Atari 5200

Review by Russ Perry Jr.



Graphics: 5

Sound: 6

Gameplay: 8

Overall: 7

When I heard the theme of this issue was “Neutered”, the first thing I did was ponder what that meant in terms of games.  (Well, no, the first thing I did was speculate that the proper title for the issue should be “Neuter”, as in ‘having no gender’ as opposed to ‘having gender removed’).  A lot of suggestions were for games starring the standard spaceships, which isn’t quite what the theme is looking for in my mind, and robots which is closer, but given human sensibilities are often anthropomorphized with gender anyway.

On the other hand, Qix is one of those games where you’re never really sure what you’re supposed to be, so you’re pretty sure it doesn’t have gender.  Oh, the instructions refer to the Qix as “he”, but refers to you as using a “chromium electronic marker” -- no gender there (though the pencil-looking thing on the cover may intimate a Freudian suggestion as to gender after all :-).

What it really comes down to is that Qix is an abstract game, something you won’t see as much of in the modern age of gaming as you did in the days of simpler graphics.  Of course, Qix’s graphics are startlingly sparse, and unfortunately a bit boring.  It would take years before the game was reinvented with pretty pictures in the background to uncover as you play, in games like Gal’s Panic and Ultimate Qix.

On the other hand, the Qix itself, merely a collection of lines traipsing about the screen chaotically, yet hypnotically, is a very powerful draw [ugh, no pun intended, swear to God] graphically.  It’s not enough to keep the game from being labeled as bland, but it’s a little “something special” that keeps this game from sinking lower in the ratings.

Sound is just right for the times.  It’s a little sparse, but interesting enough.  The Qix just sort of hums as it flits about, and in general it all sounds very “electric”.

Of course, it’s the play that matters, right?  As I sit here, I can’t decide whether I should write glowingly about the game, or temper my enthusiasm for it.  I suspect it’s a game that’s aimed more at the logical, intellectual types than the twitch gamer.  That’s not to say that there aren’t “twitch” moments where nerves of steel are required, but I don’t think the average twitch gamer is going to see this game and decide that they HAVE to play it.  But, to help you decide, here’s a summary of the gameplay...

Basically, you’re there to draw Stix to partition off bits of the main playfield.  You can do this quickly, or slowly, depending on which fire button you press (although on the emulator I have you apparently move slowly by default even if no button is pressed, so be careful!).  Drawing slowly means twice as many points, but entails more risk, because the whole time you are drawing you are vulnerable to the Qix.  When you close off a box, you capture part of the playfield, which you get points for, and you are no longer vulnerable to the Qix.  The box will fill in orange if you drew slowly, or blue if you drew quickly.  There is a threshold, which starts at 50%, and when you’ve captured that much of the screen, you go to the next round.

Now, so far this doesn’t sound too difficult, does it?  Well, the second round features a more intelligent Qix that will actually track you a little bit, making your task a bit harder.  The round after that you face two Qix, though both dumb, and you can choose to complete a secondary objective -- split them up -- rather than capture the screen threshold.  The fourth round sees the two Qix become intelligent.  After that, I’m not sure they continue to get MORE intelligent (the instructions don’t say), but it’s certainly possible.

Still doesn’t sound that hard?  This all assumes you’re playing the novice level, which is not the full arcade experience (yes, this started as an arcade game, made by Taito).  You see, there are also Sparx and the Fuse in the skilled level.  Sparx are two little sparks that travel around the perimeter of the playfield, and running into them is fatal.  The Fuse occurs when you stop drawing -- a little spark starts where you started drawing and follows the Stix until you finish drawing, or it catches and kills you.  Oh, and on the skilled level, forget that easy 50% -- now you’ve got to capture 65%.

Still sounds easy?  The Sparx don’t sound like much trouble?  Well then, bump up to the advanced level, where the threshold is 75%.  Oh yeah, and then there are the Super Sparx.  You see, after a certain amount of time, Sparx evolve into Super Sparx, which can then traverse the Stix you’ve drawn.  That makes them a little bit harder to avoid!  This is, as I recall, the proper arcade experience.

Of course, if you want it tougher yet, Atari has thoughtfully provided an expert level, where you need to capture 85% of the screen and the Qix are pretty intelligent all the way through the game, and the time it takes for Sparx to evolve into Super Sparx is shorter than ever.  Good luck!

Oh wait, you want some strategies?  Well, if you’re playing the novice level (wuss!) you can definitely use patience to your advantage.  Draw skinny lines (quickly if you have to) in various places to section off the screen a bit without actually capturing much territory.  For instance, build two tall trees one third and two thirds of the way across the screen.  That way you guarantee getting roughly 66% without much trouble.  Of course, each of these can be sectioned off further so that you trap the Qix in as small an area as you feel safe closing before it touches your Stix.  Go for that magical 99%!

On higher levels you won’t have the time to be quite so methodical about trapping the Qix, unless it’s far away, because every time one of the Sparx comes by you’ll have to quickly draw a new box to get out of its way.  Still, you can manage to set up lots of small areas for the Qix to meander into, and you can close off passage to other areas to give it less options (note however that there is NO gap that the Qix can’t pass through -- it will often avoid small gaps, but not always; still, the smaller the gap, the less likely it will go that way).  Still, claiming over 95% is quite possible, at least on early levels.

Things get trickier when you’re talking two Qix...  One strategy is to kind of encourage them to be apart by ALMOST splitting them up -- leaving a very small gap they’d have to pass to join back up -- and then drawing small boxes to capture just UNDER the threshold amount to maximize score before splitting them for good with a final Stix across that narrow gap you left.  The reason this works is because there is a score multiplier that goes up every time you split the Qix.  I’m not sure there’s a limit on it, as I’ve seen up to 7X on one game.  Or you can simply (ha!) trap both at once (not too hard when the threshold is low, but tricky when it gets higher).  I’m not sure which strategy leads to more points, but if you just try to split the Qix without capturing an amount of territory near the threshold level, you’ll be hurting your score for sure.

Scoring is relatively straightforward...  If you fast draw, you get 100 points for each percent of the territory captured, and if you slow draw, it’s 200 points for each percent captured.  Once you pass the threshold, you get 1000 points for each percent over the threshold.  Note that if you split the Qix, you won’t get that 1000 point per percent bonus, but you’ll get the bonus multiplier times the 100 or 200 points per each percent captured under the threshold, and when that multiplier is up there high enough, I’m sure it’s a lot of points.  Oh, and if you’re going to split them, don’t be afraid to use the fast draw, since that last Stix won’t score any percentage points and you therefore won’t lose anything for not using slow draw.

Basically, I liked this game in the arcades, and I this version is pretty well done.  I don’t think it’s for everybody, and even I might have to be in the right mood to play it, but it’s pretty solid.  An occasional frustration is trying to draw a very small path and ending up with the Fuse getting me because I stopped instead of moving that tiny bit over to start drawing back to my start point (in fact, I just had a brief flash of paranoia that the Fuse was going to start up when I stopped typing briefly to consider what word I should use :-).  But there is a decent challenge, some adrenaline moments, and a fair amount of thought and strategy required.  A solid game for the time.


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Last updated: Wednesday, December 10, 2003 03:30 PM