Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Video Game Review: Space Invaders for Atari 2600

Stars: 4 out of 5
Pros: Fun game play with tons of variations
Cons: Still grows repetitive; need to be able to fire more
The Bottom Line
Simple, early game
Still fun yet repetitive
For classic gamers

Your Mission - Keep Earth Safe from the Space Invaders

Video Games of the 70’s and early 80’s were much simpler than the games of today.  You had a clear objective and did everything you needed to do via simple controls.  They tended to be repetitive.  And yet they are also highly addicting even today.  That’s almost true of the Atari 2600 version of the classic Space Invaders.

The game play is simple and straight forward.  You are in a ship at the bottom of the screen, and your job is to kill the wave of aliens trying to land on earth.  There are six rows in each wave, and they move left and right across the screen.  Each time they reach one side, they drop down a row and start back in the other direction.  As the number of aliens on the screen grows smaller, the remaining aliens speed up until the last one zooms across the screen.

Of course, they aren’t just standing there waiting for you to hit them.  They are dropping their own bombs at you.  Fortunately, you can get away fairly quickly since usually only the column or two right above your current position is actually dropping bombs.  You also have three shields that you can hide under, although those do slowly go away as they take damage from you or the alien’s shots.  And if the aliens drop too low, the shields disappear completely.

Simple game, simple controls.  You use the Atari joystick controller for this game.  All you need to do is more your ship left or right to aim your shots or dodge the alien’s shots.  You hit the red button to fire.

Actually, firing is my biggest complaint about this game.  You are only allowed to have one shot on the screen at a time.  That’s fine if you are in the groove and constantly hitting aliens.  However, if you miss (and there is some space between the columns), you have to wait forever for it to hit the top of the screen before you fire again.  This is especially hard when you get near the end.  If you don’t time your shot just right, the final alien will speed by and you’ll have to wait until your shot reaches the top, hoping that happens before he zooms back by you.

Like most games from the time period, the object here is to get the highest score possible.  The six rows of aliens range in value from 5 to 30 points.  The more you hit, the higher your score.  Every so often, the mother ship goes across the very top of the screen, and if you time your shot just right and hit it, you get a bonus of 200 points.  You have three lives to rack up as many points as you can.

This was the early ages of video games and home video games, so the graphics and sound are simple.  In fact, you might even call the graphic crude since all of the various aliens and your own ships are made up of blocks touching each other.  However, the graphics are good enough to get the point across, and they never interfere with game play.  The sounds are simple as well.  You get a sound when you fire and when the mother ship is flying across the screen.  And each time the aliens move, there is a clicking sound almost like a typewriter.  It gets higher in pitch as the aliens start to move faster, and it really increases the tension for those final moments of each round.

When you do clear a round of aliens, you immediately get a new one.  They start a little faster and a little lower to the ground, meaning you need to be quicker to defeat them.

So let’s talk game variations.  Atari games always had plenty of them, so you could change things up to make it more or less challenging depending on skill level and desire.  The first game is the classic, and is the easiest.  From there, you can change things up four different ways.  First, you can have the shields move.  This makes it harder to hide behind them or shoot around them.  Then you can have the shots from the aliens zigzag as they come down, making them harder to dodge.  Or, you can make the shots come down faster.  Finally, the aliens themselves become invisible – your only changes to get them are paying attention to where the shots come from or the brief flash you see when you hit one.  And you can mix and match so that you’ve got invisible aliens with fast bombs or moving shields with invisible aliens or fast moving zigzagging bombs or….  You get the idea.  There are a total of 16 game variations just on single player alone.

Then we get to the two player games.  Yes, there is the traditional two players alternating turns.  But you can play where both of you are on the screen firing at the same time, both of you are on the screen but must alternate firing, still trying to get more points than the other person.  Or you can cooperate and use two ships to kill all the aliens or share controls via the two joysticks of just one ship.  And, of course, all 16 of the original variations are in play for all these different ways to play two player.  All told, there are 112 different variations on this one cartridge.

And if all this still isn’t enough for you, you can flip the difficulty switch in the back from B to A and double the size of your ship, making it an easier target for the aliens to hit.  (Frankly, I’ve always found the fat ship funny.  It really does look like it just double in weight more than size and needs to go on a diet.)

Despite all that, my other complaint about the game is the repetitive nature.  Some games from the era have enough different things happening that, while repetitive, are still challenging and fun.  This game is actually a bit too straight forward.  If it weren’t for all the game variations, I wouldn’t have played this one as much as I did as a kid.  As an adult, after a round or two, I move on to a different mix of game variations, but after 20 minutes or so, I’m ready to play something else.  It’s still fun in small doses, but it’s not as fun as it could be.

So Space Invaders' simple game play doesn’t make it quite as addicting as its more challenging brethren.  But it is still fun to pull out every so often, and its status as a classic makes it a requirement of any serious Atari 2600 collection.

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