Sunday, December 27, 2015

Kid's Stuff, Part VIDEO GAMES! Second Quarter: Atari Force #5





The logo is the only connection, and maybe that’s for the best



I didn’t own one, but I knew someone who did. If you grew up in the late 70’s-early 80’s, there was at least one kid on every block who had one. At the time it was the holy grail of home entertainment systems. I’m talking, of course, about the Atari 2600 system.





Introduced to the world in October 1977, the Atari VCS (video computer system, later redubbed the 2600) was built on the market that the glut of “Pong” video games had created. Pong was a table-tennis game rendered completely onscreen. The Pong phenomenon had taken the US by storm after its release created the home video game market in 1975. The following year saw a slew of inexpensive “cloned” Pong consoles, some even including a second “target shooting” game by the clever addition of a light gun and some simple game programming. If you must know the truth, I didn’t have an Atari VCS because my parents bought me a Pong clone.





The VCS had one extremely huge major selling point over all the Pong video games: Cartridges. The Atari system had a port on top where you plugged in a game cartridge. Tired of table tennis? Go out and buy a different cartridge and change games. This flexibility caused the Atari 2600 to wipe out the Pong market almost overnight. It also made me curse myself for asking my parents to buy that Pong clone, since the answer I now got when I asked for an Atari VCS was “You never play with the video game we already bought.” Never mind that Pong required two players and any kid I asked to play Pong would rather go play their 2600.

 

Included with the VCS was the cartridge called “Combat” (which was so way cooler than Pong), and it made a bunch of kids happy on Christmas Day, 1977. In short order the VCS got versions of baseball, football and other sports cartridges that would be sure hot sellers. Less likely to set the world on fire were crazy things like Flag Capture, Hangman and Human Cannonball. Years later, Atari would be licensing games from movies and popular coin operated video titles and among these would be two titles that are ascribed to its downfall. More on them later.



A brief year after the VCS’s introduction saw Atari produce the precursor to all modern day computerized RPGs with the cartridge called simply Adventure. In Adventure you played a knight questing for a grail-like cup. You battled dragons and avoided pesky bats while moving around castle grounds, mazes and hallways. Adventure was way ahead of its time. So far ahead, in fact, that graphics for the game were exceedingly simplified. Your character was a square. The sword could only be rendered in one position, no swish-swishing action. But the worst aspect of all this had to be the Dragons, which looked more like ducks than anything else, tended to jiggle up and down when they chased you and their attacks sounded like the tanks blowing up in Combat. The game was one of the first to feature backdoors and Easter eggs. For a run-through this old-school goodness in flash form, go HERE.

And if you'd rather watch than play, check out the Retromancers reviewing the first Star Wars games in all their 8-bit glory.



By 1979 another player for Atari system game cartridges entered the ring. The company was called Activision and it sported some very familiar faces, having drawn some the top talent from Atari themselves. Sued by Atari for producing games for their system, Activision won the legal right to stay in business and produced some of the 2600’s best games. The cream of their crop was Pitfall! released in 1982. Pitfall! was an Indiana Jones type adventure done up as a side scrolling platform game. It went on to become the best selling title on the 2600 and proved the muscle of well known developers and game designers in the rapidly expanding video game industry.



Wiki also has a very complete list of VCS games located HERE. And if you want to keep up with all things Atari, try the link HERE. Info about the Atari Force comic books has been meticulously detailed HERE.


So what does all of this have to do with Atari Force? 

Well, nothing really. 

This is actually volume 2 of Atari Force. There was a complete five issue mini-series prior to this ongoing series. In the mini-series, five Earthlings lead by Marvin Champion found a new planet for humanity to live on when the Earth became too…heck I don’t know. Stuffy? Wiki says ecological devastation was dooming mankind yet again. 

Anyway, the original team flew in a ship shaped like an Atari logo, had the logo on their shirts, would use references to 2600 games and occasionally have to perform actions that mimicked gameplay from cartridges like Breakout, Defender and Berzerk, among others. As thin as that link between the two products might be, the second series is even thinner, keeping the logo-shaped ship and the logos on the team uniform while abandoning everything else.





The opening of the book has Marvin Champion, looking way beyond middle-age, his teenage son Chris and the enigmatic female warrior Dart looking to steal the Atari shaped spaceship “Scanner One” from the museum where it’s being kept. Scanner One was the ship Marvin and his prior teammates used to find New Earth and defeat the constant menace of the Dark Destroyer. Marvin and Dart believe the Dark Destroyer is still alive (surprise, he is!) and is looking for New Earth to scout out new "real estate investment opportunities." By blowing up it up, of course. What? With a name like “Dark Destroyer” what are you expecting?





Chris’s method of distracting the guard is by phasing through the wall like some kind of ghost and scaring the crap out of the guy. I guess Marvin’s sperm must have had some “complications” as a result of his time spent traveling on Scanner One. My idea guys would be to look for ship that doesn’t irradiated your sperm in such a way as to make your progeny “Casper the Friendly Ghost”.


Notice a couple of things about this panel. First, Chris has chosen the name “Tempest” as his superhero handle. Is there anything about his powers that are wind related? No. Next this guard’s facial expression doesn’t really convey fear as much as it does a kind of expected confusion. Like he’s been smoking some bad space reefer and knew he’d be tripping later. If we could read his speech balloon, I’m sure he’s saying “That’s the last time I buy skunk weed from Jabba the Hutt.” Lastly, the caption right above the title suggests that the five members of Atari force don’t actually meet until this very issue. This is issue 5 of the series. Talk about today’s decompressed storylines and I’ll point you to the first 5 issues of Atari Force. Sheesh!



Also note the pedigree of the talent involved with this issue. Gerry Conway, Ross Andru and Jose Luis Garcia Lopez. All of these guys are top tier writers & artists. Why would they sign on to a project like Atari Force? My thought is the chance to break away from standard superhero stories and the ability to do inventive things like have a team book where the team doesn’t get together until issue 5. The fun of depicting a space opera and drawing alien races and alien landscapes. The thrill of exploring strange new world and seeking out new life. Either that or they were forced into by Joe Orlando.

 


They succeed in stealing the ship. Just as they are about to board her, however, Martin’s doctor butts in. The doctor’s a green, big-headed Canopian alien named Morphea, which is odd because I thought Morphea was something they gave you at the doctors to put you under. The way Morphea talks in annoying “aliens need a cute dialect”, refer-to-myself-in-third-person-speak, she’s going to put me under. Martin doesn’t allow Dart to knock out Doctor “this one” Morphea, for reasons that he just “can’t explain” except for saying “She’s my Doctor.” So Morphea joins up as crew person number four.






Meanwhile, an alien shaped like a big furry rat, whose name just happens to be Pakrat and is a thief by trade, is being chased by his law officer brother Rident. He manages to sneak aboard Scanner One before the hatch fully closes. His brother Rident seems a bit ticked off. I’m thinking it’s because he’s going to have to tell Maus, their Mother and Vermean, their Father. Seriously now, how many alien race names can sound like Earthling English words for giant furry rodent?

 

However he came about his name, with Pakrat on board we have our five Atari Force members. Even if Pakrat doesn’t know he’s doing anything more than hitching a ride, that is. Martin tries to dump Morphea at the refueling station, only to get a counter proposition: She’d sign on as ship’s doctor if they help rescue a patient of hers from the station they are docked at. This patient ends up being a giant, immensely strong alien-elephant lifeform named “Babe” with the mind of a four year-old.




So now we have our sixth team member, which is odd because I distinctly remembering that commentary box on page 2 saying there were only going to be five Atari Force members. Someone needs to go back and recount. (It’s not me, by the way)

 

A criminal inquirie is started back on New Earth with one of Martin’s colleagues from the first series in attendance. Rident states that Martin must be some kind of criminal (well, he is. He did just steal a whole spaceship) and draws the incorrect conclusion that he’s in league with his brother. Martin’s shipmate Dr. Orion (No relation to Darkseid and THAT Orion) tries to set the record straight about Martin, his crew and their altruistic intentions.

 

I’m not certain why the book needs to take time out to restate the obvious. I picked up this exact same information by reading the preceding ten pages. I’m not sure why the writers, or Dr. Orion decided to sum things up for me AGAIN. Guess they thought that the Atari gamers that were this book’s primary audience were all ADD or something. Rident isn’t the least bit swayed by any of this and goes on to flaunt the fact that he’s out of his jurisdiction. But it sounds like he is holding a personal grudge.


The council, possibly mad about having to be in this scene with all the pointless exposition and no action shots, decide to give Rident a ship “on loan”. In their words, “What he does with it is his affair.” My thought is this the council’s way of saying “In your face Dr. Orion! See what happens when you bore us for hours on end with your plot and character summaries. We could have had cool poses. We could have been heroes. Maybe gotten a spin-off mini-series. At least a one shot special. Instead we got four pages of us sitting in chairs. Curse you Dr. Orion.”








As Rident flies away, we get a hint that he’s not playing with a full deck of marbles.

 

Tempest uses his power to leave the crew for a vacation on a tropical island. That’s a pretty handy power to have. I’d love to go to Club Med every night instead of coming home. Pakrat is found by the crew in the meantime and cornered, which is not to his liking.

  
To paraphrase Patrick Swayze: “Nobody puts Pakrat in the corner!” Before anyone can bust out with (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life, Hungry Eyes, or even She’s Like the Wind, Pakrat is stunned and comes to in sickbay. He’s made a part of the crew and everyone heads for the command deck for Martin’s big reveal about what their mission is going to be.




As Pakrat Jar-Jar's it up a bit, you have to wonder why is that probe so important?

 

You mean the mystery enemy everyone else believes died in the first mini-series?




Well at least you’re accepting all the risk for everyone’s lives, Martin.





No pressure there Chris. Dad’s going to give you plenty of time to think about it…




…or not. Wait! Couldn’t you just encrypt the information so Dark Destroyer couldn’t read it?





NO IT WASN’T. Oh well, Good luck Atari Force! If you find the Jupiter 2 space ship, tell Dr. Smith I said “Hi”.





No sooner does the ship slow down from hyperspace or warp drive or multiversal hoof’n it than it comes upon the bad guy’s space ship. Here he is folks. Proof that Martin isn’t crazy.



Although the Vader-ish helmet doesn’t do much for me, I do dig his crazy far-out bent gun. That thing looks like it was designed to shoot around corners and stuff. With Double D’s appearance the story comes to an end. Just like most nights at a strip club.



Atari gaming platform held the playing field for several years, but committed suicide long before the advent of Nintendo’s NES system. Around 1983, public sentiment turned against console gaming. The market was flooded with video game consoles from various manufacturers with their own small library of games, carving up the software that actually made the 2600 so desired. Also a flood of poorly received titles (ET and the port of Pac-Man) were over-produced, leading to lots of red ink at Atari. Add to that the rule of “fifth year decline” that every console since has emulated, and Atari couldn’t develop an alternative to the 2600 that would sustain the company.



As for Atari Force, its days seemed numbered before it even began. The ongoing series got a “game over” with issue number 20 in 1985. Even a one shot special in 1986 failed to revive interest in the series or the characters. Consider it a wasted “continue” quarter. By now, the ins and outs of who owns what part of the property (Just like with ROM) probably make it impossible to produce new AF stories or reprint the old stuff. If outer space sci-fi soap operas turn you on, save up a quarter or two and head to the discount bin.


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