|Format played:||Atari 2600|
One of the benefits of writing a regular retrogaming feature is that I find out things about some of my favourite games that I never knew before.
Take Moon Patrol. Released in 1983, this is one of my earliest gaming memories, my brother and I crowding round our Atari to take our turn. Remarkably I still own the original console and cartridge.
The basic premise sees you traversing the moon, fighting off aliens and dodging various obstacles along the way. Up to two of you can play, each player taking turns. All this I know.
What I didn’t know was that it was a conversion of an arcade game, the big brother looking markedly different and with a somewhat different game structure.
Playing a game from this era it is almost unfair to try and judge the graphics by modern standards. The game is 32 years old and the Atari 2600 specs were arguably pretty shonky in 1983, never mind 2015.
Instead, I can appreciate a certain charm to them. Booting up, the front end gives you a sneak peak at some of the aliens that will be out to hamper your progress as they drift along the screen. Diving into the action, everything has that wonderful early-80s, home console sheen; limited, primary colours; rudimentary blobs and shapes to represent vehicles and aliens; colours that merge into each other when they get too close, meaning that your blaster bolts take on the colour of whatever alien is in their vicinity as they rise; your little moon buggy’s wheels that look more like feet so that it gives the impression that Fred Flinstone is driving.
On screen clutter is kept to a minimum, a counter at the bottom of the screen totting up your score, time taken and the number of buggies left, whilst a progress bar charts your journey.
Split across two courses, each made up of 26 sections, gameplay is of the constant motion variety; your buggy moves from left to right, the player able to speed up or slow down but unable to stop or reverse.
There is a choice of difficulty levels – easy, medium and hard – adding or subtracting obstacles and enemies as appropriate. Starting on medium, you are eased into the action, allowing you time to understand the mechanics and capabilities. Craters litter the surface of the moon, which must be jumped by nudging up on your controller. Boulders can be blasted out of the way by one of your two cannons (which fire simultaneously) whilst mines and even tanks seek to block your progress along the ground.
Initially these obstacles are easily avoided but as the difficulty increases, their placement becomes rather fiendish. Craters come thick and fast, forcing you to adjust your speed and / or jumping trajectory to allow yourself time to hit the ground and take off again. Similarly boulders are often placed just in front of or behind craters, safe passage achieved through a combination of a well timed blast and jump.
To make life trickier, these obstacles must be negotiated whilst fighting off aliens raining death from above. Fortunately your buggy has twin blasters; one front facing to dispatch boulders and tanks, the other on top of the buggy. Whilst there is some graphical variety to the aliens, there is little in their actual threat, each buzzing around, firing off the occasional pellet that spells the end of your buggy if it makes contact. If you are quick enough, you can actually shoot their blaster bolt out of the sky, otherwise just aim for the critter itself, speeding or slowing your buggy to stagger your fire and achieve wider coverage. One of the beasties, a weird black and white one that looks like three eye balls stuck together, has the rather unfortunate ability to create new craters with it’s shots, which can be devilishly tricky when you are in the middle of a tense firefight.
There’s no great variation in gameplay, no boss characters, no tangible progression. This is just an old fashioned blaster, you against the scoreboard and on those criteria, it’s great fun. Points are awarded for jumping craters or shooting aliens whilst bonuses can be achieved for completing a section of the course within prescribed limits.
It’s a tough little cookie. You start with four lives, crashing into an obstacle or getting blasted by an alien costing you one whilst reaching the 10,000 points marker sees you gain an extra one. Restart points however are generous, dropping you back into the action at the point at which you disintegrated. Run out of lives and it’s back to the start.
Each filled section of the progress bar represents the completion of 5 sections of the course, each block theoretically taking around a minute to play through but the action is frantic, the escalating challenge of ground based obstacles adding an element of skill. It may be short but this is a satisfying two course meal.
Sometimes sound can be an afterthought but games like this highlight just how much value a good aural accompaniment can add.
Unless you want to go all method and switch it off, a fab little ditty plays along in the background, sounding like something you might have heard on a VHS TV advert. And in-game effects are equally terrific; from the ‘bo’ noise your buggy makes when it jumps, like a four wheeled Morph; to the noise a boulder makes when you shoot it that sounds like someone kicking a ball into an empty bin; the tinkle when you blast an alien, that somehow sounds like every videogame from the 1980s ever; and finally the hilarious whistle that signals the arrival of your airborne friends.
Simple, addictive and fun, this is old fashioned blasting action at its finest.