Homebreviews - part 44: Arcade Assault, Vol. 1
Video Game Reviews
Ever wanted your own arcade at home? Well, it's time to dust off the 7800 again and give it some much-needed lovin'. Here are three classic arcade shooters for your 7800, brought home by Bob DeCrescenzo.
Astro Fighter was an early vertical shoot 'em up developed by Data East. It was one of the earliest multi-stage shooters featuring different enemies and even a boss battle, pre-dating both Phoenix and Gorf. Your mission was to blast your way through four waves of enemies, then fight the Master ship, all the while keeping an eye on your ever-dwindling fuel reserves. If you ran out of fuel - regardless of lives remaining - your game ended. The Master ship required a very precise hit to destroy, and once you did you could then steal its fuel and continue on, fighting your way through the enemy formations at a higher difficulty.
Astro FIghter sits somewhere in the era between black-and-white Space Invaders knock-offs, and better-remembered shooters like Galaxian, Phoenix, Gorf, or... just about anything. Within a year of its release, Astro Fighter already looked and sounded primitive and was largely consigned to the back row of arcades next to the likes of Starhawk and Space Encounters. Initially released about a year and a half after Space Invaders, it was only marginally a step up from there. Graphics were simple and flat-looking with only a handful of primary colors, and the sound effects were sparse, sounding like leftovers from Space Invaders.
Dated presentation aside, Astro Fighter has to be given credit for having multiple enemies, varied attack formations, and a boss stage. Unfortunately, despite the thought put into those elements, its biggest weakness is its gameplay. The rate of fire is agonizingly slow and the controls feel sluggish. Compounding that is if any single ship gets past you, you have to take on that entire formation all over again, and the game doubly punishes you by moving your spaceship up higher on the screen, giving you even less of a chance to clear them out. It only takes a couple of missed ships to burn through all of your fuel reserves, and then your game's over. Sometimes it actually makes more sense to collide with an enemy ship, since if you lose one of your ships, at least you don't lose any additional fuel.
Astro Fighter is one of those homebrews I find difficult to review. Bob DeCrescenzo did an excellent job porting the arcade game over to the 7800. The graphics, sounds and gameplay are all intact. Unfortunately, I just couldn't find anything about Astro Fighter that made me want to go back and replay it. It's an interesting relic of the past, but the gameplay is tedious. I can acknowledge it's an excellent port, but it's an excellent port of a very outdated game. If you like Astro Fighter, you should definitely pick this up. If you're looking for a fast-action vertical shooter, you may want to look for something else.
Astro Fighter gets a 3/5 (2.5 on a half-point scale)
Moon Cresta is one of those games that I don't remember from the arcades at all. I'm sure there were some around, but I don't think I ever played it until it was emulated in MAME. It was one of just a handful of arcade games that Nichibutsu produced, along with their more well-known Crazy Climber.
Moon Cresta is a vertical shooter with a variety of aliens swooping down at you, trying to collide with your ship. Initially, you're controlling just a small ship with a single slow-firing laser cannon. If your ship is destroyed, it's replaced with a larger one with two slow-firing laser cannons. And if that one gets destroyed, you get an even larger ship with, again - you guessed it - two slow-firing laser cannons. Each time you die - your ship is essentially replaced by a larger target, with your two guns spaced farther apart.
However, if you can clear enough enemy attack waves, you'll be given the opportunity to dock your ship with the one that's the next size up. While this makes you an even bigger target, it greatly increases your firepower, especially if you get all three ships stacked together, since you get to use all of their guns. Even though the fire rate of each set of cannons is still slow, you can now effectively fire them off in rapid succession. It's this ability to stack up ships and pile on more firepower that makes Moon Cresta stand out (and it did this over a year before Galaga). Your advantage is short-lived however, since as the game cycles back to the first set of enemies, you're reduced back to a single ship and you have to start building it up all over again.
I played Moon Cresta a lot for this review, both on the 7800 and in MAME. The reason isn't because I like Moon Cresta - it's because I don't. In fact, I don't like it a lot.
I'm not sure what a "Cresta" is (besides an old Toyota or a soft drink), but if I had to guess, I suspect it means "Cheap Death". Moon Cresta was designed to steal quarters. The game takes cheap-shots at you - including materializing aliens literally on top of you, or throwing planets at you without any warning. Plus the collision detection seems suspect - both in the arcade version and the 7800 port. There are times I'd swear my shots passed right through an alien. If you lose your first ship, the subsequent ships' guns are so far apart, they can actually bracket an alien and miss it entirely. Finally, there's the aforementioned fire rate - it's agonizingly slow unless you can survive long enough to stack up your ships. At that point, the game becomes playable. Fun, even. That's why I kept playing it - to try to get back to that point. But it's such a tedious, frustrating grind to get there, I'm not sure it's worth it. More often than not, I just found myself getting not only frustrated, but angry. At that point, it's time to put the controller down.
There are certainly people who like Moon Cresta and have fond memories of it. Those who have put the time into it to get good enough at it to overcome the frustration factor and avoid the cheap deaths. I'm not one of them, and as I said, I've been playing this game a lot, trying to give the game every chance.
Bob DeCrescenzo did an excellent job porting Moon Cresta to the 7800. The quirky-looking graphics are almost spot-on, as are the unique sounds and music. It plays almost exactly like the arcade game - including the sluggish laser cannons and cheap deaths. Fortunately, you can switch to "Easy" and the game becomes somewhat less frustrating, but even then I got to the point where I simply didn't want to play it anymore. It had worn out its welcome.
Despite that, the 7800 version of Moon Cresta is a treat for fans of the arcade game. I can't deny the amount of effort and attention to detail put into this port. One minor complaint unrelated to gameplay - Reset doesn't work while your ships are appearing on screen between lives. While not a big issue, I was reaching for Reset a lot while playing this, and it was annoying to have to wait for the game to finish it's "You just lost a life and now you have this many ships left" routine before I could get out of it and start over.
Because it's a such a well-made port, and because it has the potential to be fun at times, Moon Cresta gets a 4/5 (3.5 on a half-point scale)
"Fighter pilots needed in sector wars... play Astro Blaster!"
I didn't see Astro Blaster in the arcades much back-in-the-day, but when I did, I played it. The distinctive voice was calling me to action - I was needed! For sector wars! How could I refuse whoever these poor people were who were clearly under assault by... whatever those things are?
Astro Blaster is a vertical shooter where your ship is blasting away at a huge variety of enemies, each with different attack patterns, all dropping tons of firepower on your head. But you're not just sitting idly there waiting to die - your ship has a ton of firepower at its disposal too. But there's a catch - if you fire too much too fast, your lasers will overheat and shut down until they can cool off. This presents a bigger problem than just being temporarily disarmed, because time is against you too. You're burning through fuel, and if you take too long to take the enemies out, you'll run out and your game is over. If you get through enough enemies, you'll fly through a meteor shower where you can shoot flaming meteors to regain a little extra fuel (because you know... video games), and if you make it through that - you'll have a chance to dock with your mothership and refuel. But there's no rest for the weary - as soon as you've topped up your tanks they throw you right back into action against even fiercer enemies.
Astro Blaster had distinctive, detailed graphics unlike anything else at the time, and absolutely frenetic gameplay that begged you to overheat your lasers. It also had something still rare in arcades at the time: voices. From its call for pilots during the attract mode, to in-game speech warning you of your fuel level and other threats, Astro Blaster was packed with distinctive and actually understandable voice samples. Astro Blaster had two other tricks up its sleeve, too: limited use of a "warp" button which would slow down all of the enemies for several seconds, giving you a chance to accurately mow down tricky enemy formations; and secret bonuses that you could earn depending on how you played the game (not overheating your laser, shooting enemies in a certain order, not moving during the refueling stage, etc). All of these added up to an incredibly challenging, fun, and surprisingly deep shooter. Activision apparently thought it was influential enough - they based Megamania on it.
Bob DeCrescenzo has done an impressive job bringing Astro Blaster to the 7800. All of the enemies are there, all of the frenetic gameplay, the secret bonuses, the distinctive sound effects, almost everything is remarkably intact. He even uses the difficulty settings to let you choose between the different ROM sets that the arcade game had. The only places the adaptation falls short are that the graphics (notably the enemies) aren't quite as colorful, and sadly, most of the speech didn't make it into the game. The only phrase that survived is the opening call for pilots during the title screen. Fortunately, Bob did include that one (it wouldn't be Astro Blaster without it), and he managed to make clever use of onscreen text to fill in for other phrases that would normally happen during the game.
Astro Blaster is a classic shooter that never got much recognition back in the day. Perhaps there was just too much competition at the time for it to stand out. But now you can give it the attention it's due and bring it home for your 7800. Astro Blaster should be part of any 7800 owner's game library!
Astro Blaster gets a 5/5
Up next: Bob brings even more arcade games home to the 7800 in Arcade Assault, Vol. 2
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