Thursday, January 18, 2007

Atari 7800 - Best of the Best

Well, eventually, Nintendo's going to have to add more consoles to its Wii Virtual Console. At least, that's my sincere hope, but it seems that the major console players are all moving towards variations on a retro gaming service that preserves gaming's history. Nintendo is in the prime position to move on the home consoles (just as Microsoft has an advantage with arcade titles), and the continued success of the Wii should make VC a more attractive opportunity for everyone.

Everyone of course knows that Infrogrames currently owns the rights to the Atari brand, and its games, and they've made some modest effort to revive the classic games with the Flashback consoles for the 2600 VCS and 7800. That makes Atari a prime candidate for the VC, don'tcha think?

Anyway, if you've ever been curious about the short-lived Atari 7800, here's a listing of my favorite games. It's an interesting little console, probably more for its history than anything else. It was set for release in 1984, just as the videogame market crashed. When Atari Corp. was bought out by the Tramiel family, they famously dismissed the 7800 and scuttled it. Then, a few years later, after Nintendo became the dominant player, games were back in vogue, so the 7800 and its games were brought out of storage and dropped onto the market. Needless to say, it fared very poorly, but I think this is due largely to Atari's terrible management. The console was never properly supported, and Atari was stretched far too thin, with far too many computers and gadgets, and far too little software support.

I don't think the Tramiels ever understood the videogame market, and how Nintendo had changed the rules. They seemed to be stuck in 1982, trapped in the early Commodore years, and Atari would be Jack Tramiel's revenge upon his old company. In better hands, the 7800 might have fared much better.

Anyway, that's all in the long-buried past. Atari belongs to the ages now, and we can fire up the MESS emulator and play anytime. The immortality of the computer soul. Here are my favorite games for the Atari 7800:

Asteroids - 9/10

Joe Santulli of Digital Press fame boasts that the 7800 version of Asteroids is his favorite version, even moreso than the arcade. That's pretty high praise, and I think if you're a fan of Asteroids, you're going to have a lot of fun with this version. The graphics are bold with color, and the asteroids animate smoothly. There's the usual "Jaws theme" music, with various space sounds drifting in and out.

The best thing about 7800 Asteroids - and this is what makes the game a classic - is multiplayer. Two players can take turns, or play simultaneously, and you have the choice of cooperative or competitive play. In competitive, you can shoot the other player down, so now the game becomes a tense battle of wits, as you try to navigate through the rocks, avoid the satellites, and not get shot in the back.

Great stuff. Really, really great stuff.

Robotron: 2084 - 9/10

The 7800's greatest strength was its ability to manipulate a large number of sprites, far more than the NES or Sega Master System. The best example is Robotron, arguably the greatest of all "panic" games. You're dropped into the middle of a large crown, and never given more than one second of breathing room. The screen is literally packed with enemies, and yet it's all clearly visible, without any slowdown or sprite flicker.

The speed is just a touch slower than the arcade, and it's a bit easier on the earlier levels, but you'll likely never notice. This is easily the best home version of Robotron that's ever been made, and I'll put that against the later, 3D Robotron that appeared on the Playstation and N64. It's as close to the arcade as you can get without emulation.

Have I mentioned that 7800 Robotron allows you to play with two joysticks, just like the arcade? Here's another great reason why emulation rocks. I play on my PC with a pair of XBox 360 joypads, and the MESS emulator allows me to map the second-player joystick to the second analog stick. That means I can play Robotron, two-fisted, on a single pad! Imagine how clunky it was to play with two 7800 joysticks back in the day.

I think this may be my favorite Atari 7800 game. Forget what I said about Xevious.

Food Fight - 8/10

General Computers Corporation, who built the Atari 7800, also made this clever arcade shooter. It's basically a Robotron knockoff with a goofy sense of humor, but it's also a lot of fun. You're basically in a race to reach a melting ice cream cone, while hurling food at an onslaught of chefs, who are trying to beat you up for some reason. You throw food that's lying around and avoiding open manhole covers before the ice cream melts. Sometimes, if you're lucky, you'll get an instant replay.

According to The Atari Museum, GCC had become the house design team for all of Atari's games by 1984, and that probably explains why the early 7800 titles are so good. They certainly take advantage of the detail and color better than the later titles, almost all of which are terrible. I'd say Food Fight is among that top-tier of games, good for short bursts and quick thrills.

Centipede - 7/10

Another classic Atari arcade, yet another home version of Centipede. This was one of those games that appeared on every Atari console, so chances are you've seen Centipede in one form or another. I always liked it, even though I was never very good at it. It's a tough little game, another one of the Ed Logg classics.

The 7800 version is probably the best of all the home versions, even though the graphics are a little chunky. Most of the games on this system have that "chunky" look, which is probably endearing by now. The gameplay and intensity is fully intact, and heaven knows how hideous that Atari 2600 version was, with square blocks instead of muchrooms. Yuck. You'll probably like this one a lot more.

Galaga - 7/10

Hmm...see a pattern here? You can start to see why the 7800 was doomed once it was released in 1986, over two years late. Still, you can't really blame these games, since GCC did such a good job with them. Galaga is one of the all-time great arcade games, and just like Ms. Pac-Man, has never seen a poor home translation. Every version is fun to play.

7800 Galaga is a step slower than the arcade, and that's too bad, because everything else excels. I really like the bold colors and chunky graphics. It gives this game a sense of character. Also, remember, that for 1984, this is a top-quality conversion. All the features of the arcade are present, such as the tractor-beam ships and bonus rounds. I think this is a lot of fun to pull out and play every once in a while, and, again, I just like the look. Don't really know why, but I do.

Mario Bros - 7/10

A number of the early Nintendo games like Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. appeared on all the classic Atari systems, and they're all fairly good. However, I think Mario Bros was the best of the lot. Of the three games, it's the closest to the arcade, cutting only the cut-scenes, which never made it onto any home version. If you compare 7800 Mario Bros to, say, the NES version, you'll see that the resolution is slighly lower and the details are lessened, but the color is much bolder, and, most importantly, there's no sprite flicker.

All in all, a very solid version of Mario Bros. Better than the 5200 version, and light years from that sad little 2600 cart. I really don't know if the 7800 could have handled Super Mario Bros, since the hardware was never really pushed beyond this point. Perhaps, in the right hands, and with enough memory, it could have been done. I'm reminded of all those terrible early NES games. You wouldn't think a machine that spit out NES Tennis and Baseball could do Contra or Castlevania.

Another good game that was overshadowed by being left in storage beyond its time.

Xevious - 9/10

Huh? Where have you been? Go read my earlier posts on Xevious below. I'm not going to repeat everything here, when you can use the scroll wheel on your mouse.

One thing I should say about Xevious, and this is why I rate it so highly. You'll see that most, if not all, of the early 7800 titles are single-screen arcade games. Xevious is the first real step into a modern game world, with scrolling backdrops and changing environments. The chunker graphics (the 7800 hallmark) are only a testament to the age when it was made, but this game was clearly a step beyond everything else in the console's library.

Who's to say if later developers could have pushed the hardware further? The 7800's higher resolution was comparable to the NES, and if you add in the 256-color palette and the powerful sprite engine, you have a machine that could have been a contender. The more I think about it, the more I wonder just what the 7800's limits were.

Ballblazer - 9/10

Ballblazer if one of the true classic videogames, and I've written about in my Videogame Classics column. The 7800 version is the same exact game you saw on the Atari 800 and Atari 5200. The robofoils are more sharply drawn, the scrolling is just as smooth, and the gameplay is just as intense and fast. Oh, and the music is fantastic as always.

This is one of the only games in the 7800 library to include a special sound chip. Originally, this chip was to be included into the hardware, but it was sacrificed in order to save space. What the hell were they thinking?! GCC resorted to using the 2600 chip for the audio - which explains why most of the audio on this console sucks eggs.

The idea was to include the sound chip into the cartridges, but then Atari never actually uses it. It only appears on Ballblazer and Commando (although Commando doesn't have any music when run on emulator). And then we wonder why Atari tanked.

Anyway, that doesn't really matter here. The bottom line is that Ballblazer was, and remains, one of the finest multiplayer games ever made. The 7800 version absolutely trounces the lame NES version, and even the later Playstation sequel. It's arguably the best example of what could have been.

One on One - 9/10 ???

I put a question mark next to the score for one simple reason: I'm not entirely sure how well the game plays. When running on an emulator, 7800 One on One blurs by at an accelerated speed, much too fast to be effectively playable. It's running at about twice its normal speed.

I honestly don't know if this was the way the actual cartridge performed. I'm a great fan of this early Electronic Arts game on the Atari 800 computer, and to this day I'll insist it's among the best-playing sports games of all time. I'll have to have someone clear this up for me. I hope everything's all right, because it would be a crying shame not to have this classic available on the console.

The Atari 7800 version adds a textured floor, and improves the graphics somewhat. The graphics were never the game's strong suit, and we never cared, anyway. The thing played like a dream, spinning, dribbling, shooting, dunking, stealing. My favorite bits, naturally, are the instant replays, and shattering the billboard. I really wish someone would make a hack that added in swearing from the janitor.

This is what Electronic Arts was like when they were brand new, and great. I really wish they'd get their mojo back, 'cause this is one of their best games.

No comments: