The reviews

A-M | N-Z

New to the Color Computer? Learn a bit about it and the terminology I use here.

Want to submit a review or offer a second opinion? E-mail me and I'll post them.

These are graded from "A" to "F" based mostly on my opinion of them, although the collective opinion of reviews from the era and the CoCo gaming community also factor in a bit, especially when I feel my opinion might be seriously out-of-whack with majority opinion. Also, these are graded on a curve relative to other CoCo games. Brutal as it sounds, I would probably lower all of their scores anywhere from half to a full letter grade if matched against competing platforms.

Games with a "play online" option can be found at Brad Grier's amazing Mocha emulator site, while the individual games offered for download come from L. Curtis Boyle's invaluable CoCo games site. Thanks to both of them for their huge efforts in keeping our beloved titles of the past alive.

Nerble Force (C+)
A Defender game that in some strange ways is more than the sum of its parts - but still something of a mediocre effort nonetheless.

The graphics are large and blocky (even though it looks like it was programmed in high-res mode - uh, why use all that memory and then make everything look so crappy?). The flicker is terrible, easily on par with Atari's 2600 version of Defender, which in my opinion rivals only that console's Pac-Man cart for the worst flicker of all time award. Gameplay also at times seems to feel more like the 2600 than the arcade. And yet, for some reason, it didn't feel like an all-out terrible game when I played it. In some ways it even felt closer to the real thing than a lot of other versions (Planet Invasion, etc.) that overall are higher quality games.

Mostly it's for little things. The graphics and scale of things, blocky as they are, are closer to the arcade than a lot of other versions. The landers and other other enemies, even if overly pixelated, similarly look more like the real thing than elsewhere. You also get the animated explosions of the arcade. And the controls are simple as they ought to be in a home version - although I haven't figured out how to use smart bombs or hyperspace - if they're even offered on this version.

Nuclear Reactor Simulator (C+)
April 1983 Co-author Chris Latham also wrote Donkey King, a clone of the similarly named coin-op many consider the best CoCo game ever. That alone merits a recommendation even if the programmers concede it's "not a state of the art masterpiece." The Rainbow hired Latham and John Erickson to write this as an example and promotion for the magazine's first simulation contest, and the result is a simple but pleasing diversion. The player uses simple keyboard commands to manipulate pumps, valves and other functions that control temperatures and other operations. Instructions are provided in the program, but the article does a far more thorough job explaining how a nuclear plant functions, and what had to be left out due to time and CoCo hardware limits. One important note, which should be kept in mind when searching for other files on virtual disks and cassettes: I found the program on the March 1983 Rainbow On Tape file, rather than the April issue. Presumably it's an archiving error and should be kept in mind if other files aren't where you expect them.

Offender (C)
This was an early version of Defender by Greg Zumwalt, who went on to write a bunch of stuff for Radio Shack. As such it might have found an audience, but the game had a lot of rough edges that later incarnations would avoid.

The graphics are pretty simplistic, if smart bombs exist I never figured out where they were and the joystick controls are such that it's possible to get way out of control speedwise (yes, even beyond the lunacy of the arcade). It's not one of those truly awful conversions that were a little too common for comfort, but anyone familar with the original probably was able to pick out better renditions just by looking at the photos in magazine ads. But, hey, it was early in the CoCo's life...

One on One (C)
Hey! The CoCo gets a version of one of the great sports games of the time! And it's written by CoCo whiz Steve Bjork, so it ought to be great! Oh, no! I'm wrong and it turns out the greatest feeling of excitement comes from from an overuse of exclamation points!

I first encountered this game on the Apple II and absolutely loved it. You get to choose to play Larry Bird or Dr. J., two of the biggest names in the NBA game at the time (today I guess it'd be Kobe, Garnett, Duncan or whoever squaring off since Michael is gone). Each has their strengths and weaknesses (Bird was much better), in things as such as 3-point shooting, leaping ability, speed and so on. You picked one of four skill levels, the length of the game and a few other rules such as who gets the ball after a basket (remember, in street ball the "make it, take it" rule is standard).

The game is half-court, with dunks, fouls steals, a referee, free throws and even a backboard that shatters if you slam just right (happened maybe once every 10 games for me). The controls were simple, yet there was a lot to master, pretty much one of the essentials for any good game. Fatigue, hot streaks and other "intangibles" end up being a part of your success or failure as well. For those used to the control-everything nature of today's sports games it's all pretty tame, but back then this was pretty great stuff.

Anyhow, most conversions of this are a lot of fun. But the CoCo version gets schooled. It's pokey, doesn't look all that great and - something that drove me nuts - simply allows no 3-pointers at all to be made - I tried hundreds of times with both plays and never made one. You just know this could have been done better, but without many other options basketball fans either bought this one or took a seat on the CoCo video game bench. This is one of those times when I thought Steve might be getting tired of writing CoCo stuff and was just mailing it in on popular titles. Too bad, really, because he always was sort of a programming icon for me. But I'm sure he might also have plenty to say on the limitations of the CoCo and trying to program all those intangibles in there.

Pac Tac (C) and Pac Tac II (C+)
These Pac-Man genre games are pretty much what'd you expect from looking at them - subpar adoptions that don't look or play a whole lot like the real thing. There's only three monsters and far too many energizers to make things interesting, but these games do have a redeeming quality or two. Most notably, they capture far better than most the movement/tracking of the player and ghosts. Too many other games, including the so-called premium titles, seem to have the monsters moving randomly. Here they pursue you with some logic and, true to form, your Pac-Thing is best off trying to lose them on corners where he has the speed edge. Not really enough to save the games from the dust bin, but it's something.

The difference between the games is Pac Tac II is done in high-res graphics, but otherwise they are exactly the same right down to gameplay and sound. In the end, that ends up being a compliment to the first version, which seems like a pretty good lo-res game, where it's sequel feels like a very inferior high-res version. Sort of an expectations thing, I guess.

Panic Button (B)
This was a pretty cool and original ROM pack game from Radio Shack involving the building of cakes as various layers of them dropped onto conveyor belts. You have to grab and assemble them in the proper order before they fall off or you're toast. I don't know if it's coincidence or not, but I've seen variations on this theme show up from time to time on assorted platforms (Pie Man on the Apple II, Pressure Cooker for the Atari 2600, etc.) and they always say the same thing: A highly original game that's fun to play. So obviously the concept works.

The title Panic Button comes from a button you can press near the top of the screen that freezes action for a bit, but it has limited usage. Stuff drops faster and in a less regular and organized fashion as you progress, although at a reasonable rate of difficulty.

Every two screens you get an intermission where you get to throw a cake at your boss, which is cute the first time or two and then just becomes a quick press-the-button-and-let's-get-on-with-it exercise. All in all, a good diversionary game that isn't any threat to become a classic.

Paper Route (B+)
The ads for this conversion of the Atari coin-op game Paperboy simply blew me away when I saw them - like a lot of Diecom games at the time - thinking the graphics looked phenominal and wondering how they managed to port such a complex title to the CoCo. Well, it took me years to find out (until the age of emulators allowed me to try it for free) and in general I'd say Dave Dies did a pretty good job of capturing the arcade's version - probably better than some of the company's other efforts that are simply far too slow to get the maximum enjoyment out of.

The object of the game is to navigate your bike down the street, which scrolls in a "three-quarters" 3D perspective like Zaxxon, delivering papers to houses that subscribe to your fine publication. Miss the house and they cancel their subscription. Miss everyone and the game ends. You have to avoid cars, pedestrians, street grates and other hazards; you can also earn extra points for doing things like breaking the windows of houses which don't subscribe to your paper. It wasn't a runaway hit at the arcades, but did develop a pretty loyal following during its lifespan as a coin-op.

The action is still somewhat slow and choppy here, but things at least move along at a very playable speed. I'm not familiar with the more advanced screens on either version, but nearly all the elements of the arcade game seem to be captured here. Control is also pretty good. Sound, as usual, is comparatively awful.

Pengon (B-)
OK, but certainly not great, conversion of Pengo, one of my favorite coin-op games of all time (maybe it's because of my interest in the Antarctic and all other things cold and polar). This title is a lot more faithful to the original than some other versions (Tom Mix's early title Warehouse Mutants was particularly awful), but there's a long way to go before this will capture the feel and charm of the real thing.

You get five selectable skill levels, which is great, but everything else really doesn't work all that well. The enemies appear all at once, often nearly on top of you, causing that inexcusable situation where the player dies through no fault of their own. The playfield resets itself randomly after you die, robbing you of the key strategic element of knowing where your blocks are and setting things up for the kill (or the diamond blocks for the "freeze everything" bonus). The playfield is far too crowded with blocks of ice, and the graphics and animation are rather choppy and something below top-notch. It's playable, but I'd be disappointed had I paid money for it as a youth.

Phantom Slayer (C+)
A simpler, lower resolution, less interesting 3D maze game than Dungeons of Daggorath - sort of. Actually, it's sort of meant to be a 3D maze shoot-'em-up (Doom for the CoCo?), but anyone familiar with DOD will find this game a rather boring letdown. It's not a bad game, just a case of knowing there's something more fun out there.

I'm not sure when Ken Kalish wrote this, but I'd guess it was an early effort and, if so, probably deserves a bit more praise as a diversion compared to what was available at the time. You're in a randomly generated maze (there are options for types of mazes and gameplay speed) and your task is to wander around and slay the lurking phantoms (imagine that, given the title). Movement is square-by-square in the maze, rather than the perfect pixel-by-pixel movement today's gamers get, but the effect is largely the same.

This is an OK diversion for people not wanting to deal with the depth and time commitment of DOD if they're in the mood for 3D, but there's also plenty of other fun 3D games out there for the taking (Rommel 3D, anyone?).

Pinball (D-)
Geeze, I pity the fool with this ROM cart - in this case the Radio Shack salesman who actually tried to demo it as part of his sales pitch when trying to convince our family what a great machine the CoCo was. Thank goodness they had some real games on hand - and my overly enthusiastic ravings about the machine - so he could close the deal.

I was going to expound on the pathetic playfield, horrible ball physics and totally lame effort to add some value by allowing players to design their own tables, but the whole thing sucks so bad I get tired and fatigued just trying to recall the details. So I'm moving on.

Pinball (tape version) (F)
Holy cow, this thing is lame! I thought I'd never see anything worse than Radio Shack's Pinball ROM cart, but this easily takes the cake. What's more, it's written in machine language, which makes me think somebody may have tried to sell this as a commercial game in the first days of the CoCo's history.

You use a paddle instead of flippers to keep the ball in play on an incredibly primitive field. The ball's physics are absurd and all too often it disappears from one of the side exits no matter what the player does. So games are short and never likely to get longer since skill is no factor here - not that you care whether you get any points for hitting the blobs on the screen in the meantime. If this was anything other than a programming exercise it was a total waste.

Pitfall II (B+)
(Play online)
A good conversion of one of the most outstanding games ever seen on an Atari 2600. This title was converted on a number of platforms, but frequently didn't advance things much beyond the 2600's capabilities, so any such shortcomings won't be docked here.

This game takes the original Pitfall concept much further, as you guide Harry through a large network of underground caverns instead of simply through a bunch of screens with vines, crocodiles and snakes. It feels a lot more like a true platform exploring game, with dozens of screens, and many more enemies and challenges. And a bonus (sort of) is you never die - every time you hit something "fatal" you're transported back to the last in a series of crosses you can touch as you progress. It can be a somewhat slow and annoying process, but it beats starting from scratch after losing three guys.

The CoCo version has decent, not spectacular, graphics and the typical minimum of sound. The action is smooth and decently paced. The one major frustration I have with this - and I'm sure it's the case with other versions - is you can't save games. This is one of those games I played a bunch of times until I actually completed it, but completing the entire thing took several hours in one sitting (other more competent gamers can do it in less, I'm sure), and I don't know how many people have that much time to spare. An emulator with a "freeze state" option is definitely recommended. Still, tough not to recommend one of the few quality classics in gaming that got officially ported to the Color Computer.

Pitstop II (B-)
(Play online)
This is a game that does everything right except for one critical detail, to be revealed shortly (and for once it's not speed). It's a racing game in the Pole Position tradition with two great touches: You have to service your car during pit stops to account for all the wear and tear on the track (and the worse you drive, the more maintenance is needed) and you can compete head-to-head with a second player - a top/bottom split screen shows third-person perspectives of both cars. The computer controls one of these cars in single-player mode.

When it comes to presentation, everything about this game impresses: The graphics are top-notch; you get a choice of tracks, difficulty level and other race options such as number of laps to race for races; your scores are pitted against a roster of other drivers, carrying over cumulatively for several races if you're so inclined; and the speed and sound of everything is definitely a cut above average for a CoCo game.
The action is the pits is a great touch, even if all you do is hook a fuel hose up (make sure you disconnect before it overflows or you have to start over) and make a rather pokey crew change your tires.

So what's the problem? The actual track racing turns out to be the weakest part of the game, a rather undesirable thing to have as its greatest weakness. It's competent, but never exciting. The challenge of steering and staying on the track is never all that great and the interaction with other cars is pretty sparse and tame - except for head-to-head matchups in two-player games. Still, it didn't stop me from keeping this near the front of my software collection and the other elements are strong enough that it remains a quality strategic racing title. For pure arcade action, however, Michtron's Speed Racer gets the nod by a moderate margin (and the same overall grade).

Planet Invasion (C)
(Play online)
OK version of Williams Electronics' mega-hit coin-op game Defender, but this CoCo conversion by Spectral Associates won't make anyone think they're playing the real thing. Everything's too small on the screen, movement is way too fast and it doesn't really retain the arcade's feel when it comes to gameplay and enemy behavior. It fares best if you think of it as a close relative of the coin-op that is an OK shooter to pass the time. There's plenty of other Defender copies out there and they all seem to suffer from differing flaws to this degree, so maybe a first-rate version was just out of the CoCo's reach. Speed doesn't equate with difficulty here, by the way - I always did better on this than the coin-op version, at which I was one of the worst players ever.

Polaris (B+)
(Play online)
This early ROM cart from Radio Shack is a really nice unofficial version of Missile Command, where your job is to prevent the end of the world by shooting down nuclear warheads as they streak toward your six islands at the bottom the screen in waves that increase in speed and points awarded. It was one of those rare titles that gave me a feeling of superior smugness, since I consider it much better than the versions for a number of other computer and video game platforms that were earning raves from gamers.
People still consider the Atari 2600, 5200 and home computer versions to be all-time classics, for example, but I've never enjoyed them all that much. The so-called "dead-on" Atari 2600 version only allows three shots at a time instead of the eight in the coin-op version, for instance, a fatal flaw for the "spray the entire screen full of missiles" strategy I used when paying quarters to fight my futile struggles against world destruction. And in all versions you only got one missile base with 30 missiles instead of three with 10 (with the added strategy challenge of dealing with missiles fired at differing speeds from different bases). I'm sorry, but that is another TOTALLY LAME omission that kills the feeling that you're wasting your allowance (or lunch money) at the local arcade instead of attending class or getting your chores done at home. And controlling things with an Atari joystick instead of a trackball? Give me a break.

OK, with that rant out of the way: Somehow Radio Shack actually got things right for a change: There are three bases, those crappy analogue joysticks are perfect for trackball-style movement and all the key elements of the arcade version are captured. Even those blocky CoCo graphics are perfectly acceptable here, since the arcade version had the same sort of jagged lines pretending to be nuclear warheads. The "hey, we're not infringing on your copyright" change is you're firing missiles from subs and trying to save islands, instead of shooting from mountains to defend your cities. Yeah, that's enough to make it an original game. Actually, it's amusing that such pathetic changes are enough to satisfy the lawyers, courts or whoever rules the video game waters on matters such as these.

Pooyan (B)
Nice conversion by Steve Bjork of an obscure arcade game - this is one of those titles that got ported to a whole bunch of systems for reasons not completely clear. The one thing I remember him discussing about this game is how it has 30 objects moving smoothly at once - the most possible for a CoCo. His claim is mostly on: For the most part all that stuff moves smoothly and well, but it does bog down during some really busy periods. Even if the game isn't perfect, the programming certainly was well done.

You control a pig in a basket, who moves up and down of a tree fortress on the right side of the screen, shooting arrows and an occasional summer sausage (huh? more in a minute on this) at wolves who are out to get your chinny-chin-chin. This is what I loved about the '80s - people came up with some really weird ideas. There are three waves, each featuring a certain number of wolves who come out in groups and do their thing. In the first you shoot them as they descend by parachute from the top of the screen to the bottom - those that succeed climb into the tree where your shooter is and will try to push you out of your basket as you pass. It's not instant death, but it makes life pretty difficult. In the second wave you shoot wolves as they try to catch balloons to the top of a cliff, where a rock is waiting to be pushed over onto you. If seven wolves succeed, they have enough to accomplish their goal and this time it DOES mean instant death. This wave is also a bit more challenging because there are a lot of extra balloons, which get in the way of the ones the wolves have hitched a ride on.

By the way, I neglected to mention the wolves spend a lot of their time throwing rocks at you. Get hit, you die.

The third wave is a bonus stage, where you basically get to shoot fruits and veggies hurled at you by the wolves for points. Subsequent waves feature more wolves coming at you in more difficult attack patterns.

In addition to arrows, you get to fight with that occasional summer sausage, sort of the "smart bomb" of the food world I guess. They are available at the top of the screen every so often for the taking and allow one shot that is vastly more effective than your arrows. A well-timed one can take out an entire group of wolves if they are lined up right. Makes no sense when I describe it here, of course, but you'll figure it out 15 seconds after starting the game.

I'm not a huge fan of the pastel PMODE 3 graphics Steve chose to use for this conversion, but I'm not sure any of the other choices available would have been better, so I kinda overlook this and eventually get so engrossed by the game I don't really notice it anymore. All in all, worth a few plays every now and then, but like the arcades there are simply other games that are more fun to play (hey, is that Robotron machine finally free?).

Project Nebula (A-)
(Play online)
One of Radio Shack's rare early gems, this is a first-person space shooter based roughly on Atari's overwhelmingly popular Star Raiders. You guide a ship around from sector to sector, seeking out and destroying enemy fighters. It has tons of cool stuff to keep things interesting, beginning with the options - you can choose to train with a target shooting option or go on full-blown missions, with 10 adjustable degrees of difficulty.

Gameplay is great and fast-paced, going nicely beyond the mere seeking out and destroying of ships. Take hits and various parts of your ship start malfunctioning - you might be able to warp, for example, but it's anyone's guess what sector you'll end up in - requiring docking visits at friendly space stations. Control requires two joysticks, but doesn't feel overly complex (those sorry non-centering Radio Shack joysticks actually are very well-suited for this game; one controls your speed, for instance, so if you just keep one or both sticks on the tabletop it feels like you're at the controls of a real ship).

The only hang-up I have: Making sure you don't confuse this game with the vastly inferior Quasar Commander (see below), another ROM pack sold by Radio Shack that came out before Project Nebula (walk into a store and say "I want that cool 3-D space shooter game" and it was always possible the salesman could end up giving you the wrong one). Why they bothered to continued to sell both is beyond me (OK, Quasar was $20, Nebula was $30 - ouch). Of course, in today's era of free (and probably illegal) downloads, getting the wrong title wastes little more than a few zeros and ones on your hard drive. (OK - here's a stupid random thought - when, if ever, did anyone ever manage to write useful code for anything by simply typing in zeros and ones? Now THAT would be a damned impressive bit of programming.)

Prospector (B-)
First and foremost, it should be noted this platformer was offered to CoCo fans through Rainbow magazine and, in my humble opinion, may be the finest game ever published by them. Of course, this genre is one of my favorites, which may have something to do with my high opinion of it. In any event, this title is generally on par with plenty of commercial releases, with some problems that keep it from being a true classic.

There are 50 screens that your man must navigate, avoiding bad guys while filling in holes in the girders. You repair them by lowering yourself into them and then climbing out. You avoid the nasty enemies by hiding in the holes or jumping over them. The game offers a number of options, including number of men, starting level (a true godsend), monster intelligence and so on. Outstanding touches that more games should include.

Graphics and sound are generally at least in the competent range for a commercial release - again something you normally would never find in a magazine. But I found the controls a bit frustrating, making it hard to progress through the levels. Feeling like the game rather than your skills are keeping you from progressing is a pretty tough thing to set aside.

Quasar Commander (C-)
One of the original nine ROM carts from Radio Shack, this should have been deep-sixed from their catalogue as soon as Project Nebula (see above) came out. It's a marginally competent 3-D space shooter, but comes up short in depth, graphics and just about everything else compared to its successor. Not worth the effort unless you're a student of early CoCo programming.

Queer Bert (C+)
I'm guessing this version of Qbert is probably a hacked version of a game by a real company, but I'm not sure which one. Some of the stuff is pretty derogatory, like referring to the player as a "whore." Pretty juvenile stuff. Maybe fitting though, since this version is pretty much inferior in every way to Spectral Associates Cubix (reviewed elsewhere). It's not a terrible throw-it-away-now title, but it lacks charm and logic in a lot of its gameplay.

Movement is weird, to begin with. You have to press the fire button on the joystick every time you want to move. Uh, whatever. Control is less than precise. Sound is OK, but Cubix does much better for the most part. And it just feels less polished overall. Political correctness aside, go for the better versions.

Quix (B-)
An OK version of the coin-op arcade game Qix. I always liked the original as something to play a few games of at a time, if not something I could spend all afternoon at. Quix, by Tom Mix Software, carries off most of the gameplay elements well enough, but lacks a bit of the feel and charm of the pay-for-play version.

For starters, the Quix is a straight line without a lot of intelligence (at least at first) instead of the flashy multiline prowler of the original. The sparx are missing in the first screen - good for novices, but boring for the rest of us. And sound, of course, as none of the arcade's charm.

But you could (and many certainly have) find worse versions of this out there. I can't remember the title or author, but someone actually did a version of this in BASIC that was published in some magazine. Now that was a totally slow and unplayable game, even if it taught some interesting programming techniques (probably the best thing to come out of a lot of those so-called "action" games that displayed one frame something like every three seconds).

Radio Ball (B)
This pinball game from Radio Shack came out a few years after their horribly unplayable ROM cart Pinball and, despite a very simple-looking field, is actually a pretty good game with a few quirks that don't seriously get in the way. I certainly spent plenty of time with it - my games never lasted all that long and it's got that addictive "just one more time" quality to it.

You get the usual targets, lights, etc., along with the chance for multi-ball play if you can get two of them snagged by "claws" at a couple of different points on the table. You can nudge the ball with the keyboard and the ball physics are generally acceptable (but certainly not up to the standards of more modern games). The ball does tend to jump around a bit at high speeds, but given the slow nature of the CoCo that's not entirely unexpected. I seldom felt cheated out of a ball because of the program. Graphics and sound do what they have to, without being overly good or bad. Worth the $20 they were asking at the time (and, of course, the "free" downloads today).

Rainbow Roach (C-)
This cousin of Frogger was published in the June 1983 issue of The Rainbow and is what I consider the first quality arcade game in the magazine's history, although others vigorously disagree (see Advanced Star Trench Warfare). The player is a roach who must cross six conveyor belts of pastries before a timer resembling a cup of coffee elapses (a baker is apparently drinking it and when he's done he sprays the whole floor for bugs). Much as you might like to eat the pastries, jumping on one is fatal since they trigger an alarm that immediately gets the baker's attention. If this is unclear, just think of it as similar to the road stage of Frogger. Getting seven roaches to safety advances the game to a more difficult level. John Fraysee, who later co-authored the original CoCo's best flight simulator (Worlds of Flight) presents this as an exhaustively detailed study of how to write a decent game in BASIC. Making it speed along (too fast, if you select the hardest of four starting skill levels) is 72 bytes of machine code that scrolls the playfield 25 times a second. Either you understand the impressiveness of that feat or you don't. Even though The Rainbow lasted another decade, there aren't many arcade games with that much BASIC comparable in quality.

Raaka-Tu (D+)
The third of Radio Shack's early trio of text adventures and probably the one to try first if you don't want a watered-down replica of the original Adventure (Pyramid) or the short-and-slightly-quirky challenge of eascaping the insane asylum in Bedlam. Raaka-Tu's plot of seeking treasure in the jungle is absurdly unoriginal from a modern point of view, but we're talking about a game released in 1981 when the genre was still young enough to make it passable. Of course, people with cool computers were playing Zork and Wizardry, but they also had disk drives and massive 48K/64K RAMs while early CoCoers were loading cassettes into 16K machines. Besides, Raaka-Tu manages to blatently rip a few things off from Infocom's original masterpiece, such as the rug-in-a-room puzzle (except you look under it to discover the pit rather than rolling it up). The puzzles usually are reasonably logical if you can figure out the limited vocabulary and there's a clever surprise or two. Unfortunately, there's also the "instant death" traps, a battle where survivial depends on a random outcome and a pain-in-the-ass obstacle at the end when the only practical solution is to save the game beforehand and simply keep trying until you succeed. When you do, the finish screen is a big batch of nothing. It's not a huge adventure, but was a decent value (for Radio Shack) at $15 and offers a few hours of not-too-stressful exploring for those looking for something to do in Mocha or whatever emulator they're got booted up.

Rear Guard (B)
A fun, polished shoot-'em-up game, if not overwhelmingly original. Basically you just shoot wave after wave of attackers, but it rises above the average fare by offering an amusing assortment of them (the first wave you shoot letters spelling "Attack"). The name comes from the face that they attack from the rear of your ship, which shoots across the screen from right to left, but this is in reality a small novelty and doesn't make things any different than if you were shooting them Galaxians style from the bottom of the screen or Defender style from the left.

The graphics are nicely done and the gameplay is solid. If I owned a bunch of shooting games I might not make this the one that I booted up regularly, but if I were on an allowance again I wouldn't feel the need to go find a better title if I brought this one home.

Return of Junior's Revenge (D+)
Even giving this game a few breaks due to circumstances – primarily being rushed to market as the first major third-party CoCo game at a time when users were starved for anything – this unauthorized port of Donkey Kong Jr. is slow, ugly and not much fun. Looking at a screenshot and promo copy promising all four levels, it's easy to get taken in. But those freeze frames don't look nearly as convincing in action, lurching rather than gliding through the motions. Beyond that are all the things that have frustrated CoCo gamers for years - beeps and blips for sounds, speeds roughly half that of the arcade original's, and controls that can be finicky (Tandy's non-centering joysticks made it all-too-easy to fall off vines by accident). Sure, it gave the truly desperate something to boot up while waiting for better things, but there's a long list of titles for the original CoCo's that outshine this in every way.

Robotack (B+)
First off, Robotron 2084 is among my top three favorite coin-op games of all time, and easily might be dubbed my absolute favorite if you catch me on the right day. When I saw the ads for this unlicensed conversion I thought to myself "there is absolutely no frickin' WAY this game could be as cool as it looks." The graphics looked as close to the real thing as I could have imagined possible, two joysticks were required for control (a necessity for anyone wanting to capture the flavor of the original, something overlooked by a lot of official versions) and it even got a great review in Rainbow. So the question, years later, is why in the hell I never got around to spending some of my hard-earned allowance on it? The $30 price and thought of having to wait for it be mailed to me always put me off, even though I'd end up spending that much for some inferior bit of junk when it showed up at Radio Shack. Instead, I got my first chance to try to out when I first discovered the illegal magic of emulation. And what would I have thought had I taken the plunge? Probably that this is a damned impressive CoCo game - yet, it doesn't quite succeed in capturing some of the essential details. Still, Intracolor deserves a hell of a lot of credit for getting this much game into 16K of memory.

First off, the graphics are indeed as close to the arcade as anyone has a right to expect from a CoCo. Second, things move along at their proper high rate of speed, an absolutely astonishing accomplishment on a CoCo, especially considering a plenty of official versions on other platforms really dragged down when the action got fierce. Third, the sound, while not the incredibly addictive stuff of Williams' coin-op version, works just fine. If it weren't trying to imitate Robotron, there isn't much I'd be able to nitpick about it.

However, the concessions it was forced to make knock the grade down a few notches because they really do affect rather key elements of the game. First, everything on the screen is fair game, meaning those Indestructible Hulks aren't - they're as easy to kill with one shot as the grunts. The waves don't appear like they do in the arcade - the brains are there, but not every fifth wave and there's no mass of humanity on the waves they do appear. The spheres that spew out tons of nasty little guys (who in turn spew out tons of guided "x" missiles at you) on every wave after the first one don't exist here. A few other similar omissions - but I also have no doubt I'd have gotten my money's worth had I splurged as a youth. But nothing is every going to replace the real thing - at least until I get one of those monstrously expensive arcade-type controllers for my MAME version.

Robot Oddessy (A)
Now THIS is a cool program! This is easily one of the most impressive titles ever done for the CoCo and should lay to rest the idea that "edutainment" titles aren't any good at education or entertainment. The concept - programming robots to do your bidding - is not unique to this game, but no one at that time and place did a better job with it. Graphics, sound, plot, user interface - you name it, this game executed it just about perfectly. I only wish I could find a copy for my emulator today, because at the time my skills were too lame to properly enjoy it.

Your mission is to escape from a five-level city, starting in the (eeech) sewers, with the help of a trio of robots. The robots have sensors, claws, motion rockets and all kinds of other features - but none of it does anything until you wire everything together (and possibly program and insert a few custom-designed computer chips) so they can act in logical ways to overcome the obstacles. One robot might need to locate and press a switch at the far end of a room, for example, while another simultaneously picks up a key accessible only when the switch is pressed. These tasks start simple, but get more complicated in a hurry and start involving things like getting past guards who can be pretty tough to figure out (this is always where I had to bail out on the game).

There's no way you can just delve in and start doing this, so the game takes you through a very user-friendly tutorial on how to wire the robots, make circuit boards and burn custom computer chips, plus do all the other various things necessary. Complete this and I swear you'll be able to pick up a soldering iron, some wire and a few trinkets from Radio Shack and start doing hardware tinkering in the real world.

Either this sort of thing is going to appeal to you or it isn't - and in my case it did big time. The same would probably apply to anyone interested in programming or computers, or an adventure game fanatic willing to be challenged in an entirely new way by a totally first-class episode. But those looking for nothing more mentally stimulating than Pac-Man definitely need to take a pass on this. Also, this isn't the place to go if you're looking for robot combat - Radio Shack has a much simpler ROM cart (I think called Robot Battles) that will feed that particular craving.

By the way, this title by The Learning Company was sold for numerous computer platforms and the CoCo version lacked a few things found on the Atari, Apple and other versions (mostly fewer available computer chips; they had eight, we got four - and there were fewer programming options for them). But so what? This is all about the user's creativity - give a musician an excellent guitar or a merely good one and in the end they're still going to sound fine if they're talented - so it all still comes down to figuring out a way to hail that subway in the other room with whatever resources you have.

Roman (B-)
This is Radio Shack's ROM pack version of Othello. All things considered it's competent, offering one and two player options, plus computer verses computer and custom board setups. There's also multiple levels of play and an easy to navigate interface using the keyboard or joystick.

If you like the board game there's nothing wrong with this version; there's also plenty of others, some better, some worse. At the time I might not have paid for it, since plenty of versions could be typed in from magazines for the taking. Of course they weren't as quick, but I never needed the advanced player capabilities since I wasn't all that great, and simple computer opponents ended up being pretty speedy as long as the programmer knew what he or she was doing.

Rommell 3D (B)
I've only had limited time playing this on an emulator, but it seems to be a pretty good conversion of Atari's hit coin-op Battle Zone. You control a tank from a first-person perspective, driving around a 3-D battlefield playing kill or be killed with an endless army of enemy tanks. Blow one up and the next appears, with tougher foes showing up over time.

Rommell does a nice job of mimicing the vector graphics concept of the coin-op, although the tanks and such aren't an exact match or anything. But it plays smoothly and the element of fun is preserved, even if you don't get the incredibly cool viewfinder and tank-like joysticks that folks who paid to play could experience. The army was impressed enough with the original they had Atari make a souped-up version that was used for actual combat training. (Nowadays I hear the concept also works in reverse - the military has earned some, uh, much-needed cash by working with game companies to make their offerings ultra-realistic).

Sailor Man (A-)
(Play online)
After coming out with the first 32K CoCo game, Tom Mix decided it might as well be the first with a 64K-only title. In a way this should have been a no-brainer: One of the worst-kept secrets in CoCo history was most of their 32K machines actually had 64K of memory because one set of those was cheaper than two sets of 16K chips. Go figure the geniuses who decided to only tell consumers they were getting half of what was really inside the box.

Anyhow, this is the CoCo version of Popeye, the three-level platformer starring the hero of the spinach-touting cartoon series. Overall, it's pretty simple to evaluate: If you like the arcade version (and not everyone did), you'll like this - it's essentially as close to a carbon clone as you'll see on a CoCo, plus you can customize the difficulty level and other settings, so decent players aren't wasting their time on the easier levels.

This game isn't the radical leap forward Donkey King was when it made its 32K debut, but Sailor Man gets nearly the same score because it's a high-quality game with no flaws worth noting.

Saucer Rescue (F)
If you want some idea of what typical so-called arcade games were like in BASIC, well this is a pretty good example. It's slow, boring, extremely primitive and involves more luck than skill. I've never really been sure if anyone except the programmer ended up playing these more than once.

You have a spaceship that is supposed to rescue humans below (by "beaming" them up, even if it looks like you're shooting them). You need to do this before tanks appear and run them over, while avoiding a laser that sort of tracks you and fires at random.

OK theme, but everything moves at about one frame a second, the randomness of it all means practicing won't necessarily make you much better and the overall slowness of everything makes games last far too long to want to replay this thing.

Seven-Card Stud (B-)
I love poker, so it's pretty tough not to at least like this ROM cart. The presentation is nice, with up to three other real or computer opponents, with a couple different types of computer players available to select from. You can play a table of all beginners, all experts, or a mixture. Nice touch, but the game also suffers from a fairly predictable shortfall on a platform with limited memory: the computer opponents are way too predictable and therefore a lot of the strategies you'd use in real life don't work here. So mostly winning and losing becomes a luck-of-the-draw thing, so to speak.

Example: If you try to bluff your way out of a crummy hand there is one player who is always going to fold and another who will never do so, making it useless as a tactic. Same goes for the players: Some you know will keep making bets regardless of their hand and others drop out at the slightest sign of trouble. But I still found it a pretty good time-killer in its day. Certainly better than the all-random gambling games like slot and keno machines (who in the world thought this was a good concept), but I'll still take computer blackjack any day instead - there's a game requiring real skill and the computer versions generally do a great job of training you for the real thing.

Shiphunt (C+)
I actually have a better opinion of this one-player Battleship game than the grade indicates, but I think some of that is inflated just because there's two issues not related to gameplay: I like the author's approach to making this a one-player event and it's a shareware game (I don't remember seeing any such titles when I owned a CoCo, but it's great to see this concept going so early).

Instead of trying to incorporate a man-against-machine battle and the complex routines of enemy intelligence, this game simply gives you a limited number of shots to defeat the computer's ships. Navigation is done very simply with the arrow keys and spacebar. This makes games much simpler and shorter, making for good replay value, but of course the downside is missing out on the haunting feeling of someone being on the verge of destroying your fleet. So while I find it enjoyable, I suspect a lot of fans of the board game would find this a real letdown.

Shock Trooper (B+/incomplete)
This appears to be a great multiscreen exploration game involving shooting things and solving various puzzles in some kind of futuristic setting - but I have to confess I haven't made it far into the game because controls on my emulator are really poor, making gameplay very difficult. Even without the controls, it looks like a pretty tough game - but not to the point of absurdity, since it appears you can master the screen with the right pattern of movements (elements don't seem to be random). Also, there seem to be bugs that cause it to crash on some emulators. Nevertheless, if you can get it to boot, it looks like a very deep game with first-rate graphics and gameplay. Someday emulators will take another step forward on my Mac...

Shooting Gallery (BASIC version) (F)
This attempted version of the coin-op arcade game Carnival is being mentioned here not because it's any good, but because it's a perfect example of BASIC programmers who try to emulate such games and pretty much fail at it. This game doesn't look terrible and in all truth could probably play a lot worse, but it's definitely not what you would call a fun gaming experience.

You control a gun shooting down the three rows of creatures. Unlike the arcade it doesn't matter whether you hit the ducks in the bottom row (in they arcade they eat some of your bullets if you don't shoot them). There's also no bonuses or other elements to the game. The problems are pretty much what you'd expect. The action is very slow and jumpy; instead of moving smoothly the targets "jump" in large blocks. This blocky movement also applies to your shots, so all the guesswork of targeting is gone after a few minutes. Makes for an OK screenshot, but if this was part of T&D Software's monthly magazine collection (or someone else's) I'd be moving onto the next title pretty quick.

Skiing (B+)
(Play online)
This was a surprising good early effort from Radio Shack. You ski down a slalom course from a first-person perspective, trying to make it through all of the gates in the least amount of time. You have a choice of simple of complex control using the joystick, with more control and speed (and screw-ups) possible with the expert option. Miss any gates and your time doesn't count in the "official" record, so you really have to be diligent.

The 3-D thing isn't a huge deal - games like Night Driver offered similar perspectives even on platforms like the Atari 2600 starting in the '70s - but all kinds of things about how it's implemented here are very, very impressive. Simple controls do what any kid or novice gamer expect; push the joystick forward and you move forward, pull it back to slow down. This is plenty enjoyable on its own, but it's the expert setting where things get really impressive. Here you push the joystick button as a way of moving forward, "pushing" yourself with your poles as it were, and the slope of the hill becomes a factor in your acceleration as well. Way back then the physics of skiing could (and often were) easily be done poorly (and often were in many games), but here it really feels well captured.

The game starts off with actual speech ("Get ready, get set...") and a realistic track pistol shot. Other than that sound is basically beeps, but good ones. And if you have a close call by hitting a flag it does a pretty good job of imitating a smacking sound as you take it off. And the crowd noise at the end is captured nicely. The graphics are pretty primitive PMODE 1 stuff, but that doesn't really matter in a game like this since slalom poles are basically lines and blocks anyhow.

In short the parts are all pretty primitive, representative of the typical first-generation CoCo games, but it's one of the rare titles where the sum of them equaled so much more. It's simple concepts like this executed well that motivated me to think creatively on programming projects then and now, trying to figure out how I can take the simple things I know and make them interesting. And I always appreciate creativity in a program far more than people who have access to today's unlimited capabilities and waste it on flash, gizmos and dressing up the much-too-often copied concepts of Doom, Mortal Combat or whatever.

Slay the Nereis (B-)
(Play online)
Radio Shack's unofficial version of Centipede, on another ROM cart programmed by Spectral Associates. It's an average effort that is a passable version, typical of the company's earlier conversions. There's an underwater theme to the game - I don't remember all the details - but as usual this is mostly just a labeling thing to fend off the the copyright folks. I recall it being reasonably enjoyable and probably better in gameplay than a number of other Centipede-type games that tried to emulate the real thing more closely, but I would recommend Intracolor's Colorpede and maybe one or two other titles if you're looking for the best the CoCo offered in this genre.

Space Assault (C+)
(Play online)
The first time I ever saw a CoCo was in an eighth-grade science class when the teacher brought in his machine and this early Space Invaders ROM cart from Radio Shack. I got to play a game or two of it toward the end of class after getting my work done and, like every other guy of that age, thought it was great (any video game played during school can't be bad).
Anyhow, this ended up being one of the games our family bought when we bought our 4K CoCo not too long afterward. The other was Radio Shack's totally lame football game, if I remember right, so I played this one to death. And it's a competent Space Invaders shooter, even if it doesn't bear all that much resemblance to the arcade version. As they might say about a QB with limited skills, it does a good job of performing within its limits.

There are fewer invaders per field (40 instead of 55) and they always start out at the same height each wave, instead of gradually getting lower like the coin-op. It gets more difficult for the first few waves by increasing the number of shots the invaders can fire at once, starting with one on the screen at any time and increasing to three. The shields act pretty much like the arcade, getting chipped away by your shots and theirs. Control and speed are good. And the sound is very well done, although hitting the invaders sounds a bit like someone passing gas (maybe that's one of the reasons why it was so popular during science class).

There are two levels: beginner and expert. In expert mode there are no shields, the invaders can fire three shots at a time from the start and you can move your ship vertically up part of the screen as well as horizontally - sort of like you can in Centipede.

I got to the point where I could play the beginner level for a couple of hours at a stretch, since the difficulty level tops out quickly. And I pretty much stopped playing it altogether when better games came out. But it was certainly an about-average first-generation game from Radio Shack and better than a lot of the other Invaders clones sold at the time. Worth a few plays if you've got it.

Space Race (B)
This conversion of Omega Race was one of my favorite first-generation games by Spectral Associates. The concept is simple enough that the CoCo can handle it decently and it's an original enough game to sustain your interest when you're tired of top-down shooters or Pac-Man feasts.
You guide a spaceship using Asteroids-style controls around a track in outer space (don't know why it's there), seeking out and destroying a fleet of enemy pods making their way slowly around it. Ships out to get you emerge one at a time from the pods as you kill them, with the dogfights getting pretty interesting since everything bounces off the walls, borders, etc. Take too long and some berserker-type craft comes after you. And you pretty much have to keep moving at a good clip, making collisions with all the bad guys a pretty consistent threat.
Difficulty progresses nicely, with more needed for kills in later waves and - this is where it gets really wild - the track disappearing if you really get far along. My games always ended shortly thereafter, so I don't know what surprises may exist beyond.

Lots of fun, even if it (like the coin-op version) isn't headed for the gaming hall of fame any time soon.

Space Wrek (B)
An adoption of the coin-op Star Trek game which is better than I expected, if not completely faithful to the original. It's a good 3D space shooter and one I certainly would have spent time and money on as a youth had I known about it, but this 1984 Spectral Associates game completely escaped my notice at the time.

Like the arcade, shoot down waves of attackers, protecting your bases and docking with them in order to keep your shields charged and ship in reasonably good order. You keep track of everything using the radar screen for the most part, while another part of the screen keeps you updated on things like shield strength and weapons levels. The game ends when you take too much damage from attackers.

The Star Trek game was vector based, so the CoCo's graphics abilities are a good match here. The action is fast and the sound, while minimal, has a nice muffled sound that gives it an authentic deep space feel. Not the best arcade clone from this company, but definitely one of its better efforts.

Speed Racer (B+)
(Play online)
The best pure driving game I've encountered on the CoCo, although the multi-platform game Pitstop II gets the same score for having more options (most notably the head-to-head two-player option and the very cool need to service your car in the pits). But for someone just wanting to sit down and do the closest thing possible to Pole Position, this title by Michtron is the one to go with.

The graphics are great for a CoCo game, you get four nicely varied tracks to choose from and the game is a cinch to play. The tracks are each two miles long and you can keep racing as long as you pass a certain number of cars per lap. This, of course, increases lap by lap to ensure things get tougher. The only fault is the game is a bit too simple - push the joystick forward and you accelerate, push down and you slow down. I actually kind of like this as a novice gamer, but some sort of gear shifting (preferably as an "expert" option) would have been really nice.

I didn't own this during my deviant teens years, large because I think Michtron wanted $35 bucks for it - a pretty steep price. But I had several inferior bargain titles in my collection and undoubtably would have been happier just buying this one instead. Luckily, now all I have to do is fire up the Web browser and use Brad Grier's Mocha emulator.

Spiral Attack (D)
Remember the fourth stage of the arcade game Gorf, where ships would emerge from a vortext at the center of the screen and spiral toward you, eventually bombing or colliding with you if you failed to soot them down? Incredibly, a sort of legitimate effort of this has been captured in this BASIC arcade game. It's pretty monotonous and not something anyone would ever pay money for, but deserves credit for behind a rare BASIC game that actually feels like an action game.

Squeeze (C-)
One of about a million so-called action/arcade games written in BASIC that will never be confused with a commercial software release. This is the sort of program you'd find in magazines like Rainbow, where you'd spend a few hours typing in the code, a bunch more time trying to track down the inevitable typo or two you had made along the way that kept making the program crash, and then realizing once you played it that you'd really have been better off spending the afternoon playing Donkey King instead. This program emerges from the cluster of other anonymous efforts to get space on these famous pages (yeah, whatever) only because it happened to be one of my random "let's load this and see what it is" sessions. Unlike a lot of games, it's sort of playable, so it's a chance to see what was being kicked out by amateur hackers in bedrooms across America at the time.

The author was intelligent enough to keep the concept simple: use your Space Invaders-style ship to shoot and avoid the bouncing balls descending from above, and make sure the all-yellow balls never touch the bottom or you're toast. Play it and it immediately becomes clear just how limiting BASIC is - the task of moving your base, plus animating your shots and a mere four "balls," pretty much taxes the computer a bit beyond it's limits, with the animation rather slow and jumpy. The collision detection isn't all that great and the sound is nothing more than the occasional blips and bleeps.

Nonetheless, I'd consider it an above-average effort because the program doesn't try to accomplish too much and what's there has some effort at polish to it. The game provides instructions (it's amazing how many just left it to your intuition or the assumption you had whatever magazine it came from), the option to use a keyboard or joystick, and some nice little "extra" game visuals such as an animated entrance by each of your ships prior to play. And even though the game is definitely slow (not that I've timed it, but I'd guess it's moving along at all of three of four frames a second), too many games like this get too ambitious (i.e. trying to do a Space Invaders clone with 40 moving elements) and end up with a rate of one frame every two or three seconds.

Starblaster (B-)
An Asteroids/Asteroids Deluxe conversion that isn't the worst out there, but obviously not the best either. The title screen credits this game to Jim Kearney from back in 1981 - I have no idea who Jim is or if this was a commercial release, but for 1981 it probably would have been seen as an above-average game. Within a few years it would have been lost in the shuffle, probably more suited for the month cassette magazines that came out.

It's mostly Asteroids, except instead of hyperspace you get the shields from the Deluxe version to protect you. There are more rocks (and they seem smaller) than the arcade to battle, but everything moves along nicely and it feels a lot like the real thing (and just like the real thing I suck at it). You can control things with a keyboard or joystick and both are easy, although at first Jim's key choices take a bit of getting used to (use the right and left arrow keys to fire and thrust, the D and F to rotate - a little more intuitive the other way around, I'd think). I'd have bought this for about $10 - half the going rate for cheap ROM packs back then - if I'd seen it at that price, but otherwise I'd have been happy with others of this genre in my collection.

Star Spores (B)
This is a very good shooter in the Demon Attack mold, although it's got a few differences. It's also not quite as polished as the official Demon Attack from Imagic and the best spin-offs from a couple of other companies, but still ranks only a notch below them and is worth some playing time.

You shoot balls at the top of the screen, which then turn into aliens (a different type for each wave) which dive and shoot at you. There aren't as many bullets to dodge as most Demon Attack games (and in the official version they split into two aliens), but here you also have to worry about completing the wave before you run out of fuel.

The complaints are mostly minor. The diversity of aliens is interesting, but they don't really behave all that uniquely. Also, the graphics are blockier than they ought to be given that this takes place on the CoCo's high-res screen. In it's favor are some nice sounds, including a pretty smashing explosion when your ship is hit.

It's a tough game, but the quick nature of play and simple interface makes it easy to play a bunch of rounds in a short time, which in this case is something most gamers will actually feel like doing. A good game from Spectral Associates, even if it came out way late in the CoCo's lifetime (1984) and as such lagged a bit behind the competition of the time.

Stellar Lifeline (B-)
This original space shooter has one very cool minor feature in an otherwise ho-hum game - a few sound snippets that could come straight from a coin-op game by Williams Electronics (the folks who brought us Defender, Robotron and other ultra-macho games with top-notch sound). They make for an cool few seconds at the beginning and end of games, but hardly is the sort of thing that is going to sell copies of it. Still, programmer Steve Bjork deserves credit for trying hard to come up with something new, even if the results don't quite get the excitement meter high enough.

Your mission, for $29.95, is to guide six supply ships as they make their long, scrolling horizontal journey through from one base of safety to the next. Picture flying from one end of the planet in Defender to the other - increasing the distance involved by a fair margin and minus the planet surface - and you might get a fair idea of what I'm talking about. In the meantime, various objects coming from both directions try to ram or shoot the ships and yourself. You basically fly back-and-forth over the supply route, trying to take out the enemies before impact. Losing the supply ships is a problem in two ways: At least one needs to reach the far side of the route to progress to the next wave; also, the ships carry fuel you need to resupply as you go (touch the base and the fuel is used up and it becomes less critical to save than those with deposits still remaining).

All in all, it's not a bad concept, but 1) the game really needs to run faster to feel worthy of its Defender-inspired roots and 2) there's just more interesting stuff out there on the market. But it's a solid, above-average offering that at least doesn't make you feel ripped off.

Oh yeah, there is one other standout feature of this game - it required more hacking to overcome the ROM cart protection code than any other game I can recall. Most titles would work with one or two POKE commands that altered the code; this one required something like 20 or 30. Guess they were really serious - of course, so were the hackers since they managed to win out, as usual.

Storm Arrows (C+)
This was Spectral Associates' version of Targ, one of those utterly unremarkable games in that it was neither a hit nor obscure failure. You navigate a ship, car, or whatever through a grid made up of boxes, avoiding and shooting other cars seeking you out. Destroy them all and go to the next wave.

This first-generation conversion was a decent brief diversion, but nothing so addicting you'd play "just one more game" until 2 a.m. That's not really the fault of the program - which does a good job of retaining the gameplay elements, if not the graphics and other flashy features - but the actual mediocrity of the game itself. But, hey - not every jazz album can be "Kind of Blue" and not every game can be Pac-Man, the Sims or whatever your idea of gaming nirvana is.

Surface (C+)
April 1985 Maybe it was just my destiny to live in the North Pole (or at least in the town closest to it), since this simulation of a submarine expedition to the top of the world ate up far more hours than it probably should have. Part of the journey passes Spitsbergen, the island in the Norwegian Arctic I now call home, so of course its found its way onto my current-day playlist. A lot of the game, to be fair, is mundane in the way any flight or other navigation simulation is. You cruise north under the ice, using a few different screens to make sure you're going in the right direction and deep enough to avoid the underside of the bergs. The controls for ballast, steering, etc. are simple, but impressively realistic and responsive (aided by a few machine language routines to speed up the mostly BASIC program). If there's no ice above you can surface and take a look through the periscope, but until you're at the Pole all this does is give you a look at some severely pixilated icebergs. You have to be at exactly 90 degrees north and find an area clear of ice (you may have to circle around for a while and wait for it to shift) to surface and win the game. The whole thing takes maybe 30 minutes to an hour, which seems reasonable since presumably you're not playing this for a quick arcade fix. Charles Springer, the author and a frequent Rainbow contributor, won the magazine's second annual simulation contest for this entry.

Super Vaders (B-)
A pretty good Space Invaders game from T&D's monthly magazine, although for some strange reason they decided to turn the whole thing on its side, so you're shooting from left to right instead of up against the attacking invaders. I have no idea why they did this - maybe to preserve the vertical-screen orientation of the original or because it allowed sharper graphics or just to be different...in any event it lowers the score a notch by being a distraction.

Other than that, I'd rate it higher than most early commercial efforts. Your ship, the shields and the invaders are all closer to the real thing than those from the Space Assault school of battle, and you get some interesting options like guided shots and bombs from enemies that explode. There's also an option for diving invaders, but that doesn't turn this into Galaxians by any means; the invaders dive slowly and are animated poorly, making this seem more like an amateur effort than a professional one - I'd have left it out if I were the programmer, content with simpler but better presentation. Overall, though, it's something I'll play a few times and would be one of those one or two titles a month that made me feel like my subscription was worthwhile despite all the useless shovelware usually featured on these tapes and disks.

Temple of ROM (B-)
(Play online)
A decent "explore the very large-maze, kill bad guys and collect treasures" game, except the damned thing doesn't seem to know where to end. Every time I'd boot up this Radio Shack ROM cart I'd have a ball in the early stages, then get increasingly frustrated realizing that if there is an ultimate goal to this game I was never going to figure out what it was. It seems that after you've found the treasures and killed the monsters in this thing that a few new ones may appear in very scattered locations, but I was never completely sure because they were so infrequent I figured they might be strays I'd missed earlier. In any event, nothing in the instructions or anywhere else tells you what your ultimate goal is, so in the end you just turn off the machine and go do something more interesting with your life.

Tennis (B-)
(Play online)
This is another of Radio Shack's early ROM packs and it's not a bad one, especially compared to some of its other so-called sports titles. A lot of it is no doubt the simpler concept, since in the end it's simply a more advanced version of Pong, the original arcade megagame from waaaaay back in 1972.

This is a singles match for one or two people, with the computer being a fairly easy opponent to beat once you get the hang of it (the problem with all computer opponents all the way up to modern-day games such Quake III). But all the basic elements of gameplay (speed, ball movement and perspective, etc.) are all done well, if not with Earth-shattering brillance. It's one of those simple all-ages games that some (mostly gaming novices) will play longer than others.

The Force (D)
(Play online)
A 3-D trench game that resembles the Death Star scene from Star Wars, or the last section of the arcade game from the movie. All in all, it's pretty lame - as far as I can tell you just fly through the trench endlessly shooting at an endless number of portals that come up occasionally (no spectacular explosions) while avoiding obstacles in the trench, plus an enemy ship and the shots it fires from the top of the screen. There are three skill levels, which apparently control how aggressively the ship follows your movements. An that's it - the graphics are pretty lame green-blue-yellow-red PMODE 3 (no black in space?), even if the 3-D scrolling is done OK, and the whole thing is mind-numbingly repetitive. Good title to have if you want to feel better about the other shooters in your collection.

Time Bandit (A/Incomplete)
(Play online)
I've only been able to try this out briefly recently, thanks to it's being posted on the Mocha emulator, but it has to at least be listed here in the meantime because many die hard CoCo nuts consider this the best game ever done for the CoCo. Based on my early impressions and readings, I'd certainly say it's likely to end up on my top-five list. It's got everything I look for in a game - lots of diverse action, depth, great graphics and it's easy to pick up while still offering what looks like a lot of challenge down the road.

Apparently there are more than 320 screens in three different worlds (fantasy, space and western) that you need to explore. You do this by gathering useful items like keys and fighting off monsters, transporting yourself through portals to different times and worlds. Apparently these worlds change depending on how often you've been there and the time era involved. All I know is I love exploration games, and this appears to be the most in-depth and well-playing offered on the CoCo. And it moves along at a nice pace - none of that incredible trademark CoCo slowness that gets in the way of otherwise great titles such as Gauntelet. Nice job by programmers Bill Dunlevy and Harry Lafnear, who released this game for Michtron, a company which I've gained an increasingly healthy amount of respect for as I've compiled this list. I wish I'd bought a lot more of their games as a youth, as it's clear they were a dominant player in the field.

Reader hint: According to Torsten Dittel, you should play this with the keyboard option because there is a second key that allows firing backwards, making it much more playable. He's not sure of the key, but instructions are probably floating somewhere on the 'Net (anyone finds them before me, pass it on).

Trapfall (C+)
(Download) | (Play online)
A competent unofficial conversion of Pitfall, David Crane's landmark jungle exploration game for the Atari 2600 that essentially gave birth to modern platform games like the Super Mario World and Sonic Adventure series. This CoCo version doesn't look or play as well as the Atari version, which is both a bad reflection on the conversion as well as a tribute to the Atari version. As it turns out, nobody every really came out with a version on any platform that topped the original cart, although most home versions on more advanced machines at least managed to equal it. Even the so-called "modern conversions" on the Playstation and other high-tech platforms, featuring 3-D environments and all the latest flashy gimicks, are generally regarded as lousy games that aren't anywhere near as fun as the original.

Does anyone not know about Pitfall Harry and his mission by now? Run, jump, climb and swing on vines to go from screen to screen, avoiding wildlife and swamps, and collecting treasure along the way. Each screen is split horizontally between a jungle level with the vines, swamps, treasures and most creatures on top, and an underground level with hard-to-jump scorpions getting in your way. You get 20 minutes or three lives, whichever ends first. Fun all by itself, but knowledgable gamers soon discovered the more subtle, yet simple things that made for an oh-so-great game: It had an astounding 255 screens and the only way to get a perfect score (or least find all the treasures) was to figure out a number of shortcuts that existed by taking the underground route instead of the high road, so to speak.

I can't say if the CoCo version is a screen-for-screen port, but all the basic elements of the game appear to be there in the portions I could complete. The problem is it all feels like a second-rate version - the graphics aren't as nice, the gameplay isn't as smooth, the sounds aren't as good, etc. It's not a bad game - that's tough to do when the original is so cool - but I can't see Pitfall fans spending much time with this unless they utterly have to play a few rounds and this is the only version available anywhere nearby.

Trailin' Tail (C-)
Trailin' Tail (C-) August 1983 Oh, good grief – I'm really including a snake game here? Yeah, in large part because this may be the only all-BASIC version I saw that's blazingly fast and a constantly evolving challenge. The "snake" in this case is a nuclear-powered land cruiser trying to collect power chips in a post-apocalyptic world. Your cruiser leaves behind a trail of nuclear waste, which of course is fatal. One novel touch is the trail doesn't entirely vanish – a few dots remain permanently scattered about. Collect enough power chips and you go to the next wave, getting a bonus based on time and the point value of the last chip collected. The program's speed-up is simple, but clever. Instead of moving one pixel at a time, you make increasingly large multi-pixel jumps. While this creates something of a grid-paper appearance in later waves, I never lost track of my vehicle or considered it a distraction. Also, radioactive barriers start appearing and increasing in number after wave nine. Programmer Mike Hall throws in all kinds of other welcome touches, including keyboard or joystick control (the latter offering eight-direction movement instead of four), and a Tempest-like option for starting at higher levels and receiving a corresponding point bonus.

Varloc (B+)
Does anyone remember a classic chess-like game for the Apple II and a few other platforms called Archon? It was a beaut, with the magic element being that you didn't just capture a square. You had to fight for for it. Of course your stronger pieces tended to have some pretty substantial advantages over the weaklings, but the fact was its equivalent of a pawn could outfight the strongest piece if you were really skilled or lucky.

Well eat your heart out Apple folks. Unbelievably, the CoCo ended up with a game similar in concept that I consider to be w-a-a-a-y better. The major difference is while Archon dukes it out on a flat board, battle in Varloc takes place on a 3-D grid from a first-person perspective. It's not a precursor to Doom or anything, but the idea is still similar in nature. The whole thing is so utterly cool and well done from a gameplay and graphics standpoint that I hate to give it anything less than an A, but there are a couple of nuisances. First, all too often combat ended up being a bit tough to control and it became a repetitive exercise in just mashing the button on the joystick rapidly, hoping you were quick enough to beat your opponent. The other is I just could discern enough unique abilities in each piece - it seemed like too many were similar despite different weapons, alleged hit points or whatever. Still, if I had a copy of this I'd play it. Now I just wish someone would add combat to Battle Chess so I could do more than just watch those characters settle their differences.

Vegas Gamepack (D+)
Casino games have to be one of the easiest things you can program on a computer, so there's no excuse to unlease lousy versions on the public. But that's pretty much what this is. The interface is clunky, the graphics horrible and too elements of the skill games (i.e. doubling down in blackjack) are left out.

There are five games here, but sadly four rely on nothing more than luck. I cannot, for example, figure out what enjoyment anyone could get from playing a "virtual" slot machine even if it was a clone copy of something from Vegas. And believe me, the machine is a clone copy of nothing. It, like everything else, is in low-res graphics and there's no feeling except boredom regardless of whether you win or lose. Craps, Keno and Down the River are similarly entirely devoid of any decision making that involves thinking on the player's part.

And the blackjack game is ridiculously simplistic. Radio Shack includes one this good as a short type-in program in its user manual and there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of better versions out there written by everyone from bedroom programmers to commercial developers. Best use of this package: give it to an aspiring gambler and they soon will decide they'd rather do something far more useful with their money if this is what Vegas is supposed to be like.

Venturer (D+)
(Download)
Programmer Dave Edison had his good and bad efforts for the CoCo - and this definitely ranks in the latter category. Venture is one of my favorite obscure coin-op games and it was one of those titles that eventually saw conversions on a lot of home machines, but all I can say for this unofficial version is it gives the Atari 2600 port a real run for its money. This isn't a compliment - Coleco was accused of intentionally putting out a crappy version of this game for the Atari so they could then point to the version for their Colecovision system and say "see how much better we are - buy our system instead!" (They also were accused of doing this with a number of other titles like Donkey Kong and Zaxxon).

In this game you control Winkie the Archer, a red circle who scoots around 2-D dungeons despite his apparent lack of legs, avoiding hall monsters as he seeks out the doors of four individual treasure rooms on each level. Once he enters a room, the view switches to a full-screen rendition of it, complete with a treasure somewhere inside to be collected, and unique monsters or obstacles to be avoided or (mostly) shot. A lot of time there were unexpected puzzles, such as one where a room appears to be empty until you touch the treasure - and then look out (anyone remember how Indiana Jones felt at the beginning of "Raiders" when that bag of sand disappeared from the temple he stole the idol from - just before a giant rock rolled out to crush him?). If you don't get the treasure and get out of the rooms fast enough one of the hall monsters - now looking much larger and meaner - enters and overtakes you within seconds.

The arcade version has multiple dungeons - I was never good enough to know how many - decent enough graphics so things like arrows, treasures and monsters are actually identifiable, and sort of a haunting beat as background music. The CoCo version has a measly two levels (same as the Atari), clunky graphics, and gameplay stripped of most of the unique room elements. Both the CoCo and Dave were capable of better than this. Don't take my head off Dave - I actually have a lot of respect for your stuff but, as my writing often proves, sometimes mediocre stuff just makes it out to the public.

Wacky Food (B-)
This is an amusing original arcade game, although it has elements gamers might recognize from a few obscure arcade and console games. It has a simple concept - shoot food flying around the screen. But it gets some extra mileage by offering various options, including whether you just shoot everything or have to hit matched pairs for them to disappear, and if you get single or multiple shots.

The graphics are amusing and competent in resolution, and the typically minimal sound is sufficient. There's only one real flaw with this game, which is when you collide with food you don't "start over" with a new man - instead you just instantly lose a life and gameplay continues where you are. That means you can lose all you men in a couple of seconds in a bad situation, a monumentally unfair setup that can bring an unexpected end to a round that seems destined for greatness. I've seen this flaw in a few games and almost without exception I give up on them in a hurry. But it's a polished effort in every other way, so it's worth bit of your time, if not a lot of your money if this were the 80s and you were being asked to pay for it.

Whirlybird Run (B+)
This version of Scramble was hardly the most impressive game Spectral Associates ever coded, but I admit I got rather hooked on it. It has five of the six arcade stages, lacking only the fourth stage (the high-rise city stage, for those familiar with the title). So fly through the mountains dodging rockets, then UFOs and then Asteroids before hitting the final two stages, which involve navigating your chopper through some really nasty caverns. And I mean so nasty there's not room for a pixel's worth of error at times. This seems a bit too harsh, but at least it's not the totally unfair random death some games infringe on players.

I've always liked Scramble, which is why this gets the grade it does. Others might knock it down a peg or two, but I can't do that without thinking of something particularly negative to say.

Wiggle Worm (B-)
Another Centipede clone - this one coming relatively late in the CoCo's life (1983) and, as such, didn't offer anything the competition didn't, but was still a pretty good adaption. It has a few differences from the arcade and a few annoyances that keep it below the best of the CoCo class.

All of the basic elements of gameplay - graphics, speed and so on - are pretty strong. The sound is above average, although much different than what you'd hear at the arcade. Probably the biggest noticeable difference in gameplay is the centipede doesn't stay at the bottom of the screen if it reaches it, nor do new segments start appearing; instead, whatever segments are left reappear at the top until the player dies or completes the wave.

The annoyances: there are scorpions in this version, but any mushrooms they touch don't change color, so you don't know if they're poisoned or not. And every wave starts with an intact centipede, instead of an increasing number of head segments which elevates the difficulty level. I don't know if this was a commercial title, part of a monthly magazine, or whatever - if it were a magazine release I'd say it's a good effort, but if the author was trying to sell it there were better choices that most players had probably already picked up.

Wildcatting (C+)
(Play online)
An OK oil exploration simulation. You and up to three other players take turns picking out spots on a "map" (a blank screen) and the surveyor tells you a couple of details about the square selected, the most important being the per-unit cost of drilling and the percent probability of hitting oil. You then decide whether to drill there or not. You can keep drilling deeper by hitting the spacebar, spending more money each time, until you hit oil or it's declared a dry hole. If you hit, then you get a report on how much oil was extracted and amount of money made or lost. Since you're looking for big, rich fields, obviously once you've found a rich spot you want to hit as much in the immediate surrounding area as possible - along with everyone else.

It's a very simple simulation, but a way to kill a bit of time if you don't want to get into Sim-Whatever building mode for hours and hours. Not a Radio Shack cart I'd use to sell the machine with, but better than their bad efforts.

Wishbringer (B+)
(Walkthrough)
I had to review at least one Infocom text adventure somewhere (OK, I've added another - Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - since, so some of this is even more obscure) and I'm going with this one because it's the only one I've ever actually finished (am I, like, totally LAME or what?). It's sort of an overview of the genre as a whole, as well as the game itself.

For those unfamiliar with Infocom, these guys were the king of text adventures back when people would actually pay money for fun and challenging games with no graphics. I suspect the entire current generation of game players has no idea what I'm talking about and probably would find these utterly lame if given a choice between this and the latest version of Unreal Tournament, the Sims or anything else - but retro purists still find these a great way to pass the time.

Most of the older generation knows the story of text adventures (or interactive fiction): It all started with the Colossal Cave Adventure, where you'd get a description of the location you were at, type in one- or two-word commands like GO NORTH and GET SWORD, and see what happened as a result. The best adventures always involved clever navigation and thinking to defeat logical puzzles, with the commands available to you being simple and well-known. The worst were an exercise in frustration, consisting of little more than trying to outguess the programmer and their often totally illogical or "must type in the exact wording" solutions (i.e. you want to get on a camel, but "ride camel," "get on camel," "go camel," etc., etc. all don't work. The only phrase that does is "mount camel." Sheesh). Or you'd fall victim to things generated by random numbers (monster attacks, etc). That's fine for D&D games, not adventures.

Infocom nearly always scored exceedingly high on the good elements while generally - but certainly not always - avoiding the pitfalls. They featured a huge vocabulary of words, far more extensive descriptions of where you were and what was happening than most games. The plots were outstanding and varied widely. In sort, people played them to death on just about every computer platform imaginable - except the CoCo, of course, for a long time because nobody was porting the games to it.

I went into joyous raptures when they finally got around to issuing a limited number of titles for the CoCo, even if they did cost the full $40 retail at a time when you could get them for a whole lot less on other platforms (and they're free from all kinds of locations on the Net these days). I snagged Wishbringer because it was billed as entry-level and I'd already gone through plenty of hours struggling with Zork, Planetfall and a few other of their most famous titles on other machines, mostly the Apple II computers at school after (and sometime during) classes.

Wishbringer is a fantasy-themed game, although it starts with nothing more complicated than you're being a humble mail-carrier who needs to get a letter delivered to an old lady in a mansion on a hill by 5 p.m. (you have an hour in game time to do this). Accomplishing this means overcoming a few relatively minor puzzles (still a challenge for first-timers) and to have any real shot of success you better take a damned good look at everything and make sure you've picked up a few items along the way. Get the letter delivered in time and you're taken on a nice long narrative that sets the stage for the real adventure, a fantasy-based epic involving a very strange stone (the Wishbringer) and the need to save your village, which has suddenly undergone some rather unusual changes...

No reason to give away more than this, except to note a couple of very cool things: First, the stone, when discovered, will help you out of certain jams, but you don't absolutely need it to solve the game - clever thinking and your previous actions can shape events so that other solutions to problems are possible. This is what I'm talking about when I talk about good game structure verses programmers who want to stump you by requiring some obscure phrase you discover only through dumb luck. Second, the game comes with an actual stone, a map and a bunch of other stuff designed to help you navigate your way around. Infocom was famous for this - you'd get detective kits, comic books and all kinds of other stuff depending on the type of adventure you were playing. If you're downloading these games that's something you miss out on in a big way - but at least the maps and other documentation can usually be found in PDF or some other kind of format so you're not left out in the dark, so to speak. And if you're totally stuck, well that's what the link to the walkthrough above is for. It's an excellent site that offers all kinds of information for a huge number of games.

Anyhow, Wishbringer gets less than a perfect score mostly because I found it a fantastic experience right up to the end, which turned out to really be kind of disappointing. I don't know what a great ending would have been, but this one kind of fell short in my opinion. Still, from the length I've gone on here, I figure anybody reading this will correctly conclude that I'd recommend Infocom's stuff to anyone - there's so much variety you can peruse the various titles and certainly find one that fits your style. Just a few examples (and then I'll move on - honest): Zork and its numerous sequels are the classic straight-ahead fantasy text adventures that all others got measured against; Deadline and Suspect turn you into a detective gathering clues and interviewing people in order to build a case presented to a jury (be prepared for ridicule if the DA doesn't even press charges); in Suspended you go nowhere at all - instead you have to issue orders to six robots who are responsible for fixing a totally screwed-up life support system before the inhabitants track you down and kill you for your inefficiency. In other words, if wandering around caves isn't your cup of tea, there are plenty of other novel-like settings and gameplay methods they made possible all by typing in stuff on the keyboard.

(Hey, one of these entries had to be the longest. Might as well be this one. Last time I checked Infocom had more than 40 titles out there; so this is actually pretty compact for covering that many episodes).

Young Typer (F)
An OK concept that needs polishing to get a passing grade. This typing tutor program, written in BASIC, is supposed to have an invaders-like theme, with letters descending from above and requiring the proper letter to be pressed to annihilate it. There's no question good programs like this could be done by home programmers, but this version just doesn't cut it.

First off, it starts way to slow for anybody except those totally new to a keyboard and doesn't speed up quickly enough. Being able to set an initial speed would be an effortless addition here. Second, it picks from all keys at random, so there's nothing you're not learning proper technique. Third, all that matters is you press the right key before the letter reaches the bottom; errors aren't penalized. Like a lot of programs, it's the small touches that separate the successful efforts from the has-beens.

Zaksund (C+)
OK, we'll give Elite Software, mostly known for business applications, credit for trying to port a game as complex as Zaxxon to the Color Computer. But it's an unremarkable game under any circumstances and the fact Radio Shack's official version (see below) is so highly acclaimed makes it an even tougher sell.

It's not really a bad game. The graphics, sound and gameplay are all OK, but generally second-rate compared to the official version. Also, the perspective is different, with your ship flying almost straight from left to right instead of the diagonal perspective and movement of the arcade. If Steve Bjork's version wasn't the landmark it was there might be a market for this, but like most versions of Donkey Kong it's hard to imagine many people bought this when a much better choice was so easily available.

Zaxxon (B+)
(Play online)
The official version of the rather popular 3-D space shooter, where you alternate between taking things out in a space fortress and in outer space. This adaptation was one of the more widely praised games for the CoCo, no doubt in part to its easy availability through Radio Shack stores and Steve Bjork's programming reputation - this is probably his best-known title. Creative Computing magazine called it better than the Colecovision version, which was considered one of the best among what was available at the time.

I consider this an above-average game, but not quite up to the hype. Everything moves along smoothly and the graphics are unquotable top-notch. The sounds are very, very good for the CoCo, emulating the muffled explosions of space nicely. The main problem is the lack of diversity on the fortress fields - they basically remain the same level after level, with increased difficulty coming mostly through faster usage of fuel. Also, the fortresses seem a bit sparse on targets and action compared to other versions. Finally, the action suffers just a bit from the slow CoCo syndrome. I will say that the outer space shootouts are captured just about perfectly, which boosts the overall grade here a bit.

Zonx (C-)
zonx
October 1985 Not particularly original or enduring, but a huge hit among CoCo fans for an unusual reason: the gotta-play-this-on-LSD soundtrack. The CoCo had some of the worst sound capabilities of any computer of the '80s, making anything beyond a few beeps and blips an accomplishment. The idea of continuous music was absurd and practically impossible since generating sound eats up the computer's entire processing cycle. But David Billen rises to the task, and not just with any music. The psychedelic rock crashes into the title screen like an anvil and builds itself up to some incredible (and incredibly high-pitched) tension during gameplay. Most people will find it interesting – or at least worthy of study – once. After that it's serious "love it or hate it" territory. The game? Oh, yes. The game. It's a simple three-stage vertical space scroller. You move a ship along the bottom of the screen during which you 1) try to catch Zonx's coming down rapidly at you for points, 2) avoid Zug's raining down that will destroy your ship and 3) face both at the same time. Strictly on those merits it's good for a couple of games. But if you play more than once then audio obviously hasn't driven you insane, so maybe it's worth a few more tries.

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