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Games are rated relative to other games for the same system.

Atari XEGS Reviews D-E

David's Midnight Magic
Grade: F
Publisher: Broderbund (1982)
Posted: 2004/1/12

screenshotWhen Atari was assembling a library of carts for its new XE game system, it decided to recycle this old Broderbund pinball relic. But although Midnight Magic may have turned some heads in 1982 with its high-resolution graphics, it was hardly anything to get excited about in 1987. The table is rendered in green and pink - a hideous combination. Most of your targets are the "drop target" or "rollover" variety, in the form of tiny dashes and squares. To be frank, there's not much to see or do. The table never changes, and apparently your only goal is to run up your bonus multiplier.

There are four flippers, two on the top and two on the bottom, triggered by moving the joystick left or right. You can move all of them at once by pressing up, but too much of this could cause a tilt to occur. The physics isn't so hot. The ball seems to "stick" to the sides instead of caroming around, and the game has little sense of momentum or flow. Midnight Magic is a dull affair that really pales in comparison to so many other great Atari 8-bit titles out there. © Copyright 2004 The Video Game Critic.

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Our high score: 115420
1 player 

Grade: C-

screenshotI worked hard to track down this rare Atari 8-bit cartridge, anticipating it to be the "definitive" version of Decathlon. What I failed to take into account was Activision's penchant for "phoning it in" with Atari computer ports, offering minimal enhancements over the Atari 2600 versions.

Decathlon's ten events can be grouped into three categories: running (100m, 400m, 1500m, hurdles), throwing (shot put, discus, javelin), and jumping (long jump, high jump, pole vault). The controls are simple. You vigorously shake the joystick from side to side to build up speed, pressing the button at the right instant to throw or jump. There's no concept of setting an angle, height, or anything like that.

Most events are quick and fun, and during the running events you and a friend (or CPU) can race simultaneously. I like how the game displays the running totals for all the athletes, but would prefer they displayed the best time for the current event so I'd know what to shoot for.

The jumping events can wear out their welcome. Players go one at a time, and since you get three chances at each height increment, it can drag on. But there's only one event that's truly objectionable, which is the 1500 meter run. The 400 meter is grueling enough; no way am I going to sit in front of the TV shaking a joystick for ten minutes straight! Fortunately this is the final event, so you can just bow out at this point.

I'll give the game credit for its pick-up-and-play quality. You don't even need an instruction manual. The graphics are slightly upgraded from the Atari 2600 version, with more detailed athletes and venues. There appears to be a full stadium but the competitions take place in dead silence. The only thing you hear is the pitter patter of footsteps! Decathlon is not bad, but clearly Activision could have put more effort into this one. © Copyright 2023 The Video Game Critic.

Our high score: 6673
1 to 4 players 

Grade: A
Publisher: Atari (1982)
Posted: 2003/1/28

screenshotIn most space games of the early 80s, the playing field was a single screen in size, so when the side-scrolling Defender appeared in the arcades, it was completely original. And the number of buttons on the arcade cabinet was daunting. There was a lever to move up and down and buttons for thrust, reverse, shoot, hyperspace, and smart bomb. The home versions use a normal joystick, which simplifies the control scheme quite a bit.

This Atari 8-bit version is excellent, maintaining the same graphics, cool explosions, and frantic pace of the original game. It's great to trigger a smart bomb with a screen full of aliens, and watch everything be obliterated. There is some slow-down when the screen gets too busy, but nothing major.

Although this version of Defender looks identical to the 5200 one, here you have the advantage of using a normal joystick and keyboard. The space bar sets off a smart bomb, and any other key initiates hyperspace. I'd have to say that this is the best home version of Defender I've played. © Copyright 2003 The Video Game Critic.

Our high score: 7025
1 or 2 players 

Dimension X
Grade: D-
Publisher: Synapse (1984)
Posted: 2014/9/30

screenshotIn the early 80's I remember drooling over a picture of this game in an Atari computer Magazine called Analog. Dimension X is a shooter that lets you glide over a 3D checkerbox surface - a visual treat that was absolutely stunning for its time. I'm sure that effect alone sold a ton of copies. Well after 30+ years I've finally secured my own copy of Dimension X. So what's the verdict? Well, the 3D effect is still terrific. The animation is silky smooth. You can effortlessly glide around and build up a head of steam. The thing is, when pushing the joystick to the side you appear to be strafing, even though you're actually turning. That's confusing.

A map on top of the screen indicates the number of enemies in surrounding sectors, and the flashing sector is the one you're headed towards. Why is there not a compass in this game? Before entering the next sector you're forced to travel through a passageway, and this is the worst part. Maneuvering these passages is like navigating the trenches in Star Wars: The Arcade Game (Atari 5200, 1983), only without the fun! You need to keep a cursor situated between two converging lines (why?!) while flying over and under approaching barriers. The 3D illusion is so dirt poor so you really can't tell if the barriers are high or low until the last second.

Once you arrive in an occupied sector, enemies resemble flickering flying saucers hopping around the screen. The shooting action is shallow and imprecise. And once your ship is damaged, you might as well shut the game off because it becomes impossible to maneuver and/or locate enemies. In the final analysis it's clear that Dimension X is a marginal game constructed around a single programming trick - albeit a good one. © Copyright 2014 The Video Game Critic.

Recommended variation: novice
Our high score: SDZ warrior-class-3
1 player 

Donkey Kong
Grade: A
Publisher: Atari (1983)
Posted: 2006/8/23

screenshotAs the VGC, one of the most common questions I'm asked is, "What's the best home version of Donkey Kong?" The answer is not so obvious considering decent versions have appeared on a number of classic systems. For my money though, this Atari 8-bit version takes the cake. Its sharp graphics, smooth animation, and arcade-perfect audio make the game an absolute joy to play. Even the intro sequence is included with Kong jumping on the girders. But the number one reason for its superiority is the fact that it contains all four of the screens.

Yes, you heard me right. All the other home versions only have three, omitting the stage with pies on moving conveyor belts. Granted, it's not the best stage in the world, but if you're a fan of the game, it's a real treat. Oh, and did I mention this game is hard as a bastard? But it's not due to "usual suspects" of poor control, bad collision detection, or cheap hits.

No, the difficulty level is just plain tough, but it's that relentless challenge that made the arcade game so great to begin with. In other versions you're practically invincible while holding the hammer, but that's definitely not the case here. If you have the option, I'd advise you to pick up this fantastic translation of Donkey Kong. Cheap and readily available, it's the definitive home version. © Copyright 2006 The Video Game Critic.

Our high score: 18600
1 or 2 players 

Donkey Kong Junior
Grade: A-
Publisher: Nintendo (1983)
Posted: 2024/6/23

screenshotThe Atari 8-bit version of Donkey Kong (Atari, 1983) was positively gangbusters, and Junior is a worthy successor. I can't get over the fact that this game contains four different screens, each with its own unique challenges and cute ending animations. Add in a robust slate of options and this may be the ultimate Donkey Kong Junior home experience.

Your goal as little Donkey Kong is to scale vines and hop between platforms to rescue your caged father at the top of the screen. Along the way you'll contend with chomping crocodile heads and fluttering birds. The climbing mechanics are perfectly designed. When holding two vines you can climb much faster, but it makes you more vulnerable to the chompers moving up and down both vines. There is precious little room to maneuver, forcing you to think ahead.

There is very little margin for error here. If you try to rush you won't get far. There are so many close-calls with enemies constantly sneaking up on you. When you scooch over to let a chomper go by on the next vine, he's practically rubbing against you. It is satisfying however when you drop a piece of fruit and kill multiple enemies further down the vine. And it's just as fun when you do it by accident!

The default skill level is tough, with enemies constantly entering and leaving the fray. The "chain" screen is even more chaotic, with birds flying sideways as chompers move vertically. After that the game cycles back to the first screen. What's going on? Well apparently if you want to see the "electric charge" or "hideout" screens you'll want to begin the game on level 3.

The simple yet catchy music reminded me of Popeye (Parker Bros., 1983). One knock against this sequel may be its colors, as the platforms lack the grassy green tops that appear in other versions. But pound-for-pound this game is hard to beat. I've yet to play the fourth "hideout" screen, but it's that elusive quality that makes Donkey Kong Junior such a timeless challenge. © Copyright 2024 The Video Game Critic.

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Recommended variation: 3
Our high score: 19,300
1 or 2 players 

Grade: D+

screenshotDownhill doesn't look like much. Viewed from directly overhead, your skier looks like a red letter H and the trees are ugly green splotches. The gates resemble barbells and they are spaced extremely close, making this feel more like slalom than downhill. What makes this game playable is its amazing paddle controls. The analog knob lets you turn on a dime, navigating the narrow paths with pinpoint precision. Each run is about 20 gates which a skilled player can complete in well under a minute.

What holds Downhill back is its brutal collision detection. In real life skiers bang into the gate poles all the time, but in this game it will bring you to a screeching halt! Worse yet, it takes forever to get back up to speed. Scraping against a tree has the same effect. Finding an ideal game variation can be a challenge. You can enter in any slope value, with 30 degrees being the default. Personally I found 45 to offer the right balance of maneuverability and danger.

You select between novice, intermediate, expert, and random courses. The game slowly previews each hill before you begin, but you can hit the start button to expedite the process. The random option sounds appealing but its courses tend to be too easy. If you want a real challenge you'll need to stick with the expert trail and its densely-packed trees. Downhill's controls make it a worth a go but its all-or-nothing collision detection drags down the fun factor. © Copyright 2018 The Video Game Critic.

Recommended variation: expert
Our high score: 5081
1 player 

Dragonriders of Pern
Grade: F
Publisher: Epyx (1983)
Posted: 2021/6/19

screenshotI read an article about this game in 1982 and was so intrigued it only took me 40 years to track down a copy. Any game with the word "dragonrider" in the title has got to be good. Upon further inspection however Dragonriders of Pern reveals itself to be a text-based strategy title with a dragon mini-game. The bulk of your time is spent in the "negotiation" phase, and let me tell you - nothing dampens the spirit of a gamer like diplomacy.

Dragonriders of Pern is based on the fantasy books of Anne McCaffrey, and she contributes a three-page prologue to the instruction manual. I tried to read it but the font was microscopic! The title screen boasts elegant renaissance music unlike anything you'll hear during the actual game. You're prompted to select the number of turns you'd like to play, each lasting 240 days game-time and 20 minutes real-time. You can select between 1 and 99 turns, but I can't imagine subjecting myself to more than three.

You play the role of a lord of one of six clans (called "weyrs") with the others controlled by the CPU. The main screen displays a list of weyrs and what they're up to as the days slowly count up. Hitting a button lets you select from a list of actions, including negotiating with other lords, inviting them to a hatching, wedding, or bake sale (not really). You can form alliances or challenging them to duels. I never understood the point of negotiations. The negotiations were successful? So what? The game will chide you for trying to do something you can't do at this particular moment. Well excuuuuuuse me!

Occasionally an intriguing map screen appears along with the message "Thread is falling! Who is sending in the dragons?" But when I respond nothing happens. That's because I need to wait until the end of this God-forsaken negotiation phase to get to the action.

I will admit the thread-fighting screen looks impressive with its medieval scenery and nicely-animated dragon. Once you grasp the counter-intuitive controls it's fun to incinerate those squiggly falling "threads". On the advanced difficulty you need to move between "layers" of threads but I could never figure out what the [expletive] was going on.

If you squint hard enough you might see some parallels between Dragonriders of Pern and HBO's Game of Thrones - without the gratuitous nudity of course. Personally I don't get this one. Maybe you really need to read the books first? For me, playing this game was like attending a party in which everybody knows each other except you. © Copyright 2021 The Video Game Critic.

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1 player 

E.T. Phone Home
Grade: C
Publisher: Atari (1987)
Posted: 2007/9/23

screenshotIt will always exist in the shadow of its infamous Atari 2600 cousin, but this overlooked Atari computer edition of E.T. is far more playable. If you're the type of guy who can appreciate vintage 8-bit graphics (in all their blocky goodness), you'll find Phone Home very appealing. Playing the role of a pixelated Elliott, you roam freely around a scrolling suburban neighborhood with houses and cars that look great despite their low resolution and limited color palette. On the fringes of the neighborhood you'll find swamps with storm drains and forests of scenic evergreen trees.

The object of the game is to collect a series of phone parts, and as you wander around audio clues indicate if you're "warm". You can only return one piece at a time to your house, and that's tricky because the area is crawling with scientists and agents that scurry around like bugs. You can run by holding in the fire button, but that causes you to drop your piece, so forget that. Instead you'll want to take a stealth approach, waiting for agents to clear out before making your move. They'll be some close calls, but that's what makes the game exciting. Even so, gathering pieces gets monotonous after a while, particularly in advanced levels where you have to collect ten of the freakin' things.

Once gathered up, you're treated to a close-up of E.T. who actually speaks to you. Granted, his voice sounds more like a chain-smoking demon speaking to you on a really bad cell phone from underwater. You'll complete the game if you can guide E.T. to his ship in the woods. I always thought E.T. was slow, but he scurries around like a little brown monkey in this game. At the landing pad you're treated to a nifty landing sequence before your final score is revealed. E.T. Phone Home is only moderately fun, but as a fan of classic gaming, I found this to be absolutely fascinating. © Copyright 2007 The Video Game Critic.

Recommended variation: 4
Our high score: 136879
1 player 

Eidolon, The
Grade: C-

screenshotDuring the early 80's LucasArts was cranking out groundbreaking computer games on a yearly basis, pushing the limits of the 64K hardware. To understand the appeal of The Eidolon you need to realize that a real-time first-person maze adventure had never really been done before. This game let you freely navigate an underground labyrinth with realistic granular archways. Not only is the framerate and scaling relatively smooth, the creatures you encounter are large and nicely detailed. The goal of each level is to defeat the dragon, and these creatures look both majestic and ominous.

Every level offers its own unique dragon, and they come in various shapes and sizes. While wandering the caves you'll collect fireballs and jewels by approaching them and pressing the spacebar. Sorry - you'll need the keyboard for this one. There are four different fireballs: red (destructive), blue (freeze), gold (power), and green which can turn one creature into another. You'll need to strategically juggle these to defeat each dragon.

The problem is, you expend energy whenever you use a fireball, and you'll need to battle lesser creatures along the way like wasps, goblins, and one-eyed aliens. I feel bad about killing those cute baby dragons. Defeating monsters provides color jewels required to gain access to the dragon. One obvious issue with The Eidolon is how the gray passageways all look the same. I really got tired of craning my wrist while wandering in circles and stumbling upon dead ends.

Shooting fireballs at enemies is not particularly satisfying. Monsters simply disappear when defeated, and if you accidentally fire an extra fireball it will bounce right back at you! That's a problem because the trick to beating each level is to conserve as much energy as possible so you're at full strength when facing the dragon.

Between levels there's some good time-travel music but in general the audio is pretty quiet, save for the electromagnetic buzzing that gets louder as you approach the dragon. The manual is an old-looking piece of parchment with diary entries that provide a background story and clues. After beating the first few stages my attention began to wane. There's no password or stage select. The Eidolon was an impressive technical achievement but less of a game. © Copyright 2020 The Video Game Critic.

1 player 

Grade: C
Publisher: Synapse (1983)
Posted: 2016/4/29

screenshotBack in 1983 this first-person shooter was nothing short of amazing. The whole first-person concept was still pretty new at the time and Encounter was slick. It felt like a turbocharged version of Battlezone (Atari 2600, 1983). The controls are really tight and the objects scale so smoothly! You freely maneuver your tank around a flat landscape with scattered pylons, trading shots with flying saucers. You can fire several shots at a time, so feel free to spray them around.

Shots fired in this game look like giant ping pong balls. Since the Atari joystick only has one button (to shoot) there's no strafe control. The game's physics engine works well however, so if you turn quickly and hit reverse you can watch approaching balls pass harmlessly in front of you. In theory you can hide behind the pylons for cover, but they just get in the way. You only face one enemy at a time, but sometimes it takes the form of a drone that will home in on you in an alarming manner. They tend to zig-zag so it pays to hold your fire until the last possible moment. When you get hit the screen goes into a state of chaos that's pretty remarkable.

Clearing a level reveals a square portal which takes you to the bonus stage where you're forced to dodge an extended barrage of ping pong balls. It becomes more nerve-racking as you near the end, because you know you're on the verge of earning a sweet bonus. Subsequent stages feature alternate color schemes and faster action, but your adversaries remain the same. That's the problem: the repetitive game of cat and mouse game gets old. Encounter may be a glorified tech demo, but it's definitely fun for a while. NOTE: This would not work on my Atari XEGS, and I reviewed it on an Atari 800XL. © Copyright 2016 The Video Game Critic.

Recommended variation: novice
Our high score: 46,400
1 player 

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Screen shots courtesy of Atari Mania, Video Game Museum, Retroist, Giant Bomb, YouTube, Moby Games