Space Invaders

Space Encounters

Space Encounters

Classic, of course. Perfectly calibrated. You wonder, should I eliminate the enemies row by row? Clearly I should, because that gives me more time long-term. Or should I go column by column? After I shoot one guy, it’s easiest to shoot the guy right behind him, so this makes sense practically if not in an ideal world. Which of these is best if we are concerned about minimizing the amount of damage to our shields? We need our shields. Like Centipede, this combines mutually unmaximizable objectives with a milieu that rewards patience rather than frantic reflexes.

Space Encounters
Like its near-namesake, there’s a colored overlay on the screen which helps define the zones of the game. But the important part of this game is the controller. It’s fantastic! You actually lean forward to push your ship forward, and pull back to pull it back. It’s also a steering wheel and of course you shoot with it. The controller is so heavy, requiring physical effort to manipulate, that it gives a better feeling of being within the space of the game than any other game I’ve played. And the other interesting feature is the lack of enemies. There really aren’t many things to shoot. Which is good because to shoot them you have to get really close, or at least I did since there seems to be no way to aim. The haptic controller and realistic-in-a-way randomness make this a unique experience.

This is a space shooter with a huge map. Your ship stays in the same place, and the background scrolls behind you. This was revolutionary at the time – before Sinistar! There’s a mini-map next to the background, telling you where you are, and where the ships you need to blow up are. It’s quite optional whether you blow up the smaller things – they aren’t that much of a risk, though it helps if there’s fewer of them. In addition to the free scrolling and the mini-map, this game pioneered having a computer voice, and pioneered the continue screen! Players must have been infuriated that a continue screen had been possible all these years. But how is the gameplay? Excellent. The ships you need to blow up have one spot in the middle you need to hit. If you approach from the right angle you can destroy the ship right away – otherwise its 8 projectiles (which you can also destroy, rendering it helpless, if you want to do things gradually) shoot at you. Some need to be approached from above/below, and some from left/right.

Exceeded my high expectations. You’ve got the ordinary mushrooms you have to destroy. Then more appear from the fragments of any unkilled centipedes. Then more are dropped by these snake guys that go sideways, and by these other guys that just fall accompanied by a loud BLOOP. With the interplay of these various sources of trouble you need to be reactive, while still focusing on eliminating the mushrooms at the bottom of the screen first. Then in carrying OUT this challenging combination of tasks, you use a trackball and a fire button. You generally move left to right only, which seems odd for a trackball, but it’s great because you can fine-tune your speed to catch up with or overtake your foes. And whacking the ball to go as fast as possible, unlike in most games where it’s a sign of desperation or a cocky flourish, is actually a strategy when you want to overtake the centipede before it makes a U-turn. Finally, the ball’s 3D capabilities soon become essential, when the creatures reach the bottom of the screen and you need to shift paradigms and go above them. A real game of skill.

Donkey Kong
Frankly it is amazing that this is where the empire started. The enemies move slowly. Mario moves slower. The enemies follow rules that are frustratingly unclear. It’s unclear whether it’s safe or deadly to be in a certain pixel. There are no surprises except death. The action once you reach the top of the screen is a little different from the action you take to get there, but not different enough. Even among single-screen platformers, which I never spend much time on, this is lacking.

Donkey Kong 3: Where Donkey Kong becomes King Hippo

Donkey Kong 3: Where Donkey Kong becomes King Hippo

Donkey Kong Jr.
An improvement over the original. I like how you climb slowly on one vine, but if you grab two vines you climb quickly. That adds a little complexity. The enemies don’t follow clear rules again, which is now more “caution-inducing” than “maddening” despite increased speed and difficulty. And right off the bat, Mario has gone from good guy to bad guy! Maybe there’s a reveal at the end showing Mario was framed or impersonated, as has become so popular in later decades of the franchise?

Donkey Kong 3
Where’s Mario? Instead, there’s some Fix-It Felix looking guy. Where’s Donkey Kong? He’s just sitting there taunting me. This isn’t a platformer? I just shoot these bugs? Wasn’t this a Game & Watch game? It was! I call shenanigans on Donkey Kong 3 and deny its existence.  The progression of the franchise has a lacuna here.

A “best of” of various shooters. Slick and enjoyable. If it was less predictable or had any mash-up qualities this would be a great one to own at home.

I played this for a while without reading the instructions. All I perceived was a NICE use of inertia. Inertia is satisfying. Upon finally learning the rules it became an exhilarating experience, somehow enhanced by my inability to figure out why I was sometimes zooming super-speedily [horizontally speaking] and sometimes couldn’t build up the slightest head of steam. The basic premise is you crash into the enemies and whoever is higher, vertically speaking, wins, that being the rule of the lance. An epiphany hit after a while: This is almost the same as the paradigm of “jump on your enemies, otherwise any contact with them is fatal.” Nice new perspective. I just wish the look of the enemies or other graphics would change between levels. Maybe it does after a while.


Here’s something I could play for hours. Why aren’t there more classic games where you walk from room to room? The Guardian Legend‘s indoor segments owe a debt to Berzerk. The “walk from room to room” function allows you to ease into difficulty levels. If there are too many robots to shoot, you can bail out, leave the room and come back. If the bouncy smiley face pens you in, run away and leave the room and come back. You can play this game evasively And the robots talk! And they make fun of you! The only problem is, you can’t touch the walls. I think it would be just as hard to shoot the robots if you COULD touch the walls, so dying as a result of wall contact is a constant source of frustration. The robots are challenging enough despite their slow pace. No need for even slower, even deadlier enemies in the form of load-bearing constructional elements.

Berzerk: "Intruder Alert. Stop the Humanoid"

Berzerk: “Intruder Alert. Stop the Humanoid”

This is the one game that let me get a high score. So right off the bat, it’s recommended. That being said, it would be nice if the stages were somewhat randomized. In theory. It would be nice for me if the game were EXACTLY LIKE IT IS because this is the game I have mastered, relatively speaking. This game was lodged in a Mario Bros. cabinet so I don’t know what the instructions look like, but it’s probably hard to explain what the buttons do. You can push one button to accelerate, but don’t push it for too long or you overheat. You can push the other button to maintain speed, or to accelerate but less effectively but with no risk of overheation. Also, on my 298749823948th play, my little bikey fella suddenly turned yellow and black, and the rules regarding overheating SIMPLY DID NOT APPLY. That was awesome. According to a YouTube comment and no other sources, this happens if you unbrokenly wreck five other guys without wrecking yourself. I couldn’t do it again, but it was awesome. All this game needs is well-known Nintendo characters to be the racers. I would have played 23974239842398742 times instead of merely 298749823948 if I could race as Kirby or A Boy’s Blob or Alex from River City Ransom. Has any chapter of the Mario Party saga EVER included an Excitebike level?

Marble Madness
One of my favorite NES games so I can’t quite judge this one except to say the joystick makes a lot more sense than the D-pad for a diagonally oriented game. Much like Excitebike, the gameplay is a few discrete stages and it would be nice if you could start at a later stage instead of wasting time in lower stages again and again. And this is such a good idea for a game that it’s a missed opportunity. Make longer stages. Randomize the geography a bit (for NES at least). Why not have 3-minute-long stages? You get more margin for error and more gameplay.

This game is super hard and the enemies are grotesque and off-putting. Nonetheless, I like the unified color scheme, and the game advances slow enough that you can memorize what to do pretty well.

Zaxxon: Maybe the 8-way joystick that comes with the handheld game works better.

Zaxxon: Maybe the 8-way joystick that comes with the handheld version works better.

Kind of like R-Type in that you advance slowly and need to memorize what to do. This one has an even steeper learning curve because of its use of 3D space (traversed diagonally) combined with a controller that doesn’t move diagonally. You move it one way for horizontal, another way for vertical [northwest/southeast[, as you advance toward the northeast. It’s quite hard to know where you are vis-a-vis the other things on the screen (missiles mostly). But it looks great, with walls and fences and buildings that almost compare to the original SimCity. I would have hated this one if I had to pay a quarter per turn.

Robotron 2084
Man, does THIS one look lovely. For a game where each level is a single room it is so nice. So many colors. Each robot enemy is multi-hued. The game has another punishing learning curve and I would detest it if I was paying per death. But it seems like I should be able to figure it out, since you can run in one direction but shoot in another. Two joysticks! The first two levels are simple, and the third lets you get situated, and it’s such a relief to see those brighter-than-bright colors that you don’t need to spend much time in it. On a darker note, there are so many enemies that it sticks with you. It’s a tough world, especially when humans have been enslaved by robots. And in terms of basic logistics, having played Berzerk for so long before this one, it was hard not to wish I could back out of a room and reenter when the robots were proliferating uncontrollably.

So many robots

So many robots

This is a platformer that is easier to figure out than Donkey Kong and less frustrating because it scrolls a bit. The artwork is pretty bad, but I like the door-based combat, and far prefer trampolines to ladders when it comes to inter-platform travel. The doors look pretty terrible, though. In terms of graphics this is the cartoon mouse game equivalent of The Langoliers. If made one year later it would just look like it was done on a budget instead of looking eye-bleedingly cheap.

Total classic. And it’s all about inertia. Your ship has inertia, and so do your enemies. So you can tell what they’re going to do, you can tell they aren’t going to suddenly switch directions unfairly, the whole thing is perfectly calibrated. The button you just pushed combines with your existing trajectory to make smooth curves. Another good thing about the inertia is you don’t necessarily have to shoot in the same direction you’re moving. It would take a while for this to get old.

For a game generally recognized as the first side-scroller, it’s impressive that it already contains the “rescue your allies” motif as well as the shooting motif, and it’s even more impressive that the rescuing mechanism works and is often more fun than shooting at enemies. Who are these enemies anyway? I have to avoid the terrain, I have to rescue people, violence is a low priority.

Eyes: Look, they're eyes

Eyes: Look, they’re eyes

This is just a version of Snake / Rattler Race. Being limited to the Pac-Man style map is not ideal for this kind of game, and the cabinet had a joystick that couldn’t make two turns in quick succession.

Another weird game in Pac-Man maps, this one hit a chord with me. Imagine Pac-Man as a shooter. Yep. You have to shoot the pellets to accumulate them – running over them has no effect. You can run right through the enemies, because what matters is whether you shoot them or they shoot you. [Although by the time you run through one, he’s probably had enough time to shoot you.] The requirement to shoot the dots, and the fact that you can’t shoot THROUGH the dots but your enemies can, makes it challenging despite the enemies’ slow pace. As for why it’s called Eyes, you control an eye. Your looking part is at the front, and the back is red. Your enemies are alien eyes [yellow, green]. Yes, all the characters are Eyes. This game [like Nibbler] was made by a company called Rock-Ola that didn’t really have any hits. I want a copy.

I was a fan of Alleyway on the Game Boy, despite the lack of power-ups. I love the circular version called Vortex on the iPod Classic. In the original [so to speak] Arkanoid, there are power-ups, but they barely improve it because they don’t last long. You should be powered up until you slip up and lose a ball — it’s only fair. Also it would be nice if brick color meant something, but all we get is that the gray ones don’t break.