Discovering Alien on Atari 2600

Discovering Alien on Atari 2600

For all the hours I spent playing on my best friend’s Atari 2600 in the early eighties, it would take the best part of another four decades to discover my favourite game on there (submarine rescue ‘em up, Seaquest), and then even longer to discover it was also home to what I genuinely think is my favourite Pac-Man game ever (not counting Pac-Land as a Pac-Man game, of course)! And not only that, but it’s also not a Pac-Man game at all, but Alien, which, amazingly, given my love of the films and it’s now 2021, is also the first Alien game I’ve ever played! But that’s not a bad place to start, given it was the very first Alien game, and surely one of the earliest officially licensed movie tie-ins too; there was a Death Race arcade game in 1976, but not a lot else until a flurry on the 2600 in 1982, starting with Raiders of the Lost Ark, then stuff like Alien, Tron, King Kong, Star Wars, E.T…

The game’s plot, all explained onthe back of the box, couldn’t provide a better justification for ripping off Pac-Man; in fact, it does such a good job that I’m wondering if Pac-Man might have ripped off Alien! Ever since you blasted off from the last planet you visited, you’ve been hearing weird sounds around your ship, Nostromo, so you set it onto auto-pilot and have a look around… Turns out every hallway in the maze-like hull has been lined with alien eggs, so you have to run around all these corridors, crushing them underfoot as you go. But what could have produced such terrible eggs? “A hideous being with jaws like a beartrap” of course, and as you run away there’s another just ahead, and don’t forget that no one can hear you scream in space!

The manual goes further, telling us that we have to run through the hallways of the space ship, crushing all of the Alien eggs which have been placed there while also avoiding or destroying the adult aliens, and snatching up as many prizes as possible. And what do prizes make? Points of course, which the manual helpfully has space for you to write down at the back! You just move the controller up, down, left and right to run over the eggs and steer clear of the aliens, where the slightest touch from the albeit slightly forgiving collision detection means instant death. On either side of the screen you have a “Hyperwarp Passage” that is better than Pac-Man’s version because it’s called a Hyperwarp Passage, but similarly takes you to the other side of the screen. However, in an even larger departure from Pac-Man, you’ve also got a flame thrower which you can use up to four times to scare off or immobilise or potentially have no affect at all on the aliens, unless you’re on the extreme right or left of the screen where fire doesn’t work – I’m sure there’s a great reason!

Each maze also has three pulsars (or power pills) that you can destroy to weaken the aliens and, er, gobble them up or similar. You can also use the flame thrower to run over the pulsars so you can save them for later, adding a nice expert tactical touch that Pac-Man simply cannot equal! What Pac-Man also cannot equal is Frogger! Clear mazes and you get a bonus round, which involves you making a Frogger-style dash up the screen between moving groups of aliens against a harsh clock, so you need to make your route choice and stick to it quick.

As was often the case with the Atari 2600, the developers had to make the most of all those levers and switches on the console, so Alien also gives you four difficulty switch settings, where the aliens travel randomly or in fixed patterns, and where a pulsar has an effect or has no effect on the aliens (which actually equates to three settings because one of those makes no difference)! You’ve also got four skill settings, from practice to expert, though for all of these options (same as for pretty much all 2600 games), I’ve not had any more fun in any of these endless variations than by not touching anything!

Alien looks and sounds like an Atari 2600 game – it’s hard to dress it up much more than that, except it looks like a good one! The mazes are well defined, movement is smooth, the alien eggs look like dots and the pulsars look like asterisks, but there is real character in the aliens – especially the sinister yellow one! Barely any flicker either (apart from the sinister yellow one, but let’s say that’s intentional to up the scares), which you definitely can’t say for the strobe-ghost horror show of official 2600 Pac-Man! There’s a really cool effect when you go into the hyperwarp thingy at the side of the screen too, where you dissolve as you enter it before re-emerging on the other side. In the sound department you’ve got various siren noises that either up the tension or just drive you mad, and there’s a constant crunch as you take out the alien eggs underfoot. Again, classic Atari 2600, but I’ve heard an awful lot worse on the Spectrum and they work absolutely fine!

Apart from Pac-Land (more here) – and the Pac-Man cartoon it’s based on – I’m not the world’s biggest Pac-Man fan, though I’ve definitely had my fill of all kinds of revisions on all kinds of systems for over forty years! I even became something of an expert on Pac-Man 256 a few years ago, absolutely playing it to death until free-to-play arrived and sucked out most of its soul. Anyway, I like Pac-Man. But I like this more! It plays a very pure version of Pac-Man, to the point I generally forget about the flame thrower even existing. The character is responsive; the seemingly random nature of the alien AI is challenging and often panic-inducing; the mazes feel good and the Frogger bonus screen is a really nice incentive to keep going, though the concept is arguably just as addictive without it. And it’s got 2600-cool aliens from Alien chasing after you, which is loads better than crazy flickering ghosts! And for me at least, that all combines with a clear love of the film that might not be able to transcend the technical limitations of the time and the system, but is just about enough to transcend all other versions of a similar game!

My Life With… Snoopy Tennis (Nintendo Game & Watch)

My Life With… Snoopy Tennis (Nintendo Game & Watch)

In the very early 1980’s, there was nothing more exciting than checking out the handheld gaming pages in the latest Argos catalogue! You had never seen anything like it, even though the last edition had only come out six months previous, and you’d have bitten anyone’s arm off to get your hands on any of them! Half of them were variants on Space Invaders (and for a time, I think half of those were probably called Space Invader, singular), including what must have been the first electronic game I ever laid my hands on, Grandstand’s Invader From Space – also featuring the first of many joysticks I ever broke!

You also had stuff like Missile Invader and Astro Wars, Scramble with its tiny controls and Galaxy Invader 1000 in its iconic yellow and black case. If you weren’t into space shooters, there was Caveman and Firefox F-7, some rubbish LED sports games, and it wouldn’t take long for Pocket Pac-Man, Munchman and Mini Munchman and loads more Pac-a-likes to appear. And these things kept coming and, of course, getting more advanced, like the wonderful BMX Flyers – my favourite example of the genre – all the way through to the TomyTronic 3D games like Thundering Turbo, Sky Attack and Shark Attack just a couple of years later!

And in parallel to these handheld – or often, in reality, tabletop – battery-guzzling beasts (Mini Munchman aside), there was the increasingly mind-boggling range of truly handheld Game & Watch games from gaming upstart Nintendo. At least until Donkey Kong Jr. arrived on Game & Watch Tabletop on the very day of writing this, the 28th of April, in 1983.

These things seemed to breed every time you looked away, with 60 of them eventually produced between 1980 and 1991 when the Game Boy had all but made them redundant. Even if you didn’t own it (though my next-door neighbour did) the first one that springs to mind is usually Donkey Kong from 1982, with its orange flip case, two LCD screens and the first ever incarnation of a D-Pad, but the first Game & Watch love of anyone that had one was probably one of the classic single screen, foamy, rubbery button games with Game A and Game B (usually harder, meaning faster), a clock and an alarm; and a little metal ring on the back you could pull out to make it stand up!

My first experience of Game & Watch, and one I’d continue to experience for what must have been hundreds of hours for years after, was Fire. Didn’t belong to me – was my auntie’s and resided at my Grandma’s house where we spent every Saturday afternoon, and whilst I must have played it all over the house, my abiding memory is stealing her armchair next to the big 1970’s mahogany-effect dresser while she was cooking lunch and playing it in comfort there!

This was originally one of the early Silver generation of Game & Watch, but the one I played was part of the Wide Screen generation released a year or so later in late 1981. This update looked similar but was nicer to hold, had a great looking case, even better looking graphics, and was widescreen! Either way, you were catching people jumping out of different floors in a burning building and bouncing them on your stretcher into an ambulance. Things soon got crazy frantic as you literally juggled multiple people bouncing at different speeds. Fantastic game! Even better was the alarm function though, with the fireman waving his bell about with a crazed look on his face!

I reckon I’d have first played Fire in the middle of 1982, which was enough bugging time for my parents to have got me my one and only Game & Watch for Christmas 1982. I’ve no idea how that ended up being Snoopy Tennis though. It could have been my idea – at aged ten I was definitely a fan of Charlie Brown in comic and TV form, but not a huge one; he might be better known for his Christmas and Halloween exploits, but was as much a part of school summer holiday morning TV back then as Roland Rat, Why Don’t You? and Huckleberry Finn (or Silas if you were unlucky that year). It was probably around the time I started playing tennis at school too, which I always enjoyed, but again, not a mega fan. Alternatively, that might have been the one that was in stock wherever it came from! Doesn’t really matter which because it was definitely the right choice!

Like all the great games from this period, it’s all so simple, so skill-based and so fiendishly addictive! You’re playing as Snoopy, stood with his tennis racket waiting for Charlie Brown to serve a ball at him, high, low or in the middle, and you’re moving up and down a tree to return them with perfect timing (first time or you’re screwed waiting for the animation to restart!) from the right position. When you return a shot, it flies over the top of Charlie Brown, who’ll be busy lining up his next ball, but now and again Lucy will appear on the wooden platform above him and hit the ball back at twice the speed, and if you return that she might disappear for a bit and let the ball go, or she might keep returning it like this for a few more shots at the same time as Charlie Brown is lobbing his balls at you with increasing frequency.

You get 2 points for every Charlie Brown ball returned and 3 points for Lucy’s, and as your score increases, so does the speed! It all starts out very sedate, especially on Game A (where Game B has more balls that move faster), but it won’t be long before there’s all sorts of balls moving at different speeds all over the screen, and your main task is judging which one you’re going to hit first. Miss three balls and it’s game over. Get to 100 points and it slows down again for a while before getting faster until another 100 points passes. Get to 200 points, 500 points, 1200 points, 1500 points… (yeah, right) and your misses are all cancelled out; should you have got there with no misses, then you’ve got about a minute of bonus time, where Charlie Brown’s shots are worth 5 points and Lucy’s are 6 points.

You’re controlling Snoopy with up and down buttons on the right side and a hit button on the left for your perfectly timed returns. The buttons feel great – really tactile and responsive and a bit spongy. And after about ten minutes of play, will be surrounded by a sweaty fingerprint outline spreading across the main case; and being able to wipe that away is actually the main benefit of getting that brief slowdown every 100 points!

The character graphics were incredibly sharp and perfectly realised – something these LCD games were years ahead of home computers in achieving – and these are perfectly complemented by the coloured overlays of Lucy’s platform on one side and Snoopy’s dog house on the other, with a wonderfully detailed and shaded tree for Snoopy to return shots from and Woodstock to sit in his nest surveying the action (at least until the alarm is ringing and he jumps out of his nest to the sound). The great attention to detail is capped off by the tufts of green grass along the bottom of the screen. The user interface is just perfect too; completely unobtrusive, but all-important stuff like your score and the current number of misses – shown by broken bottles – are just a tiny change in focus away without having to move your eyes from the very frantic later game action.

The other incredible thing about these games was the battery life. You’d easily get months of play out of two LR43 or SR43 cell batteries before the screen started fading and the sound disappeared, and, from experience later, you could literally leave it for years sleeping away and it would come back to life! And speaking of back to life, it still works absolutely perfectly today and is still as fiendishly addictive as ever!

Despite how pictures might look, because cameras don’t seem to like the technology when it’s running and show blemishes that just aren’t there, Snoopy Tennis and it’s early Game & Watch brethren (unlike some of the far more complex later releases like the Gauntlet abomination by Tiger Electronics!) are utterly timeless. And this is true whether you’re talking about the technology, the graphics or the gameplay – nothing has dated and it never will. It also sold 1.2 million units after its release in 1982, so if you don’t have it, I’ll bet it’s not that hard to track down. And whatever the asking price is when you read this, after almost 40 years of enjoyment at the time of writing, it will be worth every penny…

Just don’t push down on the LCD screen, no matter how cool it looks, because it’s not going to last another 40 years if you do!