Monday, May 14, 2018

2018 Free Comic Book Day Fall Out!

It took me a little over a week, but I've poured through the 50+ offerings from Free Comic Book Day (FCBD) 2018, and these, in no particular order, are the top 10 titles that have my interest piqued for the coming year:

Barrier (Image)
I assume the entire series will be printed in the landscape format and I am totally ok with that (as long as I don't have to keep turning the book).  This is a captivating story with a dual perspective across the Mexico/United States border.  The Mexico story is told entirely in Spanish (appropriately) and the American side is told in English.  This will be an excellent opportunity to improve my multi-linguistic abilities!  Events are hurtling toward one another from both sides when an entirely unexpected third party suddenly intervenes.  I'm very excited to see where it goes next!

ShadowMan (Valiant)
Coming off of my enjoyment of the epic X-O Manowar, Valiant has once again stirred up my interest with ShadowMan, another long-lived property I know nothing about.  I'm already in love with the New Orleans setting and all of the voodoo mysticism, so I am excited to find out more about who ShadowMan is and what's going on in the bayou!

The Mall (Scout Comics)
This one was a real shocker.  I was totally ready to toss it into the "nope" pile based on the cover and concept alone.  But then it hooked me with a totally relatable main character and all the 80's Miami mob intrigue you could want.  The main character evokes a young Peter Parker, only his superpowers are video games and sheer chutzpah.  He's left in a world of trouble at the end of this preview issue and I really need to know what happens next!

Die Kitty Die (Astro Comics)
Apparently Die Kitty Die is a thing and I have totally missed it.  But the thing it appears to be is an irreverent, self aware, ironic riff on Archie style comics.  It's poppy, it's goofy, and it looks like a lot of fun.  I need more comics like this in my rotation.

Shadow Roads (Oni Press)
Oni Press has always felt like the "you're not cool enough to read these edgy comics" publisher, so I've not really given them a fair look.  But Shadow Roads is scratching a Western comics itch that I caught back when Marvel did (and then promptly abandoned) Red Wolf a few years ago.  To be sure, there are some supernatural elements at the core of the story, but I really like the diversity of the characters and the way the story is being told.  Let's hope I'm cool enough to keep reading it...

Berlin (Drawn & Quarterly)
At first I thought this was an incredible mini-series about to launch, then I did some research and it appears this comic is actually very old news.  Berlin is a highly acclaimed graphic novel set in Germany in 1928.  It's told from two disparate perspectives and appears to provide a street level view of Berlin in the time between wars.  My wife has a degree in History and we always talk about these sorts of things so I expect this to be a great topic of conversation for us.  It's being recollected in hardcover which is why it's here in the FBCD pile.

Strangers In Paradise XXV (Abstract Studio)
Terry Moore won me over with Motor Girl, and SiP is hailed as his great masterwork.  Now he's dipping back into that world and I'm very curious about it.  This preview issue felt like I needed to already be familiar with the characters and their world, so I feel a bit lost, but I'm going to try to pick up some trades and read the old stuff along with the new.

Maxwell's Demons (Vault)
Child protagonists seem to be hitting a chord with me lately and Maxwell is no exception.  Maxwell seems to escape his miserable home life by traveling to other dimensions and having amazing adventures with a proper father figure.  But, much like with reality, that father figure also turns on him and that's when reality and hyper reality collide.  This looks like it's going to be equal parts dark and fun.

Crush (Yen Press)
Jorge is a pretty chill dude.  He puts an end to static whenever it pops up and he's always a great guy to have as a friend.  But when the artsy and awkward Jazmine comes onto the scene, Jorge is at a total loss.  She's kryptonite in girl form.  How will Jorge deal with this completely alien experience?  This might sound super mundane, but the characters are instantly likable and the story is one we can all relate to.  I expect to thoroughly enjoy Crush.

The Joe Shuster Story (Papercutz)
In the back of the Papercutz FCBD feature, there was a short preview of The Joe Shuster Story, the biography of the artist who created Superman.  While there were only a couple of pages of story, I was instantly enthralled by the simplicity of the storytelling and the quaintness of the art.  I love tales of comics early days, so I am definitely going to check this out when it lands.

Honorable Mentions

The Wormworld Saga (CubHouse)
Theo's dad paints pictures that become portals to other worlds (think Narnia).  Theo shares his dad's secret and often travels with him to these exotic places.  Ever the awkward boy, Theo decides to share this secret to impress his friend Laura in an attempt to avoid losing her to rival Tom.  Upon coming back from a harrowing adventure, an alien bug from that other world sneaks into our world just as Theo and Laura escape certain peril.  That's probably not good.  This series looks and feels a lot like the super disappointing Finding Gossamyr from several years back, so I am interested, but cautiously so.  I don't like getting wrapped up in a beautifully illustrated and magically captivating world only to have the story never be finished.  So I'll keep my eye on this one, but may not jump through the painting just yet...

Disney Princess (Joe Books)
I've seen these on the shelves and passed on them because they are with the "kids" comics, but I was surprised to find how much fun this comic is.  Not a full length story, but instead a collection of comic strip shorts, this has the same quick-hit fun appeal as the Ducktales comic I already get.  While I might not get every issue, if I see one featuring a character I really like, I will probably pick it up.

Another great FCBD in the can and some really exciting stuff coming out this year.  Of course, as I read it, I'll share my thoughts any maybe point you toward some great things you should be reading as well!

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Homebrew of the Month: Climber 5

Climber 5
Developer:  Dennis Debro

The turn of the century truly was the Golden Age of 2600 Homebrewing.  All of the big names were active and working to break all the conceptions of what could be done on the VCS.  This was the era of Thomas Jentzsch, Andrew Davie, Manuel Rotschkar, Peiro Cavina, Paul Slocum, and Dennis Debro.  Those other guys, I have no doubt you’ve heard of.  The list of incredible games they developed is a who’s-who of amazing homebrews from that era.  Debro, on the other hand, might have snuck past you.  The only game he released, that I am aware of, in cartridge form is Climber 5.  However, there is something to be said for doing something once, nailing it, and then moving on to other projects.  And, while a few of those heavy hitters above are still producing mind blowing games for all to enjoy, most of them, including Dennis Debro, aren’t seen much around the community anymore.  And if you play Climber 5, you’ll lament that fact like the rest of us do.

What’s All This Then

In Climber 5, tragedy has struck.  During an otherwise typical baseball game, an overly zealous homerun ball left the park and came to rest atop a suspiciously nearby construction project.  Sadly, for this particular youth baseball program it seems they could only afford the one ball.  Therefore, unless the ball is retrieved, the game will be over.  What’s the logical course of action?  Send the ball boy after it of course!  What could possibly go wrong?  Clearly no grounds for any kind of serious litigation could stem from that decision, right?

That’s where you come in!  Cast in the role of the put-upon ball boy, it is your job to scale the construction site and retrieve the ball.  As if climbing up an in-process building wasn’t chancy enough, this building features moving girders (stood up vertically through some voodoo) and falling objects like hammers and lunchboxes!  Avoid the hazards, make it to the top and the ball is yours.  Take too much time and the ball might roll or fall to another part of the building.  Once you snag the wayward dinger, you’ll find yourself at the bottom of the building with a new ball at the top and faster moving girders.   Looks like it’s going to be a long day!

How’s It Play?

Beautifully.  Dennis Debro is a master at tight programming.  Climber 5 is finely tuned and plays very smoothly.  Collision detection is sharp, character movement is fluid and obstacle movement is consistent and challenging.  Best of all Climber 5 feels like a game that could have come out in 1980, so it's right at home on the VCS.  As with the best video games out there, the gameplay is simple:  scale the building, avoid the obstacles, collect power-ups and reach the goal.  It’s a formula that is tried and true and when executed properly, as with this game, it’s sheer magnificence.  Climber 5 also features 3 game variations to provide different challenges.  The “Original” variation is basically a direct port of the Atari 8-bit game that inspired this version.  Ladders are static and the girders move in one direction.  The “Normal” variation introduces variable ladder placement and random girder movement.  You also get a timer and the ball moves if not retrieved quickly enough.  The “Advanced” variation adds in dropping items; some award bonus points, others cost you a life.  For my money, the “Advanced” game is where it is at.  “Original” is great if you really want a challenge.  It’s way harder than you think it is going to be.  But the VCS version of Climber 5 surpasses it’s 8-bit predecessor with all of the new features in the “Advanced” game.

Climber 5 is extremely well balanced.  The base goal of getting the baseball at the top of the structure is simple, but the challenge of getting past the girders, using your ability to change their movement, catch falling bonus items while avoiding deadly ones keeps this game from being another other than just a "simple game.”  Player and girder speed also change to keep you on your toes.  The time limits and ball relocation help keep bonus point farming at bay and using your power to change the girder movement costs you points, so you can’t just cheese your way to the top.  

If there is one downfall to Climber 5, it’s that once you achieve a certain level, the movement of the girders, the ladder placements, and the falling objects are no longer random.  They fall into what amounts to about 6 distinct patterns and when you learn those patterns you can play the game forever (or until you roll the score).  I discovered this years ago when I first got the game and was playing it for hours on end.  My wife and I even charted the patterns, named them, and tested them repeatedly.  I have kept quiet about them for a decade because I was afraid releasing them would be a game breaker for other players and I have always felt that discovery of the patterns is part of the fun in playing.  That said, I will tell you that the key to identifying the patterns starts with paying attention to what items drop and when.  The other key is to never die.  If you die, the patterns get jumbled a bit and it takes a while to settle back into them.  But if you learn the patterns and successfully execute them, you can play the game somewhat effortlessly forever.  I have discovered, however, that in my recent replaying of the game for this review, getting back into those patterns isn’t automatic, so there is still plenty of fun to be had with this game, even if you suss out the patterns.  You can also go and try that crap on the “Original” variation and get your head smashed in.
One of the patterns called "One Switch" because you only have to switch the girders once.  Take the yellow ladders to success...

Whistles and Bells

Climber 5 is from the era before innovations like AtariVox and SaveKey so it doesn’t have some of those fancier goo-gaws, but it does have some other niceties for your appreciation.  In addition to the aforementioned gameplay variations, Climber 5 features a beautifully designed Atari Silver Era instruction manual with a full color mini-comic in the back.  It also features a really nice title/options screen that is likely the precursor to many of the title screens you see on more recent homebrews.  Finally, Climber 5 pulls off all of its graphical beauty without any flicker.  For those in the know, that's something to be proud of.  Again, Dennis Debro knows how to fine tune a game.

Final Assessment

If you like classic style arcade games, then you are going to love Climber 5.  The gameplay is pick-up-and-play simple, well balanced and engaging, and there is plenty of “just one more” replay appeal.  The three game variations provide unique play opportunities and challenge for even expert gamers.  Solid graphics and sprite work make the game bold and impressive to look at.  As I said in my store review of 14 years ago, Climber 5 is a must have for any Atari homebrew collection.  I still love it as much today as I did the day I first got it!

Tips and Tricks

(these tips are all for the “Advanced” variation, you're on your own for the "Original" variation)

Be a Switch Hitter!: Don’t be afraid to use the switch power to move those girders around.  Sure it costs points, but once you are in the flow, the small amounts of points you spend to get to the ball will pale in comparison to the points you get for completing the level.

Don’t Push It:  Just because I told you to use the switch power liberally doesn’t mean you can abuse it, particularly when a girder is flashing, indicating it is about to change direction.  Girders tend to get stubborn around this time and you will drain all of your points only to have it push right back into your face. Best to use your switch when the girder is not in a changing zone.

Ladders of Opportunity: I find I have the most success taking the first available ladder whenever possible.  This doesn’t always work, nor is it always applicable, but if you use it as a general guideline, you’ll get to the top faster.

Watch Your Head!:  When you are on the top two floors, move briskly and don’t dally.  Get to that baseball as fast as you can.  There will be absolutely no warning for a new falling item and if you are unlucky that item will be hammer.

So there you have it!  Climber 5, a more classic Atari 2600 homebrew there isn’t!  Great arcade action, tons of replayability, and enough challenge to keep you climbing to new heights!  

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Homebrew of the Month: Lead

Developer: Simone Serra

Simone Serra games are completely and utterly underrated.  I said it.  I started this whole Homebrew of the Month thing off with Omicron, another really great game from Serra, and now, having played Lead for over a month, I can confirm that Serra is one of the top developers  you’ve probably never heard of in the 2600 homebrew field.  I don’t know why these two games aren’t on the tip of the tongue of anyone who answers the popular question: what are the must-have homebrews for the Atari 2600.  Both games are addictive, fun, and extremely smoothly programmed.  Since Omicron has already had its day, let’s take a look at Lead.

What’s All This Then?

Lead is an extremely fast-paced action shooter that requires quick reflexes, keen wits, and determination.  That last quality will not be an issue as “just one more” might be the subtitle to this game.  In Lead you control a ship that travels through tunnels featuring various types of obstacles.  Your only mission is to survive.  There are four distinct levels with different objectives.  Fire! requires you to shoot all incoming enemy ships (miss one and it’s GAME OVER), Dodge! requires you to avoid looming asteroids, Scramble! requires you to fly in close proximity to deadly sentinels, but avoid setting them off, and Catch! is a bonus round wherein you must try to catch as many satellites as possible.  This kind of variety is the hallmark of a Simone Serra game and it’s part of why these games are so appealing.  It is highly unlikely that you will get bored very quickly with Lead.  Each level presents a new kind of challenge and there isn’t a lot of handholding; you are expected to be pretty good from level 1 and get increasing better as you play.

How Does it Play?

Ridiculously well.  The animations are smooth, the collision detection is pretty much spot-on, and the level design is very smart.  The challenge each level brings is well balanced by the brevity of the the levels.  Sure, when you’re playing level 3 Fire! it feels like the level lasts forever, but the actual play time is only around a minute.  This helps keep the frustration low and the replay value high.  Since you basically get one life per game, you’ll see the GAME OVER screen a lot, however the ability to continue on any given level means you can still practice and make a high score run after you’ve mastered all four levels.  Keeping the levels short and having a continue feature prevents the inevitable controller throw that usually comes with games that demand perfection.  
The game also features a unique power-up system.  You can collect one smart bomb per level that can be used to wipe the screen of obstacles, or you can stockpile smart bombs and trade them in for even better power-ups like shields, more powerful lasers, and bonus points.  While I’m not quite good enough yet to write a testimonial for each power-up, I can say this adds a layer of depth and strategy that makes the game even more addictive.
Visually, the game features the same colorful gradient graphics that are typical of a Simone Serra game.  While spartan, the contrast of the colorful game elements against a sea of black gives a classic arcade feel and creates an almost hypnotic effect during game play.  I love it!
Individual games of Lead will be rather short, but play sessions of Lead will likely tick up into the hours.  It’s just that much fun.

Whistles and Bells

TONS.  For a game that is mostly straightforward, Lead features a lot of great bonus features.  There is an entire menu that allows you to customize your sound settings.  (great music and SFX are another signature Serra feature).  You can also play proto versions of Lead that include just the Fire! (1K) and Fire! and Dodge! (4K) levels.  These are great for sharpening your skills and practicing for a high score run on the main game.  There is even talk of the game having  two possible endings based on which difficulty level you play on.  I’m yet to see either, but the fact that they exist is plenty cool!
As with most games of its era, Lead features AtariVox and SaveKey support to save your high scores and audio settings.

Final Assessment

Simore Serra strikes again with yet another sharply programmed and addictive shooter.  Lead will demand perfection, dexterity, and concentration, but the pay-off is a real and immediate sense of accomplishment when you reach the end of the tunnel.  This is a “pick-up-and-play” game that will eat up hours of your day and deftly avoid the kind of rage-quitting frustration that similar games induce.  Smart level design and sharp graphics combine to make up one of the most underrated shooters in the modern homebrew catalog.   Whether you lead or are lead, Lead should be in your collection.

Tips and Tricks

Don’t Be a (Dead) Hero:  Use those smart bombs!  Especially early on when you are learning.  Sure, it’s cool to save up for those power-ups, but don’t hesitate to use a smart bomb to get out of jam.  Since you only get one life, you really can’t take them with you when you go.

Like a Garden Hose on High:  The Fire! levels pretty much want you to hold down the button to shoot.  I like to use this like spraying a garden hose to just carpet as much of the screen as I can.  When I see a stubborn enemy that requires more attention, I focus the stream on it, but otherwise, I’m waving that beam in the air like I just don’t care.

Ever Vigilant:  The Scramble levels get pretty tight with Sentinels.  It is best to avoid the walls entirely and stay toward the center when possible.  It’s far too easy to get crushed between a wall and a Sentinel.

So there you have it!  One of the best, underrated homebrew shooters available.  It’s been flying under your (and my) radar for ten years.  I’ve rectified that mistake on my end, now it’s your turn.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Red Sea Crossing Manual (Unofficial)

Recently, in the Atariage High Score Club, we played a game called Red Sea Crossing.  This game is one of the rarest, most hotly debated games in recent Atari history, however when it was created it did not have a manual.  What follows is my effort to correct that 34 year old mistake.  The unofficial manual created below was created by me with some very helpful contributions from community insiders like Rom Hunter who runs the wonderful resource, and fellow gamer who goes by Leto on the Atariage Forums, so big thanks to both of those cats for helping me get this right.  Also a nod to forumite Omegamatrix who did some peeking around the code for me.

Red Sea Crossing  (Unofficial Manual)
Inspirational Video Concepts
Programmed by Steve Schustack

“Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land.  The waters were divided, and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground with a wall of water on their left and on their right.”  Exodus 14:21-22
What the Lord apparently failed to tell Moses was that his trip across the Red Sea bed was going to be fraught with perilous sea monsters and other obstacles.  That’s where you come in!  Relive the untold story of Moses crossing the Red Sea by guiding the Israelite leader as he leaps over chomping sea monsters, ducks spears, and dodges slithering serpents.  Along the way pick up articles of faith including stone tablets, white doves, and staves to increase your score.  How far can you go?

Getting Started

Insert your Red Sea Crossing GAME CARTRIDGE into your Atari VCS.  Turn the POWER switch to the ON position.  
Red Sea Crossing is a SINGLE PLAYER game program that uses the JOYSTICK controller.  Make sure your JOYSTICK controller is plugged firmly into the left joystick port on the back of the console.  Hold the JOYSTICK controller with the RED BUTTON in the upper left corner.

Console Switches
Use the GAME RESET switch to start a new game.
The GAME SELECT, B/W COLOR and DIFFICULTY switches are not used in this game.

Basic Controls  
Push the JOYSTICK left or right to make Moses move in the corresponding direction.  Press the red button to make Moses jump.  You can move the JOYSTICK left or right while Moses is jumping to make him move left or right while jumping.

Object of the Game

The object of the game in Red Sea Crossing is to help Moses cross the Red Sea without succumbing to the perils of the deep.  As you move Moses across the screen, he will encounter a variety of hazards intent on preventing him from progressing.  To overcome these obstacles you must time your moves precisely to avoid contacting them.  Sometimes this means evading the obstacles’ movement patterns, sometimes this means jumping over an approaching obstacle, and in later levels, success will require both techniques at once. “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:13)

Three Chances
When you start the game, Moses will have 3 chances to get as far across the Red Sea as he possibly can.  Certain dangers along the way can cause Moses to lose one of his chances.  There is a certain item Moses can find to gain extra chances.  There may be other ways to gain extra chances so keep your eyes open!  The total number of chances Moses has remaining is indicated by the last 2 digits in the score counter at the bottom of the screen (see figure 1).  When the indicator says “1,” Moses is on his last chance.  Contact with a deadly danger will result in the end of the game.  Press the RESET button to start again from the beginning of the game.

Time Limit
You have a limited amount of time to cross each screen.  When a new screen starts, the fish at the top of the screen (swimming in the wall of water on Moses’ left) will start swimming toward the right side of the screen.  If it reaches the right side of the screen, Moses has taken too long to progress and will lose 1 chance.  The fish will turn red when you have approximately 10 seconds left to advance to the next screen.

As he crosses the dried sea bed, Moses will encounter many dangers that threaten his progress.  Some of these dangers will merely slow Moses down or cost him points, while many of them will cause him to lose 1 chance.  The following are the dangers Moses will face:

Seaweed:  Moses must avoid getting tangled up in the seaweed that is strewn across the sea floor.  If he touches it, it will cost him 1 point for every second he touches it, and it will also slow his progress.  Other creatures on the screen will freeze in place until he is free.

Swarms:  Swarms of stinging locusts are buzzing about and Moses must not touch them.  Contact with a swarm will cost him 1 point for every second he touches it and his progress will be slowed.  Other creatures on the screen will freeze in place until the swarm has been evaded. “Never before had there been such a plague of locusts, nor will there ever be again.” (Exodus 10:14)  

Sea Monsters:  Giant leviathans will poke their massive heads from out of the right wall of water attempting to snare Moses in their gaping maws.  Moses must jump over these beasts or step carefully to avoid getting caught.  Contact with a sea monster will cost Moses 1 chance.

Spears:  Moses must not forget that Pharaoh’s soldiers are hot on his heels.  These soldiers will lob heavy spears over Moses’ head.  Stay low to avoid them as touching them will cost Moses 1 chance.

Pharaoh’s Archers:  Some of Pharaoh’s soldiers are armed with mighty bows with which they will lob a relentless volley of arrows at Moses.  Their aim is deadly accurate, so Moses will need to leap up to avoid their razor tips.  If Moses is struck with an arrow he will lose 1 chance.

Serpents:  Some of the most dangerous creatures Moses will encounter, serpents move about the screen in various ways.  Watch them carefully and determine the best way to avoid their deadly touch.  Contact with a serpent will cost Moses 1 chance.  “Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made.” (Genesis 3:1)

Giant Clams:  When the Lord pulled the waters apart, giant clams were left resting on the sea floor.  These clams will block Moses’ path unless he can figure out a way to safely leap over them.  

Octopi:  These little pink beasts may seem cute, but touching one will cause Moses to lose 1 chance.  Learn their movement patterns and move smartly to avoid them.

Articles of Faith
Though passage through the Red Sea bed is treacherous, it is not without signs that Moses has been favored by the Lord.  As Moses progresses through the various screens he will find tokens of faith that bolster him on his journey.

White Doves:  These harbingers of peace can be found darting about quite often in the air between the walls of water.  If Moses catches one he will be awarded 10 points. “‘I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him.’” (John 1:32)

Stone Tablets:  Perhaps as a portent of the things to come, large stone tablets can occasionally be found floating in the air above the sea floor.  If Moses can collect them he will gain 10 points.

Staff of Moses:  The most valuable of all of the articles is the Staff of Moses.  Should Moses find it, he will be awarded 10 points plus 1 extra chance.  These are extremely valuable, so be sure not to miss them!  “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” (Psalm 23:4)


As Moses progresses through the Red Sea floor he will earn points for every screen he successfully completes.  Points per screen will vary based on the obstacles Moses faces in each.  Moses will also earn points for collecting Articles of Faith.  Likewise, Moses will lose points when he contacts a non-lethal peril like Seaweed or Swarms.  He will lose 1 point per second he is in contact with these perils.

Crossing the Rea Sea

As Moses progresses across the floor of the Red Sea he will encounter a wide variety of different screens.  Some screens will feature only one peril or article of faith, while later screens will feature combinations of game play elements.  Each screen can be successfully completed without losing points or a chance, but you must study each screen carefully to determine the best course of action to reach the other side.  It is sometimes wisest to observe the location and movements of all obstacles before rushing into action. “The end of a matter is better than its beginning, and patience is better than pride.” (Ecclesiastes 7:8)

History of the Game

Red Sea Crossing was an independent project by a self-taught programmer named Steve Schustack.  Schustack programmed and released the game in 1983.  The game was only sold directly through mail order via advertisements in religious magazines like Christianity Today.  Schustack confirmed an extremely limited run of a few hundred copies.  It was sold without a manual or box, but did feature an accompanying audio cassette tape featuring the voice talents of country western singer Dale Evans.  The game vanished from all knowledge until a copy was discovered at a rummage sale in Cincinnati, OH in 2007.  The discovery caused quite a stir in the Atari 2600 community and an oft-heated debate raged for several years over the game’s veracity.  The discovery of an aforementioned advertisement for the game found in 2011, confirmed the game’s authenticity, however, it wasn’t until the game was purchased by another collector and the ROM dumped that the community had first hand exposure to the game itself.  As of the time of this manual’s creation there is still only one known copy remaining in existence.  The ROM image is available at along with a picture of the original advertisement in Christianity Today.  

Curious fact:  Steve Schustack claims the game has an ending, but no player has been able to confirm that fact.  He also eluded to the possibility of an easter egg in the game.  Happy Hunting!

“Red Sea Crossing” is entirely the property of Inspirational Video Concepts and Steve Schustack.  This manual was created solely for the purpose of recreation and free use by video game enthusiasts.  The creator of this manual will in no way seek profit from the distribution of this manual and makes no claims to the intellectual property described herein.  All Bible quotations are from the NIV.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Homebrew of the Month: Oystron

Developer: Piero Cavina
Available: Atariage

Let’s go back, way back to the dawn age of modern Homebrewing.  A time when sitting down and punching out code for a new Atari 2600 video game was more than just a labor of love, it was an act of self-sacrifice and skill.  These were the days of the Stellalist: a small, cloistered corner of the internet where those few who possessed the knowledge and talent for writing in a coding language more obsolete than Latin is to human languages swapped secrets and mined the VCS library for whatever wisdom could be gleamed from it’s hallowed halls.  At this time you could count the number of homebrew games without taking off your shoes.  Games like Edtris and Dark Mage were dipping their toes in the water to see if it was deep enough to swim.  From that primordial homebrew soup would soon come incredible games, games like Qb and this month’s selection:  Oystron.  I had not yet entered the classic gaming scene when Oystron began forming, but it, and I, burst onto the scene at about the same time.  I remember hearing about it, and others like it, but had no real clue what homebrews really were, or if they were anything to pay attention to.  No, I was too busy trying to track down copies of H.E.R.O and Pitfall II; desperately chasing those nostalgic nuggets of my past unable to see the future of VCS gaming jogging along side me.  So now, nearly twenty years later, I aim to catch up!  I’m probably the last person on earth to play Oystron for the first time, but maybe not.  Maybe you too are saying, “Hey! I just got here!  You mean there were homebrews before Draconian?”  There sure were.

What’s All This Then?

Oystron is a space shooter with some interesting twists.  You are in space harvesting pearls from space oysters.  As you harvest them you drop them in the collection zone.  When you have collected a full row of pearls they become powerful bombs and clear room for more harvesting.  This would likely be a tedious job excepting that you are not alone.  Space seems to be occupied by a bevy of creatures like yourself, that find these space pearls enthralling.  As such, these other space creatures will do whatever they can to steal your pearls.  So while you are busy harvesting you must also fight off your rival creatures to keep them from stealing or outright destroying your crop.  If you can hang around long enough, you will enter the Oystron phase.  It is during this phase that space goes absolutely mad as the mysterious Oystron appears.  Oddly enough the Oystron isn’t really hostile, he just seems to dance around a bunch during which time you can blow him up with bombs or you can just wait until he gets tired and mutates into a space oyster.  Yeah, maybe the most bizarre boss fight I’ve ever seen.  Either way, after the Oystron has done whatever it is it has set out to do, you’ll enter the Warp phase, during which everything speeds up dramatically and the risk of death is greatly increased.  Survive the Warp phase and new level will begin.  Repeat until dead or 100K points, which ever comes first.  Spoiler alert: it’s most likely death.

How’s It Play

Pretty damn solid for a game from the Homebrew Stone Age.  Ship movement is smooth (mostly, more later) and collision detection is solid.  The game starts out pretty difficult, but once you get the hang of the action things settle down and you can really get into the gameplay.  Difficulty definitely ramps as the levels progress and you’ll find particular challenge during the Warp phases when the speed goes completely out of control.  
However, it’s not all good news.  While the main part of the level is great and the action is well executed, once you enter the Oystron phase, the wheels start to come of.  Perhaps in an attempt to ratchet up the excitement and create a sense of disorientation, during the Oystron phase the screen begins to flash with a level of seizure inducing flash that only the most rigid mind can possibly tolerate.  Everything is blinking or flashing or moving or all three at the same time.  If the effect is to throw you off your game, it succeeds beyond what is reasonable.  Sadly it is so distracting and so busy that it totally breaks your concentration and makes this part of the game extremely difficult to play and enjoy if you can keep from writhing on the floor.  Somewhere during all of that screen vomit, the Oystron makes his appearance and you have an absurdly short amount of time to regain your senses, find him, and plant your bombs without being hit by the rest of the crap flying around.  It’s a mess, and not in a good way. 
Things calm down a little bit once you enter the Warp phase, and you’ll only have to deal with a change in screen color and a dramatic shift in enemy speed.  Gameplay remains the same as in the normal level, things are just much, much faster.  I found, that I was still suffering from the effects of the Oystron phase and generally spent the Warp phase bleeding lives and crashing into stuff hoping the madness would stop.

If you have any lives left, you get to start level 2.

So overall, 80% of the game is really fun space shooting action, and the other 20% runs the risk of causing vertigo.  The 80% that is fun is really great and that’s what I keep coming back for.  I find that I just grit my teeth and do my best to survive the other 20%.
There are a couple of game variations to keep you interested and challenged if the base game is too easy.  There are novice, medium, and hard options as well as an option to make your spacecraft “bounce” when it gets near the edge of the screen instead of just stopping.  It’s the best I can do to play the novice difficulty level, but I am willing to bet expert players enjoy the challenge of the other two.  I found the “bounce” option for the ship movement to be more annoying than anything else and honestly made the game feel sloppy and broken rather than more challenging.  Keep those difficulty switches on B, kids.

Whistles and Bells

Being from the early days of homebrewing, Oystron is its own Whistle and Bell.  The fact that it existed was super special for its day.  This is long before AtariVox or SaveKey were anything other than “wouldn’t it be cools.”  Oystron does come with a nicely designed full color manual, however the manual is riddled with typos and mislabeled images.  For instance, the space oysters and space creatures are mislabeled, and the manual says Difficulty setting B will cause your ship to bounce, when it is in fact the A setting that causes this.  There are some other inaccuracies in the manual that might simply smack of coming from a time when video game manuals weren’t being written or scrutinized as much as they are today.  There are also some things the manual leaves out, like how you must line up pearls to obtain the bombs with which to defeat the Oystron, or that lining up pearls causes them to disappear.  After 20 years I think the manual is due a rewrite.

Final Assessment

Oystron is a fun and engaging space shooter for the Atari 2600.  It features a novel concept with intriguing and challenging gameplay.  It takes a few minutes to fully comprehend what is going on, but once you get the hang of collecting pearls and fending off the bad guys, you’ll be having fun in no time.  Just be forewarned about the completely disorienting and psychologically jarring Oystron phase.  If you are even slightly set off by flashing lights, you may want to give this game a pass.  What happens during the Oystron phase is very similar to what happens to Alex in A Clockwork Orange.  But if you can make it through that with your wits intact there is much to enjoy about Oystron.  Don’t be wary just because it’s one of the earliest homebrews out there!

Tips and Tricks

Rapid Fire:  You can rapid fire by holding down the fire button.  This is nice not only because you keep shooting, but because you automatically drop off any pearls you pick up.  Early on you don’t have enough to worry about placement, so just grab and drop.  Later in the level once the collection area gets fuller, you can start being more judicious about where you place your oysters.

Play It Safer:  Enemies come from the right and they spawn on screen.  So while you can venture outside the collection zone, there is really little reason to ever do so.  If you keep left you can get a clearer sense of the action and intercept the space creatures before they can steal your horde.

The Best Offense is a Great Defense:  I know you want to get out there and just grab all the pearls you can, but the space creatures need to be your top priority.  Wait until a new wave spawns, locate and destroy the space creatures first, then harvest as many oysters as you can before the next wave starts.

Space Zoology 101:  Know your space creatures.  Some just come and take pearls, others will obliterate them.  Some cannot be killed and some can only be killed from behind.  Some space oysters have harder shells than others.  All of this goes to show that you will be best served learning the special characteristics of each kind of space creature, so that you better understand how to survive their onslaught.  This isn’t just a shoot ‘em up.
These arrow looking guys can only be shot from behind

Oystron Phase:  I don’t know what to tell you.  As soon as your screen goes completely berserk, try to regain your composure and look for the Oystron.  He usually dances about mid-screen and bounces between rows.  Set bombs in the rows he’s dancing in and just get out of the way.  Do your best not to die, because if you do, you’ll have to do the Oystron phase again.

Warp Phase:  This phase is just wicked fast.  It doesn’t last forever, so my best strategy is to stay in one row and shoot until it’s over.  If you are brave enough to stick your nose out and try to harvest pearls, that’s all you.

So there you have it!  One of the, ahem, pearls of the early Atari 2600 Homebrew library dusted off and shined up, ready for action again.  It’s nice when an older game like this can hold up against some of the extremely impressive games that are coming out today.  Oystron’s not going to blow anybody’s socks off these days, but it is still fun to play and still provides plenty of good solid action and challenge.  If, like me, you’ve been passing over it for a while, it might be time to go back and see what you’ve been missing.