Monday, December 26, 2011

Video game of the week: Centipede for Atari 7800

In the early 1980s, vertical shooting arcade games were all the rage, with Space Invaders being the godfather of the genre. One of the most popular of such games was Centipede, released by Atari in 1980.

Centipede was in many ways like a lot of shooter games of the time. The player controlled an object at the bottom of the screen that blasted away at objects further up the screen. But Centipede was a bit different. For on thing, it wasn't a science fiction or military game. The shooter in the game is a little head, sometimes referred to as a garden gnome, that blazes away at centipedes, mushrooms, spiders and other crawling critters. In another way Centipede was unlike most vertical shooters of the day in that the villains (ie. the targets) weren't all the same, but each moved in a different way and posed different dangers.

All of this combined with great gameplay and solid replay action created one of the more popular arcade games of the early 1980s, and many still remember and even play Centipede today on computers or on one home gaming system or another.

But back in the early to mid-1980s, most of the home gaming consoles didn't have all that great of graphics. Most of the home versions of arcade greats just didn't match up to the originals.

Atari combated this by releasing its Atari 7800 system, initially in 1984 but to a wider audience in 1986. One of the first 13 games released for the Atari 7800 was Centipede.

Finally gamers could play arcade quality games at home, and the Atari 7800 version of Centipede did not disappoint. This game wasn't exactly like the arcade version, but it was pretty darn close. The graphics were bright and solid, and the gameplay was almost exactly the same as the arcade game.

The biggest difference was in the controls. Centipede in the arcade was played with a trackball, while the Atari 7800 used joysticks. This could be alleviated to some extent by hooking up an old Atari 2600 trackball to the 7800 (yes, the Atari 7800 was compatible in nearly all aspects to the 2600), but it still wasn't quite the same.

One place the 7800 version of Centipede improved upon earlier versions of the game was that two players could play the game at the same time, so you could sit down with a buddy and blast away for hours.

Truly, the Atari 7800 version of Centipede is one of the best home versions that can be found of the game. If you are a doubter, give it a try.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Video game of the week: Mouse Trap for Colecovision

It's often difficult for some people to imagine nowadays, but there was a time when the greatest fun one could have was running around a maze while eating dots and being chased by some kind of monsters. Of course I'm referring to video games from the early 1980s, but I'm not necessarily meaning the great maze classic of that time, Pac-Man.

No, I'm talking about another great arcade maze game, though it's not as well known today as is the famous yellow guy who runs from ghosts. I'm talking about Mouse Trap.

Mouse Trap was fairly popular during its time, released in 1981 during the height of the maze craze in arcades. It was so popular that Coleco ported it to three home gaming consoles of the time, the Atari 2600, the Intellivision and, of course, the Colecovision.

Of all three ports, the one for the Colecovision is probably best remembered today, mainly because it was the version closest to the arcade experience.

The Colecovision Mouse Trap featured solid, colorful graphics that were darn near equal to those of the arcade game. Also, because the Colecovision joystick and controls generally allowed for more types of gameplay than did other joysticks for other consoles at the time, the Colecovision Mouse Trap's gameplay was nearly identical to that of the arcade version.

The basics of this game are quite simple. You're a mouse running around a maze eating up cheese, your goal being to eat all the cheese without being caught by a cat or the occasional hawk that shows up. To help your mouse, you have multi-colored doors you can open and close in a bid to escape your foes or to block them off. Also, there are bones usually near the corners and if you eat one of those your mouse turns into a dog that can temporarily put the bite on the cats, though the hawk can still take out the dog. Another helper are teleportation squares in the corners; go to one of them and your mouse instantly jumps to the "IN" square in the middle of the screen, though this isn't always helpful because sometimes cats are hanging out there.

As mentioned, the Colecovision version of Mouse Trap is quite close to the arcade game, which is to be expected because the Colecovision console was known for solid graphics. Gameplay is pretty much the same, but it can take some getting used to which buttons to hit on the controller, and Mouse Trap has a lot of buttons needing pushed, one for each of the three differently-colored doors, one for activating the bones, etc.

All in all, this version of Mouse Trap is true to the arcade classic and should be in any retro gamers collection. It is still fun to play today.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Video game of the week: Video Pinball for Atari 2600

Since 1978 there have been several games from the Atari company with the name of "Video Pinball," but the one that usually comes to mind for gaming fans is the 1980 cartridge released for the Atari 2600 home video game console.

The Atari 2600 cartridge simulated a pinball game on your television screen, and it worked quite well. Admittedly it was not much to look at with that dominant but flat blue coloring and the blocky graphics, but it was a thrill to play and even include an onscreen ball that followed the physics of a pinball, bouncing and rolling around the screen. Everything else you would expect in a pinball game was also included, such as bumpers, flippers, spinners and a shooter.

Playing with a simple joystick and only one button to push might appear to make this a tough game to play, though it was anything but. Moving the joystick left and right controlled the flippers, while pulling the joystick back and hitting the button would launch the ball from the shooter onto the playing field. Also, once the ball was in play, the player could nudge the ball on the screen by holding down the button and jiggling the joystick; however, too much of that could lead to a tilt, and tilting meant a dead ball and a dead screen, ending that ball's round.

Extra points could be scored by taking out some diamonds at the top of the screen, and extra balls could be earned by your ball hitting the onscreen Atari symbol several times. With a little practice, a player can keep a single ball going onscreen for a very long time, practically forever. Learning the tricks of nudging were quite important for longevity of play.

Though Video Pinball doesn't look like real pinball, one of its best aspects is it is easy to learn and not too difficult to master, all while having great replay possibilities. More than 30 years later, this is still a favorite game of many Atari 2600 enthusiasts, so much so it has been released for modern PC computers, the XBox 360, and even the iPad and iPhone.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Video game of the week: Castlevania for NES

In 1986 gamers across the globe were called upon to face the wrath of no other than Dracula himself. Armed with a trusty whip, and other weapons picked up along the way, gamers by the thousands ventured into the depths of the vampire counts castle, ready to wage war against chambers and halls filled with the evil Dracula's monsters.

Sound familiar? It should. For anyone who has spent a lot of time gaming over the last quarter century, the Castlevania series should be commonplace. Not everyone has played the original game, and not necessarily even the dozens of games and ports that came later in the series, but all gamers should at least recognize the title and the basic game background.

The original Castlevania was released by Konami in 1986, and it hit big in 1987 when it became available for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES).

The year in the game is 1691, and players control the character Simon Belmont, who is descended from a long line of vampire hunters. Simon's job? To enter that castle and do away with Dracula.

Along the way, players face vampire bats, monsters, deadly pitfalls and a host of bosses, each one tougher than the one before. Special weapons and a few other helpful items can be picked up along the linear landscape that makes up the castle. Altogether there are six levels, each one ending with a boss fight.

The music from this game is quite classic, and stands up well today. The graphics are a little bit more iffy by today's standards, but they still compare well to the arcade graphics of the time and are much stronger than those of other mid-1980s consoles such as the Atari and Intellivision, perhaps even being a little stronger than the graphically-superior Colecovision.

Gameplay also holds up well all these years later, with relatively simple controls that allowed for a lot of fun without having to think too much about what your hands are doing.

This classic game has been ported to other consoles and computers time and time again over the years, and every so often a new game in the series is released. The original Castlevania game was quality in and of itself, and it showed the potential that was to come. Decades later, I'm honored to get to play this game from time to time.