Thursday, February 27, 2014

Return of the 5200: Part 1 - 5200 Memories

That's right I'm going to be talking about the Atari 5200 again! If you read my Retro Gaming New Years Resolutions ( you probably know that one of my resolutions for this year was to get both an Atari 5200 and 7800 added to my collection. Thankfully some excellent finds on eBay have allowed me to get both systems recently, and my beloved 5200 was the first to arrive at my house. 

My personal history with the Atari 5200 dates back to 1987 when I came home from school one day and my Mom presented me an Atari 5200 and some games that she had gotten from an ad in the paper. I was never a huge video game nut as a kid but I did enjoy getting these systems when they bought them for me. My father hooked it up to the back of our early 70's Zenith wood console TV, and I was off an running usually playing it for an hour or so after school everyday. I remember some of the games she bought home with it like Popeye, Q*Bert, Qix, Mario Brothers, and a few others that pop in my mind from time to time. I remember going to a store we had in the Midwest named Zayre's and buying Jungle Hunt, and later buying my favorite 5200 game Berzerk.

I can't remember why I stopped eventually using the 5200 whether it was due to it breaking or something else, but I would have my Atari 2600 Jr. to replace it by the end of 1988. I think one of the main issues I had was that after a certain point I couldn't find anymore games for it, and the VCS cartridge adapter that would have allowed my to play some of the 2600 games I still had, seemed almost non-existent in that era long before eBay. With all that said though and for whatever reason I stopped using my 5200, I have a lot of really fond memories for the hours I spent playing games on that system. This includes a memory of the night we bought home Berzerk and my sister and I playing it and cracking up at the computer voice, the stupidity of the suicidal robots, and that murderous smiley face.

As much as I loved my 5200 as a kid I didn't feel much of a longing for it until last year when I bought another Atari 2600 Jr, and got a few games to go with it like Berzerk. As good as it was to play Berzerk again it just wasn't the same game on the 2600 as it was the 5200. It's still a game of running from room to room shooting up robots, but without the sound effects it seemed like a totally different game. Robotic voices saying "Kill the humanoid! Kill the intruder!", and "Chicken, fight like a robot" really make the game a enjoyable if not more humorous experience overall. Then I began to think that maybe it was just my sentimentality for Berzerk until I played Popeye, Q*Bert, Super Breakout, and Space Invaders on the 2600 and realized that gameplay on the 5200 was entirely different and dare I say it better on the Atari 5200 over the 2600. 

Of course now that I have a 5200 I will have a chance to see if my recollections of gameplay are purely fond memories or a reality, there will be more to come on that.

Friday, February 14, 2014

I <3 IMagic

Happy Valentines Day!!!

Is your day Imagical yet! Sorry for the pun but I wanted to take some time to talk about video game maker Imagic, and my love for their games. Now if your not familiar with Imagic don't worry, unless your an Atari 2600 player that is, in which case shame on you for not knowing. 

Imagic was formed by former Atari programmers and executives in 1981, who left Atari after the company began to become more restrictive on its programmers due to the fact that it was taken over by Time-Warner Entertainment. It was at this same time that Activision was also formed for the same reason. I could get into detail on the great split with Atari but you can find a plethora of articles and even a few books written on the subject, if your interested. Overall the split was over programmers looking for an outlet that would let them stay creative and experiment with new techniques in game making, and allow them to receive personal credit for these ideas, something the big corporate owners of Atari wouldn't let them do. 

Imagic operated between 1981 and 1986 primarily making games for the Atari 2600, but they did port some of these titles to C64, Colecovision, Atari 400/800, and a few other systems that where comtemporaries of the 2600. Imagic also created some games for the Intellivision that where never ported to the 2600. 

Imagic created 20 (known) titles for the Atari 2600 in all. However of that 20, 2 Sky Patrol, and Cubicolor never made it out of the prototype stage, and 1 Wing War was only created in PAL format. Of course there was also Atlantis II which was released in extremely limited quantities to special winners of an Atlantis contest. All this means that we NTSC Atari 2600 players have 16 titles to choose from, and Imagic failed to disappoint on any of them. BTW Cubicolor was released as a homebrew recently, however I am not counting it as a original Imagic "playable" title. 

15 of 16 of Imagics Atari 2600 games, the only one missing from this photo is Subterranea which I recently bought off eBay but did not recieve yet when this photo was taken.

The best part about Imagic games is that the company lived up to its goals of being creative, and designing games outside the box. Most of their games are vibrant, have original concepts, and helped push the Atari 2600 to its limits. In an era when Atari used simple solid colors in most of their game designs, Imagic made games with multicolored sprites, and even backgrounds. An excellent example of this is Demon Attack, which used a concept similar to games such as Space Invaders, and Phoenix in which the player shoots at waves of alien invaders from the sky, via a moving bunker below. But Demon Attack brings it to life in vibrant colors, and with a lot more action as aliens dart about the sky sometimes in random order and with some pretty powerful weapons like laser beams, and egg bombs.

My beaten up but much beloved copy of Demon Attack.

Another out of the box game of Imagics in both creativity and vibrancy is Atlantis, which has a similar concept as Atari's Missile Command but takes the concept a lot further as one protects a vibrant and beautiful city (created via Atari 2600 graphics) from spacecraft zooming across the sky. Not to mention the concept is pushed further as Atlantis's end elludes to it's sequel Cosmic Ark. Both games have color pallets, gameplay and concept far more advanced then those of Atari's games.  The game was complex and loved enough to have Imagic create and Atlantis competition. Competitors who achieved a certain score where given copies of the now lengendary Atlantis II, with which competitors had to play to achieve the highest score in a certain period of time. Copies of Atlantis II are nearly impossible to find, and rate a rarity 10 on Atariage. 

Another great Imagic game is No Escape which features a character who must kill enemy's overhead in a Greek temple by throwing stones at the ceiling to drop bricks on to them. It sounds odd but the game is extremely challenging, and addicting, on par if not better then modern puzzle based casual games. The game is like Breakout meets Space Invaders, but it is a lot more original and takes more time to master.

Then there's Moonsweeper, a space shooter that takes on new life when you go from shooting it out with aliens, to a second screen of cruising alien moons to rescue stranded space miners. The concept was unique as is the gameplay and coloring. But this also brings up another interesting part about some Imagic games, second screens featuring simulated 3D play. You see Moonsweeper's space shooter to simulated 3D moon rescue screen, gives the player to different types of gameplay and objectives within the game that was uncommon in Atari 2600 play. Another Imagic title to take advantage of this type of gameplay is Cosmic Ark, the previously mentioned sequel to Atlantis

Cosmic Ark goes from a flying saucer mode of shooting down meteors bound for the planet you are looking to rescue creatures from, to a shuttle mode on the planets surface rescuing the creatures. The gameplay and look of the game are Imagic at its best, in the creativity that went into the game and it's play. But probably the most unique part of Cosmic Ark is that it is sequel to Atlantis, or to put it another way this is the first time there has been a plot line in a video game that allowed it to go deep enough to cover two games, when the flying saucer from Atlantis, reappears with its Atlantian crew in Cosmic Ark. 

If you are familiar with Imagic then you no doubt have your own favorite games, which I would enjoy hearing about. But for now I'm going to end my Valentines Day love letter on Imagic, with its out of the box take on the Atari 2600 experience. If you have an old system with Imagic games on it make sure and pick one up these are some great games. 

Oh, and by the way lets not forget about Imagics "Numb Thumb Club" a similar program to that of Activisions patch club that awarded players for achieving certain score in various video games. 

Monday, February 10, 2014

Keeping it Real (Time)!

So it's winter which means that the weather has given us a good excuse to sit around and play video games without the guilt of wasting a nice day. For me I have finally had a chance to play Halo Wars a real-time strategy game based on the Halo world of games.

Halo Wars is essentially a prequel to the entire Halo series, taking place 20 years before the events of Halo: Combat Evolved. But unlike Halo which is a sci-fi future soldier-based FPS, Halo Wars is real-time strategy game. I enjoyed playing the game and found it to be both challenging and fun but also found it to be somewhat short. As I played it though I also couldn't help feel as if I could enjoy it more on a PC rather than the Xbox 360, and as I thought more about that feeling I knew it in some way had something to do with my history of playing RTS games on PC and not consoles. I was also struck by the fact that Halo reminds me of Command & Conquer

Command & Conquer actually did the vice versa of Halo being a series of RTS games with a single title Command & Conquer: Renegade as an FPS based on the first Command & Conquer game.

But Command & Conquer gained its popularity due to the fact that it was a Real-Time Strategy game that was unlike any other. It was action-packed, with live-action cut scenes, a great plot, violence, and super cool future weapons. I top of that a simple economics engine help move the game, and with challenging gameplay offered hours of entertainment.

But it was the Real-Time Strategy gameplay that really made C&C what it is. Before this most games featured turn based play indicative of old school board games, or more specifically the 20 sided dice type play of games like Dungeons & Dragons. Players would take turns versing the computer player, moving characters or game pieces a certain amount of spaces at a time. RTS though on the other hand tossed this out, and a player could move whenever they wanted and to wherever they wanted with a shrouded unexplored area being the only thing to really stop them and to hide enemy's. Thanks to the more powerful computers of the mid to late 90's RTS became the norm quickly and Command & Conquer spawned a lot of knock offs even some big name ones like Star Wars: Force Commander

As original as Commander & Conquer was though, truth be told, it wasn't the first of its kind. C&C's developer Westwood Studios actually released the first groundbreaking RTS in 1992, Dune II. Dune II was based on Frank Herbets Dune books, which gained notoriety in the early 80's thanks to David Lynch's film adaptation. Gameplay between C&C and Dune II was a lot alike, with its base building, units, and economic engines being highly similar but only differentiated by the respective Sci-Fi universes. But it was the forgotten Dune II that really introduced players to a world a form of strategy gaming that no longer restricted then to the limited movement of turn based gameplay. 

Fast forward 17 years to 2009 when Halo Wars is released. We see the same RTS elements that we had in Dune II, as well as the many Command & Conquer games over the years. Base building, unit building, and a simple economic engine all done while uncovering shrouded areas and hidden enemy's. It all seems very familiar. 

But what is it about RTS that has drawn to many in over the years. From my perspective RTS is all about the challenge. It's about being put into situations where the odds are against you  and having to figure out how to pull a victory out of it. It's also about learning from your mistakes, and being able to apply that knowledge right away since a defeat may spell and instant second chance something life itself rarely offers. RTS is all about learning and adapting so that somehow you can snatch a victory out of a bad situation. 

To be honest this article is a simple omage to RTS, and if I where to dig into these games this would go from a blog post to a book quickly. For me it's just amazing to find Halo's connections to Command & Conquer, which I can tell you can get even deeper, and to play an RTS again for old time sake.  

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Atari's Big 9-0

When 2013 drew to an end my final count of Atari 2600 games collected in 2013 numbered 85. This isn't too bad considering I didn't start collecting until mid-October. 

But even though 85 is an impressive number there is some debate among Atari 2600 game collectors as to what number of games actually makes a serious collector. Some say that the 60 mark takes you into the realm of serious collecting what others seem to agree that the 90 mark is where the serious collection kicks in.

As a kid with an Atari 2600 and remembering other folks around me with 2600s the average amount of games per person seemed to range between 20 and 30. Anything above those numbers  indicated that a person was an enthusiast of the system and of gaming in general. So to me the 60 mark seems a good indicator that a person has entered into the realm of serious collecting of Atari 2600 games, yet at the same time I believe there's definitely some credence to the 90 mark. 

You see looking just at the 85 games I collected in 2013 I see a lot of what one might call "essentials", or to put it another way those core Atari (including 3rd party) games that really exemplify if not define the Atari 2600 experience. Games like Missile Command, Space Invaders, Demon Attack, Laser Blast, and Centipede to name a few are such games synonymous with the Atari 2600 that can all be narrowed down into the 90 number some collectors have claimed.

But here's something else that I have found to be true about the 90 in question.  These games where so popular that manufacturers flooded the market with them, to the point nearly 30 years later many of them can be purchase for a $1 or less, and in lots meaning that for the collector most of those games in the 90 are easy to come by. As an example try buying Atari 2600 games on eBay by the lot, without getting Missile Command, or Defender, or Pac-Man as one of the games mixed in. On the other hand though try defining the Atari 2600 experience without these games. It is definitely a paradox in the world of Atari 2600 collecting. 

So far in 2014 though I have climbed past the 85 games and have entered the triple digits. But I am now becoming aware that games are becoming a little harder to come by so easily and cheaply. I think this has a great deal to do with that fact that I have gone past the 90 mark of the most popular and most produced games and I and begining to collect games that aren't necessarily those 2600 quintessential classics but those games that where produced for the true gamer and/or where unique do to manufacturing or game content.

One recent buy is Titlematch Pro Wrestling, by Absolute Entertainment. This is one of those titles unknown to the casual 2600 collector. The gameplay reminds me of Pro-Wrestling on the NES, and is really impressive to see on an Atari 2600. Of course this game cost me $6 which isn't a fortune, but is a lot higher then the $2 or less I have been paying for 2600 games thus far. To say the least though leaving the 90 game comfort zone I'm preparing to pay more for, and have games that go outside of the 2600's normal faire. 

Of course I realize that there are supposedly as many as 500 games on the Atari 2600, and 90 is just scratching the surface, but I have to ask how many games makes someone a serious collector.