Arcades were always experimenting in the early days of gaming. A number of games not only tried new things with game play, but with graphics technology. Atari made a number of games utilizing vector graphics instead of the more common place sprites. Asteroids, Lunar Lander were classics in their own right, but Tempest became a huge hit thanks to using the vectors to create a 3D visual effect. Of course the Star Wars Arcade game, and Battlezone took things even further. But Atari wasn’t the only company experimenting with vector graphics.
PROS: Fluid controls. Sharp graphics. Unique mechanics.
CONS: Short. Visuals haven’t held up as well as other vintage classics have.
CUT: The console port doesn’t have the transitions. Presumably due to technical limits.
Sega put out several vector based games. Among them was Tac-Scan. At first glance Tac-Scan may seem like a typical Golden Age shmup. As in other early shmups like Space Invaders, Galaxian, and Galaga the ultimate goal of the game is a high score. But Tac-Scan does a number of things that set it apart from the rest of the pack.
Tac-Scan gives you lives, but in a very different way. Instead of you having a set number of attempts, it puts them all on the line right away. You start with all of your lives flying through space in a Tac formation. Hence the name of the game. But it doesn’t end there. Each of your ships can be individually destroyed by enemy forces. Run out of ships, and you’ll see a Game Over screen. You shoot down enemy ships like in other games, however there are also mother ships you can destroy. Not only do these give you bigger point bonuses, but extra lives for every one you blow up.
These lives are given to you in between waves. You’ll go through a sequence where you have to almost catch your reserved ship. As it falls down, you move your formation into position, and try to let the ship land into one of your open slots. This leads into the next wave. The interesting thing here, is that every second wave changes the perspective of the game! While Tac-Scan starts out as an overhead shooter, it changes to a third-person perspective during these waves. It feels like going from something like Galaxian into something like Gyruss seamlessly. After blowing away the following waves, you go through a wormhole, and back to the top down perspective. As this cycle repeats, the game gets faster, and it throws more enemies, and obstacles your way.
This continues until you can no longer replenish any ships in your formation. At which point you record your score, and either walk away or resolve to do better. But beyond the innovative transitions, the game also uses a paddle controller! This is interesting because so often the paddle was relegated to Breakout, and the games that built upon its core game play. Arkanoid, Circus Atari, Warlords are but a few such games.
But Tac-Scan is one of the only arcade cabinets that used one in a completely different genre. Not only did it use a paddle controller in a shmup setting, it did so with flying colors. Tac-Scan controls like a champ. Your ships steer around at high speeds, without a hiccup or a hitch. Everything feels smooth as you glide your ships along. When you finally lose, you never feel like you lost due to bad controls. You will very much put all of the blame on yourself.
Sega didn’t end with an arcade cabinet however. They also ported the game to the Atari 2600. The VCS version doesn’t have the stylized line graphics of the arcade original. And to get any semblance of the game working on the console they omitted the third-person transition. But even though it takes a hit in the realm of visual fidelity it absolutely nails the game play.
The 2600 port uses the Atari paddle controllers, and the transition feels nearly flawless. Again, your formation flies smoothly, with little to no slowdown. Surviving wave after wave of enemy ships with any of your ships intact is still quite the challenge. The difficulty curve is well crafted as well. Early stages let you get a handle on the controls because the pace of the game is slow, and ships take long pauses in between firing. Surviving the first two or three waves will seem pretty feasible. The following stages increase the travel speed, and enemy accuracy a couple of notches. Eventually, everything becomes insanely fast, and requires every ounce of your hand, and eye coordination.
Being that it is a high score game, it might not hold your interest the way some later shmups may. Things like R-Type or Gradius where there are a set number of stages to complete, and an ending to experience may sate some players more. But there is something to be said for the days when getting the high score was king. It brings out a level of competition among players, and it’s something that can still be compelling today. It’s one of many reasons why a lot of Golden age games have stood the test of time.
Tac-Scan has the honor of both standing the test of time, and yet also becoming one of the more esoteric games of its heyday. Which is a shame, because it is such a good game. If you’re fortunate enough to have access to the arcade version you should really check it out. It uses vector graphics in a unique way while still being a very fun challenge. Alternatively if you have a PlayStation 2 you can track down the Sega Genesis Collection. Tac-Scan is an unlockable game in that collection. The only downside is you will have to play the game with a thumb stick, which isn’t quite the same as using a paddle.
The Atari 2600 version, again, is pretty terrific. Despite the fact that it is missing a chunk of content, and doesn’t look as nice, it manages to be a pretty faithful port. But whichever way you decide to add the experience to your game collection, you’re in for a great time. It’s too bad that Sega let a lot of their earliest games fade into obscurity. This is one of them, and it is also one of the best games they ever put out. I would put it up there with things like After Burner, Out Run, Alien Syndrome, and Space Harrier. It is that memorable.
Final Score: 8 out of 10