Sunday, October 13, 2019

Game 99: Crossfire

Finally – an arcade style Apple II game with controls that are smooth and responsive! After Castle Wolfenstein and Galactic Attack, two games that would outright drop inputs, I wasn’t sure this was possible.

Crossfire was simultaneously released in 1981 for the Apple II, Atari 400, and Commodore VIC-20 computers. Based on the credits and manuals available, and the fact that other Sierra games of the time were chiefly developed for the Apple II, I believe the Apple II version, by Sierra employee Jay Sullivan is the original, while the Atari 400 version was ported by Chris Iden, and the VIC-20 by a mysterious “Gordon.” From viewing footage it also appears to be the most advanced version of the three, with colorful sprites and fluid gameplay. A later port to the Commodore 64 added SID music. I played a WOZ copy of the Apple II disk. MAME’s WOZ-writing limitations weren't a problem as the game doesn’t appear to ever write to the disk.

The game is described by Mobygames as a Targ variant, and I can see the influence with its grid-based layout and movement, but it’s hardly a clone, and in some ways plays more like Space Invaders. Your ship can be freely moved in four directions, stopped at any intersection, and you can shoot in the four cardinal directions as well. The keys ESDF shoot and the keys IJKL move (and space stops), anticipating WASD-style controls by nearly 15 years. The enemy ships don’t chase you as relentlessly as the Targs do, but they will return fire, and will fire rapidly.

The bottom of the screen is relatively safe, as the most aggressive enemies usually approach from the top, but ammo is limited, and refills spawn on the top half, forcing you to come out and risk your neck. An interesting strategic element is added by four bonus crystals; after firing twelve shots, one of them will spawn, and despawn if you fire another 6 without collecting it. Collecting all four crystals is worth mondo points, but you are likely to spent much of the round low on ammo if you go for them, and having to constantly leave the safety of the bottom to collect the crystals and replacement ammo is always risky. The more levels in, the less ammo you hold, until you have to make do with only 15 shots between refills. Naturally, enemies become faster and spawn more frequently as you progress as well.

As a game with no ending, I played until I got bored. My best score just barely missed the 20,000 points mark.

This isn’t the first pure action game on a personal computer that I liked – Atari’s Star Raiders proved this was possible in 1979 – but this may be the first arcade-style computer game to pull it off. It’s made all the more impressive by doing it on an Apple II, which although quite powerful for its time, wasn’t as well suited to games as the Atari, lacking any kind of hardware sprites or game-oriented display chips, and for it, it features bigger, more colorful, and more numerous sprites than what would be seen on other computers or even game consoles of the time. It isn’t quite as silky smooth as Atari 400 or even Atari 2600 games, but it looks nicer, and controls pleasantly enough. Granted, it wouldn’t be long before the Commodore 64 and third-gen consoles would utterly trounce the Apple II in this capacity, and it can’t compare at all to contemporary arcade games, but for its time, this was arguably the best arcade-at-home experience.

A magazine review in Softline from 1982 notes the complex controls and gameplay, and expects that “macho” arcade players would be baffled by the two-handed controls which actually require moving your fingers to comfortably hit all the keys, and fall back to simpler games such as Falcon, Bez Man, and Snack Attack, games which closely ape Phoenix, Pac-Man, and Pac-Man.

To its credit, Crossfire does more than just emulate its arcade inspiration. There are obvious influences of Targ, but also traces of Space Invaders, Pac-Man, and of the not-yet released Robotron: 2084, and in the end I find it more interesting and much more playable than Targ.

In reading magazines from 1981, I get the sense that a lot of computer game developers turned their noses up at arcade games. Tom Cleaver, author of Galaxy, condescends to the “arcade game freak” with pew-pew sound effects in his turn-based space battles. And I can sort of understand these attitudes. My favorite arcade game of the year, Centipede, provides a thrill, but little in the way of adventure and intellectual challenge, and I didn’t really feel like repeating the exercise. But were it 1981 again, and MAME unthinkable, I can certainly see that a game like Crossfire would be worth the money. Adventures can only be replayed so many times, and you don’t always have hours to sink into a CRPG or wargame. Crossfire offers the excitement and immediacy of an arcade game, doesn’t need a trip to the arcades, and has a touch more sophistication and strategy than the typical arcade game without losing any instant gratification.

1 comment:

  1. I agree completely with your review here.

    Crossfire feels so much smoother and rewarding than Targ or Spectar, and that's comparing arcades with Apple II!!

    Fun little title to mess around for a couple minutes, even nowadays.


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