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.