Tag Archives: Retro

Missile Command Retro arcade review

In the early 80’s we were at the height of the nuclear arms race, and the Doomsday clock representing our proximity to a nuclear war between the west and the Soviet Union was at 11:57. Released at the start of the escalation in 1980, Missile Command was a game that came to symbolise that arms race, painting a bleak picture of our chances should the war ever happen.

Missile Command Arcade by Atari
Missile Command by Atari

Charged with control of three anti-missile bunkers, your mission was to defend 6 cities at the bottom of the screen from attack by missiles raining down from the top. This classic arcade game from Atari was one of the first to feature a trackball, a kind of large upside-down mouse wheel, as opposed to the usual joystick control.

You had 3 missile bases from which to launch counter-measures, which destroyed the missiles in mid flight before they could hit your cities, with each missile base having it’s own fire button.

The cursor on the screen controlled where your counter measure would strike, and you had to time firing to ensure the explosion caught the incoming missile in it’s halo.

Careful tactics were required to prevent using up your limited supply of ammo, so timing a shot to take out more than one missile was key to getting to the higher levels of the game. You could also allow a missile to strike a destroyed city and conserve your arsenal.

Destroying all missiles in a wave and keeping at least one city alive would allow you to progress to the next, faster wave. There was no end to the game, just ever faster and more agressive missile attacks, resulting in some frantic trackball spinning.


One of those simple but maddeningly addictive games, it was transferred to home consoles but never quite the same without the speed and accuracy of the trackball.  One of the most successful conversions, despite the blocky graphics and lack of a trackball was the Atari 2600 conversion, which was remarkably playable and captured the essence of the original.  It also featured some great box art, with evocative images of the missile launch control.

More recently the game has been recreated for iPad and iPhone as part of Atari’s Greatest Hits, but is spoiled by the touch screen controls, and only really playable using a bluetooth controller (see my review of the iCade controller).

A great game that sadly is no longer playable in its original form as most working cabinets are now in the hands of private collectors, and finding one in an arcade is very unlikely, at least in the UK.

Battlezone retro arcade game review

Battlezone: The Original Tank Game

Battlezone was a truly unforgettable game from the early days of the arcades, that saw you in control of a tank in a 3D battle against enemy vehicles and space ships, set in a dali-esque landscape of cubes and pyramids.

Battlezone Arcade Screenshot
Battlezone Arcade Screenshot
Battlezone used wireframe vector graphics technology, the same technology that was used in the classic Asteroids, and perfected in the original Star Wars Arcade game. Rather than using a matrix of dots on the screen to make up an image, as used in more common “raster” screen technology, vector screens drew lines directly onto the screen using the cathode ray. The phosphor on the screen glowed just long enough for the line to appear solid and the ray had a chance to redraw the next frame, hence the slight flicker associated with the technology. Due to framerate issues it was impossible to draw solid blocks of colour, hence the characteristic wireframe look to all vector games.

Whereas Asteroids was a 2D experience, Battlezone cretaed a 3D world where objects were continually redrawn based on the relative position of the tank, allowing you to drive towards and past them. Through clever use of parallax scrolling, where wireframe 3D objects in the foreground moved at different speeds to the mountains in the background, the Battlezone playfield also had a sense of depth and distance.

Battlezone Arcade Cabinet
Battlezone Arcade Cabinet

The control system was unique in that you had two parallel joysticks which controlled the two tank tracks, so pushing both forwards moved you forwards, push one to turn left or right, or opposite ways for a fast turn. The cabinet also featured a periscope-like hole through which you viewed the screen. This combined with the 3d had the effect of making the game very immersive, for a while you really were driving a tank.

The trick was to use the terrain to hide behind objects whilst waiting for the enemy to drift into your sights. To help with positioning you had a radar that showed the location of enemies, and due to the slow pace of the tanks, you often found yourself in a race with your opponent to rotate to the correct firing position and get your shot in first – too early on the trigger and you might miss, too late and you would be hit. Being shot yourself resulted in your tank being destroyed, indicated by an explosion and the screen being “cracked”, much better than just saying “game over”.

Reputedly used by the American military for tank training, this game was an instant classic and was converted into home ports for the Atari 2600 and also for PC (DOS) amongst others. I recently downloaded a great ipad port called VectorTankX which is well worth checking out.

Dec 2011 – Atari did eventually notice the similarity between Battlezone and the VectoTankX game, and have had it removed from the ipad store. Shame as this was a great app.

MAME cabinet project update

After dusting off my work in progress MAME cabinet, following a hiatus of about 6 years, I’m determined to get the job completed. After a quick parts inventory I found I actually had most of the bits and pieces I need lying around the house, so set to work.

Cabinet painting

Mame Cabinet Control Panel
Finished Control Panel

The cabinet itself was half primed, and so just need a quick rub down and the primer applied to the remaining bare MDF surfaces. I then applied the first coat of black latex-based paint that I had used for the control panel – you can see the effect after the first coat below. I used a small paint roller and applied a thin coat to ensure the finish was nice and even. I estimate 3 or 4 coats to do this properly, based on my experience with the control panel. It’s finally starting to look like a proper cabinet!

Control Panel Preparation

The control panel box had previously been primed and painted, and I had primed the control panel as well as drilling the cut-outs for the buttons and joysticks. The perspex overlay was also drilled, and so I only needed to paint the primed panel with black paint. This also took 4 coats to fully cover the white primer.

I had a mixture of Happ buttons from a kit I previously bought, but not enough of the right colours to complete the two colour red/blue look I wanted. I also needed some flat head bolts to hold the joysticks in place, so I ordered the components from Gremlin Solutions. I also took the opportunity to buy some plastic T-Molding to put around the panel and the exposed machine edges. I had already used a router to create the slot for the molding so this will just be pushed in place when the panel is complete.

On receiving the remaining items I started to assemble, using the buttons themselves to hold the already drilled perspex in place. At this stage I realised the holes were a bit snug, and the paint had reduced the diameter of the holes even further, so a Stanley blade was used to chip away the paint, MDF and perspex. Fortunately the rough edges were hidden by the ridge around each button, but next time I will make the holes slightly bigger! Drilling the holes for the joystick bolts was slightly nerve wracking, as I had to drill directly through the perspex, and a crack at this stage would write off the whole panel, but all went well. Slow and steady and not too much pressure, and the drill just sailed through the perspex layer. The flat bolts also do a great job of holding the perspex in place, without snagging on your hand when using the joysticks.

I’m really pleased with the look of the panel, the perspex gives it a professional looking finish, and the buttons and joysticks feel just right – particularly with the micro switches in place, which give just the right level of resistance.

Wiring the control panel

MAME cabinet Control Panel Wiring
Control Panel Wiring

I already had an Ultimarc Minipac control panel interface, which I had previously bought on ebay as part of a kit. The Minipac came with a pre-wired harness, complete with spade connectors to link directly to the micro switches on each button and on the joysticks. Unfortunately my control panel layout was too big for the pre-wired harness, so some of the connections had to be extended using some additional wire acquired from Maplin. The black “common wire” which provides the power to each switch had some extra spade connections so I could stretch this to fit by just missing out a couple. All power to the PCB is through the keyboard interface to the PC, so no external power source is needed.

Although it looks complicated, the wiring process is relatively straightforward, as long as you take your time. It’s a bit if a birds nest at the moment but when I have tested the panel I will use cable ties to tidy up the harness.

Testing the MAME PC interface

With all the button and joystick switches connected, the panel was ready to test. I am using an old Dell Optimpex PC to run MAME, connected to a widescreen LCD monitor which I hope to mount on a swivel stand to allow horizontal and vertical display options without losing screen resolution. The PCB uses a PS2 type interface (the latest versions use USB connectors) so I had to buy a PS2 to PS2 cable on ebay. Powering on the PC, the PCB seemed to light up, but then the light went off. Using the setup software from Ultimarc, the PC did not seem to recognise the joystick movements or button presses, and a reboot did not help.

So I’m leaving this update on a slight cliffhanger (ooh the suspense), I think there may be a jumper missing from the PCB to tell it to

Close up of MAME control panel micro switches
Close up of micro switches

operate in PS2 mode, or it may be the Dell PC or Windows XP not recognising the PS2 connection. At least I have a great looking control panel, and worse case scenario I need to spend £30 on a new board with a USB link.

In my next update I’m hoping to have a working control panel, and finally have the MAME software running.

Gyruss arcade retro review

I found this game on holiday in Spain, around the same time that I discovered another Konami classic, Track & Field. This was in the early 80’s, a time when games arcades were massively popular and new games were launched seemingly on a weekly basis.

Gyruss arcade flyer
Gyruss arcade game flyer
Gyruss was a memorable arcade shooter for 2 main reasons, the first being the Tempest-like 3D perspective, where your ship travelled in a circle around the screen, with aliens emerging from the centre and flying out towards you. The aliens also fired various missiles as you spun around the edge of the screen, which was slightly disorientating as you looped left to right and top to bottom. Clearing each section advanced you closer to the next “planet”, flying through the solar system.

The other memorable feature for me was the fantastic music, a version of Bachs Toccata and Fugue that perfectly matched the pace of the action on screen. I would play for the music alone, which seemed to blast out of the speakers on all the cabs I played this on.

Gyruss arcade game screenshot
Gyruss arcade game screenshot

Between stages there were bonus sections, which Galaga-style allowed you to rack up points for clearing all enemies on a specific flight path. If you managed to shoot the mother ship you would pick up a “double fire” bonus that helped you clear the bonus screen more easily. This was a great risk reward mechanism, as the mother ship was well armed and defended by wingmen, and you had to work for it.

Simple in format but a great score chaser, you could play this all day and not get bored.

Apparently this was released on the NES – And here is a great review by Nintendo Legend. Gyruss was also released on the Atari 2600, which could only be a disappointment after the brilliance of the arcade original. The game even made it onto XBOX Live arcade, remastered in HD.

Moon Patrol for the Atari 2600

Moon Patrol was a classic 2600 conversion of the arcade game of the same name. Developed by Irem and launched by Williams, this side scrolling driving game was the first of its kind. The arcade version also featured parallax scrolling, a simple optical illusion where different background graphics move at different speeds to give the illusion of depth.

moon patrol marquee Atari 2600
moon patrol marquee Atari 2600

Moon Patrol Atari 2600 version

Back to the 2600 version and your mission, as pilot of the moon patrol vehicle, was to traverse the lunar surface, avoiding multiple challenges along the way, and complete the journey as quickly as possible. Sounds pretty basic, but this was an Atari 2600, and backstory was not always a huge feature of these early games!

Moon Patrol Atari 2600
Atari 2600 Moon Patrol
The classic Atari “orange button” joystick allowed you to speed up or slow down by pushing left or right, and pushing up would jump – handy for getting over the craters and also for jumping missiles or other enemy characters, rocks and landmines.

Multiple waves of enemy ships would drop missiles, which also need to be avoided, especially those that create new craters with their bombs. You also suffered ground based attacks from the rear by enemy buggys, which you had to jump to get in front of you and destroy, as well as oncoming enemy tanks. Fortunately you were armed with a laser that fired both forwards and upwards, destroying both enemy ships and obstacles. The game required careful thought as to when to shoot and when to jump, and whether a long jump could clear several obstacles at once, requiring a lot of strategy for a humble 2600 game.

Successfully clear 5 zones with increasingly agressive enemies, and more and more tricky obstacles, and you start again on a new difficulty level.

Moon Patrol had the kind of simple gameplay mechanic that translated well on the seminal Atari console, and this was a well executed example, and still playable today.

Amidar arcade game retro review

Apart from Amidar, in what other arcade game can you play the part of a paint roller being chased my evil pigs? None other that’s what. Just Amidar.

In 1981 Stern/Konami launched this arcade game onto a public that was recovering from Pac-Man, launched in the previous year, and Amidar featured many similarities.

Amidar Arcade Game screenshot

In the first level of Amidar you play the a plucky Gorilla who must collect coconuts dotted around random shaped tiles, whilst avoiding the tribesmen patrolling the maze. Eat all of the coconuts around a tile and the tile is coloured in. Colour in the corner tiles and (pacman style) you become invulnerable for a while. As an added defence mechanism, if you are trapped by a tribesman you can use one of three “jumps” to make him bounce over you.

On the next levels it gets more weird, with you playing a paint roller who must evade murderous porkers whilst colouring in adjacent squares. Try to stray too far from your last coloured square and the paint runs out and you have to go back. This makes these even numbered levels a lot more tricky, with careful planning required to complete the stage.

If that is not weird enough for you, in between levels there is a bonus stage which requires you to send a pig down one of a number of pathways, a bit like those kids puzzles in pizza restaurants, in order to pick up the bonus bananas and 5000 points. Why bananas? Surely this would be a bonus for a Gorilla, not a pig?

On both levels the enemy behaviour is pretty predictable, with no “homing” in on the player, except for one character who will start to chase you after a certain time period has passed. On later levels the number of enemies increases, and the time taken for the enemy to home in on you reduces, as well as the grids becoming more complex to navigate.

As well as the classic arcade version, there were home ports for the Atari 2600, and various conversions under a variety of names for the home consoles, my favourite being Crazy Tracer for the BBC Micro – Acornsoft also did versions of Pac Man, Mr Do, Galaxians, and were quite good at this.

Amidar feels like a classic, it has everything an old school arcade game should have: black background, lives and scores at the top, credits at the bottom, catchy tune and simple but colourful graphics and addictive, score chasing gameplay. Not a game that everyone raves about but in my opionion they should.