Saturday, May 19, 2018

System Saturday’s: Intellivision - Is it Really Better than the Atari 2600?

There is an old adage “History is Written by the Victors!”.

It’s meant to imply that history, and how things are generally remembered, may be swayed by those who came out on top. That is unless, you dig a little deeper and discover what stories are really out there. This adage can also just as easily be applied to console gaming, as it can a number of other points in history. Look back at what consoles are the most remembered and you will see the Atari 2600, NES, Sega Genesis, PS1, and so on (of course the last two gens are rather muddled). For second generation systems the Atari 2600 was by far the hands down winner, and images of the late 70’s and early 80’s often conjure up that of the Atari 2600 as the one of the fondest memories of the era.

Was it the first, of the second generation home consoles? No, that honor belonged to the Fairchild Channel F. Was it the best second generation console? No, that honor belonged to the Colecovision, and Atari 5200. It was the best selling however, and the best marketed, and for a while it was the best, especially in comparison to the Channel F and the Magnavox Odyssey 2.  To be completely honest though if you only have a limited knowledge of gaming systems of the past, many of Atari’s competitors will be completely unknown to you. I lived and gamed in that era, and even for me I had no knowledge of non-Atari systems and clones until the NES, and Master System. So it was by chance one day, after I got back into my older consoles, that I watched the Angry Video Game Nerd and his Double Vision episode about the Intellivision and Colecovision, two systems I knew nothing about. Sure the AVGN isn’t the best way to learn about video games or consoles, but I often tend to keep an open mind against his skewerings. After that I began that to keep an ear open for the systems on gaming podcasts to learn a little more about each and it’s history.

The Colecovision didn’t seem all that strange to me since I had a Coleco Gemini, an Atari 2600 clone which I’ve written an article about before on this site, and a full blooded Coleco system didn’t seem like much of a stretch. The one that was somewhat foreign though, was Mattel’s Intellivision. Of course having had the M-Network game of Space Attack on my Atari 2600 growing up, I never realized the M in M-network stood for Mattel, nor that Mattel made it’s own system.

In the Fall of 2014, news came out that flashback systems had been released for both the Intellivision and Colecovision and I thought it was time to make a decision on whether to buy one of these flashbacks, or just go ahead and buy the real deal for both. So one night while browsing a local antique store I came across a good deal on an Intellivision with games and a few other extras. I bought it, and than after a few days it stopped working. My local gaming store diagnosed it as being irreparable, due to capacitors, and I put the old system aside picking up the two flashback systems in early 2015. The flashback systems are good, and have a lot of cool features but at the same time everything is miniaturized, so although happy with them, I was never as satisfied as I could be playing the real things.

Flash forward to 2018, and to a day that probably had one of the longest mornings I had gone through in a long time. My usual hour and half train ride was cut short to about 30 minutes, when someone in a town ahead decided to...let's just say reenact the last scene of Anna Karenina with one of the trains directly in front of us. So an hour and a half on the train turned into nearly four sitting in one spot, and by that time I decided I’d had enough and wanted to head home for the day. I didn’t go directly home though but rather on a small shopping trip with my family, after they came to pick me up from my stranded train, stopping at a Half Price Books along the way. It was here I found a pile of Intellivision games complete-in-box for a relatively low price and I decide to pick up a few. My logic was that, with Midwest Gaming Classics in a little over a month, I could pick up both an Intellivision and Colecovision for a good price. Of course per my last article on MGC 2018, you may know only the former came to fruition having picked up the Intellivision alone. Three weeks later, or early in the week I’m writing this, I finally had the chance to hook the Intellivision up. I got out the recently purchased games from Half Price Books, and without so much as a hiccup the old Intellivision worked like a charm and I saw the green title screen for Space Armada pop up. The next two games would work as well, but I noticed that the Star Strike cart needed a little special maneuvering to get the system to read it, probably needs a good cleaning. That gave me the thought that maybe the awkward loading carts and the lack of an RF switch, where what the real issues with the Intellivision I bought in 2014. I wanted to get out the games that came with that system anyway, so I pulled the system out with them and long behold my supposedly irreparable Intellivision worked as well as the one I had purchased three weeks before. So now I have two functioning Intellivisions. Of course though we are here to talk about a little more than this.

The overall question I have to ask is, what is the Intellivisions place in video gaming history. Those who owned the system in its heyday, and those who also worked on it, are highly devoted to it. A devotion almost similar to that of Sega, and Atari Jaguar fans, playing the role of the underdog defending a system that deserved more credit than it got. After the wild and almost unstoppable success of the Atari VCS in the late 70’s, it became apparent to many companies that video games may be the next big thing. For most of companies though the cost in developing a system of their own presented a pretty high barrier of entry, since at the time the components to put such a system together, and the number of skilled engineers and technicians weren’t readily available, and came at a high cost. This lead to many companies, like board game manufacturer Parker Brothers, to simply stick with entering into the market by developing games alone. For other companies like toy maker Mattel, with such wildly successful brands as Hot Wheels and Barbie, and an existing line of basic electronic handheld systems, the money and some experience was there to delve into the market with its own system. Mattel began developing it’s system in 1978, and test marketed it in Southern California in late 1979 with some very positive feedback. As you might have guessed, Mattel would release the Intellivision in North America just before Christmas 1980.

Much like we’d see with the Sega Master System against the NES 6 years later, Mattel would be bringing the Intellivision into a market where competitor Atari, was already firmly entrenched and had a massive library of both first and third party games. To avoid taking a backseat to Atari, as competitors Fairchild, Bally, and Magnavox had, Mattel realized it would have to market the Intellivision in a whole new way. Of course for Mattel, unlike electronics manufacturers Fairchild and Magnavox, they already had firm grasp on how to market to kids and parents from their toy lines, and knew how to make their product seem both different and better. So how do you do that against the powerhouse that was Atari?

For Mattel, it was about making the Intellivision seem more advanced than the Atari VCS (2600). Essentially, this wasn’t exactly a stretch since the Intellivision did have the benefit of 3 to 4 years of advancements in technology that had happened since the Atari VCS was developed, although they were slight. The real stretch occurred when Mattel claimed the Intellivision wasn’t just 8-bit like the Atari VCS, but rather 16-bit. The goal of this claim being that the Intellivision was twice as powerful as the Atari, and in an era when know one knew what the heck 8 or 16-bit meant, no one really questioned the claim. Admittedly, the systems CPU was 16-bit, technically speaking, but I will get into that later

A television marketing campaign followed that compared Atari VCS games to Intellivision. Of course oddly, the spokesman for these commercials would be George Plimpton, a distinguished looking writer and actor, with a stately East Coast accent. This choice was obviously aimed more at parents than kids, giving them a trusted face to connect with the product, but to me it makes about as much sense as having Garrison Keillor as a spokesman for the PS4 or XBox One. For many kids of the era, Plimpton became pretty well connected with the Intellivision and has since been burned into their memories as the Intellivision guy, since he was featured in a number of commercials for the system and its games following. The campaign was often highlighted by showing similar Atari and Intellivision games being played side by side, with kid actors proclaiming the merits of the Intellivision. Having viewed a number of the commercials myself I can tell you that this Intellivision does look considerably more impressive, but of course how else would it look in their own commercials.

So technically speaking is the Intellivision actually better than the Atari VCS/2600. As stated before the Intellivision does have a 16-bit CPU, but with the limitations of the time 16-bit meant very little. It’s like saying your car is a 5 Liter V12, its an impressive amount of cylinders, but it’s just barely any more powerful than a V8 of the same displacement. That analogy isn’t too far from the truth with the Intellivision either, since the 16-bit CPU could only really function at 10-bit graphically. This didn’t so much translate into dynamically better graphics, but did allow for a few more sprites on the screen and slightly faster gameplay, as well as eliminating some of the flicker that was an issue on the Atari. So essentially the Intellivision was better than the Atari, but only marginally. To a parent considering dropping $299 (in 1983) on a game system for their kids, the Intellivision would have seemed like the better value, and many kids of the era weren’t about to argue. Games did look a lot better, and some like sports games were light years ahead of their Atari 2600 counterparts, like MLB Baseball for instance, which played more like what we would later see on the NES than on the Atari 2600. The Intellivision also featured better sound, and had a voice module add-on to give realistic voice like sound on certain games.

As was a common marketing tactic for many of the post Atari VCS systems of the second generation, the Intellivision would also be marketed as a base unit for building a home computer around. The Intellivision name itself is a combination of the words “Intelligent” and “Television”, a naming conventions Mattel decided on to convey the fact that their system would transcend being just a video game console, and be something more like a home computer. With a 16-bit CPU and 64k of expandable RAM, the Intellivision could have a keyboard added to it, and even had a insert planned that would set the Intellivision into a computer cabinet, with a keyboard and cassette drive built into it. Of course although prototypes and test programs were developed for such items, they remained vaporware, especially after the 1983 crash. For many parents looking to get their kids both a gaming console and potential computer, the failure of Mattel fulfill the computer promise with the Intellivision left a bad taste, and had some interesting legal consequences. This was made all the worse when Intellivision would later introduce the short lived Aquarius computer.

When it came to games on the Intellivision, most were developed by Mattel, but a few games from Activision, Imagic, and even Atari and Coleco did eventually appear on the system. Some Intellivision games like Astroblaster, MLB Baseball, Masters of the Universe and Imagic’s Microsurgeon would go on to define the system as it’s killer apps. Like our current era which a single game can be found on all the top platforms like Xbox One, PS4, PC, and even Switch many of games back then also covered multiple systems and of course there was crossover between the Atari and Intellivision, and later the 5200 and Colecovision would join that. Many believe the that Mattel made their first party games better for their own system, but some argue in porting these games to the Atari, M-Network improved some games to take advantage of Atari’s various controller options.

The Intellivision was also one of the first systems to start the trend of the number pad controller, something that would carry onto the Atari 5200, and Colecovision after. Unlike those systems or the Atari VCS/2600, the Intellivision didn’t have any kind of control stick, but rather a directional plate. This by far is one of the system's biggest detractors, since the control plate didn’t give players as much control as the stick based controls of other systems did. Added on to this was the fact that the Intellivision made a lot of use of its telephone like keypad, and associated overlays for these games. Without the overlays, gameplay can remain a complete mystery to gamers and ruin the experience altogether. Unlike the Atari, the controllers for the Intellivision are hardwired in, which didn’t allow switching controllers out, so love or hate the Intellivision controllers one was stuck with them. One additional major complaint to also come out was the fact that the Intellivision had no real paddle controller capabilities. For those who had played both the Atari VCS/2600 and Intellivision this was an obvious disadvantage, even leading some to note the Mattel’s own Astrosmash played better with the paddle controller on Atari. Of course the Intellivision II would address the issue of interchangeable controllers, but it’s 1983 release was too little to late.

So was the Intellivision actually better than the Atari 2600? My Atari fandom inclines me to say no, but in all fairness I will give the Intellivision a chance. The Intellivision was a system with potential, but also a system with a lot of caveats. The first Intellivision system, which has been the main focus of this article, was more or less built to get Mattel’s foot in the door of home gaming, and get a piece of the profit pie Atari seemed to be hogging. This meant that Mattel built a system that was marginally better than what Atari had, but hardly revolutionary.

Of course the Intellivision, would force Atari to respond with the 5200. The 5200, although maligned by many gamers due to its controller, was actually an outstanding system for the times and had a number of nearly spot on arcade ports, and 8-bit graphics that could easily rival those of the NES. Of course as the story goes by the time the 5200 hit store shelves it wouldn’t be competing with the Intellivision, but rather the Colecovision another outstanding 8-bit system. Both of the latter systems would mark a bridge generation between the systems we knew in Gen 2, and those we’d come to know in Gen 3, and where by far the best of the 2nd gen offerings.

So what is my personal take on the Intellivision?

Well I will start off by saying that it’s an aesthetically good looking system, with the faux wood grain, and brass highlights. I imagine in that era, remembering a bit of it myself, it probably looked very high tech like some piece of modern office technology. The Channel-F, being one of its contemporaries, had a similar look that made it appear like some super hi-fi component like a 8-track player, which it actually was confused for. The Atari of the era was also wood grained, until the “Vader” was introduced. The Atari VCS did however look more like a game console, and its toggles looked like something off a spaceship or military vehicle which is a good look for a console. With that said though all folded up with it’s permanently attached controllers the Intellivision give a rather neat and clean profile, plus you can’t lose a controller or have a friend walk off with one (never happened to me, but I've heard many stories).

Graphics wise it looks really good and you can tell there is a little something extra going on under the hood. It’s like playing the 2600 but with slightly more vibrant colors (reminded me of the TI-99), and things felt like they moved a little smoother. Of course that notorious Atari flicker isn’t as common in games of the Intellivision, as the little extra power helps reduce that. Of course to me Atari flicker has never been a real bother.

Controller wise though is where I feel the system slips up. Star Strike for instance is extremely hard to play with the Intellivision controller. The plate couldn’t react fast enough, or give the appropriate type of control over the player controlled spacecraft sprite. Another major downside to the controller is also something we see on the Atari 5200, and Colecovision as well, whereby the firing button are located on the side of the controller. At least for those two systems the buttons where located in the same area as the joystick, but for the Intellivision the control plate is on the bottom of the controller, while the buttons are located on the top of the controller. It makes for some painful play at times. I’m glad by the next generation with systems like the NES and SMS, buttons would be placed back on the top of the controller, taking a hint from the Atari 2600, and the have stayed on top since.

Overall, the Intellivision is a fairly remarkable system and gave gamers a reasonable alternative to the Atari. If I had to choose in that era though, I think I would’ve gone with the VCS, due to its library of big arcade ports, and better controller. With that said though the Intellivision was an important system because it forced the evolution of home gaming consoles, and upset Atari’s comfortable reign. The Atari 5200, and Colecovision would evolve from the Intellvisions arrival and the NES, SMS, and Atari 7800 would take it from there. To me experiencing this system in its original form was a remarkable treat since it's always a pleasure to see what makes a systems and it’s claims valid, and what detracts from that validity. Or to put it another way sorting out the system from the legend.

Here are my plays of Intellivision titles after hooking it up:

Space Armada (Intellivision) ⭐️⭐️⭐️ 1/2 - This is basically a Space Invaders rip-off, although it’s not too bad. The Intellivision has some nice big and colorful sprites, and the games is a challenge (no thanks to the controller). I still prefer the Atari 2600 Space Invaders though for its ease of play yet arcade like level of challenge. Mid-level marks for this one.

Star Strike (Intellivision) ⭐️⭐️ - I’ve played this one before on other systems but I don’t think they were named the same thing. It was a standard naming convention that M-Network games didn’t get the same name as their actual Intellivision counterpart. Anyway this is kind of a Star Wars rip-off (like many games of the era), but here your doing the trench run to save Earth. I will give it props on looks, but again the Intellivision controller kills the game, which is already hard to play as it is.

Astrosmash (Intellivision) ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ - This is probably one of the better known Intellivision titles and I can see why. The Asteroids meets Space Invaders concept works exceptionally well, and the game presents its challenges while being neatly addictive to play. The sprites and coloring are basic simple, but hardly detract from the game. This one also works really well with the Intellivision controller, especially with the auto-fire option in place, which is a real thumb saver.

Burger Time (Intellivision) ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ - Is there a system Burger Time isn’t fun on? No! Yes, it’s Burger Time, and even with the Intellivision controller it’s fun to play. A few things lacking in this version graphics compared to the NES port, but it’s more than forgivable. It’s pure joy to play.

Space Battle (Intellivision) ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ - On the Atari 2600 the M-Network is known as Space Attack. It’s the same game either way and at times just as enigmatic. This is a game that when it works as it does on the Atari 2600, and is just as fun as hell to play (but when it doesn’t it’s just a mess). I love it anyway from my Atari 2600 upbringing.

Poker & Blackjack (Intellivision) ⭐️- Remember back in the day when buying card based video games where a good way of getting your Dad to play video games, and have fun too. Truthfully, I’m sure Dad would rather play Burger Time instead. Anyway, FYI this game sucks, you have to have two players and read the manual to even start. Yeah, I’m out already. Anyway this was the “biggest seller” on the system, (i.e. the pack in game), it would suck if this was the only game you got with the system though.

MLB Baseball (Intellivision) ⭐️⭐️⭐️ - I’m giving it three stars for potential. Sadly this is another two player entry, in an era when the Atari 2600 and 5200 has one player baseball games. It looks like it would be fun if I had someone else to play it with. This particular game was one of the Intellvisions “killer apps”, and really sold the system as the sports game system.

NBA Basketball (Intellivision) ⭐️⭐️⭐️ - See the above just with basketball. There is potential here too, wish I had a second player to play with.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Midwest Gaming Classics 2018 - Attack of the New Venue

It’s Monday April 16th, it’s 8:30 at night and it’s been 27.5 hours since MGC 2018 ended. I was lucky enough to stay all the way till it’s official end at 5PM yesterday, but only thanks in part to an ice storm and blizzard trapping me in Milwaukee and unexpected third night.

As 5PM approached it was interesting to see pinball and arcade machines being hauled out, and vendors shutting down and clearing off their tables. There was a sad finality to it all, with a hint of catharsis as it all came to a cold end as winter storm breezes blew into the massive spaces of convention from the open loading bays. I spent
the next four hours watching the loading bays from my hotel room as truck after truck pulled up to retrieve their precious cargos of arcade and pinball machines, even the huge hauler that not doubt supported Stern Pinballs full blown display.

Unlike my visit two years ago I didn’t buy any games at MGC this year, nor more importantly did I buy another pinball machine. Gaming wise the only thing I did buy was an Intellivision console, which unlike my last I’m hoping is working. My main goal was to find a Colecovision this year but sadly that didn’t work out, as there where very few at this years show and were either too expensive or in questionable condition.
With all that said though the true story this year was the change of venue. MGC’s move to downtown Milwaukee’s, Wisconsin Center, is a huge jump from its confining former venue at the Brookfield Sheridan where it had been held since 2004 and was splitting its seams when I visited last in 2016. For Midwest Gaming Classics the Wisconsin Center was a true game changer, no pun intended. Not only is the space better for the annual convention, but expands possibilities for the show in coming years.

With it now over though the big question is, was the 2018 MGC as much as a success as past years or has the change of venue changed the annual retro gaming convention irrevocably? Before the 2107 show even drew to a close, discussions on the shows future and new space were taking place and it was obvious a new venue would be necessary. Immediately following the 2017 show, the hunt for a new venue was on, but it was only about a month or so later that the Wisconsin Center was named, at least for the 2018 show. Of course news of MGC’s future following the 2018 show hasn’t exactly come out yet, so as of yet we are a little unsure whether the Wisconsin Center will be the shows new home. Of course following the hunt for a new venue after last years show, many speculated that the show may end up across the stateline at Illinois and the midwest convention mecca of Rosemont. I don’t think it we will see that anytime soon, but it’s fun to imagine MGC growing into an event that requires Rosemont, or even Chicago’s McCormick Place.

From my humble point of view what I can say is that compared to the 2016 MGC, the space of the Wisconsin Center was nice to have. In 2016 whether it was viewing an exhibit, playing pinball or arcade games, or even stopping off at vendors, the old Sheridan space felt more like a sardine can than anything else. Considering it was a chilly mid-April day as well, someone not staying at the Sheridan themselves would have to managed the tight confined spaces while either wearing or carrying a jacket with, and considering how hard it was come into and leave the convention might have to negotiate carrying packages with as well from anything bought at the vendor area. I’m not going to say we as a family didn’t have good time, but the uncomfortable conditions did cut down on how long we could stay. By 3 in the afternoon or so we felt exhausted from fighting against the continual flow of humanity, and the unbearable heat and humidity from so many bodies packed into such tight spaces. I was really glad I didn’t buy a weekend pass that time, since I don’t think we would have come back the next day after our experience on that Saturday.  At the same time though it was hard to miss much of anything in the old venue, since special speakers and live podcast recordings like that of the annually featured Retronuats where in the conference centers midway a cafe and bar, which you had to pass to get from one end of the venue to the other. So what you want about smaller spaces but they do tend to force the sense of community a little more.  

Now, on to 2018 and the Wisconsin Center. I’m going to say one thing really quick to get off my chest as it may have affected my judgement on the subject.This year I was lucky enough to stay in one of the hotels adjoining the Wisconsin Center, ironically I stayed in this same hotel two years ago for MGC 2016 still having to drive out to Brookfield, WI. The ability to stay close does make a huge difference especially with family in tow, since it gives one a quick escape to some rest time between visits, the ability to dump off purchases from the vendor area in a safe place, and more importantly no jacket to carry with. Being able to take an hour or so respite in a quiet of the hotel room does make a huge difference in the middle of the convention day and does help recharge ones personal battery, a decide where to concentrate the rest of the day on. The close stay also allowed me to take full advantage of the day staying till nearly the official end of the day on both days. Of course than again this might also be a big positive for the Wisconsin Center venue as well, since two hotels are attached via skyways, and several others within less than a two block walk. As opposed to Brookfield that only featured the Sheridan, and a few smaller hotels but not in such close proximity. To say the least though being able to go to and from MGC without the need to wear a jacket for two days was extremely nice.

If you’ve attended MCG before than you are probably aware of the fact that most of the activities tend to take place in two main rooms, the Arcade area and the Vendor area, with a third smaller area for the gaming museum and other ancillary areas for various arcades, special vendors, and special activity rooms. As you can guess much like in the past the arcade room, as it has in the past, was the busiest place at MGC this year interestingly hosting more pinball machines than arcade machines this year. The area also hosted the gaming museum this year as well, which is a collection of home consoles and computers from gamings past, and was usually located in a different room in previous years. Another highlight of the area was a place I unwittingly spent a lot of time in, this being the kiddie ride area, which consisted of a collection of coin operated kiddie rides like you’d see in front of a grocery store, my youngest son fell in love with this spot and was trying to convince me to buy a $2500 Batmobile for him. The area also hosted various pinball machine companies (a big shout out to the American Pinball guys and their Houdini Pinball machine, thanks for the T-shirt), like American Pinball with their Houdini setup, and Stern with their massive setup dedicated to their new rock band machines, as well as the Garcade family arcade with their assortment of classic machines, and Cosmotron introducing their new game demo. The space also featured an air hockey table area, and some other miscellaneous things such as large inflatable screens with various console play on them throughout the weekend. Of course last but certainly not least this was also the area in which the annual pinball tournament took place, which my wife actually competed in this year.

For the arcade room I could say that compared to past years it was far easier to get around it this year, and unlike our last MGC we were actually able to explore the whole room and get used to navigating it with ease regularly. With that said though there were times when the room was pretty crowded, and certain areas could bottleneck and become impassable. My only true complaint is that pinball machines seemed to out number arcade machines at a pretty high ratio, and next year I hope we see a 50/50 split between the machines.
Next we have the vendor area. It was no longer the crowded cramped space that had you check for you wallet every thirty seconds as in the past, but fairly wide open and as deep of a space as the arcade area. The back of the room featured additional food vendors, and eating area and of course that music area we have gotten use to seeing at MGC playing game based music. Like the vendor area in the past in also featured a large area for board gaming, and a variety of games to borrow and play. I loved the wide open areas on the vendor area this year, but I will say I didn't seem as if there were as many vendors. Of course that observation could have been illusion on my part due to the space.

Outside the vendor hall there were additional sellers as well as a large sitting area for additional gaming and eating, but the rest of MGC was one floor below. One the second floor we had a selections of rooms that themselves where crammed into smaller rooms in previous years. This included spaces for private arcades like Galloping Ghost which was huge this year, presentations rooms for special speakers and live podcasts, parts vendors, my new friends and Guys, Games, and Beer with their rec room setup and standup Vectrex arcade machines, and last but not least one of my favorite rooms at MGC the Steel Battalion room. The space for these rooms was nice, and had I had time to see a presentation or the Retronuats recording live this year the large rooms with ample seating would have been nice to go to, rather then standing room only at the old Sheridan. One of the big issues here though is that you would only know about these presentations if you checked the schedule since no other announcement was made.

Whether MGC had stayed at the Sheridan or had moved anywhere else there would of course be both benefits and caveats. In this case I think we are seeing far more benefits from the move than some of the caveat. Of course any move will have a learning curve, and no doubt MGC’s organizers are going to take notes from this years show and begin adapting the show to the new found space taking into account the new found capabilities and limitations of moving to such a large space after splitting its seams at the old Sheridan. I would personally call the show a huge success. Just one thing MGC organizers, can you speedpass those of us who bought prepaid tickets?
Anyway, I’m only trying to do MGC every other year so unless there is some huge attraction at next year's show that's a must see I probably won't be back till 2020. So if the show is still at the Wisconsin Center then, it will be interesting to see what changes where made, and what new things they may have added.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Trekking Through Games: Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator

Star Trek has received at least one title on many video game consoles for last 40 years now. It’s a testament to the shows enduring legacy, as well as its fan base. These are fans who let the shows originality stir their imaginations and made them carry “The Final Frontier” into the world of video gaming only a few years after the show ended. Some of the earliest versions of Star Trek games appeared as text adventures shared on the early internet in BBS’s, or in the form of short games meant to showcase graphics rather than any kind of actual gameplay. Eventually though game designers and publishers knew a true game would have to be made.

In 1979 Star Trek: The Motion Picture was released thanks in part to Star Wars: A New Hope’s success two years earlier and the constant push by Star Trek fans to bring the show back.  Star Trek: The Motion Picture, although in retrospect hardly the best of the Star Trek movies, was groundbreaking in itself, and set new territory for both special effects and for Star Trek movies. You can click on the links to read my previous Trekking Through Games article about the movie.  Despite that it would take another three years before any kind of video game based on the movie was made. Star Trek: The Motion Picture would appear on the Vectrex in 1982, although arguably it had little to do with the actual film and more to do with facing off against show adversaries like the Klingons, and Romulans. Owning a Vectrex I can tell you both Star Trek: The Motion Picture and the sequel game Star Trek II  on the Vectrex are fun and even addictive games, that ramp up the challenge quickly, but again have very little to do with either Star Trek movie.

In 1982 Sega would release an arcade cabinet in both an upright and environmental form for a game called Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator. In its arcade form the game screen was broken into three split screens, the top left was dedicated to ships systems such as shield strength, photon torpedo count, and warp engines. The upper right was a map of the sector showing the nearest starbase, enemy units, and any asteroids that may appear. The third and biggest section was the entire bottom of the screen which gave a first person view from the Enterprise’s bridge viewscreen as you encountered starbases, enemies, and the like. Despite being a vector based game, there is a lot going on with the game's single monitor. The ship controls themselves are a lot like that of Asteroids with a button to thrust forward, but with a dial for side to side movement. Other buttons fired phasers, photon torpedoes, and raised the shields for brief periods. Although it wasn't exactly the kind of game one masters in the first sitting, it is a highly entertaining game that is easy to pick up with a little practice. Sadly though, not many of the arcade cabs of this game survived and the environmental version known as the “Captain's Chair” is even rarer than the upright. Luckily, the game received many home ports almost immediately and despite lacking the vector graphics most of these ports are fairly close to the arcade version.

If you know anything about what consoles and computers were on the market in 1983, than no doubt you can guess the systems Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator was released on almost like naming off a list of usual suspects. The Atari 800, 2600, and 5200, C64, Ti-99, ColecoVision, Vic-20 and the Apple II all saw ports of this game. In my collection I have four of these ports including all the Atari versions, and the Ti-99 version, and moving from system to system I have to say they are all pretty close to each other in gameplay.
The Atari 2600 port featured an odd overlay for the standard joystick

Basically, the game revolves around protecting your starbases from Klingon attackers, by eliminating all their ships in each sector. Of course in real Star Trek terms such battles would be highly involved, but here each Klingon ship is a one hit kill with phasers, and you can take a few at a time out with a photon torpedo. As you take damage yourself, and I mean multiple hits, you can dock with starbases for repairs and more photon torpedos. After a few levels of fending off Klingons you eventually encounter a minefield being laid by the infamous STO villain NOMAD, who you must defeat to move on the the next sector. Of course on the arcade and home ports these sector boss battles are anything but clear. On the Atari 2600 version as you will see in my video, there is a sector in between in which you encounter an asteroid and meteor field that you can maneuver around to dock with starbases for needed repairs, like a helpful bonus level of sorts. Both the arcade version and Atari 2600 versions also have “anti-matter saucers” (yeah, because that was in the show) in the arcade version they stick to you like a magnetic mine, as to where with the 2600 version they just kind of float around. You’ll note in the video a purple diamond that briefly sticks to my ship in the arcade version, and my reference to a Space Invaders like flying saucer in the Atari 2600 version.  As you progress from sector to sector the game presents you with an ever increasing amount of Klingons, and NOMAD moves a little faster in laying its mines, but if you're looking for an end to this game I honestly don’t think there is one which is pretty typical for that era.

So what about all the different versions, and which is the best? Well of all of them, the only vector based one is the arcade which is also the most difficult in my opinion because was meant to eat quarters. Vector based games do look pretty good graphically, and it's always easy to tell what the 3D objects represent. Also being an arcade machine with a big board and lots of processing power for the era we also get some awesome music and sound effects. All other ports are raster based, but some look a little bit better than others. The Atari 800 and 5200 ports look like an improved version of the Atari 2600 port and the ships and other objects appearing on the bottom “viewscreen” do look a little more like what they are supposed to. The TI-99 is roughly the same, but the ships and whatnot have a bright color pallet to them that makes them feel a bit cartoony.  Then comes the Apple II version which is simultaneously both better and worse than the other versions, but I would suggest you look for yourself to see what I mean. The C64 version has some really nice looking graphics too, but by far I think the Colecovision version features some of the best graphics overall, as well as the best sound, and music. Of course that surprised me since I thought the C64 or Apple II would have it hands down over any console but the Colecovision holds its own on this game. As you can tell though no matter what the version, the game pretty much stays the same with only some minor creative and technical differences between them.

Star Trek: Strategic Operations Simulator may not be the very first Star Trek game, but it was the first to really have notice taken of it and be universally accepted, especially in the arcades as well as the many home ports. Sadly, the game never really gained any longevity, since it was white noise amongst many of the other space games of the era. Luckily for us as Star Trek fans we got many other games after, and the franchise would continue on to some truly awesome titles that would take what SOS started to a different level like the Starfleet Command and Armada games. Although Strategic Operations Simulator may seem basic and simple compared to games such as those I just mentioned, if you're a Star Trek fan they’re something you have to really check out since they still have that connection to the first Star trek movies and the original series from an era when that's all there was.