Monday, 13 February 2012

New to me: Number 7 - Phoenix (Atari VCS)

Game: Phoenix
Format reviewed: Atari VCS
Released by: Atari
Year of original release: 1982
Also released on: Arcade
Available now on: The Atari VCS version isn't available anywhere. The arcade version available on Taito Legends for X Box, PlayStation 2, PSP and PC.

If I had a Room 101, in it would be birds. Not penguins, because they're quite funny and live far away, and not chickens because they lay eggs and taste good fried in the colonel's secret recipe of 12 herbs and spices. Birds like pigeons and seagulls would go in there. If I'm walking through town with a steak bake from Gregg's, the last thing I want is a pigeon threatening to fly at me and scare me into throwing it to them. Or a bunch of them hovering over my head and crapping on me. And the way they look at your with eyes at the side of their heads, with beaks that look like they could peck out your eyeballs, it just fills me with hate. Or with fear. I don't like birds. But I like Phoenix. Phoenix is a video game that allows you to shoot down birds. And that must be good.

Phoenix is actually one of the very first (if not the first) arcade games I ever played. It was at a caravan park in North Wales in 1985. Although the game was already 5 years old by then, I was still blown away by it. For the first time, I was able to control objects on a TV set. Oh yes. I could move my little space ship left and right, blow up birds and do all kinds of stuff. Well, just move left and right and blow up birds. The game remained in that arcade for several years, and I'd still return to it, even when newer games like Wonderboy, The Simpsons, Streetfighter 2, Roadblasters, Chase HQ, etc. were introduced. I suppose even then, it took me right back to the beginning of my adventures in video gaming, giving me a nostalgic trip down memory lane. Yep, I began retro gaming from a young age.

As I grew older, Phoenix was a game I completely forgot about. When I began getting into arcade <ahem> emulation, I tried to recall games I played from my youth. But, although I could vaguely remember Phoenix, I couldn't remember its name, so couldn't find it. That was until I bought Taito Legends for my PlayStation 2 a few years back. While browsing through the games, I selected Phoenix without realising what it was. Then, all of a sudden, when it loaded up, I was taken back to that evening in 1985, when I first discovered arcade games. The images, the sound, the haunting classical music, it was all there. And the game was just as good as I remembered it.

Recently, I decided to try out other versions of Phoenix, just to see how they compare. However, I found out that Phoenix was converted to one machine - the Atari VCS (or 2600) in 1982. So, I dug out a copy of that, gave it a little play and here's my review of it. Well, in a bit. First there's a bit more information required about the arcade version!

The arcade game Phoenix is a simple little game. It is your typical Space Invaders cash-in, featuring birds in the place of aliens. It stood out at the time due to the fact it featured full colour graphics. You control a little space ship and spend the first two levels shooting down small birds (sparrows maybe). Although they attack in a formation, some birds break formation and swoop down at you. This is what happens when you waft your steak bake around. You are able to activate a temporary shield to protect yourself. This destroys anything that comes into contact with you and prevents bullets from harming you. It only lasts for a few seconds and prevents you from moving, plus it can't be reactivated for a short while. But it's a handy little tool to have seeing as you don't have bunkers to hide behind. In levels three and four, you have larger birds to shoot down. Again, these fly in a formation but some will decide to swoop down and peck at you. When in full flight, you can destroy them instantly by taking them out in its middle. Or you can shoot either (or both) of its wings. This slows it down temporarily, giving you a better chance of getting the final kill, but the wings will grow back after a while. Once you get to level five, you go up against a boss. Phoenix is unique in the fact that it was one of the first games to feature an end of stage boss. The boss takes the form of a mother ship. You have to shoot at the ship to take bits of it away before reaching a spinning central bit. Shoot a couple of holes into this, and you can then fire through it to shoot the boss, although as it's spinning, it's not as easy as it may sound. A video would probably explain this better than I can. Once you've done this, the game repeats itself, only gets harder. And that's it. It's a great little blaster and a nice variation on the Space Invaders theme.

STOP THE PRESS! I've managed to record a video of a play-through of the first few levels of the arcade version of Phoenix until passing the first boss battle. Enjoy!

Catch the pigeon! Or whatever they are...
So, how does Phoenix convert to the Atari VCS? Very well, actually. The VCS version does away with the spacey background and the music, but the graphics and sounds are really quite impressive. The sprites are quite close to their arcade counterparts and the animation of them is top-notch. The "bird noises" are also fairly close too, although they do grate after a while. Fortunately, they change depending on what type of bird enemy you're fighting, so it's not one continuous noise throughout. The game also plays very well. The controls are responsive, and the shield and boss battles are implemented too. However, once you've got past the first boss and the game returns to the first level, it doesn't appear to be any harder second time around. I suppose though, these old never-ending games were all about you achieving high scores rather than beating the games themselves so the game's challenge is to last as long as you can.

Birds! Evil things. Swooping and ready to grab my steak bake.

Of course, words and pictures only say so much. Here's a video of the game in action. By the way, I'm usually a bit better at it than I am in the video. It took me about 200 attempts to figure out how to record video of the game but I achieved it in the most convoluted way possible (might write about it sometime!). When I'd finally got things working, I wanted to make sure that I got to the boss battle to copy the arcade video above, so I was a bit over-cautious when it came to going on the attack.

Beat the boss. And start again. And again. And again...
Phoenix really is a good blast to waste a few spare minutes with. It is a surprisingly faithful port of the arcade game, more so in the way that it plays than how it looks. I was actually quite surprised how much I enjoyed playing this game, as most Atari VCS games I've played are crap.

Presentation: 6
The game's name features at the top of the screen, with the game running below it. It's nothing special, but it does the job.
Graphics: 8
The sprites resemble birds, and the graphics for the boss battle is implemented well. Animation is excellent and smooth, and there's a nice flashing effect when you destory the boss.
Similar to the arcade, annoying after a while but effective and varied.
Playability: 8
Genuinely fun to play, responsive and fair.
Overall: 8
A fantastic conversion of a fantastic arcade game!

Legal Eagles!
For most of their time as the market leaders in the videogame industry, Atari seemed to be in court, mostly attempting to sue people trying to make a quick buck off their success. One case they fought was against a company called Imagic who developed a game for the Atari VCS and other systems called Demon Attack. Atari thought that this game was similar to Phoenix, and as Atari held the rights to produce the home console version of Phoenix, they didn't take too kindly to games copying their intellectual property. The case was settled out of court, and Demon Attack went on to be quite a hit on the VCS as well as on a number of other systems.

Demon Attack. Like Phoenix, but it's not Phoenix.

I gave Demon Attack a go and, although I can see its resemblence to Phoenix, in that you have to shoot down birds, that's pretty much the only similarity between the two games. The enemies don't follow the same patterns and the level structure is completely different. Demon Attack is a technically impressive game with fantastic sound and visuals. It's also another great blaster, but it is a different game.

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