Monday, February 11, 2008

Videogame Classics - Blue Lightning

Blue Lightning
Epyx for Atari
Atari Lynx
Blue Lightning was most likely the signature game for the Atari Lynx. It certainly was the most eager standout from the early launch titles, the one guaranteed hit to boast to your Gameboy friends. If you were the one kid on your block with a Lynx instead of a Gameboy, this was your ace in the hole. Yeah, yeah, Tetris is the greatest thing ever, my friend, but have you checked out...this?

Watch the eyes widen and the jaws drop. For a short time, 1989, 1990, this was the must-see thing for videogame fans.

It's amazing to me how advanced the handhelds have finally become in this last generation cycle. It's easy to take your DS or Playstation Portable for granted. They're really just slimmed versions of the console games we've been playing for years now, so they're just treated as a given. It's hard to really impress someone, really WOW them, with the portables anymore. I don't know if it can even be done this late in the game. Fortunately, we've broadened as gamers enough to be cool with it all.

But it was a different game when Gameboy first appeared in '89. I know, this is my standard Atari Lynx rap, but it's an important message to imprint. At that time, a color handheld was something big. A color handheld that actually rivaled the big consoles was really big. The idea was almost scandalous.

There really wasn't any reason to care about Atari by the end of the '80s. They were the famous casualties of the game crash of '83 or '84, depending on which computer geek you talk to. Nintendo had mopped the floor with them with the NES, and Mario ushered in the next generation of games. So if you were Atari, you really had to have something super-cool in order to get our attention. The Lynx was it.

As anyone familiar with the old story goes, the Lynx was actually designed by Epyx, one of the most beloved computer game studios of the time. We had little love for Atari, but Epyx was a different story. We were all die-hard fans. Impossible Mission. Winter Games. Summer Games. Temple of Apshai. Jumpman. Yadda, yadda. An Epyx handheld that's essentially a portable Amiga? Ah, there's the other hallowed name among gamers. The holy Amiga. This was a match made in heaven.

The early Lynx games made through on that promise. We had some fantastic games. They were surprisingly modern, too; most computer games were slower, more traditional, leaving the arcade stuff to Nintendo. Epyx clearly had that market in mind with their handheld. Too bad Atari got their mitts on it, huh? Those damned jerks.

Anyway, back to Blue Lightning. The game was the key showoff title, an aerial shoot-em-up clearly inspired by Sega's Afterburner, which was only the coolest arcade game ever. Fast action, multiple explosions, scrolling landscapes, and all of it in glorious color! WOW. No, make that...WOOOOOWW!! Something like that.

It was enough to make me shell out the $150 to get a Lynx. Worth every penny. I can still remember pulling it out of the box in the basement, gleefully awaiting the sight of California Games and Electrocop and Blue Lightning in action. Then again, most of my memories of that house involve the basement being haunted, so keep that in mind. This was a good day on the balance sheet.

Blue Lightning set the standard for 3D graphics that weren't ever really surpassed in the 16-bit generation. You'd expect the Super Nintendo to beat it, but their vaunted "Mode 7," which enabled all its scaling and rotation effects, was surprisingly limited. I don't think a game like Blue Lightning could have been translated without cutting corners.

Landscapes included not only flat plains and oceans, but also hills. Lots of 'em. It was fun to bob and weave, striking missile launchers hidden alongside the trees and roads. It was fun to make out those kind of details. Then there were the mountains. The desert mesas set up the game's greatest action set-piece, a daredevil canyon run. It's one of the most exciting videogame moments of the era. Oh, and you absolutely must fly through the canyons with the afterburners on. Going at normal speed is crazy enough; just try speeding through with the boosters on.

There's also a lot of vertical space, with scaling clouds high above. One mission requires you to sneak across enemy lines undetected, then swoop down to destroy some satellite installations before the missiles come crashing down. It's a great moment of tension.

Hmm, come to think of it, this game does have a lot of variety. Fighting land, sea, and air targets. The action starts off fairly easy, but becomes extremely hectic before you know it. The missions may seem long, but there are only seven of 'em, so you have a long game ahead of you. Passwords are included, which was a crucial touch.

All of which adds up to a game that's just as much fun to play as to watch. Now there's a cliche that rarely delivers as advertised; enough so that the gaming hype machine has all but retired it. But Blue Lightning delivers. Oh, yeah, does it deliver.

I really do wish someone would make a decent emulator for the Lynx. That old Handy emulator just doesn't cut it, and you're really missing out on a great Epyx game.

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