WINGED ELECTROSAURI hover menacingly, waiting to annihilate you with a deadly blast of electromolecular energy. Meanwhile, the dreaded mar-supods have crept up on you from out of the darkness and-with a single touch of their deadly tentacles-are about to transform you into a glowing skeleton. It’s a battle to the death, but it’s nothing compared to the competition between Atari and Mattel.
The electrosauri and marsupods are the brain children of Apollo Inc., of Richardson, Texas. They inhabit the latest Apollo home-video cartridge, called Space Cavern. There are about 250 such games on the market now, and the war between the cartridge makers continues to escalate. Many of the games are absolute laser blasts, but the shelves are also loaded with astro fizzles and dynamo duds. This rundown on the latest equipment will help you wind your way through the shopping maze without being destroyed by a deadly blunder.
The focus here is on the home-video games that believe in all play and no work-that were designed for people who don’t want to record recipes, track kilowatts, learn a new language or keep a play-by-play account of income and expenses.
There are those who argue that video games are evil and hazardous to America’s youth. The City of Mesquite passed an ordinance barring youngsters 17 and under from video arcades unless they are accompanied by a parent. In Great Britain, a young lady with no prior medical deficiencies was reported to have suffered an epileptic seizure from the lightning-fast action of a video game called Dark Warrior. It is no doubt true that our children would be more meaningfully engaged marveling over the melody of diction and striking imagery of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but video games are still a cut above stealing hubcaps and are at least on a plane with reruns of Mark and Mindy.
Well, at least most of them are, but a few should be scratched from your shopping list at the start. Apollo Inc., which gave the world Space Cavern, is also responsible for Lost Luggage, a game in which an airport baggage carousel has run amok, and is throwing suitcases everywhere. Your job is to catch the suitcases before they crash and spill out the contents, revealing scanty undergarments.
One of the latest Intellivision offerings from Mattel is Utopia, in which the player may choose to be a benevolent ruler or an aggresive dictator. Either way, he’s responsible for food, clothing and shelter. If he falls short, rebels automatically will appear.
Activision, capitalizing on that age-old mystery of why the chicken crosses the road, has developed Freeway, in which a feathered fowl must make his way across vehicular challenges that range from Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive to our own LBJ Freeway. And then there’s Fast Food (calories instead of points), Jawbreaker (moving a set of teeth, eating candy and brushing before the teeth fall out) and MegaMania (dodging Swiss cheese, radial tires, hamburgers and bow ties in outer space).
But back to the pursuit of the positive, first with a rundown on the playing equipment:
Atari VCS 2600. Atari is a Japanese word, a polite warning given by a samurai warrior that his opponent is about to be overwhelmed. It’s the name that was chosen by Nolan Bushnell for the company he founded in 1972 with $500 to market a coin-operated video game called Pong, which was patterned after table tennis and was played with an electronic paddle. Pong was a phenomenal success that became a colossal bore. It was fascinating at first, but after the novelty wore off, it was about as much fun as untangling coat hangers. In 1976, Bushnell sold Atari to Warner Communications, which developed the Video Computer System (VCS), a versatile home unit that can shift from the golf course to the planet Zenon with a mere flick of the cartridge. (Bushnell has not abandoned America but has shifted his attentions to the operation of that “legendary” chain of fun palaces known as Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theaters.)
The Atari VCS 2600 is the most primitive of the leading home-video cartridge players, but it’s also the most popular. Atari had a two-year head start on Intelli-vision, which is more like two decades in the video-game business. Atari lays claim to more than two-thirds of the home-video games now in use, which means that most of the cartridges manufactured by competing makers are made to be played on the Atari unit. Ironically, many of the best “Atari” cartridges are made by ex-Atari employees who have deserted the mother ship to form companies of their own such as Activision and Imagic. Atari has produced some fine games; but it has also produced a number of major disappointments, the most notable of which is Pac-Man-which is to the arcade version as a campfire is to a microwave oven. Nevertheless, Atari is expected to earn more from this phenomenal “failure” than 20th Century-Fox takes in from the movie Star Wars.
The Atari VCS 2600, which sells for about $130, doesn’t have enough memory capability to even come close to duplicating the appearance and intricacy of the arcade games. But some of the ingenious designers at Apollo, Activision and Imagic have developed Atari-compatible cartridges that perform quite acceptably; the Atari cartridges that don’t promise more than they can deliver also have appeal. A disadvantage of the VCS 2600 is the cumbersome control system that must be changed for certain games.
Intellivision. Mattel’s Intellivision is indeed far superior to Atari in the area that George Plimpton harps on: two-person sports games. Consider baseball. In Atari baseball, the pitcher has to chase the ball into the outfield, then run back into the infield to tag the runner. Intellivision has nine fielders, any of whom will chase the ball and throw it to the location of your choice. Among the other Intellivision baseball features that Atari lacks are base stealing, pick-off plays, hot-box rundowns, crowd noises and an umpire with a Brooklyn accent. But, until recently, Intellivision neglected outer space and still lags behind the companies that produce space games for the Atari set. The overall variety of cartridges for Intellivision is improving, though, and there are already more than 40 different ones.
Most Intellivision games are too complicated and, thus, frustrating for very young children. The Intellivision controls come in a much neater package than Atari’s, but the rotating disc used for directing the action is difficult to master. The fine touch necessary for subtle corrections in Auto Racer is just not there, making it nearly impossible to avoid spinouts. But for older children who are sports nuts, Intellivision is the obvious choice over Atari The Intellivision unit has come down in price and has sold recently for as little as $199, minus the deduction of another $50 manufacturer’s rebate.
Odyssey. This well-designed unit made by North American Philips is just now being utilized fully. Unlike Atari and Intellivision, Odyssey has an alphabetical numerical keyboard, which gives the game designers more to work with. But until recently, about all it had been used for was to allow a player to insert his initials and top score into the unit’s memory banks. Now, however, Odyssey has come out with a Master Strategy series that combines the best features of a video game and a board game. Included in the series so far are The Quest for the Rings, The Great Wall Street Fortune Hunt and Conquest of the World.
Odyssey’s biggest hit to date resulted from a sneak attack on Atari. During the peak of Pac-Man’s arcade popularity, but weeks before the availability of Atari’s home version of Pac-Man, Odyssey came out with its own little dot gobbler called K.C. Munchkin. Atari had a fit and wound up getting a court order prohibiting the production of Odyssey’s muncher. Now Odyssey promises K.C.’s fans that their hero will return in a new cartridge called K.C.’s Krazy Chase in which K.C. will confront tree-eating dratapillars.
Odyssey costs about the same as Atari and it’s quality is comparable or better, but unless you’re into board games, the variety of cartridges available for the Atari unit and the technical superiority of In-tellivision are in Odyssey’s disfavor.
ColecoVision. Coleco Industries Inc., was founded 50 years ago by a Russian immigrant, who manufactured shoe-repair supplies; it was originally known as the Connecticut Leather Company. It has become better known in the toy market and better yet as the company that brought us the home version of Donkey Kong. Donkey Kong is a game in which a gorilla carries a maiden to the top of a skyscraper that is under construction. Our hero, Mario the lowly carpenter, climbs the ramps and ladders to rescue the damsel while he jumps over barrels rolled into his path by the ape. Coleco hit Dallas first with a Donkey Kong cartridge to be played on the Atari set, but between now and Christmas, the company hopes to sell a few million dollars worth of its own game-playing units.
Mike Katz, spokesman for Coleco Industries, calls ColecoVision the “third generation” of home-video games (Atari/ Odyssey being the first; Intellivision, the second). Reviewers at last summer’s Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago seemed to agree. The increased memory capability and greater screen resolution have enabled ColecoVision to come closer than anyone else to reproducing arcade-quality graphics and game conditions. In ColecoVi-sion’s Donkey Kong, the gorilla appears to be an exact duplicate of the arcade version; but in Atari’s version, he’s limited to an overweight stick figure.
ColecoVision needs much improvement if it hopes to overtake the big three. The major challenge in the videobiz is coming up with innovative and appealing games now that the kill-or-be-killed theme has been employed in every conceivable concept from man against beast to fly vs. frog. But Coleco has lined up a strong array of initial entries led by the Smurfs, the hottest cartoon characters to hit the market since Charlie Brown. Coleco has also captured the home-video rights to some of the biggest names in arcade lights, including Cosmic Avenger, Lady Bug, Venture, Zaxxon and Turbo. ColecoVision sells for about $200 including the Donkey Kong cartridge. For another $60, you can even buy an adapter that will allow you to play Atari-mode tapes on ColecoVision.
Atari 5200. The people at Atari have no intention of leading a first-generation existence in a third-generation world. If the production division cooperates, America’s showrooms will be well-stocked this month with Atari 5200s, Atari’s answer to Intellivision and ColecoVision. Karen Esler, public relations representative for Atari, says that the Atari 5200 will have a suggested retail value of $269.95 and that an adapter will be available next year that will allow the regular VCS 2600 cartridges to be played on the 5200.
The initial batch of cartridges for the 5200 will include Centipede, Galaxian, Space Invaders, Missile Command, Star Raiders and advanced versions of sports games such as football, baseball and soccer. The 5200 promises to have far more desirable graphics, increased game quality and much improved operating controls. Atari plans to continue producing new cartridges for the VCS 2600, but it would be a mistake to buy a new unit right now without looking at the Atari 5200 or at ColecoVision.
As far as the cartridges are concerned, there’s one thing that must be recognized: Not everyone can play every game. Some games can be played by children or adults, but others are meant to be played by children. In the fast-action games such as Space Invaders and Kaboom, a child’s brain telegraphs instantaneous instructions to his hands. The adult brain sends the same message, but by pony express. A farsighted parent who intends to play with the kids will stock plenty of skill games such as bowling or golf.
Handicapping devices can also be employed to help equalize the competition. Atari has “A” and “B” levels of difficulty for each game. When I play with my 11-year-old son, I like to put my control on “easy” and his on “hard.” When we play baseball, we have a rule that my runners can lead off the base, but his can’t. But my favorite method of equalizing the action is to carefully study the instructions of a new game and then hide them from him.
Though these measures may seem extreme, the alternative is worse. In Intellivi-sion baseball, you punch a keyboard to select the player you want to go after the ball, then punch the base where you want him to throw it. Suppose the ball is hit to center field. Naturally, you designate the center fielder to chase it, then punch the key for him to fire it to second, but nothing in the world of electronics is that simple. When you see that your opponent is trying to stretch a single into a double, you panic and punch second base before the center fielder reaches the ball. The computer thinks you’ve changed your mind and sends the second baseman into center field to fetch the ball. Before you’re through, your fielding efforts look more like a vaudeville routine than a sporting event.
Most of the games cost about $25 to $30 apiece. Some of the old cartridges can still be purchased for $10 or $15, and some of the new ones cost as much as $50, including Odyssey’s Master Strategy series. The best place to find the latest, hottest game is at chain stores with big buying power such as Target, Toys R Us and even Safeway.
Everyone’s into the act now, so be sure you’re getting what you think you’re getting. Cartridge-making is where the big money is made, not in the production of the playing equipment. So Mattel, the ln-tellivision maker, now also makes cartridges to be played on the Atari units, called M Network. Beth Collins, manager of The Game Player in Collin Creek Mall in Piano, says that the M Network sports games don’t quite measure up to the In-tellivision cartridges but that they’re light years ahead of the old Atari sports games. Coleco makes cartridges for ColecoVi-sion, Atari and Intellivision. Activision and Imagic produce games for the Atari unit and plan to do the same for Intellivision. Parker Bros., Apollo, Tigervision, U.S. Games, Comma Vid, Spectravision and no telling who else all make games for Atari. So far, there has been no crossover to or from Odyssey.
A well-rounded cartridge library should include at least one of each of the basic game varieties: kill-or-be-killed, ball games, races, mazes and, if you can sneak in one or two, educational games. The hottest cartridge may not necessarily be the best; it may be little more than a thinly disguised copy of an already overdone theme. Here’s a selection of old favorites and current hits that should retain their interest for some time to come.
Demon Attack (Imagic, for Atari). One of several superb offerings from Imagic, which obviously takes great pains with its games. It’s an attack by flying prehistoric monsters, cleverly and colorfully depicted with arcade-like detail, which makes the game much more playable on a continuing basis than Space Invaders and similar encounters.
Pitfall (Activision, for Atari). Our hero, Harry, runs and jumps through the jungle searching for treasure and trying to avoid crocodiles, quicksand, snakes, scorpions and other hazards. Harry has 20 minutes or the loss of three lives, whichever comes first, to see how many points he can rack up by finding treasure. Excellent graphics; fun for mystery fans and adventurers.
Stampede (Activision, for Atari). This one is a sleeper, not as well-known as some of the hotter games, but a great cartridge. It’s one of the few games on the market that can be enjoyed and played successfully by a 6-year-old, a 12-year-old or an adult. You get points for roping steers. Playing the game well requires keen judgment as to when to rope and when to herd.
PGA Golf (Mattel, for Intellivision). A parent’s dream-a game in which an adult actually has an advantage over a child. This is a delightfully intricate game involving club selection, hooks, slices, water, sand and trees. The computerized cartridge even measures the precise height of the flight of the ball, a feature you would just as soon do without while bouncing from tree to tree in the woods.
UFO (NAP, for Odyssey), Ever since K.C. Munchkin gobbled the dust, UFO has become one of Odyssey’s key cartridges. It’s a well-designed space encounter in which you can destroy enemy objects with a laser blast or by making contact with your protective shield, but the latter ploy drains your energy and makes you vulnerable. This one should be a part of every Odyssey library.
Major League Baseball (Mattel, for In-tellivision). This is probably the best sports cartridge on the market, but it’s a very difficult game for adults to play effectively-and even children have to work at it. The secret is to learn the keyboard so that you can direct the action of the players without taking your eye off the ball.
Quest for the Rings (NAP, for Odyssey). This is a game for those seeking involvement rather than a quick thrill. For $49.95, you get an attractive game board with each cartridge, on which you track your success in combating spydroth taran-tulae, fire-breathing dragons and doom-winged bloodthirsts.
Defender (Atari, for Atari). The market emphasis is definitely on space games, but it’s a mistake to load up on too many of these because many of them probably won’t last long. If you had to pick just one for Atari, this one would be a good bet. The theme is an alien attack from outer space. You must save your cities and keep the aliens from making off with your hu-manoids. If the going gets rough, you can hyperspace (disappear and reappear elsewhere), a trick that kids probably would love to take with them to school.
Donkey Kong (Coleco, for Atari, Co-lecoVision). This one has a certain charm that should allow it to retain its interest. Mario has no arsenal of laser cannons or smart bombs to employ in his noble effort to save the young lady in the clutches of Kong. He must rely on cunning and a keen sense of timing. This is another game that’s fun for any age.
Frogger (Parker Bros., for Atari). An appealing game for children 6 to 12. Frogger must cross a highway frequented by reckless hot-rodders and huge trucks and then hop across a raging river from log to log to the sanctity of a lily pad. Even the highway is a refreshing change of pace from outer space.