Monday, May 25, 2015

Memory Bank: Caverns of Mars (1981; Atari)

I’ve been playing a lot of Terraria lately on the X-Box with my eight year old son, Joel.  The 2-D sand-box game is -- at least visually-speaking -- a throw-back to an earlier age of video-gaming, and the experience got me thinking about some of the first computer games I ever played.

Near the top of the list of those early 1980s games (right beside Realm of Impossibility, perhaps), would be Caverns of Mars (1981).

I had never heard of the game before my father -- the vice-principal of Mountain Lakes High School in N.J. -- brought it home one day on a floppy disk.  At the time, I believe the school was going whole hog into computers and Atari in particular, and he had a friend, Frank Pazel, who was constantly shipping us home new games in either cartridge, cassette, or floppy format.  

We had an Atari 800 as I’ve written about before, and many of these games were amazing.  I remember enjoying a lot of them, including Murder on the Zinderneuf, and Temple of Aphsai.

But Caverns of Mars was designed by a high school senior named Greg Christensen in 1981, and it quickly became a smash-hit for Atari. An 8-bit game, it positions the player aboard a small spaceship that travels down a vertical shaft, into the red planet’s rocky interior. 

Along the way, the ship must destroy other ships, fuel depots and the like. The longer you play, if memory serves, the faster your rate of descent, so that soon it becomes insanely difficult preventing your ship from getting pulped on the rock face.

It’s a basic game by today’s standards, I suppose, but as an eleven and twelve year old, I found it highly addictive. I would play the game for hours, and it really got the adrenaline going. 

I showed some images of the game to Joel today and he told me, with apologies, that it looks “derpy” by modern standards. 

In this case, I think he may be wrong. (Hey, he's only eight).  Some of the games with basic graphics today -- the aforementioned Terraria and, of course, Minecraft -- thrive on elements not directly related to visual definition, it seems to me.  

Caverns of Mars may not be in the same league, but it was a great game for its time, and a key memory from my first days with the Atari 800. 

Hard to believe it was thirty-four years ago that I first encountered it…

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