A closer look at: The Karate Kid

Title: The Karate Kid
Platform: Nintendo Entertainment System
Publisher: LJN
Year: 1987

The Karate Kid (NES)

LJN: Masters of the Exploding Rainbow Diarrhea Technique.

This review comes at the request of Kevin Wiesneski. You owe me, buddy.

We all loved The Karate Kid when it hit theaters. Heck, we still do. And everybody except the most curmudgeonly of joystick-era reactionaries and the most vapid of latter-day graphics snobs loves the good old Nintendo Entertainment System. So naturally, combining these two ’80s pop culture titans is a slam dunk, right? Let’s find out together!

The Karate Kid is a game I wasn’t altogether familiar with before my old pal Kevin requested I do a review of it. I’d read some things about it here and there, most of which had lead me believe it isn’t a very good game. The LJN logo on the cover certainly didn’t inspire notions to the contrary, based on past experience with such titles as Friday The 13th, Major League Baseball, The Uncanny X-Men (which I actually kind of like, in spite of itself), and the various junky WWF Wrestlemania games the company cranked out on the Nintendo. I’ve had The Karate Kid kicking around in my collection for some time now, but I never really played it apart from testing it to make sure that the thing actually worked. So, apart from the possibility of another terrible movie tie-in from LJN, I didn’t know what to expect going into this.

At first blush, the game looks and feels like a knockoff of mid-’80s one-on-one karate games like Karate Champ or International Karate. But beginning with Stage 2, the game becomes a side-scrolling beat-’em-up in the vein of Kung Fu and Black Belt. And the game has only four levels, which appear to be based more on The Karate Kid Part II than the original Karate Kid film. Stage 1 is the All Valley Karate Tournament from the end of the first movie, but stages 2, 3, and 4 take place in Japan, as does the bulk of Part II. Stage 3 recalls the typhoon scene from the second film, and Stage 4 puts you in a ruined Japanese castle and concludes the game with a boss battle against Part II‘s villainous Chozen Toguchi. The title screen even uses the poster artwork from Part II.

Title screen

Right name, wrong game. Or is it “Right game, wrong name?”

By rights, this game should have been entitled The Karate Kid Part II. Granted, consumers would doubtless have wondered what happened to the “first” Karate Kid game, but such naming conundrums never stopped companies like Sears, RCA, and Sears again from releasing products that often left gamers wondering where their progenitors were. (There were reasons for that which are more arcane than erroneous, but we won’t get into that here.)

I’ve read a lot about how this game is unplayably difficult due to broken mechanics, poor controls, and this and that. I didn’t find it to be that exactly, but there are a couple of things to know about the controls. The most useful attack by far is your basic kick, but there is a momentary delay between the press of the button and the execution of the kick due to it being a two-stage attack: a knee lift, followed by the kick itself. The kick itself is what takes bad guys out, leaving you vulnerable to attack during the knee-lift “setup,” which in turn makes learning the timing of the kick critical if you hope to get anywhere in this game at all. Punching is faster, but the range of the attack is short enough that by the time an enemy comes within punching range, he will probably have hit you once or twice.

There are two special attacks that Daniel-San can perform: the Crane Kick -the iconic move made famous by the first Karate Kid movie- and the Drum Punch. These moves are accessible by collecting sporadically appearing “C” and “D” icons and are usable only when you have some stockpiled.

Additionally, jumping is done by pressing “up” on the D-Pad; many gamers are less than fond of “Up To Jump,” and as a general rule I’m with them, but in this case I didn’t find it to be much trouble. The jumping physics remind me of those in the original Street Fighter, though.

Playing Tip: Progress methodically. Let enemies come to you and walk into your kicks.

I breezed through Stage 1 on my first attempt. I found Stage 1 altogether too easy. Like, Kelly Bundy easy. It requires little more than repeatedly kicking. Even Stage 2 didn’t put up much of a fight (see what I did there?) once I got the timing of my attacks down. I was starting to wonder where all the fuss about this game’s supposedly ludicrous difficulty had come from. But toward the middle of Stage 3, I was starting to see what they were talking about.

Stage 1: All Valley Karate Tournament

Wax on…

Stage 3: Typhoon

…Game off.

Stage 3 -the Typhoon level- is where some of the problems with the game’s physics become apparent. Chiefly, the rigid jumping and collision. Colliding with or being struck by an enemy or foreign object* results in your being flung helplessly backward, during which time you are still vulnerable to attack. In some sections of the game this can result in Daniel-San cheaply getting juggled around between enemies and whittled down to nothing without so much as an edgewise punch. But in Stage 3 these things more often resulted in instant deaths by getting bumped into water-filled pits, accompanied by frustration of Castlevanian proportions. In addition to the regular lot of red-suited hoodlums trying to bump you off, The Karate Kid’s typhoon level throws flying sticks and randomly-moving birds into the mix. It’s mildly comical to see the poor birds vainly flying against the hurricane wind, until you get smacked backwards into a watery death by an errant pigeon for the 57th time. The birds and flying sticks can be destroyed, but I found doing so almost as tricky as killing the Pterodactyl in Joust; it can be done, it’s just really hard.

(*Technically, as an American in Japan, you are the foreign object.)

E.T. (Atari 2600)

“…and you thought MY pits were bad!”

Yet, I am unconvinced that The Karate Kid is as fundamentally, irretrievably terrible as the internet likes to portray it. I daresay it even has a few things going for it. Not a lot, but a few.

The game is not altogether bad in the audio-visual department. The graphics are clean and somewhat detailed, although the color palettes are a little on the bland side. The title screen music is a little shrill, and the in-game music and sound effects are relatively basic, but the sound and graphics are just effective enough to get the job done. They’re essentially what you’d expect from an early third-party NES title.

The relative variety of gameplay is a plus, as well. In addition to the one-on-one and side-scrolling elements of the game, The Karate Kid mixes things up with bonus stages, which can be accessed at various points in your journey. I personally enjoyed them, if only for the fact that they broke up the monotony of walking rightwards and kicking people and getting knocked into pits. The bonus stages require the player to do things like catch flies with chopsticks, avoid a swinging hammer (this part reminds me of tetherball), and smashing blocks of ice (another reference to Part II).

The Karate Kid bonus round

This swinging hammer can be purchased at your local hardware store in the Poe-esque Torture department.

Parts of this game are certainly difficult and irritating, but with practice and experience, The Karate Kid is not insurmountable. If there are people out there who can master such aneurism-inducingly difficult games as Mega Man, Battletoads, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, there’s no reason why The Karate Kid couldn’t be beaten by a player with the patience and inclination to do so. I am not that player (although after nearly 25 years, I’m pretty close with TMNT), but judging by the ending, it probably isn’t worth it anyway.

Playing Tip: When possible, run away from enemies. No more than two can be onscreen at a time (excluding birds and sticks); if you can keep them chasing you, the path ahead of you will be easier.

While I don’t think The Karate Kid is nearly as bad as it is often made out to be, I find it to be only marginal at best. And even though it’s an inexpensive and readily available cartridge that isn’t without some gameplay value, I would recommend it only to hardcore NES collectors -for completion’s sake- or budding retrogamers who stumble upon it at a thrift store and have nothing better to do with the couple of bucks it will cost. Ultimately, it just isn’t a very memorable game. Nothing about it really jumps out at you, and almost everything about it is firmly average (which is actually a huge compliment for an LJN title). Considering the Nintendo’s wealth of quality beat ’em ups such as River City Ransom, the Double Dragon and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games, or the aforementioned Kung Fu, there’s just not enough here to make The Karate Kid worth going out of your way to pick up…unless you collect Karate Kid memorabilia or something (that’s probably a thing, right?). The Karate Kid falls into that lukewarm purgatory where it’s not quite good enough to play on its own merits, and not bad enough to play forteh lulz.

But it certainly isn’t the worst thing ever to have “The Karate Kid” slapped on it. (Or even the next worst.)

(c) 2013 Jeffery Koss


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

A closer look at: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Title: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Platform: Atari Video Computer System
Publisher: Wizard Video
Year: 1983

Another example of grossly misleading early ’80s box art.

This is an interesting one. Not so much for the game itself, but rather for its background and its place in video game history.

In the early 1980s, the home video distribution rights to the classic horror film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were owned by an independent distributor called Wizard Video. And at that time, video games were a hot business to be in; virtually everybody and their mothers were churning out video games, especially for the Atari 2600. Wizard decided that some video games based on its movies would be a lucrative product line. The company created and released just two games based on its properties –The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween- while the home console game market was imploding under their feet. Both games amounted to little more than cash grabs from yet another company that had no business making video games (see also: Ralston-Purina, Quaker Oats, Johnson & Johnson).

(Fun Fact: Wizard Video was owned by B-movie legend Charles Band, who produced such cult classics as Subspecies, Puppet Master, and Gingerdead Man. With Wizard Video Games he intended to make video games for adults, including a game adaptation of Deep Throat which never came to fruition.)

The Texas Chainsaw Title Screen.

The games were controversial due to their unprecedented violence; they were the first games to feature graphical representations of blood and homicide. Moreover, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre earned the dubious distinction of being the first video game in which the object is outright murder. Most retailers wanted nothing to do with Wizard’s games, and those that did carry the games kept them behind the counter or in the back room, out of customers’ sight, making them available only by request. Predictably, they did not sell well, making them rarities today.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre puts you in control of Leatherface, the chainsaw-swinging maniac from the film, as he patrols his farm. Something seems lost in the translation from film to game, as he looks a little more like an entranced Coach Buzzcut from Beavis & Butthead than Leatherface (which in all honesty is probably more terrifying). Coach Buzzcut is equipped with a chainsaw, represented in the game as a long, nubby stump protruding from his torso.

Leatherface and his doppelgänger.

Randomly appearing on the screen (and chirping shrilly when they do) are teenage girls that bear a striking 8-bit resemblance to Loretta Lockhorn. Your mission is to kill Loretta Lockhorn as many times as possible within the limits of three tanks of gasoline.

The teenage girl might be a bit older than she said she was.

This isn’t as easy as it sounds, though. Randomly appearing to thwart your efforts are fences, cattle skulls, wheelchairs, and thickets (each is a reference to the film, but they seem a bit zany in the context of this game). And it is ridiculously easy to get snagged on these things; even the slightest collision of pixels will get you rigidly and maddeningly stuck. To get unstuck, you can either saw through the barrier or simply wait a second or two and Leatherface will get out of it on his own. The thickets must be sawed through, however; it seems Leatherface doesn’t know his way out of a pile of sticks and weeds.

When you’re a chainsaw murderer on the loose, these are the last things you want to see.

The obstacles (and the girls, for that matter) appear randomly no matter which direction you run in. There is no pattern or map. Like, at all; even obstacles you’ve already passed will disappear or rearrange. Going one way and turning around will reveal a completely new layout of obstacles. It’s a little disorienting, but when you’re a psychotic chainsaw killer, these things matter little.

Playing tip: instead of trying to meander through obstacles in search of chainsaw fodder, move back and forth rapidly to generate new obstacles. When a girl appears, you should have a clearer path to her. This can be especially helpful later in the game, when the increased speed makes fluid navigation of obstacles impossible.

Once you’ve gotten a bead on a prospective victim, you are free to run straight up to them and let loose, except that they have the annoying habit of teleporting behind you if you get too close. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and they’ll let you ‘saw them right away, but more often you’ll have to chase them back and forth a few times (the number of times varies depending on how much they want to piss you off), wasting precious fuel before you can finally do them in.

Another one bites the dust: although quaint today, it was this kind of brutality that made this game a pariah among retailers and consumers.

Playing tip: wait until your chainsaw is visibly overlapping the victim before revving up with the fire button.

When your chainsaw dries up, it’s the teenager’s turn to kick some ass. And that she does, in one of the silliest Game Over sequences I can recollect. How a helpless teenager can suddenly kick a hulking monster out of existence has baffled physicists for decades.

A little extra fuel is awarded every 5,000 points, and the game speed substantially increases every 10,000 points. The extra fuel usually isn’t enough to get you more than one or two more kills, though. And the increasing game speed, random and unmercifully sticky obstacles, backward-warping teenage girls, and limited, unreplenishable fuel all seem to conspire to create a maximum score ceiling of around 30,000 points, give or take a grand (I’m told the world record is 34,000; my best score is 28- or 29K). This is what prevents The Texas Chainsaw Massacre from being more than a novelty game; the real challenge of the game lies in wrestling with its flawed and arbitrary mechanics rather than honing any gameplay-related skill. It’s impossible to earn extra fuel at a rate that can keep you in the game much past 30,000 points (that’s 30 dead Loretta Lockhorns). The randomness of the obstacles and the teenagers would really have to work in your favor to get any further.

This cartridge looked awfully out of place in a pile of games including Ms. Pac-Man, Space Invaders, and Math Gran Prix.

As stated earlier, this game is very uncommon today (read: expensive) since few were ever sold. But I have to imagine that even if it had proper marketing and exposure, it probably wouldn’t have sold that well anyway due to its being exactly the kind of substandard game consumers had grown leery of. It isn’t completely without gameplay value -I pop it into one of my many Ataris once in a while myself- but it’s really the novelty factor that is its draw. It’s worth playing for the novelty value, but it probably won’t hold your attention very long. I recommend this cartridge to serious collectors only; for casual or curious gamers, I suggest emulation or a reproduction cartridge…or a different game.

It bears mentioning that there was also a different version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the prototype of which was recently discovered, dumped, and released. This version was completely different from the released version, but the premise is the same: for Leatherface to kill as many victims as he can. You can read more about it at Matt Reichert’s excellent AtariProtos.com.

(c) 2012 Jeffery Koss

A closer look at: Super Demon Attack

Title: Super Demon Attack
Platform: TI-99/4a
Publisher: Imagic
Year: 1983

They just don’t make cover art like they used to.

Demon Attack was one of those games you could almost trip over back in the day. It was everywhere. Originally an Atari VCS title (and supposed knockoff of the Atari arcade game Phoenix), Imagic ported it to just about every major console and computer platform available at the time. The usual suspects like the Intellivision, Atari 400/800, and Commodore 64 received a port, and even relatively obscure machines like the IBM PCjr., TRS-80 Color Computer and Odyssey 2 played host to a port of Demon Attack.

Texas Instruments’ TI-99/4a computer was no exception. Though the addition of the “Super” prefix on the TI-99/4a version would have you believe that it is a sequel to the original game, it is actually yet another port of the original Demon Attack…but snazzier.

In a premise normally reserved for antagonists more extraterrestrial than demonic, Super Demon Attack places you in control of a laser cannon on the moon, where you are Earth’s last defense against an onslaught of invading demons (though why they throw themselves at you on the moon instead of just going straight to Earth is anyone’s guess). You fire up at them, destroying waves of invaders before flying up to meet the master demon ship, referred to by the instruction manual as Pandemonium.

The visuals in Super Demon Attack are fairly striking.  The same can be said for its ominous music, which does not appear in any other version of Demon Attack. The background graphics are very crisp, if not as detailed as those of the Commodore or PCjr. versions. But even before starting the game, this is already a better-looking and better-sounding Demon Attack than most of the other versions.

But the in-game graphics are where Super Demon Attack really earns its “Super” moniker. For starters, the enemies encountered in Super Demon Attack are no longer the generic swooping bird- and bug-like things found in other Demon Attack games, but rather are decidedly and identifiably, well, demonic. Instead, we have things that resemble snake-haired monkey heads (“Medusa Monkeys,” as I like to call them), bat-winged skulls, monster spiders, tentacled goblins, two-headed dragons. and flying vampire snakes. Each of these monsters gets its own unsettling musical theme, as well.

Beware these possessed ruffians and their lethal Lawn Jarts!

As if that weren’t enough, there’s also a boss level (this is missing in the Atari 2600 and Odyssey versions). Tangentially, as a veteran of other versions of Demon Attack, I expected this the first time I played Super Demon Attack; I’d seen the big angry cheeseburger-looking thing in the Intellivision edition and the snaggletoothed cyclops demon in the Commodore port. What I didn’t expect was that it would be a gargantuan goat-horned Cyberdemon overlord straight out of Doom, sitting on the throne of hell itself. Surely this must be the game’s ultimate enemy? Well, as if that weren’t enough, once the Cyberdemon’s guard is defeated, the disembodied head of Dracula appears and spits fireballs at you from behind the cover of an indestructible giant eyeball. Surprise!

And as if THAT weren’t enough…Dracula seems to have invisible hair. Verily, his sorcery knows no bounds.

The Cyberdemon’s first job out of college -as Dracula’s henchman- before landing his big break in Doom. No, but seriously, he WILL eat your soul.

For a 1983 game, this is some freaky stuff. Even in 2011, the first time I played this, I was a little taken aback by it. Playing Super Demon Attack after playing other TI-99/4a games -innocuous knockoffs of popular and equally innocuous arcade games, or said arcade games themselves- is like going from The Brady Bunch to The Exorcist, in a delightfully wacky kind of way.

Super Demon Attack is very different from every other rendition of Demon Attack. But the most important thing that it shares with them is that it’s a damn fun game to play. Its speed and pace aren’t as frantic as those of its siblings, but the excellent music, sharp graphics, solid gameplay, and occult twist make this one definitely worth exploring for ’99ers and the TI-curious. I’d easily categorize it as one of the best games available for the TI-99/4a.

Super Demon Attack was originally intended to feature voice synthesis when used with the TI’s Voice Synthesizer, but this was taken out of the game. We are left to wonder how much more amazing this game would have been…

(Now, what does anything about this game have to do with silver space dinosaurs with airplane parts and missiles shoved up their asses?)

(c) 2012 Jeffery Koss

A closer look at: Alien

Title: Alien
Platform: Atari Video Computer System
Publisher: Fox Video Games (20th Century Fox)
Year: 1982

In your living room, no one can hear you scream.

Before we dive in here, I’m going to grab some coffee -it’s the only thing good on this ship- and tell you a little bit about what this game has meant to me as a gamer and collector:

I’m a huge fan of the Alien movies.  All of three of them. ( [/tongueincheek] )  By the time I was in 7th grade, in 1996-97, I had seen each of them probably a couple dozen times.  In retrospect, I should be shocked that my parents allowed me to watch these movies -especially the exceptionally violent and vulgar Alien 3- but I think I turned out mostly alright. Mostly.

I’m also a huge fan of video games.  And I’m a huge, huge fan of Aliens video games.  I’d played and loved Alien Trilogy on the Playstation, the excellent Alien 3 ports on the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis, and of course the Aliens Vs. Predator arcade beat-’em-up (technically that’s a different franchise, but there’s already enough nerdiness on this page without getting into that).  I was even lucky (?) enough to experience Alien 3: The Gun at a local bowling alley.  And I knew a kid at school who had an old copy of a computer game based on the second film, Aliens, probably for the Commodore or Apple.  But I’d never heard of a game based on the original movie.

So you can probably imagine how stoked out of my Surge-addled mind I was when, while feeding my curious adolescent mind information about the game systems of the stone age with help from America Online, Netscape Navigator, and Greg Chance’s website videogames.org, I discovered that the old Atari 2600 had a game for it based on the original Alien.  And that was it; I had to play it.  And to play it, I had to get an Atari (emulation wasn’t really feasible for me at the time).  And on the way to getting an Atari, I got stuff that was like an Atari, such as Odyssey 2 and Intellivision. The jist of the story is that Alien on the Atari VCS helped push me towards collecting vintage video games.  I guess I could have just said that from the start…

But enough of that nonsense – on to the game!  In Alien, you are placed into the air shafts of the Nostromo, the space freighter in which the bulk of the film takes place.  The tunnels are infested with alien eggs, and your mission is to crush all the eggs to clear the ship of the alien menace.  The alien monsters pursuing you can be temporarily destroyed if your human collects a pulsar.  A warp tunnel connects the opposite ends of the screen, and extra points can be earned by collecting a bonus item that periodically appears in the center of the playfield.

If this premise sounds suspiciously similar to that of a certain arcade game that was tremendously popular in 1982, that’s probably because it is.

Alien for the Atari 2600: It’s better than it looks.

Alien is Pac-Man.  I’m not sure which Fox honcho saw Pac-Man in the arcades and said, “Yep, that’s Alien,” but nevertheless, here we are are.  And that’s not a bad thing.  Apart from bearing little resemblance to the Ridley Scott masterpiece, Alien is a very good Pac-alike.  It’s actually one of the better Pac-Man games available for the Atari VCS, in my opinion surpassed only by Atari’s excellent Jr. Pac-Man, which came out about five years later.

It helps to have an imagination.

Alien does have a couple of bells and whistles that set it apart from the rest of the early-’80s Knockoff-Man herd, however.  The coolest of which is the flamethrower.  The coolness of being able to fire an incendiary weapon at the haranguing key-wind chattering teeth aliens is tempered, unfortunately, by the fact that it doesn’t really do anything.  Okay, that’s not totally true; although the flamethrower can’t actually do any damage to the aliens, lighting it off can scare them away momentarily.  It’s not guaranteed to work, and each human (read: extra life) has only a small amount of fuel, but if you’re about to be cornered or worse, at least you have a Hail Mary Pass.

Another of Alien’s distinguishing features is its bonus stage, which can be reached every time the screen is cleared of dots alien eggs.  This stage has your human moving vertically through crossing rows of the pastel-colored alien nasties, a la Freeway, in an attempt to reach the bonus item at the top of the screen.  This isn’t tremendously exciting, but it does provide contrast to a game that could otherwise quickly descend into monotony.  Besides, in a game of high scores such as this, who wouldn’t want a shot at bonus points?

An interesting thing about Alien is that while its connection to the movie is, by and large, contained only in the instruction manual and box description, the game itself actually references other movies.  A few of the bonus items that appear in Alien’s later rounds, analogously to Pac-Man’s various fruits and bells and keys, include what appear to be TIE Fighters and Starship Enterprises. It’s hard to know exactly what these objects are truly supposed to represent, since even the instruction manual refers to them only as “1st Surprise,” “2nd Surprise,” and “3rd Surprise.”  They sure look like TIEs and Enterprises, though.

The back of Alien’s box does give a nod to Tom Skerritt’s character from the movie, however, noting that the game was programmed by “Dallas North” (actually Doug Neubauer, who went on to do the outstanding Solaris, Super Football, and Radar Lock games toward the end of the 2600’s life).  “Dallas” also provides playing tips in the instruction manual.

As if you’d want playing tips from this guy. If you do, you probably didn’t see Alien.

In spite of its idiosyncrasies (and what Atari VCS game is without those?), Alien is one of my favorite Atari games. It’s arguably a better Pac-Man game than Atari’s own 2600 version of Pac-Man, and unquestionably superior to weak “me too” titles like Apollo’s Shark Attack.  It’s got pretty good graphics (by 1982 Atari VCS standards) and effective sounds.  The controls are responsive and tight.  The game is well-designed, and has a good mix of difficulty with four skill levels.  It’s based on the greatest science fiction movie ever made.  And most importantly, it’s fun.  What’s not to like?

If you’re looking to build up your Atari library, or maybe get into collecting, Alien is a pretty easy title to come by and shouldn’t run you much more than $5.00, maybe $10-15 with a box and manual.  I highly recommend picking it up.  There is, however, another version of Alien that is exceptionally rare.  This is the version “released” by Xante.  By “released,” I mean Xante’s cartridges were actually created in kiosks where a customer could select an existing game -licensed from other companies, in this case Fox Games- and download it over a phone line onto an EPROM, creating the cartridge on the spot.

Regular Alien cartridge = $5.00…

…Xante Alien cartridge = $ Crew Expendable

Until next time, this is Jeffery K., last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off!

(c) 2012 Jeffery Koss