Saturday, January 4, 2020

Game 132: Yars' Revenge

Buy Yars’ Revenge and about 90 other Atari games in the Atari Vault on Steam:

This game shipped with a comic book, “The Qotile Ultimatum,” detailing the plot.

The Yars are a species of mutant houseflies, whose earth-based ancestors were accidentally launched into space and settled on three planets, where they quickly evolved into sapient, anthropomorphic beings with fantastic powers. The narrative device of expositing this to a new space force recruit is a bit unconvincing; I can accept that Yar culture regards their terrestrial past as humble and secretive, but wouldn’t every Yar already know that they can fly through space, eat rocks and metal, and spit missiles?

The Yars’ enemy, the Qotile (evidently not a species, but a singular energy being), destroyed one of their planets without warning, and is hiding on the moon of Planet Epp, nearby the Yar headquarters on Planet III. Between them, the Neutral Zone – the radioactive remains of Planet IV, is a safe hiding place where you are immune to the Qotile’s missiles, but can’t return fire. Your mission, as the latest recruit, is to blast holes in the Qotile’s energy shield, then signal to base to arm the mighty Zorlon Cannon, which will track your position, and then to aim, move out of the way, and hopefully destroy the exposed Qotile.

The Qotile has two attacks; the first is a slow moving destroyer missile which hones in on you, but won’t harm you in the neutral zone. It’s more of a nuisance than a threat, as evading it isn’t difficult at all, but it will keep you from staying in the same place for too long, and the energy shield can bounce you right into the missile if you aren’t careful. The second is a “swirl” attack, which can be seen spinning for a few seconds before it peels out in your general direction, sometimes leading you, sometimes not. Wrapping around the vertical edges of the screen is a reliable way to avoid it, if you can react fast enough. Your attacks include energy missiles to blast away at the Qotile’s energy shield, the ability to eat chunks of it, and the Zorlon Cannon, which must be primed before it can be fired.

Yars’ Revenge also features four distinct gameplay modes, not counting the pointless two-player alternating modes. The mode named “Ultimate Yars” features the most complex gameplay; before you may fire the Zorlon Cannon, you must first accumulate “Trons” by touching the Qotile or eating shield particles. Bumping into the left side of the screen signals to base that you are ready, and if you have enough Trons, five will be spent and you will see an energy projectile form on the left side, ready to fire at your command. A shot that hits the shield will rebound and can be collected to recoup four Trons. Annoyingly, there’s no Tron count indicator; the only way to check is to move to the left side of the screen and bump into a wall. Given that you have to be on the right side of the screen to perform Tron-loading actions, and you have to be on the left side to signal the cannon, this means a lot of moving back and forth.

I opted to try to master the hardest setting, “Ultimate Yars,” with the difficulty set to “A” mode which increases the speed of the swirl, and also causes the homing missile to block your Zorlon shots.

No matter what strategy I used, I found the neutral zone to be more of a hindrance than a help. Its only benefit is protection from the homing missile, which isn’t difficult at all to outmaneuver. When the Qotile turned into a swirl and I wasn’t going for a kill, the screen’s edges on the neutral zone provided a good place to wait for the swirl to launch without risking a hit from the missile. Usually, though, the neutral zone was just a huge useless area that disabled my cannon signals.

In formulating a strategy to gain a high score, I made some observations:
  • Blasting the shield is worth 69 points per brick.
  • Eating the shield is worth 169 points per brick.
  • The convex shield is made of 80 bricks.
  • The rectangular shield is made of 128 bricks.
  • Nailing the Qotile is normally worth 1,000 points.
  • Nailing the Qotile in swirl form is worth 2,000 points.
  • Nailing the Qotile in swirl form when it’s launched is worth 6,000 points.
  • Hitting the Qotile in mid-launch is really, really hard in “A” mode.
  • Each Qotile kill increases the difficulty by making the homing missile faster.

All these things considered, my goal would be to optimize my points per stage. Like so many arcade games, later stages are not worth more points, so it’s better to score high while you can.

To that end, eating the shield was clearly the best and most reliable way of scoring points, and builds up a surplus of Trons to boot. Eating the shield is trickier than blasting it, especially the convex shield, as the Yar tends to bounce off it unless its proboscis is aligned with a centroid perfectly, and the jagged edges that invariably form on the convex shield will push you in diagonal directions, sometimes right into the homing missile if you’re not careful. A completely devoured convex shield is worth 13,520 points, and a rectangular one worth 21,632 points, so it is definitely worthwhile to get most of it before blasting the Qotile, worth 6,000 at most!

As for killing the Qotile, hitting it mid-launch was just too difficult to pull off reliably. Once I had the shield down to 30 blocks or less, I would take opportunity shots at the Qotile whenever it transformed, rather than trying to dodge. Occasionally I would land a mid-flight hit, which was great. Usually I’d miss – there’s no good way to anticipate when the swirls will launch or where it will launch to. Once the shield was completely eaten, I’d just try to kill the exposed Qotile as quickly as possible, which wasn’t especially hard.

At the 90,000 points mark, the shield turned blue and the Qotile got much more aggressive. Soon after that, the homing missile got really fast, and I found I just couldn’t make a reasonable dent in the shield any more, not between the missile hounding me and the Qotile flinging itself so much and often without warning. My best score was just over 126,000 points, quite a bit less than the 150,000 needed to trigger a new attack pattern.

GAB rating: Above Average

It took me awhile to appreciate Yars’ Revenge. It’s a weird game, born of the then-archaic design that dominated VCS games, where the action is confined to a single-screen playfield, but with more complex objectives than most such arcade games, and a conflicting dynamic between them. I didn’t care at first for the Zorlon Cannon mechanic, whose priming mechanism feels arbitrary, and its payload so easily ruined by a mistimed shot, or a swirl launching the wrong way without warning, or the missile getting in the way, or by carelessly moving the Yar right into my own shot in the confusion of the situation. These gameplay elements did eventually grow on me, and I found a pleasing experience in optimizing my score while minimizing the risk of being shot down by predictable missile and unpredictable swirl, and was thrilled whenever a lucky Zorlon shot zoomed past me and hit the swirl dead on. But everything did not come together as cohesively as it should have. Though I had fun, Yars’ Revenge has neither the elegant design of golden age arcade classics like Space Invaders and Asteroids, nor does it have the enduring depth of Missile Command or Defender, but occupies a slightly unsatisfying valley in between them.


  1. IMO, the best way to play this game for the first time is to go in blind and just try to deduce the game logic through experimentation. It seems like it was constructed through some kind of free association (or acid trip), and then some poor sod was tasked with constructing a coherent narrative to explain it.

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  3. The Qotile are a race, not a single being: the comic refers to "their base".


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