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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