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.

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