Homebreviews - part 46: Arcade Assault, Vol. 3
Video Game Reviews
Now it's the 2600's turn for some arcade action! But the ol' gal has some new tricks up her sleeve, even though two of these games have been on the 2600 in one form or other for over 35 years. And yes... I copy-pasted some of my Scramble review from the 7800 version. Nice to see you're paying attention.
I probably need to make my reviews a little more succinct though. My review for Pac-Man 4K is actually larger than 4K.
I probably shouldn't have to describe Pac-Man any more than I should have to explain Pong, but in Pac-Man you move a yellow pie-shaped character through a maze of dots, eating them as you go. Your goal is to clear out all of the dots, and move along to the next maze. There are four monsters that chase you around, and if they catch you, they'll kill you. If you eat one of four energizers in the maze, you can turn the tables on the monsters and eat them too. There are also bonus fruit items you can pick up for extra points, and after clearing a certain number of mazes, the game will show you short little intermissions featuring the game's characters.
I remember the first place I played the arcade version of Pac-Man - the Fred Meyer store on 185th and Aurora, just north of Seattle. My friend Martin and I were already in the habit of riding our bikes over there during lunch, getting a hot dog or pretzel at the cart parked out front, and then playing the handful of arcade games they had inside. We started playing Pac-Man before hearing anything about it becoming popular - we just played it because it was fun. We began developing our own patterns too, without knowing about other people doing it. By the time Pac-Man became a phenomenon, we were already moving onto other games (Battlezone and Defender, in particular). But it was still a favorite of mine, and when Atari announced they were going to make Pac-Man for the 2600, I had to have it.
The store I frequented for video games at the time (Video Hut) was primarily a videotape rental place that had expanded to carry video games. The guy who worked there was a great source to hear from about the latest games, because he played them all and got a lot of feedback from customers. Despite his warning that the 2600 version of Pac-Man was awful, I bought it anyway. I was so disappointed with it, I returned it for a refund and bought something else. People often knock Atari's version of Pac-Man as being awful... but why is it awful?
For me, it was just that it was so far removed from the arcade game. Pac-Man himself didn't look right. He never faced up or down, had an eye, an his mouth animation was weird. The controls felt sluggish. The maze looked nothing like the arcade game and the colors were all wrong. There were no fruit bonuses (just a square). The monsters were difficult to see. And the sound was terrible - even annoying. Since then, hacks have proven that even simple changes like altering the colors (providing more contrast), or making Pac-Man look more arcade-like, significantly improve peoples' perception of the game. It wasn't that Atari's version of Pac-Man was irredeemable, but rather that by effectively ignoring all of the details from the arcade version that made Pac-Man what it was, you were left with something that could only disappoint fans of the original.
There have been previous attempts to bring an improved version of Pac-Man to the 2600 - at least one homebrew and numerous hacks - but nothing has yet come as close as Dennis Debro's Pac-Man 4K. Dennis set out to create the most accurate port of Pac-Man possible within only 4K - the ROM size of Atari's version - and what he was able to pack into that space is impressive!
The first thing you'll notice is the maze - the layout from the arcade version has been brought over intact. This is no easy task, given that the arcade game uses a vertical monitor, and the 2600 a horizontal one. The monsters, Pac-Man, and even the fruit items are faithfully reproduced from the arcade game as well - you even see the point values pop up wherever Pac-Man eats a monster. The opening music is nicely reminiscent of the original, as are some of the sound effects. But what matters most is the gameplay. The attention to detail doesn't end with the presentation either, as Dennis put a lot of effort into making Pac-Man 4K play like the arcade game too: tight controls, difficulty progression, even having the monsters' behavior mimic that of the arcade game. There are no difficulty settings, but you can choose to start at different levels. As an aside, I've always found it interesting how people have long used different colloquialisms to name the bonus items. In the manual Dennis uses Peach rather than Orange, and Mush rather than Bell. He also uses Grapes instead of Melon, however right up until I looked it up for this review, I always thought they were grapes, too. (I still think they look more like grapes.)
Dennis describes Pac-Man 4K as "no frills", and there were are a few compromises he had to make for the game to fit into 4K: points aren't displayed when you eat fruit, there are no intermissions, no title screen or high score saving, and everything flickers at 20 Hz (which is perfectly acceptable, and a definite improvement over Atari's version). To me, the game feels just a little bit fast (although this may have to do with the maze being squished to fit a horizontal monitor); also the distinctive "wakka-wakka" sound has been reduced to a simple "blip", and the Galaxian level icon has been replaced by an AtariAge logo. Really though, all of these are insignificant. Pac-Man 4K plays like Pac-Man, it looks like Pac-Man, and it's the Pac-Man game Atari should have at least attempted to make in the first place. Now, you can play Pac-Man on your 2600 the way it should be played. Very highly recommended!
Pac-Man 4K gets a 5/5 (4.5 on a 1/2 point scale)
Full disclosure: I worked on this game, designing the in-game graphics.
Space Rocks is Darrell Spice, Jr.'s version of Asteroids. As in the original arcade game, you fly a space ship around the screen, blowing up asteroids. Your goal is to clear out all of the asteroids without colliding with them, or being shot by UFOs which appear from time to time.
Atari's original 2600 version was an impressive conversion for its time. I owned it and played it a lot. So much so that I built two five-button controllers with a friend of mine, so we could play the game with proper arcade-like controls. A joystick just wouldn't do! As fun as the 2600 version was though, it did have some limitations - the rocks generally just moved vertically, the asteroids looked like floating blobs of ice cream, you could only fire two shots at a time, and there just couldn't be enough objects onscreen to really replicate the arcade game.
Space Rocks fixes all of that... and more. Darrell has managed to put an astonishing number of objects on screen. Even though the asteroids do flicker, you're so busy trying to survive you rarely notice it. The rocks (which rotate) are rendered in high-resolution detail and move in every direction, fully bringing the mayhem of the arcade version to the 2600. There are options to play the game with either solid or outline ("vector") graphics, and to either have multi-colored asteroids or choose from one of over a dozen colors. This let's you mimic the look of the original 2600 Asteroids (multi-colored, solid graphics), arcade Asteroids (white vectors), Asteroids Deluxe (cyan vectors), or customize the look to your choosing.
The options don't end there though. The Killer Satellites (renamed Magna-Mines) from Asteroids Deluxe are here too - if you shoot one of these, it splits into six smaller ships that chase you down. Your ship can have shields, hyperspace, or instantly flip 180°. There are several two-player options including Co-op and Fight!; gamepad support; selectable friction and bonus life settings; and even a few Easter Eggs!
The gameplay is flawless. Controls are precise and collision detection is pixel-perfect. Your ship rotates smoothly and has 32 firing angles for precision destruction (the 2600 version of Asteroids had only 16). Your ship can fire four shots at a time, and you'll need every one of them. Sound effects are excellent. Difficulty progression is nicely balanced. And there may be no more satisfying moment in video gaming than when one of those tiny UFOs that has just taken out your ship with a cheap shot, gets pulverized by colliding with a big honking space rock.
Space Rocks is a must-have for the 2600. It brings home the frenetic arcade action from Asteroids and Asteroids Deluxe, with even a little bit of Space Duel thrown in for good measure. There are enough options to keep you from ever tiring of the game, and they're all presented neatly in an intuitive and simple menu. The only (minor) knock is that there is no AtariVox or SaveKey support for saving high scores or your favorite game options. But given everything else Space Rocks offers, those are non-issues. Dave Dries' label and manual artwork nicely evoke the original Asteroids arcade cabinet, adding just the right touch to an already outstanding game.
This one is simple: buy it. And get yourself a proper controller, too. Space Rocks gets a 5/5
Full disclosure: I worked on this game, designing the in-game graphics and converting the arcade level layouts.
Scramble is Konami's classic side-scrolling shooter where you fly a spaceship over different terrains and through tunnels, destroying ground targets, avoiding enemy missiles, and shooting down enemy saucers. Along the way are bonus targets to take out for extra points, and fuel tanks that you'll need to destroy in order to replenish your own dwindling fuel supply. Get through all five stages and you'll enter the enemy base. If you can destroy it, your reward is a quick congratulatory message before getting sent right back out to do the whole thing all over again at a higher difficulty. The more bases you destroy, the faster the enemies will be, the faster you'll fly - giving you less time to react, and the faster you'll use your fuel up. If you run out of fuel, crash, or get hit by an enemy, you'll lose a ship. Lose all of your ships, and your game is over.
John Champeau did an amazing job bringing Scramble to the 2600. The 2600 doesn't usually handle horizontal scrolling very well, and even though this version of Scramble effectively "pulses" along rather than scrolling smoothly, it doesn't matter. All of the gameplay is intact, and the game is so faithful to the arcade version, you can actually practice on one version and improve on the other. A rare feat for any 2600 game.
While the resolution of the 2600 is dramatically reduced from the arcade version, all of the terrain, tunnels and caverns from the arcade game are present. If you're familiar with the arcade game, the 2600 version is a screen-for-screen match. Even the dreaded tunnel level has all of the same twists, turns and obstacles of the original. The multicolored graphics vividly reproduce all of the details of the arcade game including enemies, explosions, buildings, the progress bar, fuel gauge and even background stars. John has managed to fit an impressive number of objects on the screen at the same time, all with negligible flicker. The sound effects and music by Bob DeCrescenzo and Mike Haas are excellent, nicely bringing the atmosphere of the arcade game home.
As great as Scramble looks and sounds, one of its most impressive feats are its controls - especially compared to Parker Bros.' version of Super Cobra. Scramble's controls are perfect. The ship feels just like the arcade version, even down to the ground-scraping collision detection. Best of all though, are your ship's weaponry. Somehow, John has managed to make a single fire button work for both lasers and bombs. It feels completely intuitive - you're actually firing both at the same time, yet you can still bomb or shoot exactly when you need to. John also included a much-welcomed "burst mode", which is a rapid-fire feature that will save your thumb a lot of work; and there's also support for Genesis gamepads - so you can have separate buttons for lasers and bombs - just like the arcade game.
If all of that wasn't enough, John added multiple difficulty levels, including an Expert mode which ramps up the challenge to Super Cobra levels; high score saving with an AtariVox or SaveKey; and even a Pause feature. Dave Dries' fantastic label artwork recalls the look of 70's-era blacklight posters, and the manual is written and illustrated as a comic book, spinning a backstory for the game while also describing how to play it.
Scramble is an all-time classic arcade game. I was always disappointed that it was never brought to the 2600 back in the day. Had it been, I probably would've been disappointed with the results. Now, I can fully enjoy a no-compromise version that's every bit as good as the arcade original. It was well worth the wait, and is something that belongs in everyone's 2600 game library.
Scramble gets a 5/5
Up next: because I didn't want to write five reviews for this entry, we'll have Arcade Assault, Vol. 4
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