Thursday, July 1, 2021

Games 274-275: Salmon Run & Necromancer

One year before writing Alley Cat, its designer Bill Williams had written two other Atari computer games. This post is about my experience playing them.

Game 274: Salmon Run

Unlike their incredibly unsuccessful attempt at creating a walled garden of internally developed and uncredited Atari 2600 cartridges, the Atari Program Exchange encouraged programmers, whether amateur or professional, to write computer software. Select titles would be listed in a quarterly catalog distributed to all registered customers, with credit, royalties, and occasionally, cash prizes given to their authors.

Williams' first game, Salmon Run, was distributed this way. Save for the oddly realistic-sounding water effects, it feels like something that might have existed on the Atari 2600.


As Sam the Salmon, you've returned to the rivers of your youth to embark on that one last adventure that millions of your ancestors took before; to swim upstream, leaping over waterfalls, avoiding opportunistic bears, seagulls and boys with fishing nets, and, em, find true love.

Oh, Bill.

Unlike in real life, phenoptosis doesn't set in, but instead you gain an extra life and get to have another run, only it will be more difficult, not only because the river will have additional waterfalls and hazards, but Sam isn't getting any younger. The longer you go on a single life, the weaker Sam gets - jumps become shorter, currents affect you more, and you swim slower. It's an interesting take on the limited lives mechanic that I've never really seen done before.

Unfortunately, I can't seem to beat a second loop at all, because Salmon Run is really hard. The random hazards just seem to sometimes appear in configurations that are completely impossible to avoid.

Like many of Atari's games, Salmon Run has multiple game modes, 8 to be exact, which represent 8 combinations of three binary settings:

  • General waterfall concentration (Normal/High)
  • Subsequent rounds strengthen the current (Off/On)
  • Subsequent rounds add more waterfalls (2/4)

Mode 8 has all of these enabled, and it was here that I achieved my highest score.


GAB rating: Bad. I feel bad about condemning this earnest, well-meaning, and novel effort, and almost think I must be missing something, but Salmon Run just feels frustrating and annoying to play. It handles weirdly, collision detection seems glitchy, and I just can't see a viable strategy for success when you're at the mercy of randomly spawning predators in places where you can't avoid them.

Game 275: Necromancer

Williams' second game was his first with Synapse Software, and is a bit more substantial than Salmon Run. And a lot more weird.

The first and most striking thing about Necromancer is its atmosphere. This game is dark, grim, and oppressive! Cliche nowadays, but there's a style and sincerity that I just don't get from modern corporate-created grimdark settings. Williams' low resolution artwork feels more surreal rather than abstract, partly due to skillful use of palette cycling tricks, but also, I think, because Atari games aren't usually this black. Let's also not fail to mention the title screen theme, a simple but haunting melody, made at a time when most computer games didn't have any music at all.

You play a druid, and must defeat a necromancer and his army of spiders with your magic powers and army of trees, over the course of three stages, where your performance in one affects conditions of the next.

The first stage is about raising your trees while orcs threaten to cut them down.

Your joystick controls a wisp, and it's difficult to move it around precisely. Pressing the button plants a seed, which will grow into a tree, sometimes very quickly, sometimes agonizingly slowly, but it's vulnerable until fully grown. The wisp can chase away the orcs or destroy them, at the cost of some strength, and can retrieve more seeds from the occasional dryad. Spiders will poison your trees, causing them to start screaming, and will die soon unless you heal them with your wisp. As you plant more trees, the "level" increases, and the tempo of the action with it, up to a maximum level of 5. Once your energy runs out, which is reduced by killing orcs or getting hit by a spider, you gain 200 strength for each level attained, and take your trees with you to the next level.

I found a pretty good strategy for ensuring that you reach level 5.

Plant your first four trees in the corners, one at a time while the level is still low, and watch them like a hawk to make sure each one of them grows. Then go nuts on the top and bottom rows - the corner trees will protect them. You've still got to watch for spiders, and they can infect multiple trees in one pass, but curing your sick trees is a lot easier when they're all standing in a row on an edge of the screen.

Stage 2 is the catacombs, and here, things fall apart. The goal is to crush as many sacs as possible with your trees, which is done with a truly bizarre control scheme and needlessly convoluted rules.

To command a tree, first move the wisp to your tree, and then your joystick moves the tree, but the control scheme is an uncomfortable scheme where you tap a direction to start moving, and tap up or down to stop moving (unless you're by a ladder), like keyboard controls in an Apple II game - totally unnecessary as these are joystick controls. The druid may be moved by holding the joystick button, and his direction is changed by tapping a direction while still holding it, which is also pretty confusing. Question mark icons may be collected to extend ladders, but you must be careful to avoid the grasping hands - if they get your druid it will cost 300 strength, and you just can't afford that.

To crush a spider sac, move a tree above it and press the button to plant it. Eventually roots will take hold, the ground will crumble, and the tree will fall. Then you may burn the tree with your wisp, reclaiming it.

There's a lot of luck involved here, because the sacs will hatch eventually, and in a random order, with random timing. A sac will start glowing when it's about to hatch, but sometimes it's too far away to do anything about it. The trees move very slowly, and the grasping hands slow you down even more. The amount of time it takes to hatch is random, the amount of time it takes a tree to take root is random, and sometimes a spider just hatches before you can do anything, even if you acted immediately.

That's not the end of the world on level 1, where everything moves slowly and you can kill the spider with your wisp, gaining 100 strength as a reward, but around level 3 they start moving so ridiculously fast and deftly avoid your wisp that they'll wreck havoc. If you planted a tree above, it will certainly destroy the tree. If you wrote that sac off as a lost cause and tried planting trees far away, and they didn't take root fast enough, the spider will likely destroy them. It might even get into your tree reserve and destroy everything. And ultimately, unless you get extremely lucky, it will touch you, costing you 100 strength and ensuring you'll see it again in the next stage.

What was I even supposed to do?

Even after learning the controls and mechanics, I found this stage random, chaotic, and unfair, and frequently did things I hadn't intended thanks to the weird controls. Often I'd plant a tree, only for this to cause the druid to walk right into a hand, as the button for planting trees and moving is the same.

Full disclosure - I had to horrifically abuse save states to pass this stage with a minimum of eggs left uncrushed, partly due to the weird controls, but mostly due to the extreme amount of luck manipulation involved. And even then it wasn't perfect by any means.

If you just want to pass the stage, you can do this fairly easily by ignoring the eggs and just rushing to the bottom, being extremely careful to avoid the hands. Better yet, on levels 1 & 2, wait for the eggs to hatch, and kill the spiders with your wisp until your strength maxes out at 2000. This, I can do without save states, but you'll be screwed on the next stage. Or at least that's what the manual says.

Descend past level 5, and you arrive at the graveyard, and showdown with the necromancer himself.


Topple the headstones, avoid the spiders, and shoot the necromancer for bonus strength. The wisp is incredibly hard to control here! Sometimes it kills spiders, sometimes it doesn't, but it hardly matters as the necromancer will just regenerate any spiders that you do kill. The controls still use the backwards scheme of controlling the wisp when the button is released and moving the druid by holding it.

The manual says that the more sacs you leave uncrushed (or hatched) in the previous level, the more spiders you have to deal with here. In truth, it seemed like even when I manipulated luck to get most of them, his army was still overwhelming and unmanageable.

There are five levels, and it is critical that you "farm" the necromancer for strength during levels 1&2 where it's still possible to do this faster than the spiders can drain your strength. Do not finish these levels with less than the maximum of 2000 or you'll be very, very dead during the next three. Even if you do, you're probably still going to die.

Once again, I had to use save states to ensure not too much life was lost on each subsequent level. You can't control where the spiders spawn, they move faster than you and unpredictably, it hardly seems worth the trouble to try to kill him, and the necromancer himself moves too quickly to farm for more life. You can easily lose 500 strength in a fraction of a second. It all feels very luck-based, and almost hilariously skewed against your favor. And that's if you can even decipher all the chaos going on the screen.

Beat level 5 and the necromancer asplodes and fills the screen with rainbows.

GAB rating: Bad. Once again, I feel awful about condemning this. It's an original, authorial title, with strong art direction and so many novel ideas. We've seen minigame collections before, where each stage is a different arcade game knockoff, but not only does every Necromancer stage seem like something new, but there's actual gameplay cohesion, and not just a bunch of unrelated minigames. You plant trees in stage 1 so that you can squash spider nests in level 2, so that you can deal with fewer of them in level 3.

But obtuse controls, weird mechanics, and grossly unfair gameplay ruin the experience. I had no fun playing Necromancer during my attempts to do it fairly, and no fun savescumming during stages 2 & 3 every few seconds to ensure the game would be beatable.

Thankfully, I already know the next game is good. Really good.

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