Sunday, September 30, 2018

Game 24: Slot Racers

Developed some time in 1978 by Warren Robinett, Slot Racers is one of the few truly original VCS games from the system’s early years. All other VCS games that I’ve played so far have been partly or entirely based on arcade games by Atari or other companies, at best featuring novel modes. At a glance it reminds me very much of Sega’s Head On, but that game actually came out later in 1979, and in fact plays quite differently.

Slot Racers really doesn’t have anything to do with racing. Wikipedia calls it a “Maze” game, and Mobygames calls it a shooter, but these both seem inadequate. Robinett would later create a BASIC programming cartridge for the VCS, and eventually develop some of the first programming games for personal computer, including Robot Odyssey, where a big part of gameplay was programming robots to solve mazes and navigate obstacles. In Slot Racers, your goal is to be the first to score 25 points by shooting missiles at your opponent in a maze, but your very missiles are programmable, in a primitive kind of way.

The controls for the cars are unintuitive, but make sense. The cars will never crash into walls, and will turn automatically in whichever direction is possible to. Holding left or right instructs the car to turn left or right whenever it is possible to, and also causes the front of the car to limply bend in a way that I can’t possibly be alone in thinking looks a bit phallic.

The cartridge claims 9 modes, and there is no game mode chart in the manual, but here it wouldn’t make much sense to have one, as most of the modes differ from each other only in terms of speed. But there are really more like 36 modes, because there are four mazes, and each mode can be played on any maze. That’s not even going into the handicap settings on the console – we didn’t try this, but it would change the game dynamics profoundly if we did. The “A” setting prohibits you from firing a missile if you already have one on the screen, forcing you to chase after and “retrieve” your missile if it misses and has no chance of hitting your target. The default “B” setting lets you fire a missile any time, and will remove your previously launched missile from the playfield if there is one. Taking that into account there are 144 game modes, 72 of which have symmetrical handicap rules, the other 72 of which are asymmetrical and give the player with the “B” mode a huge advantage. Testing these modes exhaustively would be insanity, so we didn’t.

Modes 1-4: Slow cars, fast missiles

‘R” and I started off by playing Game 1 in all four maps. It’s weird, but also pretty compelling in strategy.

In these games, you can fire one missile at a time. Firing a second will delete the first one. As mentioned, you can “program” missiles before firing, but not really control them afterward.

When you fire a missile, the missile too will never crash into walls, and will turn automatically in whichever direction is possible to. And if you are holding a direction when firing the missile, the missile will traverse the maze in a wall-follower’s algorithm. Specifically,

If you fire a missile straight ahead, it follows these rules:
  • Move straight ahead whenever it is possible to
  • When hitting a wall, turn left if possible
  • When hitting a wall and are unable to turn left, turn right if possible
  • When hitting a dead-end, turn around

If you fire a missile while bending left, the missile will follow the left wall. And if you fire while bending right, it will follow the right wall. Incidentally, the cars themselves follow the exact same rules, the only difference is that you can change the turning logic whenever you like by holding or not holding the appropriate joystick direction.

For the rest of the game modes, we played each of them once, using a randomly selected map. Games 2, 3, and 4 differed from 1 only by getting progressively faster, each game becoming harder to control, more chaotic, more unpredictable, and offering less and less chance to think and react.

Modes 5-7: Fast cars, slow missiles

Starting with mode 5, the cars are now faster than the missiles, making it often feel like we were leaving land mines. This does really change the dynamic; since your missiles can’t overtake your opponent, you have to cut them off instead, and find a way to hit them head-on with your missiles without exposing yourself to counter-fire.

Asked R, “why would you even design something that way?”

Games 6 and 7 were sped up variations, and were basically unplayable.

Modes 8-9: Dumbfire missiles

In these games, the missiles no longer steer. If you fire and they hit a wall, then they just stop in their tracks and lie there motionless, acting as a land mine for your opponent to run over. It’s a little frustrating, if you just shoot forward and then run over your own mine, it disappears and you accomplished nothing. Getting behind your opponent and blasting them is the easiest way to score, and setting mines correctly is very tricky.

Mode 9 is faster, and was a bit more fun than 8 (possibly more because of the map we played than the speed), but neither was especially satisfying.

Overall, mode 1 was our favorite. A good chunk of the modes were too fast to be playable. Modes 5-7 with the cars that outrun their own missiles were more strange than they were fun, and modes 8-9 without the programmable missiles just felt pointless. I really wanted to like this game better than I did, and maybe I would with some more practice, but the idea of replaying just doesn’t appeal.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Game 23: Outlaw

Released some time in 1978, the year after the Atari VCS’s launch. Outlaw, the first game by David Crane, is officially a port of Atari’s lost arcade game Outlaw. In fact, it plays nothing like its namesake – the old Atari game was a light gun shooter – and instead is an unauthorized port of Midway’s Gun Fight (itself an authorized remake of Taito’s Western Gun).

Crane’s Outlaw has 16 modes which can be pigeonholed somewhat awkwardly into four game types, which I group as Cactus, Stage Coach, Wall, and Target Shoot.

A misprint here, modes 11 and 12 erroneously appear to be identical, when in fact mode 12 has Six Shooter rules.

Mode 1: Cactus

The most basic mode. As with Gun Fight, two cowboys, one on each side of the screen, duel with pistols that fire ricocheting bullets. But it’s already apparent that there are some major differences, some general, some specific to this mode.

Gun Fight featured two joysticks per player, one for moving the cowboy, and one for aiming the gun. Here, as with most VCS games, you play with one joystick and one button. To aim, you hold the button, then tilt the joystick up or down if you wish to fire at a 45 degree angle or keep it centered to fire straight ahead, and then release the joystick to fire. This scheme is admittedly more complicated than other VCS games, where joystick directions did not have context-sensitive meanings.

There’s only one cactus barrier, but it’s pretty big, and it’s indestructible. That combined with the smaller size of the playfield means there aren’t many positions or opportunities to hit your opponent, and every kill in this game involved ricocheting bullets at an angle. Standing very close to the cactus prevents you from being hit, but you also can’t hit your opponent from there.

You can’t move while shooting. You can’t even move while the bullet you shot is in motion – you have to wait until it hits the cactus, or your opponent, or the side of the screen, which gives your opponent a chance to take a potshot at you.

There’s no break in between rounds, and no resetting the playfield or the cowboy’s positions. After killing your opponent once, you might kill them again if you fire again immediately and they don’t move out of the way.

Bullets and movement are both slower than in Gun Fight.

Bullets are slow, but so is movement. Double kills are also possible with the default handicap settings, and happened a lot thanks to the slow movement and other factors.

The game ends after 10 kills, rather than being on a timer. This combined with the lack of downtime in between rounds made for a very quick game.

Mode 2: Getaway

Like mode 1, except that you can move immediately after shooting. This caused points to be more drawn out, but unexpectedly, this also caused double kills to be much more common.

Mode 3: Blowaway cactus

Under “blowaway” rules, the obstacle is gradually chipped away as it is shot to pieces. Damage to the obstacle lasts the entire game; the cactus does not get repaired in between points as it did in Gun Fight. Once the cactus was mostly gone, the game became quite short.

Mode 4: Six shooter

With Six Shooter rules, each cowboy has a limit of six shots in the revolver, as in Gun Fight. Whoever runs out first may not fire again until the other runs out as well. Unlike Gun Fight, when both cowboys run out of ammo, they both instantly reload. Also unlike Gun Fight, they do not reload in between points.

This set of rules gave a possible tactic of goading your opponent into wasting bullets, but this didn’t seem to happen much. With blowaway rules as well, this was still very short game after cactus was gone, it just took longer before that happened.

Mode 5: Stage Coach

More like a covered wagon, actually. It’s like mode 1, except the stagecoach obstacle is even bigger, and limits your angles of attack even more significantly than the cactus did.

Mode 6: Moving stage coach

The stagecoach now moves from the bottom of the screen to the top, and wraps around indefinitely. This was more fun than the previous mode, with more tactics possible. Shooting straight was much more common, although there were a few kills with tricky angled ricochet shots. Hitting your opponent without trading shots was tricky, because the moving stagecoach gives a very small window of opportunity for being able to hit your opponent, and the window mostly works both ways.

Mode 7: Blowaway stagecoach

With a destructible stagecoach, there was a potential for strategy in building asymmetrical cover, or in angling your shots to ruin your opponents’ cover. Here we noticed that if you stand close to the obstacle, you can fire rapidly and destroy it pretty quickly.

Mode 8: Blowaway moving stagecoach

Now the stagecoach moves and is destructible. But this was maybe not all that different from the moving stagecoach, because by the end of the game, even the perforated stagecoach was still a big barrier.

The wrap-around has some interesting metaphysical implications. Is the stagecoach teleporting from the top of the screen to the bottom, as seems to be the case in other Atari games? Or is there an infinite supply of stagecoaches below the screen, all moving upward and past the length of the screen one at a time? If the latter, then why does blowing holes in one stagecoach cause holes to appear in the same places of all subsequent stagecoaches?

Mode 9: Six shooter blowaway moving stagecoach

Six-shooter rules proved to be a great strategic addition, when the moving destructible stagecoach by itself wasn’t. You had to make shots count, or could play defensively until your opponent runs out, and then play aggressively or be tricky.

Mode 10: Six shooter wall

A destructible wall completely seals you off from your opponent until you’ve punctured it enough. With six-shooter rules, getting through the wall took a long time. Both of us had to work together to break through the wall, before we could start shooting each other.

Mode 11: Moving wall

The wall now moves from the bottom of the screen to the top, wrapping around. This isn’t at all apparent until you start destroying the wall, which is a lot easier in this mode thanks to having unlimited shots. Even after the wall is full of holes, the pieces left behind move pretty fast, and it’s easy for them to block your shots.

Mode 12: Six shooter moving wall

This mode felt a lot more strategic than either wall game before it. The limited shots made for a slowgame, with a lot of tension when one player ran out of bullets first.

Mode 13: Target practice with cactus

Finally, the singleplayer modes. In all modes, a target on the right side of the screen moves up and down, and your goal is to hit it 10 times. Since the target moves and you have very little aiming precision, it feels more like a test of timing than of accuracy.

Mode 13 puts a cactus in your way. The best strategy seemed to just be to stand in place and hit the moving target on each pass.

Mode 14: Target practice with blowaway cactus

Mode 14 makes the cactus destructible. I found it easy to just blast through the top of it and then walk over to the target and shoot it repeatedly. The hard part is optimizing your rate of fire. Each time you hit the target, there’s a brief cooldown before you’re allowed to shoot again, and the game gives no clear indication when this cooldown is about to end, forcing you to predict it in order to be as efficient as possible.

That said, my best attempt at mode 13 was slightly faster, so maybe shooting through the cactus isn’t the best strategy here.

Mode 15: Target practice with stage coach

Mode 15 puts a moving stagecoach in your way. With a moving target and a moving obstacle, this was the hardest target mode.

Mode 16: Target practice with blowaway stage coach

Mode 16 has a moving destructible stagecoach. Blasting through took a while, but after that it played exactly like mode 14.

Overall, this was a pretty good game, and with the many options it felt like an improvement over Gun Fight. The arena is smaller and simpler, and without analog aiming controls it felt stiff and a bit less reliant on skill, but we enjoyed the faster pace and the interesting strategies involved in several of the gameplay modes, and other than the target practice modes which were kind of lame, all of the modes were enjoyable and played distinctly from one another.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Game 22: Indy 500

Another one of the Atari VCS launch titles, Indy 500 is based on the arcade game Indy 800, and has a game type inspired by Crash ‘n Score. Although Indy 800 is not yet emulated, its scaled-down counterpart Indy 4 is, as is Crash ‘n Score, both of which I’ve covered in an earlier post.

Uniquely for an Atari VCS game, Indy 500 uses special “wheel” controllers, which are similar to Pong paddles, but can spin indefinitely in either direction. A single button is used for acceleration, and there are no brakes or drifting as in Indy 800/400.

There are 14 modes split across four game types. The manual doesn’t have any handy table this time, so I made my own.

Game No. Players Track
Race Car 1 2 Grand Prix
2 1
3 2 Devil's Elbow
4 1
Crash n' Score 5 2 Barrier Chase
6 1
7 2 Motor Hunt
8 1
Tag 9 2 Barrier Chase
10 2 Motor Hunt
Ice Race 11 2 Ice Sprint
12 1
13 2 Grand Prix
14 1

Each game type has two tracks, and aside from the Tag modes, a singleplayer and a two-player mode for each track, giving four combination modes for each of the non-Tag game types. I didn’t see much point in playing a racing game solo, so I played a session with “B” where we toured each of the eight two-player modes.

Even from this table, we can see that Indy 500 is very stripped down from its arcade inspirations. The track layouts are far simpler than the layouts of Indy 800 and even Indy 4. Indy 800/4 supported eight and four simultaneous racers, Indy 500 only supports two. The Crash ‘n Score arenas are much smaller and simpler than in the obstacle-strewn arcade game.

Right off the bat, we ran into an emulation issue. The original game used wheel controllers, but that wasn’t an option for us, so MAME helpfully mapped the controls to analog sticks instead. Trouble is, the default setting is ridiculously sensitive, the cars spinning in place like a ballerina in a centrifuge at the slightest touch. Only by lowering the sensitivity to the lowest possible setting did things become manageable, and they still felt fiddlier than in Indy 4, where analog steering felt fine with a keyboard.

Modes 1-4: Race Car

The standard Indy setup. Two cars race through a closed circuit, and the first to complete 25 laps wins.

The first track is called “Grand Prix,” and is only slightly more interesting than an oval circuit. With wide turns and slightly bendy straightaways, the lack of brakes isn’t missed, and it seems perfectly reasonable to finish without even letting up on the gas. We still hit the walls a lot, which act less like “walls” and more like surfaces that bring your car to a near halt and can be drive through slowly, but chalked this up to lack of skill rather than any difficulty in the course.

The second track, “Devil’s Elbow,” is a different beast. Navigating the hairpin turns at the left and right sides of the screen was nearly impossible with these joystick controls. Both of us eventually decided it was faster just to drive through the “walls” rather than try to take the elbow turns. Again, it’s possible that the analog joystick is simply unsuitable for this game.

This set of modes just wasn’t much fun for either of us. Maybe it’s unfair to evaluate it harshly given that we weren’t using the correct controllers, but we had to play Indy 4 with arrow keys on a keyboard and found that to be manageable and more fun. The 25 lap races also feel far too long for how simple the tracks were, and got mind-numbingly repetitive from around the 15 lap mark onward. Indy 4 had a longer and more varied track, and the time limit meant races didn’t go on past the point of tedium.

Modes 5-8: Crash ‘n Score

Crash ‘n Score is back, and it still doesn’t have all that much to do with demolition derbies, or even all that much crashing. Score pylons randomly appear one at a time in an arena, and the first player to drive into it scores a point. First to score 50 points wins.

There are a few notable differences from the arcade game. The physics model is still the same as the Race Car mode, so the cars are a lot speedier than the somewhat inert junkers of the original. Several other factors also contribute to the faster feel of this version; the arcade game had far more obstacles getting in your way and slowing you down, and the scoring pylons would revert to obstacle status when touched, which often caused a player who just barely missed their chance to score points to hit it while inactive and then instantly lose their momentum. Here, the obstacles are fewer, only one score pylon is on screen at once, and touching one makes it disappear rather than turn inactive and trip up a trailing opponent. Randomness is still a factor, with score pylons often appearing so close to one car that the other has no reasonable chance of getting it, but overall it still feels fairer than the arcade game thanks to the faster speed and smaller arena. Wrap-around through the narrow openings at the top and bottom of the screen is possible, but seems unnecessary most of the time, even more so than in the arcade game.

Track II has the same rules, but there are more obstacles, and it’s harder to avoid bumping into them and slowing down. It’s still less dense with obstacles than the arcade game, so what I said before still applies. Unlike Track I, wrap-around is quite useful here, as the openings on the screen’s side are completely wide open and can be easily passed through at full speed.

This was a lot more fun than the Race Car modes. The controls didn't feel like a hindrance, the randomness added unpredictability and broke up monotony without seeming unfair, and the open arena gameplay lent itself to some strategy options and some interesting techniques.

Modes 9-10: Tag

The only set of modes lacking a solo play option, since how would you play tag solo anyway? Atari's batting record in competent AI is a zero so far, so good on them for not bothering this time. The courses are exactly the same as the ones used in Crash ‘n Score. The goal is to be the first to score 99 points by being “it” and avoiding your opponent, who, if they touch your vehicle, will become “it” and momentarily slow you down so that they have a chance to gain a lead. You score about 1 point per second as “it."

Mode 10 with the second arena is particularly chaotic and fun thanks to the easy wrap-around, which gives the pursuing player plenty of opportunities to sneakily tag “it.”

This was the most fun set of modes in Indy 500. It’s a lot like Crash ‘n Score, actually, except the target is your opponent instead of randomly placed pixels, making it the most interactive game type on the cartridge.

Modes 11-14: Ice Race

Finally, we return to racing. The rules are the same as in Race Car, but the road is slick, and now it’s necessary to release the gas on turns, even on very wide corners of the "Ice Sprint" track in mode 10. This ice course is the simplest in the whole game, essentially just an oval, and seems like training for the second course.

The second track, Ice Rally, is identical in shape to very first Grand Prix, making it a fitting bookend. Same track, different traction. There was a lot of crashing going on; hardly any laps were completed without at least one crash for each of us. The slick physics also made it nearly impossible to pass an opponent unless they crashed into a wall, which of course we did constantly. All of that said, Ice Race overall was kind of frustrating and still pretty dull.

So that’s the end of an exhaustive look at Indy 500, minus the seemingly pointless singleplayer modes. The racing isn’t much fun, possibly thanks to poorly emulated controls. But we had fun with the Crash ‘n Score and Tag modes even with the controls, which felt natural enough for these modes. If one looks at these games in terms of value and takes all modes into account, Indy 500 is a mediocre package with only eight purposeful modes and only four of them provide enjoyment. But that’s still more enjoyment than any other Atari VCS game covered so far provides, and by that measure, looking at the best parts of the package rather than the mean of all parts, Indy 500 is the best VCS game yet.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Games 20-21: Starship 1 & Star Ship

Game 20: Starship 1

This arcade game is odd. You’re flying through space in a first person bridge perspective, there are USS Enterprises everywhere, and also a few other copyright infringing ships appearing every now and then, which you’re supposed to shoot. You can steer somewhat, but it’s more for aiming than navigation. Controls are complicated for a 1977 arcade game, but map well to a controller.
  • An analog flight yoke for steering the ship
  • A button to fire phasers
  • A button to fire torpedoes
  • A two-speed throttle, presented in MAME as a single button

You score 50 points each time you destroy one of the Enterprises, which are slow moving and defenseless. Other targets include giant worms that turn into more Enterprises when you shoot them, and some Klingon D7s and flying saucers which are harder to hit and tend to crash into you. Planetoids pop up constantly, which can be avoided easily by steering around them. Crashing doesn’t seem to inflict any real damage on you, but wastes time. A limited supply of torpedoes clear the screen instantly, but they can’t be fired during the phaser cooldown, which I found annoying since usually the reason I want to clear the screen is because I fired phasers at a fast moving target and missed. You can switch the ship’s speed from fast to slow, but I’m not really sure what the point of that is. It doesn’t seem to make the fast moving targets any easier to hit. Eventually the fuel counter hits zero, and then the game ends and declares “YOU HAVE SAVED THE FEDERATION!” Hooray, I guess.

For curiosity’s sake, I replayed and performed horribly on purpose, never firing, and crashing as often as possible. It seems to be impossible to scuttle the ship. Fuel ran out as it did before, and then the game declared “YOU HAVE LOST EVERYTHING.” I guess that makes this a “winnable” game, but losing practically took more effort.

Game 21: Star Ship

Star Ship is an Atari VCS port of Starship 1, and was programmed by Bob Whitehead. It features 17 modes, split across three game types.

Modes 1-9: Star Ship

Modes 1-4 are singleplayer like the arcade game. It’s a very scaled down port, with no more than two objects on screen at once, a fixed parallax effect on the starfield (meaning that when you steer, the stars’ relative movements are no visual indication of it), no torpedoes, no throttle, and crudely drawn and scaled sprites representing the targets and space debris.

Mode 2 reduces the number of objects on screen from 2 to 1, making for a very boring game where if the object is a target, you easily steer and shoot it, and if it’s an asteroid, you do nothing until it passes.

Mode 3 has fast objects that can crash into you, but like mode 2, there is only one at a time. It’s still pretty boring, and more frustrating than the first two modes thanks to spotty collision detection. Mode 4 has two fast-moving objects at once, which makes it the closest this cartridge comes to resembling Starship 1, but poor collision detection is still a big problem.

Modes 5-9 are two player competitive, where one player controls the star ship as normal, and the other controls the movement of a space module, which is a target for the star ship to destroy. Each game has two rounds, and the players switch roles in the second round. The goal is to score more points than your opponent does during your round as the gunner. The targeted player’s only real tactic is to avoid the cross-hairs, but moves so slowly that this can’t be delayed very long. The target has a cloaking device which can be used to fake out the gunner, but has a long cooldown.

In modes 5-7, the space module is the only target which the star ship may shoot. Modes 6 & 7 add slow and fast moving asteroids which both players should avoid (or trick the other into colliding with), and modes 8 & 9 add additional CPU-controlled targets for the gunner to shoot for more points and to avoid crashing into. Mode 9 comes the closest to being interesting, with faster moving targets that present a threat to the unwary gunner and a tactical challenge of whether to shoot them for bonus points or to avoid them and go for the player-controlled target.

Modes 10-11: Warp Drive

Singleplayer only, with no shooting, just a bunch of asteroids that you need to avoid crashing into. The button now accelerates instead of firing, so you can cover more distance, but this makes it harder to avoid the asteroids. I didn’t see much reason to ever let go of the accelerator; by the time it becomes evident that an asteroid is headed for your ship, it seems that letting up won’t do you any good, so I would just eat the asteroid and accept the lost point. Mode 10 has one asteroid at a time, mode 11 has two.

Modes 12-17: Lunar Lander

This actually predates the arcade game Lunar Lander, but doesn’t seem to have anything to it. You move a space ship around the screen and try to land on the moon, but it looks more like you’re blasting the moon with your landing thrusters. The moon wobbles around the screen randomly, never straying far from its starting point thanks to Gaussian distribution.

Modes 12-14 are singleplayer, and you try to land as much as possible in the time limit. Modes 13 and 14 have slow and fast moving asteroids which cost points if you crash into them, and aren’t especially hard to avoid.

Modes 15-17 are two player competitive. One player controls the moon and tries to move it out of the way of the space ship. Really. As in Star Ship, games have two rounds, and the players reverse roles after each round. The moon moves so slowly that there’s nothing the player controlling it can do except to slightly delay the lander’s landing. How far away the moon randomly spawns affects the score more than the controlling player’s skill in avoidance. Edge-wrapping can be used to disorient the other player, but this isn’t a sustainable tactic. Modes 16 and 17 have the slow and fast moving asteroids, and add some semblance of strategy, but just barely.

All three of these games suck. Lunar Lander is so stupid that it’s not even worth the two paragraphs of analysis I gave it. Star Ship & Warp Drive make more sense in theory, but are duller than Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and the pseudo-3D effect is so bad that I can’t even muster the charity to call it “good for the VCS.” Next!

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Game 19: Air-Sea Battle and the road to Super Breakout

Super Breakout is the next whale, a 1978 sequel to Breakout notable for using a CPU and ROM game code when the original was based on discrete chip logic. Super Breakout has been emulated accurately in MAME for far longer than Breakout has been emulated anywhere.

Above is a roadmap from Combat, the previous Atari game on the whaling log, to Super Breakout. Along the way is a selection of additional VCS titles from 1977-1978 and known influences on them, including some of the earlier arcade games that were emulated in DICE.

Designated CX-2602 and released on the system’s launch day, we may as well consider Air-Sea Battle, programmed by Larry Kaplan, to be the second Atari VCS game. Like Combat, it features 27 “games,” many of which are just combinations of settings.

Unlike Combat, the setting combinations here follow a very consistent and logical pattern. Also unlike Combat, solo play against the computer is possible, albeit restricted to modes with unguided missiles. We’ll see why soon.

The 27 modes are arranged into six groups, each representing a game type. All game types have the following modes:
  • Two players vs. each other with unguided missiles
  • Two players vs. each other with guided missiles
  • One player vs. computer with unguided missiles
In addition, three of the game types also let you turn obstacles on and off, which double the modes for these game types from three to six. With three game types featuring three modes each, and three more game types featuring six modes each, that’s a total of 27 modes, which cover every possible combination of game settings that make sense in Air-Sea Battle.

I played a session with “R,” and we played through all 18 of the two player modes, but with focus on the modes with guided missiles, knowing that I could play with unguided missiles against the computer in my own spare time.

Modes 1-6: Anti-Aircraft

Mode 1 was a repeat of Atari’s Anti-Aircraft arcade game, which I didn’t love to begin with. It’s certainly more colorful than before, and there’s a bigger variety of aircraft, with small jets (actually the biplane sprite from Combat), large jets, helicopters, and airliners. Small jets move the fastest, and the rest move equally slow.

Like Anti-Aircraft, each player has an immobile turret which can fire at 90, 60, or 30 degrees. The arcade original handled this with three buttons, but here the joystick position (up, down, or neutral) determines the turret’s angle, and the controller’s single button fires. Unlike Anti-Aircraft, missiles do not explode when they reach altitude, but only when they hit a target. In Anti-Aircraft you could lead an airplane and destroy it as it flies into your explosion, but in Air-Sea Battle only a direct hit counts.

Mode 2 adds guided missiles, whose flight angle can be adjusted mid-launch with the joystick. As a rule, they always fly at the angle that your turret is facing. For instance, the turret facing left can never make missiles move to the right, but by pointing straight up can make them stop moving leftward and only rise. This led to a higher scoring game, because “missed” shots could be corrected mid-flight and steered right into a target. Timing was almost irrelevant. You could fire a shot even when no target is on the screen, and have a good chance of being able to hit one that appeared a few seconds later. You could also steal your opponent’s targets by readjusting your missiles midflight to target theirs and take them out first, scoring points for you and wasting time for them.

Mode 3 is mode 1 against the computer. But it turns out the computer has no AI. It simply fires at a fixed interval, never adjusting its angle or timing. Frankly, that’s rather pathetic, even for the VCS. If I wanted to play solo, I’d rather just play a 2-player mode by myself and try to go for a high score.

Modes 4-6 add barriers in the form of balloons with the letter A printed on them. They really don’t do much to affect the gameplay, because you can just blast them out of your way without penalty and without slowing you down too much, since you can fire immediately after a hit. They would have served their purpose better if there had been some penalty for hitting them, such as lost points or an additional firing cooldown, or if they just blocked your shots without being destroyed. As it stands, there’s no reason to wait for them to get out of your way.

What makes a bigger difference is that in these modes, aircraft density is much higher, leading to an even higher scoring game. In mode 6, even the brainless computer scored reasonably high.

Modes 7-12: Torpedo

This time you’re shooting at boats. You're still shooting from below, though. How does that work? Are the torpedo launchers supposed to be submarines on the bottom of the ocean floor? Why are the ocean depth zones darkest at the top? If the top zone is the surface, how can there be ships also below the surface? Or maybe it’s supposed to be an overhead view, and all of these lanes are at the surface, but the ships are rendered in profile, suggesting a side view. The more I try to think about this, the less sense it makes.

Each player has a torpedo launcher which can move left and right, but only aims straight upward. The launchers can’t move into the other players’ sides of the screen. In the guided missile modes, the torpedoes can be steered left and right, but can’t cross into the other players’ airspaces, which meant fewer chances to steal their kills.

Modes 10-12 once again add barriers and more targets. The barriers take the form of sea mines, and like the balloons they really don’t hamper you meaningfully.

R said this set of games reminded him of carnival shooting games with ducks.

Modes 13-15: Shooting gallery

An actual carnival shooting game with clowns, rabbits, and ducks. This time you have a moving turret and you can aim at different angles. The targets in this game move unpredictably, changing directions seemingly at random.

As with previous games, the computer in mode 15 is dumb as dirt, and never moves or changes its angle, simply firing at a steady interval.

Modes 16-18: Polaris

This one was a bit confusing at first. Two destroyers, one for each player, move back and forth across a sea lane, firing missiles at aircraft above. You can make your ship speed up or slow down, but can’t stop or change its direction, and missiles are always launched upward and horizontally with the ship’s inertia. Your ship wraps around when leaving an edge of the screen, but missiles don’t, so it is useless to launch a missile if your ship is approaching the edge of a screen.

In mode 16 and 18, once you fire a missile, your ship can’t adjust its speed until the missile hits or leaves the top of the screen. If you fire a missile when moving at full speed, your ship is stuck at full speed for a few seconds. In mode 17, you can adjust your ship’s speed at any time, which also adjusts the forward speed of the missile. Your missile will always be vertically aligned with your ship, Newton’s laws of motion and all that.

This set of games was lower scoring than the ones before it, thanks to the higher difficulty of hitting targets with your slow moving missiles. It also seems that the blue-green boat has an advantage over the copper one, because it’s closer to the action.

Modes 19-22: Bomber

It’s exactly the same as Polaris, except you control bombers on auto-pilot and the targets are below you.

Modes 22-27: Polaris vs. Bomber

The last set of modes finally has player vs. player combat. One player has the destroyer, one player has the bomber, they control just like in the above modes, and the goal is to hit the other player with your missiles more often than they hit you.

Hitting your opponent is difficult. Dodging their shots is easy. This made for a low scoring set of games. The computer is again, stupid, and its inability to strategize completely negates any challenge in fighting it.

Modes 25-27 add sea mines, and unlike previous games with barriers, these make a big difference. They can ruin a well-aimed shot, and since it takes some time for your slow moving missiles to reach the middle lane, your opportunity has been wasted. Often both players would fire at about the same time, but one player’s shot would be blocked by a mine, and the other would hit home.

Overall, I thought this was a worse game than Combat. I’d rather a game just have no singleplayer mode at all than have one with an AI as shoddy as this. I’m glad I waited until a friend was around to play this game, because trying to play the mode against the computer and then realizing that mode is worthless and not being able to fall back on a functioning two-player mode would have been infuriating. Even with a second player, Air-Sea Battle was kind of boring in all modes. Shots move so slowly that it feels like you’re waiting forever in between them, often with nothing to do while waiting.

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