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Desert Falcon (Atari)

DoctorSpuds

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I feel the urge to revisit an old friend. Back when I had nothing but an Atari flashback one of the few games I would regularly play was Desert Falcon, a Zaxxon-like isometric shooter set in ancient Egypt, what’s not to like? What I didn’t know at the time was that there was also a version for the Atari 7800, mainly because I didn’t know that the Atari 7800 was even a thing that existed. If I’d known I probably would have moved to the 7800 sooner than I did, because right now, at this very moment Desert Falcon on the 7800 is my favorite retro game, period. Is it the best? No. Is it the best looking? No. Is it the best playing? No. I just like it, let me tell you all about it. Also, since I played the 2600 version quite a bit I will be referring to it extensively through the review.

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The graphics are excellent; the amount of detail packed into every sprite is phenomenal. The environment is an enormous step up from what you got in the 2600 version. Gone is the flat monochrome desert floor, now you have texture, imperfections, small dots of water, and clumps of brush. Water is no longer solid blue and only appearing in small patches, now there are large lakes and rivers weaving through the levels. The obstacles have also been improved dramatically, instead of them being two dimensional arrows and triangles they are now three dimensional shaded objects that actually look like what they’re trying to be. Everything has been stepped up, the enemy designs, excellent, the hieroglyphs, excellent; everything has a shadow now, thank goodness! And the sphinx?  Oh, it’s gorgeous!

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The sounds are actually just the 2600 sounds with a few modifications so I’ll just copy myself and completely plagiarize my own work, I can do that right? Oh well. Sounds are rather good. A very catchy tune plays at the beginning and end of every game. I know that the box always has to embellish the sound effects, but in this case I think the game got closer to realism than most others did, the crunchy noise as an enemy emerges from the sand is a personal favorite of mine, and the bellow of the Sphinx boss is highly intimidating. Instead of leaving the player in dead silence this game does something that almost no other Atari game ever did, and that's having music in the background. The tune is very simple consisting of just a few repeating notes, but it's very effective at engaging the player since the tunes changes whether you're flying or walking or even swimming. It’s really a pity that the 7800 had to use the same sound chip as the 2600, if only they’d just used the POKEY chip like the 8-bit line and 5200 did.

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The gameplay is very similar to Zaxxon, but with a few things changed up. There is no need for you to get fuel since you’re a bird, so the programmers came up with a clever way of getting you on the ground. The hieroglyph power-up system is relatively unique, but was unfortunately botched. In order to get certain power-ups, invincibility, fast shots, screen nuke, kill the final boss, etc, you have to collect a three different hieroglyphics that are laying on the ground in a specific order. Unfortunately you have no idea what combination of hiero’s does what, and you’ll usually just get points. It’s also not worth trying to write down the hiero’s unless you’re a particularly good artist. Also scattered on the desert floor are gems, which you can collect for points, the more you collect the more they’re worth, so you’d better pick up as many as you can so you can score big on the bonus level. As much as it’s hyped up, the end of level sphinx is a pushover, unlike with the 2600 version where you had to shoot it in the face but couldn’t because you had no idea where you were spatially, with the 7800 version it’s a cinch to line yourself up and shoot that dude’s face off. Once the sphinx has been destroyed you move on to the bonus level where you collect as many jewels as possible under a time limit. This is where I come to another slightly botched part of the game, landing. In the 2600 version transitioning from hopping to flying to hopping again was fast and smooth, with the 7800 version it’s not quite as simple. There is a delay when landing, for a brief moment you hover at minimum altitude before the landing animation plays, this little delay will make you miss so many hieroglyphs and jewels, and will be rather irritating until you finally get the hang of it. This is the only thing the 2600 version does better than the 7800 version.

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Because I’m a filthy casual I always play on novice difficulty, usually because I can get to around level four before I get completely wiped out by aggressive packs of enemies and pretty crazy level generation. There is no competition, this is the definitive version of the game, and is the one that you should play, but in a pinch the 2600 version is a worthy substitute. If you want to buy this game then it’ll cost you ten bucks for the cheapest loose copy and 19.95 for the cheapest boxed copy, and honestly I would recommend getting the game CIB. Get this game, it’s entirely worth it.

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