Atlantis - Atari VCS, Vic-20, Atari 8-bit, Odyssey², Intellivision, Windows, Mac OS X, PlayStation 2, PSP, iOS, Android (1982)
Imagic has the distinction of being console gaming's second-ever third party developer, having come out of the gate running not long after the smoke had cleared in the legal battle between Atari and Activision. Founded by former Atari marketing VP Bill Grubb, and fronted by a team of renegade programmers from both Atari and Mattel electronics, Imagic was born in 1981, and developed a staggering number of games during the boom in 82-83, after which they were hit hard by the crash, briefly tried to stick it out by shifting focus to home computers, but by 86, their luck had run out. Much like all those other guys who have also been on the moon, Imagic's name has become largely forgotten, or worse still, mispronounced. (It's Im-Magic, not Eye-Magic, as you've probably heard) While their most successful title was the simple yet satisfying Demon Attack, their biggest legacy is the Atlantis series. Officially speaking, said "series" is actually only two games, Atlantis and Cosmic Ark, and even these two games don't are anything alike. They are, however, both part of a larger story, in which the "events" of Cosmic Ark supposedly take place shortly after those of Atlantis. Unofficially, there's a pseudo-sequel as well, though this doesn't really fit anywhere in the timeline.
On the surface, it's hard to imagine how a game like this could be anyone's legacy, or that there was ever a time when it seemed at all original. At its heart, Atlantis is a simple shooter in which the player must defend the fabled underwater city from wave after wave of hostile ships. Well, okay, the instruction manual refers to them as the Gorgon fleet, but for the sake of saving face, I'm going to go ahead and just call them aliens.
Instead of merely coming at you directly, the alien ships must pass over the area several times for some reason, each time getting just a bit closer to the surface, and when they're within range, they'll take out one of the various Atlantean structures along the bottom of the screen, and then take off. Needless to say, it's your job to keep this from happening; equally needless to say, when you run out of things to defend, the game is over. The player controls three small turrets, one in the middle of the screen that points straight up, and two on either side, which point at diagonally toward the opposite ends of the screen. Like the turrets themselves, which are completely fixed in place, the direction in which they aim cannot be adjusted, and you can only have two projectiles on screen at a time. This may seem a bit restrictive, and I suppose it is, but it also does a great job of placing the emphasis on pinpoint timing. Like any great shooter from this era, the key to success is in observing the speed of the incoming enemy, and firing in advance just enough that they crash into your bullets.
The controls feel a bit awkward at first, but there really isn't a more logical way of doing it with the 2600 joystick. Pressing the fire button alone will trigger the centre turret, which is intuitive enough; pressing the fire button while holding the joystick either to the left or to the right will trigger the corresponding side turret. This part can be a bit confusing, since the left turret fires to the right at a 45 degree angle and the right fires to the left in the same manner. Since hitting a target with the side turrets is harder to do than with the centre turret, more points are awarded, and this being an Atari game, getting the highest score is pretty much the whole point of the game. There is, however, another reason to practice hitting targets from the side turrets, as the centre turret is the first thing enemy ships take out when within range of the city, which means that unless you've gotten the timing down the side turrets, you're going to be severely crippled as soon as you make your first mistake. The centre turret, as well as other decimated bits of the city, will be replaced at the end of each wave, provided you've scored enough (10,000) points. You also earn an additional 500 points for anything still standing.
Waves last only a few seconds each, and keep getting just a bit faster each time, in an endless succession until you lose. The gradual increase in speed allows for the game's difficulty to increase at a steady yet reasonable pace, or at least it would, were it not for a certain variety of small, fast ships that appear with increasing frequency over time. These ships are much harder to hit, due to their size and speed, and they do the same amount of damage as one of the bigger ships, making them an immediate priority target anytime they appear. If you do manage to hit one, the ensuing explosion will take out any other alien ships on the screen. Still, while their presence can be a bit frustrating, especially when it costs you the game, they serve an important purpose. Without them, it would be theoretically possible for someone to master the timing on the centre turret, and plough through wave after wave. By having an enemy that's much harder to hit, and will inevitably target the centre turret first, it weakens your ability to rely on the easy method, thus forcing you to play the game as it was intended. Little tricks like this to discourage you from playing it safe would become an Imagic signature.
There are four game variations on the cart. The first is the standard game, which is what I've described up to now. The second is the same, but with the centre turret permanently disabled. The third is a two player co-op game, which is actually kind of interesting. This game plays pretty much the same way as game two, but with each turret controlled by the fire button on either joystick, allowing an individual player to man each one. What's really great about this mode is that you're still only allowed two projectiles on screen at a time, so both players really need to co-ordinate their efforts. This mode also allows for a single player to hold a controller in either hand, eliminating awkward joystick commands for selecting your turret, giving the game a different feel. If you're playing on an emulator and can easily re-map the two fire buttons, then this is definitely the way to go. For some strange reason, the right turret is rapid fire while the left isn't, and the manual claims that this is to allow players of different skill levels play together, but since there's such a hard limit to the number of projectiles, this seems more like a hindrance. The fourth and last setting is more or less an easy mode, in which the difficulty between waves barely increases at all.
Of course, the graphics and sound are pretty sparse (I think the "for its time" argument goes without saying) but what's there serves its function pretty well. The explosions are fairly crisp, and the different ship models are well designed, and everything looks clean and tight. From the look of the domed cities, the stylized font for the score counter, and the little ship seen escaping the wreckage at the end of the game, it all gives Atlantis a great deal more personality than your average Atari 2600 shooter, and it's this that has led to its lasting appeal.
After the success of the 2600 game, Atlantis was ported to the Intellivision, Odyssey², Commodore Vic-20 and Atari's line of 8-bit home computers. Of these, the o2 version takes a nasty hit in just about every category. The graphics this time around are just a bit bland, though there's a little more variety in ship designs, the sound is passable at best, the centre turret has been removed, and a screen clearing bomb has been added. Strangest of all, instead of taking advantage of the o2's native keyboard, you still control by tilting the joystick toward the turret of choice and pressing the one and only fire button. At least the o2 joystick isn't as stiff as the 2600's, but it's really cold comfort at best. The Atari 8-bit version on the other hand, looks a little nicer than the 2600 one, but plays entirely comparably. The Vic-20 version, with its rolling hills, looks absolutely gorgeous. It also makes use of the keyboard in order to simplify the gameplay, but again omits the centre turret. This version is technically one player only, but can be played co-operatively by having either player man a single turret.
The port to the Intellivision, meanwhile, is practically a different game altogether. While the core is still the same (alien ships orbit several times then fire on the city) the way you go about doing this it this time is by directly controlling a cross-heir, in a style similar to missile command, and like that game, when a projectile hits the aimed-for part of the screen, it explodes, and any enemy ship that flies into the explosion will die. Plus, if a missile collides with a ship en route to reaching its target point, that too will count as a hit, which adds a lot more depth to the way you line up and time your shots. This version, like the Vic-20 and o2, has the centre turret removed, but given the added versatility, it's not really missed, and since the Intellivision controller has more than one fire button, each turret again has its own trigger.
Adding even more depth to this version, the structure in the middle houses a spaceship, similar in design to the one seen escaping after you lose, which can be flown around the screen to confront the enemy ships directly for brief periods of time. This ship is launched by pressing 0 on the keypad, is controlled manually with the directional disk, and can shoot either straight left or right by pressing the corresponding fire button, making it considerably more effective than the turrets. However, it has a limited amount of fuel (as represented by the number below the docking bay) which drops continuously as long as the ship is out, and regenerates when docked. You also lose fuel when hit, and when you run out, the ship explodes, and doesn't come back until the start of the next round.
The enemy ships have also been revamped in this version, and the way the individual waves attack is much more sophisticated. Each wave consists of only one type of ship, but there's more variety in ships overall, and this time around, they don't all necessarily move in a straight line across the screen, but will often swerve up and down slightly. Each stage is broken up into three different times of day, early in the morning (bright, blue sky) evening (cloudy, grey sky) and then a third taking place in the dark of night. During this last part, the screen goes black and two search lights scan the area, with the enemy ships visible in silhouette only when passing through the light. When the city finally lay in ruins, your score, along with the number of days you survived, will be displayed. The graphics are easily the best of the different ports. They're bright and crisp, with clever lighting effects that give this game just that extra push over the edge.
Despite what the name might suggest, Atlantis II isn't so much a sequel as it is a rom hack; and a last minute act of desperation from a group of men who were just trying to save face. Nowadays, a game like this might be called "Atlantis: Championship Edition.” It warrants its own separate entry in this article for two reasons: First, it's a major collectors item, and second, it's a great story.
It all started when, in an attempt to drum up some publicity, Imagic decided to host a contest, to see who out there, was the true master of Atlantis. The top four would be flown to Bermuda to compete in a showdown for a top prize of ten grand! The three runners up received a thousand dollars each, and there were t-shirts and whatnot as consolation prizes. Entry forms were available wherever games were sold, and all you had to do was provide photographic evidence of your best Atlantis score, along with a proof of purchase, and you were entered. As far as gaming contests go, this one looked like a pretty good idea, there was just one little hitch along the way.
What Imagic never anticipated was the amount of energy its own fans were willing to put into the contest. Soon after launching, many players (or, technically speaking, at least more than four) sent in photographic evidence of achieving the maximum possible score. There was no way of picking four kids in particular that wouldn't have resulted in some level of public embarrassment, and there was certainly no way that they were going to fly every kid with a maxed score down to Bermuda for the big showdown. They were already dropping 13K on cash prizes alone, and plane tickets don't grow on trees (well, yes, I know the actual tickets are printed on paper, so they do indeed... well, you know what I mean!), so they would have to think of a cheap way of breaking the tie, and fast.
Thus, after the contest deadline was up, everyone who had maxed out the score received a free copy of Atlantis II. The game, right down to the box art (which is just an Atlantis box, with a tiny sticker on the front announcing that it is actually Atlantis II) is nearly identical to the first with only a few noticeable differences. For one, it's a much harder game, and hitting enemy ships awards much less points, and the font that shows the score has also been altered in order to prevent kids from cheating. The idea was, players would have only a couple of days (shipping delays were taken into account) to practice this new, harder game, and send in their best score, and the top four scores from those entries would be used to determine who got to go to the big showdown. As a bonus, those kids all got to keep their copies of Atlantis II, on top of any other prizes they might have won.
For this reason, no one is entirely sure how many copies of Atlantis II are floating around out there, especially when the artwork on the cartridge itself is identical to that of Atlantis. Thankfully, the ROM has been dumped and is widely available, so those of who are purely curious (or those of who've mastered Atlantis and are looking for something more challenging) can give the game a try. If, on the other hand, you're a collector, this is a buyer beware item, because you'll have no way of knowing whether or not the cart is authentically Atlantis II unlit you've popped it into a VCS and tried it out.
Remember the Game Over animation at the end of Atlantis? That little spaceship that takes off into the sky after the city lay in ruins? Well, as it turns out, that little ship reunites with a much larger mothership, the titular Cosmic Ark. It's your job to journey with this ship through the cosmos, and as the biblical name of the vessel might suggest, you stop at various planets along the way and collect two specimens of the local wildlife, then travel further into the vastness of space and repeat, ad infinitum. Obviously, this is a far cry from the more typical "shoot the bad guys" approach of Atlantis.
The gameplay is divided into two separate phases. In the first part, the Cosmic Ark is flying through space, and you need to protect it from incoming debris, which rather humorously fly towards the giant ship from either directly above, below or to the left and right, and in a straight line, and slow down as they get close. All you have to do is press the joystick in the direction of the approaching object to blast it to bits. After doing this enough times, the Ark will find a planet and fly towards the surface. At this point, the small ship (the one from Atlantis) will emerge in order to collect two of whatever animal happens to be roaming the surface. You use the joystick to navigate your ship, and when you're above one of the animals, press the fire button to activate your tractor beam. Once you've hit one of the animals, keep the fire button held down, and press up on the joystick to pull it into your ship. The farther you are from the surface, the longer it takes for the animal to pulled onboard. You can't move while this is going on, and that becomes important later. You can either take the animals up to the ark one at a time, or if you're feeling cocky, grab both at once. Upon completion of this task, the Ark will leave orbit, and set off for another planet, and the cycle repeats.
The collection phase of the game takes place on a timer. Take too long and an alarm will warn you of an incoming asteroid. When this happens, you must dock your ship as fast as possible so you can be ready to blast the asteroid before it hits the ark. Afterwards, regardless of whether or not you've collected both animals, the Ark will leave orbit, blast a few more asteroids, then return to finish the job. This process will go on as many times as it takes to collect both animals on the surface of the planet.
Each time this task is completed successfully, the game gets just a little bit harder. More debris flies at you in space, and planet surfaces will begin (starting at level 2) to have laser turrets set up to blast your little ship out of the sky. These turrets will move up and down slowly, and fire at a steady rhythm, and with each stage, they'll be either a bit faster, or able to reach a slightly larger portion of the screen. If your ship is hit, any animals you failed to return to the ark will be lost, though this doesn't appear to cost you anything other than time.
Much in the way that Atlantis uses buildings in lieu of a lives counter, Cosmic Ark uses a fuel gauge. You start the game off with a full complement of 40 fuel units, and the game ends after you get hit by an asteroid while out of fuel. Firing your laser costs you 1 unit, but hitting an asteroid rewards you with 1 unit, so it balances out. Getting hit by an asteroid will cost you 10 units, but bringing an animal to the Ark rewards you with 10 units, and on top of this, transporting both animals to the ark before the alarm sounds will automatically refill the entire fuel gauge.
Because of this, the difficulty balance of the game is very hard to pin down. The controls are actually a lot more intuitive than they were on Atlantis, but the game itself can be pretty rough going at times. Animals, for instance, have this annoying habit of running to the far end of the screen, where your tractor beam can't reach, and you'll need to think very strategically about where to position yourself in order to collect them later on, when trying to avoid getting shot, while at the same time being completely immobile until the animal is on board the ship. Then, while all this is going on, the game turns around and becomes insanely generous with fuel replenishment, which tips the difficulty back over to the easy end. At times, it can feel like you've been playing forever without making any real progress, but without getting any closer to actually losing either. Like most every game on the Atari, there's a points system in play, but it doesn't really matter, because Cosmic Ark is based more around achieving the objective than racking up points. Sure, you can see who nails that high score, but the real sign of progression is in the ability to reach farther planets.
There are 6 variations available on the cart. As usual, mode 1 is standard, while 2 is called Meteor Shower, and is basically the space portion of the game, over and over again, with fuel rewards at the end of each wave, and I can't stress enough how boring this mode is. Mode 4 is Advanced mode, which is really just a frantically sped up version of standard, which again tips the difficulty balance over to the nearly unplayable side, and 5 is Advanced Meteor Shower, which is the same deal. Modes 3 and 6 are two player variations (of normal and advanced, respectively) which are handled rather strangely in that one player is responsible for playing the space flight part of the game, while the other player is responsible for collecting the animals, with the right difficulty switch being used to determine which player does what. This delegation of tasks is certainly a unique way to get both players involved, but it also means that each player is completely helpless whenever the other player is at the helm. The left difficulty switch changes the dimensions of the Ark, though the difference is marginal.
The graphics in Cosmic Ark are quite impressive, even if a little cheesy at times. There's nothing in this game that doesn't look like what it's supposed to be, but it's those tiny animals that practically steal the show. Even though they're only about 5x5 yellow squares, they do come across as quite lively, and come in many diverse varieties. Supposedly, later copies of the game even went the extra mile and allowed players to disable the slightly distracting star-field in the background by setting the color switch to the black and white setting. Even more noticeable is the sound. While it still contains the same assortment of beeps, squeals, and laser noises that all manage to not be annoying, the sounds this time are far better integrated into the gameplay. There are alarms to warn of incoming asteroids and little ping noises to confirm that various tasks have been completed successfully. Laser turrets on the surface of planets will fire at a steady rhythm, and it helps tremendously to keep said rhythm in mind while planning your movement. This nuance would go on to become an important feature in No Escape!
Cosmic Ark is a very ambitious little game. Unfortunately, it's held back, at least in part, by the limitations of the 2600 hardware, and ultimately feels a bit rushed, with the wacky difficulty balance being it's Achilles' heel. In the end, it didn't quite live up to its predecessor, though it certainly has much deeper gameplay, and remains an interesting footnote as an early example of programmer Rob Fulop's sideways approach to game design. A third game in the saga was never released, though this game ends with much the same cliffhanger as did Atlantis, with that little spaceship once again escaping at the last minute as the Ark was destroyed.
Zellers is a Canadian big box department store, similar in concept to Wal-Mart or Target, and as any child unfortunate enough to receive gifts courtesy of "Zeddy's Toyland" can tell you, they have a history of stocking their shelves with extremely cheap knock-offs of popular toys. Back in the early 80s, this policy extended to video games. All the games in Zellers' line were little more than Taiwanese pirate copies of popular games. Earth Attack was Defender, Laser Volley was Laser Gates, Busy Police was Keystone Kapers, and so on.
In a way, to call Ocean City Defender a rip-off of Atlantis would give it too much credit, as it's the exact same game, with the Imagic name removed and "Funvision" in its place, and a few very minor graphical changes, and even this was more effort than most of these games put towards differentiating themselves from the games they copy. The upside to all this, if you want to look at it that way, is that Zellers was able to significantly undercut the cost of legit software (note the $6.99 price point on the box) while selling what I suppose you could call a "comparable product," though this might be stretching the definition of the term. The downside, of course, is that the makers of the real Atlantis game received absolutely no royalties for the sale of these pirated versions, and they may have even caused further confusion among consumers who might not understand that, under normal circumstances, there'd be a correlation between cost and quality, wrongly encouraging them to buy more six dollar games, potentially causing disillusionment with the system overall. Alright, so that last point is a bit speculative.
Needless to say, Atari sued, and eventually put the kibosh on Zellers' little counterfeit game ring, and the whole ugly mess was quietly swept under the rug. To this day, it's still not clear how many games there are in the Zellers line, and the company sure isn't about to set the record straight, though it's believed that most, if not all Zellers titles have surfaced. For a while, they were thought to be rare and highly collectible, until it turned out that most copies were floating around in Canada, and are easier to track down than previously believed. Boxed copies are another story, but that's collectors for you. More than anything else, the Zellers game line is an interesting bit of trivia.