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Homebreviews - part 47: Arcade Assault, Vol. 4

Nathan Strum


Well, this brings us to the halfway point of the current crop of Homebreviews! The frequency of these will be slowing down some, as I have other projects piling up that need my attention. But I'll still continue to piece away at the rest of these in the coming months.
Meanwhile, here are two of the best arcade ports [i]ever[/i] to grace the 2600. And no, I'm not biased at all. :roll:
Full disclosure: I worked on this game, designing the in-game graphics, converting the arcade level layouts, and creating the artwork for the label, manual and box.
Draconian is Darrell Spice, Jr.'s port of Namco's arcade classic Bosconian. Your mission is pretty straightforward: blow up every space station in a given sector, then move onto the next sector and repeat. Each station is made up of six weapons pods and a main core. To destroy the station you can either shoot all six pods, or fire a shot into the station's core when its protective shielding is open. The pods will fire a steady barrage of shots at you, and periodically the core will fire a large missile at you if you get in its way. The enemy has homing missiles patrolling around that will try to crash into you, attack formations which will mercilessly hunt you down, and Spy Ships that will report your position if allowed to escape. If that happens, the enemy will throw everything they have at you as your on-board computer yells "Condition Red" over and over.
The space stations are smack-dab in the middle of an asteroid field, and the enemy has laid explosive space mines everywhere - making navigation treacherous. All you have to fight back with is your trusty spaceship and its laser cannon. In most games you'd be hopelessly outgunned, but in Draconian your laser fires out of the back of your ship too! That'll teach 'em to tailgate!
Draconian is an amazing port of the original arcade game. All of the elements, enemies, gameplay, and action have been squeezed into the 2600. The number of objects on screen is truly impressive, including a parallax scrolling starfield. At times there is significant flicker, but whenever that happens you're likely to be so busy you won't really notice it. There's great attention to detail - the station cores open and close revealing reactors and missiles inside, the attack formation indicator and radar display are both included, all of the arcade levels from both the Namco and Midway arcade versions are there, and in what may be Draconian's most notable feature: the game features digitized voices! Now, digitized voices aren't entirely new, even for the 2600. Quadrun had a digitized voice in 1983, although it only spoke one word, and had to blank the screen when it played. But Draconian manages to bring all of the original arcade voice samples to the 2600, and does so without interrupting the game. From "Blast Off!" to the dreaded "Condition Red!" they're all here, and they don't require any external hardware. Mike Haas did a fantastic job converting the voice samples, as well as recreating the arcade game's other music and sound effects. Draconian is a real audio and visual treat!
As great as the game looks and sounds, it shines equally as bright in terms of gameplay. Draconian perfectly captures the intense action of Bosconian, including lightning-quick controls, pixel-perfect collision detection, and difficulty ramping that challenges you without feeling unfair. A slick onscreen menu lets you choose from four difficulty settings; support for NTSC, PAL or even SECAM; the option to start in any of the first 16 sectors; and which quadrant you want to play. Each quadrant features different sector layouts: Midway arcade, Namco arcade, two sets of custom-designed levels (including some submitted by AtariAge members), and one where layouts are generated randomly. Effectively, you should never run out of new sectors to play. Draconian also has a Continue option - so you can start your next game where your last one ended, and a Pause feature. The only thing missing is high score and progress saving with an AtariVox or SaveKey. But adding that would have meant compromising elsewhere, and given how perfect everything else is, it wouldn't have been worth the trade-off. I can happily just write my scores down.
Bosconian never seemed to garner the sort of attention other games of its era did. It was always a favorite of mine though, and despite one of my blog posts being the inspiration that prompted Darrell to make Draconian, I never could have dreamed it would turn out like this. This is about as perfect of an arcade port as you can get. The fact that it's on the Atari 2600 is all the more incredible, and it makes you wonder if there is anything homebrewers can't make this system do.
Draconian gets a [b]5/5[/b]
[b]Super Cobra Arcade[/b]
Full disclosure: I worked on this game, designing the in-game graphics, converting the arcade level layouts, and creating the artwork for the label, manual and box.
Super Cobra is Konami's follow-up to their classic arcade game Scramble. Instead of a spaceship, you fly a helicopter across even more challenging terrain, through tighter caverns and down twistier tunnels. There are twice as many stages to fight through, with new and more aggressive enemies: guided missiles, saucers that shoot back at you, meteors that actively try to crash into you, tanks that fire at you from below, and mines that drop from the ceiling above. As with Scramble, you still need to refuel your copter by blowing up enemy depots or you'll run out of fuel and crash. Your goal is still to get through all of the stages, but instead of merely blowing up the target at the end, you now have to use your copter to carefully scoop it up and steal it. The arcade version of Super Cobra is incredibly difficult - as if it were designed to punish players who had gotten too good at playing Scramble. Being one of the first arcade games to let you add more credits to continue your game made Super Cobra a true quarter-eater.
Unlike Scramble, Super Cobra had been ported to the 2600 back-in-the-day. But the Parker Bros. version had terrible controls, the scrolling was chunky, and most of the enemies had been consolidated down into just a handful of generic shapes. It wasn't the worst arcade port ever, but like many of its day, it was certainly lacking.
Not so with Champ Games' Super Cobra Arcade. John Champeau has followed up his already impressive port of Scramble with an even more impressive port of Super Cobra. The "Arcade" in the title isn't simply an affectation, it's serious.
As with his version of Scramble, John brought the entire Super Cobra arcade game to the 2600 intact. Every piece of terrain, every building, every enemy, every tunnel, they're all here. The enemies look and move like the originals as well: from the arcing missiles, to spinning drones, and even the tanks that chase along the ground (which is a fun enough stage to make a game all by itself). No detail was missed - the progress bar, fuel gauge, background stars, level indicators and more are all here. Even the terrain and buildings are rendered in multiple colors, faithfully reproducing the arcade game. Despite the amount of action, objects and explosions onscreen at any given time, John has done a masterful job of keeping the flickering under control.
Controls and collision detection are perfect. As he did with Scramble, John made using a single fire button work brilliantly for both guns and bombs, while also including support for gamepads with dual fire buttons. The mostly-auto-fire "burst mode" makes a welcomed thumb-saving return as well. Audio by Mike Haas and Bob DeCrescenzo is excellent, from the music to each enemy's distinctive sound effects. Super Cobra Arcade also has a Continue option (no quarters required) - allowing you to work your way further through the game without having to start over, a Pause feature, and AtariVox/SaveKey support for saving high scores and game preferences.
Super Cobra Arcade is an outstanding port of the original, fully earning its "Arcade" moniker. Even including Pac-Man, Super Cobra Arcade is the most dramatic improvement that a homebrew has made over a previous 2600 release. There's just no comparison between it and the Parker Bros. version. Even more impressive, John's version actually improves on the original arcade game in one key area: difficulty.
Super Cobra Arcade has four difficulty settings: Novice, Standard, Advanced and Expert. Advanced is effectively the same as the arcade game: brutally hard. The enemies are numerous and aggressive, the passageways tight and unforgiving, and you will be hard-pressed to get to the base even using all of your continues. But set the game on Standard, and suddenly you feel more at home. At that point, the game feels truly like a continuation of Scramble: new terrain, new challenges, new enemies, but without the insane jump in difficulty. The enemies are fewer and a little less aggressive, the passageways are a little more open, and there's a nice balance to the whole game. Once you think you've got the hang of Standard, then you can move onto Advanced and practice up for the arcade game. If that's not enough challenge for you, try Expert, where rockets launch on every stage and tank turrets track your movement. If you manage to get far enough - even the terrain will change!
The manual is laid out as comic book, written as a sequel to the one from Scramble. Super Cobra Arcade also features what may be my favorite Easter Egg ever: you can play the game using the ship from Scramble! Finally, after over 35 years, Super Cobra is a true sequel to Scramble!
Super Cobra Arcade takes everything that made Champ Games' version of Scramble great, and doubles it. More stages, more enemies, and more challenges. By giving you the option of a more playable version while still keeping the arcade difficulty intact, this is everything an arcade port should be, and makes the perfect companion to Scramble. Buy them both!
Super Cobra Arcade gets a [b]5/5[/b]
[i]Up next: [b]Two unrelated games without an alliterative or rhyming catchphrase[/b][/i]
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