Monday, March 14, 2016

My Favourite Games (Atari 8-Bit Era)

While I enjoyed playing games in the arcade or on the Atari 2600, it was the Atari 400 computer that really turned me into a lover of video games. Mom and Dad presented it to Sean and I for Christmas one year in the early 1980s, and I think he'd agree that it was one of the best presents ever.

As one YouTube viewer noted, this Super 8 film couldn't have been shot in 1980, as I incorrectly state during the voiceover, as the E.T. doll featured at the end of the clip wouldn't have been released until 1982, or at the very earliest, the Christmas season of 1981, which I suppose is possible. In any event, along with the computer itself we received "The Programmer" package (the ATARI Basic cartridge and a couple of books, all of which were put to extensive use over the next five years or so), and two games: Pac-Man and Galaxian. Both games were very faithful recreations of their arcade counterparts, though the different proportions of arcade cabinet screens and 1:33 televisions made it necessary to squash the game dimensions a little. Even Mom and Dad enjoyed these games; they were colourful, fast-paced and easy to learn (though difficult to master).

Not long after we picked up Star Raiders from a long-forgotten computer store on Argyll Road near Fort Ignition, Ltd., which Dad managed not far away from Argyll and 75th street. Star Raiders was one of the most advanced games of the era; you had front and rear views, a map screen, hyperspace, a targeting recticle, shields, a variety of enemies and a space station to replenish your supplies.

On a trip to Washington, Sean and I each purchased a game in the United States. Sean chose Atari's excellent port of Donkey Kong, a choice that provided many hours of entertainment for the next few years. I picked Shamus, as shown in the video above. As the titular Shamus, you had to explore robot-filled mazes and shoot them with your shivs. The video is narrated by the author of another favourite game...

...Claim Jumper! With its jaunty musical score and head-to-head cowboy gunfightin', gold-stealin', tumbleweed dodgin', snake slitherin' action, Claim Jumper was a favourite in the Woods household. The object of the game was to gather gold nuggets, trade them in for cash, and deposit your cash in your bank. Of course the other player had the same object, and would try to shoot you to steal your gold or cash. We got pretty frenzied playing the game, and it was especially fun when my cousin Darwin came over; he really got into it, and expressed his frustration colourfully when Sean or I stole his gold. We played this game so often that the cartridge eventually wore out, much to our great disappointment.

Our Atari 400 came with the Atari 410 Program Recorder, which allowed users to load software from cassette tapes into the computer's memory, or to save programs to blank cassettes. Some programs took up to an hour to load, making annoying noises the entire time. But the results were often worth it, as in the case of Atari's SCRAM, the nuclear reactor meltdown simulator. I was terrible at this game, but it nonetheless presented a fascinating challenge. The video below looks at SCRAM in the context of the recent Fukushima disaster:


I've never been a sports fan, but I loved RealSports Tennis, a fluid, frantic representation of the real-world game that was at its best when played head-to-head. Sean and I spent many hours whacking the ball back and forth. The graphics look simple compared to today's games, but the gameplay was very solid; it really felt like you were in control of the ball.

Pitfall II represents one of the great failures of my gaming life. Don't get me wrong; the game itself was fantastic, with cheery graphics, a jaunty score and challenging exploration puzzles. The failure was mine; despite hours and hours of attempts, I failed to complete the game. I know I came very close, because I'd completed two of three objectives multiple times; all that was left was the third objective, and when I came near these taunting words scrolled across the screen: "FINDING THE GOLDEN ROPE IS PITFALL HARRY'S ONLY HOPE." Well, I could see the rope, but I could never reach it thanks to the vultures or bats or whatever final beast stood in my way. You could play the game forever, no matter how many times you died, but after a few months of playing I gave up.

In Miner 2049er you are Bounty Bob, and your mission is to paint the floors of a series of mineshafts with your feet while avoiding the mine's creepy denizens. If you entered the phone number of the software company on the Atari's keyboard, you could choose to start at any level. Don't ask me how we found that out before the Internet; that information wasn't included in the rule book. Our favourite level was the one with the dynamite, which you used to shoot Bounty Bob up to the top of the screen; throw in too much dynamite, and Bob would be spectacularly killed.

Sean just reminded me that Pole Position was another of our favourite games back in the 80s. Based on the arcade hit from Namco, Pole Position puts you in the cockpit of a race car, which you...uh...race. Pole Position' graphics were a little blocky, but the sound was fantastic, and the gameplay was challenging without being overly frustrating. Crashing and running roughshod over the grass were all too easy to accomplish, but earning the titular pole position during the qualifying round was immensely satisfying.

Our cousin Darwin had a more powerful Atari 800 at his home in Devon, and one of my favourite games to play at his place was Preppie! The gameplay is a lot like Frogger, with more whimsical art and sound; the object of the game was to collect golf balls while avoiding push mowers and riding on canoes and logs.

I loved Preppie! so much that I bought the sequel, Preppie II, for our own computer at home. In Preppie II, the goal this time is to paint the floors of your prep school while avoiding giant frogs. The sequel has a new score, just as lovely as the old, and slightly improved graphics that equal charm of the first game.



1 comment:

Vern Ryan said...

I remember playing a couple of those at your place. Star Raiders was excellent back in the day and Pole Position was a lot of fun. Not sure what the price difference was but your machine definitely had the Atari 2600 beat. We were all jealous.