A life on the ocean wave… or at least below it with Sea Dragon where the player takes control of the titular submarine. This game started life on the Tandy TRS-80 and was ported fairly far and wide – there are versions for the Apple II, C64 and IBM PC – but we’re looking at the Atari 8-bit version here because that’s the one I’ve enjoyed playing the most personally – although the Spectrum conversion from 2010 gets a close second – and that’s as good a reason as any.
The first and most common enemies are sea mines which lie in wait at the bottom of the ocean, slipping their moorings when the player is in range to drift slowly upwards towards them and not leaving much time to react. These can be torpedoed at any point as long as the submarine has a clear line of sight so the threat they pose is limited, but it doesn’t take long before they’re joined by other hazards including automated gun emplacements in the underwater caverns and ships which sit on the surface and drop depth charges into the water; the charges themselves can at least be shot to give the sub a little more wiggle room, but a close eye on the other enemies has to be kept whilst doing so.
Along with these direct threats to the submarine, there’s also an air gauge to worry about which is constantly dropping whilst submerged. This can be replenished by going up to the surface and waiting for the tanks to refill – one nice little detail is that this process isn’t immediate – although that can’t be done when traversing the underwater caves so spending some time at the surface to stock up before each of these sections is a must. Staying in one place for too long really does put the craft in harm’s way as the game progresses as well, so refuelling will become quite perilous.
Sea Dragon obviously takes a few cues from Scramble – the sea mines work in a very similar way to Konami’s ground-to-air rockets for example – but some thought has gone into reworking that design for the underwater setting and I particularly like how the fuel gauge has been updated. To my mind at least, the Atari 8-bit implementation stands out from the rest for it’s simple, chunky but still effective graphics and having fairly minimal sound effects overlaid onto the constant sonar pings, adding far more to the slower, tense atmosphere Sea Dragon has than in-game music would have done.
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.
1990 was a superb year for Mega Drive owning shoot ’em up fans and is pretty much when I personally jumped aboard that particular bandwagon with an imported Japanese unit. Games like Sagaia, Thunderforce 3 and Whip Rush were released for example, all being highly playable and demonstrating just how good Sega’s hardware was for this genre whilst hinting at what was yet to come. Sadly, X-Dazedly-Ray from UNIPACC really doesn’t fall into that camp and, when thinking back, there was for the longest time a small part of me which wondered why I handed over £24.99 for it back in the day.
The first games in the Gradius and Darius series seem to have been an inspiration for XDR‘s developers both from a gameplay standpoint and the visuals – the shield is very Darius-like with the options being more similar to Gradius except they can soak up bullets – although it’s nowhere near the standard of either Konami or Taito’s game. It does suffer badly from “Gradius syndrome” as well so, while it takes the entire first level to get some decent firepower together from the icons left behind by blasting certain enemies, everything is lost on dying and recovering from that situation with the now painfully underpowered ship ranks somewhere between frustratingly difficult and simply impossible.
XDR isn’t exactly a popular game, there’s a scathing GameFAQs user review which pretty much rips it to shreds and I’ve previously seen it described it as one of the worst Mega Drive games ever released during forum discussions. That’s being rather harsh on something that is essentially just mediocre though, and it’s not even the worst shoot ’em up for the platform either with titles like Curse, Xenon 2: Megablast or Divine Sealing being more aesthetically distinctive but, to my mind at least, less enjoyable to play.
So it’s not a great game by any stretch of the imagination, but still offers some entertainment; if the cost of cartridge publishing hadn’t meant there couldn’t be a home computer style budget range for Mega Drive games that’s where X-Dazedly-Ray would have fit in perfectly, not quite keeping up with the full-pricers for spectacle but still reasonably solid. For those wanting to give it a blast, go into the start menu to enable auto firing – because trying to constantly hammer two buttons for the main guns and missiles at a decent rate is something of an ask – and perhaps dial the difficulty down to “easy” before starting.