Cartridge Creativity 2 – Atari Boogaloo

I’ve entered an almost obsessive video game purchasing phase.  It all started with Syndicate for the Sega Genesis, but it came on pretty strong once the Toronto Raptors began their playoff run.  It was sort of a security net in a strange way to look forward to something in the event that they lost.  Things were looking grim versus Indiana, so I grabbed a good sampling of NES games.  Miami looked pretty threatening, so Ghostbusters: The Video Game for the PS3 was next to be shipped.  Cleveland were flat out destroying us, so I went a bit crazy.  My most recent purchase? An Atari 2600.

Technically, I shouldn’t have nostalgia at all for this system.  By the time I was born, Nintendo was starting to make all things Atari seem like a distant memory.  Nonetheless, my first ever video game system was a Coleco Gemini (an Atari 2600 clone) that my brother, older sister, and I bought at a rummage sale out of some guy’s Quonset hut.  It cost somewhere between 8 and 20 dollars, but considering we only had a dollar-a-week allowance, it was still a significant investment even for three kids to be making. The console had been as good as dead for about a decade, but we naively thought that playing Joust or California Games would make us forget how our friends were one Christmas away from a Sony Playstation.

What makes the Atari so special for me? I like the ability to pick up a game, and put it down without worrying about where I left off, what the controls are, or having to wait through load screen after load screen before you start playing. The last point goes without saying in this case. Nobody in their right mind would sit through a load screen if Space War awaited them on the other side.

Since I now have about 60 games waiting to be played (they’re pretty darn cheap!), it’s time to stop the buying and get down to playing them.  However, I want to enjoy them in another way first.  I did something like this before, so I’m giving it another go. Going by the cartridge art alone, I’ll do my best to determine what the following Atari 2600 games are all about.

I’ll use my newfound love for Forrest MacNeil’s hit TV show as inspiration, and give each game a rating out of five stars.

(photo source: Atari Age)

Yars’ Revenge

Yar

This is likely the most popular game I’m going to cover, but it’s obscure enough to know jack about without ever having played it.  It’s not like I don’t know my Atari basics.  I don’t think that Super Breakout is about misplacing your acne medication, or that Space Invaders is about going on vacation with your in-laws. This game is one that would take a little more research to figure out what the plot is.  Unless you’re me.

What Trekkie can’t help but think of Tasha Yar from Star Trek: The Next Generation when hearing this game’s title?  I can remember her tragic death all too well, being swallowed whole by a living tar pit in the epsidoe “Skin of Evil”. It was traumatizing watching this transpire as a child.

Actually, I misremembered.  That wasn’t her.  It was Riker.  He got the cool death, and he didn’t even die.  I wonder if this brush with death is what caused him to grow the beard.  Either that or he was convinced it was all that was missing from being able to pull off this cute little number, but I digress.

Yar did not seek revenge from the entity that killed her.  Yar (well, Denise Crosby) sought revenge against the show. Initially, she begged to get back on show so she could undo the embarrassment of being defeated so easily by an aggravated oil spill.  While they couldn’t bring her back full-time, a compromise was reached where she’d get a few guest appearances, and her very own Atari game.  The downside, on top of the game being released on an obsolete platform, was that she could not use her likeness in the game.

Her character was not directly replaced by a new cast member, but she was secretly hoping it would be a giant insect.  Seeing as that never came to fruition, she took her concept to Atari headquarters and they went above and beyond the call of duty to put this creature (also named Yar) into a game.

The game itself is nothing to write home about.  Denise Crosby’s idea of revenge was for Yar to be reincarnated as a housefly and circle around the heads of show producers to keep them from enjoying their martinis from the back patios of their mansions.  Taking the creative liberties that video games allow to it’s full potential, she boldly goes where no bug has gone before as she’s blessed with the power to blow soap bubbles through her mouth (or whatever the insect equivalent is) to bring the level of annoyance up a peg.

Good luck lasting more than five minutes in this game because it doesn’t take long to learn that the rich don’t skimp out when it comes to fly paper, sugar-water traps, and an army of overworked yet underpaid swatter butlers.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.  Decent, but best left to die-hard Yar fans.

Word Zapper

wordzapper

I once had a Speak & Read, as many youngsters did.  However, I’m certain that I’m in the vast minority in the belief that the voice coming out of it was that of my father. Since he was an electronics hobbyist, it was only natural to think that he could design such a device and sell it to hundreds of thousands of children worldwide, all while putting in a 40-plus hour work week at General Motors and helping raise children.

The title of this game is an obvious play off one of the game modes within the Speak & Read: Word Zap.  I have to zap a ton of words on the way to tracking down my missing father: “sad”, “cry”, “woe”, “hurt”, “pain”, etc.  Level bosses include “neglect”, “cruelty”, and “abandonment”, surprising since I thought Speak & Reads was limited to four-letter words.

In a twist not dissimilar from Metroid, I find out that it is not my father, but my mother who is trapped inside my beloved childhood toy.  Tricked me good!  Digitized speech could be a bitch to make out.

Rating: 4 out of 5.  Highly recommended for Family Game Night.

See Saw

seesaw

You’d think that this game is about trying to get a nice see-saw rally going, but if this cart photo is any indication, this is not to be the friendliest of circus spectacles.  Typically, a well-executed see-saw consists of one person down on their end at ground level, and the other person is up in the air (either seated or airborne, depending on the applied force).  Here we see both participants airborne, so one of them is trying to bail on the other.

The object of the game must be to see which participant can be the bigger dick to the other.  Your choice is between two characters: a clown and an acrobat.  Seeing as I detest clowns and deeply regret ever having dressed as one for Halloween, I’d choose to play as the acrobat.  I have no particular attachment to the acrobat, and find men in tights oddly intimidating, but he’s the lesser of two evils.

The beauty about bailing on the clown is that if he wipes out from a thirty foot drop, two round balloons quickly inflate and burst from his groin region.  The acrobat’s crashes, on the other hand, are flat-out devastating.  If he falls victim to too many of the clown’s pranks, he’s off to a six-month physical rehab stint, which the player must guide him through in real-time.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.  Even the accompanying vouchers for free lifetime joystick replacements couldn’t rescue it from the bargain bins.

A Team

ateam

Note that this is a prototype game, so I assume this never went into production. You can’t get much more 80s than The A-Team and Atari, and this sounds like a match made in heaven. While it’s a natural assumption that this game was delayed because the resolution made it difficult to fine-tune Hannibal’s patented cigar chomp, that was not the case. This game would have nothing to do with the hit TV show.

The problem the staff had was that they could never decide which team would be the star of this game. Some wanted to make an Avengers-based game, others wanted a dominant sports dynasty like the New York Islanders, and a few votes went to The Get-Along Gang for some reason.  My mom must have got to them.

As this is apparently straight from the lab, I’m not ruling out typos on the label. This could have easily been about A Meat, an honest mistake for a quick typist.  Maybe it was intended to star Officer Big Mac, maybe it was the working title for BurgerTime, or maybe it was part of an inside joke at Atari.  I’m sure coding the software department’s lunch orders onto an extra Defender cartridge would never grow tired on the local Arby’s staff.

Rating: N/A.  Please message me if you own this game and are willing to donate it to me.  If not, I’ll forgive you if you can hook me up with Seasons 1 and 5 of The A-Team on DVD, both of which I’m also missing.

Basic Programming

basic

No matter what data is cased within this cartridge, the name alone triggers a painful memory.  I had a class in my first attempt at university that was my introduction to computer programming.  Appropriately enough, the class was called Introduction to Programming.  To play this game is to re-live that nightmare of a course.

The class seemed enjoyable enough, but just as I’m getting the grasp of if-else statements, I’m thrown to the wolves and asked to design a simulation of a functioning bicycle factory.  The ultimate goal was to re-design an existing factory so the floor layout allowed for the most efficiency in the production process.  Even though it was a group project, my confidence was shaky, and I felt like I let my team down.  Introduction to Programming my ass!

Those men on the cover also look like fish out of water.  Leaving a helpless Formula One pit crew to man Mission Control on an Apollo mission with little more than a “Good luck with that!” to guide them.  That’s exactly how I felt as a nervous 18-year old that never faced a project more complex than a 1000 page book report about Death of a Salesman.

When we finally finished (well, when my partners finished and I recovered from a panic attack), we had a factory layout that we were satisfied with.  Our professor ripped it to shreds.  Our layout saved the company around twenty minutes to produce the same level of output in a day.  Other groups presented plans that they claimed increased efficiency by over 150%, some going above 200%.

THAT’S NOT TRUE! THAT’S IMPOSSIBLE!!

The only parameter that was in our control was the floor on which the forklifts moved to transfer parts from one production zone to the next.  Doubling production output wasn’t going to happen.  At best, one department could be beside the next to reduce travel time, but all assembly times (for frames, brakes, wheels, etc.) were fixed variables, whose values far outweighed the best-case-scenario forklift travel times.  It’s not as if the factory was the size of a small town.  We’re talking 100 by 100 meters maximum.  This ain’t Schwinn we’re dealing with here.  Whoever convinced the plant owner that more than two forklifts were needed should be forced to stand in front of a moving one.

Our professor was the head of the School of Business at the university, thus he couldn’t give his students the time of day for any guidance.  Why hand such an important course for aspiring engineers over to this guy?  The rest of the computer science professors must have been too busy teaching Forensic Psychology classes.

Rating: 1 out of 5. Learning curve far too high.

Billard

billard

The title is no typo.  Billard is most definitely a proper sport. Look all day for it, and you won’t find it.  Aside from the above photo, any description or direct reference to it was scrubbed from the internet.  I’m putting my butt on the line by even telling you this.  I’m just trying to protect a man who wants the world to forget a regrettable incident.

My neighbour told me all about the game when I went over to apologize for mistaking his pet hedgehog for crabgrass while mowing the lawn.  I guess he figured I kill a beloved animal, he gets to tell me his life story.  Fair trade, I suppose.

The cart depicts the rich history of this game of champions, which was only played on one occasion.  He concocted the basic rules when he was high on coke (the straw in the bottom right corner), and listening to Traffic’s The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys album (the sleeve on which he lined said cocaine).  The original rules were scrapped when he received the sobering news that he had custody of his young daughter on the eve of Easter.  No time to invent the next Ultimate Frisbee, for he had but a few hours to prepare.

Being pressed for time, he hid Easter eggs in the most obvious places.  He hardly had any furniture to hide eggs, so he did as best as he could while coming off his high.  He clumsily disguised the eggs as billiard balls, getting the colors entirely wrong in the process.

Having somewhat of an estranged relationship with his daughter, he neglected to realize she was too old to believe in the Easter Bunny.  There was little for the two of them to do once she arrived other than shoot some pool.  This is how Billard began (and just as quickly ended).

She overlooked the fact the balls were oblong, knowing that her dad had little money, and that this was all he could afford.  He had her fooled until she took the opening brake.  He forgot to hard-boil the eight-ball, and erupted in anger at his daughter for staining his pool table.  Never mind the fact he used the same pool table to sleep, eat, and fornicate on, so a bit of yoke was the least of his worries.

Regretting blowing that occasion to bond with his daughter, he put the memory in game form as some weird therapeutic practice, and managed to chuck the lone copy in a New Mexico-based landfill.  Years later, a simple apology did more to help him than the thousands of hours it took him to develop the game, and he and his daughter are now closer than ever.

If the story didn’t have such a good ending, I’d feel bad for betraying his trust.

Rating: 2 out of 5. Inventive, but no market appeal.

Bobby Is Going Home

bobbyisgoinghome

These third-party titles never seemed to have artwork that was very inspiring.  I can only assume that the same carries over to the game itself.  When they limit their art to what they can salvage from the garbage bin of a high school art class, they get what they pay for.

It’s awful hard for Bobby to go home when he’s too big to fit into his house.  At least the perspective of this painting leads me to believe this is the case.  Either that or he’s hovering in the air.  It’s as if they took a perfectly ordinary nature scene and slipped a boy and house in as an afterthought.  Why else would someone bury a house into a hillside?  This isn’t Bag End.

Like virtually any Atari game, Bobby Is Going Home was super minimal from a graphics standpoint.  You’d often need a story as a guide or you’d be left to your imagination. The manual would usually list the plot of the game as well as the controls, but you’d be lucky to get an entire paragraph of set-up.  Games not produced within Atari headquarters were often given as little description as possible (if any at all), so I’ll opt with no description at all.  The title already states the objective, so why do we need to know any further details?  You don’t always feel like telling your taxi driver how your day went, do you?  Just help the guy get home, and leave the taxicab confessions for Taxicab Confessions.

Bobby is represented by a blue dot.  His home is represented by a red dot.  You start at one side of the screen, and the house is on the other side.  Attempt to use the joystick to walk Bobby in a straight line from one end of the screen to the other, and that’s all.

I don’t blame the hardcore gamer if this one isn’t on their radar. It’s rather obscure. The game was demoed in police headquarters as a sobriety test to use at the drunk tank, and for repairmen to calibrate television sets.

Rating:  0.5 out of 5.  Utter crap.

Catch Time

catchtime

People cannot remember any classic character that is uniquely an Atari product, and perhaps this is the reason why.  Marty Atari was the company’s idea for a spokes-character to boost the brand worldwide.  Catch Time was to be the first of several planned family-friendly adventure titles that would feature Marty.  Unfortunately, thrilling follow-ups such as Dry The Dishes, Study Buddy, and Grandma Visit never hit the shelves.

Marty sure is a fussy eater, but try telling that to his mother!  The daft woman wants the boy to get three square meals a day, which include not so desirable items like steamed cauliflower and brussel sprouts.  Marty would take a week’s worth of detention over a glass full of prune juice.  Help him consume dishes fresh from his preferred menu: doughnuts, tacos, pizza, and hot dogs while avoiding as much nutrition as possible.  Locate his Holy Grail of cuisine, a peanut butter Manwich, for a 10,000 point bonus.

Why would they call it Catch Time?  Wouldn’t a title like Food Frenzy be more fitting?  Probably, but they wanted kids to see the consequences of their actions.  Catch Time acts as both title and Surgeon General warning: Treat your body like a garbage compactor, and who knows what you’ll catch.  Gout, salmonella, diabetes, the list goes on.  Your best-case scenario is getting a bad stomach ache, and spending your day-off school parked in front of the TV.  Granted, you’ll be stuck watching Coronation Street while your mom is in your ear updating you on each character’s lengthy backstory, imitating their respective accents while doing so.

Rating:  3 out of 5.  It has it’s share of bright spots.  The game play lends itself to an interesting challenge if you follow your mother’s dietary guidelines, but that’s about as fun as a night at the strip club while blindfolded.

Communist Mutants From Space

communist

I’m sure Chekov was called much worse than that by Scotty after downing too much Romulan ale, but I’ve already covered Star Trek (plus they already have this cool Atari game).  No, this game really breaks down some barriers.

It wasn’t until Rocky IV came out when the public’s hearts opened up to those behind the Iron Curtain.  All it took was an actor pretending to be Mikael Gorbachev giving Rocky a heart-warming standing ovation to make us all forget about an unnecessary death in a meaningless exhibition match.  If this game got the publicity that Super Mario Bros. received, Rocky IV would be reduced to a footnote of pop culture, and Dolph Lundgren would go back to being the most physically-intimidating chemical engineer in Sweden.

Make no mistake.  These are meant to be Soviet aliens.  The details are staring us in the face.  The Hammer and Sickle on the bomb, the Molotov cocktail, and premature baldness are all dead giveaways.  Why isn’t the one mutant wearing a Red Army-issued uniform?  He’s standing front-center, so he must be the lead character.

This is propaganda is it’s purest form. Have you ever seen the Disney cartoon where Donald Duck is a Nazi soldier? This is the gaming equivalent.  Vladimir wishes desperately to be part of a capitalist nation, so he begins to rebel.  His obsession over a bootlegged Purple Rain cassette tape inspires his turtleneck colour of choice.  It may look subtle, but it expands from there.  Carefully guide Vladimir through various missions to help spread his infectious attitude towards the western way of living.  If successful, he’ll have his comrades dressing like The Cure in no time!

Rating: 2.5 out of 5. Gets unfairly compared to Tetris due to the Russian connection, but nobody would waste their time porting borderline-average games onto graphing calculators, would they?

I Want My Mommy

iwantmymommy

Don’t let the rainbow banner fool you.  Without a doubt, this is the darkest game on the Atari 2600.

As you can guess from the title, mommy is not home.  Janie is left in the hands of high school junior Stacy Grimm, the babysitter from hell.  Keep in mind that this game came out in the early 80s.  She wouldn’t lock Janie in her room so she could raid the liquor closet in private and make out with her 34-year old boyfriend who was her first follower on Instagram.  She locked Janie in her room so she could raid the liquor closet in private and make out with her 34-year old boyfriend who literally just followed her around the mall one day.  Different era entirely.

Knowing that, you may not find the KidStuff brand label to be appropriate.  This is in reference to the ridiculously easy difficulty level.  You don’t play as Janie.  You witness the game from the point of view of her stuffed animal.  Note that I said witness, and not play as.  Even the most rudimentary of examinations will tell you that dolls do not have the sense of sight (Teddy Ruxpin‘s eyes only looked as if they’re following you around the room).  You have button eyes, therefore you’ll see nothing but a black screen.

What part of “darkest game on the Atari 2600” don’t you understand?

Rating: N/A. I think my copy is defective, but I can’t be certain.

Secret Quest

secretquest

This is the only game I’ve seen that has the picture of the game designer right on the cartridge.  The picture is close to actual size (if not larger), and you still can’t read the text box.  This is obviously his first game as that’s a total n00b mistake.

Is the character’s helmet necessary?  I don’t think it’s for protection.  Is for anonymity, to protect himself from being sued over the unauthorized use of a lightsaber?  Is he embarrassed because his disturbingly dark nipples show through his suit?  No need to be ashamed.  George Clooney overcame a similar nipple no-no, so it isn’t a career breaker.

Is this a super-hero tale?  No.  I don’t believe the Supermen of the world could take a leak without making front page news, so no quest can truly be secret.  In fact, the quest doesn’t even belong to the cosplayer on the dollar-store budget.  The beast that stands before him is the game’s protagonist, Dragona.  He teleported to Earth from a distant galaxy to help squash a rapidly developing problem.

You see, much like Gamera, Dragona is a friend of all children.  When he caught wind of a growing number of adults transporting toys from the playroom to the man cave, he wouldn’t stand for it.  Toys are meant to be enjoyed by the young, dammit!  Not only will he disarm this foe of his Nerf fencing sword, but rid the remaining henchmen of their Hulk Hands, Super Soakers, and red-hot Creepy Crawlers moulds (an excellent projectile if you lack the only Frisbee man enough for the job).

The final, most-difficult enemy you’ll face is Hector Billingsley, the world’s most eccentric and passionate toy collector.  The man never came across a Slinky he couldn’t untangle, or a Cabbage Patch Kid he wouldn’t adopt.  If you can get past his top body guards (Fisher and Price), be prepared for a tantrum the likes of which Toys R Us has never hosted.   How will Dragona stack up against a maniacal man who insists on driving to work in his Power Wheels Jeep?

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.  I’m not afraid to say how much I empathize with the antagonists.

20160702_150444

Not included on shelf: an age restriction or evidence of a woman being within 30 feet of it

I intend on this Atari phase to be the end of my game purchasing journey for several months.  However, the Raptors are struggling to improve their roster through free agency.  They’d better make some moves soon because I really don’t think I need a Virtual Boy.

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