Retrogaming Times
Monthly
Issue #13 - June 2005

Table of Contents
01. Press Fire to Start
02. Syntax Era
03. The Many Faces of . . . Venture
04. Retrogaming Commercial Vault
05. The Titles of Tengen
06. Old School is New Again
07. The Life of a Computer Game Geek
08. The Thrill of Defeat
09. Game Over

Press Fire to Start

Welcome to another issue of Retrogaming Times Monthly. This issue kicks off our second years of RTM, and we hope to get it going on the right foot. This issue features old video games magazines, Star Wars, Pac-Man, and old memory, and even a warrior named Winky(?!). So let's get things started.

Don't forget you can help RTM. We're always looking for new writers to contribute what they can. Whether it be news, reviews, or even a good retorgaming story, if you have something you can chip it, by all means go ahead.

Syntax Era: Video Games

I've been putting this one off for a while. I know that I said I would get to it sooner, but I would always find one reason or another to put it off a little longer. I've been meaning to review Video Games for a while now, and I decided that I had to take a look at why I've been procrastinating and avoiding it.

Part of why I enjoy writing these articles is sharing how much I enjoyed reading them with you. And the fact is, even though I have a complete collection of 21 Video Games magazine, I've never fully enjoyed taking them out and reading them. Not compared to Electronic Games or Joystik or even Atari Age. And I thought to myself, why is that? It has pretty much the same material, the same reviews, nearly the same editorials in fact. So what makes reading Video Games such a different experience? The fact is, Video Games is not a bad magazine. It's as much of a gold mine of classic video game information as any of the other magazines I have reviewed for Retrogaming Times Monthly. But there's something about it that until recently, I couldn't put my finger on. So after pulling them back out and glancing over them for a while, I've finally come to understand the difference.

If you were to ask me to explain the difference between, say, Electronic Gaming Monthly and Edge magazine (if you're familiar with the latter,) I would have to say that while both magazines do a great job focusing on the video game industry at large, each has a special niche and presentation. EGM is more of a pop-culture reflection of the industry. While its roots were once a more glorious shade of underground, it has evolved in to the MTV version of gaming in print. Meanwhile, Edge magazine, and it's late little sister publication Next Gen, present a much more intellectual aspect of the industry, deep with introspective looks in to the minds that create the software that we love to play... in a sometimes boring package.

The point of my comparison is the differences between Edge and EGM are very similar to the differences between Video Games and Electronic Games respectively. Electronic Games was a magazine that, to me, was cover to cover excitement. Video Games had a much more in depth look at the industry, but tended to be a bit on the dry side. Video Games definitely intended itself to look like any other magazine, such as Time or Life, that just happened to be about video games. Every so often, many articles in the early issues were mostly black letters on white backgrounds. If it were not for the video game related ads printed every couple of pages, you might forget that you were reading a video game magazine. The truth is, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, it's just not what one has come to expect from such a magazine.

Video Games took the high road to publication. It took itself seriously, and rather than pretty up the pages with intensely interesting graphic art, it surrounded the black-on-white text with very professional photographs. For example, nearly every single issue featured an interview with a key member of the industry, the very first issue featuring a definitive interview with Nolan Bushnell himself. Later issues featured interviews with Ralph Baer, and presidents and CEOs of companies like Activision, Imagic, and Parker Bros. What struck me as odd about these interview is that the only pictures that accompanied them where usually pictures of the interviewee in ties and jackets. You were reading an interview with a man about a fun subject, and the man was in a suit. Unusual? No. Uninteresting? Not always. Uncompelling? Yes.

It seems that Video Games did not strive to be a "fun" magazine of the era, but rather the serious one. It set itself apart from other, more kid-friendly, magazine so much so that it ultimately included a "Kid's Corner" in case little tykes did happen to pick it up by mistake. I'm not saying it was intended for adults, certainly teenagers could pick up the magazine and enjoy it's no-nonsense approach. And the comic strips that it routinely ran where obviously intended for comic relief. But it certainly skewed towards a higher age range than your typical video game player.

Another thing that struck me about the magazine was the particular technological focuses. Video Games was very interested in the latest and greatest console and arcade games, without question. And it seemed that it was very also very interested in helping consumers make crucial buy decisions when it came to computer hardware. Almost every issue featured a review or preview of a particular home computer that would reach the market. And yet, it seems to have taken Video Games a full year before they began to cover some of the video game related software that was available for these computer systems. And even then, they tended to be about the more B or C titles that were available as opposed to the A titles.

I feel that at this time, I should point out that much of Video Games content was a lot like all the rest, lest you think that Video Games was nothing but an oddity. It's just that differences are more interesting to discuss than the similarities. To be sure, Video Games started with an Editorial, each one as progressively doomsday about the state of the industry as Electronic Games' editorials were. That was followed by news shorts about interesting aspects happening in the industry or new video game related merchandise coming out such as cereal or comic books. Throw in your batch of new game reviews and previews, a top ten list each month, several buyers guides, and a slew of arcade game tips bundled in the center of a few of the issues, and you've got a well rounded video game mag.

One thing that Video Games did rather well was to provide coverage of several industry expos, like the Coin-Op show, and the "little" precursor to E3 known as the Consumer Electronics Show, or CES. Following a good dissection of the show, the next few pages would be nothing but a layout of photos of interesting scenes, displays, and people. My concept of a "booth babe" changed radically when I saw how they were dressed up in 1983. Let's just say some things about the 80s are better left forgotten (like fashion) and times have changed for the better. And as a past attendant of several E3 shows, all of which featuring a mammoth Nintendo area, it was quite amusing to see a photo of the humble Nintendo display of 1983 that featured a customer service desk more prominently than the two arcade machines it had in the back.

Video Games began its publication in August of 1982, and was printed bimonthly for three issues until they began monthly printings in January of 1983. From then on it ran an impressive course of 16 consecutive monthly issues to May of 1984. By this time the video game crash was in full effect, and Video Games published one last gasp as a Summer/Fall issue for 1984 before disappearing completely. It is very interesting to point out a prediction made in Roger Sharpe's final editorial. Even though "the fact that no new hardware introductions are envisioned for the future leaves us with a situation where equipment will only get old and worn," he comments that "a glimmer of hope does lurk in these shadows of doom. Nintendo, better known for its success in the coin-op world, has an exceptional home game system which currently enjoys about 80% of the marketplace in Japan." To be honest, I can't quite recall any other publication making such a poignant observation about Japan's gaming in 1984. The issue does go on to review the "ill-fated" Atari 7800, discussing a system with its readers that they thought would never see the light of day.

Video Games magazines aren't too hard to come by. They appear on eBay every now and then. Your problem finding them is going to be with the horribly generic title, as a search for "Video Games" is going to result in a ton of auctions that don't have anything to do with the magazine. Putting the word "magazine" in the search certainly helps narrow down the results. I have never seen any of these issues go for an incredible amount of money. Even the first issue, sporting the declaration of Pac-Man as Man of the Year, can be obtained for less than $10. But I would claim that they are only worth the investment if you are truly a fan of the magazine's presentation. Pick one up cheaply if you can and make your decision off of that, as from start to finish, the magazine rarely ever changed style. And covers, as always, can be found at Phaze's Classic Videogame Magazine Museum, http://cvmm.vg-network.com/.

The Many Faces of . . . Venture

Sorry, no Star Wars game this month - instead we look at the home versions of a 1981 arcade game from Exidy - Venture. This early fantasy/adventure title was probably targeted to a specific group - Dungeons and Dragons fans. Of course, this didn't preclude anyone else from enjoying this game, but it is likely that it brought some new gamers into the arcade. I know that word spread quickly about it back in my youth, but then again, the D&D fans, were the same guys who were into war games, chess, computers and video games too. Despite its apparent arcade success and even a few home versions ported, it is still a mystery to me why this game never took off and had sequels. I expected to see Venture ][ with more rooms, monsters, creativity, hidden traps, puzzles, invisible monsters and possibly objects that Winky would find in one room, and use to complete another. Alas this did not occur. Maybe the difficulty of the game was too much; or there were lawsuit with the folks at TSR Hobbies; or perhaps Exidy assumed its target audience would spend their quarters on home computers seeing how many home adventure games were coming out - always increasing in sophistication. Whatever the reason, it was still the most successful fantasy / dungeon arcade game ever, until Gauntlet came along 4 years later. The high scorers list even hinted at RPGs with these titles - Wizard, Warrior, Sorcerer, Fighter & Winky. We may never know the reasons, but at least the Intellevision crowd got their fix on a couple of terrific AD&D titles.

Venture's arcade flyer tells about the games within the game and how there's 36 treasures in all, not to mention saving our heroine, Winkette. http://www.arcadeflyers.net/?page=flyerdb&subpage=thumbs&id=1303

The Venture Legend - Recovered by Winky in Dungeon Archives, circa 1581
In a Dungeon of Olde, there are Treasures to Gain - In Chambers 'midst Creatures of Doom. Pass Quickly through Halls where Green Monsters do Reign - Your Arrows pierce Only in rooms. Beware of the creatures who Fall to your Bow - They Lie with their Powers intact. The Moving Walls Fall at the Strike of your Blow - Quick! Capture the Prize then retract. In Chamber rooms Dark, make good Haste for the Prize - To Linger invites foes too Strong; So Shoot as you Might, you can't conquer their Size - And you Won't be a Winkin' for Long. . . . And may the Force be with You [oops, couldn't resist - strike that sentence].

Although cryptic, the above tale tells much about Venture's gameplay. The arcade game features an 8-direction joystick and both a L & R handed fire button. Winky our hero is a red, smiley-faced character with a yellow bow & arrow attached to his person. The first and subsequent levels begin as Winky grabs this bow & arrow and heads down stairs to the next level of the dungeon. Unfortunately, you begin each life/level without this bow and arrow to use - as you are displayed as a small block & are placed at the bottom center of the "Hallway" screen for each level. You see a layout of the current dungeon level, the hallways, the rooms & their doorways and the deadly-to-the-touch Hall Monsters - akin to AD&D's wandering monsters. You are defenseless and must avoid the Hall Monsters while trying to get the treasures inside each of the 4 rooms on that dungeon level. Initially they move somewhat aimlessly, and are not seeking you as a target. But they are always moving and searching, so if you linger too long they will find you. As the game progresses they do get smarter and faster, peaking about level 3.

Once you touch a hallway door, the screen changes from the Hallway to a full screen view of that room you've entered. You'll see in each room the treasure you have come to collect - touch it and then exiting will complete this room. You can also see all of the room's walls, the doors (usually 2), and last but not least, the obstacles and/or enemies who reside inside that room. Anything that moves is deadly. Touching the doors again will put you back out into the Hall regardless if you collected the treasure. Upon entering, or re-entering a room, the resident monsters are always waiting in their default locations (even if previously killed), and so make notes if one doorway is a safer place to enter a room than the other. Winky is now full-sized and located near to the doorway you just entered. His arrow points in the direction he is moving or last moved in. When fired, the arrow continues until it hits an object or the walls, and then magically appears back in his bow, ready to fire again. Your arrow will immobilize any room monster (and you can tell they have been hit) but stay clear as they are still deadly to the touch until they completely deteriorate and disappear (about 5 seconds). Do not shoot them again, or their decomposing process begins again. If you wait too long to complete a room, a Hall Monster will seek ye out and enter that room - and besides being BIG, Hall Monsters are invincible. While you are inside, they are still moving out in the Hall, and will learn where you are. If you do not complete the room in time, and continue to enter/exit a room without completing it, eventually the Hall Monster will be coming in after you as soon as you enter the room, and another one will be right outside the door to kill you. It looks like there can be a maximum of 8 Hall Monsters but most rooms only have 3 or 4 monsters. Each room is named after the monsters who reside there. Level 1: Serpent Room, Wall Room (walls move in and out), Goblin Room, & Skeleton Room. Level 2: Spider Room, Dragon Room, Two-Headed Room, & Troll Room (doors/walls that trigger open/closed). Level 3: Bat Room, Cyclops Room, Genie Room & Demon Room. I did not find the names or contents of levels 4 and up, which means there are 24 more rooms worth of treasures, traps and monsters that most of us have not seen in a while, or maybe never. Maybe a MAME wizard can send us screenshots of all 36 rooms - we can post them here. The arcade operator's manual indicates settings can be toggled between 2 and 5 starting lives, and an extra life can be rewarded at either 20k, 30k, 40k, or 50k.

Many Faces of Venture, there are not - says Yoda.

Arcade: Exidy, programmed by Howell Ivey. All home versions by Coleco

•Atari 2600 ('83 unknown?)
•Colecovision ('82 Rick Lay)
•Intellevision ('82 unknown?)

Home Version Similarities: Except those in <> all home versions have: a choice of 4 skill (or start level) settings; 2 players <2600> alternate turns; there are 4 rooms per dungeon level; after 3 <2600 - two> levels, the set of dungeon floor plans is exhausted, and repeat in sequence in levels 4 to 6, 7 to 9 etc.; with every dungeon level the monsters get faster, but do not increase in number; Hall Monsters also get faster and do increase in numbers from 4 to 8+ <2600, INTY>; a bonus life is earned every 20K <2600>; room monsters change appearance and become immobilized when shot, but are still deadly to the touch until they vanish (takes about 5 seconds); if shot again before they vanish the process (timer) starts over again; Hall Monsters will move about, preventing you from easily getting to rooms and then once inside, at least one will close in on that room <INTV> and eventually enter the room if you take too long; if you continue to take too long, the Hall Monster will enter the room so quickly that a life must be lost before you can complete that room; each room has a different name displayed <2600, INTY>, theme and different music associated with it <2600>. There is no pause on any version as Coleco even stripped away the standard Intellevision pause. All versions have a slight collision detection problem, but not enough to stop you from otherwise enjoying the game.

Bronze Medal: Atari 2600 (35)
My first reaction was - only 2 levels? Arcade fans were outraged. Sure, some elements must be watered down but ONLY 8 rooms! Coleco could say how limited the 2600 was (which is true, but they could have added RAM) and that we should buy a CV (which is what Coleco wanted). Gameplay is good (6) with nearly all essential elements in place from the arcade. The lack of the bonus multiplier impacts the strategy, but is somewhat replaced by how the points are scored. Unique to the 2600, points for monsters are ONLY earned after the treasure has been secured. Thus you can live dangerously and try to dodge the monsters first. But the bad news is that the Hall Monsters arrive way too early in this version, so if you try to max out your score (having no multiplier) you'll more than likely cost yourself a life along the way. For some lame reason, the arrows shot by Winky are too slow and only travel about half the length of the room. The combination of both A/B difficulty switches provides a starting choice of any of the first 4 dungeon levels, which is good, in that you can start on the second dungeon floor plan, but considering it is not that difficult to make it past level 1, these features add almost no gameplay value and won't bring me back for more action. Want to make me happy? Let me select starting floor plan 8 or 9 from the arcade game. Addictiveness is good enough (6) that you'll come back to it some day, and play again, but repetitive nature of the game with only 8 rooms means you won't likely play it very long at any one sitting. That same action keeps on coming non-stop, just a little faster each level. A little value is also lost due to it being a 1 player-only game. Finally, the Hall Monsters are even faster than you - so you'll die to them more often than is fair. Finally, there is not much time to see and observe the layout and location of monsters in the hallways before the action starts up. The CV version let's you see the action, then gives you a 3 second head start over the Hall Monsters. As expected, Graphics are not good, but still respectable (6). There's not a lot of action, no animation, no deteriorating monsters, very sparse details, a limited color palette, and no multi-colored items. No title screen, no border around the screen, no room names, no treasure counting or bonus multiplier seen or treasure counting intermission. And then, when a room has been completed it does not even fill in on the map. How rude. Sound is pretty good (7), with all the basic effects in place, but none are done well. Without any musical scores the background noises and effects become very monotonous compared to the other versions. The game ends just as it began, soundlessly and abruptly. No bells or whistles. Controls are perfect (10). Cart was later issued by Atari with a red label - but no change to the game.

Silver Medal: Intellevision (40)
My first reaction was it matches the CV with three dungeon levels. But even more of a surprise is that I can actually control the Intellevision controller quite well scoring it an awesome (9) in Controls. Using a "Stickler" moves where I want almost all the time. There's no delay in aiming/moving, but it is still awkward to use the INTY controller for repetitive shooting games. The Gameplay is very good (7), essentially complete and only this version has the monsters disintegrate. Bad news is that this is overdone, taking an eternity, almost 10 seconds before they vanish. You have to adjust your game accordingly, but fortunately the Hall Monsters do not invade as quickly as the 2600. The bonus multiplier for each level is used, but not shown on-screen and it counts down way too slowly to impact the difference between a greedy or frugal strategy - so just be greedy. The number of Hall Monsters does not increase in later levels and then they do not seem to be intelligent as it appears that they do not move around while you are in a room. The progression of the game's difficulty is not bad, but is the slowest. The Cyclops do not teleport on level 3. The Addictiveness (7) is fun to play, but as mentioned, Coleco took away the standard pause - they must have been worried about losing the gold medal - shame on you Coleco! The choice of starting difficulty levels 1 to 4 adds no replay value (likewise on the CV port) as you do not see anything new - just harder. Finally, there is a bit of poor programming that cost another half point, due to non intelligent Hall Monsters. You can enter/exit rooms an infinite number of times and score infinite points at will - with the Hall Monsters never closing in on you. Graphics are sharp (8), nearly the best with a nice range of colors used, variety in treasures and monsters and some details. The animation & deterioration effects are the best, but again, there's no multi-color. The treasure / intermission / score screen is nice. The Sound is superb (9), with a full range of great effects, and complete with unique music for every room. The Sound and great controls helps to make it rank as of one of my favorite INTY games ever. If Coleco had not thrown in a couple of glitches, then the INTY would share that gold medal. Of course the CV port could have been programmed a little better still as well.

See more details and pictures (Good job by Steven Orth) of this splendid version at: http://intvfunhouse.com/games/vent.php.

Gold Medal: Colecovision (42)
My first reaction was of course Coleco did a great job on porting this one to their own system. Gameplay is most impressive (8). A nearly perfect conversion of the arcade, albeit, limited to the first 3 dungeon levels. You are given about a 3 second head start before the Hall Monsters come alive. The Hall Monsters are smart and will not let you cheat, but yet they are fair and not faster than you. They also increase in number from 4 to 8 over the first 4 levels. The bonus multiplier is shown on screen so you can take a glance and adjust your strategy. The Cyclops can teleport here. The Addictiveness is very fun (8), with a nice, gradual progression of difficulty. Graphics are very nice (8) with a little better clarity than the Intellevision, but essentially the same. The Hall Monsters are animated as well. Sound is wonderful (9) pretty much as good or better than on the Intellevision. Controls score (9). There's just too much lag when moving or repositioning the arrow. This is annoying and you are always stuck with it getting you killed all too often. Clearly it is not needed as the direction control on the other versions work fine without this delay. Note that controller #2 can be used to start/select the game, thus an Atari style stick can be used if you like. This is the version that you'll want to play the most, but still long for more unique rooms/dungeon levels.

If you want more, try downloading the FREE PC game "Venture 2" by Lafe Travis - visit: http://yosemite-sam.net/Games/Games.htm. Read our former Editor Tom Zjaba's interview with Lafe Travis (Venture 2) & more back in RT issue #11 http://www.tomheroes.com/Video%20Games%20FS/Retrotimes/retrotimes11.htm

Errata from Last Month:
CoCo fan, Jeff Lampert gave me some feedback on the Many Faces of Demon Attack. He tells me that various improved CoCo joysticks came out that solved the problems I was having last month playing Demon Attack. The newer sticks did a better job of self-centering and making adjustments to their settings. Given this knowledge, I'll update my database scores to reflect such an improved joystick, thus the CoCo would gain a point lost in Controls making them perfect (10), and then overall (40). Thanks Jeff. We welcome all reader feedback, suggestions and we'll also publish your articles as well.

Come back next month, for another Exidy arcade game, the Many Faces of Targ. Actually, I'll be reviewing Crossfire, which is the Sierra On-line Systems port of Targ to the home systems on the Vic 20, Atari 8 bit, C64, Apple ][ and maybe the TI-99. Plus we'll include the 2600 port of Targ (aka Universal Chaos) Contact Alan Hewston at: Hewston95@NOSPAMstratos.net or visit the Many Faces of site: http://my.stratos.net/~hewston95/RT/ManyFacesHome.htm

Retrogaming Commercial Vault

Well, once again Star Wars mania is sweeping the nation with the release of the new Episode III movie, Revenge of the Sith. So I figured what better way to commemorate the event than with a classic Star Wars videogame commerical?

This month's ad is for Return of the Jedi: Death Star Battle for the 2600. Here we find a young lad doing his homework when suddenly he's called to action as a Rebel pilot on an attack on the Death Star. In the blink of an eye he's changed into a pilot's uniform and he pops in a 2600 cart to begin the assault.

Please note the clip I have is in REALLY poor condition, so I apologize for the bad screengrabs.

"You are needed as a Rebel pilot. Become one, in the Return of the Jedi: Death Star Battle home video game. Your mission: Fly Millenium Falcon through enemy force fields while battling TIE Interceptors. Ultimately penetrate and destroy the Death Star before it's completed. But beware, the death ray can stop you. Time is running out. Save the rebels. Play Return of the Jedi: Death Star Battle from Parker Brothers. If you can stand the pressure."

PICTURES:

This kid's going to face a different kind of test.
"I'm in my uniform, so where's my X-Wing?"
"Now let's get this party started."
"Must get through the hole!"
Feeling the pressure yet?
"You're not Chewbacca but you'll do."
Now I wish to address something. I've been doing this column for the better part of three years, and I'm beginning to feel that the Vault has run its course. I am considering retiring the column. But, I know there are many readers who enjoy getting their commercials fix. So if you want me to continue the Vault, let me know. Also offer any suggesstions you have to freshen up this column a little. 

The Titles of Tengen - Pac-Mania

In 1987 Namco released one of the last Pac-Man games that stuck to the traditional formula of navigating a maze, eating dots, and chasing / fleeing ghosts. However there were some changes afoot, namely Pac-Man could now jump as long as it was in line with the boundaries of the maze and the player would have to deal with more than the traditional four enemies. Thus Pac-Mania was created and Namco licensed the game to Atari Games for distribution and manufacture in the United States so of course where there's Atari Games there's usually an NES Tengen port close behind. Pac-Mania had a pseudo 3D rendered look to it and some very smooth scrolling so the port wouldn't be a simple transition as with Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man but Tengen once again rose to the challenge of making yet another unlicensed Pac themed NES game.

Often referred to as the Pac-Man game people hate to see show up in compilations Pac-Mania begins with the standard formula of Pac-Man, a maze, and four ghosts. At the onset of the game the player can choose from starting stages in which higher starting levels will award completion bonuses. Instead of the entire maze being presented on one screen the action is more zoomed in and the camera scrolls horizontally and vertically with Pac-Man as the player navigates the maze in traditional Pac-Man style. Each level is presented in a pseudo 3D semi isometric viewpoint and all objects and characters have a 3D rendered look to them, even each of the ghosts has a different expression in their eyes. Fruits and special bonus items show up in the center of the maze as with the original Pac-Man and the game makes a point of telling you when one appears since it may be off screen. In addition to the fruit targets special powerups will appear that do things such as increase Pac-Man's speed temporarily or cause all enemies to be edible and worth more points for a very short amount of time. However the biggest change in Pac-Mania is the addition of a jump button. Pressing this allows, you guessed it, Pac-Man to jump however his movement is limited to the confines of the maze. In other words you cannot jump over maze walls or edge boundaries. Also as the game continues on additional ghosts (up to eight total) are added and other little obstacles come into play such as not being able to leap over certain ghosts and other ghosts being able to jump as well. Granted, you CAN play Pac-Mania without using the jump button but then as most, you'd probably rather be playing Pac-Man or Ms. Pac-Man. Audio is nice and contains remixed versions of the Pac-Man theme as well as other Pac inspired tunes that have since showed up as remixes in many other Namco games including the Ridge Racer series.

Now one can't expect the Tengen port to be dead on in the graphics department, the NES simply cannot churn out the amount of smooth detail the arcade version contained. Yet the mazes have been recreated pretty much verbatim but they do suffer from the conversion with next to no detail and shading. The ghosts are valiantly recreated but again lose most of their detail in the transition, there expressions are somewhat carried over none the less. The audio is decent, moving over the music of the arcade version even if it is dumbed down for the NES platform. Take all the shortcomings of the visuals and audio that got mucked up in the conversion and this may seem like a bad port but Pac-Mania on the NES keeps the gameplay fairly in tact. Controls function exactly as they did in the arcade however the game seems to move at a slightly slower pace but that could just be me or the difference between a vertical display (arcade) and a horizontal display (NES). Also the ghost AI is nothing compared to the arcade version. In the arcade the ghosts follow Pac-Man, work together to block him in, and make long chains of themselves to make jumping over them difficult. For the most part, especially in the early stages, the ghosts in the NES port will simply follow each other around the center of the maze - not even taking a run at Pac-Man. In fact you can go get in line with them circling around the center and then move away and most of the time they simply will not give chase. I suppose a redeeming factor is that the little between level cutscenes are fairly well reproduced and are pretty accurate when compared to the original but it really doesn't make up for many of the games shortcomings.

I'm sure most people are thinking that if the port is so bad then why would anyone ever want to own it. Simple - it is hands down one of the hardest, if not the hardest, Tengen NES games to find especially in complete condition. In my years of gaming I've only come across one copy of Pac-Mania in the wild and someone else had already snatched it up. The other side of the coin is while harder to find Tengen NES ports such as Tetris fetch decent prices you have to remember that Tengen Tetris is actually fun to play, Pac-Mania on the NES really isn't. Quite simply, this was a port that should not have been made since it wasn't a very popular game to begin with and the NES technology wasn't there to make a solid home conversion. On a side note Namco seems to love to rerelease this game, most recently shoving it on the Pac-Man collection on the Gameboy Advance and on one of the harder to find Namco Museum compilations (volume 5) on the original PlayStation. However those are direct arcade ports so if one would like to play Pac-Mania today there are many places to pick it up. Yet when this was released on the NES I'd be hard pressed to find anyone getting excited over the lackluster port of this mixed response arcade title, which is one of the reasons the cartridge is so hard to find.

"InsaneDavid" also runs a slowly growing gaming site at http://www.classicplastic.net/dvgi

Old School is New Again
by Jayson Ensign

Have you ever wanted to play some classic Atari 7800 games? Well you're in luck. Atari has flashed us back to the days of the 7800 and 2600 with the Atari Flashback Classic Game Console. I found the flashback to be a quick diversion and a way to re-live some of the glory days of gaming.

The console it self looks like a small 7800 Pro System. In fact on the back of the console it is printed "Mini 7800". It comes with two joysticks, which are also smaller versions of the 7800 joysticks. They have fire buttons on each side and a Select and Pause button. I found them to be sufficient for the most of the games, but they are a far cry from the real thing. The console plugs into your T.V. via two RCA jacks, one for video and one for audio (no stereo back then). You then have a power supply that you plug into the wall. At first sight it is kind of a cool set up. But, I was expecting something bigger.

There is a mix of 7800 and 2600 games. The 7800 games include: Asteroids, Centipede, Charley Chuck's Food Fight, Desert Falcon, Planet Smashers. The 2600 games include: Adventure, Air-Sea Battle, Battlezone, Breakout, Canyon Bomber, Crystal Castles, Gravitar, Haunted House, Millipede, Saboteur, Sky Diver, Solaris, Sprintmaster, Warlords, Yars' Revenge. Some of the games transfer over and play well on the flashback console, but others are just unplayable. Lets see how they stacked up.

I never owned a 7800 ProSystem and when I first fired up the console I was impressed with the graphics and how each game offered different skill levels. But, as I thought about how the 7800 came out around the same time as the NES it did not bode well. The games were still fun and I liked how Asteroids allows two players to go head to head. Another standout 7800 game was Centipede, the two player co-op is a nice touch and even my 5 year old son liked it. The remaining three games for the 7800 are OK but not great. Desert Falcon is similar to Zaxxon in that the view is the side ways top down look. But, it did not play as well. The graphics had a lot of flicker and was just not very fun.

What saves the replay value of the flashback console is some of the 2600 games. I really enjoyed Battlezone with its tactical tank warfare. It's not as good as Activision's Robot Tank but it is good alternative. Playing Warlords against another person is also great. The joysticks are not as good as the paddles but the action is still fast and furious. The only game that I felt was unplayable was Crystal Castles. The joystick is just not up to snuff when you are trying to collect those tiny crystals. I tried to stay with it but just could not put myself through another level of trying to move left and right. Sprintmaster also impressed me with the variety of tracks and the two player competition. You have a chance to collect power-ups that help you in the race and the controls are adequate.

I really enjoyed the flashback console. The price on the console has dropped from $39.99 to $19.99. This is now worth the money. I recommend picking one up if you like two player gaming and want to re-live what was one of Atari's last comebacks with the ProSystem.

The life of a computer game geek

Looking back to my first memories of my fascination with computer gaming (Aside from my frequenting local Arcades and playing 'Space Invaders', 'Berzerk', 'Galaxian', 'Asteroids', 'Pac-Man', 'Wizard of Wor', 'Defender', 'Missile Command', 'Warlords', 'Galaga' and 'Tempest') I have faint grade-school memories of playing 'Pong' based TV games in the early 70's before I purchasing my first hand-held electronic game system called 'Merlin' somewhere around 1979 with money I won at a church festival. Merlin was a simple grouping of red lights that were touch-sensitive; it allowed you to play simple pattern based games. After Merlin I obtained a 'Coleco Football', 'Sub Chase', 'Battlestar Galactica', 'Simon' and then a cool robot (8 track tape player) named '2-XL'! Of course, this was all before I discovered a much more complex system by Magnavox named 'Odyssey 2'!

Odyssey 2 introduced me to a whole new world of cartridge based, color TV gaming. I received if for Christmas in 1979, I believe it was the same year my younger sister received her 'Microvision'. Over the next few years I lost myself in all of the Odyssey 2 games that I could find. My favorites were 'Pick Axe Pete', 'War of Nerves', 'UFO', 'Quest for the Rings', 'Conquest of the World', 'Freedom Fighters', 'KC Munchkin' and 'Attack of the Time Lord'. I even tried my hand at 'Computer Intro' which taught me some basic programming concepts using assembly language. I convinced myself that the Odyssey 2 was a superior system (crappy ports like 'Pac-Man' for the 'Atari 2600' reinforced my self-serving belief system) but I was finally blown out of the water by the 'Mattel Intellivision' and later the 'ColecoVision'.

My high school had a computer lab that consisted of about a dozen TRS-80's. I was told that I didn't have the aptitude for the formal computer classes offered (I am a career computer programmer now, go figure...) so I did the only thing I could do at the time to get at these computers, I joined the after-school computer club. I spent many evenings learning BASIC and writing simple programs. I was fascinated with playing the many homegrown games and with a new concept called cassette-tape-backup!

I later had several friends (from a large group of fellow D&D players) whose families owned Atari 800's. I fell in love with text based adventures like 'Zork' and then later cool games like 'M.U.L.E.' I spent the entire summer of 1983 playing 'Ultima III' with friends.

I went into the Navy in January 1984 and was away from computer gaming for about a year and a half (not sure what impact I had on the big crash of 84...) until I purchased a used 'C=64' from my boss in the summer 1985 with some unexpected tax refund money. He gave me a ton of games and cartridges and even a printer with almost no ink left on its twice-recycled ribbon. I remember sending letters home from this printer that were barely readable... but it was too cool! From that point on, I spent all of my spare money on C=64 software (better this than beer!). I have fond memories playing games like 'Archon', 'Impossible Mission' and 'Raid Over Bungling Bay'. My first internet like experience came from a modem based service named 'Quantum Link' (Q-Link). I loved the chat rooms and even wrote and uploaded some simple programs for their shareware/freeware library. I was also hopelessly addicted to a modem based strategy game by Dan Bunten (creator of M.U.L.E.) called 'Modem Wars' and later got lost in a Program-your-own-A.I.-Bot type game called 'Omega Cybertank' by Origin Systems.

After the Navy (and a brief career climbing radio towers) I landed my first job with a large computer company, where after two years of servicing them, I was able to purchase my first PC. I quickly sold my entire Commodore 64 collection (2 CPU's, 2 disk drives, printer, monitor, modem and about 400 games) for $50 at a friends garage sale. I still regret that brilliant move... Thank God for emulation.

Over the next few years I was addicted to PC games (both playing them and writing them). I had sworn off all of the dedicated console systems and was content in my PC snobbery, until one day for whatever reason; I grew bored with PC computer games. Looking back at it, my real problem was that every game I purchased required a huge investment in my free time to complete. I rarely completed any game and was amassing a huge collection of unfinished (and in some cases un-opened) games. I purchased all of my games and hardware upgrades with money I made from selling games that I wrote (the most popular game being inspired by my experience with Omega Cybertank on the C=64). My kids were too young to share them with. I simply did not have the free time to dedicate to them anymore. Then one day (on impulse) I decided to get a 'Nintendo GameCube'. An earlier bad impulse buy landed me a Toshiba 'Nuon' based DVD player just before the Nuon game market failed to catch on and crashed. The GameCube seemed like the perfect answer, I could play simple games that required no effort to install and quickly booted for play, many of them were even appealing and simple enough for my young kids to enjoy! Most of the games I purchased were simple games that brought me back to the days of the Odyssey 2 and hanging out at the Arcades. They required little time investment and were easily accessible when I only had a few minutes to play them! Best of all the GameCube system was purchased for less than the price of 2 popular new PC games. It was quite liberating to own a system that would require no hardware tweaking and was guaranteed to run all games made for it at optimal performance.

My slide back to gaming consoles brought with it, the purchase of a second GameCube (for backup), 'PlayStation 2', 'GameBoy SP', 'XAVIX Port' and then a 'XOBX' and a second backup XBOX. All of this coincided with me getting back into emulation and playing all of the old console games I missed out on over the past decade. I even purchased a 'multi-cart' for my old Odyssey 2 and a 'Vectrex' along with a Vextrex Multi-Cart.

I guess I earned my ultimate geek-wings when I finally built not one, but two full size arcade cabinets (actually the second one was built along with 3 other clones for friends).

Yes I am a hopeless gaming-computer geek. I have no plans for recovery and my kids are following in my footsteps (much to their mother's dismay). I must admit that the current console games are starting to go down the path of the more complex PC games now that the technology is getting better, but there still seems to be a good supply of the simple games that require nothing but 10 minutes of my time and a fast itchy trigger finger. Life is good.

You can read more about the games I wrote and my arcade cabinet projects on my web site at http://www.tacticalneuronics.com/.

The Thrill Of Defeat: More TRS-80 Reviews

Hamburger Sam (B+)
Wow. This Burgertime clone is one of those games you figure won't work on a Model I, but it gets nearly everything right. Your chef assembles burgers by running over the various ingredients on the multi-level platform-and-ladder screens, while avoiding hot dogs, eggs and other evil foodies. They move with the same strange but effective artificial intelligence of the coin-op and chefs have the ability to stun them by tossing a limited number of peppers at them. A generous number of chefs and peppers are provided, but this is offset by the game's main weakness: If you die you have to start the level over, which is incredibly frustrating when nearly all of the burgers have been assembled. I can only guess preserving in-progress data was too much for the limited memory available.

Haunted House (D+)
This is based on an online emulation of the game (at www.skyrush.com/explore). I'd always been told this Radio Shack title was seriously lame and, assuming this is a true port, the bad rep is well deserved. It's incredibly short, descriptions are nearly nonexistent, the seriously small vocabulary lacks many basic words adventurers expect and users are subject to that horrific experience known as the undeserved death for things such as moving into a room for the first time. The plot is to get out of a two-level haunted house alive. The one major redeeming factor for some users is it ran on entry-level 4K machines, so obviously there wasn't much memory to write a decent game.

Hoppy (B-)
A pretty good two-screen Frogger remake, if not quite as polished as the official version. Gameplay isn't as authentic, due largely to cramped screens, and there's no ability to select starting levels. Also, there's no on-screen display of the bonus timer. But the animation and gameplay are smooth, perhaps more so than the original version, making it a decent alternative.

Invaders (C)
With all the Space Invaders clones out there, players hopefully got a chance to comparison shop before committing to this Level IV Products release. It's not awful, but the graphics are crude even for this machine and the jerky animation jerky is prone to displaying things such as enemy missiles that materialize in places they shouldn't. Furthermore, certain gameplay aspects are done poorly, such as saucers that constantly fly overhead and invaders that don't speed up as their numbers diminish. And the invaders start at the same height and the difficulty level remains the same for every wave. In its favor are easy controls, good emulation of the coin-op's thumping background sound, a hit/miss shot counter and nine selectable levels of difficulty.

Jungle Boy (B-)
This conversion of Jungle Hunt is probably as good as one can hope for given the graphics and speed limits of the TRS-80, but it's hard to see anyone but hardcore fans getting excited about it. All four screens from coin-op are included and everything is depicted with graphics - blocky as they are - instead of letters and numbers. But the game moves at a rather leisurely pace as the constant horizontal scrolling of all those graphics take their toll on the CPU. There's also some pokey elements that could have been avoided, such as an annoying "wipe" effect that occurs on virtually all transition screens during and between games.

Killer Gorilla (B)
A pretty good Donkey Kong conversion, most notably because it has all four of the coin-op's screens. It presents them all from the beginning (fine by me, since the seldom-seen cement factory is my favorite), complete with touches such as the opening and between-screen animations. Keyboard control is exceptional, animation is smooth and there's seldom a feeling of being dealt an unfair death, which even the coin-op is guilty of at times. The hitches are minor except for one thing - no hammers to strike back at enemies. This tilts things a little unfairly in the game's favor. Other hitches include overly chunky graphics, sparse sound and some levels that aren't perfect due to the horizontal screen - the top level of the barrel level is cut off, for instance.

Limit Zero (B-)
Another generic but well done vertical space shooter from Micro 2000 programmer Yves Lempereur, with the player responsible for wiping out waves of aliens launched into the playfield by a master baddie who looks like one of the monsters from Pac-Man. It's important to wipe them out quickly before too many are bouncing around the playfield, but not too quickly - your cannon can overheat and stop firing temporarily with overuse.

Lunar Lander (D+)
If you're going to market one of the most copied games of a genre, you'd better do a good job. And this version doesn't stand up to the usual high-quality standards of most Adventure International titles. Things run amiss from the beginning, as the built-in instructions take an eternity to display a lot of useless mission data that has nothing to do with the game before revealing the arrow keys and spacebar are all that's needed to play. Gameplay is slow, as the landscape scrolls to keep your ship centered on the screen, and everything flickers horribly. As a result control over the ship is imprecise, which makes anything but basic landings a potential death risk even if the player isn't at fault.

Missile Attack (B-)
A decent, if scaled-back, port of Missile Command from Adventure International. There are only three cities instead of six and two bases to defend them instead of three. The targeting crosshair moves fast enough with the keyboard controls to be fair while still offering a reasonable degree of precision. Attacking missiles can split into multiple MIRVs just like the arcade. The graphics aren't great, with explosions represented with ASCII characters, but serviceable from a gameplay perspective.

Mutant (C-)
A ho-hum space shooter from Radio Shack best suited for new purchasers of the machine who needed something to do until their real software arrived from mail-order companies. A single row of blocky Space Invader-like aliens appear at the top of the screen and slowly descend vertically, taking turns changing into mutant worms and firing lots of shots at the player's ship as they progress. Players can only kill the creatures in worm form. It's a rather slow and monotonous game; the only real strategy is knowing that whatever you're shooting at now, it almost certainly won't be in that form by the time the missile arrives.

Olympic Decathlon (B)
This adaptation of the button-mashing Track And Field coin-op is far from an exact copy, but entertaining for what it does offer in its simulation of the 10 decathlon events. Some are close to the arcade version, such as the two-key pounding required for the 100-meter dash (although my first-ever time of 7.5 seconds indicates the results aren't entirely realistic). But the long jump becomes a semi-strategy event as the player types in their approach speed, rather than being required to achieve it by button tapping, then triggers the angle and jump keys like the arcade game. Some changes are a mixed blessing, such as the 1,500-meter run where the player uses four directional keys for movement around an oval track, making it more like an monotonous four-lap auto race than a sprint - although it beats button mashing for that length of time. A nice option is the ability to practice all 10 events before the actual competition.

Outhouse (A-)
A true TRS-80 classic that's fun, original and high in quality. You're in charge of a space ship protecting an outhouse that aliens for some reason are hell-bent on attacking. Plus there's a couple of squatters on the ground who keep trying to steal your limited supply of toilet paper. You can move and shoot in eight directions, although collisions with anything including your beloved outhouse are deadly. There's nothing here except the theme that hasn't been captured in some form before - Asteroids, Missile Command, Defender, etc. - but so what? Easily one of the first titles nostalgia buffs and newcomers should try out.

Paddle Pinball (B)
One of those games where you need to ignore the nagging voice in your brain asking "why are you still playing this?" The blocky graphics look almost nothing like a pinball table, the beep-and-blip sound is cheesy and at times you lose balls unfairly in unavoidable situations. Yet, it's got the "one more time" addictiveness of the real thing. One to three players control a paddle at the bottom of the screen, knocking out the usual targets and bumpers, with the need to supplement hits with the spacebar regularly to boost the ball's speed (otherwise gravity causes it to just rest there). One of the better features is the ability to create and save tables. Radio Shack later did a version for the TRS-80 Color Computer, a far superior gaming machine (think Atari 2600 verses Colecovision), and yet it is one of the worst programs ever written for that machine. More proof creativity beats CPU power.

Penetrator (C-)
Imagine spending all day cooking a great meal, then emptying a dustpan of dirt on it just before serving. Who would do such a stupid thing? Similarly, why do games like this Scramble clone have so much promise wrecked by one or two truly stupid programming decisions? The mission is close to the arcade, as one or two players navigate a helicopter through five continuously horizontally scrolling landscapes and caves, bombing and shooting fatal obstacles such as rockets. The levels are somewhat different than the arcade, emphasizing navigating through tricky passages instead of varying enemies such as meteors and UFOs, and there are no fuel tanks the player must shoot to keep the helicopter airborne. A training setting allows unlimited lives for any of the four "pre-boss" stages and a program to edit the landscapes is provided. Graphics are decent, although they flicker a bit. The main problem? IT'S THE CONTROLS, STUPID. The right arrow button is used to both fire (if you press it quickly) and thrust (if you hold it down). It's absurd, totally unnecessary and leads to far too many undeserved deaths.

Pyramid (C)
This text adventure is a classic example of why there's a temptation to apply the Lite label to Radio Shack products - everything you'd expect, except one-third less. It's a serviceable explore-and-gather treasure hunt, but lacking imagination since it's essentially a subset of the original Adventure game. It's also frustrating due to a small vocabulary and some evil programming that makes navigating the infamous maze ridiculously hard. Like many Radio Shack programs it sold well because it was easily available in stores, but Infocom and Scott Adams titles are far superior. It should be noted, however, this version of Pyramid is much better than another adventure with the same name from Aardvark Software, which sold a number of titles written in BASIC designed to run on most major computers of the era. As such, they were so generic and sparse they were often almost completely without entertainment value.

Robot Attack (B)
A Berserk clone by Big Five Software with lots of window dressing, beginning with the way it dissolves your screen upon startup and provides a storyline in scrolling Star Wars fashion. The game itself is a good copy of the coin-op, no more or less, and the TRS-80's blocky graphics are a good fit since the original was hardly a hi-res wonder. The action is a bit slow and it takes several waves before the robots start shooting, but once they do the learning curve gets steep in a hurry. One minor control issue is the player must be moving in order to fire, so shooting a robot at close proximity is a risky proposition.

Stellar Escort (B+)
A slightly unusual but well-done pseudo 3D space shooter, sort of combining Star Raiders with a generic shoot-em-up. You fire at ships using a first-person crosshairs system, but your ship also appears on-screen in sort of a third-person Tomb Raider kind of way. It may simply be an easy way of giving enemy ships something to target without relying on the potentially more complex programming challenge of a full first-person experience. But it doesn't distract from the game - indeed, it's an interesting difference - especially since the package as a whole features top-notch professionalism. A good variety of enemies materialize Defender-style on-screen and failing to shoot them quickly causes things to get messy, as more and more crowd the action and make a deadly collision all but inevitable. Did we mention you have a limited fuel supply to wipe out waves of enemies? Plenty of fun and replay value once you get used to the concept, although selectable levels of difficulty would be nice.

Super Nova (B)
A beefed-up Asteroids clone from Big Five software, with a few extra enemy ships beyond the usual two saucers thrown into the mix. A generally strong all-around effort, but the thrust controls on the player's ship are too sensitive, accelerating and stopping much too quickly. Also, once in a while it can also be hard to tell what direction your ship is facing due to the low-resolution graphics.

Time Runner (B)
This is a simplistic clone of Amidar, which is essentially Pac-Man minus the ability to eat monsters (at least in this translation). The player "paints" a series of boxes on each screen by passing over all of its sides. Funsoft does a good job capturing the gameplay basics, and the animation and graphics are as smooth as one can expect on a Model I. But it's harder than the arcade version in large part because of some porting limitations. The four-direction keyboard controls are simple but a bit quirky, resulting in a lot of deaths until the player gets used to them (press a key to change direction before reaching an intersection while still holding down the current key, then releasing the old key immediately after turning). Also, the player can disable enemies momentarily by triggering the jump button - three are allowed at the start) - but there's no ability to "paint over" them (the same as eating them in Pac-Man) by filling in all four corners, as the arcade version allows. Finally, the maze is much smaller, so the player has less room to maneuver and avoid.

Game Over

And with that, it's time to wrap up another issue. Thank you for your continued support of this newsletter. Next month we hope have some more retrogaming goodness, including the return of a couple of articles from the past. Be sure to tune in next month for the latest issue of RTM!

- Adam King, Chief Editor

Copyright © 2005 Adam King & Alan Hewston. All related copyrights and trademarks are acknowledged.