Publisher: Esoterica (1982)
This perfectly-executed Pac-Man knock-off impressed the hell
out of me. If you take the original Pac-Man arcade game, lower its resolution and cut out the intermissions, you're left with Muncher. The vibrant graphics are flicker-free, and the blockiness only adds character. The layout of the maze is faithful to the original game, complete with the various fruit bonuses. The "waba waba" sound effects are nicely done, although you can't hear the looping background "siren" as you're eating (apparently the game can only play one sound at a time). Your little "Muncher" doesn't continue moving when you release the joystick (as he does in real Pac-Man), but otherwise the controls are flawless. When you eat the ghosts, they turn into red eyes, and your point bonus is displayed on the left side of the maze. There's only one difficulty level, but the pace increases rapidly, and kicks into overdrive
upon reaching the fourth round. I find it ironic that Muncher lacks an official Pac-Man license, because it is by far
the most faithful adaptation I've played on a classic system. © Copyright 2009 The Video Game Critic.
Publisher: Bally (1981)
I've always been intrigued by pirates, and with a name like Pirate's Chase
, I was totally psyched about this game! Sadly, I was in for a disappointment of Titanic
proportions! Upon firing up the game I was greeted by a nice seafaring refrain, but the graphics were a far cry from the colorful, exotic images on the instruction manual. I was staring at a red screen
with rows of black circles
. According to the instruction manual, it's supposed to represent doubloons (coins) scattered over a beach! Come again??
How many beaches are bright red?
The object of the game is to move a circular shape around the screen to gather the coins while avoiding "the spirit of Long John Silver". This so-called "spirit" looks like a little skull and crossbones. Occasionally a bonus "treasure" appears in the middle of the screen, but it's often hard to discern what it's supposed to be (an ice cream sundae? No wait - eggs benedict!). I have a sneaking suspicion that this project began as a lame "collect the dots" project, only to be given a pirate twist by some imaginative (and possibly unstable) instruction manual writer. The action is fast but the control is putrid!
Your circle abruptly jumps from one spot to the next, so it's impossible to move with any precision. It's especially aggravating when you're trying to snag the treasure and your circle is hopping all around it. Aside from a quick opening song, there's no audio besides the "put-put-put" of collecting dots. The two-player mode supports simultaneous treasure grabbing, but it's not very satisfying. Failing to deliver swashbuckling thrills on any level, Pirate's Chase should be regarded as a cautionary tale
. © Copyright 2009 The Video Game Critic.
Recommended variation(s): level 5/3 lives
Our high score: 10,382
1 or 2 players
Red Baron/Panzer Attack
Publisher: Astrovision (1981)
This two-in-one cartridge offers the same brand of tank/airplane action as Combat (Atari 2600, 1977), but it's less fun. The dogfighting action (Red Baron) isn't so bad, bearing a striking resemblance to Triple Action (Intellivision, 1981). You view your plane from the side, and can adjust both your direction and speed
as you try to shoot down your opponent. Random clouds cover parts of the screen, and a red barn is centered on the ground below. You can't fly off the top
of the screen, but the sides "wrap" around. The planes look terrific and vary slightly in shape. It's a shame they both happen to be the exact
same color (red), because that makes it too easy to confuse the two. The action moves at a nice pace and I like how planes go into a tailspin when shot down. The Panzer Attack tank variations are far less interesting, despite supporting up to four players!
The sparse maze is lifted straight out of Combat, and I wish
I could say the same about the gameplay. Your inabilitiy to curve or ricochet your shots severely limits the strategy, and most contests degenerate into defensive stalemates. Tanks don't even relocate when shot, making them sitting ducks for follow-up attacks. Both Red Baron and Panzer Attack let you set a time limit, but there are no options to customize the game. Wow, Combat is looking better all the time! © Copyright 2009 The Video Game Critic.
Publisher: Astrocade (1981)
Rare games have a propensity to suck
, but Solar Conqueror is a surprisingly satisfying space shooter. The action takes place on a single screen, and I don't think I'd be out of line comparing this to Yars' Revenge (Atari 2600, 1982). The screen is arranged with a planet surface on the right side that launches missiles from its center. In addition to shooting these down, you'll contend with kamikaze ships, asteroids, and satellites that deploy deadly electrical fields. The electrical field effect looks pretty awesome. Your ship controls like the one in Asteroids, allowing you to thrust and drift while unleashing a rapid-fire stream of shots. The instructions refer to this maneuver as "the SLIPPER". You can fire in eight directions but your ship doesn't seem to want to remain in the diagonal position for some reason. What's most appealing about Solar Conqueror is the fast, non-stop action. As the waves progress more and more missiles are unleashed, some of which fire their own missiles!
Since you can't fly off the screen you may find yourself in some cramped quarters, but that just adds to the challenge. Four people can play, but only by taking turns. I find it amusing how the game adds a lot of unnecessary stuff to make itself seem more sophisticated. After every few waves a "hyperspace" effect is used to simulate travel to the next star system. This hokey display of giant pixels and grating sound effects can thankfully be skipped with the push of a button. The game displays a long string of numbers and symbols across the top of the screen, which are needlessly confusing. Most of them are totally inconsequential, but in a way they just add to the game's charm. © Copyright 2012 The Video Game Critic.
Recommended variation(s): 3 ships
Our high score: 3,030
1 to 4 players
Publisher: Astrovision (1981)
Space Fortress is similar to Cosmic Ark (Atari 2600, 1982), but much less refined. And when you're making a lackluster shooter like Cosmic Ark
look good, you've really missed the mark! Space Fortress puts you in control of an oriental rug jettisoned into deep space by the human race because it was so [expletive] ugly
. You defend yourself from attack using four cannons and fortunately for you, the aliens always approach in your direct line of fire!
Dumb-asses. I just hope these guys never wise up and learn to attack diagonally
, or we're toast!
There's not a lot of variety in Space Fortress, and as far as I can tell, zero strategy. The game is really only playable at its highest difficulty, which I will admit does pose a serious challenge. You fire a single shot by simply pushing the joystick in whatever direction, which works fine - until the pace picks up. Then the game becomes a major wrist-buster, prompting my friend Scott to proclaim it "even worse
than Summer Games!
" When your fortress is finally destroyed, you're subjected to one of the most gratuitous explosion sequences ever witnessed in a video game. Pixelated lines spring forth from your rug for a good 15 seconds, transforming the screen into an ugly mess. It's like the bastard son of that mother ship explosion in Gorf. Scott speculated that this elaborate effect was actually programmed first
, leaving about 37 bytes for the remainder of the game. If nothing else, Space Fortress is one of the more mock-worthy titles in my collection. © Copyright 2011 The Video Game Critic.
Recommended variation(s): 1 base level 9
Our high score: 3,300
Publisher: Bally (1977)
I've seen a lot of games try to recreate the dramatic Death Star trench battle from the first Star Wars film, but this has got to be the sorriest
of the bunch. Programming the illusion of moving through a trench is surprisingly easy - you just render a static trench with several sections, and then cycle the section colors. But no matter how effective the illusion, it's pretty pointless without some solid gameplay to back it up. Star Battle is sorely lacking in this regard! You control (and I use the term loosely) an X positioned near the bottom of the screen. At first I thought it was a cross-hair, but it eventually dawned on me that it's supposed to represent an X-Wing fighter! Pressing the fire button lets you fire at the Tie Fighter meandering near the top of the trench. Your X-Wing bounces around on its own accord, so you really need to wrestle with it and it's impossible to shoot with any precision. The Tie Fighter returns fire, and the winner is the first side to reach a pre-determined score. A two-player mode allows a second human to control the tie fighter, but why drag someone else
into this mess? Star Battle is so astoundingly bad, you may find yourself looking around and asking, "Is this supposed to be a joke?
Okay guys, you can come out now!" © Copyright 2009 The Video Game Critic.
Tornado Baseball, Tennis, Hockey, and Handball
Publisher: Bally (1977)
This collection of simplistic, two-player Pong-style games uses "paddle" controls, and thankfully the excellent Astrocade joysticks double as paddles! Typically Pong games have you moving rectangular sticks up and down, but in this game you move stick figures!
But there's more to it than that. Tornado takes Pong to the next level
by adding the ability to move your player sideways (using the joystick), in addition to up and down. In Tennis (grade: B-) this effectively gives you the ability to "play the net", adding a new dimension to its otherwise standard gameplay. In Handball (F), players take turns hitting the ball against the same wall, but that's just confusing and pointless. In Hockey (C-) you move two characters at once, and can move your forward player sideways. This has loads of potential, but that crazy "puck" just bounces randomly all over the place, and more often than not your forward deflects the puck away
from the goal! You just end up playing defense and hoping the puck will accidentally ricochet into your opponent's goal. And playing to 21 points is a hardship
. Baseball (C-) is the real oddball here. At first glance, it looks like a throwaway title. You basically just pitch and swing, with the CPU automatically handling the fielding duties. Despite its shallow nature, you have to love how this game moves lighting-fast!
Heck, you can play an entire 9-inning game in under five minutes!
If only Bud Selig would incorporate "Astrocade rules" into Major League Baseball, I might start watching again! Tornado's audio is sparse, its options are limited, and you'll need a friend to play it. As my friend Scott put it: "It's not bad, but it's certainly not good!" © Copyright 2009 The Video Game Critic.
Publisher: Esoterica (1983)
The third-party title boasts one of the best title screens you'll see in a classic game (granted, there's not much competition). It features a huge sunken pirate ship surrounded by fish, a shark, and an octopus. Treasure is scattered over the sea floor, and a submarine lurks in the background. A series of harmonized tunes play over and over, and most have a nice swashbuckling vibe. The game itself isn't bad either! Treasure Cove puts you in control of a diver who must fetch coins from the sea floor and return them to a boat on the surface. In the process you must avoid touching the multi-colored fish, turtles, octopus, crabs, and sea horses that swim across the screen. Each stage introduces a new form of aquatic life, and there are over 20 in all! It's fun to see what each new round has in store, but I find it odd how even the tiniest
fish are fatal to touch. Beware of the deadly sea guppy!
There's also a funny looking blue fish with a long nose that my friends affectionately refer to as a sea elephant.
Your diver moves slowly and has limited oxygen, but you can pick up the pace by holding in the fire button. Treasure Cove's gameplay is simplistic but encourages a degree of risk-taking. Be sure to stay near the middle of the screen, because new fish will suddenly appear a good inch or two away from the edge of the screen. Treasure Cove's colorful graphics features a blue sky and a green sea, with objects so detailed you can even make out your diver's scuba gear! The game moves along at a leisurely pace, but it's not a bad way to cool off during the summer. © Copyright 2009 The Video Game Critic.
Recommended variation(s): 3 lives
Our high score: 3,919
1 to 4 players
Publisher: Riff Raff Games (2012)
This limited edition, second-run Warlords clone is pretty remarkable. Lacking only in the originality department, this is actually superior
to Warlords (Atari 2600, 1977) in a number of ways. The Astrocade controllers have built-in analog control, and the fact that the system supports four controllers makes it ideal for medieval destruction. War is designed for four players, but the CPU will happily fill in for missing players. Each player assumes the form of the crown (or mask) in each corner surrounded by a wall. A nicely-rendered red dragon kicks off each round by unleashing a fireball from the center of the screen. You can either deflect the fireball or hold in the button to catch it. While it's in your possession you temporarily acquire some sort of STD that burns away at your castle wall. You can't hurl fireballs at other players as fast as you can in Warlords, which makes it a little harder to pick on your neighbor. That becomes less of a factor however as additional fireballs gradually enter the fray. Chaos reigns supreme and seeing all those balls bouncing around is downright mesmerizing!
War is a tough game, but it's fun as hell. Heck, I even enjoyed playing it solo. One thing I would change is that the number next to each castle reflects the player number
(1-4) instead of his current win total (only shown between rounds). It's easy to nit-pick, but it's hard to argue that War is one of those amazing homebrews that far exceeds anything originally produced for the system. © Copyright 2012 The Video Game Critic.
Publisher: Bally (1978)
Sloppy, boring, and with a ridiculous name to boot, Zzzap and Dodgem represents some of the worst of what the Astrocade has to offer. These two driving games look more like half-finished projects than legitimate games. The object in both is to travel the furthest distance within a time limit (configurable up to 99 seconds). Zzzap is a first-person driving game that plays like Night Driver (Atari 2600, 1980) but without the challenge and fun. You steer a huge box
between a narrow set of moving posts. Steering is no problem using the controller knob, and if you have any driving skill whatsoever you'll complete each run at full speed without incident. Should you hit a post the words "BANG!" or "ZORK!" inexplicably display across the screen. Why is this even called Zzzap?? Dodgem is the second game, and it's a lame overhead driving game along the lines of Street Racer (Atari 2600, 1978). You steer your small car up a roadway while avoiding red cars that bounce off the guardrails. The steering is not particularly responsive and the collision detection stinks. This cartridge was obviously an early entry in the Astrocade's short lifecycle, but that doesn't make it any easier to stomach. © Copyright 2009 The Video Game Critic.
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