about the changes might have been.
Verdict: NO!

Star Wars
Platform: Arcade
Year: 1983
Designed by Mike Hally

Today I learned that the “TIE” in TIE Fighter stands for “twin ion engines.” I’m almost certain I heard this before, but for whatever reason, my brain has said “screw Star Wars” and started deleting all trivia for it. Now, I have no control over what completely useless crap sticks in my head cheese. I can tell you off the top of my head who was the leading scorer of the NBA during the 1972-73 season (it was Tiny Archibald at 34ppg for Kansas City-Omaha Kings. He also led the league in assists at 11apg that season, the only time that’s ever been done) or who invented Lucky Charms (John Holahan, who ripped a few Circus Peanut marshmallows into chunks and sprinkled them over a bowl of Cheerios) but my brain is opting-out of Star Wars trivia. I blame Disney. And drugs. It was probably the drugs.

If you were to only own one Arcade1Up cabinet, Star Wars would probably be the one to own. This is thanks to that being the only way to have the immersive yoke controller that, despite the wireframe vector graphics, still makes you feel like you’re genuinely piloting a X-Wing and fighting the Empire. A 1983 arcade game should not feel this immersive, nor should it be this accurate to the movie. Star Wars is a historically remarkable achievement. But, assuming Atari could work out a deal to bring this to Atari 50 as a DLC release, that ain’t going to be an option. You’ll be stuck using a normal game controller. Without the yoke, is Star Wars any good? The answer is still yes, only with significantly less immersion and a complete loss of charm.

Functionally, Star Wars is a sequel to Atari’s 1981 vector graphics sky fighter Red Baron. It is remarkable that not one but TWO Atari first-person vector graphics aerial dogfight games held-up to the test of time. Star Wars does manage to successfully recreate the look of the film to such a degree that you can tell yourself you’re actually looking at the targeting computer from the film. The TIE Fighters and the Death Star look great, and it’s so satisfying to shoot them down. The issue is that the gameplay basically only lasts maybe three minutes at most before everything starts looping over and over again. Shoot down a few TIEs, shoot the bullets they fire at you, then go in for the trench run, where you shoot all the projectiles coming at you and various wall targets. Hit the correct spot to blow up the Death Star, then start over with more difficulty. Oh and a new buffer sequence where you fly along the surface of the Dearth Star is added between the first and last phases where you have to take out turrets.

That’s no moon.

Your first run from the time you load your quarter until the moment you destroy the Death Star will barely take three minutes. In a way, I kind of admire that Atari didn’t make the game too difficult, so that every arcade-going child could experience being the hero of the Rebel Alliance. At the same time, despite the fun and energetic combat, there’s sure not a lot of meat on these bones. Does it get old fast? Oh yea. Star Wars is unique in that it’s both timeless, and yet, not something that holds up to repeat play. It relies heavily on the novelty factor. But, it’s still an unforgettable experience while it lasts. I’ve witnessed a twelve-year-old Star Wars fan positively lose his mind, overjoyed playing this nearly forty-year-old arcade game, and that’s something you don’t get a lot of with many Golden Age coin-ops. Would that happen without the full arcade experience? Probably not to that degree. Lots of games suffer from lack of authentic controllers, but none would suffer more while still getting a YES! than Star Wars.
Verdict: YES!

Star Wars: The Arcade Game
Platform: Atari 2600
Year: 1984
Designed by Bradley G. Stewart, Bob Smith, and Neil McKenzie
Developed by Parker Bros

For the Atari 2600 version, you play all three scenes in sequential order. It’s still barely a three minute to see everything experience, and this time the controls are genuinely miserable.

I would LOVE to know the story on this one. Atari makes the arcade game, but Parker Bros. owns the rights to Star Wars on consoles and gets to create their own version of Atari’s arcade game AND place it on Colecovision in addition to Atari’s platforms. I can’t find anything on whether they owed Atari royalties on it or not, but I’m giggling sadistically at the thought of how awkward that phone call between Manny Gerard and Ray Kassar must have been. Gerard and Warner Bros. head Steve Ross blew a gasket on Kassar when they found out Atari didn’t take the home video license for Donkey Kong, so just imagine how peeved they must have been when they found out Atari didn’t own the rights to the single hottest film franchise in history up to that point. Of course, by this point, Atari had the vastly superior (not to mention more appropriate for home consoles) Star Raiders on their platforms. Star Wars, despite coming to the 2600 barely a year after the arcade port, feels old and fuddy duddy already. Some people think this port is a remarkable effort for the lowly 2600, but I think the controls are sluggish and miserable. You also have inverted controls, which is fine for an arcade game but don’t work at all here. I actually do believe this is probably the best they could do for the console, but the combat doesn’t satisfy anywhere near as much as the arcade, and the Death Star trench run lacks the spectacle. The Force was not with this port.
Verdict: NO!

Star Wars: The Arcade Game
Platform: Atari 5200
Year: 1984
Designed by Bradley G. Stewart, Bob Smith, and Neil McKenzie
Developed by Parker Bros

When you look at the graphics for the Atari 5200, it really makes you go “what were they thinking?” By this point, Colecovision wasn’t too far off, and it made the 5200 look so old already.

The Atari 5200’s disastrous run wasn’t on account of its game library. While I guess it sounds like owners did struggle to actually find places that sold games, if they could find them, they’d find plenty of quality arcade ports. For all the console’s weaknesses, the Atari 5200’s version of Star Wars: The Arcade Game is perfectly fine, I guess. While it could never hope to recreate the immersive charm of the coin-op, it does a lot better at recreating the gameplay than the 2600 port. The more accurate graphics make the combat somewhat satisfying, although the game does still manage to lose the pizazz of the trench run sequence. Again, the elephant in the room is that Star Wars is an experience best suited for arcades. The Atari 5200 had the excellent Star Raiders at launch. A similar premise, only optimized for home consoles and made deeper and more rewarding. If you were absolutely gaga for the Star Wars coin-op, I suppose this would have satisfied you. I would think a kid would get very bored, very quickly with this, but I also wasn’t even alive in 1984, so what do I know?
Verdict: YES!

Superman
Platform: Atari 2600
Year: 1983
Designed by John Dunn

Superman, seen here carrying Lois Lane by the throat. DA NUNUNUNU NA NA NA!

Being a game critic with a reputation for psychopathy, many of my Twitter followers are always floored to find out that I love Superman. Not the game. Oh no. No no no no. Superman the character. Actually, no.. Superman the concept. I’m totally fine with the big blue boy scout. There’s plenty of nuanced, deep comic characters with complex problems. Shouldn’t it be okay for just one of them to be the boring goody-good that rescues cats out of trees? A hero who will always make people aspire to their better angels? Let Superman be the one thing in pop culture that we agree is okay to be boring and predictable. Because, by God, the poor guy has earned it at this point. Especially with his video game legacy. Superman was actually one of the first Atari 2600 games, and the proud owner of many historic firsts. It’s the first licensed home console game not based on a game property and the world’s first superhero game. It actually uses the same engine that was built for Adventure, yet it beat Adventure to the market by several years. And, in my opinion, it’s the better game. All these years later and it’s arguably the best game starring the Man of Steel. Really!

Yes, that is supposed to be Lex Luthor wearing a helicopter belt. It was a different time.

This isn’t some lazy action game. There’s stuff to do. You start by seeing the Metropolis bridge destroyed as Clark Kent. You have to hop into a phone booth.. kids, ask your parents what those were.. and turn into Superman. You have to capture Lex Luthor and all his minions and take them to jail, and you also have to find the three parts of the damaged bridge and put them back. This is the part that took me the longest to figure out how to do and I actually had to watch a YouTube video to figure out what I was doing wrong. It turns out, they don’t “lock into place” like you’d expect. You just sort of pile them up next to the gap on the correct screen and they’ll turn into the bridge. Once I understood this, the biggest issue was navigating Metropolis. You can use super vision to see the screens around you (it’s supposed to be his X-Ray vision, but like.. what is he seeing through? This is almost entirely taking place outside!), but even with that, finding the actual screen with the bridge section was the biggest pain in the ass.

It’s really not much to look at, which is why this is yet another game I’d love to see remade. Like.. seriously, Warner Bros., just copy this formula. Or hell, hire Atari to remake it and expand it.

There’s some WEIRD rules for this one. Like, for example, if you take damage from the “Kryptonite satellites” you have to cop a feel on Lois Lane to get your flying powers back.. how does that even make sense?.. and if she gets in the way, you can drop her back off at the Daily Planet. Know your place, Ms. Lane! Also, whenever you take damage, Lois automatically appears on the screen. I suppose the idea is that it puts her back in danger, since you can’t win if she’s not secured (at least I don’t think so. The instruction book wasn’t very helpful). Finally, there’s visibility issues with the things that harm you. I often could barely see the little spark that grounds you. But, you know what? Once you understand the rules, this isn’t a bad little adventure game. I certainly appreciate the ambition for this era. They could have done a half-assed shooter using his heat ray or something. They didn’t do that. They set out to make a game where you feel like a Silver Age version of Supes and I honestly think they did the very best they were capable of in 1978. So, hey, Superman got off to a good start in gaming, but I can think of, oh, sixty-four reasons why he should have quit while he was ahead.
Verdict: YES!

Super Pac-Man
Platform: Atari 5200
Unreleased Prototype
Designed by Landon Dyer

This stinks of “we were plum out of ideas.” On the plus side, it’s not as bad as Pac & Pal.

I’m not a fan at all of Super Pac-Man, so playing this fully completed but never released prototype wasn’t going to be a highlight for me. Having said that, I’m genuinely shocked they never went forward with releasing this. I mean, this isn’t exactly a non-entity of a game and it seems like would be good for a quick infusion of cash. It’s pathetic that both this and Jr. Pac-Man are much more arcade-accurate than Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man but 5200 owners never got a chance to buy them. Of course, being arcade-accurate isn’t a positive thing when you’re an arcade-accurate port of a terrible game. I think the gate concept of Super Pac-Man could have worked, but not with this maze. Oh no. Yea, this is the worst maze in any Pac-Man game besides the 2600 version, though all the problems with that one are sort of present to a lesser degree here. For Super Pac-Man, not only is it a bad layout, but it’s the only level, and one that doesn’t remotely lend itself to the chase-aspect Pac-Man needs to work for the excitement. The gates are further compromised by the Super Pac concept itself, where you can just, you know, eat the gates. On one hand, I feel bad for 5200 owners that they never got a chance to decide for themselves, because this is a remarkable effort compared to most Atari 5200 games. On the other hand, it’s a remarkable effort for a game even Pac-Man’s creator has said is boring.
Verdict: NO!

I’m just getting started, folks. Part Two will happen after I post the review for Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration!

Chompy Chomp Chomp Party (Review)

Another day, another former Xbox Live Indie Game designed for parties that slipped through the cracks of time. In the case of Chompy Chomp Chomp by Utopian World of Sandwiches, since this is technically a new version that I haven’t played before, I can’t award it a YOU HEARTLESS BASTARDS award. Yet. The point of this review is to do my part to circumvent that. And actually, unlike many great XBLIGs that have since gone to oblivion, Chompy actually DID come back once before, in 2016, under the name Chompy Chomp Chomp Party for Wii U. I admit, I didn’t play it there. I never really liked the Wii U, which is what largely cemented my reputation as being “anti-Nintendo.” Which hardly seems fair or accurate. I don’t hate Nintendo. I just hated the Wii U. It hurt my hands to use it and it caused me to sink into whatever I was sitting on by several inches. Like, seriously, I weigh nothing, yet now my La-Z-Boy has a permanent groove of my ass embedded in it. Which actually is the only good thing to come out of the Wii U. Now, that chair only fits me and my bony ass.

Where was I?

La-Z-Boys. Good chairs.

No wait, Chompy Chomp Chomp. Good party game Chompy Chomp Chomp is.

Make sure to have everybody pick distinctive colors. When we let people pick ANY color, some were a little to close to each-other and it caused “confusion” which was code for “I’ll take any semi-valid excuse why *I’m* not winning right now.” While on the subject: yes, there’s a wide variety of colors to choose from, so if you have a player who is partially colorblind, there should be enough options to accommodate them without compromising gameplay. This includes an arrow too, if someone needs it.

Unlike yesterday’s review for Hidden in Plain Sight, where I had to make a case for the game being adaptable to all ages, there’s no question about Chompy being for everybody. Yes, this is one of the most frantic, unhinged party experiences in gaming, but it’s also one of the most simple to understand. It’s a cat and mouse chase where you are both the cat for one player and the mouse for someone else. In the main mode, you’ll have a ring under your feet that designates the color of the player you must eat. You score points for eating them, but while you do this, someone has YOUR color ring and is trying to eat you. After a few seconds, the rings will rotate around, often to the very person you’re chasing. The end result is chaos. Plain and simple. You can tell yourself you’re going to keep your wits about you, but you can’t. Games of Chompy Chomp Chomp turn on a dime. Leads vanish. The player in last can turn things around quickly. There’s absolutely no finesse. It’s madness. Out and out madness.

And it’s awesome.

Online play has been removed in favor of eight-player mode. I’m fine with that, even if we found eight players on screen at once to be too busy. You can also include bots, though I found the bots to be predictable and dumb even on harder difficulties.

It’s such a simple idea too. Keeping it real: I had planned to delay this review to much later this month, or even early 2023. In fact, I’d already warned the developers of this. But then, I played the first game I’ve played in ten years that I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, would have killed in an 80s arcade. It made me think of the only other game I’ve ever reviewed that I know in my heart would have been a major success if it had released in an arcade in 1982 – 1986. A game that, realistically, could have been done in that era, or any era, really. Coincidentally, after a long road getting there, that game had just re-released on Nintendo Switch last month. Then, fatefully, we had family visit us this last weekend. Family with game-loving little kids. When fate calls, you don’t even need to check the caller ID! My Dad says that, and it sounds wise so I’ll steal it here even though it makes less and less sense the more I think about it. Everybody agreed to help me out so I could do a couple party games for content. Like Hidden in Plain Sight, we had a rotation of eight players between the ages of 75 to 6. You literally couldn’t get a better variety of players to fully review party games with, since every possible age range and gaming background was represented here.

You would think the Pac-Man-themed maps would be perfect for a game based around eating. Where you don’t have to press any buttons and the act of eating is just touch-only, which essentially makes Chompy a glorified game of Tag (as in “you’re it!”). But, actually, we hated these maps. It’s nothing like playing Pac-Man. You’re not simply moving in four straight directions. You have too much range and movement. Cornering and sharp turns are too hard on these levels, and causes games to degenerate into contests decided by who gets hung-up on walls the least. Stick to levels with lots of room to run and large barriers that make it obvious where to turn at.

We were originally going to do eight player games. But, we actually found that the eight players all at the same time was a little TOO crazy and TOO frantic, and in some modes, almost impossible, really. Locating your Chompy in modes where players tended to cluster and keeping track of all the happenings was too much to handle. Also, some players couldn’t tell one color apart from another in the heat of battle (purple and pink especially caused issues, though it wasn’t alone in that), so we moved to four-player-only matches. Besides, most of us didn’t want to hold a single Joy-Con sideways. Does ANYBODY like using a single Joy-Con turned on its side? Maybe the worst controller Nintendo ever did, and that’s before you even factor in how quickly drift starts to overcome them. Anyway, once we focused on four-player play (and moved everybody onto distinctive colors), everybody had a blast. And, guess what? Over the course of a couple hours of playtime, everybody won at least once.

I was the sole person who liked ball mode the best. Everybody else voted for Zone Dash, but being a weirdo, I voted for this. Hold the ball to score points. For extra spicy chaos, pick an especially small map. Some of the maps are TOO big and too twisty-turny (such as the Pac-Man tribute maps that I talked about above). Really, we had the most fun with the small to medium-small maps.

I don’t mean to imply that skill won’t get you anywhere. It’s no coincidence that most games were won by me, Dad, or 9-year-old TJ, my God-Nephew who plays way too much Fortnite. Skill certainly does seem to matter. But, 6-year-old Sasha and 75-year-old non-gamer AJ also won matches too. When it comes to gaming, we don’t go easy on children or grouchy old fogeys in our house. It’s a long-standing policy of ours, because then when they actually do legitimately start to win games, it means something. It’s a rite of passage. So that one and only time I forced my Dad to lay down his king in a game of Chess was, frankly, a moment, and when the kids beat us at Chompy, it was their moment. Sasha’s several dead-last finishes where she became a kindred spirit of Inky, Pinky, Blinky, Clyde, and Sue probably didn’t feel great. Do you know what I’m sure felt great? When she beat us, straight-up, at the cupcake eating mode, which is like the main mode only there’s also cupcakes of your designated attack-color to score points with as well. It didn’t even take that long for Sasha to get good, either, and after that, she was always in the mix right at the end of games and sometimes it was her taking the match. The label “fun for all ages” has always been overused.. and often misused.. in gaming, but Chompy Chomp Chomp Party is fun for all ages and a cinch to get the hang of. Someone new to gaming can hang with seasoned pros in under an hour. Not a lot of multiplayer-only games can say that.

Spooky Party, the $2.50 DLC, gives you Ghost Mode, four new maps, and a new theme for the randomly-generated levels. Is it worth it? Not really. Death Match, where you don’t come back to life when eaten and the last person standing wins, was our universal choice for worst mode. Ghost Mode was the universal runner-up to that. Here, you’re sort of invisible, and can only get a kill when you phase-in. It’s not very fun and it’s not worth an extra 25% of the cost of the main game by itself, nor are the graveyard skin and maps. Really, the only reason to buy this is to support the developers by kicking them an additional couple bucks. Which is a good enough reason, I suppose. But, officially, Chompy Chomp Chomp Party: Spooky Party DLC is NOT Chick-Approved and doesn’t factor into the rankings of Chompy Chomp Chomp Party on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.

Plus, it really feels like they’ve wrung every possible variation of the formula out of it. There’s six modes if you buy the main package, plus the seventh reviewed in the above caption. Surprisingly, a couple of the modes that move-away-from the color-coded dynamic are very strong in their own right. Our favorite by far was Zone Dash. At the start of the match, players dash to be the first to touch a marker on the screen. Once a person touches it, Chompy becomes a game of Reverse Tag where being “it” means you have to run for your life. There’s two zones, and you have to dodge everybody else as you scurry between the two. You score points every time you reach one, but if you get eaten, that player becomes “it.” When you become “it” you receive a burst of speed to separate you from the pack of other players you’re no doubt a part of, plus just a hint of invincibility that wears off quickly. If the “it” player makes it to a zone, they get another burst of speed and are invincible as long as they stay in the zone, BUT, they can’t camp there. It’ll quickly disappear. This formula was just flat-out insanity, where making two full round trips between the zones was a very impressive accomplishment. More than likely, you’ll last only long enough to draw a single breath. I didn’t think anything Utopian World of Sandwiches could include would be better than the main game, but low and behold, Zone Dash was easily the best way to play. By itself, it’s one of the fifty most fun experiences I’ve ever had with an indie game. Everybody kept wanting to go back to it.

Make sure to experiment with different maps too. Use the built-in random generator, and actually write down the seeds that work. The only thing missing is the ability to design your own. Most of the maps included are pretty good. Some work better for some game types and not others. pictured above was our favorite map for Zone Dash.

So, what’s the catch? Well, I don’t think there is one. I worried that, eventually, someone would separate themselves and become too good for the game to be fun for anybody else. Now, I don’t think any one player could practice enough to become unbeatable at this. I think most games will ultimately become a mindless free-for-all. But, as long as you pick the right maps, it never stops being fun. I guess the one thing that’s missing is a map creator, or maybe the ability to customize your Chompys. Really though, Chompy Chomp Chomp Party is optimized for pick-up-and-play gaming. I reckon this will be busted-out at parties in the Vice household from now on. Especially if there’s a lot of kids or non-gamers. We were all hollering and cheering and yelling the whole time. The only things that I didn’t like about the gameplay can actually be adjusted. You can remove specific items from the game (including whammies that slow you down, or the over-powered speed boosts) or turn off items all together, or increase how frequently items are dropped. Actual effort and experience will be needed to figure out which maps make for the best gameplay, but once you have a feel for that, you can have someone jump in who doesn’t play video games at all. We actually had a ninth player, the too-mature-for-games Sarah, join us for a couple rounds after her kids pestered her into it. She reluctantly said “okay, yes, that was fun” when she handed the controller off a couple games later. She finished dead last every game, but still had a good time. It’s a game that refuses to be anything else.

You can save three maps, or you can write the seeds down. This was a lot of fun and we did use it, BUT, we also never did find a map where we were like “oh, we HAVE to keep that one.” I really think they should have included a map creator. Especially since Chompy lends itself to house-rules type of situations. The formula is versatile enough that you could probably invent an E-Sport within the game, ala Griffball in Halo, but without the ability to create a custom map for it, that’s not really an option yet.

Chompy Chomp Chomp Party is a game that could have happened in any era. It would have looked different in 1985, but the hectic gameplay would have fit right-in. In fact, the thing that’s always weirded me out about Chompy is that nobody else thought of this first. It’s so obviously fated to be an electrifying formula, much more than other arcade-like versus games, that it’s weird it didn’t exist until 2012. Seriously, what’s the definitive 80s arcade party game? Warlords? This is in an entirely different league. It’s the best indie party game I’ve played, and I’ve played a lot more than my review index suggests I have. The problem is, I’ve always had trouble getting players for them. That won’t be a problem with Chompy ever again. I’ll have my entire family saying “you HAVE to play this!” next time. That speaks volumes to me. I expected us to mess around with this for an hour, just enough for me to get one final review of it in. Instead, we played it twice over the course of two days, about four hours all-in, and would have kept playing if Sarah and her kids didn’t have a six hour drive in front of them. Do you know what the kids did on the way home? They played Chompy Chomp Chomp Party in the car, and when they get home, they knew they had a fourth player to join them if they pestered hard enough. Sarah called us Monday and said “what have you done to me?” We laughed. She said “oh, eat me!” I said “we can’t. There’s no online play!”

Chompy Chomp Chomp Party is Chick-Approved
Leaderboard Ranking: #33 of 306 Indie Gamer Chick-Approved Indie Games*
Top 86.4 Percentile of All 640 IGC-Reviewed Indie Games
Top 94.8 Percentile of All 306 IGC-Approved Indie Games
**Rankings based on time of publication. Check the Leaderboard for updated standings.
The original Chompy Chomp Chomp’s IGC Leaderboard position has been removed. Chompy Chomp Chomp Party is an updated version of the same game, not a sequel or a reboot, and is not considered a separate game. Please note, the original Chompy Chomp Chomp is for sale on Steam (link to sales page), but this review is not valid for it. For the original Chompy Chomp Chomp, read the original review here and the Second Chance with the Chick review here. Utopian World of Sandwiches declined to appeal this decision.

Chompy Chomp Chomp was developed by Utopian World of Sandwiches
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, Steam
$9.99 + $2.50 got chomped in the making of this review.

YOU HEARTLESS BASTARDS: Hidden in Plain Sight (Review)

YOU HEARTLESS BASTARDS!

How come Hidden in Plain Sight isn’t universally recognized today as one of THE great video game party experiences? That’s a party foul, right there!

Granted, this is now the third game that I’ve had to give YOU HEARTLESS BASTARDS recognition to that got its start on Xbox Live Indie Games. It’s where I got my start doing game reviews, and I know the uphill battle developers had to deal with. Like Escape Goat before it, Hidden in Plain Sight found modest success on Xbox 360 and on Steam. On Nintendo Switch? Nobody talks about about it. I don’t think people quite realize what a truly marvelous party game has been out on their console this whole time. One that, despite what developer Adam Spragg told me, is actually fun for all ages. Well, not all ages. Presumably 2-year-olds wouldn’t be great at this. They’d probably go kill crazy. That’s why they call it the terrible twos: because they make terrible +1s for multiplayer.

Go ninja! Go ninja! Go!

I should note that designer Adam Spragg is someone who I’d consider to be a good friend. No, actually, we go back far enough and have talked enough that I’d go so far as to call him a great friend. We have been ever since after my first review of Hidden in Plain Sight back in 2012. Hell, I consider myself a mediocre-at-best interviewer, but my 2012 interview with Adam is one of my strongest. But, that friendship stuff gets placed in suspended animation when I start playing a friend’s game. My friends would have it no other way. That’s sort of what makes them friends, you know? So, this is the part where I rip my friend’s heart out and say that, in the case of Hidden in Plain Sight, I’m more than a little disappointed that nothing has been done to jazz-up the presentation.

This play session incorporated a rotation of eight players between the ages of 75 to 6. EVERYBODY legitimately won at least one game, including Sasha, my 6-year-old niece (“hey, I’m almost 7!” she said when I shook my head and said “we just pwned by a 6-year-old!”). She touched all five statues in the classic Ninja Mode, being smart enough to not go for kills and thus avoiding detection. Later, she was on the winning team of a Knights Versus Ninjas game AND successfully scored the game-winning kill. Was she one of the better players? No. But, nobody let her win, either. We don’t go for that in our household. You play? You play to win. Little Sasha played to win. This ain’t no Candy Land. I was dang impressed. It also shows that Adam vastly underrated who can play these games. NOT EVERY MODE. Death Race and To Catch a Thief was a little out of her league, but she legit held up her end of the bargain as a teammate in others and was always a threat to steal the free-for-all matches.

Hidden in Plain Sight barely looked fine for a 2012 Xbox Live Indie Game. Now, it’s nearly 2023 and it looks exactly the same as it ever did. Kinda blurry. Kinda low-res. It doesn’t make for an interesting-looking game. If I hired a marching band and had fucking Beyoncé write a jingle about the awesomeness of Hidden in Plain Sight, it’s still going to be a tough sell at the point of sale, which is where most indies are made or broken. Even that goddamned ugly font. The font is something that will turn people off. It makes Hidden in Plain Sight look like an old freeware game. I could see someone who, via word-of-mouth, looks up the game, is totally interested, and then passes when they see the look, and that font. It doesn’t look retro-old. It looks like expired-milk old.

Catch a Thief mode became our least favorite mode. You pass over coins while a number of other players are snipers with limited bullets that must snipe them. There’s a wisdom to the design. The coins don’t just immediately disappear when you touch them. It’d be too obvious then. As for the NPCs, in this mode, you can mark which ones you’re sure aren’t people. My family being made up of slobbering fucking idiots, we all kept marking the real players. We sucked at this. All of us. BUT, I like that you can basically make up your own rules. We all took turns being the lone sniper, and we took turns where one of us was a player. It was fun.

Of course, gameplay is king, and I’m pleased to report that Hidden in Plain Sight absolutely holds up to the test of time. While, yes, games like Assassin’s Creed has multiplayer modes, there’s still never been a local multiplayer game quite like this. The main mode alone gave us over an hour of quality party gameplay over two days. In it, you’re presented with a room filled with dozens of identical ninjas (yes, you can adjust how many, including filling the whole screen if you wish), all of which are non-player characters (NPCs) except you and your fellow players. You don’t know which ninja you are, or which ones are your opponents. Your first task is to figure out where you are in the sea of ninja humanity, and you have to do so without giving away your position. Because, once you know where you are, you must sneakily begin to touch the five statues in the room. Every time you touch one, you score a point, but a chime goes off that alerts the room someone just scored. You can attack and take out characters from the game, but in doing so, you give away your position. There’s a variation of this mode where touching all five statues wins the game for you, but we preferred to stick to the main mode. Once we all got a feel for our own strategies, not to mention mimicry of NPC walking behavior, we kept going back to this mode again and again and it never got boring! It’s seriously such a genius use of video games as a medium for delivering the perfect social experience. It’s museum-worthy.

In Death Race, you’re again a randomly-assigned character in a room full of NPCs where the first challenge if figuring out who you are without giving away your identity. You have two buttons: walk and run. Hold them down to advance towards the finish line on the other side of the room. The NPCs will NEVER run, so you have to walk. The catch is everybody also has a single shot with a sniper rifle to take out anyone who they think is a real player. At one point, I tried to fake out like I was ready to pull the trigger on someone else, when in reality I had the crosshairs over my own character. It nearly worked, until my sister said “SHE’S GIVING HERSELF AN ESCORT!” and I was JFKed soon after. This was everybody’s second-favorite mode. This is the Squid Games a decade before that came out, and it’s AWESOME!

Unlike my previous experience reviewing Hidden in Plain Sight, this time, I was playing with family who actually wanted to play. At least after a few minutes. Hidden in Plain Sight’s worst aspect is that it’s a relatively difficult sell to get a game going. It sounds so much more complicated than it is. In the coming days, I’ll be posting a review of another for XBLIG that released more recently on Switch, Chompy Chomp Chomp (the review linked there is about to become outdated). That one is easy to explain: eat players and don’t get eaten. We played it first, and nobody wanted to move off of it and onto HIPS. Tellingly, when everybody wanted to play a party game again the next day, they wanted to do more rounds of Hidden in Plain Sight. Even those who preferred Chompy voted to play HIPS. I was delighted. I figured I’d have, at best, ninety minutes to check and make sure HIPS could still be fun in the 2020s. We doubled that, and even found that modes I’d previously scoffed at were actually among the highlights.

In my original 2012 game, I played with a bunch of interns at our office and games quickly devolved into letting two of the three royal NPCs die and just puppy-guarding the third. This go around, teams were planning complex “divide and conquer” strategies and rounds could go to the very last seconds before players began to make their moves.

Knights & Ninjas, where you divide into teams that must either assassinate three “royal” NPCs or protect them, became the mode we put the most time into on the second day, to the point that we had a little mini tournament with it. While yes, it does have issues with puppy-guarding, especially if a knight gives away their position killing an NPC by accident (they don’t try to attack the royals) it also proved the old adage “patience is a virtue.” The final match of the tournament was won by my parents when Mom and Dad (the ninjas) defeated Angela and myself (the knights) with two seconds left on the timer. Dad spent a lot of time lingering around the royal family without making his move, to the point my sister and me, and everybody watching, had him pegged as an NPC. I wasn’t bitter at all when I said “wow, congratulations Dad, you sure pulled off being a mindless drone convincingly!”

This is a last-assassin-standing type of mode where the playfield progressively shrinks into a circle. This was the only mode not every observer was interested in trying their luck at. That’s REALLY telling to me. It proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that it’s the deception and sneakiness that’s the attraction in Hidden in Plain Sight, whereas the killing is not that fun. In fact, the biggest fight in our house over HIPS was nobody wanted to be the snipers, to the point that we had to make a rule that everybody had to take a turn with the guns. Wow, I didn’t expect that. Even the little kids enjoyed learning to walk like NPCs and eventually were winning games with consistency. It’s a game that you WANT to get better at. Where winning feels rewarding.

So, even though it took a decade to get there, Hidden in Plain Sight now seems fated to be like an old, yellowing board game with split-corners on its box that’s tucked in our closet. Something to bust out not just when we have guests over, but also when we have free time and nothing better to do. I certainly underrated it before. It’s why I’m bumped-it-up nearly one-hundred positions higher on the IGC Leaderboard. Like many great board games, you need three other people. There’s no online play, because the charm is totally lost without everybody in the same room. You also need players who have the right mindset. If someone has overactive adrenal glands and goes stab-happy, it’ll ruin the fun for everybody else, as people going stab-happy tends to do. But, with the right group? Even observers can have fun trying to suss-out who is real and who is an NPC. Despite the archaic graphics, Hidden in Plain Sight sure feels like it’s going to be kind of timeless. Ten years later and, if anything, I think it somehow managed to get better with age. Of course, being someone who cheers for every game to find success, I still wish Adam would redo this with modern graphics. Maybe then you heartless bastards would give it a chance.

Hidden in Plain Sight is Chick-Approved
Leaderboard Ranking: #87 of 306 Indie Gamer Chick-Approved Indie Games*
Top 86.4 Percentile of All 640 IGC-Reviewed Indie Games
Top 71.5 Percentile of All 306 IGC-Approved Indie Games
*Rankings based on time of publication. Check the Leaderboard for updated standings.

Hidden in Plain Sight was developed by Adam Spragg
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, Steam
$5.99 gave up its position in the making of this review.

 

 

 

Donut Dodo (Review)

When I started Indie Gamer Chick, I thought I was going to be playing a lot of weird and experimental games. Well, now that I’ve played a LOT of retro games, I know it didn’t get any more weird and experimental than an 80s arcade. I love to hear stories about the Golden Age of Arcades from my readers. I’m jealous, really. I think I would have really loved it. Especially during the early-to-mid 80s, when so many novel and unique concepts seemed to hit one after another, with no rhyme or reason to them. A gorilla throws barrels at a carpenter (no, not Jesus, though try telling that to his fans) who must also avoid sentient fire as he tries to rescue his girlfriend. Sounds like a hoot! A yellow circle runs through a maze eating dots while being pursued by ghosts. Sure, why not? A spelunker must exterminate torsoless goggle people and dragons by impaling them with a hose and then pumping them with air until they burst. Actually, that sounds pretty deranged and sadistic and I really think you should seek help, buddy. Nothing had to make sense and all that mattered was that you had fun, whether it was from blowing up rocks with a spaceship or shooting at giant space bugs or helping a mama kangaroo rescue its Joey. It seems like it would have been right up my alley.

Really the answer to “is it like..” is “yes” before you even say what game it is. “Madden?” Oh ha, ha, you smart ass. (ponders) Well actually.. come to think about it, a little bit, yea.

Well, thanks to Donut Dodo, I think I have a good idea what kind of thrill that must have been for those who came before me. Because, holy crap, this is one of the best indie games ever made! You play the role of a pastry chef who had his donuts stolen by a strabismus-eyed dodo. You know, that’s exactly what drove people to hunt them to extinction. True story, donuts and everything. As the chef, you have to zig-zag around five single-screen levels to get them back. Donut Dodo is purely an avoider-type platformer, as there’s no methods of attack and your only option is to not touch the baddies. So, what’s it like? Well, it’s kind of like Donkey Kong, as you have a giant animal trying to kill you indirectly, and various minions that get in the way. And it’s kind of like any collecting game like, say, Pac-Man, where the level is filled with donuts and the object is to collect them all. And it’s kind of like Bomb Jack, as you get a bonus for grabbing the donuts in a specific order. And it’s kind of like Donkey Kong Jr. where sometimes you’re climbing ropes/vines using the same method used in that game. And it’s kind of like the 1982 Popeye, as there’s a toilet seat that stalks you similar to how Bluto does in that game. And it’s kind of like.. you know what? Screw it. Name any game of this genre from the Golden Age and there’s probably some nod to it in Donut Dodo. If that makes it sound like something that couldn’t possibly stand on its own, think again. It’s this weird game that both somehow feels like every other single-screen platform game and also like nothing you’ve ever played before.

I searched Donut Dodo high and low for SOME imperfection, and the best I could come up with is that there’s nothing that indicates you can actually touch the two oil barrels at the top of the second level. They’re big burning things with visible fire (aka a universal “do not touch” of gaming) that spit out the level’s fireball enemies. BUT, as long as the fireballs aren’t coming out at that moment, you can harmlessly walk right past them. In fact, you need to. I knew my jump wasn’t high enough to clear them and spent far too much time trying to figure out how to circumvent them before Angela said “are you SURE they’ll kill you?” I replied “of course they will! Look, it’s fire! The ouchie-form of oxygen!” Five seconds later she was rubbing it in that she figured it out before I did. I didn’t appreciate that, Pixel Games!

It’s like someone took all the best Golden Age games that followed in Donkey Kong’s wake, put them in a blender and hit the puree button while cackling like a mad scientist. I used to do that with food when I was a kid, and I never got in trouble for the mess I made doing so. My parents always took pity on me because the resulting unholy concoction usually left me traumatized the moment it hit my tongue. That could have so easily happened with Donut Dodo, but instead, the end result ended up being the best of its breed ever made. Go figure. Part of why that works is that everything the game took inspiration from is just done better here. It starts with the absolute precision controls. I always found the ladders in Donkey Kong annoying, but here, they’re just automatic. You can’t camp on them. When you hit up or down, you just zoom up and down the ladder. That works shockingly awesome and also helps with the many close-calls you’ll inevitably have with enemies. While I personally experienced a slight learning curve to the jumping physics, keep in mind that I really sucked at this game. Like seriously, the dodo might be extinct but the species got revenge on humanity by kicking my ass the last few days at this. No, this is a fair game with razor-sharp controls and I couldn’t stay alive because I never learned to mind my surroundings. Had I been Ra’s Al-Ghul’s student, I would have died like five minutes into training. Plus I was so comically bad at timing things that at one point I worried I might have cracked a rib laughing at myself. Maybe my most hilarious fail ever.

What a snooty looking bird. God, I’m glad they all died.The dodo tends to move itself and it’s usually not far away from the giant donut, which you have to grab to clear the level. Another masterful design decision.

Not that it’s impossibly hard. In fact, everything about Donut Dodo is fine-tuned to perfection. This features some of the most genuinely amazing level design I’ve ever seen. Layouts are maximized for heart-pounding close-calls with the relentless, but ultimately predictable, enemies. If it’s not the enemies that get you, it’s the level itself. Oh, and the dodo spits fire. Did they do that? AND THEY STILL WENT EXTINCT? Was a Song of Ice & Fire’s dragons based on dodos? Well, regardless of the real bird’s fate, the fictional bird’s game never lets up on the intensity, even on the easiest difficulty. BUT, it’s never unfair. It’s always on you when you die. That’s a lot more rare than you think. Like the best arcade games of the era it aspires to slot-in alongside of, Donut Dodo is a game about figuring out patterns and creating your own strategies for collecting the items. After beating the five stages, they recycle once with more enemies added. A possibly problematic choice somehow remained fairly designed. Plus, Donut Dodo throws twists into the formula. Like, sure, you can just collect all the donuts in any order, willy-nilly if you want. That’s how I started out playing Donut Dodo and I had a good enough time with it. I’ve never cared really about points anyway. There’s no online leaderboards, which might actually be the only turd in this game’s punch bowl. Without them, what incentive do you have to go for points? Glory? Pssh, glory is for people with courage, and I piss myself a little every time one of my own hairs touches my skin just slightly enough to trigger my “OH MY GOD THERE’S A SPIDER ON ME!” alarm.

UPDATE: The Steam version does, in fact, have online leaderboards. This didn’t effect my opinion of the game at all.

It also didn’t make it clear that, in the bonus stage, you control the pumpkin, not the chef. It has two arrows point at the pumpkin, but like, I thought it was saying “land on this.” Arrows with “HEY DUMMY, YOU ARE THIS” would have worked better, at least for me.

Then, I realized I suck at this and could use extra lives. You get a free life every 15,000 points. Well, fudge, I said. So, I played along and started going for the flashing donuts, and suddenly this was one of the best games I’ve ever played and roughly as addictive as all the drugs in the world and gambling in the world and even all the gambling on drugs in the world COMBINED. You can collect any donut to start, but then one donut will begin to flash at random. Collect that one without collecting any other donuts and you score 150 points instead of the normal 25. Another donut begins to flash, and now there’s a multiplier in effect. As long as you keep the chain going, you can score massive points. Going for combos forces you to zig-zag back and forth, thus crossing paths with the various monsters and traps much more frequently. What had been a relatively fast-paced game was now a relatively methodical one. BUT, it still never manages to feel like a slog. It’s also, simply put, one of the most elegant scoring systems I’ve ever seen. One that nets you sometimes more than one life per level. It’s an absolutely genius design that further adds to your ability to create your own strategies. Not only that, but it forces you to improvise, since you can’t simply memorize specific point-A to point-B routes like in, say, a Pac-Man game. You never know what will be the next target donut. And this, mind you, is the optional way to play it. I often talk about how games benefit from being flexible enough to allow players to come up with their own play styles. This will be my go-to game for that from now on. It’s that good. I’m not kidding: this should be shown and taught in game design schools. And has any indie EVER been a better fit for an Arcade1Up cabinet?

Some people might say that only having five levels (plus a bonus stage) is a knock on the game, but not me. If the stages were just alright, I might have wanted more. But, Pixel Games made five levels that were basically perfect. Like, seriously, they all feel totally different from each other, require different strategies, and are among the most clever video game stages for a game of this type ever made. Props to them for that AND for walking away a winner. It just takes one stinker to sour the whole experience, and why risk it when five levels was enough to make this an instant indie masterpiece? I’m not kidding about the Arcade1Up thing. Seriously Pixel Games: you should be pitching this to them.

So here I sit, saying to myself “I can’t fucking believe the developers of Sigi: A Fart for Melusina made one of the ten best indie games I’ve ever played.” Not that it wasn’t obvious they were very gifted. In fact, Sigi came so close to winning my Seal of Approval and coming up short that, if I included EVERY indie I reviewed and separated the games I liked versus the games I didn’t, the game at the top of the bad list would probably be Sigi. It was like 49.9 YES to 50.1 NO on it, and it just barely missed for me. But, I knew Pixel Games was a studio to keep an eye on. And now, they’ve turned-in what is, frankly, the biggest surprise game of my eleven years of writing game reviews. Hell, Donut Dodo might be the best game of its genre ever. And I don’t just mean “for indies” mind you. I’m trying to figure out any single-screen platformer, from any era or platform, that I liked more, and I can’t. I mean, I’ve been on a pretty big arcade/retro kick lately, so that’s really saying something. I liked this game so much and the potential it shows for what I call New Arcade Games as a genre that I’m going to play an indie game like this once a week from now on.

Pixel Games’ Sigi had really bad screenshake, to the point of distraction. That’s in Dodo, BUT, it’s optional! You can turn it off. Awesome! You can also turn off flashing, though they might want to check the bonus stage for that one last time.

Ultimately, I play video games to have fun. I couldn’t put Donut Dodo down. Even as it kicked the crap out of me, I kept playing and having a good time. Which is why Donut Dodo kept climbing my leaderboard. Without exaggeration, my experience playing Donut Dodo started with me getting my first game over in about thirty seconds and grumbling “yep, it’s a lot like an arcade game from 1983 alright.” But, Donut Dodo was just getting started. Over the next few days, I went from “this is pretty good. Kind of hard, but good!” to “I could see this being my go-to game with ten minutes to kill!” to “this is one of the best indie games I’ve ever played” and finally “I need to delete this fucking thing from my Switch or I’m not going to be able to get anything else done for a while, including the review of it!” That should count for something, and in my case, it counts for a lot. It’s why I started Indie Gamer Chick.

Dodo Donut is Chick-Approved
Leaderboard Ranking: #6 of 306 Indie Gamer Chick-Approved Indie Games*
Top 99.1 Percentile of All 640 IGC-Reviewed Indie Games
Top 98.0 Percentile of All 306 IGC-Approved Indie Games
*Rankings based on time of publication. Check the Leaderboard for updated standings.

Donut Dodo was developed by Pixel Games (Published by Flynn’s Arcade)
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, Steam
$3.99 (normally $4.99) had fingers that refused to type “Dodo” and instead kept typing “Dojo” in the making of this review. Hey, there’s a sequel idea, Pixel Games!

A review copy for Switch was provided. A copy was purchased by me on Steam afterwards, and someone in my house is also going to buy it on Switch. A old man who made too much fun of me for not paying attention while I played the game. LET’S SEE YOU DO BETTER oh shit wait he actually did do better.

Garbage Pail Kids: Mad Mike and the Quest for Stale Gum (Review)

I didn’t grow-up with Garbage Pail Kids. I was born in 1989, and the final set of stickers during the original 80s fad was set to release that year, but it got cancelled. After looking at the archives at the excellent resource site GeePeeKay, yea, good call that was. I mean, Christ! That’s some sick shit in those cards. It feels like, by the end, Garbage Pail Kids became more about being mean-spirited, like they were trying to deliberately bait controversy because that grew the franchise in the first place. Having said that, I wasn’t unfamiliar with the brand. When my Godfather’s son gave me his comic book collection when I was six, the boxes they came in were covered in GPK stickers. Plus Topps occasionally revived them for brief comebacks starting in the 2000s. Hell, for a while, my LaserDisc collecting father had the god awful Garbage Pail Kids movie listed on his “treasure hunt” list of discs he hadn’t added to his collection (in turns out it never even released on LD, maybe. There’s still debate on if it came out in Japan, I think). It’s one of those brands that an outsider looking-in can’t believe was as big as it was at its height. It was easily bigger in the 80s than the 90s fads of MY childhood like Tamagotchi or Furbies. I’m telling you, I would have made a much better child of the 80s than I was as a 90s kid. I mean, have you seen how shitty our Transformers looked? And don’t even get me started on our Voltron!

MIND BLOWN!!

Of course, the one thing missing from Garbage Pail Kids was a video game. 1984 was too late to end up on the Atari 2600, and it never would have been on Colecovision for.. uh.. obvious reasons. Nintendo would never have allowed the brand on the NES because they used to think bodily fluids were the devil’s brew, and Sega didn’t get cool until 1991. Garbage Pail Kids just had shitty timing all around to transition to gaming, really. And that’s why the real story behind Retrotrainment’s Garbage Pail Kids: Mad Mike and the Quest for Stale Gum literally, no joke, brought tears to my eyes. Because kids of the 80s used to spread rumors that they heard a Garbage Pail Kids game was FOR SURE coming to the NES, even claiming they’d seen it listed in game magazines. It never actually happened, because no such game was ever in development. Since kids knew it had to be coming because their friend said their uncle worked at Nintendo and told them it was happening, they assumed Nintendo had put the screws to it. Well, it took 35 years, but someone did something about it! Retrotainment teamed with The Goldbergs writer Adam F. Goldberg and Topps Trading Cards to make that mid-80s elementary school recess fantasy come true. They even created an elaborate meta story behind the game that it WAS developed in the mid-80s, then cancelled and buried until the ROM was unearthed in 2022. The trailer for this was so convincing that my friend Ryan was open to the possibility it was actually true. It’s absolutely criminal this video only has 11K views as of this writing. This just did not find its audience, and that’s heartbreaking.

That’s why I hadn’t even heard of this new Garbage Pail Kids game leading up to this week. Somehow, it just didn’t spread through social media. So, for those who don’t know, this is a 2022 NES game that you can actually pre-order now on cartridge. OR you can buy it right now for all modern platforms, where it plays on the same excellent NES emulator by Digital Eclipse used in collections like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Cowabunga Collection or SNK 40th Anniversary. If you buy this on Nintendo Switch, Xbox, PlayStation, or Steam, it comes with a boatload of extras. On the emulation side of things, you get a fully-loaded “Infinity Gauntlet of Emulation” which is my term for the six key “Gems” of emulation: save states, rewind, flicker removal, screen filters, button mapping, and a full tool-assisted play-through video that lets you take control of the action any time you want. Media extras include the soundtrack, two short films (including the above trailer), concept art, and more. My favorite feature was the side-by-side comparisons of the real GPK cards and their in-game 8-bit counterparts (48 total characters from the cards are used somewhere in the game). I got a kick out of seeing how close some of the game sprites came to the real cards, while others weren’t even in the ballpark.

And now I want a sequel more than I want to live to be 60.

Of course, if the game itself was no good, all these extras would be downright obnoxious. Which would be fitting for Garbage Pail Kids, and then I could crack jokes like “it belongs in the trash.” But alas, it’s one of the best original NES games of the homebrew era. Seriously, no joke, this is a phenomenal platformer. The meta concept of “lost 1986 – 88 licensed NES game” had me worried. Let’s face it: most licensed games on the NES from that era sucked, with rare exceptions like Goonies II or Capcom’s work on Disney properties. A developer aspiring to pay a mostly-accurate homage to both Garbage Pail Kids and 80s licensed games could have turned in a barely playable LJN-like effort and said “GET IT?” But, instead, Retrotainment gave us a game that feels genuinely true to the GPK license while also serving as a proper tribute to the best licensed 8-bit efforts from companies like Konami and Capcom. Nice graphics. Really good play control. Feels like they weren’t just stuck with the brand as part of a cash grab and they’d rather be doing anything else. No, this is a labor of love, and you feel it every single second of gameplay.

The humongous bosses feature some really impressive graphics. YES, you can sometimes “see the seams” of how they’re really not that big (this one here is a good example, the arms never move) but it feels so gosh-darn true to the time period that you can’t help but be charmed. Most importantly, all six bosses are fun.

You have four player characters, six decently-sized levels, six very fun boss fights, and extras to collect. I’ll start with the one and only major complaint: Garbage Pail Kids is let down by very mediocre sound design. I’ve never been a sound or music person, as I have legitimate physical issues that muck up music for me. But just the sound effects alone really take the punch out of GPK. It’s a really light, overly-conservative set of sound effects that just didn’t work for me, and in fact, it took away greatly from the OOMPH of the combat. In eleven years of doing game reviews, I can count on one hand the amount of times sound effects were so poorly done that they stood out to me, and I’m not happy they happened here, because most everything else is really nice.

Enemies comically fly off-screen when you kill them. That part works, but I just hate how little pizzazz there is to the sound effects. This is one of those games that I hope other developers study, where the whole game is incredibly fun and polished to the point that it makes you wonder how they got the sound so wrong?

There’s also some inconsistencies with collision boxes, especially when using the main Mad Mike character. It’s never a deal breaker, and the collision issues almost universally favor the player, but it also combines with the poor catalog of sound effects (and I don’t think the music is very good either, but again, that I can’t claim expertise in) to take away from the action feeling like it has real-world weight, velocity, and inertia to it. Imagine if you played Super Mario 1 and you went to stop a Goomba, and the stomp happened with visible distance between you and it, AND that famous Mario “WOO BOOP” sound when you do the stomp was instead a subdued “pff.” I’ve always said gameplay is king, but GPK is a prime example of how skimping on sound becomes distracting. In a game as good as this, that one area being really bad sticks out like a sore thumb. Which is probably a GPK card, come to think of it.

Garbage Pail Kids were “Trading Card Stickers” and the “trading” part is worked into the game with a fairly good system. Each stage has a guide character that you’ll encounter throughout the level who offers you tips and then offers to trade cards with you. There’s 39 cards total to collect. 4 of them actually can be used for special abilities in the game, the most valuable of which brings a character you’ve run out of health with back to life. 35 of the cards are for decoration only and can either be acquired via trading or by finding them randomly in garbage cans placed around the stage. When you trade, each card is assigned a 1 – 10 value, and you must trade cards equal to the value (or within one point) to get a trade to happen. Do you know what part of GPK lore they didn’t use? STICKERS! Gotta save something for the sequel, I suppose. (Shakes Fist) AND THERE BETTER BE A SEQUEL!! So help me God, I can’t be responsible for actions if there isn’t one!

Now, let’s get to the great stuff: if Garbage Pail Kids: Mad Mike and the Quest for Stale Gum had really come out in 1988, it would be remembered as a legend of the NES era. The six levels are all incredibly fun to explore, especially so with how they designed the player characters. You swap between the four on the fly with the SELECT button. Each of the four characters has unique abilities, and three of the four are so different that they fundamentally change the sub-genre of the game. Use Mad Mike and GPK feels like a 2D sword game, something like Rastan or Wizards & Warriors where you have to attack enemies directly (the bonus to this is he does the most damage). Use Leaky Lindsay to essentially turn GPK into a gun-based platformer like Mega Man or Contra as she fires snot projectiles at enemies. I used her the most. Use Patty Putty and the gameplay feels really different, as GPK becomes a Mario-like hop ‘n bop style game. The only of the four who feels like he’s not world-altering is Luke Puke, who can vomit out puddles which are effective on enemies below you. I used him the least, BUT, I did find plenty of uses for him. The level design feels like it’s well-suited for all four characters and has sections designed with specific characters in mind. It’s like a very gross, lower-budget Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon, only with just as much vampires.

Hiroshi Yamauchi is doing backflips in his grave.

Each of the six levels (sorry, no finale level or ultimate boss), which can be taken in any order, feel completely unique from each-other and there’s not a stinker in the bunch. None really stand-out, either, but I mean that in a good way. Garbage Pail Kids is that rare game where the level design is consistently fun from start to finish. There’s no weak-links and plenty of surprises. A stage themed around dinosaurs suddenly has a summer camp area. A stage themed around hell suddenly has a cafeteria. The team behind this really stretched their imaginations on this one and created a dazzling variety of settings that you want to see more of. My only real complaint is the rare blind jump, and even then, you actually can sort of circumvent them (or peek at the jump by holding down). There’s a nice assortment of enemies, only one of which I was annoyed by (a girl being struck by lightning, which caused a screen flashing. I don’t have seizures as badly as I used to but that stuff can still make me pretty sick). If I had to complain, I wish they did more with locating buttons to open doors, as I liked the exploration elements most of all. Plus, the difficulty felt just right for me. There’s four adjustable difficulty levels, and you can make your own challenge.

Some “fans” are actually demanding that Retrotainment and Digital Eclipse remove the multiple difficulty settings and emulation options and make GPK “Nintendo Hard.” I’m really not kidding. Can you imagine how full of yourself you have to be to demand a developer not try to make a game for as many people as possible? First off, how fucking insecure must you be in your own ability to just not use those options if you don’t want them? It’d be like an alcoholic going into a bar and demanding they stop selling drinks. So, Mr. MAKE IT NINTENDO HARD, is it that you have no self-control, or is that your way of trying to brag to the world you’re some kind of master player on the down low, because either way is laughable. Also, if you ever used a guide or a cheat code back in the day, or a Game Genie, bitch, you ain’t no more Nintendo Hard than anyone who uses rewind on an emulator. I wonder how many of these people who cry about rewind or save states can recite the Konami Code by heart. Seems like people who demand Nintendo Hard shouldn’t be able to do that, right?

Garbage Pail Kids also never strays from platforming, but given that it can often be disastrous when platformers veer too far off course, that might have been the right call. Instead, there are two mini-games, one of each hidden in every stage. Outhouses take you to a button mashing mini-game that I hated. I can’t mash buttons these days. I even had to have my Dad beat one for me, which is pretty sad. I’m 33, he’s 73, and he got it on his first try. The better mini-game is Buggy Betty’s. She’s hidden in every stage and offers a usable card if you can complete an electric maze without hitting the walls in three tries or less. There’s no bonus for collecting all 39 cards, but I wanted to anyway. It wasn’t that hard to get them all. I figured out that if you enter and exit a stage over and over, you’ll get a chance to trade for different cards every time. I finished the game with 35 cards and only needed maybe two post-credits minutes to get the remaining four.

The controls for the fly girl mazes were perfect, as was the collision detection. There were some tight squeezes too, like the one seen here. Yet, it was never unfair. Side Note: Buggy Betty is also one of the four super-power cards in the game. Pause the game and activate her card and you turn into her for ten seconds. There was only one section in the entire game I needed to use her, and another where I used Adam Bomb’s clear-all-the-enemies power.

Garbage Pail Kids for the NES (and by virtue of emulation, all modern consoles) is maybe the biggest surprise I’ve come across in years at Indie Gamer Chick. I’m stunned by how much I loved my time with it (which was only about two hours of total playtime, maybe). I was NOT this game’s target audience. I’m NOT nostalgic for Garbage Pail Kids. I think Garbage Pail Kids are stupid and gross and I don’t get the appeal in them at all. Transformers I get. G.I. Joe I get. Garbage Pail Kids? What the hell, 80s kids? Garbage Pail Kids are fucking disgusting! Yuck! So, being immune to GPK memberberries, this had to stand entirely on its gameplay merits. Boy, does it. It’s one of 2022’s best games, indie or otherwise. It’s a genuinely great game. Ignoring the sound design issues, everything about this works. As I neared the end of the final level, I didn’t want my time with GPK to be over! The entire time, my enthusiasm to see what came next never dipped even a little bit. The bosses, especially, were both fun to battle and felt like amazing rewards, like proper boss fights should feel. With no a smidge of love for the source material, I walked away from Garbage Pail Kids thinking “you heartless bastards better support this because I WANT MORE! I need a sequel and I need it like five minutes ago!”

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Garbage Pail Kids as an IP means nothing to me. BUT, it meant something to the people who came together to make Garbage Pail Kids: Mad Mike and the Quest for Stale Gum. I’m always mindful when I review games at IGC that whether I love them or hate them, they could very well be something that the developers had in mind from the time they were little kids. My job here is to play and review those dreams. But, it’s rare that the dream in question actually gets to use the actual dream license from the designer’s childhood. Usually, they have to “file the serial number off” it and do their own creation. This is one of those very rare instances where the dream came completely true: working with the license, and making the game they always dreamed of. Imagine how hard it would be to say THAT game sucked. Thankfully, I’m off the hook. Garbage Pail Kids is a wonderful game by an elite indie developer, one of 2022’s best video games, and one of the best indies I’ve ever played. It feels true to the license, true to the time frame it was supposed to have been “lost” from, and most importantly, true to the dream. And it’s a dream come true. How can you not admire that? And now, by virtue of making this game, some kids that talked about how they heard a Garbage Pail Kids game was coming to the NES on a playground at school in the 80s have now become part of that very franchise’s lore.. forever. If that doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, you have no heart. Hell, I bet they even made a GPK card of that, too.

Garbage Pail Kids: Mad Mike and the Quest for Stale Gum is Chick-Approved
Leaderboard Ranking: #16 of 305 Indie Gamer Chick-Approved Indie Games*
Top 97.5 Percentile of All 639 IGC-Reviewed Indie Games
Top 94.8 Percentile of All 305 IGC-Approved Indie Games
*Rankings based on time of publication. Check the Leaderboard for updated standings.

Garbage Pail Kids: Mad Mike and the Quest for Stale Gum was developed by Retrotainment
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, Xbox, PlayStation, Steam, NES Cart (Limited Edition)

$9.99 said “there’s only one Cathy with a C card in the history of GPK? OH COME ON TOPPS YOU BUTTHOLES” in the making of this review. I will not stand for this discrimination of Cathys with Cs. Everyone knows the Kathy with a Ks are objectively awful people!

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