A closer look at: UFO!

Title: UFO!
Platform: Odyssey²
Publisher: Magnavox
Year: 1981

Odyssey²: home of the best box art of all time. The distinctive vintage sci-fi look adorns virtually every Odyssey game cover.

If you had an Odyssey² system in 1981, people who owned Ataris and Intellivisions wondered what was wrong with you. They maybe even pitied you a little, smug with the satisfaction that their systems were better than yours; the Odyssey didn’t have any of the “name brand” arcade games the Atari Video Computer System had, or advanced graphics like the Intellivision had. They would gloat that all you had was an admittedly cool-looking membrane keyboard that was as useful as a screen door on a submarine while they had the latest and greatest games and features.

That would all end when you showed them a game like UFO! Suddenly, Asteroids on their Ataris was seen for the chunky, flickery mess it was. Intellivision fans were forced to admit that the only game they had that could keep up was Astrosmash. Of course they would feign disinterest before sulking back to their superior hardware, as fanboys are wont to do, but it made them privately wonder if the Odyssey² wasn’t such a bad little system after all. After two or three years of mediocre, generic software, the underdog had bitten back.

UFO! cartridge (Odyssey²)

UFO! is one of the “Challenger Series” games for the Odyssey². These titles were the Odyssey’s answers to popular arcade games of the day -none of which could be licensed by Magnavox- and are generally considered the best games released for the system. UFO! is the Odyssey’s take on Asteroids, with sort of a Robotron twist. The game puts you in control of a flying saucer-shaped “Earth Federation robot-controlled battle cruiser” (according to the instruction manual), the mission of which is to defend Earth against various types of marauding UFOs. It’s not exactly the most original premise, but UFO! does quite a bit to distinguish itself.

The Odyssey²’s “boot screen.” Classic.

Your ship is surrounded by a force field, a somewhat novel feature. It can be used to ram an enemy, or to provide the energy for your laser missiles. After firing or ramming an enemy, the force field will need to recharge; while it recharges, you are vulnerable. The speed of your ship decreases by 50% while your shield is down, as well.

Starting the day with a bowl of Lucky Charms…er…a game of UFO!

The aiming system is unlike any other I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen quite a few!) and is rather innovative. The aforementioned force field actually serves as an aiming device as well. The brighter, larger dot in the field indicates which direction your shots will travel. Moving the ship in any direction will cause the aiming reticule to rotate clockwise. This will probably seem strange to the uninitiated, but it quickly becomes very intuitive. It’s a very clever way of approximating a “two-joystick” arcade control system, a la Robotron 2084 or Space Dungeon, with a single joystick controller.

You encounter three types of UFOs in the game: the Random Drifter, the Hunter-Killer, and the dreaded Lightspeed Starship. The “Random Drifter” drifts randomly (no way!), and is represented by a tumbling “X” (if you look carefully you’ll notice its animation actually cycles between the “X” and “+” characters). They’re worth one point each. Hunter-Killers are formed when two Drifters collide. They look like blobs combined with the tumbling Drifters. They follow you around the screen and are worth three points each. The deadly Lightspeed Starship is a bad mamma jamma. This mean motor scooter looks like a saucer, appears without warning, and fires lethally accurate laser missiles at you. It’s good for 10 points.

UFO!’s menagerie of enemies.

A very cool thing that happens when you destroy any of these things is that “shrapnel” flies off in three different directions and can destroy other enemies in turn, creating a chain reaction (be careful, though; your shield is down the whole time this is happening). Although I would have liked to see a point multiplier system for this domino effect, it is nevertheless perhaps the most satisfying gameplay aspect of UFO!

Shrapnel: these three dots left over from a destroyed UFO can also destroy other UFOs, which will give off three dots of their own, and so forth.

You only get one “life” in UFO!, as in most Odyssey games. And when it ends you are treated to a colorful display in which your ship sparks and goes critical before exploding. It’s one of the nicer “the quarterback is toast!” sequences that comes to mind, and it takes a little bit of the edge off a hard-fought 700-point game coming to an abrupt end. And as with the other Challenger Series titles, you can enter a 6-character name when you post a high score. Although UFO! is essentially a one-player game, any number of players can compete for the right to put a goofy abbreviation of their name (or, more often, some form of obscenity) on the screen.

Like most (okay, all) Odyssey² games, UFO!’s graphics and sounds are fairly austere, being culled partially from the system’s in-built character and sound effects sets. That is no detriment in the case of UFO!, however, as the game is colorful, clean-looking, and absolutely flicker-free. (Suck on that, Atari fanboys!) The sound effects are gloriously retro and distinctly “Odyssey²,” and very appropriate for the game.

Objectively, UFO! is one of the best games available for the Odyssey². It more than holds its own against the Asteroids games for both the Atari VCS and Atari 400/800 computer, and is in a completely different league than the Intellivision’s dreadful Space Hawk. Of course, comparing UFO! exclusively to its closest analog is selling it short because, although UFO! shares elements with Asteroids, it is truly a unique game. My only real critiques are that I’d have liked to see a scoring multiplier for “chain reactions,” as well as a simultaneous 2-player game, though I’m sure hardware limitations precluded either. But hindsight is 20/20, and even as is, UFO! is a bonafide underground classic that offers virtually endless replayability.

Fortunately for retro enthusiasts, UFO! is a very easy game to find. If you don’t own an Odyssey², it’s worth getting one for UFO! alone. I suspect many people did just that in the early ’80s, as virtually every Odyssey system you find for sale will probably include a copy of UFO!

UFO! was released internationally under various localized titles such as Satelliten-Angriff (Germany), Nazo no UFO (Japan), OVNI! (Brazil), and Les Satellites Attaquent (France). European editions of the game are also compatible with the Videopac G7400 (the released European version of the unreleased Odyssey³), which adds some bright background graphics to the game.

UFO! playing on a Videopac G7400.

UFO! is hands down my favorite Odyssey² game. It’s gotta be pretty high in the the running for “favorite game of all time” as well. Anecdotally, it was the first retro game I ever really played, way back in 1997 (I realize fully how silly that sounds to people of a certain age). Since then, I couldn’t even tell you how many hours of my life I’ve lost to UFO! In those many hours I’d like to think I’ve gained some tactical wisdom about the game, which I will share with you here:

Playing tip: The Lightspeed Starships have the irritating habit of instantly wasting you with their laser missiles the instant they appear on screen, sometimes even seemingly before. As a general rule, try to keep toward the center of the screen to maximize your ability to react to things that pop up at the edges of the screen. 

Playing tip: Although the Lightspeed Starships can travel at various angles, they can only fire diagonally. Stay out of its “corners;” approach from the sides or directly above/below. Use Drifters and Hunter-Killers as cover.

Playing tip: Just because a Starship is there doesn’t mean you have to attack it. If in doubt, avoid it. You’ll get more points by staying in the game than going after a Starship which you may not even be in a very good position to fight. You only get one life; think long-term.

(c) 2012 Jeffery Koss