Homebreviews - part 40: Mini-Game Madness
Video Game Reviews
Because reviewing five games last time wasn't enough...
I really like mini-game collections. Sure, not all of the games in a given collection will appeal to everyone, but usually you can find one or two real gems on a given multi-cart, and they're typically good value for money. Plus the idea of a quick, simple game is part of the 2600's DNA, stretching back to the original nine games the system was designed to play. There are plenty of unissued, fun mini-games still out there in the forums, just waiting to be gathered and released together on carts. Simone Serra who created Lead, Sync and Omicron (you still out there, Seemo?) has enough excellent mini-games for at least two or three mini-game collections of his own. I'd love to see a new series of AtariAge Mini-Game Multi-Carts, to follow up the one from 2005. Maybe that would encourage more development of these smaller but still fun titles.
In the meantime, here are two such collections. Unfortunately, one of them is no longer available...
The Byte Before Christmas
The Byte Before Christmas is a collection of four sometimes vaguely Christmas-themed mini-games, each programmed by a different author. The games are selected from a main menu featuring festive graphics and a nice rendition of "We Wish You A Merry Christmas". To return to the menu, you must power the console off and back on again.
Santa's Scabs (Jarod Kitchen)
I was going to make a joke about picking this one to review first, but then thought better of it. Anyway... Santa's Scabs is about an elf labor strike at Santa's workshop, and you - apparently being an out-of-work ninja - decide to cross the picket line to get a job. Your first objective is to collect three pieces of coal. This is done by kicking picketing elves in the face. You can't kick them in the shins, or in the back. Only the face. This isn't quite as easy as it sounds since you're a very short ninja (or they're very tall elves), your kick must be precise, and you can kick only one specific elf at a time. Any other contact with the elves at this point is deadly. When you do connect, the target elf will drop a piece of coal. Collect three of these, and you can then go through and gleefully kick the rest of the elves in their faces too, or just skip all of the face kicking and take on their boss. Then you have to kick him in the face until he stops twitching, and you can enter the workshop and move onto the next level.
Santa's Scabs feels like a martial arts beat-'em-up game that was loosely re-themed as a Christmas game. If you just looked at it without knowing the backstory, it could take place almost anywhere, with only a few bars of "Santa Claus is Coming To Town" and some of the graphics to give it away (typically, reindeer aren't in beat-'em-ups). Even bearing in mind that this is a mini-game, there's still not much to it. You kick elves and bosses in their faces, then it just repeats. The graphics are okay, but the controls have one nagging problem - in order to help line up your ninja with the elves, the game automatically "snaps" you in line with them. The problem with that is that it's a bit too aggressive, and I often found myself being pushed up into a picket line of angry elves while just trying to retrieve a piece of coal. The snapping effect is a nice idea, but it shouldn't take effect until you're closer to being in line. The game is also a bit buggy, with some visual artifacts showing up from time to time, and one of the bosses I was fighting got "stuck" while jumping in mid-air, forcing me to hit Reset and start over. Santa's Scabs doesn't offer much in the way of variety, so some different formations of elves or more locations would have been welcomed. The game suffers from a lack of fine-tuning as well. It's passable as part of a mini-game collection, but calling it Christmas-themed is stretching the concept.
Christmas Adventure (Todd Holcomb, graphics by Illya Wilson)
Christmas Adventure is a mix between Adventure and How The Grinch Stole Christmas, but rather than being just a graphics hack of Adventure, this one was programmed from scratch. This makes a huge difference, since the layout isn't as restrictive, the flicker is dramatically reduced, and the graphics are an order of magnitude better. Not only are the sprites absolutely first-rate (and look like they should have come from a far more advanced console), but even the low-resolution playfield backgrounds have been transformed into beautifully detailed street scenes, rooms, and the Grinch's lair.
The game itself plays just like an appropriately mini-sized version of Adventure. Max (the Grinch's dog) plays the role of the object-stealing bat (and is just as annoying), and the dragons have been replaced by toys that have run amok. Your weapon of choice is a stale candy cane (probably sharpened into a shank), and there are other objects and goals as well, which I'll leave you to discover. Suffice it to say I had a great deal of fun playing this, discovering how to solve it, and really relishing the attention to detail. It's not a huge game, but it doesn't need to be. I found this to be a truly delightful Christmas-themed game, despite writing the review for it in the middle of July.
Bell Hopper (Tomas Härdin)
Bell Hopper is a game in the vein of the smartphone hit Doodle Jump. In Bell Hopper, you control a bunny that hops upwards, aiming to land on bells floating in the air. As you land on each bell, the bell disappears and you're propelled even higher. If you miss a bell, and there are none below you, you fall all the way back to the ground, and your score resets to zero (but your highest score will still be displayed). There are no deaths - you just start hopping again. I actually found that a refreshing approach. After all, who wants to be mean to bunnies? There are also birds that if you hop on them, they'll double your score. If you're playing for points, you can rack up some incredibly high scores this way, to the extent that after awhile they'll be shown using scientific notation. Well, bunnies are known for multiplying.
Bell Hopper is an incredibly fun, addictive game. The graphics are charming, and while the joystick control is already very good, the game really shines when you plug in a paddle. Yes - Bell Hopper supports paddles! And since you plug the paddle into the right controller port, you can leave the joystick plugged in for the other games. Bell Hopper doesn't really have much to do with Christmas, but the manual features a backstory that (sort-of) ties the game in with the rest of the collection. Really though, Bell Hopper is an outstanding mini-game that you can enjoy any time of year.
Naughty List (Mike Saarna)
Naughty List is another game that makes me wonder if it actually started out as a Christmas game, because thematically it's also a little bit weird. In this game you play Santa Claus, flying his sleigh over the city, and dropping presents full of explosives on buildings, destroying them. It's an odd cross between Rampage and Canyon Bomber, but with a rage-filled Santa Claus causing the mayhem. There's only one control - the fire button - so Santa's sleigh is on auto-pilot. As you fly repeatedly across the screen, your reindeers descend with each pass, making the buildings a threat to navigation. If you don't take out all of the buildings in time, you'll crash and lose a reindeer. Lose all three reindeer, and the game ends (apparently the others are still out playing reindeer games). You must avoid dropping packages onto innocent pedestrians, and on some levels indestructible bulldozers will come out to add to (or repair) buildings, making them even taller and more of a hazard.
Naughty List has the same sort of potential for fun that Canyon Bomber has, but there are a few shortcomings with it. First, you have to bomb the exact center of the base of the buildings. There are no off-center hits. It would have been more interesting if near-misses inflicted varying degrees of damage, but here it's all or nothing. Another issue I had is with the trajectory of the falling packages - they don't follow a proper arc. This may seem trivial, but details like that really help a game feel polished. Instead, the packages just drop almost straight down, to the point where you can line up your shot by waiting until part of Santa's sleigh is over the building you want to hit. Once you adapt to this, it takes much of the challenge away and the game becomes pretty repetitive. For more variety, it would have been nice to have seen additional ground targets to either take out or avoid, or add the challenge of making the player duck under oncoming airline traffic. The graphics are very well done, and while there are a couple of short bars from Christmas tunes, thematically the idea of Santa leveling entire cities is still a bit odd. The game plays well enough for what it is, but like most of the packages that Santa drops, it ends up falling short.
I already liked the idea of mini-game collections, and having them linked thematically (even if it's a bit forced at times) makes for a nice way to package them together. While Santa's Scabs and Naughty List are playable, they're merely okay. The real standouts on this cart are Christmas Adventure and Bell Hopper. Those two alone make The Byte Before Christmas worth owning. Consider the other two games a Christmas bonus.
The Byte Before Christmas gets a 4/5.
Piñata is a collection of five games created using batari Basic by AtariAge member Cybearg. The games are selected through on onscreen menu, which can be returned to from any game by holding Select and Reset. High scores can be saved using an AtariVox or SaveKey.
Heartbreak is the sort of game that instead of being limited by the 2600's capabilities, finds a an interesting way to exploit them to come up with something unique. You use the joystick controller (or driving controller) to rotate a ring made of 16 Pong paddles. A ball bounces across the center of the ring, and each time it hits a paddle, the ball bounces off it, removing that paddle, leaving a gap in the ring. The goal is to remove all of the paddles without letting the ball through a gap, so you're constantly rotating the ring back and forth to make sure you can hit a paddle. It's a bit like a cross between Breakout and Radial Pong, but there's more to it than that.
There's a heart beating in the center of the ring, and each miss reduces the size of the heart. When it's gone, your game is over. While this is a clever way to show your lives remaining, there's more to it than that. The heart also changes color as it beats, which is a key component to this game. The first level is all one color, so all you have to worry about is not missing. But after that, the paddles have different colors, and you have to change the color of your ball to match the color of the paddle you want to take out. But you can only change the color of the paddle to the current color of the heart, so timing and decision making become critical. In later levels, you deal with paddles that require multiple hits to clear out. So for example, to clear a purple block, you have to hit it with a red ball and a blue ball. It requires some thought and planning.
Using a driving controller feels more intuitive, but it's still perfectly playable with the joystick, mostly because the ball will only ever hit the same four locations. In a way, this actually helps the game, since there's less guesswork involved in where you're going to have to position a particular paddle. But it would be nice if, as the game progressed, the number of possible angles would increase. There are a lot of untapped possibilities for a game like this, including different sizes and numbers of paddles, gravity or wind that would make the ball curve, and so on. Still, Heartbreak is a fun game as it is, and has a really inventive play mechanic. My one gripe with it is that the colors selected for orange and red look nearly identical on my TV. Pushing orange to a lighter shade would have helped distinguish the two.
Ping takes what can often be a frustrating game element - invisible mazes - and turns it into the centerpiece of a unique and addicting game. In Ping, you control a bat (named Ping) that you have to navigate through pitch-black caves, avoiding walls, dodging owls, and eating insects. But you can't see anything since you're, well, blind as a bat. But you can use echolocation to find your way. Pressing the fire button sends out a signal which briefly reveals (lights up) the cave for you. But it only does it for a second, and then it fades away. You have to move quickly to navigate through what you just saw. For each screen, you can press the fire button up to three times to echolocate, then you're completely in the dark until you can find your way to the next cave. The concept works brilliantly because of a phenomenon known as persistence of vision. This is what allows us to see sequential images (such as film or TV frames) as continual motion. In Ping, because of this effect, you see an after-image of the cave for a brief second or two after the image fades. The effect is even more pronounced on a CRT display. This allows you enough time to navigate through the mazes in short bursts.
I'd love to see an effect like this used in other games with invisible mazes (I'm looking at you, Adventure hacks). It makes navigating in the dark actually a fun challenge, rather than just random flailing and frustration. It's not always easy, and some of the passageways are a bit too narrow, but Ping is a perfect example of a programmer thinking of a really cool way to approach a problem. It's a fun, innovative, and smart little mini-game.
In Joyride, you're playing the role of a motorcycling daredevil, who is riding headlong into oncoming traffic. Your goal, simply put, is to stay alive by dodging cars. You can also pick up "flares" which can be triggered to clear the screen of all cars if you get in a tight spot. There's also a two-player cooperative mode where the game only ends if both players have crashed at the same time.
Joyride is an okay game, but it's just not very interesting. It's repetitive, and reminiscent of some of Activision's dodge-the-obstacle games (Grand Prix, Barnstorming), but without a timer to beat or Activision's nicely detailed graphics. Joyride's cars and trucks are just featureless rectangles. The two-player version doesn't really add anything extra to the game, other than you have two people trying to dodge traffic at the same time. But you're not dodging each other - you pass right through the other player. I think there's a real missed opportunity here to have a two-player combative mode, where you'd push the other motorcycle into the traffic. Add some AI for a single-player version, make up a backstory about having to fend off a biker gang or enemy spies, and you'd be good to go.
Fixer Fenix Sr.
No that's not a typo. It's spelled Fixer Fenix Sr., but it should be obvious that it's a riff on Fix-It Felix Jr. from the movie Wreck-It Ralph. This is an attempt to bring the arcade game featured in that movie to the Atari 2600, and it meets with mixed results. The object is to climb around on a building, fixing windows that have been broken by a big, hulking brute, who is also dropping bricks on your head. You must also dodge flying birds, and you can pick up pies from window sills to gain extra lives. On the plus side, all of the essential elements are here, but for a game that was all about the characters, the execution just falls short. The character sprites are low resolution and completely devoid of any detail. The buildings are featureless, and broken windows aren't actually shown on the building - you have to look at an indicator at the bottom of the screen to see which ones need fixing. Sound effects are minimal and generic. The controls are decent - once you adapt to how long Fenix has to stay in place to repair a window - but the gameplay is repetitive. Fixer Fenix Sr. just doesn't have the level of inventiveness or polish of some of the other games in this collection. It's an admirable attempt, but perhaps an over-reached one.
Rounding out the collection is Flipside. You play one of two combatants trapped in an arena by an evil alien overlord for his amusement. (Isn't that just always the way?) Your goal - be the first to collect four orbs. Simple enough. You (or your opponent) can also steal orbs from each other, which adds to the competitive nature of the game. But Flipside's real hook is that you can control your own personal gravity. Press the button, and you fall up. Press it again, and you fall down. This adds a really fun, unique element to the game, and it becomes intuitive (and addictive) very quickly. The AI opponent in single-player mode is a bit random, but persistent enough to keep the action going so you can still enjoy this game even without a second player.
If anything, I wish Flipside were larger - with more arenas to play in, more objects to collect, and more goals to achieve. It'd be fun to have side-to-side gravity on some levels, or vary the strength of it. There's a lot of untapped potential in this play mechanic. As it is though, Flipside is still an excellent little mini-game, especially for two players.
Piñata is a mixed bag, although three of the games: Heartbreak, Ping and Flipside make the collection worth checking out. Unfortunately, Piñata was removed from the AtariAge store by its author, likely out of copyright concerns about Fixer Fenix Sr. This is a real shame, since Piñata would be just fine without it. Hopefully the author will reconsider adding it back to the store in a modified form, maybe even with a few new additions.
Piñata gets a 4/5
Up next: a review you probably thought you'd never see: Star Castle Showdown