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Insurgency Sandstorm Review

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Wow, two reviews this week? I really had to crunch to get this one done. It’s worth it though because like DUSK, this is a new FPS release that really ought to be on your radar. Insurgency Sandstorm, like its predecessor is here to give you a blend of arcade run speed, with late 90’s tactical subgenre features. But does it reach the lofty goals set forth by the original?

PROS: It’s an Insurgency sequel on a much newer engine!

CONS: Not every promised feature is here (yet.) Minor issues.

GIBS: A common 90’s FPS feature returns.

The original Insurgency set that bar rather high. What had started out as a mod became a full-fledged game that pushed Valve’s Source engine to its limit. It bridged the gap between Tactical FPS games like Rainbow Six 3: Raven Shield, and large-scale objective Military Team FPS games like Battlefield. In doing so, it offered a great alternative to some of the titles in the AAA space. While it didn’t run on the latest tech, it did give players a unique experience. Insurgency did well for itself, cutting out a nice niche for itself, and becoming one of the most beloved competitive games on Steam for some time.

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So what does this newer version bring to the table? Does it improve on the foundation set by the original? Should you play this over something else in the subgenre? All of these are questions you might have going into this one, and they’re all valid ones to ask. When the game was announced it was touting a robust single-player campaign in addition to the multiplayer goodness fans of the first game came for. It showed off some vehicle play, and all in a vast uptick in visual fidelity.

Well let’s get the one major point of contention some will have out-of-the-way. There is no one-player campaign. At least not yet. Now to be fair, those who followed the news around this game during its development, or played it while it was in Early Access were told it wasn’t going to make it in by launch. So a big chunk of the potential audience who were excited upon seeing it during E3 2017 already know this. But if you were one of those interested who saw the early trailers, put it on your “Look forward to seeing it when it comes out” list, and are just now looking at it? You’re going to be disappointed.

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But this is also not an “All is lost” moment, the studio has said it should be coming later, and that it should be included along with the other DLC. And that’s where the barometer may swing from disappointed to optimistic. Because the folks at New World Interactive will not be charging for DLC, nor implementing micro transactions or loot boxes. So everything that comes out for this game in the future will cost you nothing extra. New maps will be included. New weapons they decide to add will be included. Any new modes they cook up will also be included. So the lack of the campaign might sting, but they haven’t outright cancelled it either. If you only come to your army shooters for a campaign, and touch nothing else, you may want to wait. Or not, because there are things here you might still enjoy.

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Of course Insurgency, became a cult hit for a number of reasons. Its various modes. Its unique blend of styles. And that it pushed an aging technology pretty far in the process of delivering its fun. It didn’t look as good as the games EA, and Activision were putting out, but it stood in the same league when it came to game play. And that trend does indeed continue in Insurgency Sandstorm.

Think of Insurgency Sandstorm as an experiment in combining the best elements of various military themed shooters you’ve played over the years. All while implementing its own ideas into the monster before releasing it upon the world. What does it borrow? Well it gives you the vast conquest maps Battlefield fans would love. It also uses point capture as the primary goal of its competitive modes. Insurgency Sandstorm has three of them. (Though like the campaign, more may follow.)

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PUSH: This is the mode most like the Rush mode in the Battlefield games. It places one army as defenders, and one army as attackers. Attackers have a miniscule number of lives spread across its combatants. While Defenders have a much larger pool. However, if the attackers manage to take the first point on the map, they will gain more lives. They will also force the defensive team to fall back to their next point. This continues until either the defenders are made to fight their last stand, with no remaining lives to defend a cache. If the attackers blow it up, the defenders are defeated. The defenders will also be defeated if all of their lives are lost.

What makes this mode compelling is that there are a number of ways each side can approach their situation. When playing defense, you can do what I like to do. You can literally lie down on the objective (represented by a room with a giant flashing letter.), and attempt to kill any intruders. If enough of your team follows suit, it becomes nearly impossible to take the point. However, I said “nearly”. That’s because there are any number of ways a skilled attacking team can crack this. They can employ explosives to spook people to leave the point or die. They can send in their best stealth players to get inside. They can try to flank spawning defenders rushing to get back to the point. These are just some of the strategies you’ll see employed.

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FIREFIGHT: Is the next mode, and here all of the points on the map are preset with both armies having to take an attack position. One point is predetermined to be for one side. The second for the other side, and the third being unclaimed. The first team to capture all three of these wins. However, it isn’t easy because each player has only one life. The only way you get to come back into the battle is if your team captures a point while you’re dead. What people love about this mode is that there’s a tug of war going on with it. If you’ve got two points, but not the third, you’ll have to send people to take the third. But that means the opposing team will find less resistance, at one of your two points. If they take one, you’re at a disadvantage, and have to figure out which of their now two points is easier to take.

SKIRMISH: Takes the game play of Firefight, and adds the caches from the Push mode which gives each team multiple lives. So you’ll be going along in your back, and forth. But the twist comes when one of the caches is destroyed. Without a cache, your team will fall back to the stock Firefight rules, which makes it easier to become overrun. So you have to decide as a team whether you want to go all out, and take points. Or do you designate a few of your combatants to defend the cache while others go for points? Insurgency Sandstorm involves its own strategies into proven concepts.

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This is where the implementation of other ideas, along with NWI’s modern twists, and original features really begins to take shape. Insurgency Sandstorm may use some ideas you’ve seen elsewhere, but it isn’t a knock off. It isn’t just reskinning a popular game, and shouting “Ta-da!”. It’s transformative. It retools these ideas to work in ways that weren’t expected before. It again, also has original ideas too. That’s what made the first game so great, and that continues here in the combat system.

 

Like the original, it takes a page from the original Rainbow Six games, and goes for far more realistic damage. If you play Rainbow Six Siege, as fun as it is, you can still survive firefights if you get shot. Even if you go down a friend can revive you. But if you go way back, and play Rainbow Six 1,2, or 3, that is rarely the case. In those games a single hit was usually lethal. If you were hit in a limb, maybe you could take a second bullet to go down. Insurgency Sandstorm is tough like that. If you get shot, you’re probably dead. If you’re hit in the arm, perhaps you’ll find some cover to survive a little bit longer. But another hit, and you’re toast. Because while your vision comes back, your health does not.

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But Insurgency Sandstorm goes further. Because it eschews plenty of other ideas its competitors love. For instance, there is no mini map. There are no little lights on a square in the corner telling you where to go. You’ll see a flashing letter in the distance. But that’s it. Insurgency Sandstorm has no kill cam. You may be able to have the run speed of a soldier (provided you have no body armor) of a Call Of Duty entry. But when you get sniped running onto the point, and die you will not be watching the person who killed you as you wait to spawn. You can see your teammates, and communicate with them if you see a threat near them. But that is it.

Insurgency Sandstorm also adds a bit of realism in its movement. When you sprint you may not tire. However, you also can not shoot. You have to think about that when going about. If you think you can blast a nest of enemies while charging into a room, think again. At best you can kick doors down while running, and if it hits an enemy in the process you can kill them with the door. But you’ll also be wide open when the other campers see it. On the flip side, if you’re trying to snipe, and you’re too close to the banister, your arm will simply bend back toward you, as you struggle to find a spot where your gun isn’t going to go up against an object. It’s a small thing, but it adds a lot to the environment.

 

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Insurgency Sandstorm borrows an element from Arena shooters of yesteryear too: Gibs. In this game, getting hit in key parts of the body will cause limbs to fly off, heads to explode, and bodies to disintegrate. Since this game is going for a little bit more realism it doesn’t come off like it would in The Expendables. It comes off a little bit more like Glory. Rather it tries to. It doesn’t quite make that emotional transition, but it doesn’t elicit that same joyous surprise as it did back in DOOM, Duke 3D, or QUAKE. At least not for me. The point is, there is an element of its use in a contemporary setting that might remind some players of how horrific wars can be. Whether or not this is intentional is solely up to the artists to decide. They may have been going for the action movie vibe more so than the dramatic movie vibe. In which case I think it fell somewhere in between. But they do come off as impressive. The first time you see it, you really won’t be expecting it, and it honestly might just shock you even knowing about it going in.

The move to Unreal Engine 4 also means a big uptick in visual fidelity, and a jump in system requirements. However, New World Interactive deserves some praise in just how much they’ve done to ensure those like me, with aging video cards can still play their game with great performance. If you do happen to have the hardware that can run this at or near maximum settings, you’ll be pretty pleased with the end result. There are some very impressive lighting effects, Anti-Aliasing effects, Bump mapping effects, among others that UE4 can support. However, if you have a machine that’s five years old, you’re probably not going to be playing any game maxed out. The scalability this game provides is great, as are its customization options.

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All of the shots you’re seeing in this review were taken at the lowest settings. These can hang with a lot of other games despite the reduced image quality. Granted, you can’t expect miracles either. If you’ve got a ten-year old computer with barely any RAM to speak of by today’s standards,  you probably cannot run it. But If you have at least a fourth generation Intel i5 or AMD FX 6330 (around 5 years old now), a NVIDIA GTX 760 or AMD Radeon 7970 in there (also around 5 years old as of this writing), and a good 16GB of RAM in your system you likely can. And at better performance than you might expect. At the lowest settings, I’ve been able to play between 70, and 90 frames per second resulting in a relatively smooth, and responsive experience.

And with the game slated to hit the Xbox One, and PlayStation 4 next year, it does give those who prefer a console experience something to look forward to. As for the artistic side of the visuals, they’ve really gone out of their way here as well. Textures on buildings, look sharp, the costumes of the characters all fit the motif the game tries to present. Even on the lowest details, the backgrounds all still look great with some nice lights, and shadow effects going on.

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As in the original game, one side of the roster is composed of security forces. So when playing  as a security force member you’ll have a military themed character. The other side is composed of insurgents where you’re basically playing as a terrorist group of villains. One thing this game introduces over its predecessor is a cosmetic customization option. As you play the game you’ll earn in game currency. Much like Nintendo’s Splatoon series, you cannot buy this currency. These are points you use exclusively for this feature. Unlike Splatoon, these clothing options do nothing else. It’s strictly just to personalize your characters when playing online. No perk slots, no RPG elements, that is it. That being said, a lot of the costume selections are quite good, and go for something grounded. You won’t be running around on the security side wearing only pants, and bandoliers or rocking a Cobra Commander costume on the insurgent forces.

As in the first game, there are no unlockable weapons. When you start the game every one of your classes is given a certain number of points. Which you can use on your load out. So you have to use tactics even when deciding what to go onto the front lines in. You may not have to grind your way to that powerful machine gun you want to use. But if it costs a lot of points that doesn’t leave you a lot left over for attachments, or defensive items or a secondary item. Similarly, you can choose to go for a lot of body armor, and items. But this will actually affect your run speed by making you slower. You might be able to take a third or fourth bullet before dying though. So you need to approach every class situation differently.

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Also new to this game are new Commander, and Observer classes. These classes have to work together, and stay within a certain proximity to one another. Because these classes can work to call in air support. They can call in helicopters, or mortar storms to help them push when attacking, or to defend their position when being pressured. Every one of the classes is viable though, and if you couldn’t already tell, the best way to play is with friends who communicate. Insurgency Sandstorm is very much designed around teamwork. It has built-in chat, so you can easily talk to your team on the fly. For those who don’t have a headset, or a microphone, you can still type to your team members.

On the other hand, when playing with random strangers, there is always going to be a troll or two. It’s just the reality of online gaming. Fortunately this time around you can mute everybody wholesale if you have the misfortune of dropping to a match where everyone annoys you. Still, when playing with friends, the voice chat can be an accommodating feature. Especially for those with friends who don’t know how to set up their own chat alternatives like Discord.

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And if all of the heated PvP stuff sounds too tough for you, the cooperative mode included is something you may gravitate toward. Similar to the Terrorist Hunt mode of the Rainbow Six series, Insurgency Sandstorm’s cooperative experience pits you, and others up against a team of NPC bots. With frequently changing objectives. It basically blends some of its competitive elements into the mode. So at first you, and the other humans may be taking points. But then the game will decide you have to defend the one you just claimed against an onslaught, or destroy a cache. But all of it is done in, a fun, and entertaining way.  You’ll get a variety of enemy bot skill levels. Some will be pretty good at movement, others will be marksmen. But you’ll occasionally get that idiotic bot that just stands there after missing. Still, they employ some tactics one might not expect, making for some surprises. And of course for those who only want to go up against the best, Insurgency Sandstorm features a competitive option where you’ll be placed with other people on ranked servers, and modes to keep up your street cred.

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For those who absolutely must have something here for playing alone, there are a couple of minor options though. There are a couple of short tutorials that get you used to the game’s mechanics, and modes. These aren’t really necessary for those who have played FPS titles for years, though it can catch you up on the nuances here. The aforementioned cooperative mode is here however again as a single player option. Sadly this just isn’t going to be as fun as the cooperative experience. That’s because you’re paired with bots who aren’t as adept as the bots you’ll go up against, and you’re only given one life per objective. So if you die trying to get the first objective, the round ends, and you’ll move onto the next. This makes the one player option a lot more challenging too because without some competent bots, you’re basically going up against an entire army alone. Still you get five attempts, and winning alone is doable.

But there are also a load of options for you to tinker with. Not just the aforementioned graphics settings, and performance settings. Not just the look of your hero or villain. You can even tweak some of the marker settings, like changing the colors of the letter markers,  and names to something clearer to you than the default. You can also put on displays to show you the current frame rate, and ping. Things that have been in Unreal Engine games for years, but are often closed off in newer releases. It’s nice to see it here so that you can see the math when turning something on or off.

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There are a few problems I do have to point out though. While I imagine most people will get pretty good performance out of this game, there are a number of small visual glitches I’ve stumbled upon. In one game I noticed somebody’s weapon just flickering in the sky before the round began. Another round I noticed player models that hadn’t completely loaded in. So they were shooting at me, but the weapon they were using couldn’t be seen. These are rare occurrences. But the common issue I run into is texture pop in. Again, it loads in fast enough. It doesn’t affect the game play. But the 2 seconds between seeing a blue wall, and seeing a blue wall, with dents in it, and other details can sometimes distract from the experience. I suspect it could be an issue with older cards, that will eventually be fixed with patches, and drivers. But it is a minor problem.

When playing the cooperative mode, alone or with other players, there are a few minor nitpicks. Mainly with the inconsistent A.I. as I mentioned earlier, the bots you face can have a fair amount of variety in skill which is nice. But when you have to rely on them in your team, and a few decide to be idiots, you almost wish they weren’t there. The enemy bot spawns could have been obfuscated a little bit better too, as there were a couple of times in the single player cooperative I could go out a door of a point I had to defend, and see the game drop them in.

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In the grand scheme of things these issues don’t really amount to much of anything. The A.I. is still better than in many of the bots in other titles. The game rarely looks anything less than great aside from the 2-4 seconds of pop in you may experience. Leaving the bot spawn issues, which really breaks the immersion more than anything else. Back on the pvp end of things, there is far less to pick apart. The net code is generally very good. Unless you’re connecting to a server half the world away, you don’t see a lot of rubber banding, or players warping around like Mr. Game & Watch.

All of the online modes are generally quite fun. The studio kept them to the best maintained modes of the first game to ensure that you can always find someone to play against, and this strategy has worked. Yes, you can get into situations where there are people trying to spawn camp, or situations where you’ll have people on your team who refuse to run to the giant flashing “A” along with everyone else. But these aren’t issues with the game, these are the same issues you’ll run into with certain individuals in any multiplayer game. Fortunately, the game does offer the ability for you to mute individual people, or even everyone wholesale.

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The gun play is fantastic. Every weapon has a nice heft to it, and there are options here for every type of player. If you prefer to cover your team, there are many sniping options. If you want to go stealth, there are a slew of close range rifles, shotguns, SMGs, and other options, and attachments. The sounds of gunfire, and explosions are phenomenal too, which adds to that feeling of weight. You also have to hold your breath to steady your aim. Not only with the long-range weapons, but every weapon. Hip firing will just go wherever the gun is aimed. So panic shooting is going to be a crap shoot. These are all seemingly tiny things. But they add so much depth to the combat.

The maps are also mostly really good. Save for an exception or two, just about every map is built around each mode, and objectives are set that put either an attacker or defender into a tough situation at any given time. There are choke points defenders can use to their advantage. There are multiple paths attackers can take at any given time. The inclusion of vehicles in the Push mode also adds a new dynamic. I would have liked to have seen more of them. But between the drivable trucks with mounted guns, and the air strikes the two new classes can call in, there are new strategies that have to be employed to deal with them. And some maps actually make using these things harder. On the refinery stage enemies can just go inside buildings to escape the wrath of a Blackhawk helicopter. Similarly someone can put out roadside bombs in key locations that might deter someone from racing to the point in a pickup.

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In spite of its faults, Insurgency Sandstorm is a phenomenal game. It offers a real alternative to those who have felt disenfranchised with Electronic Arts’, and Activision’s annualized offerings. While it might not have quite the same level of visual fidelity of Battlefield or Call Of Duty, it also doesn’t require the purchase of season passes or micro transactions to have access to everything included in it down the line. The game play in it is also unique thanks to reintroducing an audience to hardcore simulation elements while retaining the run speed of something more twitchy. Absolute simulation purists may still want to go to the excellent ARMA games. And while this game may not be as recognized by the wider audience, the potential is there for that to change.  Especially if the game’s smaller issues are cleared, and the promised campaign shows up before it sees a port to consoles next year.

Whether you loved the original Insurgency, and poured hundreds of hours into it, or you’re a military FPS veteran looking for something new, this is pretty much a game you’ll enjoy diving into. This is also an excellent option for those who want something competitive to play, but without the pressure to spend more money. It’s also a great game for the casual military FPS fan who doesn’t have thousands of hours to devote to unlocking things. Insurgency was also supported for many years after it came out, and there’s no indication New World Interactive won’t do the same for the sequel. People who were interested solely in a campaign story mode will want to wait for its arrival. But for anyone looking for a unique take on the modern military multiplayer shooter? Insurgency Sandstorm should be on their wish list.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

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Demon Attack Review

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They can’t all be new releases. Sometimes life just has a way of throwing everything including the kitchen sink at you. So you don’t have the precious time to play a massive open world western, or a critically acclaimed RPG. But somehow you want to find time to play something compelling. This is why many early games can fit that bill, and often hold up today. One such game is a staple on early cartridge based consoles.

PROS: Enemy variety. Tight controls.

CONS: Not every version features the boss stage.

MAGIC: Imagic’s developers always seemed to perform it on the venerable VCS.

Released in 1982 Demon Attack is one of many titles that tried to build on the core concept set up by Space Invaders. It also has some inspiration from another early shmup; Phoenix.  Where Space Invaders saw you fighting a grid of ships from underneath the confines of shields, Demon Attack pits you against three enemies at a time. Destroy them, and another three will warp in. The game has this really terrific effect when the alien ships, and creatures come into battle against you.

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Another thing to be aware of is the fact that each wave introduces new enemy types. Each with its own attack pattern, and weapons. So you should not expect to be going after the same ships over, and over. Or the same bullets over, and over. If you survive a wave without dying you’ll earn a 1-Up. This makes it very easy to get complacent. “Oh I’ll just stock up on lives, and never worry!”. But you should worry. By around the fifth wave you’ll find shooting enemies splits them in half rather than destroying them. You then have to take down each half. And you have to take them down quickly. Once you take down one the other will begin chirping like crazy before suicide diving toward your cannon. The back lines will then move forward taking their place.

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While not one of the best looking games on the console, it’s visually a cut above what most of Atari’s own release had looked like up to that point. This is especially true of each of the enemy types. Demon Attack is one of the first 2600 releases to deliver such a wide variety of characters. Considering the limitations of the hardware of the time, and the limitations of cartridge space, it’s no wonder this is one of the first games worth picking up when starting a VCS collection. As a publisher, Imagic seemed to know how to push what was possible on consoles of the time. Like most games of the era there are several variations you can play by using the Game Select switch. Including some two-player modes where you alternate turns trying to out score each other.

Robert Fulop developed the game for the Atari 2600, and after Imagic had settled with Atari over the similarities in Demon Attack to Phoenix (Atari had home console publishing rights), it would go on to be one of the best-selling games on the system. There are no less than three printings of the game. A text label version, and a picture label version are the most common. You’ll find they’re often one of the cartridge variants you’ll see in a bundle of VCS games. After the crash, Imagic would find itself absorbed into Activision who would put it back out in their line of re-releases. This cartridge eschews the original Imagic style, and comes in an Activision shell, with a blue label. This version is considerably rarer than the common types, but is still far from impossible to find.

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In any event Imagic had other programmers port the game to several other platforms of the time. The Intellivision, Magnavox Odyssey 2, Commodore VIC 20, Commodore 64, Atari 400/800, TI-99, and Tandy computer all saw versions of Demon Attack. Many of them have better graphics than the original version, and include a boss fight! Be that as it may the VCS original holds its own by having such fluid, and responsive controls. In fact, it’s better than many of the more advanced ports that released elsewhere.

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Be that as it may, most of the ports are still quite good, and the boss fight can be pretty interesting as you transition between a surface, and space setting. Defeating it then continues onto the following wave. An interesting piece of info is that the 2600 version of the game almost had an end, as after the 84th wave the game would not continue. After release though, someone managed to get that far, and so the game’s future pressings added a line of code which made the game endless. Unfortunately, there’s no real way to know which cartridge will have the original run inside without actually getting to the 84th wave.

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Demon Attack isn’t particularly hard to find these days, Especially not the Atari 2600 version. However, the Odyssey 2 port is an exception. Like many other third-party Odyssey 2 games, it isn’t something you’ll stumble upon in the wild all too often. Still, no matter which version you play is a fun time. Even if the box art does consistently make appearances in bad box art articles. Demon Attack may be a simple game by today’s standards, but it did a lot of things few other fixed shooters were doing. It’s an early game everyone ought to check out. For those who are curious but don’t want to invest in one of the platforms it appeared on just yet, it is in the Activision Anthology for the PS2, and PC.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Beamrider Review

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In the interim between the North American console market crash of 1983, and its eventual return to greatness in 1985 something had happened. While many software houses disappeared, others survived. One such case was Activision. Activision began to see a proverbial life boat in home computers. They continued to support the Atari 2600, 5200, Intellivision, and Colecovision. But while many other companies struggled with what to do next, they were one company who began making computer versions of their games. At one point, they even changed their name to Mediagenic for a short time, and tried branching out into other kinds of software. This didn’t work. But the migration to computer gaming did.

PROS: Great presentation. Great game play.

CONS: Accidentally wasting missiles.

DON’T: Accidentally destroy the 1-Ups.

One such pre NES era Activision game is Beamrider. Released in 1983, and coded by David Rolfe, it’s a space ship shoot ’em up with a third person view. What makes this game stand out however are the Tron inspired lines your ship, the enemies, and objects move along. Every one of the 99 waves sees your ships flying along a giant grid. you can move left or right, and you can fire with the fire button.

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Interestingly, you only stop moving upon each vertical line. This is where a lot of the high play comes in later. Like you, the enemies can move along horizontal lines. Unlike you, they aren’t limited to those lines. They’ll flow, in, and out of the background. Often going up, and down the lines in their attack patterns. Early on, you’ll face some pretty simplistic enemy fighters. Your lasso shaped lasers will take them out in a single hit, and the only real obstacles are the indestructible green shields that float around on the lines.

But after a few waves you’ll find yourself avoiding meteors, shields, enemy ships, and more. Each wave the enemy attack patterns become more, and more complicated. On top of this, you’ll have to avoid the aforementioned enemy shields, meteors, and other obstacles. You should also know you can only fire one laser at a time. There are no rapid fire features or power ups to save you. If you can get far into Beamrider you’ll find it gets faster, and throws in more, and more. But despite this fact, once you really begin to learn to analyze patterns you’ll find things become easier to deal with. By no means does the game become a breeze. But you’ll go further, and further before things seem insurmountable. Even when they do, remember every wave only consists of 15 standard enemies. It’s avoiding all of the extra stuff while trying to destroy them that presents that addictive high score challenge.

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At the end of each wave (Which the game calls Sectors) is a massive boss that scrolls off in the distance. If you can destroy it using your torpedoes, you’ll get a massive point bonus. You can shoot these by pushing up on the controller. But note you’ll only have three torpedoes per life. So use them wisely. Something that will no doubt keep you around is the way the game deals out 1-Ups. Instead of calling them 1-Ups or Extra Lives the game refers to them as Rejuvenators. These appear on the play field, and have an interesting mechanic. If you crash into them, you’ll gain another life. If you shoot them, they become space debris, and crashing into them will kill you. It’s something so small, yet changes up the game because it’s another thing you have to keep watch for.  It also ties into the game’s storyline.

Yes. Beamrider has a storyline. In the distant future, a massive device known as the Restrictor Shield isolates the Earth. As the Beamrider, you have to clear the shield which is composed of 99 sectors. Each of which is guarded by a Sector Sentinel. As you get further, and further the deluge deepens. David Rolfe’s Beamrider initially released on the Intellivision, and the Atari 2600 (with some minor concessions I’ll get to). Activision contracted Action Graphics to convert the game to the Atari 5200, Atari 400/800/XE computer line, Colecovision, Commodore 64, and MSX computer platforms. Activision contracted Software Creations to port the game to the ZX Spectrum.

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Graphically, Beamrider is a game that was visually impressive back when it was new, and it still doesn’t look too shabby today. Most of the versions are able to render an auto scrolling grid effect, and the Intellivision, Colecovision, Atari 5200, Atari 8-bit computers, MSX, and Commodore 64 versions all have a really cool blast door effect. When you begin a new wave, you’ll see a top, and bottom door, with a gap in the middle. That gap actually displays the animated grid you’ll be playing on! The doors open, and you’re off. It blew everyone away in 1983, and it’s still impressive today. Some have compared the look to Nintendo’s Radar Scope, or Konami’s Juno First. While these games do have grids, (Juno First being made up of dots rather than lines) they don’t auto scroll the way David Rolfe’s shooter does. The game play is also quite different here, making things feel rather unique.

Another really cool feature with these versions happens when you lose a ship. Upon your death, you will see the grid fade off into the distance, leaving behind a starry background while your flaming scrap heap of a ship floats through the depths of space. Then it’s back to the blast doors unless you’re out of lives. Then you’re stuck with a Game Over.  The Atari 2600 version makes a couple of cutbacks, likely due to the memory limitations of the console. Two of the enemy ship types have been omitted from the game, and the blast door effect is also missing. The animated grid effect is here, although the vertical lines are composed of dots rather than lines.  You also won’t be getting the grid elimination effect upon your demise. Again, this is likely due to either limitations of memory, or the 2600’s TIA chip. Despite these edits however, it is one of the most responsive versions of Beamrider. It manages to keep performance up to pace with the more visually appealing ports, and retains nearly everything else.

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The ZX Spectrum port retains the blast door effect, but the grid effect is made entirely of dots rather than lines. It also doesn’t have the grid fade effect when you die. Although when you’re out of lives it does change to a deep space background. It doesn’t look as nice as the other versions, but it retains the general game play.  If you can somehow make it through all of the sectors in any of the versions it won’t matter as the score will max out at 999,999 points. Be that as it may, there are but a proverbial handful of people who can or have done this. So if you can do it, congratulations. And even if you can’t, find solace in the fact that if you can crack 40,000 points or more by Sector 14 you could have won a coveted Activision patch back in the day. (Throughout their early days, the publisher rewarded skilled play with iron on patches based on their games.) Still, this is a shmup I would say just about anybody can enjoy. About the only issue you’ll run into is how easy it is to accidentally fire a torpedo you’ve been saving for the Boss.

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If you don’t happen to own one of the retro platforms Beamrider first appeared on, but you find yourself interested in playing it, it did appear in a couple of compilations.  Activision Anthology (PS2, GBA), Activision Anthology Remix (PSP, PC) featured the 2600 version of the game, while the Activision Commodore 64 15 Pack (Windows 95) features the Commodore 64 version. If you can manage to find Intellivision Rocks, (PC) you’ll find the original Intellivision version is included.

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So often in the world of retro games, early titles get overlooked for a variety of reasons. Beamrider should not be one of those games. If you collect for one of the consoles or computers it originally appeared on, keep an eye out for it. It isn’t one of the cheaper titles for those platforms, but it is certainly worth having in your collection. For those who aren’t ready to dive into investing into one of those platforms, but are interested in checking it out, one of the aforementioned compilations is worth looking into. Beamrider is one of the highlights of home gaming in the first half of the 1980’s. Whether you’re an enthusiast of the genre who owns everything from Aleste to Giga Wing, or a fan looking to play something different, Beamrider is one shmup that stands the test of time.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

River Raid Review

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Released in 1982, River Raid was one of Activision’s earliest hits. Long before being known for controversial business practices, and publishing another Call Of Duty annually they were a fledgling upstart. One that took the unbridled creativity of ex Atari programmers, and gave them credit for producing games. Many of the early Activision names went on to have big successes on the Atari 2600. David Crane, Garry Kitchen, were two of the big names. But River Raid was made by Carol Shaw.

PROS: Tight controls. Game play innovations. One of the 2600’s marvels.

CONS: The complete lack of a soundtrack.

RED ALERT: The panic ensues at higher stages.

She had done other games while working for Atari, like 3D Tic-Tac-Toe which added an awful lot of depth to a simple game. But River Raid was, and still is one of the technical marvels in the Atari 2600 library. It was also one of the earliest games that would publicly acknowledge a woman for creating it. Not only does the River Raid manual include a short bio about her (the way all of the early Activision game manuals credited their games’ respective designers), future ports made her name the marquee.

As for the game itself, it may seem like any other simple arcade style shoot ’em up of the era. But River Raid, does a lot of things that were revolutionary at the time. For starters, when you fire up the game for the first time, you’ll see visual details that many other 2600 games simply did not have at that time. Most of the 2600 shmups up to that point took place on a black background, on a static screen. River Raid also bucked that trend, by being one of the earliest shooting games on the 2600 to scroll vertically. Many other titles would also show up around that time to do vertical scrolling like Data Age’s Journey Escape, or Parker Bros.’ Spider-Man. Players who weren’t around for those early years of console games, may not realize just how big a deal this was.

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That one feature would set it apart from many other games released on the market from 1977 to 1982. But a lot of vertically scrolling games made for the VCS in 1982 onward would now have to meet or beat this standard. Graphically, River Raid is also one of the most visually impressive games on the Atari 2600. The game makes excellent use of color to determine where there is water, where there is land, and even has some pretty cool enemy vehicle designs.

The object of the game of course, is to try to score as many points as possible without touching any land. Or crashing into vehicles or bridges for that matter. You’re flying along a river of no return. As such, you’re basically flying just above the choppy waters trying to shoot down targets. You’ll be blowing up tanker ships, helicopters, and higher altitude fighter planes. The river is broken up into sections. At the end of each of these sections is a bridge that needs to be destroyed in order to advance to the next section.

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All of this might sound pretty easy until you also notice there’s a fuel gauge on the screen. River Raid also utilizes a fuel system. If your plane runs out of gas, at any time you’ll fall into the river, and explode. How do you keep your aircraft fuelled, and airborne? By flying over fuel tanks. But the little touches that add complexity aren’t over yet. You see, you can also accelerate, and decelerate your plane. pushing up on the joystick will speed up your plane, while pulling back will slow it down. What complicates matters is the fact that the faster you fly, the faster you run out of gas, and it becomes harder to maneuver small areas.

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Moreover, the sections of river become more, and more complex the further you go. The game speeds up, and you’ll see branching paths in the river at the last possible second. Then you’ll have to start making split second choices. Do you take the path with more enemies, and try to go for points? Or do you take the path with a lot of twists, and turns? The latter might not have enemies, but it does have a lot of fuel. On the other hand, the paths are narrow. So getting through without crashing into a riverfront house is going to prove difficult. And of course the game’s scoring system gives you some respectable points for blowing up fuel containers. But if you do that, you won’t be able to get all of the fuel out of them. Unless you become a top-tier player who knows exactly when to blow up the container while refueling. One thing that is nice, is that the game sets off a warning when you’re almost out of fuel. You also get extra lives for doing well. Every 10,000 points will give you an extra plane, though you will max out at nine of them.

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Of course, River Raid did so well on the Atari 2600 Activision would port it to most of the popular platforms of the era. There were versions for the Atari 8-bit family of home computers, as well as the Atari 5200. There were also ports for IBM PC compatibles, the MSX, ZX Spectrum, and Commodore 64 computers too. Activision even put out versions for the Intellivision, and ColecoVision.  Nearly all of these versions look much better than the 2600 original, but the 2600 version is arguably a little bit more responsive than some of the others. A few of the ports do add a few arrows to the quiver like tanks that shoot at you from the bridges, and faster attack helicopters. Still, no matter which version of the game you pick up, you’re going to have a great time. River Raid stands the test of time because of the core game design. Every aspect of the game offers you some element of risk versus reward. It also does this with some airtight controls. If you’re collecting for a platform it appeared on, you really ought to pick it up. Especially if that platform is the Atari 2600. The 2600 original is a pioneer on many fronts, and it’s still a blast today. Classic game enthusiasts are still trying to speed run their way to the kill screen of exclamation. Whether you grew up playing shmups in the era of Space Invaders or the era of Ikaruga, chances are you’ll be able to appreciate River Raid, and what it did for the decades of shmups that followed.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Toy Bizarre Review

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As we get closer to Christmas, this year I’ve found myself going through my library, and replaying old games. Part of this is due to nostalgia. The years of childhood Christmas memories. Gaming with friends, and family. It’s great being able to experience some of this old stuff in my collection, and it’s also great being able to share those experiences with others. Seeing how we are in the holiday season, we’re looking at a holiday themed game.

PROS: Frantic, and enjoyable.

CONS: Long load times.

NEAR EXCLUSIVE: Only saw release on two computer platforms.

Toy Bizarre lives up to its namesake. It centers around toys, and it’s bizarre. The game takes place in a toy factory where the automation has gone awry, creating killer toys. If the box art is any indication, it also happens to be Santa’s workshop. So Toy Bizarre also appears to have a bit of Silent Night Deadly Night embedded inside.

Each level of the factory is a single screen affair, and right away you’ll notice the gameplay is a little bit reminiscent of Nintendo’s Mario Bros. But only slightly so. In Mario Bros. You would punch floors from below creatures to knock them upside down so you could then bump them off the screen for points. Here, you’ll have floor layouts, and entrances similar to the ones in Nintendo’s platformer, and there’s some bumping things off-screen for points. But there’s a lot more going on than that.

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One major thing you’ll find are little valves throughout the level. If left unattended they eventually inflate balloons. If you don’t pop the balloons in time they will float to the top of the screen, and pop. If you let the balloons pop on their own the explosion will summon different kinds of toys. Touching these toys is fatal. In order to remedy that you have to get them to land on specific surfaces. While they’re on these surfaces, you can quickly jump to a switch that will temporarily deactivate the toys, so you can destroy them. Each level has a certain number of balloons to be destroyed while the punch clock winds down. The faster you can do this, the more time you have left at the end, which also gives you more points.

One strategy a lot of people will also go for on their quest for a high score is to shut off valves. This is an excellent strategy to employ. However there is yet another hurdle the factory throws at you. Remember those cheap wind up walker toys we’ve all had at one time or another as children? You know the type. They have a key or knob sticking out of their back, you twist it as far to the right as it can go, then set it down. The toy then walks around until it either falls off of a table, or collapses on itself.

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Well imagine if there were a giant, life-sized, killer toy android that worked that way. Because apparently, Santa Claus invested in one of them in his toy factory. This automation has also gotten the HAL 9000 virus, and decided that you need to die for it to complete its mission. Not only do you have to avoid this thing at all costs, The android will turn on any valves you’ve previously shut off, allowing for more balloons, more killer toys, and less time on the clock. There are even bonus stages called Safety Checks where you have to shut off all of the valves before the android can turn them back on. And the android will manage to get a couple of then on. In later safety checks you’ll sometimes contend with multiple androids.

If all of that sounds confusing, fear not. It becomes easy to understand once you’ve played the game for a few minutes. Once you understand it, you have yourself a very addictive, and entertaining holiday puzzle-platformer. But it gets better! Because every stage has a different layout from the last. Where in Mario Bros. the only deviation were new enemies to figure out how to defeat, in Toy Bizarre you have to also learn maps.

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One saving grace are power ups called Coffee Breaks, where you literally grab a cup of coffee, and everything stops. During the coffee break you’re basically invincible, and you have a few quick seconds to clear everything before the balloons, toys, and evil androids get back to work. If you’re good enough at Toy Bizarre you can start to loop stages. Again, being an arcade puzzle-platformer you’re not in pursuit of an ending, but a high score.

The game was designed by Mark Turmell who did a number of computer games for Activision. One of the best being Fast Tracks, which I’ll have to get around to doing a review for. But Toy Bizarre is another Activision game from the era, that isn’t as fondly remembered as the heavy hitters they put out on the Atari 2600, and other platforms of the time. Which is a shame, because almost everything about the game is spot on. It holds up in almost every way. The hit detection is great. You’ll rarely have a moment where you hit an enemy, and can’t believe it was a possibility. Due to the kind of game it is, later stages do tend to put in more, and more obstacles that the majority of players find difficult to overcome. But it doesn’t feel like your deaths are cheap.

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And while visually one could argue it doesn’t look as nice as Mario Bros., one can’t deny it is a cut above what one would find on average back then. It still looks nice enough. It does a lot with the simplicity. Factor in the ominous song that plays between rounds, and you’ve got some eerie atmosphere going on in a soulless toy factory. The only major problem with Toy Bizarre are the load times. Activision released the game on three formats for the Commodore 64. Datasette Cassette tape, 5.25″ Floppy Disk, and Cartridge. The cassette version by far has the worst of the load times. Most tape games can take several minutes to load into memory, but this game is insufferably long on tape. The Floppy Disk version is nowhere near as bad, but still takes longer than a lot of other games on disk. Which is weird considering just how small the game is, even for the time. The cartridge version is obviously preferred in this regard. But keep in mind that cartridge versions of C64 games can be harder to find since most users had a Datasette drive or a Floppy drive. That doesn’t necessarily make them rare, but they can be uncommon. As such expect the cartridge version to set you back more than the other formats.

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The game also came out for the ZX Spectrum in Europe. I don’t have either the computer or that version of Toy Bizarre, so I really can’t compare the versions. Though the game was published by Mastertronic in some territories outside of North America. No matter how you slice it though, aside from terrible load times, Toy Bizarre is one of the best Santa themed games to be experienced. If you have a working C64, track down a copy. The only other way to find it, is if you can track down the Activision Commodore 64 15 pack collection for Windows 95. Which can be a hassle to get running on a modern PC.

Final Score: 8 out of 10.

Frostbite Review

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Last week I looked at a pretty great handheld with a bunch of Atari 2600 games on it. Seeing how we’re in the midst of the holiday season, and snow is beginning to trickle down upon us  I thought I’d go with a theme. A seasonal theme. So this week coming off of the Flashback portable I’m revisiting the glorious 2600 again to talk about Frostbite.

PROS: An excellent combination of puzzles, and platform jumping!

CONS: Sensitive controls.

POLAR BEAR: Frostbite’s lone boss isn’t the lovable Coca-Cola mascot you love.

Created by Steve Cartwright, Frostbite is one of the best Activision published Atari 2600 games you may have missed. So often when talking about Activision’s earliest games we remember the super hits. Pitfall!, River Raid, and Kaboom!. But a lot of other great games they put out in their heyday often get lost in the shuffle. Which is a shame, because Frostbite is not only one of the best Activision games, it’s one of the best games on the Atari 2600.

There are a lot of games on the console that can land in that pantheon. So why does Frostbite deserve to join them? What does this game do better than other games of the type? Frostbite takes one major cue from Q*Bert, and builds an entirely new concept around it. In that game you jump on the top surfaces of blocks to change their colors until they all match. But in this game you play as a builder named Frostbite Bailey. Frostbite Bailey needs to build an igloo to survive in. In order to do this you have to jump on ice floes as they float down an icy ocean current. When you land on one, a brick shows up on the shore, and the ice flow changes to a blue color.

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Once every row of ice floes turns blue, they turn snow-white again, and you continue building your igloo by jumping on them. When the last jump is made, a door appears, and you can enter your igloo to end the level. While the concept sounds simple enough, you’ll find the game is anything but easy. Moreover, the better you become, the more difficult the hurdles that are thrown in front of you. Besides all of this, there is a thermometer that acts as a timer. If you can’t complete a level before the temperature hits zero, you’ll freeze to death. And you really do. The death animation shows your dead corpse turn blue in the icy tundra. There are a litany of ways to die in Frostbite. Miss a jump, and you’ll drown in a watery grave as your heart stops. Animals will pull you into the ocean to kill you. Or chase you down, and maul you.

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The really nice thing is, you’re eased into the mechanics. The first level runs very slow, and you’ll only have the snow geese to contend with, while you jump around building your igloo. But each successive level adds more danger. First these dangers are minor. King crabs join the fray. Ice floes become rows of smaller chunks. But by the fourth level things start to kick into overdrive. Ice flows break apart or sink after so many seconds spent standing on them. Killer clams show up. The enemy attack patterns begin to change. The toughest addition is the polar bear who comes out of hibernation. From this point on, you’ll have a boss you cannot kill. All you can do is attempt to sneak into your igloo once it is built. If you get spotted at all by the bear, it will chase you down, and kill you off-screen.

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But to balance these challenges are some nice scoring mechanisms. To start with, you’ll get points for jumping on ice floes. You get points for any degrees left on the temperature timer at the end of every round. Sometimes the game will throw you a bone by sending out a row of fish where you may normally see killer crabs, clams, and geese. These can be eaten for points. Every 5,000 points you score nets you a 1-Up. Fish also add a big risk/reward element. Do you go for the extra food points, or just try to get into your igloo before you freeze to death?

But even with the extra credits, you’re forced to do better. You’ll soon learn in later stages you have to make a lot of diagonal jumps. Because going directly up or down many times will land you right on a crab who will pull you into the ocean, and kill you by hypothermia. You’ll also need to master this if you have any hope of successfully avoiding polar bears. The polar bears love to stalk the doorway of your igloo once it’s been built, and you’ll need enough clearance to quickly get away, and into the igloo.

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On top of all of this Frostbite triples the speed of the game every major score metric. You’ll first notice it if you can crack 10,000 points. But at every noteworthy score it gets faster, and faster. Back when the game was new, Activision gave high scorers one of their coveted patches if they could crack 40,000. With some practice, and determination this is achievable. What is really astonishing after playing the game, is discovering footage of players reaching scores in the hundreds of thousands of points.

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But here’s the thing. Even though Frostbite may have released in the summer of 1983 it retains a level of addictive gameplay on par with mainstays like Tetris. Like any of your favorite games it has a great mix of elements that will keep you coming back once you’ve played it. It also has that classic Activision look. Simple graphics, yet somehow laced with enough detail that it looks a cut above most other games. Activision, and Imagic were wonderful in this regard. Frostbite is no exception. Bailey has some nice touches like his hair peeking out from under his hood, and all of the creatures have cool animations going on. There isn’t anything in the way of music, but the sound effects go along with everything nicely. Especially the gnashing teeth of the polar bear when he gets you.

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If you collect for the VCS, Frostbite, like many Activision games should be on your buy list. It isn’t a very common game, but it isn’t outlandishly rare either. It’s one of the more affordable uncommon games too. If you don’t have an Atari 2600 on hand, there are a number of Activision 2600 collections that include the game. The Activision Anthology on the PC, and PS2 being one of the best. There is also a mobile version of the Activision Anthology, making Frostbite, and other titles playable on modern tablets, and phones. Of course nothing beats playing on the original hardware, but these are great alternatives.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Pitfall II: Lost Caverns Review

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Last week we looked at one of the most important games in history. It was one of the first platformers. One of the best early console, and home computer games. It was also one of the best games to debut on the seminal Atari 2600.  So a sequel was only natural. Unfortunately, the great video game industry crash meant that a lot of people never got to play it when it came out. Which is a shame because once again, David Crane’s Pitfall Harry, performed a few more major firsts.

PROS: Improved visuals, added music, effects, and more!

CONS: In some ways, this is an easier game.

SCORPIONS: Even deadlier now thanks to a glitch.

Pitfall II: Lost Caverns is not only one of the best games on the Atari 2600, it is one of the most memorable experiences to come out of the golden age of video games. This is partly due to it being one of the earliest games to have features we take for granted today. The object of Pitfall II is also a little bit different here. In the first game, you’re trying to figure out a path through a jungle that will lead you to all of its treasures. All under a time limit, on two lives. All while doing it in the shortest time possible, with the least amount of mistakes.

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In Pitfall II, Pitfall Harry has to find a very specific diamond ring, as well as rescue his niece Rhonda, and pet mountain lion Quickclaw who have gotten themselves trapped in a cavern. These characters were first introduced in the Pitfall cartoon. So their appearance in this game could make the show canon. At least in the eyes of some. Gameplay is built off of the core of the first Pitfall. You still have a flip-screen mechanic when going left to right. But when going vertically the game adds scrolling into the mix.

It isn’t even something you question. It just feels like a natural extension of the game play. While you won’t be swinging over ponds, tar pits, and jumping on crocodile or alligator heads you still look for treasure. Sure, saving your relative, pet, and getting that diamond are the main goal. But if you want any hope of a perfect score you need to find every last gold bar too. Pitfall II also introduces a checkpoint system.

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These days, many games have checkpoints. But back in the days of names like Atari, Coleco, and Commodore the concept was rare. On home computer platforms you could save your progress in some RPGs. or your high score in some arcade ports. But checkpoints were especially rare on computers. They were non-existent on consoles. The fact you don’t have to start the entire game over if you make a mistake in this game was sorcery at the time. It also doesn’t have a count down, which may make you calmer.

Still, the one drawback to checkpoints in Pitfall II is that it makes the game much easier. There are also unlimited lives. So really it is impossible to lose. As long as you can get to the three main targets you can beat the game. To alleviate this sticking point, the game still has a monetary punishment for mistakes. You see, like its predecessor you lose a lot of money if you have to go back to a checkpoint. In fact, the further ahead of the last checkpoint you touched (a small cross on the ground you walk over), the more money you’ll lose. You also lose money if you fall, and land on your feet. So if you miss a jump, and land two or three levels lower (you can change your trajectory a few pixels by trying to move as you fall) your score gets lighter. You gain money for finding gold bars. You gain money for hitting each of your three metrics.

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Though there may not be a clock winding down to a Game Over for you should it get to zero, there is a clock. The game times you for your overall performance in hitting your three metrics. Which makes Pitfall II a speed runner’s challenge. Whereas before, the challenge was getting it all done in less than a half-hour making no mistakes. Now it’s about finding every last bar of gold, your ring, pet, and niece in the quickest time possible. Also without making any mistakes. Because you want to be the one with a perfect score in the shortest amount of time.

So while beating Pitfall II is easier than beating Pitfall, Pitfall II is actually harder when you put the restrictions of a speed runner on yourself. Because the dangers are not very easy to avoid. The very first enemy you run into will dash your hopes. If you fall into a hole early on you’ve missed the first bar of gold, and a perfect score. Playing the game with the mindset of a classic gaming champion can potentially keep you playing this game for years.

Visually the game sees a respectable jump over the first game. Little graphical details like the indents, and grooves on a boulder pop up immediately. The wider variety in enemies is also noticeable quickly. There are killer birds that I’m convinced were analyzed deeply by Konami’s designers. Because Castlevania’s Medusa heads fly in an eerily similar pattern. You also have bats to deal with, electric eels, and of course the classic mutant scorpions that are just as big as Pitfall Harry.

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And little glitches don’t break the game but add new challenges. If you climb a ladder to find there are scorpions above, and below you sometimes being in just the right place on the ladder will make them pace right where you need to climb off of the ladder. Sometimes the wave in the pattern of the flying birds may change, meaning you have to quickly realize where the arcs in it have moved to.

Of course, Pitfall II let’s you explore at your own pace. So when you’re first starting out, you may miss the diamond ring, or Rhonda on your first pass. Congratulations. The game doesn’t end, a little creature forces you out of Quickclaw’s cowering space. Now you have to go explore again. If you do beat the game, Harry jumps about with excitement as the theme song speeds up again.

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Speaking of music, Pitfall II was such a massive game at the time, that David Crane engineered a sound chip that is embedded in every copy of Pitfall II. The game squeezes every last bit of processing power out of the Atari 2600, and to even play music during it, would have been impossible otherwise. So Pitfall II is one of the earliest video games featuring some sort of tech being piggybacked onto its ROM cartridge. Something we wouldn’t see much again for a while. This can almost be seen as a precursor to Nintendo’s MMC chips used in some NES Game Paks.

Pitfall II: Lost Caverns was also ported to a wide variety of platforms. The Commodore 64 version is one of the better known versions being redone from the ground up by Tim Shotter. The end result is a nearly 1:1 experience compared with the 2600 version. The Atari 800 version, and Atari 5200 version were given an additional subtitle called Adventurer’s Edition because the coder Mike Lorenzen added an entire bonus cavern as well as a second ending for those who beat the game, and then beat the bonus cavern.

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These versions look a little bit closer to the 2600 version than the C64 version does, though the C64 version gets a slight edge in the audio thanks to the superior sound processing power of its SID chip. Pitfall II also saw versions on the Colecovision, Apple II, TRS-80, and the IBM PCjr. One of the most interesting ports of Pitfall II is Sega’s. Sega got the rights from Activision to make their own version of the game for arcades, and for the SG-1000 console in Japan. This version is less a Pitfall II port, and more of a blend of Pitfall, and Pitfall II: Lost Caverns.

Of course every one of these ports has its own charm but the Atari 2600 original stands out due to its historical significance. That said, if you collect games for any of the platforms it appeared on, Pitfall II is a game you should pick up, and play.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Overwatch Review

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I know. Once again, I’m super late to the proverbial party. You’ve probably made up your mind to buy this game a long time ago, or not. At this point reviewing it might seem like a pointless endeavor. But after receiving the game as a birthday gift recently, I may be able to come up with something new to say about it. Or not. You can decide.

PROS: Blizzard does it again. Fun times, with surprisingly low requirements.

CONS: There really isn’t that much for you if you like to play alone.

TURRET NOOB: Is what I was called after getting a kill streak with a gnome.

I saw all of the pre release hype for Overwatch, but never found myself as pumped to play it as everyone else seemed to be. That isn’t to say I thought from the outset it would be terrible. Just that it might not be my cup of tea. Blizzard has a long history of putting out great material. Most notably the Warcraft, and StarCraft games. They made the greatest MMO of all time too. No other MMORPG has come close to capturing players’ imaginations the way World Of Warcraft, and its expansion packs have. Before WOW, the biggest three MMOs anyone remembers are Ultima Online, Everquest, and Asheron’s Call. A few others might make the pre- Blizzard cut. But the point is, in the eyes of many, they essentially claimed an entire genre for themselves. At least on the monthly payment model. It’s a game that has been going for 12 years strong. Blizzard even had noteworthy titles before Warcraft was a behemoth. They even made the excellent Death, And Return Of Superman beat ’em up for the Super NES, and Sega Genesis.

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The point is I had no doubts Blizzard would do a good job in any genre. They could release an Overwatch shmup tomorrow, and it would probably be very good. Overwatch is very good. My reservations were really less about it being sub par, and more about it not being something I could get into. I love playing First-Person Shooters. Many of my most played games fall into the category. But some of the most revered games in the genre haven’t always gripped me. A lot of people have sunk years into Team Fortress 2 for example. I played that game. I enjoyed it for what it was. But never found myself engrossed in it. Overwatch, at least on the surface can appear to be a Team Fortress 2 competitor.

It shares many of the same modes. It goes for an animated look rather than a gritty or realistic one. It has a bunch of cosmetic unlockable stuff, and even the potential for an in-game economy. But yet, there are a number of differences, that not only give the game its own identity, but make it more compelling to play.

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One of those differences is the cast. The characters in Overwatch are far more interesting. not only from an aesthetic perspective, but because of how each one plays. The game has four classes, and several characters within each. In the Attacker class you have well-rounded, jack-of-all-trades types. They can be good to some degree in most situations. Then you have Support class healer characters. These characters can boost the health of their teammates,  and fill support roles. There are Tank class characters that can take more damage, and defend other players or objectives in key times. Finally, there are the Defensive class characters. These tend to have more ranged attacks to cover the other classes as they push on.

But each character within those parameters is still different from each other. No two tanks are alike. No two defenders are alike. There are different abilities, and perks that change the dynamics of how your team gets the job done. You may have two friends who enjoy playing  ranged attackers. But Hanzo’s long-range archery feels very different from Widowmaker’s sniping. Over time you’ll find it pays to try out every one of the twenty available characters. Not just because you’ll likely find the one you feel best fits your play style. But because each of the game’s maps, and modes require different strategies. Just because you can hold down an objective on Route 66 with Bastion’s gatling gun, doesn’t mean he is a good fit for you when you have to capture a point in the Temple of Anubis in the following game.

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The makeup of your team is also important. You can compose your team with whatever characters you choose. But each map is designed in a way where having every player choose a designated role is beneficial. Odds are that if you have a team with equal number of defenders, attackers, supporters, and tanks you’re better positioned to win. Each character has a distinct load out, and perk to accomplish that victory. You’ll have a primary attack, a secondary attack, and a special ability. Some characters will have other optional moves to beef up their special ability. For instance, when playing as Torbjörn one can set down a turret to target the enemy team. But you can also bang a hammer against it several times to upgrade it. Every character also has a super move you can use after filling up another meter. Most of these are really impressive looking, and powerful.

That doesn’t mean you can’t win with an odd number of each mind you, but it can prove to be that much more difficult. Because if you don’t have enough healers, you’re going down quickly. If you don’t have enough defenders, you’re likely to lose an objective. If you don’t have enough tanks or attackers you can find yourself overrun. Still, there is a fair amount of skill to be found. So truly great players can still overcome the odds if their team is staffed with more of any given class over another. Not easy by any means. But not impossible.

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This leads to an issue some potential players might have. There isn’t much here for you if you’re a solo player. This game is built almost exclusively for team play. If you’re someone who loves campaigns, competitive death matches, or one on one modes they’re not here. You can train against bots to improve. You can play with random players as well. But where the game really shines is when you have at least another three friends to play with. Because the game really values cohesion. You can sometimes find strangers online who will want to organize. But that isn’t going to be the case a lot of the time. Playing with friends means you’re more likely to want to co-operate, and communicate strategies.

There aren’t any innovative new modes here. But there are really well made, well-balanced renditions of proven modes. There is the Escort mode, which is a spin on Team Fortress 2’s cart pushing. One team attempts to move an object from one side of the map to the other with checkpoints solidifying ground gained. The defending team of course, tries to stop them by impeding their progress, and winding down the clock.

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There’s the Control mode, which works kind of like a King Of The Hill mode. A point unlocks on the map, and both sides try to lay claim to it, and hold it for as long as possible. The round is over once one side can hold the point long enough to fill a meter. The team to win two out of three or three out of five rounds wins.

The Assault mode is a variation that involves multiple control points. This plays closer to something like the Rush mode in the Battlefield games. Attackers try to take points, and push the defenders back. If the defenders get pushed all the way back to the last point they lose. The difference here is that there are no objectives at the end of the game, or between points. It’s still a lot of fun to play though, and is probably the best of the various game modes.There is also a Hybrid mode  which blends the three modes between rounds.

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Beyond all of this is the ability to have custom game lists with your friends privately, and a competitive mode which adds a couple of minor provisions to each of the three main modes for the tournament level players like number of rounds. There was also a recent update that added a soccer mode called Lucio Ball. In it you use your characters’ weapons, and move sets in order to shoot the ball across the field. It can break up some of the action of the regular modes, and is a genuinely fun update.

The game also has a season feature, where ranked competitors can try to earn exclusive skins, and bonuses for being near the top. These go on for a couple of months, with breaks in between so Blizzard can make tweaks, and updates. This is in addition to the regular loot boxes you can receive for levelling up over time. Even the standard stuff can be pretty neat, unlocking skins, spray tags, and other cosmetic stuff. Much like Team Fortress 2’s hat crafting, these are purely cosmetic things that don’t change the flow of the game. There is nothing like a more powerful weapon, or super secret character to unbalance things in your favor. However with the inclusion of seasons, there are some cool trinkets you can get for trying to claw your way to the top. Which does give players an incentive to play the game more often. It is true you CAN spend money on lootboxes for a chance to possibly get the cosmetic stuff earlier. But there’s no incentive to do so. Unless you simply cannot wait to unlock all of the skins, spray tags, and taunts.

One thing Blizzard has always done well with in its time making computer games is scalability. All of their games have historically had pretty low minimum system requirements. This has widened the appeal of their games since you could still play their games on fairly old hardware, and still have things look decent. Overwatch continues the trend. It looks splendid at max settings. But it also looks perfectly fine on lower settings. Awhile ago YouTuber LowSpecGamer did a nice video on getting the game running on old computers. While much has changed with recent patches, and things might not be as efficient as when he first made his episode, it’s still pretty good. There’s a fair amount of options you can turn on or off in the game’s own settings menu. So if you don’t have a midrange GPU, and you’re on an old CPU, you may still be able to enjoy Overwatch. Of course, this is all moot if you choose to play this on the Xbox One, or PlayStation 4 instead.

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Whatever platform you decide to play on, you’ll have a pretty good time with Overwatch. It could stand to have a few more modes, like a more robust Team Objective mode, and it isn’t made for lone wolves. But not every game needs to be a one player affair. Hopefully Blizzard will add a deeper Team Objective mode in the future, seeing how it’s something a lot of really good competing games have over Overwatch. Beyond this one sticking point though, I can wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who loves team games.

The net code seems consistent in my time with it, so it’s been rare I’ve suffered any lag. The VOIP options are fairly good. You may still prefer a different option to communicate to your team. But what your given works well. Classes, and characters seem fairly balanced too. No one character really seems to overpower anybody outside of a skill gap between players. Make no mistake, I was obliterated many, many times, and I’m still getting my ass handed to me pretty regularly. But I never feel like it’s the fault of the character I’m using at any given time. It’s pretty clear to me in these times that I still need to better learn a character’s feature, or that the opponent was simply much better than I was. If I had any other complaints it’s mainly with my glitch afflicted experience with the Battle Net app. The game itself seems to run fine.

If you’ve been on the fence with this one, it’s a pretty safe bet so long as you have some friends to play it with. What it lacks in modes, it makes up with its great characters, balanced gameplay, and competitive depth. The audio is pretty great too. The thumping tunes, wonderful voice acting, and some really great sound effects accent everything nicely. Overwatch may not be the best game Blizzard has done, but it’s still pretty great.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Keystone Kapers Review

Activision. There was a time when that wasn’t a name met with the same ire of Electronic Arts. These days, Activision is known as “Those guys who publish Call Of Duty, and sometimes Guitar Hero or Tony Hawk.” to many people. But there was a time when the company was very different in its business. Back in its infancy, Activision was helmed by a lot of people who created games in-house, and took chances. Oddly enough, a lot like Electronic Arts’ early days they wanted to make sure game creators were credited like authors or musicians. Formed by many people who used to work for Atari, Activision was one of the earliest third-party developers, and made games that really pushed what the Atari VCS could do.

Some of these games like Pitfall!, Kaboom!, and River Raid were so huge, that even today people hold them in high regard. Many an Atari, Colecovision, Intellivision, or home computer game collector are sure to have them in their collections with good reason. But Activision also took chances on some ideas that weren’t typical of the time period. One of those games is Keystone Kapers.

PROS: Fast, addictive gameplay.

CONS: High Score gaming may not appease some players.

KILL SCREEN: One of the 2600 cartridges that you can become too good with.

Programmed by Gary Kitchen (who did a lot of great work in Activision, and Absolute) Keystone Kapers is certainly a game that while adored when it came out, somehow isn’t mentioned much when talking about Activision’s glorious run in the golden age of consoles. But Keystone Kapers is worthy of all of the love it received in 1983, and it’s a cartridge anybody who collects old games should try to track down.

Keystone Kapers puts you in the role of a police officer named Keystone Kelly. A criminal named Harry Hooligan has broken out of prison, and run into a shopping mall where he plans to do more larceny, and escape the long arm of the law. Unfortunately Harry Hooligan isn’t all that bright. Because he doesn’t even stop off to change his clothes, or appearance. He just decides to go for a heist the second he breaks out of prison. Anyway Keystone Kelly arrives at the mall, and has to arrest Harry Hooligan before he can get away.

You start the game as Harry runs away. As stated before, your job is to arrest him as quickly, and efficiently as possible. At first, you’ll find he’s a really easy criminal to apprehend. But once you bust him, the game gives you the same task only each time Harry starts throwing more, and more obstacles to hinder you. Each time he gets away, or you fall victim to one of his traps you lose a life. You start the game with three lives, and you can earn bonus lives by scoring big points. Every 10,000 points nets you another life. How do you get points? By having time left on the clock when you catch Harry. The more time you have left, the bigger the point bonus. You can also pick up suitcases of money, and bags of money for around 50 points. In earlier stages you’ll get around 100 points multiplied by time left over, and later stages it can jump to 200 points, and then 300 points.

With every arrest you make, the game becomes more, and more difficult throwing all kinds of obstacles at you. Some items like shopping carts will cost you time if you hit them. Most other ones will take your life. Bouncing balls, model airplanes, and carts are the main traps you’ll run into, though there are others. To ensure that you run out of lives, each round not only adds more to impede your progress, but speeds them up as well. So while jumping over a cart the first time you see one may seem fairly easy, later levels will send them at you 100 miles an hour. Keystone Kapers can become really difficult, really quickly.

The game does throw one major bone your way though. That is a radar screen at the bottom of the TV screen. As you hunt down Harry by using escalators, an elevator, and your platform jumping skills it will tell you what floor he is presently on. Just remember Harry has a few cheap things he can do to you. First, if you chase him on the roof, he leaves you no way to go back to the lower floors. So you had better catch him if you follow him to the roof. In many cases the game leaves you no choice but to go to the roof. But note that if you miss him, he can get to lower floors. Second, Harry also has the strange ability to go down floors without using the escalator or elevators. Third he is also immune to his own booby traps of merchandise.

The game has no soundtrack, or many audio effects for that matter. Getting hit makes noise. Scoring points makes noise, and jumping makes noise. That’s about it. But the game has the same visual hallmarks Activision was known for on the 2600. Graphically, it is one of the better looking games on the console, utilizing some great tricks to simulate the elevator, and escalators. It also runs at a pretty great clip with no slowdown, even when the game throws a ton of stuff at you. The only issue I ever had is the precision entering an elevator takes. It requires pixel perfect placement, and timing. The 5200, Colecovision, and computer versions look even better. Adding more details to the shops you chase Harry Hooligan through. All of the versions run fairly well, though the 2600 version, and computer versions tend to have the best controls.

While the game isn’t very long given it’s a game centered around a high score, it is really engaging. Like Donkey Kong before it (Which Gary Kitchen also ported to the 2600 for Coleco), it may be simple to pick up, but the challenge can keep you playing for hours if you’re willing to let it. If you find yourself looking for a really fun classic game with staying power, track down a copy for yourself.

Final Score: 8 out of 10