Tag Archives: Classic Gaming

Super Mario Multiverse: Mario Bros.

 

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Well, the stars have aligned, the time has flown and here we are. The Well-Red Mage invited I as well as a slew of others to take part in the Super Mario Multiverse special crossover event. In it, you’ll see some words about the many, many, MANY games featuring Nintendo’s mustached mascot. Everyone remembers Super Mario Bros., Donkey Kong and Super Mario 64. But not a lot of people comparably talk about the first major game where his name was in the title.

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Mario Bros. came at a weird time for many of us. It bridged the gap between Mario’s adventures as a construction worker trying to save his girlfriend from a crazed ape and his time as a plumber trying to save royalty from a dragon turtle. And while a lot of people knew about it well in advance of Super Mario Bros. Some people didn’t. In fact, some people still don’t know it’s a thing. Imagine my surprise for instance, when a former coworker tried playing it on the Famiclone handheld I’d brought in for my lunch break one day. He kept trying to jump on the shell creepers and flies to no avail.

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Travel back to 1983 however, and you’ll find there were a few home versions released across several platforms. In Japan, the Famicom obviously got a version. But Hudson Soft also ported the game to the PC-88 computer. Ocean Software would port the game to a slew of computers in the European market including the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64. Here in the United States Atari would get the publishing rights and proceeded to release the game for the Atari 2600 and Atari 5200.  The 5200 version is interesting because the console largely used the same components as Atari’s 8-bit computer line, the 400/800, XL (and later under Tramiel) XE. Despite this fact, the 5200, and 400/800 versions were different games. When the XE came out years later, a vastly superior version came out from Atari Corp. which was backward compatible with the 400/800 and XL lines. It makes one wonder why this couldn’t have simply been on the 5200 years earlier.

Atari also published North American computer versions on its Atarisoft label. Most famously for the Commodore 64. Of course, the North American video game market crash was right around the corner. So before long Warner Communications (Warner Media) would sell the home division of Atari to Jack Tramiel, who had been pushed out of Commodore. This version of Atari was called Atari Corp. to differentiate itself from the Arcade division Warner still owned. Which they sold to Midway, who renamed it Atari Games West, folded it back into Midway, and then Midway sold itself to Time Warner. (Warner Media.).

 

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But I almost went on a tangent of coincidence there. We’re talking about Mario Bros. And Atari Corp. would port Mario Bros. to the Atari 7800, and the Atari 400/800/XE. At a time when the NES was already killing it with Super Mario Bros. Though you can also find Mario Bros. on the NES as well. It’s also interesting how the porting rights worked out back then as it often led to computer platforms getting two versions of the same game. In this case, Ocean brought Mario Bros. to European C64 owners while Atari brought Mario Bros. to North American C64 owners.

 

As an aside, there were a bunch of unofficial ports and sequels like Thundersoft’s Mario Bros II, which was more or less a reworking of Mario’s Cement Factory into a bottling plant. You filled cases of bottles and put them on a truck. And if you messed up, the boss would come out of their office and berate the Mario Bros. Thundersoft was mostly known as a group of European code crackers who would give away retail games with the anti-piracy measures removed. But this seems to be the one lone quasi-original thing they did. which they also gave away. It does, of course, use Nintendo’s characters and concept. But it doesn’t seem to have lifted graphics. Many of the other ports and clones of Mario Bros. walked much closer along the line of legality.

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Nintendo itself has also given the game these stealth reissues over the years. As a mini-game in Super Mario Bros. 3 then again as a mini-game in Mario & Luigi Superstar Saga. The port jobs, in general, are pretty good. Save for one or two bad ones, every one of them gets the core concept right. Some even go above and beyond. Atari’s Commodore 64 (as Atarisoft), and Atari 2600 versions are fantastic. Yes. The Atari 2600 version is a great version of Mario Bros. Atari Corp. also re-released it when they brought out the 7800 version which is also an excellent version of Mario Bros. In PAL (European) territories the 2600 re-release came as a red label variant no less, driving completionists just a little bit more crazy as there were already two domestic silver label variants in the wild.

 

Despite, all of the ways that Mario Bros. has been available to play though, a lot of people never checked it out. Particularly, Stateside. There are a few reasons for this, but many hypothesize the North American video game market crash certainly didn’t help. Fewer people were getting games as there was a lot of drivel out there at the time. There were also a lot of consoles out there. Sure most of us remember Atari 2600, Colecovision, and Intellivision. Thanks to the wealth of info out there today many of us wish we had maybe gotten a Vectrex. But ask the average person about an underlooked good system like the Magnavox Odyssey 2, and you’ll get a blank stare. Ask about the Emerson Arcadia 2001 and they may start wondering if you’re from another world. Or on a watchlist.

 

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These days, people worry if a fourth contender tries to enter the console market. Well, back in 1983 there were far more than four video game systems on store shelves. And most of them looked about the same in what they could do. Even the ones that looked better still had very similar games on them. There were also a lot of tiny upstarts throwing whatever they could at the wall to see what would stick.

 

And the home computers were running the same games at a higher fidelity, running their own deeper experiences the consoles didn’t have the features to handle, and they were getting down to similar prices. Before long everything would implode and Mario Bros. was one game that for at least a few people got lost in the shuffle. Some of this was felt in arcades too. While I can remember seeing Donkey Kong, and Donkey Kong Jr. among the machine selection at Chuck E. Cheese, I really only remember seeing Mario Bros. at Riverside Park when the family went to Agawam, MA. on a summer day. (It’s Six Flags New England now.)

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My first experience with the Atari 2600 version was at a friend’s. They had the Atari 2600 Jr. as well as an NES. I had never seen it before. But there it was. And while it isn’t the prettiest version of the game, it nails most of the gameplay down. There are a couple of tiny things missing like the ability to jump on the POW block. But the most important stuff is there. I’d imagine a lot of people’s first experience with a Mario game was Super Mario Bros. if it hadn’t been Donkey Kong. The NES was a juggernaut largely in part because of it. And it’s much more vast, and a more complex game compared to regular Mario Bros. But here’s the thing. Everyone who has played Super Mario Bros. but not Mario Bros. Should play Mario Bros. And before everybody jumps down my throat just hear me out.

First of all, it’s a really fun game. One that has a great sense of risk vs. reward. It’s also quite competitive when you get a second player as Mario and Luigi have to rally to outscore one another. It even can be dastardly when you’re intentionally bumping your opponent into enemies to stay alive longer. But more importantly than that, many of the things you love about Super Mario Bros. began here. Shellcreepers were the forebears to the Koopas. Coins are a big part of both games. and it got the ball rolling on Mario’s platforming style. There will be plenty of times you find yourself in situations where pixel-perfect jumps and timing are the only way to get out of hot water.

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Mario Bros. is also where the earliest series’ jumping physics got started. While not the same as in the Super Mario Bros. trilogy on the NES, they are similar. You can see what that classic bump and jump gameplay was built upon. Most of the Super Mario games feature bonus stages and even those are in Mario Bros. in the form of coin stages. Speaking of coins, they make that familiar sound whenever you collect them. But in Mario Bros.,  you had better get all of them if you want that sweet stack of bonus round points. And Mario Bros. even proves itself a viable stage in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. Even more so than Donkey Kong’s 75m stage.

It’s a game that is important on so many levels and is sadly overshadowed by historical factors and future Mario releases. Thankfully, Nintendo often reminds us of this with its presence in newer releases. And there is a slew of ways to play it today. Any number of the aforementioned home ports are out there for collectors to seek out. And you can still get the arcade version on the Nintendo Switch through the e-shop. The Nintendo Online service also includes sone NES and Super NES ROMs you can download at no additional charge. One of those games is the NES port of Mario Bros. So if you own a Switch, and have been considering paying the annual $20 to play against your friends in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe or Splatoon 2, you’ll also be able to check out NES Mario Bros. without having to track down the original Game Pak.

In any case, the next time you find yourself in a conversation about important Super Mario moments, remember that between chasing down a gorilla to save his ex-girlfriend and chasing down a dragon-turtle to save his current one, Mario ran a successful plumbing business with his brother Luigi. And it was during those years he gained the skills he needed to save the Mushroom Kingdom hundreds of times over.

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

Zeliard review

Outside of Ys, not a lot of Japan’s computer JRPGs  have made it stateside. But back in 1990 Sierra ported over one of Game Arts’ notable action RPGs from the PC-8801 to MS-DOS. Game Arts should be no stranger to you. They helped Nintendo, and Sora develop Super Smash Bros. Brawl on the Wii. Before that, they spent many years putting out role-playing games. The biggest being the Grandia, and Lunar series. Games that are still sought after, and played today.

PROS: Scalability (for the time). Great soundtrack. Dungeon crawling.

CONS: Occasionally wonky controls. Generic story. May have issues under DOSBox.

THANK HEAVENS: The manual came with dungeon maps.

At a first glance you might not care about Zeliard. The box art has an almost Mega Man 1 quality to it. If all you had to go by was the cover, you would think it was a game about a Viking who kills frogs. Once you install the game however, all of that changes. If you have an old machine, running the installer will ask you if you have a Monochrome, Hercules, CGA, EGA, Tandy, or MCGA display, along with asking with what sound card you have in your computer. This game was pretty scalable for its time. Back in the early 1990’s computer games were slowly taking advantage of newer hardware. But the people putting them out much like today, realized they couldn’t shoot for only the highest end. Zeliard even has a game speed setting for people to slow down or speed up the game depending on their computer’s processor. These days if you find a copy, the easiest bet is to fire up DOSBox, and run the game through it using an external floppy drive. Otherwise, you’ll have to hope you still have that old 286 in the cellar somewhere.

Anyway, once you’ve made your choices on settings the game will fire up into a prologue setting up the storyline. Zeliard doesn’t have a very complicated one. It follows the path of other JRPGs. As a wandering adventurer named Duke Garland, you stumble upon the kingdom of Zeliard. It is here you learn that its Princess has been turned into stone by an evil monster called Jashiin. In order to restore Princess Felicia you’ll have to recover sacred stones called the Tears of Esmesanti. You’ll be granted some currency, use it to buy the most generic of weapons, and proceed. As you play through the game, like all JRPGs you’ll level up your character, find or buy better gear, and do a lot of exploring. Zeliard also eschews the usual top down, or isometric perspective. Instead it takes the approach seen in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and later in Ys III: Wanderers from Ys. Implementing a side scrolling perspective. This doesn’t really hurt the game though because you’re not coming into it after a previous game. This is just simply the way this game works.

Zeliard follows the typical JRPGs tropes though. You’ll enter a town, talk to everyone, possibly get an item or two, then leave to go find an item, or grind your levels up. What is a little bit different though, is that you don’t wander off through a lot of terrain, and then find dungeons. Dungeons link the towns. So when you leave the very first town you’ll find yourself in a dungeon maze. These are designed pretty well, giving you a large variety of enemies to kill. Kill them, get the loot drops, and then head back to the town to buy better gear. Or find what you need to find, and get to the exit leading to the next town. The game can become a big grind at times, because you’ll want to collect a lot of orbs from fallen enemies. These are called Alma. They can be converted to gold in the town banks, which can then be used in the item shops for better gear. Which you’ll definitely need for going up against the bosses. One genuinely novel thing about these banks is that you can actually have an account. Why would you want a bank account in a town in Zeliard? Because it keeps your cash safe while questing. Something else you’ll need to continually do is get magical powers, and life bar upgrades from the sages in each town.Sages also act as a save system. You can save your progress in each town by visiting the sage room. You can also save or load by pressing one of the function keys to bring up an option.

The dungeons can also be intricate at times, sometimes intertwining, allowing for some convoluted routes. Some of which you need to take in order to find boss rooms, or the keys to enter the boss rooms. Zeliard has eight bosses leading up until the final encounter with Jashiin. If you have the proper items they’ll go down pretty easily. If you don’t, they’re going to be very difficult affairs that you can barely win, if you can win at all. In essence, it shares a lot in common with other action RPGs of the time period. The bosses range from typical to zany. You have the typical crab monster, or octopus. But then there are some silly ones, like a giant ice cube.  One of the bosses is actually in a town rather than a dungeon. Something that kind of comes out of left field.  Defeating bosses not only requires the right tools for the job, but learning patterns. When to jump, duck, or strike are things you need to memorize going in. So again, you’ll be firing up your save file a lot during your play through. You’re also going to want to stock up on health potions because one screw up on your part can lead to taking A TON of damage.

The dungeon environments are thankfully pretty varied once you get around 25% or more into the game. There are a bunch of themes here, ice, mountain, water, fire, a tomb, and so on. While they’re not the most original, they do keep things from feeling quite so redundant. Each boss guards one of the tears. So with each boss you defeat, you get that much closer to restoring Princess Felicia. Beating a boss feels satisfying. Because there is a combination of the challenge involved, and a really cool victory animation every time you recover one of the tears.

Since you’ll be spending most of the game dungeon crawling, you’re going to want to keep an eye on a stat besides your health bar. Your armor. Something Zeliard does that not many other games of its ilk did at the time is shield damage. Not only will enemies sap your health, but they’ll also damage your shield. If your shield takes too much damage, it will actually break, leaving you with no defensive power. You’ll have to enter a town, and buy another shield. If you die that can make things tough, as deaths cost you alma, and gold. Unless you stored it in your account. Thankfully, you can load the last save before your most recent demise. But if you die after doing an awful lot of stuff, expect to be frustrated. Because you’ll have to do all of it again. If you fail after that? Another saved game load.

One thing Zeliard especially excels in is music. The game grants players with a pretty awesome soundtrack. This game has some of the best chip tunes of any computer game. They’re catchy, fit the theme of the game excellently, and you’ll be humming them after playing. They are that good. Thumping rock tunes. Triumphant, orchestrated symphonies. Even if you decide to run this on an old XT you have sitting in the attic, and you only have a PC speaker for sound, it’s still pretty passable. They also did a fairly good job on the graphics. While running anything less than maxed, admittedly hasn’t aged well, it does look better than you would expect. Really, if Zeliard has any troubles, aside from looking old, it suffers from excessive backtracking. A lot of games make you go to earlier areas for items after you get to a higher level. But in Zeliard getting back to some of these sections is really complicated due to the maze doors in the dungeons. Another issue is it can sometimes have inconsistent hit detection. It isn’t so terrible that you can’t play, but once in a while you might take damage from an enemy that didn’t hit you very obviously. Sometimes this will prove difficult so you might find yourself reloading saves more than you might like. Finally, for those running the game under DOSBox, you might run into installation issues depending on your configuration. The worst case scenario here is that the game will only run in CGA mode, with PC speaker emulation. This won’t be everybody’s experience under the emulator. But at least the game is completely playable even if you are on a system forcing you into a very limited color palette.

Still, Zeliard is a pretty good game, and a curious footnote in the history of Japanese computer games. Especially since it came stateside at a time when few computer JRPGs came over along with popular console games like Final Fantasy. JRPG collector’s should really track it down, as it’s an interesting part of gaming history. It won’t be the best JRPG you’ll experience, but it’s certainly worth looking into, and it does provide a fun campaign.

Final Score: 7 out of 10

(Note: I had to run the game under DOSBox, with CGA settings. Hence the four-color screen shots.)

Pigs In Space Review

The Muppets. What children of the 80’s didn’t love them? Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, and of course the theatrical films. Even when they weren’t all that great, they weren’t completely lamented. Except for maybe the time they tried to remake The Wizard of Oz. Anyway, Muppets have been plastered on everything for decades. T-shirts, flat ware, a rather excellent toy line from Palisades Toys, the list goes on. Muppets even made their way into video games. Most of them have been simple, edutainment fare. Things for toddlers to learn shapes or colors or numbers from. After all, Sesame Street has been a pre school staple. But now, and again they’ve ventured out into traditional video games. This week I stumbled onto one of the more interesting, and yet disastrous ones.

PROS: Based on one of the best parts of The Muppet Show.

CONS: Inconsistent visuals. Poor controls.

PSYCHIC GAME: Predicted Gonzo was an alien 16 years before Muppets From Space.

Pigs In Space is loosely based off of one of the Muppet Show’s greatest skits. In it Miss Piggy, Captain Hogthrob, and Dr. Strangepork go on adventures in space that parody popular science fiction. One of their most notable skits, featured Mark Hamill reprising his role as Luke Skywalker, even bringing C-3P0, and R2D2 along. It was pretty funny, and something a lot of kids looked forward to back then. The game however shouldn’t really elicit that sort of nostalgia. Because it isn’t very good.

This is probably going to be a fairly short review because there isn’t very much to Pigs In Space. It’s a compilation of three games, two of which are fairly shallow. The game starts out with a title screen with none of the design of the skits’ popular moniker. Upon starting the game, you will see three heads appear underneath, and a scoreboard on the top of the screen. Just below the scoreboard are some X’s. These represent the number of lives you have left. Choosing each of the heads will bring you to a corresponding game. The first of these is Captain Hogthrob’s game. It’s the best game on the cartridge, and the only one that could possibly pass for an actual skit. It’s a parody of Space Invaders. The alien ships have all been replaced by Camila the chicken, and the space station that flies across the top has been replaced by a spinning Gonzo head. The Gonzo head is interesting, because not a lot of Atari 2600 games were doing the rotation effect this does. In any event, you move the Captain along the bottom eliminating chickens for points. Instead of landing on the ground for victory, they just push you below a certain barrier. The other thing they do is shoot at you the way you would expect. If you get shot, you turn into a chicken, and fly away. The game is the only one that doesn’t end until you lose all of your lives.

As a parody of Space Invaders it works, but the clunky movement, and single joke will have you wishing you had just played Space Invaders instead. Next up is Miss Piggy’s game. It’s a really bad Frogger clone. If you can even call it a clone. Floating across the screen are spaghetti, and meatballs. Because “Spaghetti Western” I can only guess. The object is to get Miss Piggy across the fast flying food, and into the ship. Once you do that successfully it’s back to the title screen. The faster you do it the bigger the point bonus. Of course if the ship makes it all the way across without you, you’ll lose a life, and have to try again until you’re out of lives. It’s short, you’ll probably play it once, and forget about it.

Finally there’s the Dr. Strangepork level. Strange doesn’t really begin to describe it. It’s a vertical shooter. You pilot the Swinetrek through what one can only guess is a cave. Gonzo appears on ledges firing laser guns. If one connects or you touch a wall, you have to start over again. You can shoot at the Gonzos but the game has you do so in the most asinine way possible. It shoots in the direction you last steered. Even more baffling is the arc of the shot is odd. It will go left or right, but also fall back. So landing shots requires pixel perfect timing. With enough practice you can clear the stage. There are no bosses, or tougher enemies on replay. It’s the same thing every time. Clearing the cave again, takes you back to the title screen. There isn’t much else to go over here aside from one crucial point. Points aren’t tied to any one game. Your score carries over between them until you run out of lives.

One interesting note about the game is that it is one of the few 2600 games to come out just before the industry crash of 1983. Which makes it one of the rarer games in the library. Although not so rare that you’ll pay a mint for it. It doesn’t have the status of scarcity of other noteworthy 2600 games. Pigs In Space is a morbid curiosity. Something that you may pick up to say you’ve experienced, or to boast it’s in your collection. Outside of those uses though it isn’t a recommended game. You’ll get a competent Space Invaders knock off, a bad Frogger clone, and a really strange vertical shmup. There are far better 2600 games to play. Really, really good 2600 games to play. Get this only if you’re into rarities, and collecting pieces of obscure video game history.

Final Score: 4 out of 10