I loved playing Atari growing up. I had a respectable library of games, some bought new, some borrowed from friends, some given to me, and some bought from the local flea market (held every Thursday where I grew up). There were also some coveted games that I only got to play when I was at a friend or cousin's house, where I relished the opportunity to enjoy these new and exotic games that I did not have regular access to. This article focuses on five of the strangest games that were made for the Atari 2600 (none of them were actually made by Atari, they are all third-party games). They are all from 1982-1983, my personal golden era of Atari 2600 video game playing. They are all winners in my book, and I have a soft spot for each of them.
Kool Aid Man – Mattel - 1983
My brother and I earned this game through blood, sweat and tears. OK, that was an exaggeration. We earned it through drinking gallons of Rock-a-Dile Red, Sharkleberry Fin, Purplesaurus Rex and various other flavors of Kool-Aid in an attempt to gain the much coveted Kool-Aid Points (which have been discontinued, unfortunately. That just begs for a blog post to decry the injustice!)
These points could be redeemed via the mail for various trinkets, such as shirts, pitchers, or packet holders(?). But in this case, you could turn them in for a VIDEO GAME! You had to send in 125 Kool-Aid points though, which was no small feat. However, my brother and I were up to the task! I never needed to be convinced to drink Kool-Aid, anyway, but now I was on a mission, forgoing my beloved sweet tea and milk and concentrating solely on Kool-Aid. I sent the points in and anxiously awaited the package. My head was filled with visions of the Kool-Aid Man game. What would it consist of? I must admit, I wildly overestimated the graphics of the final product (I imagined a game with Kool-Aid man depicted identically to his commercial counterpart, crashing through a brick wall and bringing refreshments to children everywhere.) Needless to say, the Atari 2600 could not deliver that level of detail so I was left with the following:
Not bad, but not great.
The gameplay was pretty simple. There is a giant pool of water that you need to keep full (I guess the water is providing relief for some nameless town and they will die without it). The antagonists are round colorful creatures with the apropos name “Thirsties”. These thirsties live up to their name, and are so desperate they have turned to drinking pool water to slake their unending thirst. I’m not sure if you have ever accidentally (or purposefully) swallowed a mouthful of pool water before, but take my word; it is not a remedy for thirstiness. Kool-Aid is better for the thirsties, so you need to provide them with the alternative of this life-saving elixir. When a “thirsty” is traveling back and forth, leave him alone (mind your own business!) otherwise they will bump you and you will lose time. But when he extends his straw into the pool to begin drinking, you can then use your pitcher (did I mention that in this game you are a pitcher of Kool-Aid?) to touch the thirsty, who will stop drinking pool water and drink you instead! This causes the thirsty to disappear. I guess they drank too much and had to run to the little thirsties room.
There were also power-ups you could collect. What were the power-ups? The ingredients to Kool-Aid, of course! Kool-Aid Powder, Sugar, and Water, represented by a letter K, S or W about the size of your pitcher, would periodically appear. Snagging them partially re-filled the pool and could make you invulnerable for a short time, allowing you to quench thirst to your heart’s (assuming Kool-Aid Man has a heart) content.
All in all, it was a pretty fun game for its time. Oh yeah!
M*A*S*H* - 20th Century Fox - 1982
My father has a long-running love affair with the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (or M.A.S.H for short). This mediocre 70’s “dramedy” still holds the record for most watched television program finale in history, but I never really saw the appeal. The show pinwheels between seriousness and levity at seemingly random times, and I am never sure if I am supposed to be laughing at their exploits or pitying them. America loved the show, though, prompting the television show to last longer than the war it was portraying. Looking to capitalize on the success of the show, 20th Century Fox decided to make a game capturing the laughs and thrills of picking up wounded and operating on them in the middle of a warzone! Sounds like fun, eh kids?
In the game, you are Hawkeye Pierce, Chief Medic of the 4077, not that you ever see him, (not that I am complaining, mind you). There are two types of missions you can perform:
1. Flying a helicopter to pick up “sky-diving” medics
I never saw Hawkeye do this on a single episode of the television show, and I have seen more than my share. The idea of sky-diving medics seems odd to me. How do they know where the wounded are? Why send a sky-diving medic into an active war zone, where Korean tanks are constantly shooting helicopters, when they will themselves have to be rescued along with the wounded? I am resolving that this mission should have been called “pick up wounded and bring them to the camp”, since that happened tons of times on the show, and was integral enough to the plot to be included in the opening credits. Your helicopter has to avoid trees while it picks up wounded, but the computer helicopter (excuse me, Frank Burns’ helicopter), can fly right through them. I am not sure what sorcery he uses to accomplish this, but it is unfair and annoying. If your helicopter gets shot down by the aforementioned Korean tanks, an ambulance picks you up and sends you out again. I never questioned how an ambulance could pick up a helicopter and take it to base, but the instruction book informs me the ambulance is being driven by Klinger, the cross-dressing comic relief of the show, and if anyone can get things done around there, it’s Klinger. There is also an airplane that flies back and forth at the top of the screen that has absolutely no function in the game whatsoever. I guess the programmers got bored and wanted to put something else on the screen. Whatever.
2. Operating on patients
This consisted of removing pixelated shrapnel from various parts of the bodies of the wounded. As in the previous game, you can either play against a friend, or against the computer (Frank Burns). When playing single player, you can set the difficulty settings so that, and I quote from the game manual: “Frank Burns will get dumber the farther he gets ahead”. I guess they are trying to model his cockiness? Fatigue? Who knows, but it actually works fairly well. This mission is a not-too-subtle rip-off of the board game Operation, where you must carefully guide your extractor to the shrapnel and remove it from the body, taking care not to touch the shrapnel to the body. This results in some convuluted contortions you are forced to make, taking the shrapnel in a less than ideal circuitous route out of the body. Who knew surgery was so complicated? No wonder Hawkeye was hitting the booze so often, having to perform these physical gymnastics in a surgery room in the middle of a war zone. If you make the unfortunate error of touching the patient with the shrapnel, you will be punished with your turn ending, and the soul-crushing taunt “FERRET FACE”! The first time I saw this necessitated a trip to the living room to confer with my Father on the origins of its terms and its relation to the game. My father patiently, though obviously annoyed by my interruption, explained that ferret face was used as an insult on the show once. The end. Wiser, I went back to playing my game.
These two rounds alternate until one player (or the computer) scores 999 points, winning the game (but not the war, the war never ends…). The game was a staple around the Pack house, with my brother and I having long sessions, with the victor usually decided by a single wounded patient. I have very fond memories of this game, and it definitely holds up.
No Escape! - Imagic - 1983
This was one of the "exotic" games I didn't have growing up, but could only play when we visited my Aunt Shirley and Uncle Skip in Indiana. I was always excited to play this game, and had to patiently endure small talk about school, how old I was, how big I was, how smart I was, etc., until I could politely ask to be excused and play video games.
In this game, you controlled Jason the Argonaut, and your mission is to defeat creatures of myth, such as furies, centaurs, etc. This game was similar to Breakout (a brick breaking game), but this game threw in a unique twist. You threw rocks to kill the enemies, but instead of hitting the enemies with the rocks, you had to hit the roof of the temple, which would loosen a brick, causing it to fall and (hopefully) hit one of the enemies. You should avoid hitting the Furies directly with a rock, because if you do, they multiply. Huh? I'm not sure why being hit with a rock would cause this. I've been hit with a rock plenty of times and I have never multiplied (unless that is how I was born. Hmm.... Mental note: Ask Mom about rock multiplication and its relation to my origin). You had very limited control of the rocks you throw and no control of the bricks as they fall. To make things even more difficult, the furies don’t stand still and take their lumps lying down. As the levels progressed, they moved more and more erratically, quickly dodging the falling bricks and shooting fireballs of their own. This doesn't sound so hard, but the enemies sometimes hovered a few millimeters above your vulnerable head, giving you little to no time to avoid them. In later levels, skill gets thrown out the window in favor of a strategy of throwing rocks as fast as you can in hopes that the falling bricks will take care of the rest. Like most Atari games, there is no ending (except in death). The upside to your death is a cool shot of Pegasus carrying Jason's corpse to the afterlife.
Mountain King - CBS Electronics - 1983
From the manual:
"Deep inside a long-lost diamond mine is the secret Temple Chamber of a forgotten civilization. There, a priceless Golden Crown sits high on a pedestal, vulnerable to plundering explorers seeking to control its power. But this treasure is jealously guarded by the denizens of the mountain, and whoever has the daring and courage to challenge them, seize the Crown, and escape to the mountaintop with it will become MOUNTAIN KING"
Sounds exciting, huh? I'll let you in on a little secret. All Atari games sound much more interesting than they really are. You also can't believe the art on the box the game comes in, because they are CRIMINALLY deceptive. Still, the game was pretty fun. You control the explorer, searching a diamond mine for treasure (though the diamonds look more like salt crystals than actual diamonds). You can also find treasure chests, which are only visible by shining your flashlight on their location in the map. There is no music in the game at this point, so you just jump from platform to platform and climb up and down ladders trying to gain enough points to proceed to the next stage. There are a lot of treasure chests at the bottom of the mountain, but you have to watch out for the dreaded cave spider. If he catches you, he wraps you up in webbing (which you can shake free by literally shaking the joystick back and forth). However, if the cave spider touches you again, you are dead. You have been warned.
Once you earn 1000 points, the music plays a crucial part in the game. The louder the music plays, the closer you are to the Flame Spirit, which you will need to obtain in order to get past the Skull Spirit (that was a very weird sentence...). Anyway, once you find the Flame Spirit, you get a halo, but watch out, because these annoying cave bats show up that try to steal it. What they want with a Flame Spirit, I’ll never know. You need the Flame Spirit so you can get into the temple and find the Golden Crown, the object of the game. Once you have the Golden Crown, the classical song "In The Hall of the Mountain King" begins playing. Pretty sophisticated for an Atari game! The final task you have is to reach the summit of the mountain with the crown (which can be stolen by bats, natch). At the top of the summit is the Perpetual Flame, and once you reach it, the game is over. Exciting, huh?
One thing that made this game ahead of its time was the inclusion of an "easter egg" in the form of a hidden level. By timing your jump from the top of the mountain peak, you can barely reach the bottom rung of a very high ladder. At the top, there is another level of ladders and platforms. The weirdest feature is the two ghost-like figures that don't do anything but sit there looking mysterious at the top of the mountain. No bonus for reaching this level by the way, just a feeling of cool elitism.
Of course, there was a commercial that made you
want to rush out and buy the game:
This really was a very unique game when compared to the other regular fare offered by Atari. It is a pretty rare game, though, so I wouldn't be surprised if this is the first time you have heard of it.
And that brings me to the last game on my list:
Journey Escape - Data Age - 1982
I have saved my personal favorite for last. This game rounds out the "Anderson, Indiana" trilogy of games. I only played this game at my Aunt and Uncle's house, but I have great memories of playing it.
The manual for this game does a capable job of explaining just what this game is all about:
"You're on the road with Journey, one of the world's hottest rock groups. A spectacular performance has just ended. Now it's up to you to guide each Journey Band Member past hordes of Love-Crazed Groupies, Sneaky Photographers, and Shifty-Eyed Promoters to the safety of the Journey Escape Vehicle in time to make the next concert. Your mighty manager and loyal roadies are there to help, but the escape is up to you! "
The game begins with a shot of the scarab flying through space, intermittently shooting a laser with the instantly recognizable notes of Don't Stop Believin' emanating from the audio card in all the 80's rock glory that the Atari could muster. Hitting the reset button finds you controlling the first of the five Journey members, Steve Smith. Not that you would recognize him, since all the characters looked like THIS:
You begin the game with $50,000 (hey it was the 80's, that was a lot of money) and 60 seconds to successfully navigate the obstacles and reach the Scarab. And oh what obstacles there are.
Not to worry, though. You have some friends on your side:
The first level is incredibly easy, as the obstacles fell in a vertical line at all times. They are worlds apart, so getting Steve to the Scarab was always easy, and it was handy to bank that extra time for some of the more difficult, later levels. Jonathan Cain was a little trickier, as the obstacles now begin to move, bumping off the sides of the screen in an effort to hinder your escape. Ross Valory was the third member, and the fun really began here. The obstacles began falling at much sharper angles, making it more difficult for Ross to meet up with the band. Neil Schon is the penultimate band member, and the game gets downright hard at this point, with the obstacles bouncing around the screen in separate ways, coming in at different angles. Steve Perry is the lead singer, and his level is the hardest of all, with the roadies and manager becoming very important.
Ironically, one of the hardest parts of the game is touching the scarab vehicle to rescue that band member and move on to the next level. I can't tell you how many times I have touched the Mighty Manager and happily ran as fast as my band member could, laughing at all the obstacles uselessly trying to stop me, only to watch the Scarab go hurtling by, dooming me to a lifetime of running in a weird, multi-colored starry background until time runs out.
There was also an uber-cool commercial, explaining the intracacies of game play. Check it out:
Totally 80's, dude!
I am not sure what this game would look like if it were made today, or who would be the focus. Maybe a Justin Bieber game where you have to avoid girls trying to grab you, all the while having to keep your bangs straight? I could see it...
I hope you enjoyed this trip down Atari 2600 memory lane. What were your favorite weird Atari 2600 games? Feel free to comment on this article on the threesorryboys.com blog.