Monday, May 11, 2015

Atari 2600 Reactor: One of the Greatest Video Games EVER?

Yeah, you heard me.  You can keep your War of Duty 9 and your Halos and Grand Theft Criminals and whatever else passes for a video game these days and give me a good ol' classic from the dawn of gaming:  Reactor.

Reactor might just be one of the best video games ever for one very simple, but very important reason:  it's unique in almost every possible way.  None of the grist mill games above can even pretend to say that.  Reactor is a game that requires quick reflexes, intense concentration, lots and lots of luck, and a willingness to completely abandon the idea of strategy.  Let me explain:

Reactor is a game born of the Cold War.  Nuclear Winter was an ever-present threat and the mystique around nuclear energy was never higher.  The fear that a nuclear reactor might go all Chernobyl on your butt was as real as the duck and cover drill.  So what do we do when we are scared of something?  We make a video game out of it, to help us feel like we have some measure of control over the situation.  No different from the duck and cover drill, actually.  Maybe that is over analyzing the situation a bit, or maybe not, but either way, Reactor comes to us from a culture very occupied with nuclear possibilities.

The point of the game is damage control.  You have a reactor on your hands that is about to go critical and ruin everyone's day in a radical way (how you like me now?).   It's up to you to get in there, literally, and get a handle on the situation.  Nuclear particles, you can decide what that means, are loose and bouncing around like mad threatening to melt down the core of the reactor.  It is your job to smash those particles against the walls of the chamber and also to use them to knock down the control rods that will calm the core and prevent meltdown.  However, there is a catch:  you can't touch anything except the enemy particles.  Contact with the walls or the core and it's Fissionville for you.  Imagine the game of Operation except instead of removing the medical issues you had to smash them against the sides of the game board without getting buzzed.  All of this might sound tough, but what makes it truly insidious is that the particles push back, and hard.  So while you are pushing them, they are pushing you and you find yourself in a dance toward destruction.  More on that later.
So you have to smash the particles and knock down the rods to keep the reactor core in check.  See while you are playing bounce house with the neutrinos, the core is steadily growing outward from the center, threatening to engulf you and all of Western culture.  Oh and on alternating levels the core turns into a swirling vortex that can suck you inside and smash you to bits.
The game is called "Reactor," but it should be called "Constant Challenge."

So the very premise alone is pretty unique.  The closest thing I can think of that is similar is Mutant Virus for the NES, but that has far more puzzle elements and takes a different part of your soul when you lose.  There isn't even a game on for the Atari 2600 generation of consoles that is like this game.  (I realize Reactor was an arcade game first and console game second, but I am focusing on the game I know and love and fear)

At its heart, Reactor is a finesse game AND a twitch game, requiring precise control and the ability to make sudden and erratic adjustments purely on instinct.  This is at least partly why I am terrible at it (I really really suck at finesse games, see also Gravitar and Thrust +), but even though I am a dismal player, I am drawn to this game like a drunken moth to a blowtorch.  Despite being a game that wants random chaotic perfection, it is also the kind of game that demands you play one more time because you know this time you will be able to avoid the stupid mistake that caused your game to end the last time.  You won't be able to, of course, but you are left with the feeling that you might.  You won't.

And why not?  Because there is no successful strategy to playing this game.  There just isn't.  Forget what the instruction manual says in the back.  Forget what legions of nerds on Atariage tell you, there is no strategy for playing this game and succeeding.  The only thing you require to do well at Reactor is absurd reflexes and infallible instincts.  Sure, you can deploy your decoys by the bonus chambers to rack up major points.  Sure you can clockwise rotate the vortex swirl to knock out particles in the vortex levels, these are all great things to do, but knowing that you should do them, and being able to actually execute those strategies is completely different.
The core of this game is a dance, as I mentioned above.  You and the upwards of forty nuclear particles (that come at you in waves, not all at once) engage in a dance that is part dare and part aggression.  The particle charges at you, you dodge, it dodges, you lunge, it dodges, you dodge, it lunges, you bounce off one another, maybe it hits a wall, maybe it is destroyed, or maybe it just lunges back at you and you dodge, and it dodges, so you lunge, and it dodges, then it lunges and you lunge and you miss and so on and so on, and so on.  Eventually, one of you hits the wall and is destroyed.  Sometimes it's you, sometimes it's the particle, but that is the only way the dance ends.  If the particle is destroyed, then more appear to resume the dance.  And you are often dancing this dance with three to four partners, not just one.

Yes, the particles sway and you can sometimes anticipate where their momentum will take them, but not always.  Hell, not often.  You can try your hardest to lure them, knock them, or even just lead them into the bonus chambers to score maximum points, but you can never reliably get them in there.  You can set a decoy right outside the entrance to the chamber or right next to the control rods, but there is no guarantee the particles are going to do anything other than sway around, dancing to and fro.  And so, you must dance.

And this is why you always think that next time you will do better.  It's like the Lotto.  But all the while it is mocking you with its sinister dance, it is also seducing you into playing it more and more.  I've rage quit this game so many times, my controllers won't speak to me any more, and yet still I play another game.  You can play for 15 minutes or 15 seconds, but every game is new and different and you have no idea how long you are going to last.
This is my personal best shattering score submission for the High Score Club.  Too bad another cat has already beaten it 6x over!

It's unique, infinitely challenging, loaded with unlimited replay value and eschews any set strategy in favor of madcap reflexes and instinct.  I cannot name too many other games that can make that claim and successfully back it up.  That is why I say Reactor is probably one of the greatest video games ever created.

Oddly enough we are played Reactor this week in the Atariage High Score Club.  You should drop by and play with us, is good fun!

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