Retro Rated – Phoenix

Factfile
Developed by: Unknown
Released: 1980
Format played: Arcade

What Is It?

Much like Moon Patrol, this is a game I first encountered at home on the Atari 2600, only coming to discover many years later that it originated in the arcade.

Undoubtedly inspired by the seminal Space Invaders, Phoenix is a top down space blaster, your little ship moving across a horizontal plane at the bottom of the screen. Across 4 rounds, enemies fly at you, raining hot death along the way before the game culminates in a battle to the death against an alien ensconced in a well protected mothership.

Although the gameplay is limited, each round offers something slightly different. The first couple of rounds are similar as a formation of birds fire at you whilst dive bombing, attempting to take out your ship in a demented avian suicide mission. The second round picks up the pace and the unpredictability of enemy movement, your rate of fire increasing accordingly to offset. The third and fourth rounds switch things up with a set of flying eggs that hatch into great winged birds, blue to start with and then red. As the sprites are bigger these are easier to hit but in a neat touch, they can lose a wing and carry on flying whilst shooting off both wings sees them regenerate before swooping back for more. Only a shot right down the middle dispatches the winged menace for good.

The final round against the mothership is one of the first instances of a boss fight being introduced to gaming, something that would go on to be staple of the genre. It’s a tough end to the game, the alien himself requiring just a single shot to take out but protected by a tough outer shell that you have to blast through, followed by a conveyor belt shield, all the while raining down shots as birds swoop around firing at you. Phew.

Phoenix is a short but intense blaster, sharing a lineage with some of the classic early shooters such as Galaxians. Your limited rate of fire and narrow range of movement, combined with unpredictable enemy attacks and consistent incoming fire makes each round a deadly encounter with a stray blast never far from your starboard bow. Luckily you do have a shield you can activate, offering a brief respite from attacks, although it allows only a short period of protection with a few seconds of recharge between uses, plus keeps you glued to the spot whilst activated.

Interestingly the developer of the original game is unknown, the arcade cabinet published by Centuri in the US and Taito in Japan. A sequel would follow in 1981, the bizarrely named Pleiads. Meanwhile the dubious position around the original developer allowed several bootleg versions to appear.

Atari 2600

The version I remember from my youth stands up as a classy conversion.

Clearly there are some sacrifices made in the transition to the home format but substantially the game is here in full. Notably the backgrounds are empty, devoid of the stars and other detail of the parent. Sound is also rather sparse, although frankly some of the enemy drone in the arcade version can become a little irritating. The enemies are less populous too, especially in the early rounds and with enemy movement less erratic, it becomes a far calmer and by extension far easier experience as a result. Brilliantly the wing clipping and regeneration of the original are retained, as is the boss fight against the mothership, albeit bereft of accompanying attack waves, again making this a somewhat more beatable proposition.

Worth Playing?

One of the classic arcade space blasters, in the conversation alongside gaming’s Holy Trinity of Space Invaders, Asteroids and Defender.

The Atari 2600 conversion meanwhile is simply brilliant. As faithful a conversion as you could wish for given the limitations of the hardware, this is one of the best games on the system and remains my go to version of this retrogaming classic.

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