Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Game 89: Tempest

Buy Tempest and about 90 other Atari games in the Atari Vault on Steam:

There are two things that make all the difference in the world when emulating Tempest.

First, you need a spinner controller. I’ve tried playing with a keyboard, mouse, joystick, trackpad, and was utterly hopeless. But the first time I played with a proper spinner, my score improved by an order of magnitude, and only got better with practice.

Second, you need a big monitor, and preferably one that can be rotated vertically. You’ve got to be able to see all the tiny objects coming at you, and without as much vertical real estate as you can get, this will be a struggle.

My SlikStik Tornado seems to have been made specifically with Tempest in mind. I don’t know what a genuine Atari spinner felt like, but the Tornado is weighty, has amazingly low friction, feels really precise in MAME, can spin for minutes on a single twist and yet stops easily. And I have a 4:3 20” rotatable monitor, which made an enormous difference. For comparison, I tried playing Tempest on my 13.3” laptop, and could barely see my targets in the distance until they were too close, and had poor control over my blaster with the touchpad.

There are 16 levels in Tempest, and when you finish the last, a Möbius strip, the levels change color and loop at a higher difficulty. I wasn’t able to get that far.

It’s a really chaotic game, with so much happening on the screen that it’s overwhelming. Flippers, the red things that rise to the top of the well and try to grab you, caused most of my demises. It doesn’t take long before they move REALLY fast, and with enemies firing at you, and it’s hard to get a chance to shoot them before they reach your level and start moving around the edge of the well. You fire rapidly, but there’s a limit to how many of your bullets may be on screen, so it’s easy to inadvertently waste time by firing lots of shots down an alley that your target just moves away from. It’s better to move constantly and fire a bunch of shots down adjacent alleys, moving just fast enough that your shots don’t skip any of them. When flippers do reach the top of the well, sometimes you can kill them with your zapper weapon, but this doesn’t always work. And sometimes you can kill them by moving through them while shooting, but this also sometimes doesn’t work, and it if doesn’t, you die.


  1. In these posts about arcade games, I think it would be really interesting to see how your score changed with number of times played. I'm thinking maybe a scatterplot or something, and you can mark on it where you changed strategies or, in this case, controllers. Then you can compare between different games. For example, I imagine a game like Defender has a fairly gradual rise in score as you get more experienced, while in a game like QIX scores are probably more randomized.

    It's an idea I"m considering for my own blog, but I think it fits in way better with the concept of this one. Also, it would give you something quantitative to talk about for games where you don't have access to the source code or some other means of analyzing the mechanics.

    Also, thanks for the tip about the spinner, I'm going to try that out.

    1. It's an interesting idea, but I don't think I'd enjoy doing that. I do appreciate the suggestion, though. For what it's worth, I've often found that with these games, I'll reach a plateau where I can consistently hit a certain score, but only occasionally get much higher than that. This was even the case with Qix, where my second-highest score was over 62,000, but after beating that with 76,000, I couldn't even hit 62,000 again.

      In Tempest's case, you can see my prior high score, and that was the last round I played, because I resigned myself to that I'd probably never be able to beat that in a reasonable timeframe.

    2. Haha, I'm not sure if I'll enjoy it either. I'm going to try it out for a while and see if it's worth the trouble and may end up reaching the same conclusion as you have. I've been thinking a lot about difficulty curves... it's one thing to say that a game is difficult because it requires a lot of skill (again, Defender is my favorite example) and another thing to say that it's difficult because dumb luck only goes your way every once in a blue moon. I think QIX is closer to the latter category and if so, the aforementioned plot should be essentially random with occasional outliers.

      I've played Tempest, but not with the spinner and not enough times to really get a sense for how the difficulty curve goes.

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