Oy. Here we find ourselves in Underwhelmsville again, population 7800. Like I mentioned before in The Golfyssey, the Atari 7800 was shelved for two years before it was released in an attempt to compete with none other than the legendary NES. The graphics are shitty, regardless of how many terrible-looking sprites this system can handle on-screen at a time. The sound is also an abomination, because they took the putrid sounding Atari 2600 chip and then tossed two of those fuckers into this console. Now you can grimace and reach for the TV mute button in truly awful stereo!
Still, fun games can exist for crappy consoles. “Ninja Golf” is a good example for this very system. And you’ll be thrilled and excited to the point of yawning to learn that I’ve found a stand-alone emulator that lets me play my collection of Atari 7800 games the way they were meant to be played. It’s called ProSystem, and not only can I now play “Ninja Golf” without the game glitching up and crashing at the first boss, I can play some games that MESS wouldn’t even run at all. To add to the fun, ProSystem emulates the better quality sound chips that were inserted into many game cartridges so that they wouldn’t sound like complete fucking horse diarrhea shooting out of a rusted tin funnel.
I also had a enlightening experience playing a surprisingly fun game called “Basketbrawl”.
This is what the game’s title screen looks like when I play it in my version of MESS:
The game itself has the same colour scheme. I always thought to myself “This game is pretty fun, but why is everybody purple and blue? Is this the rough side of Sesame Street?”
“Basketbrawl” was actually the very first game I tested on the ProSystem emulator, and to my pleasant surprise, the blocky drawings and sprites are supposed to be people! Who knew!
They sure look more like people to me now anyway.
But enough of silly combo sports-fighting games. We’re here for 8-bit racing action! Or a reasonable facsimile thereof!
Water Ski (1988)
Wow, that cover just screams exhilaration. It reminds me of the exciting cover for the game “Briefcase Design Simulator 97” that I used to be addicted to before I got counseling. If you need a moment to calm your nerves and catch your breath after taking in that cover, I’ll be here waiting.
Okay. Welcome back.
The first thing you will notice about this game is that it uses the out-of tune properties of that Atari 7800 sound system to blast your vulnerable ears with some of the most wretched “music” to ever come out of a pair of speakers. Have a listen to this, it’s right at the beginning of the video. I can understand getting away with out-of-tune sound chips in the 1970s, but come fucking on!
Thankfully, there is no in-game music. The premise of “Water Ski” is to steer a speedboat through an obstacle course and lead your attached skier on to some ramps so he can make some totally rad jumps.
And these screenshots will serve mainly as a demonstration of what happens when you are not successful.
This is attempt number two at the first jump. I had actually never realized that these orange things were ramps before I watched that video above. I had always just thought you needed to guide your boat and skier through all these obstacles in a certain time limit.
Here we go! I made a jump.
And another one!
This game is quite tricky because not only do you have to watch your skier…
… you also have to remember to steer the boat.
And of course, crashing starts you back at the start of the race, and I ran out of lives.
Adding to the trickiness factor are the steering controls. Joystick forward speeds up, back slows down. Pretty standard. Left and right on the joystick steer the boat. The two joystick buttons control steering on the skier, which I also didn’t realize until I watched that video. But the left button makes him move right and the right button makes him move left.
I don’t think I will ever try to really beat this game, because there are just too many flaws that ruin it for me. The fucked-up steering for the skier is the main one. But this is another one of those games that I can see a lot of potential for other people to enjoy. If you can get over the awkward steering, and if you don’t mind the crappy graphics and nightmare-inducingly-bad sound, then you might actually enjoy this one.
Fatal Run (1990)
This one can be filed under the combat/driving category. It can also be filed under the “far-fetched premise” category. If we can predict our future with this game, in the year 2089, a radioactive comet will smash into Earth and all but destroy humanity.
Then some guy who drives a hundred-year-old car with machine guns mounted in the front will drive from some secret base to try to rescue the remaining few living humans and give them a radiation vaccine.
And there sure will be a lot of presumable able-bodied humans around to try and stop him so they can get that vaccine for themselves.
Now that I’ve read up on this game, it sounds like “Black Viper” for the Amiga borrowed more than a few ideas. This isn’t anywhere near as good as “Black Viper”, but it isn’t bad.
This title screen is probably the most impressive graphical display I’ve seen on the Atari 7800. It’s too bad the actual game can’t look this good on that hardware.
Here’s what you get when you play. The view is third-person, and it’s not all that bad – if you’re comparing it to the Atari 2600 version. That’s about the only way that you could call these good graphics. If you were given an Atari 2600 as a child in 1977, then locked away in some dungeon for nine years and given an Atari 7800, I’m sure you’re traumatized mind would be blown by the improved visuals.
Control is standard joystick based – up and down control speed, left and right steer. The left joystick button switches weapons while the right button fires them.
The sound is pretty decent. There are simulated car and racing and weapon sounds, and a sort-of musical soundtrack of a neat little drum beat. Can’t play notes out of tune when it’s just beats.
Just look at the wonderful way the road is drawn on the screen as it trails off in the distance! At least this game has rolling hills that add some more depth to the action on-screen. The area at the bottom of the screen shows you all kinds of useful data.
You can see your RPM, speed, time elapsed, enemy car location, damage meter, fuel gauge and weapon count.
That blue text area shows not only what weapon you currently have selected, but also the occasional important bit of info.
The text scrolls by, and it’s rather slow to change. You need to take advantage of all types of weaponry in this game, and waiting for the text to scroll by and update isn’t fast enough. It’s best to memorize which order they cycle through and press the left button accordingly.
Every car you encounter on the road is an enemy that can be taken out. You can see the flash of my machine gun muzzle above.
And the last bit of the destruction animation after I’ve destroyed an enemy car.
Here’s a blast from the smoke screen.
And a shot of the oil slick. Even though all the enemy cars can be taken out, don’t try to get them all. The main focus is to get to your destination as fast as you can.
You will see the city appear on the horizon as you approach it.
And then you get this side-view count of all the civilians you’ve saved. And a kid with a fucking balloon could only be found in an Atari game.
Most of the people on the side of the road look kind of goofy. Some of them explode and turn into tombstones, signifying that they are casualties because you were too damn slow.
After this brief glory ride, you get to hang out in a shop for a while and choose some upgrades to your car with some sort of cash reward you get for saving those goofy-looking people. If you bring the arrow cursor on top of each item, you can find out what it is. Bringing the cursor down to your car at the bottom will give you the status of various systems so you know what you must replace or fix.
I’m gonna go with my usual option for these kind of games… MORE FUCKING SPEED.
You get another side-view of the road out of town, for some reason. This is kind of pointless.
The second stage has me racing through part of Utah, I believe. You can see my one and only missile being fired at nothing, solely so I could get it on a screenshot.
Here’s what the “shield” looks like. It reminds me of something rather specific.
Believe it or not, once I’d taken that screenshot, I wanted to get to a game over screen, so I started to play shitty and try to smash into enemy cars.
It didn’t work. So I loaded up on weapons.
I tried the same strategy on the third stage.
This seems to be a very easy game if trying to get as damaged as possible raises me from 25% to only 33% damaged.
And you know, these people I’m saving are holding up remarkably well for victims of acute radiation poisoning.
Okay, stage four, and I finally got a damaged bumper!
And it seems like trying to hit these cars on purpose only makes them want to avoid me. Maybe this is more real of a simulation than I had assumed.
Here comes something that looks like a road sign… in the middle of the road. I hit one of these things and didn’t crash, so I think it may be a power-up. There are power-ups scattered along your path too. Some give extra armor, some more ammo and fuel, etc. This is probably also where “Black Viper” got the idea.
Fuck! There’s the city! I’m not doing a very good job of purposefully dying now in this game.
And suddenly the shop has a TV, and I’m pointing at the news.
If they’re still launching space shuttles in 2089, I think 100 year-old cars might not be so anachronistic.
“And in other news today…”
“He’s hit that ball into the pixels!”
“In other news, pixelated gelatinous blobs of rust red come out of sky-blue tubes!”
I kind of wonder what the TV was all about, but no matter… my quest to destroy this car continues!
Success! I knew I could do it!
That’s what I’m talkin’ about!
Oh, Atari. My name has four letters!
So that’s probably the most graphically intense game for the Atari 7800. I know I’ve ragged on how bad they look, but remember, this system came out in 1986 and was already old technology. This wouldn’t have even been impressive in 1984 when it was supposed to come out. 1982 – maybe. Atari should have tried to make a console out of Atari ST innards. Now that would have been interesting.
But as a wise man once said, crappy consoles can have fun games. I actually enjoyed this one despite the limitations of the hardware, and it’s definitely more enjoyable than not. I do have to recommend you check it out if you’re a total Atari fan, or if you’ve got a 7800 at home. But of course, this whole concept and gameplay was done far, far better when “Black Viper” for the Amiga came out. That’s where you should look if this is your kind of game.
Motor Psycho (1990)
This is straight-up motorcycle racing, and it’s a good game. When I play it though, I still can’t help think about how bad the Atari 7800 is compared to the NES or the Master System, or even home computers that were released years before.
Oddly enough, the brief intro music doesn’t sound out of tune. Either the game developers were careful to choose notes that would sound okay when played on those horrible sound chips, or this is one of those games with an improved sound chip inside the cartridge. I think it’s probably the former.
Track selection seems to be limited to four, which is kind of like “Pole Position”, I guess.
The game is laid out a lot like “Pole Position” too. In fact, there is a “Pole Position II” for the Atari 7800, if you’re a fan of that game.
After getting counted in, you’re off and racing. There’s no qualifying lap, just the race. The right button accelerates while you press and decelerates when you release it. Joystick up and down shift to high or low gear. The left button makes your motorcycle jump straight up into the fucking air. Come the fuck on Atari! You were doing so well with this one, and then you had to pull some zany-ass goofy shtick to destroy the feel of realism that you had so carefully tried to construct.
Oh well. At least the “destruction” animations when you crash are elaborate and very well done.
This section of road has pylons strewn about. And again, it only makes me think of “Super Cycle” for the Commodore 64. That game came out four years before this one on a system that came out four years before this one. And everything I could think to say about the pylons in “Super Cycle” is better than the way they’re handled in “Motor Psycho”.
Here’s me jumping. This is just ridiculous. Jumping doesn’t belong in a motorcycle racing game. Unless it’s the single exception that I’m thinking about that I will talk about in a few weeks. But here, it doesn’t fit. You also jump high into the air when you drive across what I think are oil patches. How the fuck does that make sense?
There’s the finish line approaching. If you make it in time…
…you will get more time to race.
All in all, the graphics are about on par with “Fatal Run”, and they’re probably the best you’re going to see on the Atari 7800.
The bike does handle well, and after some practice, I was able to take turns at more or less full speed.
It is a worthwhile game if you already have the hardware. It’s not horrible or anything.
And again I do have to mention how elaborate the crash animations are. The 7800 could handle lots of sprites on-screen at a time. That was about the only thing they could brag about.
So you get shit flying everywhere.
Here’s another crash.
Except I wonder where all those wheels came from. I suspect the animation might have been made for a regular car racing game that was later changed to a motorcycle racing game. Either that or none of the developers realized that a motorbike only has two wheels.
Eventually, I did run out of time, and for every other racer I passed, I was given 1000 points as a bonus. It says “0” in the screenshot because it counted down. I swear I passed bikes in this race.
And that’s it.
So, a noble effort by Atari. But what could a game studio really do with such an underpowered joke of a console as the 7800? The only thing it was really good for – and the main reason why many people bought one at all – was because it was backward compatible with 99% of Atari 2600 games.
Let’s just extend that tangent I introduced earlier, the one about Atari releasing a console based on their ST hardware. Atari had done this before when it released the Atari 5200, which was basically a modified Atari 8-bit computer packaged into a console form. It came out at a very bad time and had controllers designed by Satan himself, but imagine if Atari had left the 7800 in 1984’s rubbish heap where it belonged and instead modified the ST hardware to make a sixteen-bit games console.
This would have put them well ahead of everyone else who came out with 16-bit systems, and it might just have brought Atari back to a prominent position in the home console market. And the music wouldn’t have sounded like shit!
But people got the 7800 instead. Not a lot of people, mind you. If you do own one, and you like racing games, these three games are worth adding to your collection. They’re fun to play despite whatever defects I griped about. If you want to check them out on an emulator, download ProSystem. If you want to play these games with even shittier sound and fucked-up colours and you can find MESS version .037b floating around, then give that one a try. If you do, you can play “Basketbrawl” with muppets!