Monday, April 27, 2020

Games 179-180: Video Pinball (VCS) & Dragonfire

Imagic's debut year of 1982 was a productive one. In March, they released Demon Attack for the Atari VCS, followed quickly by Star Voyager and Trick Shot. In July, they released Atlantis and Cosmic Ark, a diptych that I reviewed earlier this year. In September, they released another pair of VCS games, Riddle of the Sphinx and Fire Fighter. In October, they released four Intellivision games; Microsurgeon, Beauty and the Beast, and greatly expanded ports of Demon Attack and Atlantis. Finally in December, they released their final game of the year, Dragonfire for the VCS.

The manual credits development to Bob Smith, whose prior credits include Video Pinball at Atari, porting Tanktics to the TRS-80, and the aforementioned Star Voyager and Riddle of the Sphinx at Imagic. Bob Smith's Video Pinball, running on the VCS, is separate from Atari's arcade game with the same title, and as Smith's first original title, I felt I had to play it.

Game 179: Video Pinball (VCS)

I thought I was done with pinball video games for awhile! The best, it turns out, was not saved for last.

It's... not as bad as it looks, provided you aren't expecting this to play much like a pinball game.

Actually, there's one thing here that Smith did very right. All of the Apple II pinball games that I played used dual paddle controllers, which helped with immersion but made it a horrible inconvenience to nudge the table in the games that even allowed it. Here, everything is done with the joystick. You tap left for the left flipper, right for the right flipper, up for both, down to pull the launch plunger, and press the button to release it. To nudge, you hold the button and tap the stick in a direction. This is key to controlling the ball, and there isn't very much flipper action thanks to the huge, very bouncy targets and the fact that the floor is flat instead of inclined. Nudge the ball in one direction for too long and you'll tilt, but there's no risk of this with rapid fire light taps, and the amount of time you can sustain a single nudge without tilting isn't random or hard to figure out. Trying to fight the ball's lateral inertia is mostly futile unless you're chasing a roller, and nudging up and down doesn't seem to do anything, but nudging into the ball's trajectory can help.

There are two meaningful gameplay options. Difficulty B plugs up the two side-drains, which makes it nearly impossible to lose the ball, so I stuck with difficulty A. Then there are four game modes; mode 3 only differs from 1 by resetting the bumper value whenever you lose a ball, and modes 2 and 4 are pointless two-player variations of 1 and 3. I stuck with mode 1, because who wants a lower scoring game?

The targets have these scoring behaviors:
  • Bumpers are initially worth 100 points per hit.
  • Hitting all three diamonds raises the bumper multiplier by 1 each time. In game mode 1, this lasts the whole game, but in game mode 3 this resets when the ball drains.
  • Hitting the right rollover with the Atari logo four times gives a free ball. You can only do this once per ball.
  • Hitting the left rollover increases the number on it by one. When the ball drains and you didn't tilt, you get between 1,000 and 4,000 points for each accumulated hit. I don't really understand the logic that determines the value per-hit. One time I got it to 4 and earned 12,000 points, another time I got it to 6 and only earned 5,000. The manual claims you get 1,000 points for each rollover up to a maximum of 4,000, but this is clearly wrong.
  • A special target near the middle of the screen randomly lights up for four seconds at a time and is worth 1,000 points per hit.

Of my 48,726 points, 17,000 came from the left rollover bonus, and I conservatively estimate that 28,000 came from hitting the bumpers. That was with a maximum bumper value of 300 points, which can go way higher than that, so I think it's clear that diamonds are the most valuable target, points-wise, and obviously the earlier, the better.


GAB rating: Below Average. I said it's not as bad as it looks, but it's a long way from good, even with tempered expectations. My interest in a pinball game, real or simulated, is proportional to how much stuff is on the table, and being a VCS game, there's not much here. Most of the good stuff is at the top half of the table, and there aren't many ways of deliberately getting the ball up there from the bottom, given the flat ramps and weak flippers. The emphasis on nudging over flipper action does make for a very different experience, but doesn't make it fun, just different. I didn't hate my existence for the time I spent on this game, but I have no desire whatsoever to try to improve on my score, even though I'm certain I could if I so desired.

Of all the pinball games I've played for Data Driven Gamer, this one ranks almost last, being worse than the arcade game, but better than Bill Budge's Trilogy of Games Pinball, which I did not rate. I'm pretty sure that I'm done with video pinball games for awhile, until we get to Pinball on the NES, and after that there isn't any pinball on the agenda for a very long time, until the 1992 phase.

Moving onto 1982 at Imagic,

Game 180: Dragonfire

The manual is adorned with a seriously ugly dragon image, looking something like a a snake who is leatherfacing an iguana's poorly-fitting epidermis, and a bunch of tendrils and teeth glued on like something out of a Flash Gordon serial. Dragons have occupied the castle, and you, a spry young prince, have volunteered to sneak in and retrieve its treasures. Supposedly the king needs these treasures to raise an army to fight the dragons, but alas, when you escape the castle alive with all of the treasures, all you get a new castle, occupied with a more difficult dragon to run away from.

Gameplay alternates between two phases, like Cosmic Ark, but they're more interesting. First, you have to approach the castle and avoid fireballs, which are spat at you high and low. This phase has an unchanging difficulty factor, and I found I could pass it fairly consistently with a basic strategy; run for the middle of the screen and wait for the fireballs to come. Most of the time a high ball comes first and is followed by a low ball, so duck under the high ball, and then when it passes, run to the left and jump over the low fireball when it comes, and pray you don't get torched inches away from the castle entrance, which usually doesn't happen with this strategy. Your running momentum carries with your jump, so it's easier to jump over the low ball if you're also running toward it. Sometimes the fireballs come out so closely together that you can't dodge both from this position, and when this happens, retreat to the safety of the right side of the screen and try again once they pass.

The second phase involves scooping up the treasures in the castle hold while the dragon crawls around on the bottom of the screen and shoots more fireballs at you. The dragons have simple movement tracking behavior, but avoiding their fire on the harder castles is no picnic as both the dragons and their fireballs move faster than you do. This phase gets really annoying, because the prince skids around the floor like he's wearing socks at a skating rink. It's infuriating to keep sliding right past a treasure because the controls didn't handle quite the way you expected them to. And if a treasure appears right at the bottom of the screen in the middle longitudinal section, good luck recovering it without getting torched by a dragon that can instantly zip right into burninating range from either edge of the screen. You can also take refuge by retreating to the hold door, and this can be strategically useful as it allows you to wait a bit in safety until the dragon moves to a position where you can more safely emerge and snag a treasure, but also risky thanks to the slippery controls which can cause you to miss the egress entirely and get trapped on the edge of the screen instead as the dragon pins you down against it with a barrage of fireballs.

Difficulty switches don't seem to do anything, and game modes determine the starting level along with the usual pointless two alternating players option. You can start on castle 1, 3, 5, or 7, and the difficulty peaks at castle 9, which is guarded by a white dragon, and all subsequent castles also have a white dragon with the same movement speed and behavior. Reaching castle 9 doesn't even take two minutes, so this option seems a bit superfluous, except for the fact that I don't even last two minutes on my best playthrough, in which I lose my last life on castle 10.

Unusually, Dragonfire gives you seven lives, far more than the traditional three. But you lose them fast, and there's no way of earning more.

GAB rating: Average.

I've now played Imagic's Demon Attack, Atlantis, Cosmic Ark, and Dragonfire. Apart from their debut title Demon Attack, none of these rated better than Average. Imagic's gameplay concepts are novel, and they all look really nice with due consideration to the system's limitations, but they're just not that much fun to play for more than a few minutes. I can almost imagine Imagic picking up gameplay concepts that Atari rejected on the grounds that they weren't fun, and then building the most polished and technically impressive games that were feasibly possible around these rejected concepts, enhanced with colorful visuals far beyond anything Atari themselves ever attempted on their own system. It's almost ironic that Demon Attack, being so obviously derivative of Space Invaders, is also the most fun I had with any of their games. Maybe it's not fair to judge their library based on only four games when they were so prolific, but if Mobygames votes are anything to go by, these are their four most widely played games by a big margin.

Imagic's output of 1983 was even greater than of 1982. In January through May, they produced nine games, seven of them targeting the Intellivision as the lead platform rather than Atari VCS. In June through December they released another seven games, all of them VCS-focused. None of these games were hugely successful by any metric from what I can gather, and none qualify as whales. In 1984, with the video game market not yet recovered from its 1983 decline, they focused on Atari, Commodore, and IBM personal computers, with their sole console output consisting of two ColecoVision ports of non-Imagic games. Finally in 1985, they released two interactive fiction games on personal computers, before being absorbed by Activision in early 1986.

1 comment:

  1. I like how after the White Dragon killed your last prince, the game flashes to the bridge with the fireballs like: Ha Ha! Gotcha!


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