Discovering Frankenstein’s Monster on Atari 2600

Discovering Frankenstein’s Monster on Atari 2600

For all of my various obsessions with 19th century gothic horror, Universal monster movies and Hammer Horror, I’ve never really been a massive Frankenstein fan. Apart from that Escape From Frankenstein board game, with the big rubber Frankenstein’s monster that carted off your little player! Definitely up there with Talisman, Chainsaw Warrior, Rogue Trooper and Chaos Marauders in my top five board games ever – there’s a new list for me to dwell on further that I wasn’t expecting to come out of this!

Anyway, that possibly explains why an old-school horror afficianado and first time around Atari 2600 enthusiast like me took so long getting to Frankenstein’s Monster on there! Not sure what it was about 1983, but as well as the wonderful board game we just talked about, that’s when Data Age released this. As I’m a little prone to do, I’m going off on a tangent about Data Age here, but this is a good one! By this point they’d only released five other games, but through no fault of its own, Frankenstein’s Monster turned out to be their very last release; you see, while Atari’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial might get all the headlines from this period, Data Age had their very own E.T. moment the year before with a game called Journey Escape!

Journey Escape features Journey, the popular musical act, and is based on their 1981 album Escape, home to their mega-hit single, Don’t Stop Believing, and which you get a little Atari 2600 version of when you load up the game! It’s a very odd game, involving you sneaking each band member past “hordes of Love-Crazed Groupies, Sneaky Photographers, and Shifty-Eyed Promoters” to the “Journey Escape Vehicle” (which you’ll also find on the cover of the album). That translates to you dodging some weird graphics that push you back down the screen if you hit them. Which we’ll come back to later, but in the meantime, it’s crap!

Journey Escape didn’t just not sell, but they’d also spent $4.5 million on marketing it, and that after spending what must have been a fortune on licensing on of the early eighties’ hottest American rock bands. And that’s why, as we slowly head back to Frankenstein’s Monster, it ended up spelling their demise. However, the greatest shame of this was that we never got to see the Mr T game they had in development when they disappeared! It wasn’t the end for Journey though – 1983 also saw the release of Journey, the arcade game, where you had to reunite band members – represented by digitised photo heads on cartoon bodies – with their instruments. And let’s just say there’s probably a good reason why you had no idea that existed either!

Right, Frankenstein’s Monster! Firstly, unlike some other games, it’s not crap. The back of the box tells us that in the cold dark night we make our way through the ghoulish castle of Dr Frankenstein. There we must prevent him from completing his creation. Our only chance is to gather stones from the dungeon and bring them to the tower where we must build a barricade around Frankenstein’s Monster before he’s accumulated enough energy from the Power Probe gathering it from a storm to come alive. And to succeed, we’re going to have to move fast, avoiding poisonous spiders, vampire bats and terrifying ghosts. Complete the job and the village will be safe forever. It’s no Mary Shelley, but it’s as good a reason to be here as any!

This then manifests as a kind of a single screen Pitfall. You’ve got the monster and his Power Probe in the middle of the battlements gathering up energy, and you’re starting on his right, immediately avoiding a ghost and starting your climb down to the dungeons. On the way you’ll have to jump over pits, avoid spiders, jump on logs over acid pools and then collect your stone. Once you’ve got it, you need to get all the way back, and then on approaching the monster the screen is going to change view to you making the final part of the journey (not Journey!) through a mass of bats, and any contact with them is going to push you back down the screen – just like Journey Escape, but much more frantic, much more challenging, and much less rubbish! Once you’ve found a route up to the top of the screen, which might take some doing given the sheer number of bats at any one time, you’re going to drop the stone near the monster then head off looking for the next bit.

You have to go through this process a total of six times, gradually building the wall around the monster with each new bit of stone from the dungeons. And each time, things are going to get trickier, with more obstacles and enemies, bigger spiders and smaller logs to jump across. Hitting spiders (or bats on the bat screen) is going to reduce your score and slow your progress one way or another; interestingly, you start at 500 points, and depending on how effectively and how quickly you play, you’ll get more or less score. A more serious incident like falling into acid is going to cost you one of your three lives, and when you’ve either lost all three or the timer runs out (either 8 or 5 minutes depending on your difficulty switch settings) it’s game over, but don’t worry because that might just be the best bit!

In fact, apart from Shadow of the Beast II on the Commodore Amiga, with its mesmerising, Miami Vice-styled (and possibly actually taken from Miami Vice) soaring guitar solo, this might be my favourite game over screen of all time! When you’re done for, the monster breaks free and starts marching out of the screen towards you, its big bold pixels getting bigger and bigger until it fills the whole thing and you’re engulfed in a green and yellow strobe. Quite terrifying! That’s not the only way your game’s going to finish though, because once your six pieces of stone have successfully entombed the monster, you’ve won! Honestly, the winning screen isn’t as impressive as the dying one, but all the same, I do love an Atari 2600 game with an ending! A few hours of play should get you there, but despite the ending, this is really a high score game – you need to get to the end well, and then you need to get to the end well and get there quickly. And that’s a very addictive brew!

As well as the cool game over screen, the rest is a really fine looking Atari 2600 game too. There’s great use of solid and gradiented earthy colours – the Commodore 64 could take some lessons on making these pop from this! Your character and the enemies are simple but perfectly identifiable, and there’s some great attention to detail in the animation, which adds a bit of interest, but also things like having a separate animated viewpoint for climbing down a ladder, for example, is quite unusual for a platformer of this vintage – normally it’s the same side-on view but moving up and down instead of left and right! There’s a nice moment when you drop down a hole and kind of hesitate for a second before falling. There’s also a nice effect where the Power Probe, which flashes at the top of the screen, is interruped by lighting flashes behind the castle and connects to the electricity. This is accompanied by the sound of white noisy thunder, which, together with an occasional ominous two-note melody, adds some variety to the regular sounds of footsteps and jumping and dying!

What really elevates Frankenstein’s Monster for me – even above Pitfall and its sequel – is the way it plays. There might not be as much to it, but your character feels fast and solid, and every jump quickly becomes predictable. That, combined with the horror theming (even if it is only Frankenstein!), the best game over screen ever, and just the vibrancy of the whole thing, makes this the top platformer on Atari 2600 for me, and certainly up there with stuff like Seaquest, Alien and Chopper Command as one of my favourite games on the system! Unlike Journey Escape!!!