Friday, June 5, 2020

Games 191-192: Attack Force & Miner 2049er

Our next whale, Miner 2049er, is by far the best known title by Bill Hogue, who founded Big Five Software in 1980 to develop and self-publish arcade-style games for the TRS-80.

I can't determine what their debut title was, but on Mobygames, the most voted-on release of their premier year was Attack Force.

Game 191: Attack Force

After loading the program from cassette, we get a showy intro homage to The Outer Limits.

As for the game itself, remember Targ? This is Targ.

There are some differences. It starts off slower - much slower, almost unbearably so. Reversing your direction now happens instantly at intersections without you coming to a gradual stop first, so it isn't instant suicide as in Targ, but the timing is finicky and can still get you killed if you mistime it. Ramships sometimes turn into copies of you, which are difficult to distinguish from normal ramships, and you'll die if you shoot them. And the flagships shoot back, and through walls, which seems pretty unfair! Shots don't always kill you - in fact, the first five shots never do, but after that it seems random, so once flagships start spawning, better kill them quickly.

The most notable thing about Attack Force, frankly, is its framebuffer-like screen transitions, which feel like they've got no business being on a TRS-80, a system that I've tended to view as a glorified teletype.

GAB rating: Average. Gameplay's where it counts, and I can't get myself to feel very strongly about it here. At least, despite the flagship's wall-bypassing lasers, it feels fairer than Targ.

Game 192: Miner 2049er

Undoubtedly Big Five's most well known title, this is the only game in their lineup that I'd even heard of before starting Data Driven Gamer. Miner 2049er, a Donkey Kong-style platformer with a then-unheard of ten distinct levels, was originally made for the Atari 400 - feels like it's been quite awhile since I touched that system - and came on a then expensive 16KB cartridge. I'm not really sure why the game also requires 16KB of RAM; did Atari computers just load the entire cartridge data into memory like tapes or something?

The manual leads with an excuse plot. You play as Bounty Bob, hero of the RCMP, and are pursuing the dastardly Yukon Yohan in the uranium mines of Nuclear Ned, which are crawling with radioactive mutants. Each mining station must be "claimed" by walking over every inch of it before oxygen runs out. In an odd mixture of inspiration from Donkey Kong and Pac-Man, the mines are strewn with discarded personal items which can be collected for bonus points, which also temporarily transforms the mutants into harmless smiling green blobs, which you can eat. Hey, nobody said this game made sense. Unlike in Pac-Man, eaten monsters stay eaten.

The largest section in the manual describes the ten levels, each with a unique set of gadgets, gizmos, and traps, including a few special modes of transportation which are keyboard controlled - a hydraulic lift, some Star Trek-like transporters, and a cannon which you load with TNT to propel yourself upward, which is wrong even by Looney Tunes logic.

Despite being more predictable than Donkey Kong, Miner 2049er is much harder. There's a lot more platforming, frequently involving leaping from tiny platforms to other tiny platforms, and you have to constantly judge whether or not Bounty Bob can survive a fall distance. Given that the apex of his jumps add to this, the distance you can safely descend jumping from one platform to a slightly lower one is deceptively short.

So there's definitely a puzzle element going on here. Bob controls very precisely and responsively, which is good because your execution must be perfect as well. Often you'll need to jump from the very pixel at the edge of a platform - press the jump button a pixel too soon and you'll miss. Press it a frame too late, and you fall.

Dying completely restarts the level, and you just don't get many chances. Some time during the third level, you'll probably get an extra life in addition to the three you start with. And that's all you get. On level four things start to get nasty, and after you run out of lives it's back to the start, and you have to replay every level before getting up to four shots at the next one. Replaying previously beaten levels again and again just isn't fun, and after repeatedly dying on level 4, I accepted that I had no chance in hell of beating this game fairly without devoting months to it. 

And so, I employed save states according to my restrained rules - one permitted, at the start of each newly reached level, but only after thirty minutes of earnest play time since the previous save. I needed four saves in total to reach and finish the last level.

Level 1 is super easy.

Just walk over all of the ramps, collect the loot and eat the mutants while they're green. Mind the gap - overshooting that jump can be deadly! Otherwise this stage shouldn't be a problem.

Level 2 might have been called chutes and ladders.

At first I thought those were supposed to be shafts of light, but nope, walk over them and you slide down to the bottom. The series of slides on the right is continuous; walk over any of the slides, and you slip all the way down to the bottom of the level. You might want to do this once from the very top so that you "mark" all of the tiles directly on the slide, but after that, it's just a time waster.

Level 3 introduces the teleporters.

Gimmick aside, this level is pretty easy.

Level 4, shown previously. is where I used my first save state, after a good half hour of reaching it and failing to beat it.

Level 5 is like level 4, but even harder, and opens with a nasty surprise.

The manual does mention, under the description of this level, that Bob is allergic to martinis. But unless you make a habit of reading a level description immediately upon entering a new one, you're most likely just going to grab it in your haste to check out this new and exciting level and die horribly.

Other than that, it's much like 4, but the platforming is harder, and that menorah-like structure at the top is a pain to navigate. You've got to walk carefully to tag the platform segments without stepping into the chute, and jump between the segments without stepping or landing on them. Slip, and you've got to use the moving platform to get to the scaffolding to get back up, and you just don't have time to do this too often. This level is where I had used my second save state.

Level 6 is a breather.

The platforms are still tiny and easy to miss, but there aren't quite so many of them, and it's easier to tell which ones can and can't be jumped to from where. The one trap here is that there's no way back from the lower platforms to the right of the center, so do those last. The martini glass in the upper left is safe.

I was able to beat this one the second time I reached it, without using a save state at the start.

Level 7 looked impossible at first.

Just how, I wondered, was I supposed to clear the top-middle platform? None of the collectibles were positioned so that I could grab them and kill the alien before its effect wore off.

Then I discovered that the "BF" above it is a collectible. Snag it, eat the mutant, and the platform is yours. What's the "BF" supposed to be, anyway?

Even with that discovery made, this is one of the hardest levels in the game, and my third save state was at its start. Some of those jumps can deceive by looking more survivable than they actually are, whether through falling distance or Bob just overshooting his target, and trying to jump laterally from a standstill only to jump straight up (or just walk off a ledge) is always infuriating, as is sliding down the ramps when you didn't mean to.

Level 8 introduces the lift.

Once you figure out what to do here, this level is actually pretty easy. That said, you have to be really careful not to touch chutes that will dump you onto platforms without a path back to the lift.

Level 9 introduces smashers.

There's not much room for improvisation here. Ride a moving platform over to the left, jump over the chute, eat the mutant and claim the platform, ride the chute to the left side, and navigate the smashers back to the platforms on the right side. Your execution here has to be perfect - errors will almost certainly be fatal, and the timing needed to perform a horizontal jump without stepping off the tiny moving platform is pretty exacting. The start of level 9 was where I used my last save state; although I was unable to finish the final level starting from level 7, I managed to beat 9 and 10 in a single setting in well under 30 minutes.

Level 10 features the cannon, which is loaded by TNT retrieved from a storage shed, which propels Bob upward to higher platforms, and doesn't just blow his feet off.

Note that in this level, there is no way to kill the mutants. The TNT packs are the the only collectables, and are too far away from even the closest mutant. You'll just have to avoid them, which is much easier said than done!

The TNT shed has packs of one, two, and three, and it is imperative that you only grab one pack at a time. Each unit of TNT (10 tons according to the HUD) is enough to blast you one story high. If you grab all three one-packs, you'll reach the third level, and then have no way at all of reaching the first level, because all of the one-packs are now gone.

By far the hardest part of this stage is descending from the top-right platform. You've got to step on the chute at the exact moment so that you do not brush against any of the three mutants on the way down. If you can do that, the rest of the level isn't too hard so long as you're careful about not overloading the cannon, though one time I managed to take so long waiting for safe passage downward that I ran out of oxygen near the end.

Beat this level and you're returned to the first station, now at "Zone 2" with a slightly higher difficulty setting. But I was done playing. The manual states that there are 255 zones in total, and somehow I doubt there's any sort of reward for beating them all. For what it's worth, you can start a new game at any zone up to and including zone 10, which looks like this:

No thanks!

GAB rating: Above average. Miner 2049er plays and controls well, offering ten challenging and well designed levels, far more than any other game of its kind yet. But the unforgiving difficulty factor is out of whack - four chances to beat ten levels isn't nearly enough when there are just so many ways to screw up and die. I like a challenge, but I don't like replaying previously levels over and over again, and that old-school technique of inflating a game's runtime in such a manner comes out in full force here, preventing a "good" rating that would have certainly been secured had Miner 2049er just been more generous with extra lives.


  1. Minere 2049er reminds me of Mr. Robot and His Robot Factory, which I played a lot as a kid, but never beat.

  2. Miner 2049er is one I return to regularly. I've yet to beat it fairly but it's always fun to give it a try.

  3. I played Miner 2049er for the first time recently and loved it! Here's some trivia:

    • It looks like the game gets impossible around Zones 6 or 7 (cycles), due to the enemies speed.

    • Zone 10 is almost confirmed to be impossible, specially Station 10 (level 10/cycle 10)

    • You can actually practice every round* by inputting the number "2137826861" (allegedly Big Five's telephone number) and then holding shift and pressing the level number. [Most sites say you could pick levels 7 and 8, but I could only hold 7 to go to station 6. Numbers 6 and 8 did nothing]

    • Lastly, the "BF" in station 7 stands for "Big Five (Software)", but I guess you noticed that already.

    Cheers, great entry for your blog, as always!


Most popular posts