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

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