I Can’t Believe I Wrote About Pinball
“You know what I hate about video games…?”
It’s Sunday night and Andy Rooney is bitching again. Pre-Monday manic depression is setting in. No wonder Rooney is always whining on “Sixty Minutes.” It’s time to hyperspace to some new coordinates. I’m jaded and burnt out, and I need a rush. Sex, drugs or video will do. The first two, I conclude, are out—too many side effects. And no TV game will satisfy me now. I need the high-tech high, the newest of the new to lift me from my Sunday night blues.
Inevitably, I find myself in the local Spaceland in search of the newest of the new. ls Kangaroo by Atari it? Midway’s Tron? Hmmm … let’s see. Right off, Kangaroo looks a lot like Donkey Kong, the game that cost me my last real job. Basically, it’s the same idea as DK except you’re not an Italian plumber rescuing his sister, but a mommy kangaroo retrieving Junior. Start at the bottom and work your way up the usual platforms, ramps and ladders to Junior at the top. There’s no Kong to tangle with, just scads of nasty monkeys (baby Kongs?). The control is also similar to DK’s, but with a twist. Pushing up on the six-way stick causes you (Mommy) to leap-up, upper-right to leap-right, upper-left to leap-left. Left is left, right is right and down is duck, which is particularly useful for avoiding fastball apples pitched by the monkeys. The incorporation of the jump function into the joystick is a neat trick—it simply feels nice. Next to the joystick is a “Punch” feature which allows you to deal knockout blows to the monkeys with the press of a button. This is definitely the funnest part of the game.
Once you’re able to master the controls and elementary monkey psychology, the first two rounds are a cakewalk. There are three ways the monkeys get you: They throw apples at you, drop apple cores and run into you. Since you can always punch them out, there’s no excuse for running into the devils. Jump over the low tosses and duck the high ones. As for the apple cores, watch out—they sometimes will take a strange bounce or two. During the first two rounds, it’s fun to hang around and deck a few extra monkeys and cores for points. But don’t loiter too long—that’s when Apollo Creed comes out and spars with you. Time to move along.
The third round is the killer. Here, we find Junior sitting up in a cage atop a totem pole of monkeys. The idea is to one-by-one knock the monkeys out from underneath the cage—which lowers it—and then jump in to save Junior. Sounds easy, right? No way. With these monkeys constantly sneaking back under the cage almost as fast as you can punch ‘em out, it can get pretty frustrating. But if you can float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, and bob and weave your way through the numerous apples and cores, you can be a hero.
After the fourth round, which is like the first two just meaner, it’s back to the beginning. Kangaroo is a jolly good frolic in the old outback, but complete all the rounds once and why play ‘em again? The champ is warm and ready for his next conquest.
Tron. The movie, the hype, the game. Imagine … racing light cycles, battling tanks, encountering the beastly MCP (Master Control Program) on a three-dimensional electronic landscape. I move in for a closer look. No 3-D landscapes here; rather, the game is flat as a board. Then what are all these people crowded around for? I wait my turn. Soon enough, I’m up.
The first thing you do is select one of four phases to play with the glowing joystick. By moving a dot into the blue sector, I’m transcended where spider-like bugs reproduce and roam. Use the joystick to manuever the trigger to shoot and the rotary knob on the left to aim. The grid bugs are simple. Wipe them out and escape into the Input-Output Tower before the timer runs down. No real challenge here. Next, I go for the green and find myself inside the MCP. The object is to reach the Cone of Light by knocking out cylinder blocks Breakout-style. The catch is that the blocks scroll left to right, so shoot them on the left first. That’s easy, too. I even get a 1000 point bonus for wiping out all the blocks, C’mon, Tron—the champ’s getting ornery.
In phase three I’m riding a blip that is supposed to be a light cycle, trying to cut off a bad-guy. It’s a lot like the Atari VCS cartridge Surround, except that you get to use your trigger as a speed control. The bad-guy is slow and dumb, and in no time I’ve got him in a box.
The last phase of level one is the tank battle. Pretty much your basic tank game, here the joystick moves your tank, the rotate knob aims your turret, and the trigger fires. The playfield consists of a rectangular maze with a diamond-shaped center warp zone (aka, “random relocator”) which hyperspaces you to a random place when you move into it. It takes three shots to kill Sark’s bad-guy blue tanks, while they need just one to do you in. Hide behind corners and pick the enemy tanks off with rebound shots, or duck into an aisle and get off three quick shots and get out. Don’t get caught on the same aisle with an enemy tank for an extended period of time or you won’t be able to avoid its fire. Like all the other first level phases, tank is a joke. I ambush him with three quick shots. On to level two.
Though I pick blue, to my surprise there are no grid bugs in sight. Instead, three tanks are barrelling in my direction. Evidently, the color choice has nothing to do with game selection in level two. When you choose a color, you’re just assigned a game at random. Why bother with the selection phase then? In any event, level two is tougher than the first, but not by much. Again, the MCP and bug sequences are walkovers, but facing three tanks or three light cycles at once can be a little hairy for the neophyte. The trick to handling the light cycles is not to try to box the bad-guys in, but box yourself in. Just build a little box for yourself and eat up the territory at slow speed, while the bad-guys burn themselves out. The tanks are trickier though. Remember to shoot around corners and get off those three shots bam-bam-bam. And avoid getting caught in long corridors without exits.
Level three is when the amateurs start heading for the showers. The bugs are no sweat, but the cone becomes tough to crack. It really gets moving and the motion is reversed, right to left this time. Box yourself in and the light cycles can still be had. However, facing six or seven tanks at once may not be suicide, but it’s damn close. Only pros and masochists should pass beyond this point.
All in all, Tron is a little disappointing: Four mediocre, recycled games in new clothes are just not my definition of excitement. But, it’s the packaging that counts, not the substance, right? Why waste precious corporate resources to create a good game when you’re already paying top dollar to Disney for the name, right? But wait a minute! If this game is so bad, why am I playing it so much? Am I really having fun, or do I just think I’m having fun? In this era of Corporate Video, it’s really hard to tell.
So what about Tut (aka, Tutankham), Konami’s latest invention, brought to us by Stern? If you like shooting cobras and gorillas, and gathering treasure in Egyptian tombs, then this may be the game for you. Use the left-hand joystick to move around in the maze, and fire a laser to the left or right with your right-hand stick. Why you can’t fire up or down is a mystery to me. Lookout! A puff of smoke and four cobras are after me. I blast ‘em with my bidirectional laser and grab the first treasure—a bucket full of diamonds worth 250 points. Not bad!
To get from the top to the bottom of the maze, there’s a warp gate, a sort of space-age Roman arch that moves you to a companion gate in another part of the chamber. Be careful here—the gorillas like to hang out under these arches. And keep an eye out for the gorillas, cobras, and other heebie-jeebies. Touch one and you’re fried, Berzerk-style. Also, be sure to avoid vertical passageways when enemies are close; since you can only shoot left or right, you’re defenseless here. Oops! I just went for a treasure, and I’m stuck in a vertical shaft, and an ape is trying to sit on me. But I’m tough. Tough enough to reach for my “flash” button and zap every last slithering devil on the screen into eternity. That was close, but I’ve shot my wad and won’t get another “flash” on this man. Now I pick up a key, to unlock a door and journey to the next tomb.
In the final analysis, Tut is fun to play but gets downright boring after awhile. Not only is the game repetitious, the joystick is a real drag. You can never stay in one spot without jockeying back and forth; release the joystick and you continue moving in the previous direction. No good.
I’m getting desperate in my quest for the newest of the new, the spacier space, the ultimate rush. With all the new videos played out, I find myself scanning the latest pinball lineup. Is pinball dead? Does anyone care? I used to play a lot of pinball in my former days and it was damn exciting. The only problem is that video came along and blew everyone’s mind with the infinite possibilities of an electronic graphic display. But, for nostalgia’s sake, I decide to give the ol’ plunger a pull.
Is Midway’s new pinball game—Mr. and Mrs. Pac-Man—just another cheap attempt to capitalize on the fad, or is it a real game? The playfield is your typical one-level pinball game with a few nice twists. With a neat shot around the left side you land in a hole which kicks you into a mini-playfield with its own flipper and drop-target bank. There’s a Pac-Man drop-target bank in the center of the playfield that has lots of good shots and a nifty skill shot right off the ball plunger to a hidden hole kicker worth mucho good karma. Too bad this shot is all but impossible. The basic idea, of course, is to keep the ball in play, knock down as many drop-targets as you can, and get the ball into as many holes as possible (except the one between the flippers).
“But, when do we play Pac-Man, Uncle Eugene?” Ok, ok—I was just getting to that. Now if you do everything right, kids, and then send the ball into one of the Pac-Man qualifying holes, you get to play Pac-Man in a light matrix in the center of the playfield. The bad guy is the red light, and you’re yellow. You move with the right flipper and choose the direction with the left. The object is to finish the maze and not get eaten by the red light. Except, of course, if Pac-Man aggressive is lit, which means you can eat the bad guy for 50,000 points! After all is said and done, it’s a helluva way to play Pac-Man. Imagine a player paying for the privilege of torturing himself with a maze of rules (like most pins, this baby has more than the IRS) in order to qualify for a single, brief, ultra-lo-res round with the munchies, sans joystick! Obviously, if it’s Pac-Man that you’re after, you’ve bit off more than you can chew. But if it’s pinball action you’re craving, Mr. & Mrs. Pac-Man provides some surprisingly enjoyable thrills and spills.
Caveman by Gottlieb is nearby. This is another basic one-level pinball, but with an alarming twist: stuck right in the top of the playfield, is a video screen. Like all pinball games, you bat a steel ball around with your flippers, but because of the space required by the monitor there ain’t a whole lot to shoot at. The real action here—if you could call it that—takes place on the screen. By deftly flipping the ball into either the top right or top left, it dribbles down into a hole. Suddenly, it’s video-time. Forget about your flippers and grab that joystick on the top of the cabinet and begin maneuvering your troglodyte in the dinosaur maze. Start running over Brontosauruses, Triceratops, and Pteradactyls, but watch out for the red Tyranosaurus. If he gets you it’s game-over Homo Erectus.
Compared to the pinball half of the game, this video action is intriguing. But compared to any real video game it’s a woofer. Sure, I give Gottlieb credit for having the nerve to come out with the first vidi-pin concept, but a dog is a dog. Caveman is simply low-grade video married to firewood pinball. Does this mean pinball really is dead? No, just that Caveman is about 10,000 years late. Oh well, it’s Sunday night, and I’m bitching again.
The Movie, The Hype, Another Review
Tron is a movie made by computers, about computers, for humans. It is the first of its genre—a journey through the CRT looking glass into the electronic realm. The action takes place at Encom, a massive computer conglomerate (Atari or Apple?) that was OK in the good old days but has become so large and nebulous that no one knows what’s really going on except for bad guy Sark/Dillinger (David Warner) and his megalomaniac Master Control Program (MCP). Throw in your basic All-American maverick, good-guy Han Solo-type (Flynn, played by Jeff Bridges), plus a nice-guy conformist Luke Skywalker (Allen “Tron” Bradley, played by Bruce Boxleitner) that ends up with the gorgeous, but simple-minded girl (Lora, played by Cindy Morgan). How can you miss? Star Wars in a computer. The good guys versus the bad guys at the Silicon Corral.
The acting, plot, and screenplay can be summed up in one statement: thank God for computer-generated graphics. Instead of constructing a set with brick and mortar, the world of Tron is built with pixels and computer algorithms. The result—i.e., the incredible Light Cycle, Solar Sailor and MCP action sequences—is something quite out of this world.
While it’s a pity that the screenwriters picked the obsolete computer-as-menace story line, at least they were faithful to the facts. Big computer systems really are boring, and for that matter so are the people running them. But Tron shows us that computers don’t have to be boring anymore. The computer has abandoned the lab for the realm of the imagination. I can’t wait to trade my armrest for a joystick.
—E. P. J.