Atari 2600

Review by Dave Giarrusso



Graphics: 7

Sound: 7

Gameplay: 10

Overall: 9

HERO has long been my absolute favorite Atari 2600 game, and for good reason. It rocks. It’s one of those 2600 games that all my game-addicted friends and I knew was a must-have just from seeing pictures of it in all the game mags. I’m just thankful that it was released several years before that miserable Bette Midler movie, Beaches. Otherwise, I fear that HERO would have had some of the fun sucked out of it by that frightening Midler-ballad, the one that Whitney Houston later stole and recycled as the theme from yet another crap-storm of a movie, The Bodyguard.

Since those movies really suck, (film fact: Costner can’t act, so all Costner movies suck unless Connery or DeNiro happen to be around to lend a hand) but not in a so-bad-they’re-good way (like Ed Wood movies, Death Race 2000, or killer-snowman fave Jack Frost) we shouldn’t even mention them in connection with a brilliant game like HERO. Instead of dwelling on them, let’s switch gears.

If you’re like me, you know there’s no lunch like a good sandwich. Not just a lame meat and bread sandwich though, a submarine sandwich, also known as a hero. When you order a hero (or better yet, build your own), you also probably know that there are only two rules: 1) there are no rules, and 2) the more the better!

HERO is truly an inspired game. John Van Ryzin must have just returned from a lunch comprised of the greatest hero sandwich the world has ever seen, an ice-cold Coke, and a side of fries when he sat down to begin work on HERO ‘cause he: 1) (prob’ly) threw out the 2600 game-design rule-book, and 2) packed tons of cool stuff into the game!

Playing HERO (short for Helicopter Emergency Rescue Operation) might not be more fun than eating the sandwich of the same name, but how many sandwiches can you cram into the cartridge slot on your VCS before it stops working? At my house, the answer is “three.” HERO’s the type of 2600 game that makes your arm-hair stand up on end. It has incredible graphics and colors that were rarely seen on the 2600 up to that point, no on-screen flicker, and there are lots of different levels to explore – just like in the sandwich! The player can even wind his or her way to the end of each level via different routes.

The “meat” of the game is: rescue lost miners from deep within a variety of mines, avoiding deadly obstacles and making sure not to run out of power. Hero is equipped with a couple of 007-like devices, including a laser-firing helmet, and a helicopter jetpack, and Wile E. Coyote-like devices, including half a dozen (per round) sticks of dynamite.

Each level begins at the entrance to a mine. A wall impedes Hero’s progress, but a well placed stick of dynamite quickly blasts the wall to smithereens. A not so well placed stick of dynamite won’t even scratch the wall, but dynamite that the player stands too close to, regardless of how close it is to a wall, will blast Hero to smithereens. Drop it and step back!

Only some of the walls in HERO need to be blown up in order to free the trapped miners. If the player wastes dynamite on walls that could have been circumvented, he or she will wind up a stick or two short when they’re near the end of the level. At this point, the only recourse is to use HERO’s helmet-laser to (very slowly) destroy the wall, and hope that the power meter doesn’t run out!

The difficulty ramping and gameplay are extraordinarily fair, making HERO an excellent game for players of all skill levels. The first level is pretty easy – it’s only two screens deep. Blast the wall, rescue the miner, cash in the points on the power meter. Level two isn’t much more difficult – four screens, nothing terribly demanding. Levels three and four contain six and eight screens, respectively, and only experienced players will survive long enough to see rounds in the twenties. HERO rewards the more experienced player by allowing them to see more of the game.

The mine layout gets more complicated at just the right speed, allowing new players enough time to solve the fast-paced puzzles of the game. Also, like Montezuma’s Revenge (another underground favorite!), once an obstacle (bug, tentacle, etc.) kills the player, that obstacle is removed before the next turn. This way, cheap death at the hands of the same enemy five times in a row won’t cause the player to hurl their joystick out into traffic.

HERO’s control is excellent. Pushing up on the stick makes Hero fly via the jetpack, and there is an appropriate lag between the stick push and the upward movement that accurately simulates the liftoff. Hero can even “run” over small gaps in the ground by pressing diagonally up on the stick while crossing them. Pulling back on the stick lights and sets the dynamite, and the fire button is reserved for firing the helmet mounted laser gun.

Like the hero sandwich, there are lots of ingredients packed into the layers of this game, although here, they’re a lot less edible. Giant bugs, strange snake-like creatures, lava, lava walls, moving lava walls, tentacles, lanterns, and rafts all put in appearances. Not one to abandon quality in favor of quantity, Van Ryzin also garnished his cart-sandwich with some excellent details. For example, the mines of HERO feature lanterns that actually blow out when touched, shrouding the screen in darkness. Setting off dynamite in the dark will temporarily light Hero’s way, and if he exits the screen and re-enters, the lights stay out! Few 2600 games are as nicely colored as HERO, and the flashing lava walls are yet another nice touch. HERO includes still another feature that was largely unseen on 2600 games: when an enemy is destroyed, the point value of that enemy is left behind in its place. Thanks, John, for tossing that VCS-design rule book aside!

HERO is undoubtedly the tastiest non-sandwich, sandwich-named game available for the Atari 2600. It was the one game that my friends couldn’t believe they were playing on the 2600 because it was (you newbies stifle your laughter) so “advanced.” So advanced that even versions for the 5200 and ColecoVision were almost identical to the original 2600 version. John Van Ryzin, did you ever know that you’re my (2600) HEROhhhhhhhhhhh? Iiiiiiiiiiiiii will alwaaaays love playing HEROhhhhhhhhhhhh on my VCS…


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Last updated: Wednesday, December 10, 2003 02:25 PM