Monday, January 11, 2010

Monday Game: Cosmic Ark (Atari 2600)

I meant for this to be the Atari-produced Sears-exclusive Stellar Track. Having done the Atari 800 game Star Raiders, which is clearly an elaboration of the '70s mainframe game Star Trek, I wanted to show you a console game that was considerably closer to the original. I was also going to explain how Stellar Track has an annoying quirk in the gameplay that sometimes leaves you stranded mid-game.

Then, while trying to record a game, it left me stranded mid-game enough times that I decided, to hell with it, I'll just do a game that works dependably, like Imagic's Cosmic Ark for the Atari 2600.

Here's how the front page of the instruction manual describes Cosmic Ark:

The sun of Alpha Ro is fading fast! Soon it will flicker out. The Cosmic Ark races to save creatures from doomed planets in that solar system. Meteor showers bombard the Ark, threatening its Atlantean crew--and planetary defense systems make this mission of mercy doubly treacherous! Time and energy slip away--work fast or these defenseless little beasties will disappear for all time.

Note the reference to "its Atlantean crew." Cosmic Ark is "believed," according to Wikipedia (in a statement that should have a "citation needed" tag, but doesn't), to be the first original home video game to present itself as a sequel to an earlier game. At the end of Atlantis, a pod just like the one in this game escapes from the doomed city. That same pod escapes the doomed Cosmic Ark when you lose this game, but unfortunately for the Atlanteans, there was never a second sequel for them to live on in.

I didn't play this one much back in the day. I found the gameplay in the outer space section rather minimal. The only controls are pushing the joystick up, down, left, and right to fire in the respective directions. I appreciate it a little more now, though, because I realize that this was an early example of what they now call a "twitch game": one that gets faster and faster, to the point where you have to be able to respond on a subconscious level to keep up. There's no strategy involved, just reaction time. I still don't like it a whole lot, but I appreciate it. Twitch games make me anxious, and believe me, I don't need that.

Anyway, the planetary surface section is something of a scaled-down Defender, where you position your pod above a lifeform, and hold the trigger down until it beams up. From the second level, you have to do this while avoiding the periodic flashes between the towers on either side.

The Atari 2600 was (in)famously quirky to program. The upside to this, as the programmers discovered, was that they could push the 2600 far beyond what it was originally designed to do by finding ways to make the quirks into features. In the case of Cosmic Ark, the background starfield deliberately utilizes a graphics hardware glitch. Players who found it annoying could switch it off with the color-b/w switch (which was only used for its original purpose in the very earliest games).

What I find most interesting about Cosmic Ark is that it doesn't use the traditional set number of lives. Instead, you have an energy bar that goes down when you fire or lose a ship, and up when you hit a meteor or rescue a lifeform. That contributes to the twitch factor to the outer space section, because you will needlessly lose energy if you fire in the wrong direction, even if you then shoot in the right direction and destroy the meteor. To endure, you have to be quick, and you have to get it right the first time.

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