M*A*S*H – Atari 2600

When you plan on selling your game with the blurb "Two Whole Players!" ask yourself why you couldn't think of anything more exciting to say.

When you plan on selling your game with the blurb “Two Whole Players!” ask yourself why you couldn’t think of anything more exciting to say.

As a kid born in the early 1980s, I remember…well, not much. But how could I forget such wonderful programming for kids, such as Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers, Duck Tales, Garfield and Friends, Thunder Cats, Smurfs and Gummi Bears. Of course, I didn’t get my first game console until the early nineties, so the kids five to ten years older than me–those playing Atari 2600 as their first console–must have had a different taste in television than I did. And if video game adaptations give any indication, then I can assume that 10-year-olds watched M*A*S*H. After all, what third-grade student wouldn’t appreciate dark comedy and biting satire about Vietnam, cleverly disguised as the Korean War, which itself bears a striking resemblance to the hills of southern California?

I find it amazing how a country eleven time zones away bears such a striking resemblence to Southern California! We have so much in common!

I find it amazing how a country eleven time zones away bears such a striking resemblence to Southern California! We have so much in common!

Actually, I love M*A*S*H. My parents have a picture of me in 1984 in my infant carrier, staring down Colonel Flagg. I played Trapper John in my high school’s theatrical production. I’m the only person I know who has watched every episode while actually in Korea. M*A*S*H presents us with an idealistic fantasy world, where bad things might happen, but the antisocial nutjobs always get a pile of garbage dumped on them in the end, the villains act like spoiled children / Tea Party patriots for easy identification, and hero doctors always grow a foot taller than common enlisted men. Why wouldn’t the youth of the eighties (or maybe Fox meant “youth in their eighties?) want to put themselves in the role of the legendary wise-cracking meatball surgeon?

MASH Atari Mode 1Coming from the studio that once tried to turn Family Guy into an MMORPG, I think Fox has long had a problem understanding humor, specifically in how they can translate it into video game format, or in Fox’s terms, milking it for profit. See, the M*A*S*H tv show depended on witty responses to situations, satire on right-wing politics and war, and Catch-22-style double talk. The M*A*S*H Atari game did make me laugh, but more so at the premise that I need to catch Colonel Potter’s skydiving medics because they developed a fondness for leaping from their plane without parachutes. I like to point out the absurdity in games whenever I can, but sometimes they make it difficult, and I just don’t know if I can out-mock a game that asks me to accept that a platoon of soldiers devoted to saving lives has less survival instinct than the entire series of Lemmings games. At that point, the game mocks itself.

M*A*S*H offers four types of gameplay, with one- and two-player modes for each. In Modes 1 and 2, the player controls a helicopter, supposedly piloted by Hawkeye, picks up wounded soldiers, while flying low to avoid the lone North Korean tank. Thank you Fox! As embodied by your news network, you strive to offer us as many unintentional jokes as possible! For instance, “Putting a surgeon to work piloting a helicopter instead of a hospital shows that Fox objected to poor people receiving healthcare long before Obama.” Nah, even I didn’t like that one. How about “Military powerhouse North Korea sends one tank after enemy”? No, that didn’t work either. I know! I enjoy the wisdom of piloting a helicopter below the tree line to avoid enemy fire. At least, the idea of a chopper coming at me through the woods, hacking off branches and the heads of small animals sounds like solid, life-saving logic to me.

Excuse me, but if you have nothing more than a flap of arm pit skin connecting your upper torso to the rest of your body, I think the doctors should probably move on to someone a little less wounded.

Excuse me, but if you have nothing more than a flap of arm pit skin connecting your upper torso to the rest of your body, I think the doctors should probably move on to someone a little less wounded.

Periodically, the game stops to consider that doctors might serve their purpose better in the operating room, and so the scene shifts abruptly to the operating room. Wait, sorry, strike that…the scene shifts abruptly to the Milton Bradley “Operation” game. Surgery consists of removing a small dot–shrapnel, I assume–from a soldier with a physique to suggest that the army put him on the battlefield for the sole purpose of shielding others from bullets using his weeble-shaped hips (although with a body like that, how they got him to lay down on the table without immediately popping upright blows my mind). The player has a fondue fork, with which he must navigate the shrapnel through the soldiers’ bodies without touching the sides of hollow, maze-like tunnels whose presence, I would think, should cause slightly more concern than the dots within them. The player has about fifteen seconds to operate on as many patients as possible, unless you hit the sides, which prompts the game to call you “Ferret Face,” which wins an award for the only thing in the game actually referring to the TV show, despite targeting the wrong character, and sends you right back out to wreak havoc on the trees of South Korea.

In mere seconds, the bodies of trained medics will rain from the sky. Some may even impale themselves on those trees. Others, hacked by chopper blades. Too bad none will survive to tend to the wounded.

In mere seconds, the bodies of trained medics will rain from the sky. Some may even impale themselves on those trees. Others, hacked by chopper blades. Too bad none will survive to tend to the wounded.

Modes 3 and 4 pits Hawkeye’s helicopter against Colonel Potter’s madness (General Steele, anyone?). Bodies pour out of a plane like a fire hose and you get more points for picking them up just before they hit the ground than if you catch them right out of the plane. Apparently the army gets by on “thrilling climactic rescues” rather than “intelligent strategies.” Modes 5 and 6 work like easy versions of Modes 1 and 2, giving you a smaller helicopter–to shred denser forests, obviously–and a visual cue as to when you’ve loaded the maximum number of wounded on your ship. Modes 7 and 8 put you in the operating room for the entire game, sticking fondue forks into strings of pear-shaped personnel with no daring-yet-suicidal piloting skills required.

The player wins the game by reaching 1000 points before their opponent. The score counter only goes up to 999, though, so this may function less as an objective and more as a game-ending technical limitation. But as we learned from Fox News, the multi-conglomerate right-wing organization often views pushing a system until it breaks as synonymous with success, so I guess that makes sense. Presumably, the game pits one player against either the computer AI, presumably Frank Burns, or another player, B.J. Hunnicut or Trapper John. The game ends when one player reaches 1000 points. And it doesn’t take long. “I’ll play the game while watching my M*A*S*H DVDs!” I thought. “I’ll enjoy it!” The resonance of M*A*S*H will combine into an olive drab wave of comedy! Well, as it turns out, not only can you beat all four different game modes within the length of a single episode of the TV show, you can master the game before the second commercial break.

These Atari games really work like flash games or iPhone games, just with scaled-down graphics. They can still offer hours of fun game play, but they kind of have to follow the simple-to-learn-but-difficult-to-master philosophy. Unfortunately, this game disappointed all those bright-eyed kids waking up on Christmas morning 1983, hoping for a return to the glorious return to the days before their favorite prime-time program ended, earlier that year. Alas, the game couldn’t reproduce that feeling, and they’d have to suffer through AfterMash, Trapper John MD, and the pilot episode of W*A*L*T*E*R, a show even more obnoxious to type than M*A*S*H. My suggestion? Watch the TV show with a Nintendo DS and a copy of Trauma Center: Under the Knife. No one ever called Derek Styles “Ferret Face.”

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Mystique Sex Games (Custer’s Revenge, Burning Desire, Knight on the Town) – Atari

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After eight months of writing,  this entry will pop my cherry, sending my innocence–and any delusions I had of holding a “G” rating–cascading down the drain, through the earth and plummeting into the fiery hell of the planet’s core; I intend to enlighten you about the dreaded Mystique “pornographic” games for the Atari 2600! Yes, ladies and gentleman, by the end of this entry, a thick coat of soot, tar, and the shattered dreams of parents who expected their children to live an entirely asexual lifestyle will cling tightly to our hearts. Now, keep in mind that modern games frequently aim to re-create the feeling of real-life battle, and whether you want to watch it or not, the Fallout games will incessantly show you bullets ripping humans and animals alike into carrion and bone meal, but the games that disturb people involve an instinctual, consensual act of affection (or, at the very least, amusement) between two cartoons pixilated beyond any semblance of humanity? Really, world?

Which of these looks more realistic to you?

Which of these looks more realistic to you?

I generally oppose censorship. We could easily stop implicating video games as violence-inducing murder simulators if politicians and reporters could A) play a few of the thousands of games that don’t involve guns or B) look past the handful of school shooters to see the millions of people who play violent games without using educational facilities as target practice. I would like to say that studies show no difference in attitudes toward sex and women between men who watch porn and men who don’t, but I can’t, because those studies have failed since scientists can’t find men who don’t watch porn. Ubiquitous, natural, required for life, and generally all-around, good clean wholesome fun, sex shouldn’t really ruffle our feathers as much as it does. So I’d like to examine some of the games released by Mystique like I would any other game, and explain what they’ll actually do to you; make you bored, frustrated, and not the least bit aroused.

Custer’s Revenge / General Retreat

Probably more infamous than any other game on the list, “Custer’s Revenge” stars the reanimated corpse (or so we can only assume) of General George Armstrong Custer, trying to stick it to Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse by sticking it to…well, you get the picture. The game simply asks you to take control of Custer, decked-out in his Union Army hat, boots, and all the glory God gave him, and walk across the screen to an excited-looking Native American girl with scolioses, likely caused by a top-heavy physique. The catch? Much like the girl, Sitting Bull won’t take it lying down, and Custer must dodge a rain of arrows on his way to commit miscegenetic fornication. While…uh…engaging the young woman…against a cactus…Custer must occasionally…”withdraw from the battle”…as the arrows keep flying in, and the game wants you to keep pounding…uh, the action button until the deed is over.

After running into an invisible cactus.

After running into an invisible cactus.

Dear General Custer,

While I admire that, in spite of history recalling you as a proud, stubborn, and arrogant man, you’ve found a non-violent way to seek revenge for your painful murder, I might advise A) pants and B) that you take the girl somewhere a little more romantic than the brink of the afterlife. Mystique has granted you a second chance at life. Please use it well.

While the concept will probably keep me snickering for the rest of my life, the game itself displays less thought than its protagonist. The game offers a surprising challenge, but due to Custer’s slow movement, the tight spacing between arrows, and…well, expected difficulties in making a sufficient retreat…certain dodges can feel impossible. I eventually learned that arrows could safely hit the brim of his hat, which requires perfect timing to execute. By itself, I wouldn’t condemn the game for that. Higher difficulty levels, though, do some weird things, including placing an invisible cactus in the center of the screen, ready to skewer Custer’s reason for crossing the second half of the screen. I haven’t yet figured out how to dodge this.  And every time you die, the game plays an explosion sound, followed by a short excerpt from “Taps,” and restarting requires you to sit through a modal, Native-American-esque theme from “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” After spending a half hour on this game, 28 minutes of which involved waiting for these songs to end, I decided to just put on a Justin Bieber album so I could at least play a good game while I let music drive me insane.

Mystique games come in pairs, depending on which gender role you want to adopt (with “General Retreat” serving as the reverse of “Custer’s Revenge”); however, since they boast identical gameplay and each one revolves around a heterosexual orientation, the end result doesn’t change. Game winners get to watch pixel clusters and imagine it looks like a man and woman having sex. Of all the games I got working, only Custer’s Revenge suggested a non-consensual relationship, since the box art depicts the girl tied to a pole, but since General Retreat shows her free and going after Custer, I can only assume she enjoys that sort of thing.

Burning Desire / Jungle Fever

In Burning Desire and Jungle Fever, you play as a man or woman dangling from a helicopter, trying to rescue people from two pillars of flame, slowly closing in on their location, while two jungle monsters lob rocks (or something) at you. Yet for some reason, you flew out here au naturel, and don’t seem to have the wits to fight the fire with anything other than your least efficient bodily fluids. At least, the game’s material tells you the characters spray the flames with ejaculate and milk. One may want to tell Mystique that their depiction of the droplets coming from above the characters’ necks actually tames down the perversion of the game.

RetroArch-0909-032819Given the choice, I’ll take the necrophiliac Civil War vet over this game; at least it makes more sense. Burning Desire and Jungle Fever manage to leave gaping plot holes in a game that literally has no plot. Why not just lift the poor guy out of the fire? Why put it out first? Normally, that sort of thing wouldn’t bother me, but any time you stop spraying the fire, the flames immediately jump back to their original height, with a small chance of remaining extinguished for five or so seconds if you put it out completely. That means you have an almost certain chance of one fire reviving as you try to fight the other. Combined with the extra-finicky controls for allowing the rescued man/woman to latch onto…special bits…to let the helicopter lift him/her out of peril and into a position to thank the rescuer very affectionately, and I can say I only succeeded twice. By luck. I have no idea how to re-create what I did.

I think I'll have a word with these people about the graphic nature of their pixels.

I think I’ll have a word with these people about the graphic nature of their pixels.

Knight on the Town / Lady in Wading

While Mystique released several other games, I’d like to finish this list today with Knight on the Town and Lady in Wading. On this list, I can’t recommend any other game as even playable, while this game actually puts up a decent challenge. You play as either a knight or a lady, who has spent so much money on bridge-building supplies that you can’t afford a shred of protection against the sex-organ hungry alligator in the moat. The player must, brick by brick, build a bridge to cross the moat in order to…let’s say “secure an heir for your kingdom.” Meanwhile, an alligator leaps out of the water to indulge in select parts of you, a monster darts out of the bushes to devour you, and on higher difficulty settings, a…pterodactyl?…drops fireballs on you.

Seriously people. These games lampoon themselves. I really can’t add to the absurdity.

Once you’ve completed construction, one more challenge awaits you: intercourse. Here, you must successfully hit “up” and “down” on the joystick (hehe…”joystick”) in an alternating pattern until…well, you get the picture.

Apparently the monsters get to watch. I told you these games were kinky.

Apparently the monsters get to watch. I told you these games were kinky.

Honestly, I understand why people put out (hehe…”put out”) games like this. People like sex. But for some reason, it hasn’t caught on in the video game world. Yeah, we see it present in God of War, Mass Effect, and Leisure Suit Larry, but as sex, it doesn’t tend to evoke the same response in us that…well, anything else does. So even with the advent of the video game rating system, sex has only casually flirted with games. Maybe we can attribute that to the lack of quality in these early Atari games. Or maybe it had something to do with the fact that the price of an Atari plus a few games, when adjusted for inflation, cost over $500, and $500 buys a lot of porn.

I give these games my rating of “8 out of 10 WTFs.”

Pitfall – Atari

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Good news! I finally fixed my obnoxious Atari 2600 problems, so now I can game the proverbial school so old, its age actually exceeds the real high school I attended.  Released in 1982, the game I’d like to write about today holds the rare distinction of being a video game older than me. That’s right, I’m reviewing Pitfall, in case your eye didn’t immediately wander to the screenshot at the top of this post.

Donkey Kong appeared in arcades in 1981, and a year later Activision released Pitfall for Atari systems.  People loved these games.  They had a simple concept, yet provided enough challenge that many people never saw the end.  In this way, Pitfall and Donkey Kong began the scourge of frustration known as the platformer genre, much like two drug dealers who generously shoot a free sample of heroin directly into your veins, giving you the rush of pleasure followed by a decade of dependency, stress, bankruptcy, wasted time, and anger issues while never quite living up to that first dose.

Despite Donkey Kong’s title as arguably the first platformer, Pitfall introduced many of the features we now associate with the genre: side-scrolling levels that take up multiple screens, a number of different enemies and obstacles, the possibility of death by falling into holes, a timer, and a score counter that means absolutely nothing compared to the bragging rights of having actually finished the game.  You play as Pitfall Harry, a character with a name unfortunately easy to pervert at an elementary school lunch table.  As Harry, you run through a jungle of various assorted dangers including crocodiles, rattlesnakes, scorpions, deep pits, and…uh…campfires?

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Your goal is to accumulate a vast amount of wealth by picking up treasures just lying around in the wilderness for anyone to take them.  The design of the character and the tone of the setting evoke powerful images of…oh, hell with it.  It’s Indiana Jones without the nazis.  Game designers in the eighties loved to push the bounds of plagiarism–but in a good way–and they based all the best games off concepts they saw in movies.  Doesn’t Donkey Kong climbing up the side of a building with a girl bring anything else to mind?  (Just do me a favor and don’t tell me what movie Burger Time came from.)  I find this amazing considering that any game licensed and based on a movie today contains less fun than a lump of coal, with slightly lower replay value.

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But I’ll play this game, and not for the badly pixelated Harrison Ford, either.  As much time as I’ve spent comparing them, Pitfall upped the ante for Mario.  It gave us other things to do in a game besides dodging barrels.  It gave us the concept of attack patterns–yes, you get the rolling logs like the barrels from Donkey Kong, but it also introduces snakes that Harry has to jump over, scorpions that move back and forth, making those jumps more difficult, and crocodiles who periodically open their mouths to swallow you like a gazelle stupid enough to drink from the river.  Holes proved fatal, as far as I know for the first time in video game history, and the player had multiple ways to clear them, either by jumping from crocodile to crocodile like a gazelle too stupid to walk around the small, circular pond, swinging from a rope–at which point the game plays an awkward sound that I eventually figured out was supposed to sound like Tarzan, or he could time his dashes across expanding and contracting pits.

While the historian in me loves the significance of Pitfall, the player in me can’t exactly pinpoint why I tolerate it so well.  It remains, by no stretch of the imagination, the first of the modern platformers.  It sends me on long, challenging levels fraught with instant deaths, and it erase all my progress at the slightest step into the shallow water and forces me to start over.  I can’t say that my limited exposure to this game in my youth makes it new and exciting now–I never played Sega until recently, yet one minute of Sonic the Hedgehog and I’ll break records for how fast I can shut off the game.

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I’d put my money on the difficulty level.  The game pushes you back–you can’t win after only an hour or two of trying.  Yet at the same time, the pacing of the enemies and obstacles don’t wear your nerves.  You handle one or two problems on a screen.  Can you jump to the swinging vine?  Okay, now try it with rolling logs.  You did that?  Great.  Now jump over this rattle snake while dodging logs.  Different problems combine to make new challenges, but you get to deal with these problems in a reasonable manner.  Platform game designers often place too much emphasis on small platforms and large pits, shifting the focus of the entire game to avoiding a plummet to your doom.  Pitfall includes that challenge, but in moderation; you can’t cross certain ponds without jumping from croc head to croc head without falling into the water or stepping kindly into their teeth, but this sort of obstacle only shows up every once in a while, and as soon as you’ve proven your skill at not dying, it goes the hell away for a little while!

Modern platformers can’t handle the concept that once you’ve gotten the hang of something, demanding that you repeat that skill ad infinitum only produces two outcomes: lynching yourself with the controller cord in anger over making a stupid mistake, dying and being sent back to the beginning of the level, or becoming helplessly bored.

Pitfall definitely piques my historical interests, and certainly shows an example of designers pushing past the bounds of their technology.  Granted, the inane infantile nature of the platforming genre doesn’t exactly endear itself to me, so I have to admit I doubt I’ll form fond memories of playing Pitfall until I wet myself because I can’t pry myself away from it long enough to use the toilet, I will break down and say I don’t suffer quite enough while playing it that I’d never go back to it.  I could definitely find worse things to do while I’m waiting for a pizza to arrive.