Sunday, April 5, 2020

Game 170: Millipede

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

By an interesting coincidence, the same day that I published my post on Front Line, I had watched The Incredible Shrinking Man, where the hapless ant-sized protagonist battles a spider in the climactic scene, using improvised medieval weaponry. Soon after I started playing Millipede, where you play an archer battling not just millipedes, but bees, mosquitoes, beetles, and of course spiders, in what may well be somebody's mushroom-infested front yard.

I had skipped over Centipede in the 1981 phase of Data Driven Gamer. This, along with Pac-Man, had been the only games I deliberately skipped so far, simply because I had played far too much of them already, and knew I wouldn't find it interesting to replay them.

Both Pac-Man and Centipede had followups in the succeeding years. Ms. Pac-Man was a critical and commercial hit comparable to the original. I found that despite superficial similarities, it offered sufficient twists and improvements, awarded it a harpoon, and deemed among the best games of 1981. Millipede, however, never really got a reception comparable to Centipede. Centipede is among the ten best selling arcade games of all time, along with Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Asteroids, and Space Invaders. Numbers on Millipede are hard to come by, but doesn't seem to come even close to its predecessor. Its situation parallel's Atari's Asteroids Deluxe, as a more complex and challenging sequel that failed to achieve its predecessors popularity.

I'm not completely sure why Millipede failed to displace its predecessor, but as a formerly skilled Centipede player with an unholy amount of practice on real hardware, I have to gripe about the sequel's playstyle changes that come with its increased randomness. In Centipede, a skilled player controls the board. You decide where the mushrooms will go. You can build tunnels that funnel the centipede right into your line of fire. You control whether fleas spawn or not, when, and how many. Whether Atari intended this or not, this opens up a good deal of complex strategy, and it all goes out the window in Millipede.

Numerous tweaks seem tailor-made to make it impossible to control the mushroom growth. In Centipede, fleas would appear and plant mushrooms whenever there were too few in your turf, and manipulating them was key to controlling the board. Now there are dragonflies that appear when they will, and plant mushrooms faster than fleas ever did. There are beetles, which innocuously crawl across the bottom of the screen, but let them live and they'll transform mushrooms into indestructible flowers, and killing them pushes everything down a row, spawning a new row of mushrooms on top. And on top of that, every few rounds the mushrooms just reproduce on their own, following some Conway-like Game of Life system.

A few new things exist to aid you. The most obvious of them is the DDT bomb, an environmentally-unfriendly pesticide that explodes when shot, capable of taking out an entire millipede if well timed. A new one spawns each round, but this is a cruel joke, as it doesn't take long at all before the mushrooms grow far too thick to make shooting these quickly enough to help be a realistic prospect. A subtler but more useful addition in the long run are the inchworms, which slow things down for a few seconds when you shoot them, giving you precious time to take out targets or thin out the mushrooms without much risk to yourself. Swarming mosquitoes are worth big points if you can shoot a lot of them in a single round and will also reverse the mushrooms' direction, but as with so many things, carelessness will cost you.

Old threats return, sometimes with new appearances. Spiders are still spiders, and they're unpredictable bastards that will easily blindside you. Their behavior isn't changed, they are still incapable of changing their lateral direction, and you can exploit this by passing above/underneath at the earliest opportunity and staying on the "safe" side of them until they exit. When no spiders are present, it's better to stay away from the screen's edges or risk having one enter and kill you faster than you can react. It's easier said than done; it's far too easy to get blindsided anyway because you were focusing on a good millipede kill or some other valuable target.

Bees replace fleas, but with so many new ways that the game can spawn mushrooms they aren't seen quite as often. Earwigs replace scorpions, and still poison mushrooms causing the millipede to cascade down to the bottom of the screen and up in your grill, but while in Centipede you could reasonably clear a path to the scorpions and kill them before they spread their venom, this isn't so practical in Millipede, and you'll just have to deal with falling millipede heads everywhere. And of course the millipedes themselves are just palette-swapped centipedes with the exact same behavior, including a bad feedback loop where if many segments reach your section, they'll call reinforcements faster than you can eliminate them.

One interesting feature added is the ability to select your starting score, which changes the starting difficulty accordingly. At first you can only pick 0 or 15,000 points, but if you score at least 45,000, then your next game can start at 30,000. Score 60,000, and you can begin a game at 45,000, and so on. It's almost like being able to continue from a game over, but not quite. But this also has a hidden annoying aspect; you must press the "fire" button to select your starting score, which can make you accidentally fire a round at the start of the game, which might wind up splitting the millipede right from the start, and you really don't want to begin the game that way.

GAB rating: Above Average. I tried to get over my disappointment over Millipede's regression with regards to strategy, but even accepting it as a twitch shooter, Millipede broke my brain and eyes. It's far from a bad game, the manic chaos is exhilarating, but I can only take so much of it. I liked Defender, Stargate, and Robotron, but this is too much. Notably, during each of my Millipede sessions, my performance often peaked on the first game of the sitting, and got progressively worse from there. I'd get flustered, frustrated, and would long for the comparative leisureliness of Centipede.


  1. "Centipede is among the ten best selling arcade games of all time, along with Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Asteroids, and Centipede"

    I can't wait to find out of the remainder of the top ten is fleshed out with Centipede, Centipede, Centipede, Centipede and Centipede!

    1. Whoops! I think I meant to type "Space Invaders" there. Not sure, but it's there now.


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