Playing Matta Blatta (Atari 8-bit)

Published by Firebird’s Silverbird label for a couple of quid, Matta Blatta is a horizontally scrolling blaster for the Atari 8-bit from developer Shahid Ahmad who previously coded Chimera on a range of platforms. It was released in 1988, which was quite late in the day for the Atari’s market here in the UK so quite a few fans of the machine or indeed shoot ’em ups may not be aware of it; I missed out personally because most of the local shops had already stopped selling Atari 8-bit games by that point and the lack of new releases meant I’d already been enticed away by the C64, copious amounts of new releases and a larger library of software overall.

Matta Blatta is also a surprisingly simple game as well, each level is populated by just one type of enemy with a fixed movement pattern and the player merely has to survive through each onslaught to progress to the next, although actually making it through a wave is tricky though, since the speed of enemy movement doesn’t leave much in the way of reaction time. The collision detection is definitely on the side of the invading forces as well with little mercy being shown to the player’s craft when it gets too close to the enemies or their bullets, something that other games in the genre tend to be far more generous about.

That stinginess means Matta Blatta can often be irritatingly tough, but at the same time it’s not ridiculously difficult in the way that something like Firefleet is. There isn’t much variety to the gameplay – not necessarily a problem to my mind, but that can sometimes be off-putting for others – but, along with existing games already doing the same sort of thing better, Zeppelin’s Zybex came out the same year and offers far more meat on the bone for just a quid extra. Matta Blatta probably won’t be anybody’s first choice when thinking of something to destroy on the Atari 8-bit, but there is still some fun to be had from the frantic manoeuvring and wanton, sometimes desperate blasting it offers.

Playing Attack Of The Mutant Camels (Atari 8-bit)

At the end of the 21st century the world is under attack, this time from the Zzyaxians who, rather than taking on the Earth’s plucky lone fighter with their own fleet, have instead opted for something more insidious and indeed bizarre; the alien aggressors have used genetic manipulation on otherwise friendly camels to breed them into 90 foot high, neutronium shielded, laser-spitting creatures of death. Each sector has six death camels – shown on the handy scanner at the top of the screen – stomping inexorably towards the base at the right hand edge of the play area and, if they complete that journey, the player is overrun and the game over.

Each camel takes a significant number of hits before “de-rezzing” and defends itself with the aforementioned laser-infused spittle; some of these are merely fired in a fixed direction but the nastier ones track towards the player’s jet and need some manoeuvring to avoid. Each jet gets nine shields and loses one to collisions with both bullets and camels, something that comes in handy on the later stages where it’s possible to end up accidentally pinballing back and forth between objects as the game speeds up.

When a stage has been cleared the Faster Than Light Hyperwarp drive system can be engaged in order to travel to the next; the jet starts at the right side of the screen and accelerates to the left, dodging fast-moving rockets heading in the opposite direction – smacking into one will destroy the jet so the current level needs to be played again – until the drive kicks in and it’s protected for the remainder of the journey to the next sector, where things start over but with the overall difficulty increased and new background colours.

Attack Of The Mutant Camels is early Jeff Minter at his very best, perhaps not as surreal or indeed involved as later titles like Iridis Alpha or Batalyx – which also contains a beefed up version of this game with multiple camels on the screen which can also jump – on the C64 but still fast, colourful and endlessly playable. It’s one of those games which can be picked up for a quick ten minute blast and there’s a range of difficulty settings to suit most folks – the power of the player’s bullet can be tweaked as well – although starting at the default “fer sure” setting seems to be about my speed these days even if I remember nudging it up a level or two as a teenager.

Playing Firefleet (Atari 8-bit)

For a change, I’ve been playing that I didn’t really find myself enjoying; Firefleet was put out by English Software in 1983 and seems to be at least loosely based on Atari’s Caverns Of Mars. The player’s spaceship descends through tight and twisting caverns, avoiding unfriendly fire whilst destroying wall-mounted gun bases and destructible blocks in order to clear a marginally more safe path along the way.

Cutting to the chase, Firefleet is just too damned hard; there are tiny little gaps to pass through in the scrolling backgrounds and the collisions are painfully accurate. Similarly, the timing of the guns is erratic and they’re often squirreled away in corners where they can’t be blasted and, just to compound the frustration, smacking into the scenery or being destroyed by one of the defences sends the player’s craft right back to the start of the game… not just the current area but right to the top of the damned map! At least there isn’t a fuel gauge to worry about – Caverns Of Mars has one since it’s loosely based on Scramble – but that’s about the only thing not trying to kill the player here.

Firefleet could have been far more playable with just a little extra wiggle room in the tighter parts of the caverns or if the gun bases were consistent with their firing, but the chances are this was a case of the game’s coder MD Caballero becoming too good at their own game during the course of development, tweaking the difficulty upwards over time to match that skill level and subsequently making it too hard for us mere mortals. That’s something of a shame really, because it’s well executed technically and has quite a bit of potential if it weren’t so vicious.

I vaguely remember playing this one on a friend’s 800XL during the 1980s, but not how frustratingly difficult it actually was. Back in the day we didn’t have much money for buying games and needed to make the most of each purchase, so would probably have kept hammering away at it for quite a while before giving up. I did get some enjoyment after picking Firefleet up again recently despite the flaws, but don’t think that would be enough to keep me coming back; Caverns Of Mars offers similar gameplay but with a more reasoanble difficulty curve and greater overall sense of progression.