SpaceMaster X-7

Atari 2600

Review by William Cassidy

20th Century Fox

Shoot'em-up

Graphics: 7

Sound: 6

Gameplay: 9

Overall: 7


When the folks at 20th Century Fox decided to try their collective hand at Atari 2600 game publishing, they decided to build games around the films in their huge movie library. Sounds like a pretty good idea, doesnít it? After all, this was the studio that brought us such classics as Star Wars, The Three Musketeers, and The Poseidon Adventure. Surely theyíd be able to find some wonderfully crafted films in their archives that would seamlessly translate into exciting VCS cartridges.

Instead, they based games on crappy 1950ís outer space fungus movies.

Iíve never seen the film, but the Internet Movie Database tells me that in SpaceMaster X-7, a space probe returns to Earth covered with a bloodthirsty fungus which promptly goes on a rampage of murder and deadly toenail infections. David Lubar -- who designed the Atari 2600 game -- apparently watched a different movie, because SpaceMaster X-7 on the VCS is action-packed and refreshingly fungus-free.

In this X-7, the player controls a spidery Assault Ship, a spacecraft staging an assault (hence its name, I guess) against Hyperion Military Bases. Hyperions are the boxy, shimmery things at the center of the screen. They surround themselves with a diamond-shaped shield that regularly expands outward to the edges of the screen before contracting back to the center. The playerís job is to shoot through moving gaps in the shield to blast the Hyperion back to wherever it came from.

This job is not so easy, however. The gaps in the shield are always moving along the string-like shield, and since the shield itself is constantly expanding and contracting, itís a tall order to take effective aim at the base. And aim you must, because bases absorb a lot of hits before being destroyed. An energy meter at the bottom of the screen depletes with every hit registered. Once it hits bottom, the Hyperionís history. However, its energy gradually recharges while the base is not under attack.

Your Assault Ship canít withstand a hit from the shield, so youíre forced to dodge the pulsating energy line while trying to get a bead on the base. Since the shield gap moves, you can only hit the base during a short window of time -- unless you decide to be brave and guide your ship through it. Make it through, and you can tear into the base and wipe it out in seconds. Miss, and die. This dangerous course is usually the smartest one, because the longer the base survives, the more static obstacles it will place in your path. Soon you simply wonít be able to navigate close to the base and will be forced into taking potshots at it from long range. Hyperions make your job even more difficult by launching various kinds of enemy craft at you, including a nasty variety that whips around quickly while homing in on your ship.

SpaceMaster X-7 strikes an effective balance between frustration and action, which makes the game tense and exciting overall. Some waves, youíll dart right through the shield and slaughter the Hyperion with a satisfying barrage of firepower. Other waves, youíll blunder into the shield and be forced to hang back with your remaining craft, dodging enemy ships while painstakingly whittling down the baseís energy. The basic gameplay never really changes, rendering the game somewhat simplistic (even by 2600 standards). Still, the action is fast and keeps getting faster, but itís punctuated by maddening periods of near inactivity when you just canít get a clear shot. Some may not find this mix of action and inaction to their liking, but I enjoy it. In each battle, one side always has the upper hand -- and sometimes, itís not yours.

The visuals have an almost vector-graphics look to them, with thin lines making up the shield, most enemy craft, and your Assault Ship. The colors are muted, but they cycle a lot, giving everything a shimmering, science-fictiony look. The sounds are just great, and there are several different aural cues. All the tones sounding together create the impression that thereís more going on than there really is, which contributes to the gameís sense of tension.

SpaceMaster X-7 is somewhat rare but worth tracking down, especially if youíre a fan of the simple action games that make the 2600 such a great machine. Even if youíre not a collector, this cart is worth a few extra bucks. Sadly, the movie hasnít been released on VHS or DVD so you canít buy it. Somehow, I donít think youíre missing much.

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Last updated: Tuesday, September 16, 2008 05:21 PM