Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Top 30 Vertical Shooters for the Atari 2600 #1


This is it.  The absolute best vertical shooter for the Atari 2600 and that is not faint praise.  Beamrider simply is the best.  It has it all.  Incredible graphics, arcade grade sound effects, addictive game play, tons of variety and more challenge than you could ever really want.

Beamrider is such a simple game and yet as you play, it unfolds this maddeningly intricate plot of game play elements that takes you from simple vertical shooting to a fight for survival.  Don't fret, however, because Beamrider increases in difficulty with absolute precision.  Each time you feel like you have the hang of things and that you have adjusted to the new game play elements, the game introduces something new and completely unique to throw you right back off track again.

The base mission is simple, ride a grid (that beautifully disappears into the background forcing a 3D perspective) and eliminate waves of enemy targets that race the grid along with you.  After each wave is defeated, you use your super weapon to take out the mothership.  Early on, that's all you have to do and that is plenty.  But soon, new obstacles and enemies appear.  Rocks manifest on the grid and will destroy you upon contact.  Enemy squatters appear and, if not blasted, will sit on a line of the grid for several seconds blocking your movement.  There are obstacles that move from line to line on the grid in sequential pattern forcing you to move around constantly.  Other obstacles will seek you out and zoom at you along whatever line you are on.  And many more!

Beamrider just keeps throwing new stuff at you until the grid is so busy you spend less time shooting targets and more time just trying to stay alive by constantly moving along the grid.  Finding a safe spot can sometimes be impossible!  The good news is that the game gives you an ample supply of extra lives to keep your game going...if you can catch them.  Once per level an extra life will come zooming down the grid.  If you blast it, it turns to sludge and can kill you, but if you catch it, you are golden.  Even more so, because you are awarded bonus points at the end of each stage where you successfully blast the mothership for each life you have in reserve.  Sweet...if you can catch them.

Beamrider gives you a fighting chance to keep your game going, all the while tossing greater and greater challenges at you.  And the synthesis of this is a game that is endless amounts of fun.  There is so much variety in the game play and the challenge is crafted at such a high level the game is infinitely replayable.  The only real frustration comes from having to start over after reaching a higher level.  But once you realize that those early levels are important for stacking up extra lives and bonus points, the frustration becomes fun again.

Beamrider delivers on all fronts.  It is the obvious choice for the top spot on this list.  When building the list, I put it in the top 5 right away and the more I played these games for research, the more it became clear that this game offered everything you could possibly want in a vertical shooter and more.  It elevates the base game play, it provides lots of challenge, it perfectly balances the frustration/fun factor, it looks and sounds great, and plays fair even as it becomes insanely difficult.

Simply put, you will not find a better vertical shooter for the Atari 2600.  So sayeth I.

My Top Beamrider Score: 76,714  Sector 22  (a record I set last night!!)
But wait, there's more!  Come back and check us out tomorrow for the wrap up party and find out what game I missed!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Top 30 Vertical Shooters for the Atari 2600 #2


This is hardly fair.  Solaris is pretty much an NES game. It is so huge and so complex that it was borderline disqualified for this list.  But at its heart, it is a vertical shooter.  The basic game play consists of moving horizontally and shooting vertically at targets.  Yet, Solaris has so much more.  So much more.

Solaris puts you in command of a lone space ship which is tasked with reaching the distant planet of Solaris.  Doing so will require nothing short of a miracle and perfect vertical shooting skills.  I kid you not.  In many ways Solaris is a very nice collection of increasingly difficult vertical shooting mini-games.  These mini-games are linked together by a gigantic map that is much like the video equivalent of a board game board.  You move across the board by traveling through squares (quadrants).  Some squares contain encounters with enemy fleets, some require you to travel across enemy planets, while others give you a chance to refuel and repair your ship.  You'll need to keep your eye on your fuel supply and enemies can knock out your radar making you very vulnerable.  There are even squares that allow you to advance further in the game via wormhole.

That's the frame game, but the mini-games are where your Solaris adventure plays out. Many of the mini-games pit you in direct battle with enemy spaceships and their motherships.  The hardest of these games puts you up against the deadly Cobra fleet who kill with a single hit and can dodge your shots with deft maneuvers.  Other mini-games ask you to navigate a mine field or traverse an enemy planet to take it out of commission.  Occasionally the enemy fleet (also moving across the game board as the CPU player 2) will attack a friendly planet.  When this happens you have to remove the enemy presence from the planet. Failure to do so will cause reverse controls in the entire quadrant.  That is a very bad thing.

I was transfixed by Solaris as a kid.  It showed up toward the very end of the Atari 2600's life and it absolutely blew my mind. I spent hours playing it, desperate to reach that mythical planet.  To this day I have only made it a bit past halfway, but I love to keep trying.  Solaris still impresses me.  The VCS really shouldn't be capable of doing what Solaris does.  The VCS is the system that brings us Space War, not Solaris.  And yet here it is.  Perhaps one of the best games for the VCS period, much less one of the best vertical shooters.

Solaris is impressive because of the complexity of the game play, the depth of the game design and the excellence of the execution of both.  Solaris is #2 on this list because it boasts some amazing vertical shooting games with brilliantly increasing difficulty.  The same shooting game you play in the first quadrant and win fairly easily, will hand you your ass in the later quadrants of the game because the difficulty increases smartly as you progress in the game.  The game is hard, but it is fair.  This is the kind of game where the more you play and learn the game, the better you will get.
Don't be fooled, that's just the Star Raiders box art reused.  Atari got cheap toward the end.
Solaris is fun, not frustrating.  It is a dazzling achievement on the VCS and there is only one vertical shooter better than it for the system.  Come back tomorrow and see what it is.

My Top Solaris Score: 164,360

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Top 30 Vertical Shooters for the Atari 2600 #3


Insanity.  Millipede is distilled insanity in a video game.  Compared to it, Centipede feels like a child's game.  There are so many things happening at once on the screen that it is literally impossible to keep track of it all.  The best you can do is to keep moving and keep shooting and hope you last long enough to earn another life.  It is absolutely absurd that a game this frenetic can also be this incredibly fun.
Millipede is, at its heart, just Centipede with more going on.  In addition to the millipede that marches across the mushroom field, you'll be joined by spiders, beetles, inchworms, mosquitoes, bees, dragonflies, and earwigs.  Sheesh!  Furthermore, each pest does something different and some can even help you live longer.  The inchworm, for instance, will slow down time temporarily when you shoot it.  This has obvious benefits, but is actually one of the most important helpers in the game.  Mosquitoes will help scroll the screen up and clear some of the mushroom field.

Another innovation that sets Millipede apart is the intermission waves.  After successfully destroying a millipede you are regularly treated to a swarm of some other kind of pest.  This swarm rains down upon you and can be shot for mega bonus points, but you have to be careful because they come at you quickly and can easily overwhelm.  With the right swarm of pests you can rack up major points, clear the screen of mushrooms and even score an extra life.

This all sounds well and good, but the game speed in Millipede is dazzling.  The game starts out with a fast pace and then rapidly ramps to madness speed.  This sounds like it would make the game infinitely frustrating, but somehow the balance of challenge and fun is just right.  You'll most likely die quickly your first several games of Millipede, but the thrill of the action will bring you right back for one more game, time and again.

Millipede is pure action.  You will not find a vertical shooter for the Atari 2600 with faster-paced, frantic action.  I was initially intimidated by Millipede's blazing game speed and level of challenge, but after a few games I settled right in and now it is a must play for me anytime I'm looking for some shootin' action!

My Top Millipede Score: 111,262

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Top 30 Vertical Shooters for the Atari 2600 #4

Plaque Attack

Love vertical shooters, but are a bit bored with the genre?  Plaque Attack is the answer.  The very best non-traditional shooter on this list, Plaque Attack takes the standard vertical shooter format and turns it upside down, literally.

Non-traditional shooters are great because they open the format to all kinds of new possibilities.  Blasting aliens and space ships is fun, but can feel a bit confining.  Then a game like Plaque Attack comes along and breathes new life into the genre.  And who better to bring you such a game than Activision.

Plaque Attack pits you, a tube of toothpaste, in defense of a mouthful of healthy teeth.  Your enemies, all of the evil cavity causing foods that are so wonderfully delicious.  To stop these delightful delicacies from rotting away the chompers, you'll have to blast them with your toothpaste.  Don't fire indiscriminately however, as you are only as strong as your tube lasts.  The more you shoot, the more your tube rolls up.  When you run out of paste you lose a life.  The various foods will march in and attack the teeth. If they touch a tooth, it will begin to rot.  You can still shoot the food and stop the decay, but hesitate and the tooth will be lost.  Fear not, you can earn extra teeth in defiance of nature and replace teeth that are lost. You can even stockpile reserve teeth (we'll call them wisdom teeth) for replacement later.

The food zooms in from either above or below alternately and attacks the teeth.  All you have to do is blast it away before you end up with an empty set of gums.  Sounds pretty easy, but Activision pulled out all of the stops in terms of difficulty for this one.  You will do pretty well for some time, but then the game speed ramps and ramps quickly.  Before you know it, food will come flying by faster that you can react and you'll find yourself guarding one last tooth hoping against all hope that you can last long enough to get a reserve tooth.  But you can only hold out for so long.  Eventually, you will lose that tooth.

Plaque Attack is great because it challenges even the best gamer's reflexes and hand-eye coordination.  You can get really good at Plaque Attack and still get crushed in a single round of flying cheeseburgers.  The game is hard, but never really frustrating and therefore extremely replayable.

I love Plaque Attack for being such an oddball concept and for being so challenging.  It is truly one of the best vertical shooters for the Atari 2600, but is often overlooked.

My Top Plaque Attack Score: 59,800

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Top 30 Vertical Shooters for the Atari 2600 #5

Fantastic Voyage
20th Century Fox

You want a vertical shooter that has it all, this is your game.  A lot of people probably have no idea what this game is or even that it exists, but it sits there quietly being one of the best vertical shooters for the VCS.

Fantastic Voyage is loosely based on the film of the same name wherein a team of sailors are shrunk to microscopic size and injected into a human patient to relieve a blood clot in the patient's brain.  By the same token in this game you take command of the microscopic submarine in the bloodstream fighting your way to the blood clot(s) and ultimately saving the patient.  You'll have to navigate the bloodstream, blasting dangerous elements like bacteria, avoiding helpful agents like blood cells, and trying to keep the patient alive long enough to blast the blood clot.

What's great about Fantastic Voyage is the variety of challenges you face in the course of the game.  First you have to navigate the blood stream successfully.  Touching the walls or anything else in the bloodstream will cause the patient distress and increase the heart rate which is essentially your HP meter.  If the patient's heart rate gets too high the patient will flat line and die and your mission will be over.  As long as you can keep the patient's heart rate low, you will keep playing, no matter how many hits you take to your submarine (obviously you cannot take too many or it is game over anyway).  So you have to be extremely careful just moving around.

You'll be pressed into action pretty quickly as bloodstream elements appear ahead of you.  The diversity of elements in the bloodstream is impressive.  You'll have to shoot out deadly bacteria (which take three hits to kill), defense cells that launch from the walls, and anti-bodies which are sent out to destroy you if you touch the walls.  You must shoot these things for if they pass you by, the patient's heart rate will spike.  Not all targets must be shot, however.  A couple must be avoided entirely.  Blood Cells can be shot, but they are helpful to the patient, so taking them out will mean a quick end to your game.  Blood Clotlets will start appearing as you near the clot itself and are indestructible.  You'll need to avoid them entirely.  This is extra difficult because the artery narrows as you approach the clot.  The Clot itself takes 15 hits to destroy.  With the clot gone, the patient is saved and you can move on to other patients with the exact same problem.  Along the way you can restore the patient's stamina by shooting enzymes that appear.

That's quite a challenge you've got there and once you get pretty good at that, the game gets faster and the patient's tolerance for trauma is greatly diminished.

Fantastic Voyage features minimalist graphics, but the various sprites are well rendered and the game is full of color.  None of that will matter when you are zooming down an artery shooting bacteria while dodging blood cells and praying for enzymes as the walls close in on you.

This is a truly great vertical shooting game.  It has fast-paced action, numerous game play elements that increase the level of challenge, and an interesting concept that elevates it above the basic vertical shooter format.  If you have not played Fantastic Voyage, I highly recommend it, but be ready for a challenge.  I always look forward to taking another trip into the bloodstream.

My Top Fantastic Voyage Score: 253,342

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Top 30 Vertical Shooters for the Atari 2600 #6

Demon Attack

Here he goes again.  Demon Attack is clearly the best vertical shooter on this list.  It is the best game in the Imagic library (maybe some day I'll tackle that notion), and maybe the best game for the VCS.  Well, that may be true, but it don't wash around here.

Demon Attack is great.  Of that there is no doubt.  It is one of the best classic-style vertical shooters out there.  The enemies are diverse and difficult to battle.  The graphics, while minimalistic, are bright and interesting and Demon Attack provides all of the challenge you could ever want.  When I originally built this list, I had slotted Demon Attack all the way down at #15.  (GASP!)  But then I played it some more.  I think I was discounting it on the simplicity of its game play and not giving it enough credit for the level of complexity in the challenge and the diversity of the enemy targets.  So I moved it up to #10.  Then I played it some more and realized that I had underestimated just how much this game raises the bar for standard vertical shooters.  Games like Space Invaders, Phoenix (once rated higher than Demon Attack), and even Megamania come just a bit short of what Demon Attack offers.

Initially, Demon Attack may appear very standard, but play a few rounds and it begins to reveal its secrets.  The solid enemies split in half.  The smaller enemies dive bomb you when separated from their twin.  Later enemies are tiny and virtually impossible to hit.  When the lower enemies shoot, their missiles rain down upon you with little room to move.  The game is far more difficulty and has far more going for it than a cursory glance might reveal.  Early on you'll be able to stockpile extra lives.  You will need them because the game becomes mean.

It would be easy to get angry or frustrated with Demon Attack considering the challenge it presents, but you cannot because it also looks incredible.  The various demon enemies are extremely well drawn and colored.  They look like neon-colored nightmares blinking their way toward your demise.

After playing game after game, I realized my mistake.  Demon Attack is clearly one of the best vertical shooters out there.  It has everything you want in a great standard shooter and it makes the genre shine on the VCS.

My Top Demon Attack Score: 44,745 (the exact same as my Astroblast score, weird)

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Top 30 Vertical Shooters for the Atari 2600 #7


How does a game this simple get to be ranked so highly on this list?  Challenge.

It takes about 5 seconds to learn to play Astroblast.  Posting an impressively high score, however, will take you a lot of time and practice.  Astroblast poses perhaps the best challenge of any game on this list.   The base game is absurdly simple.  Defend your planet from the endless onslaught of falling space rocks raining down upon it.  Score points for every rock you blast.  That's it.  And yet...for every rock you miss you lose points.  Miss enough and your score will drop to 0.  You have to keep blasting to keep your score up.

Honestly, that alone is challenge enough, but another great aspect of Astroblast's game play is the steadily increasing difficulty.  At first you have to blast the rocks, but as your score increases you will unlock new and more deadly targets.  Spinners must be shot before they reach the planet or you lose a laser base.  Pulsars move in diagonal patterns and target your base.  And finally, UFO's streak horizontally across the sky carpet bombing you.  Furthermore, as your score increases the speed at which everything falls increases as well.  The game holds many of these little surprises in reserve until you get really good, which gives you plenty of time to practice before the entire sky collapses upon you.  Extra bases are awarded regularly and you will be glad for it as you try to stockpile as many as you can before things get intense.

Astroblast is a simple game, but it has tremendous replay value and minimal frustration making it a lot of fun to play.  Some of the best games are those that take moments to learn and a lifetime to master.  Astroblast is just such a game.  I play a lot of Astroblast and I play it with a joystick (you have the option of using paddles!) because that's how I've always done it.  For a real challenge, try it on Difficulty A.

My Top Astroblast Score: 44,745

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Top 30 Vertical Shooters for the Atari 2600 #8

River Raid II

This was a tough call.  Which is better, River Raid or River Raid II?  On the one hand, River Raid has the pure simplicity of a great shooter. On the other, River Raid II takes that simplicity and builds upon it an impressive feat for a VCS game.  This was seriously a difficult call.  I played both for a pretty long time to compare and contrast them and finally decided that I kept coming back to River Raid II over River Raid because there was more depth to the game play and the level of challenge was notably higher.

River Raid II excels because it takes the simple fun of the original and adds game play elements that flesh the game out and make it feel more like a VCS version of something like 1942 or Sky Shark, two NES titles that get a lot of play in my house.  You still have the basics, refueling mid-flight, the risk/reward of taking it slow vs. racing through, but now you can also change altitude.  This allows you to attack air and sea targets more realistically than in the original game.  You can swoop low to take out enemy aircraft carriers, and then gun it back up into the skies to take out enemy aircraft, or you can simply drop bombs onto ground and sea targets from the safety of the air.  Thanks to this feature you can also take the fight overland and take out ground targets as well! Zoom down the river, take out the bridge and your mission is complete.  Guide your plane back to the aircraft carrier, refuel and then take off again for another run! Sweet!  Oh and if you think that landing on that aircraft carrier at the end of the level is easy, think again.  Learning how to successfully land and take off could be an entire game itself!

In addition to a rich play screen, you also get an overview map to show your position on the river as well as speed, altitude and fuel gauges.  River Raid II might be one of Activision's best looking games.

The only thing I'm not ecstatic about is the flak hazards that poke out of the water.  They are infinitely tall and there is no way to destroy them so you just have to dodge.  I understand their placement in the game and their function, but I think there was probably a better way to achieve the same effect with a better game mechanic. Plus, they appear arbitrarily over land and sea which makes them seem less organic in the game play.

River Raid II is hard, harder than its predecessor for sure.  The action is faster, the river has a more challenging design and the fact that you can go overland doesn't necessary eliminate the danger of a collision as you will need be constantly aware of your altitude.  It takes a bit of time to get used to the idea that flying low also means flying fast while flying high slows you down.  This multiplies the risk/reward aspect of the game.  You'll have to factor altitude, speed, position on the river, and fuel all at the same time.  But when you finish that run and the bridge is in pieces behind you with that aircraft carrier in your sights, man, that is a great feeling!  That's another nice, small detail.  Bridges can appear at any point in the river, even while it is forked, so you must be ever vigilant!

River Raid II promises a top tier VCS shooter experience and delivers on that promise!

My Top River Raid II Score: 35,200 (pitiful, I know)

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Top 30 Vertical Shooters for the Atari 2600 #9

Spy Hunter

Cue the Peter Gunn theme (because we couldn't get the license for James Bond!)  You really wouldn't think the VCS would be cable of executing a game with as much going on as Spy Hunter, but somehow, someway, here it is.  Crisp, solid graphics, lots of colors and absolute minimal flicker, all of the secondary weapons and enemy agent cars, street and water action, this game has it all.  And on top of all of that, it captures the essence and fun of the arcade original surprisingly well.

Spy Hunter is all-out action.  From the minute the trucks drops you off until you are cruising the river dodging scuttle, the game in right in your face.  As a matter of fact, the biggest problem I have playing the game is curbing my desire to run full blast through the game.  That is the best and fastest way to end your game.  But that has more to do with me than with the game.  As a matter of fact, if you can learn to pace yourself and take your time, you can really wrack up points and go far in the game.  My other big fault is that I get locked into using the secondary weapons in deference to everything else.  I love to see that smoke trail wiping out back guys.  You can shoot at any time in the game, but it is a rare occasion that you can take out foes indiscriminately with a mud slick!  But much like the former, this is often the source of my demise as well.

Speaking of secondary weapons, Spy Hunter is one of the few games that requires an extra button so you have to use both controllers.  Back in the day they packed-in a special doo-dad that allowed you to hook both controllers together and use the button on controller 2, but these days I just put controller 2 on the floor and tap the button with my foot.  It works just as well.  This feature does make the game a bit hard to play if you are unaccustomed to improvising.  If you can get it working, though, you are in for a treat.

Spy Hunter is a lot of fun.  The difficulty ramps extremely smartly and the game is surprisingly deep considering the number of special features it boasts.  There is plenty of challenge right out of the gate and by the time the helicopter shows up you'll find yourself well tested.  However, because the game has so many great features, it is easy to reset and go again without getting too frustrated.

Spy Hunter breaks the top ten on this list because it aims high in trying to bring the arcade experience of Spy Hunter to the home console and it manages to hit that target rather well.  The game is fun, challenging and surprisingly deep.  When I get into a Spy Hunter mode, I tend to play it for hours.  Spy Hunter provides an arcade close experience and looks great doing it!

My Top Spy Hunter Score: 50,000

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Top 30 Vertical Shooters for the Atari 2600 #10


Odd to see a Tigervision game this high up, and yet it has been ranked as high as #6 during the life of this project.  How can this be?


Espial is that little game you've never heard of that pushes the VCS to its limits and shows off what it is capable of.  The game features near-NES level music, dynamic playfield graphics that bring the enemy starbases to life, dual shooting at both air and ground targets, and even a high score screen!  This may not seem like much to the modern gamer, but these are Starpath-level advancements in a regular VCS cartridge.

Even the instruction manual undersells the ultimate coolness that is Espial.  The game pits your starfighter against a fleet of massive starbases.  Your job is to destroy the starbases by flying over their surfaces and bombing their hatches (a la exhaust ports via Star Wars).  The starbases will defend themselves by sending kamikaze drones to ram you and also by launching surface-to-air missiles at you.  You'll want to shoot out those missile launchers by using your targeting computer while avoiding and blasting the drones that march mindlessly on.  A cool concept for a game and fairly unique (although not entirely as we shall see with #8) for the Atari.  The ability to shoot both air and ground target with two kinds of weapons and only one joystick button is pretty advanced and takes vertical shooting to a new level.  Taking out the ground targets is a must for top scores and survival.

Your first play through of Espial might not impress.  The first three starbases are relatively easy.  The first and second bases are similar and the third features no ground targets, but drones that come from ahead and behind.  It will take careful maneuvering to survive.  Should you make it past all three, you might be lulled into thinking that this game is a bit too easy.  Then the difficulty reaches up and smacks you right in the face.  The fourth starbase is just like the first, but the drones have been set to crazy mode.  Their movements are erratic and sudden and they come at you much faster.  Taking out the ground targets becomes extremely difficult as does avoiding their missiles.  Before you realize it, you have a game on your hands, a challenging game that is a lot of fun.  Frustration isn't even much of a factor, even if you get demolished right out of the gate, because the game play is engaging and fun.

Espial looks amazing too.  The three starbases are distinct and extremely colorful.  Tigervision games have never been short on utilizing the full color palette.  The enemy drones are represented by a number of unique sprites and your ship looks far better than it really has to in a game like this.  The one complaint is that Espial is a flicker fest on part with something like Buck Rogers, but that fact is easily overlooked in favor of how great the overall game looks.

I lament the fact that I cannot find a copy of Espial to add to my collection.  The game is great looking and a great deal of fun to play.  I'm not very good at it and the second round of starbases proves to be my Waterloo at this time.  I would like to say that I would be better at it playing it on a console instead of an emu, but the game is sufficiently challenging to make that claim moot.  If you are not familiar with Espial, I strongly urge you give it a look.  And if you have an extra copy lying about, how about you cut yer ol' pal Stan a deal?

My Top Espial Score: 9090.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Top 30 Vertical Shooters for the Atari 2600 #11

River Raid

It will surprise no one that Activision has so many games in the upper rankings of this list. River Raid is no exception.  One of the best known and loved games in the Activision catalog, River Raid is an exceptional vertical shooter that still presents gamers with immense challenge and lots of replay value.

River Raid takes the classic vertical shooting formula and adds some elements that improve game play, add difficulty and dramatically increase the complexity and amount of fun in the game. It would be enough to fly over a river and shoot the many different targets that get in your way (some games in this list achieve the equivalent of that and nothing else).  River Raid adds a fuel gauge that must regularly be refilled, a river that is constantly forcing you to think on the fly, and bridges that block your path and must be destroyed to continue on your way.

River Raid is a big risk/reward game.  You can blaze down the river at full speed, but you run the risk of colliding with targets, the canyon walls and burning through your fuel without a steady resupply.  You can alternately take your time and plod down the river, but you run the risk of being a sitting duck for fast shooting enemies and running out of fuel.  The moderate path seems like the safe route and early in the game it might be, but as the difficulty ramps you will find times where speeding up or slowing down are your only options. Sometimes the river narrows and you must navigate tight gaps that are usually blocked by enemy targets.  Other times you will need to throttle up in order to find a fuel tank before you crash and burn.  Then there is the risk/reward of shooting fuel tanks for points instead of refueling.  It can be very tempting, particularly early on when fuel tanks are plentiful, but late in the game you never know where the next tank will show up, so shoot at your own peril.

Needless to say, being an Activision title, River Raid features smooth, brightly colored graphics and great looking sprites.

The only real drawback to River Raid is that the difficulty will eventually top off and you'll see most of what the game has to offer relatively early in the game.  The game becomes an endurance test after that and while it is more enjoyable than other games lower on the list, it still loses a bit of flavor once you can reach that point reliably.   This causes replayability to take a slight hit, but it does not make River Raid a bore.  As a matter of fact, when I get on a River Raid tear, I can play it for hours.

My Top River Raid Score: 63,040

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Top 30 Vertical Shooters for the Atari 2600 #12


Just as with #13, Megamania takes the standard vertical shooter formula and elevates it to a new level by providing a wide ranging variety of targets.  It is the diversity of targets that makes Megamania a lot of fun to play and extremely difficult.

Some targets come at you vertically, some scroll by horizontally, and all of them shoot at you.  To make matters worse, the target behavior changes a bit each time you lap the levels.  Megamania keeps you on your toes constantly.  You might catch a breather during a few of horizontal levels, but pretty soon those dice or tanks or whatever come zooming at you and you are back in the thick of it.  I honestly think the dice level in later rounds is nearly impossible, particularly if you happen to get killed in the middle of the wave.  To make matters worse, Activision throws in a time limit for each level so you don't just sit back and take it easy, as if you could.

And of course, the game looks great, even for a simplistic shooter.  Activision games are known for their polish and Megamania is a brightly colored spaz-fest just like the 80's-out instruction manual and game box promises.

I like Megamania and play it a lot because it is very challenging and doesn't get frustrating despite the constantly ramping difficulty.  It can be hard to start over after playing at a high level, but that usually doesn't stop me from putting in at least one more game.  Extra lives are awarded sufficiently, as with many Activision games (see Seaquest), to keep the game moving and give you a fighting chance in the face of some incredible odds.  It might look simple, but after a few minutes it is clear why Megamania is one of the best vertical shooters for the VCS.

My Top Megamania Score: 150,690 (not too shabby)

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Top 30 Vertical Shooters for the Atari 2600 #13


I have very fond memories of Phoenix from childhood.  The game was magic for me because it was so different from Space Invaders.  It had so many levels and so many different kinds of enemies.  It was bright, colorful and best of all, there was a boss fight!  This was in the era before there really were boss fights so this was something unreal.  And then there was the box and manual art.  Insane.  It was like looking at the coolest heavy metal album cover.

So it is hard for me to place Phoenix a lot higher on this list.  Truth be told, it was #10 until about 5 minutes ago.  But I was playing that game that is currently #10 and realized that I was fooling myself.  Phoenix is really great, and I still love it, but it belongs here at #13.

Phoenix is awesome for all of the reasons I listed above.  Three distinct varieties of game play.  The first two levels are pretty standard, but then you get to the actual phoenixes and the don't die unless you score a direct hit!  Survive those and take on the mother ship.  That mother ship used to give me fits when I was a kid.  There is so much variety in the base game that you can stay occupied figuring out the best way to survive each level.

If Phoenix has a weakness it is the lack of difficulty ramping.  The difficulty does increase as you lap the levels, but not by much and not for very long.  The difficulty tops out relatively soon and then you just play as long as you can. The mothership is really the only level that increases in challenge notably.  That doesn't mean the game is super-easy, but it does put an early cap on how hard it will get.

The graphics are pretty solid.  The color palette makes good use of shading and adds some complexity to the enemy characters.  The mothership is big and the little alien inside looks smug in the safety of his pilot's chair.  He is just asking to be shot.

Phoenix is one of the best examples of a vertical shooter that innovates and goes beyond the standard mold of what a shooter is.  Space Invaders and Galaxian are fun, but you play the same screen over and over.  Phoenix tells us there is more to see and do.

My Top Phoenix Score:  131,430 (I got on a roll.  I honestly believe I can roll it.  It's just a matter of taking the time to do it)

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Top 30 Vertical Shooters for the Atari 2600 #14


What?  Wabbit?  Better than Galaxian? You are telling me that a third tier Apollo game about throwing eggs at rabbits is better than one of the most iconic vertical shooters of all time? 

Yes.  That is what I am telling you.  Stay with me.

Wabbit is an extremely challenging game with tons of replay value, a twitch factor and minimal frustration.  Sure, it is a non-traditional game where you are pitted against a rampaging horde of rabbits looking to make off with your entire carrot crop.  And while the only way to fend them off might be to lob rotten eggs at them, that doesn't take away from the fact that Wabbit is very challenging all the while being very fun.

It's all about balance.  Wabbit is tough right out of the gate, but you always feel like you are in the game.  Since you don't game over until the rabbits take 100 carrots, there is no instant kill.  You are given a fighting chance every time.  That being said, don't expect Wabbit to be a push-over.  Those rabbits are quick and only get quicker.  You'll need quick reflexes and a keen eye to keep your root crops safe.  Wabbit is a twitch game where eventually you have to turn things over to your eyes and hands and take your brain out of the equation.

But the great thing about Wabbit is that the challenge never gets really frustrating.  There is tremendous replay value because you are always left feeling like you could do just a little bit better the next time around.  Because your score is based on hitting the rabbits and protecting the carrots, there are is a lot of risk/reward.  You score more points for hitting rabbits that are on the way back to their hole after taking a carrot, so the the temptation is to wait and let them take the carrot, then hit them.  However, this greatly increases the likelihood of them succeeding in stealing the carrot and putting you one root closer to your doom.  Risk/reward.  There is an opportunity for point scumming, but that too comes at a price.  If you can leave a single carrot on a lower row at the far side of the field, the rabbit will always come from the opposing side and you can reliably hit him before he can get away with the carrot.  Ideally you could sit there all day and just rack up the points.  But the rabbits get faster and you will miss.  And when you do, you pay for it because by then you will have advanced the difficulty so far that when the next round starts, little white streaks will clear your field in about 15 seconds. Risk/reward.

Wabbit features well-drawn, bright and colorful graphics.  The backdrop is on par with Activision-level work; just look at that sun!

Wabbit provides a tremendous amount of challenge balanced with great action and fun.  Those who are not afraid to venture off the beaten path a bit will find this game to be an instant favorite.

My Top Wabbit Score: 740

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Top 30 Vertical Shooters for the Atari 2600 #15


What?  #15?  Galaxian is the greatest vertical shooter ever.

Well.  It is certainly a classic, of that there is no doubt.  But Galaxian has one major problem:  it gets boring.  There.  I said it.  Galaxian can get pretty boring pretty quickly.  Before you brandish the pitchforks, hear me out.

Galaxian is a classic.  I said that.  It is the answer to the question: can we make a better Space Invaders?  Yes, we can .  Take Space Invaders and instead of marching the aliens down the screen, send them dive bombing at the player instead. There is more challenge, more danger, and faster-paced action.  Galaxian truly is a better Space Invaders.

Unfortunately, that is about all Galaxian is.  After the first few rounds you have seen pretty much all there is to see and you are left with a endurance challenge.  It's not that the difficulty doesn't ramp well, it does.  At first you are only dive bombed by a single enemy, then, as the levels increase, you are dive bombed by more and more until it feels like the entire fleet is dropping down upon you at once.  The screen gets really crowded!

But that's all Galaxian has to offer.  It's a very nice thing to offer, but it is what it is.  By my estimation if you deliver a really good vertical shooter with solid game play, good difficulty and reasonable graphics, but you don't do much more than that, you get the midway spot on this list.
I like Galaxian, but it doesn't get lots of play in my house because I don't find myself compelled to play it over and over.  It's an average shooter and therefore finds itself at the average spot on this list. 

My Top Galaxian Score: 18,430

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Top 30 Vertical Shooters for the Atari 2600 #16


I'm one of those.  One of those who really love the VCS version of Centipede despite its blocks for mushrooms and lack of trak-ball control.  Purists will scoff at the sluggish control afforded by the joystick. Arcade snobs will ridicule the rudimentary graphics (ironically perhaps when you really look at the visuals of the arcade original).  But Centipede for the Atari 2600 captures the fun and madcap action of its spirited predecessor pretty damn perfectly for my tastes.

Like Space Invaders, I don't think I have to say much about what Centipede is apart from the fact that it is one of the foundational shooters of the genre.  Ok, well, maybe there is something to say about the story behind the game.  Unlike most shooters that pit you against squadrons of enemy space ships, Centipede puts you in a field of mushrooms against a literal garden variety of pests the worst of which is a giant centipede who does not die when shot, but horrifically breaks off in multiple segments and continues marching forward bent on your demise.  Seems mind-altering drugs and video game design are a match made in heaven.

What makes Centipede such a great game is the fast-paced action and variety of game play elements.  Centipede starts out a bit simple with you against the Centipede and his ally the spider.  But after a few rounds, the flea and the scorpion show up to wreck havoc upon you as well.  Difficulty ramping is spot on as well.  By the time you get really good, the action is fast and furious, the scorpion is zipping across the screen so fast you barely have time to see it, and the centipede is entirely disjointed and mounting an attack on many fronts.  Centipede doesn't overwhelm you, it lets you pick up the game at a good pace.

They have also done a nice job of matching the speed of the game play with the joystick controls to avoid the frustration that would come with a direct port lacking trak-ball support.  This might have been the happy accident of programming limitations, but either way it works.

Centipede is a great vertical shooter.  It has tons replay value and provides plenty of challenge.  It may be a bit sparse on details, but it captures the essence of its source material and, most importantly, is a lot of fun.  You cannot go wrong with Centipede for the Atari 2600.

Oh and I would be remiss if I did not mention the totally swank title screen.  That thing is sweet.
My Top Centipede Score: 277,335

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Top 30 Vertical Shooters for the Atari 2600 #17

Shootin' Gallery

"Ideal for Ages 9 and Under" says the sticker on the box. Proof that I am still in a prepubescent stage, or Imagic underestimating the fun and challenge of their version of a carnival shooter?  Who can tell.  What I can tell you is Shootin' Gallery looks awesome, has some depth and complexity and more challenge than the sticker on the box would lead you to believe.
Whereas Coleco's Carnival is a very simplistic interpretation of this sort of carnival game, Shootin' Gallery features more of the complexity and variety of those games of yore.  Multiple levels of targets with distinct movements and characteristics, a limited supply of bullets and a devilish Cuckoo Clock that wants to steal those bullets if you are not paying attention, Shootin' Gallery has a lot to like.  Actually, Carnival and Shootin' Gallery share a lot of characteristics, but Shootin' Gallery does them a lot better.  I am particularly fond of the train that runs along the second level.  You can shoot out each car, culminating with the locomotive, for big bonus points!  What a neat little touch.  I also like that the targets change from seals to kangaroos, from rabbits to frogs, as you do better and better and take out more advanced targets.

I'm trying to stay away from variations for this ranking, but the sharp shooter variation is really tricky and provides tons of challenge for even the most eagle-eyed 9 year old.

Speaking of challenge, Shootin' Gallery doesn't really have a ton of difficulty in the traditional sense.  What it does is force you to make the most of every bullet.  You have a limited supply and there are lots of ways to rack up points, but you have to make every single shot count to really post a top score.  I suppose that maxes out at some point, but I'm not 10 years old enough to have reached that point.

I guess I like Shootin' Gallery because it has a lot of charm, decent challenge, and enough complexity to warrant multiple plays in a single sitting.  Since the game is finite based on the number of bullets, there is a great incentive to play one more game to see if you can best your score.  As a matter of fact, I think I'm going to go play another game right now!

My Top Shootin' Gallery Score: 571000

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Top 30 Vertical Shooters for the Atari 2600 #18

Deadly Duck
20th Century Fox

Fast-paced, duck-themed action where crabs throw bricks and dragonflies seek sweet revenge.  Deadly Duck has it all!  Well, maybe not all, but it certainly has a lot to like!

Deadly Duck is a fairly standard vertical shooter with some very interesting game play elements that make it extremely challenging.  You are a duck pitted against some meddlesome crabs who are trying to sink you with bricks they grab from the edges of the screen.  If they miss, the bricks miraculously float on the surface of the pond before sinking.  This can be hazardous since the bricks impede your ability to swim around.  Eventually the do sink, but if you are not careful you can block yourself into a sinking situation.  Luckily you can blast the bricks before they strike if you are quick enough.  The instruction manual even suggests it as a starting strategy!  If the crabs weren't trouble enough, their friends the dragonflies will show up and take umbrage to your presence.  They will leave you alone unless you shoot them.  It is then that they take offense and fire back.  The more dragonflies that show up, the more shots they will take if you shoot them.  These insects act as a barrier that bounces horizontally across the screen making you assault on the crabs all the more challenging.

Deadly Duck is a fairly simple game, but there are sufficient elements to make it extremely difficult even to skilled gamers.  The dragonflies fly low near the surface of the water and bounce your shots back at you rapidly and in increasing numbers.  The crabs are relatively small targets that move erratically and drop bricks in great numbers.  There is a lot to keep up with and if the pond becomes littered with bricks, you will be sunk quickly, no matter how good you are.

The graphics are simple, but well drawn.  Deadly Duck focuses on the game play more than spectacle, but that is most definitely to its credit.  Personally, I was shocked at how much fun this game is and how addictive it can be.  Since the difficulty is high pretty early out of the gate, there is a tremendous amount of "one more game" replayability.  Frustration is relatively low however because the game play inspires a variety of strategies for success.

It doesn't present itself as a top notch shooter, but Deadly Duck is a dark horse favorite on this list!

My Top Deadly Duck Score: 2540

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Top 30 Vertical Shooter for the Atari 2600: #19 Glacier Patrol

Glacier Patrol

Now we turn to a shooting game that has a premise only the 1980's could dream up.  In Glacier Patrol you are stationed at the north pole on security detail. Seems there is an alien invasion imminent and the bastards are dropping semi-intelligent blockading devices that look and act exactly like blocks of ice.  You have to use your heat ray to melt the devices before they seal you in and seal your fate.  To make matters worse, the frigid environment at the pole has dulled your reflexes and made your a bit torpid.  Oh, and the occasional runaway snowball can crash the party at any time.   Yep.  That's right.  That's the premise of Glacier Patrol.

Game play is what you expect.  You shoot at the ice blocks as they fall.  If they land, they form a barrier, not to your shots, but to your existence.  If the blocks seal you off from the sky it is GAME OVER.  You get more points for shooting blocks before their parachutes deploy.  You cannot take out the enemy space ship.  Your character moves much more slowly than the enemy space ship and you must stay vigilant for the snowballs that roll across the screen.  If a snowball hits you, its stuns you momentarily.  You can still shoot, but you cannot move.  You must leap over the snowballs to avoid them.  Needless to say, jumping is distracting and causes you to miss blocks.  Every 10,000 points the sun rises and clears a few blocks and give you a bonus for any empty spots.

Glacier Patrol is fun enough, but it has severe limits.  The premise, while completely bizarre, is pretty fun. The non-traditional idea of shooting to prevent being sealed in is a nice twist and the addition of the snowball adds to the challenge, but those are about the only things this game has going for it.  The basic action is a bit dry.  The slower movement is there indubitably to increase the challenge, but all it really does is increase the frustration.  Like playing a paddle game with a joystick (imagine), you simply cannot move fast enough to be everywhere you need to be to succeed.  This almost guarantees a game-over at some point, unless you are just really good or really lucky.  There is a difference between challenge and frustration.
The ice blocks slide down to fill in any open gaps, so you cannot just stand and defend a single hole, you must move about.  However, you cannot move AND shoot.  I guess the cold weather is again to blame.  Again, this isn't as much about challenge as it is about being obtuse.  The game would be challenging enough without these handicaps.  I suspect programming limitations might also be to blame.

Graphically Glacier Patrol is minimal, but decent. The space ship is very colorful and dynamic in stark contrast to the bleakness of the rest of the game. I realize that it is night at the north pole, but something a little more than black on white with a blue barrier would have been nice.   I realize it is an Activision game and that puts it in a special class, but Frostbite does a much better job of taking advantage of a unique polar locale.

Glacier Patrol shoots for the stars with its non-traditional concept, but its execution falls a little short of the atmosphere.  The game is fun to play for a second, but can quickly become frustrating.  This feels like a game that was well conceived, but then a bit hastily put together.

My best Glacier Patrol score: 4750

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Top 30 Vertical Shooters for the Atari 2600 #20


Guardian is one of the first games on the list that takes the standard vertical shooter and adds a new element that makes the game play more than just scroll and shoot.  Guardian puts you in defense of three planets and their defense grid against a hostile alien spaceship that is trying to bomb its way through and destroy the planets!  Wicked, bad aliens!  They always have a beef!

The alien spaceship scans the top of the screen dropping bombs indiscriminately.  As the bombs hit the defense shield, the punch holes in it clearing the path for future bombs to eliminate the planets below.  Your job is to blast the bombs before they can make impact and keep the planets safe.

Guardian is a paddle game and thus the action is tailored to fast movements and quick reflexes.  The early levels are pretty easy and you'll have no trouble keeping everyone un-exploded.  And then, somewhere around 20K, the game loses its mind.  The spaceship starts dropping bombs in patterns similar to the bomb dropping in Kaboom! or the egg dropping in Eggomania.  Your game play needs to adjust accordingly and scroll along blasting the spray of bombs.  Experts of the two games listed above will find themselves right at home here.  Goons like me will get swamped pretty quickly.  But I can certainly appreciate the skill required to stay alive.

Graphically, Guardian is unspectacular, but solid.  The little planets are the coolest feature.  Fortunately, the action is so fast paced that you'll not have much time to gawk at the spectacle.

I really appreciate the added twist of planet protection that Guardian adds to the classic vertical shooter formula.  If you ship is hit, you are only stunned for a second, not eliminated.  You only lose if the planets are destroyed.  If you score 10K, the shield is replenished and at 50K you get an extra planet (in reserve).  There is plenty of challenge and replayability and the frustration factor is low, even if you suck at games like this as I do.

My Top Guardian Score: 45,250

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Top 30 Vertical Shooters for the Atari 2600 #21

Communist Mutants from Space

Ah the '80's.  A time when nothing was more terrifying than space aliens and red communists.  And no game captures that more than Communist Mutants from Space.  It wasn't enough that they were aliens from another planet trying to attack earth.  Oh no.  They had to also be mutants, deviants within their own race.  And to make matters worse, they prescribed to a political philosophy that concentrated power to the few elites who were tasked with distributing the resources of the community to the masses when in reality they were more likely to amass the resources for themselves.  (If you think the above is insane, you should read the batshit crazy Cold War propaganda that they call an instruction manual.  It is not for the postmodern)

Those Bastards.

They must be stopped.

And it's up to you to put a stop to their rampage!  Part Galaxian, part Space Invaders (so many of these games are such amalgams are they not?), Communist Mutants from Space is a standard vertical shooter that does a great job of blending elements from both games.  A field of mutant eggs float above the planet's surface waiting to hatch out their horrible mutants down on you.  Shoot the eggs before they hatch or you'll have to deal with a dive-bombing mutant in your face.  As you deplete the eggs, the mother-mutant will replace them with more, unless you can score a direct hit and take her out first.  Difficulty increases with each wave of mutants you deplete.  You can select to turn on a few options to help you like shields, time-slows, penetrating shots, or guided shots, but it won't save you forever.

Communist Mutants from Space is a good vertical shooter, but its not Starpath good.  Starpath is the company that brings us classics like Escape from Mindmaster, Sword of Saros, Survival Island, and Dragonstomper.  To take all of that power and churn out a game that is basically a better GORF doesn't really add up.  Communist Mutants should be better.  It should be more.  But it's not.  Its just a vertical shooter that mixes Space Invaders and Galaxian.  The difficulty ramps at a decent rate, but the game doesn't throw anything at you that you can't see during the first wave. It's fun, but it's not amazing.  And trust me, a game needs to be pretty amazing for me to fire up the ol' Supercharger and the tape deck.
My Top Communist Mutants from Space Score: 20,360