I love the art on old Atari cartridges. The labels feature artistic illustrated collages that suggest the game is about ten times more sophisticated that it actually is. It's easy to visualize games like Asteroids and Football, but what about Video Chess? Atari found a way. The picture has chess pieces superimposed over checkerboards, along with some colorful circuits that suggest a mainframe computer (circa 1965). There's also a guy reaching for a chess piece, and you know he's smart because he's a balding middle-aged man with a beard (and he's wearing a white buttoned-down shirt
for Pete's sake!). Although it's a technical marvel for its time, Video Chess has not aged well. The chess board consumes about half of the screen, and the small pieces look awful. The orange pieces are a pixelated mess, and the white ones look like stacks of horizontal lines. The interface for moving pieces around is slow and awkward. While the CPU is calculating its turn, the screen flashes random colors, instantly sending epileptic players into violent seizures and convulsions. Depending on the skill level, the CPU can take anywhere from seconds to hours
to calculate its next move! On the hardest level (7) the CPU can take up to 10 hours
between moves! Hell, you could be playing this God-forsaken game for months on end!
Adding insult to injury, it's a proven fact that the CPU will actually cheat
on occasion! How pissed off would you be if it pulled a stunt like that after three long months
of intense gameplay? Is there anyone who could appreciate the bad graphics and glacial pace of Video Chess in 2009? I'm not sure, but it would help to be stranded on a desert island. © Copyright 2009 The Video Game Critic.
Publisher: Atari (1981)
This is a perfect example of a game's sum being greater than its parts. At first glance, Video Pinball looks like a whole lot of nothing. Its blue "table" is sparse and those square bumpers are hard to get excited about. The two white flippers at the bottom of the screen are small and less responsive than I'd prefer. Two white "spinners" on each side tend to slow the ball down more than they speed it up. Still, Video Pinball proves addictive and fun. The key is its excellent nudge controls which let you influence the ball's movement much more than you can in real pinball. Once you learn how to manipulate the ball without tilting, a lot of strategy unfolds. First, you'll want to focus on hitting the diamonds at the top which increase the bumper multipliers. Next, try to earn an extra ball by hitting the Atari-symbol rollover four times. Once you master the nudge control, you can get the ball to bounce through the rollovers almost indefinitely! By working the rollover on the right side, you can earn some outrageous bonus points. This is the kind of game that you can play over and over again, and you'll do a little better each time. I remember playing Video Pinball with my childhood friend Billy, and he could keep one ball going forever
(much to my chagrin). It bears little resemblance to actual pinball, but Video Pinball's unique style of play makes it an enjoyable experience all of its own. © Copyright 2011 The Video Game Critic.
Recommended variation(s): 3A
Our high score: 366,256
1 or 2 players
Publisher: Apollo (1982)
I found this colorful shooter surprisingly fun to play - for the first minute or so. After that, it's all downhill. Wabbit features a good-looking carrot patch with five rabbit holes along each side. Several white bunnies scurry out of the holes at a time, snatching carrots and hightailing it back to their holes. Controlling a woman on the bottom of the screen, you toss rotten eggs at the rabbits to protect your garden. The game ends when 100 carrots are stolen, although clearing each round reduces the "carrot count" by 25 as a reward. The early levels are fun because the rabbits move at a reasonable speed and can be picked off with good timing. Unfortunately, although the rabbits appear to speed up exponentially as the rounds progress, your eggs remain dirt slow. Before long it's impossible to "aim", and you're reduced to tapping the button incessantly. It's a shame that the gameplay falls apart as it does, because Wabbit's bright visuals are refreshing. The cute white rabbits are nicely animated, and an attractive sunset can be seen beyond the white picket fence in the distance. Too bad the nice graphics can't hide the sorry gameplay. © Copyright 2005 The Video Game Critic.
Publisher: Atari (1981)
Let's get one thing straight: Warlords is the
best four-player game ever invented. Period. It looks a little crappy you say? Okay, I'll give you that. Even back in 1981 I was less than enthused about the graphics. But this game is far more than the sum of its parts. Each corner of the screen holds an oddly-shaped "knight" (use your imagination) surrounded by a chunky wall. Using a paddle controller you move a shield around the perimeter of your fortress, protecting it from a firewall that you can either catch or deflect. The ball tends to destroy chunks of bricks, and as holes appear the action becomes more intense. The last knight remaining wins the round, and the first player to win five rounds is the victor. The dynamics of this game are sensational, as new alliances are constantly being formed and disbanded. Naturally players tend to gang up on whoever is winning. From round to round your neighboring warlord can go from being a helpful ally ("you're my boy, blue!") to a bitter rival ("kill that blue bastard!"). Trash talking is pretty much mandatory. Even when a player is eliminated from a round, he can still
affect the outcome. By carefully positioning his "ghost" shield, he can deflect the ball enough to facilitate new angles for the remaining players. It could be a bug in the game for all I know, but it really adds a new dimension. In fact, it's the game's quirks that make it unpredictable and exciting. Warlords offers 23 variations, but the CPU opponents are pretty dumb, and variation 1 (four players) is all you really need. Often imitated but never matched, this universally-loved game is the king of multi-player mayhem. © Copyright 2010 The Video Game Critic.
Recommended variation(s): 1
1 to 4 players
Publisher: Data Age (1982)
This space shooter has sloppy graphics, unimaginative gameplay, and irritating sound effects. It's amazing that I actually enjoyed playing it! Using the paddle controllers, you move a cannon across the screen, shooting blocky invaders that bounce around and occasionally drop bombs. The graphics are minimal, and the constant beeping is annoying as hell. The control is good however, and Warplock does provide s a decent challenge. Unlike most games, you only have one life. You score one point per each hit, and it's actually tough to score above 25. For some reason, shooting one invader in a group automatically kills the rest. It's a weak effort, but Warplock manages to be fun in spite of itself. © Copyright 2001 The Video Game Critic.
Publisher: Epyx (1987)
I showed this game to a friend recently, and he gasped "THIS is the ATARI 2600??" It looks that good! The graphics are smooth and colorful, and the characters are detailed and nicely animated. Winter Games begins with a nice rendition of the Olympic theme, and up to eight players (!) can choose countries to represent. Each of the seven events requires its own technique, and all provide challenge without requiring you to abuse your controller (*cough*Summer Games*cough*). The action gets underway with a nice-looking but difficult Slalom event. The second event, Bobsled, provides an overhead view of a smoothly twisting track. The Ski Jump is yet another tough event that features a picture-in-picture close-up of your skier, whose body position needs to be carefully maintained. The Biathlon looks like the Slalom, but you need to synchronize your joystick with a heartbeat in order to make good time. This event also presents periodic "shooting range" screens that test your reflexes. Speed-skating requires rhythmically moving the joystick, and it's the only event that lets two people compete head-to-head. Hot Dog is a ski acrobatics event where you perform combinations of ten different tricks. The final event, the Luge, is similar to the Bobsled, but allows the player to control his speed by braking. At the end of the game, the top three players are listed, but there's little fanfare. Overall, Winter Games is fun, challenging, and a fine showcase of 2600 graphics. I've seen this game on many systems, but this may be the most impressive. © Copyright 2001 The Video Game Critic.
Publisher: CBS (1982)
Oh yeah - this is THE GAME right here! Say what you want about the flickering graphics and the blocky, goofy-looking monsters - Wizard of Wor delivers some serious maze-shooting action. You can even play simultaneously with a friend! The object is to exterminate all the monsters in each dungeon. The maze changes in terms of layout and color as you progress, and a scanner on the bottom of the screen helps you track invisible
monsters! There can be up to six creatures crawling around the dungeon at a time and some can even shoot at you! There are two escape doors on either side of the screen, like Pac-Man. After clearing out the normal monsters, a winged beast called a "Worluk" flies towards an escape door, and you can blast him for bonus points. Next you engage the Wizard of Wor himself. This guy teleports all over the place, usually vanishing before you get a chance to pump lead into him. Sometimes it takes a lucky shot to nail him, so keep shooting. Wizard of Wor plays much better than it looks. For best results, set the difficulty to A, and don't forget to use the right joystick for the single-player game. © Copyright 2002 The Video Game Critic.
Wolfenstein VCS: The Next Mission
Publisher: Atari Age (2006)
Although technically a "hack" of Venture, Wolfenstein incorporates enough new elements to make it feel like a completely new game. This only vaguely resembles the original Wolfenstein (Muse, 1983), where you would stealthily move from room to room while collecting items and shooting Nazi guards. You begin the game as a dot in a maze, attempting to avoiding wandering guards. These "guards" are decidedly abstract, taking the form of circles with gun symbols on them. Upon entering one of the four rooms in each level, the screen changes to a close-up view. Guiding a circular face (who doesn't look very happy) around the room, you must retrieve an item while avoiding (or killing) three deadly creatures. Your nicely rendered adversaries include rats, spiders, dogs, scorpions, guards, or robots. Initially you're armed with a knife, which functions like a gun with extremely short range. Upon locating the gun, you'll be able to shoot the length of the screen, but your ammo is limited. Fallen enemies transform into skull and crossbones, which in turn can be shot, effectively killing the thing twice
(sorry, you only score once). Unlike Venture, creature remains are not
deadly to touch (thankfully). If you find the game too easy, try the "A" difficulty, which is substantially
faster and more challenging. It will make you think twice about trying to "clear out" every room. There's an impressive title screen depicting a lighted castle, and the nicely-illustrated, glossy instruction manual will get you really psyched up about playing the game. Wolftenstein VCS deserves more credit than your typical hack, leveraging a mediocre game into something fun and exciting. © Copyright 2007 The Video Game Critic.
Recommended variation(s): A
Publisher: Vidtec (1982)
Despite a name that would suggest a lame educational
title (ugh!), Word Zapper could have amounted to something more than the piece of crap it is. You control a free-moving cannon, blasting letters that rapidly scroll across the top of the screen. Before each round, you're presented with a word or random letters you must "spell" by correctly shooting the letters in order. The scrolling letters can be set at three speeds, and on "fast" it's downright dizzying! Complicating matters are meteors that knock you around and throw off your aim. I found Word Zapper's basic gameplay respectable, but for the life of me I could NOT find ONE satisfying skill level among the 24 variations! Memorizing random letters is too much work, so that eliminates half of the variations right off the bat. The hardest "word" variation is no pushover, but it abruptly ends after just three rounds. What's up with that? Word Zapper was well programmed but very poorly designed. © Copyright 2005 The Video Game Critic.
Publisher: Fox (1982)
I remember back in 1982 when my friend Nicky brought Worm War I over to my house. I was not impressed at all with its blocky graphics and simplistic gameplay. Even back then, those "pagoda gas stations" looked like total crap. In retrospect however, I didn't give the game a fair chance. Underneath the ugly graphics lies some challenging gameplay, rapid-fire shooting controls, and excellent two-player simultaneous modes. You move a little tank across the bottom of the screen, adjusting your speed as worms, blocks, and gas stations scroll into view. The worms quickly slink back and forth across the screen and splatter nicely when shot. The game ends when you run out of fuel, so keep an eye out for gas stations to replenish your supply. Worm War I's graphics are simple but colorful, and the sound effects are surprisingly high quality. You can hold down the fire button to shoot rapidly, but that makes it easy to accidentally blow up those precious gas stations. I like Worm War I. It's a low budget shooter that works. © Copyright 2002 The Video Game Critic.
Recommended variation(s): 1AA
1 or 2 players
Publisher: Atari (1983)
It's hard to judge a prototype game, but it's still interesting to see how these titles were shaping up before they got the axe. In the arcade, Xevious was one of the most challenging and addictive shooters of the early 80's. With its overhead view, vertical configuration, and pseudo-3D graphics, you could shoot UFOs in the air while bombing tanks and installations on the ground. This 2600 version does a fine job of emulating the distinct gameplay, and with a little more work this could have been a winner. The fire button shoots missiles and drops bombs at the same time. The circular UFOs look great, as do the flying rotating walls. The scenery below is blocky, but I do like the large bird pattern on the ground. The only ground targets programmed in are a few pathetic-looking tanks that don't even fire. The horizontal dashes that represent your bombs and bombsight were probably just placeholders for better graphics to be added later (at least I hope
they were). As it stands, Xevious is a playable prototype, but it's far too easy due to the lack of ground fire. I'd really like to see somebody finish this one. © Copyright 2002 The Video Game Critic.
Publisher: Atari (1982)
For Atari 2600 fans, this is a perennial favorite. Named after Atari CEO Ray Kassar and programmed by the man who brought you E.T., Yars' Revenge is a real gem. Controlling an intergalactic flying insect, you battle a deadly machine (the "Qotile") protected by a shield on the right side of the screen. Periodically the Qotile will lash out at you in the form of a fiery swirl. The Quotile can only be destroyed by your Zorlon Cannon, which you arm and aim from the left side of the screen. You can also shoot and nibble away at the Qotile's shield, but a pesky "destroyer missile" chases you around, constantly keeping you on the run. Your only sanctuary is the colorful "neutral zone" near the center of the screen. Programmer Howard Scott Warshaw employed a number of nifty visual effects including rotating shields, a semi-translucent neutral zone, and screen-sized explosions. The ominous pulsating background "music" is simply brilliant. But what gamers truly appreciate about Yars' Revenge is its high level of difficulty. It seems easy enough at first, but soon you're dealing with a speedy destroyer missile and a swirl that behaves like a heat-seeking missile. Thank goodness you can fly off the top or bottom of the screen to escape to the other side, or else you'd have no chance at all. Yars' Revenge provides a level of strategy and challenge you don't see in many Atari 2600 games. It should be noted that a sequel appeared on the Gameboy many years later. © Copyright 2003 The Video Game Critic.
Recommended variation(s): 6B
Our high score: VGC 103,000
1 or 2 players
Publisher: Coleco (1983)
I've changed my mind about this Atari 2600 version of Zaxxon. Formerly I considered it an ill-advised attempt to shoehorn a complex 3D shooter into the 2600, but it deserves more credit than that. Despite its many problems, the game does retain the same general gameplay of the original arcade hit. The main problem lies in the graphics. Instead of a "gee-whiz" 3D isometric view, you get a top-down view with jagged walls. It's not pretty, but if you use you imagination, you can distinguish walls of different heights. It helps if you've already played the real Zaxxon as a point of reference. Unfortunately, the scaling objects also look rough, and their heights are hard to judge. As a result, a lot of trial and error is required to blast them. Still, I'm pleasantly surprised at the inclusion of the force field elements and boss stage. Zaxxon was never meant to be played on the 2600, but Coleco did the best with what they had. Flawed but playable, there's really not another game like this on the 2600. © Copyright 2003 The Video Game Critic.
Recommended variation(s): 1
Our high score: VGC 29,500
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Screen shots courtesy of Atari Age, 2600 Connection