Sunday, May 26, 2013

Video Game Review: The Empire Strikes Back for Atari 2600

Stars: 3 out of 5
Pros: Easy, addictive game play
Cons: Very dated; repetitive
The Bottom Line
Graphics are dated
Game play is repetitive
But the game's still fun

Defend Hoth from the Imperial Walkers in this Star Wars Game for the Atari 2600

Video Games based on popular movies are hardly anything new.  Just take this cartridge for the Atari 2600.  Originally released in 1982, it tied into one of the scenes from the beginning of the still popular Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.

The game is inspired by the first battle in the movie.  The Empire has found the rebel base on the ice planet Hoth, and they are sending the Imperial Walkers to destroy it.  Your job is to get in a Snowspeeder and destroy to Imperial Walkers.

You get five Snowspeeders.  The Imperial Walkers march from left to right five at a time trying to reach the rebel base.  You can fly in a continuous line; when you reach the right side, you'll pop up on the left hand side.  There is a radar band along the bottom to show you where you are in relation to the Walkers.

Each Walker takes 48 hits to be destroyed.  It starts out black and slowly changes blueish, pink, and red before finally turning yellow and being destroyed (or going from black and fading to grey if you are playing on a black and white TV like I did growing up.)  Occasionally, a gun port will open (represented by a flashing square on the Walker).  If you hit that, the Walker will be destroyed immediately.

Of course, the Walkers are shooting at you as well.  It takes about five hits for you to be destroyed.  You do change color as well, although the variations are harder to tell with you.  You can land in any of the valleys under the playing field and be repaired twice, and if you stay alive for two minutes, The Force is with you and you are invincible for two minutes.

One of my frustrations with the game was that there is no way to win.  As soon as you destroy one Imperial Walker, another enters stage left.  There are almost always five on at the same time.  But, the longer you live and the more you destroy, the faster they walk, meaning you have to destroy them even faster so they don't reach the base.

Since this was an Atari 2600 game, you have to have lots of game variations.  You can play the way I've described above, or you can make it harder by adding smart bombs (which follow you instead of going in a straight line) or solid Imperial Walkers that you can damage by hitting them, but they will also kill you.  (Believe me, that's a tough challenge when you are used to being able to fly through them.)  Or, for a real challenge, you can play with smart bombs and solid Walkers.  Each of these variations also has four levels of speed you can start with just in case things aren't challenging enough.

This game works for one player or two players taking alternative terms.  All sixteen game variations are available for two players.  The only difference is that when you die in one player mode, the Imperial Walkers start in the same level of hurt and the same location for your next life.  With two player, they start up again at full strength and at their first positions.

Now if you aren't familiar with the Atari 2600, this was the first popular home video game system.  It was released in the late 70's and popular in the 80's.  The graphics and sound are crude at best.  Everything is block shaped from your fighter to the Imperial Walkers and even the mountains and valleys in the background.  It's realistic enough that you do know what you are and what you are shooing at, but it is certainly laughable almost 30 years later.  The sound does fair better, mainly because it is simple.  Most of the time you get the sound of the Imperial Walkers' feet marching (helpful for knowing how fast they are moving) and the two of you firing at each other.  When The Force is with you, you do get the Star Wars theme, and it sounds rather tinny.  I remember thinking how cool this all looked and sounded when I played it as a kid, so it was impressive back then.

And the controls are very simple.  You've got one joystick, and you can move up down, right, and left.  The one button fires for you.  Pretty easy to remember, right?

Because of the continual game play, this was never a favorite game.  I always preferred those where I thought I was getting somewhere.  True, every game just kept getting harder until all your lives were lost, but I felt better dying on level 4 than on the same level one.

Having said that, I still do remember playing it for several hours at a time when I was in the mood.  It may not have been a favorite, but it was fun.  And I got hooked rather quickly when I pulled it out to refresh my memory to write this review.  It may be simple, but it can be very addicting.

The graphics and simple game play certainly age any game for the Atari 2600, and that's true of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.  But if you want a movie tie in with a flash of 80's gaming nostalgia, this will certainly satisfy.

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