Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Games 218-219: Space Jockey & Keystone Kapers

Around 1980, electrical engineer Garry Kitchen had contributed to two LCD games for Parker Brothers - Wildfire, a pinball game, and Bank Shot, a pool game co-designed with his brother Steve. These toys fall outside the scope of Data Driven Gamer, but his next project marked the humble start of his storied video game career; a budget VCS title released through Quaker Oats' short-lived video games venture. This was a weird time for the industry.


Game 218: Space Jockey


It's a budget title and it shows. This is a very simple horizontally-scrolling shooter. There are 16 game modes that, in Atari fashion, simply represent combinations of 4 binary options; player homing missiles, random enemy movement, player horizontal movement, and whether or not colliding with targets kills you. Two difficulty switches also control the rate and speed of enemy fire. Interestingly, there's no two-player mode here, as was fashionable at the time for no good reason.

With the higher difficulty settings, you can't possibly react to enemy fire, but you don't need to, because it's not hard to anticipate at all. Only one target can fire at a time, and there's a one-second cooldown between shots. I quickly found a rhythm of baiting fire, dodging, and returning fire. Hitting the smaller targets is tricky, and having homing missiles makes it trickier as you must keep yourself in harm's way to have a chance of hitting them, but you can learn the rhythm and figure out exactly when to move out in case your missiles don't hit their mark.

I could probably play this game until the score flips, but I don't see much point. It doesn't change or get any harder the longer you play.

GAB rating: Below Average. There's nothing fundamentally broken here, but Space Jockey is simplistic even for a VCS title. There's barely a minute worth of gameplay here.

Kitchen's next project was his most successful on the system - porting Donkey Kong to the VCS for Coleco. Nowadays, the VCS port isn't known for much except being inferior to their in-house ColecoVision port, but at the time it was a million seller.

In 1983, he joined Activision and produced his first whale.


Game 219: Keystone Kapers

Read the manual here:

Did anyone actually own the rights to the Keystone Cops in 1983? I'm thinking based on the timeline of copyright extension acts that they would have entered the public domain around 1970 or earlier, but I can't confirm this.

As Officer Kelly, your job is to chase and catch Hooligan Harry in a department store. His striped jumpsuit suggests escaped convict, but the manual merely describes him as a local troublemaker.


Like most Activision titles I've played, there are no game modes, no difficulty settings, and no pointless two-player option. But there's not much here - you just run through a linear, winding path, avoiding obstacles, and try to catch Harry with as much time left on the clock as possible.

The one concession to non-linearity is the elevator, which moves slowly but is definitely worth using at the earliest opportunity. Figuring out when/where to get off is the only strategic choice - you do not want to get too far ahead of Harry, because he'll reverse directions and if he makes it to the escalator, you are screwed because he can descend them, and you, being an upstanding example-setting rule-abider, cannot.

I managed 50,000 points before quitting out of boredom. The pace gets pretty frantic, but everything is completely deterministic. This is not a difficult game at all.

GAB rating: Average. It looks pretty swell for an Atari 2600 game, with colorful sprites and nice animation. Kitchen stated in an interview that the seed for Keystone Kapers was an idea he had on how to animate an escalator on the Atari hardware, which I guess must be pretty difficult, and the rest of the game wound up growing around the concept. But it's just not all that entertaining to play for very long. It reminds me of Pitfall, but more frenetic, and without the appeal of feeling like you're exploring anything - it's just the same four floors of Southwick's over and over again, with four different obstacle types to jump over or duck under.


Kitchen produced one other game for Activision in 1983; Pressure Cooker. Years later, he, along with his brother Dan and David Crane, would leave Activision and found Absolute Entertainment, following (and ending) a trend of corporate exodees founding a video game company and giving it a name that appears earlier in the dictionary than the one they left.

1 comment:

  1. I'm now imagining a hypothetical spinoff game of this and #228: 'Escalator Action'...


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