Wednesday, 2 May 2012

The Ballad of M-Network

As we all know, Mattel had a horse in the early-80’s home console race known as the Intellivision, which was a direct competitor to the market-leading Atari 2600. 

In an attempt to snag a small piece of the Atari 2600 action, Mattel created a division called M-Network, which released games for the competing Atari; many of which were simple conversions of games that already existed for the Intellivision. 

You always hear Atari 2600 aficionados exalting the works of third-party houses like Activision and Imagic—and deservedly so for the most part—but also-rans like M-Network seem to have been relegated to footnote status.  I’m not sure that’s entirely fair in this case, because the M-Network body of work constitutes a very solid and consistently playable subset of the Atari 2600 catalog.  This distinction is noteworthy in its own right, but is made even more conspicuous against the backdrop of a marketplace that was doomed to become so saturated with disposable dreck that it would eventually collapse under its own dead weight in ’83-’84. 

Intellivision cart (left) and M-Network Atari 2600 cart.
Evidently, marketing at M-Network was not tackled with the same rigor as game development; the physical products were essentially Intellivision cartridge casings with “adapters” hacked on to the bottom so that they would fit properly into the Atari 2600.  I’m not sure if this was done as a cost-saving measure or if it was an ill-conceived “brand recognition” scheme; what I do know is that the aesthetics of M-Network cartridges lack that elusive play-me-now magnetism that various contemporaries infused into their products by means of fancy artwork and labels.  I know we’re always told to not judge books by their covers, but let's face it—in the headspace of a 10 year-old kid, superficial appeal is the only reliable gateway to a desire for further exploration.

What follows is a rundown of my 5 favourite M-Network titles.

#5 - BURGERTIME.  Even among Atari 2600 enthusiasts—a group typically characterized by a willingness to look beyond audiovisual superficialities in search of a game’s true soul—I don’t get the impression that my opinions on this version of Burgertime are widely shared.  To me, this game succeeds as a port because the addictive gameplay of the arcade version remains largely intact, with few glaring omissions.  You play the role of a chef attempting to build hamburgers by dropping ingredients from the upper platforms to the plates below, while avoiding various bad guys.  Your only defense against your pursuers is a pepper attack, which stuns them momentarily, allowing you to escape from tight situations.  I will concede that the shoddily rendered enemies bear little resemblance to the walking food items found in the arcade original, but other than that, it’s all here—right down to the silly music.  

Burgertime arcade (left) and Atari 2600.

#4 - SUPER CHALLENGE BASEBALL.  Ok, I acknowledge that this game is a little bit hard on the eyes by modern standards; but as retro gamers, we should downplay the importance of visual presentation and focus on the fun factor when gauging the merits of games from this era.  This title is the earliest baseball video game that I remember being any fun to play.  Sure, the limitations of the platform are evident all over the place; but for a sheer smack-talkin’, high-fivin’, spit-ballin’ good time at the retro-virtual ballpark, this game delivers.  By comparison, Atari’s very own Real Sports Baseball plays like a wretched pile of maggot shit, thanks to its half-baked feel and throw-the-batter-out-at-first-from-left-field brand of realism.

I don't know about you, but I can almost smell the hotdogs.

#3 - BUMP 'N' JUMP.  This is another arcade game brought to the Atari 2600 by M-Network, and pixel for pixel, I think it’s a better port than Burgertime.  You are provided with an overhead view of the action, as you drive your car along vertically-scrolling roads, rubbing fenders with all kinds of enemy vehicles that are trying to run you off the road.  You periodically encounter water and other obstacles that require you to leap into the air to survive, which is a big part of what makes this game so endearing.  The length of your jump depends on how fast you’re moving at the time you hit the button, so Sunday drivers are sure to come up short on most of the trickier jumps.  The graphics are quite basic compared to the arcade version, but the mechanics and general feel of the original game are represented very faithfully in this rendition.  

Bump 'n' Jump arcade (left) and Atari 2600.

#2 - ARMOR AMBUSH.  Combat-shmombat!  For my money, Ambush is the ultimate tank death-match experience on the Atari 2600.  The controls and general gameplay are admittedly lifted straight from Atari’s pack-in classic, but there are several enhancements.  The graphics are better, the level designs are made more interesting by means of varying terrain, and best of all, each player is provided with two onscreen tanks per round.  The ability to switch between your two tanks at will provides a strategy element that is missing from Combat.  Rather than run on the ubiquitous 136-second timer, matches are won by the first player to score 25 hits on his opponent. 

In Armor Ambush, players are provided with one tank and one CX-40 each.

#1 - ASTROBLAST.  This title is based on the Intellivision game Astrosmash.  In it, you slide a base left and right along the bottom of the screen and blast away at falling rocks and various enemies.  I know how generic and commonplace that sounds, but this game is definitely a cut above the standard fare.  What really makes this game stand out is that you are given the option to use paddle controllers (joysticks may also be used).  The smoothness and precision provided by the analog control make for a very engaging and addictive space-shooter experience.  Another interesting feature is that you actually have points deducted from your score for every  rock or enemy you fail to destroy, which forces you to dive right into the action to keep your head above water.  Not only is Astroblast much more fun than the Intellivision game on which it is based, but I think it just might be one of the most underrated games available on the Atari 2600.        

Elegant simplicity: Astroblast is a kick-ass retro gaming experience.
   Well folks that's all for now.  Until next time!


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