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Moonsweeper (Atari 2600) artwork

Moonsweeper (Atari 2600) review


"There was something addictive about Moonsweeper. A good portion of it was the same old story: command a spacecraft, gun down extraterrestrials, laugh at their burning pieces on the planet surface. But Imagic dressed it up in such a new and unique way that it felt fresh. You didn't just move back and forth at the bottom of the screen whilst shooting a horde of odd shapes, nor did you just zoom along and fire at the occasional threat a la Zaxxon. You actually did both!"



Moonsweeper asset


I've told this story before. Sometime in the 80s, a crazed programmer got a most wicked notion to nix the score system from video games and break away from the arcade feel. Some early titles shed the score concept like a winter coat, and were for their time unique and beautiful. However, the transition on a large scale wasn't so instantaneous. As it is in biological evolution, there are older games that showcase a mix of both ideas--games I like to refer to as "transitional fossils." Most of them, like Desert Falcon, were awkward, unbalanced titles whose inability to commit to one school ultimately hampered the experience of playing them. As you can probably tell, I'm going to slap Desert Falcon in the face with a counterexample, as if I'm saying, "Why couldn't you have been this game? WHY!?"

Moonsweeper. As a kid with little exposure to anything more advanced than Atari 2600, my jaw dropped when I played this game. It had everything a young gamer could ask for: shooting, aliens, "great" visuals, arcade sensibilities, and a progress-based structure. The most painful car ride home came after tearing into the instruction manual and finding out you could actually beat the game, and oh how I wanted get home right away. While a beatable game on 2600 wasn't unheard of, crossing such a phenomenon was like winning the lottery--to me at age nine, anyway. After arriving home, I shoved the game into the 2600, played until my head hurt, took aspirin, caught a nap, woke up, and resumed playing for another few hours.

There was something addictive about Moonsweeper. A good portion of it was the same old story: command a spacecraft, gun down extraterrestrials, laugh at their burning pieces on the planet surface. But Imagic dressed it up in such a new and unique way that it felt fresh. You didn't just move back and forth at the bottom of the screen whilst shooting a horde of odd shapes, nor did you just zoom along and fire at the occasional threat a la Zaxxon. You actually did both! You started off floating around in the Solar System, trying to survive by blasting any object that looked big enough to leave a mark. While zapping all manner of space debris, a planet would approach you. That was your cue to collide with the astral body and begin a level.

Moonsweeper assetMoonsweeper asset


The first time I saw my ship zoom down to the surface, saw the screen zoom in on the planet, I was blown away. I didn't think the 2600 was capable of something so awesome back then, and just that moment alone was worth playing the game for several hours. On each planet, you zoomed around and dodged enemy towers while rescuing enslaved miners. These guys were part of your objective, as collecting enough of them gave you access to speed-boosting devices that assisted you in your ultimate goal: flying around the sun. Each stage is about increasing your flight speed, and come the game's end you'll have enough momentum to complete the ultimate task.

Of course, flying saucers don't like humans that zip around giant starts. Now and then a massive mothership will make an appearance while you're on a planet, sending down a scout to reduce you to space dust. These bad boys don't approach you in a straight line, but engage you with skillful sweeps and swoops about the screen. Combat wasn't merely shooting at the top of the screen and hoping your projectile collided with a sprite; it was a bona fide dog fight. The two of your maneuvered, shifted, fired at each other. Deft maneuvering and well-timed firing saved your life, that or the occasional moment where the scout would fly into a tower. What added to the battle was that you could actually fire diagonally. Again, not unheard of in a 2600 game, but so rare that... you know the rest.

I knew I had almost no hope of beating this game, so it became a contest to see how much farther I could advance with each session. New planets would arrive with different color schemes. Combat grew progressively faster and more fierce, but soon it became too much to handle. No matter how many times I tried, I couldn't get my rig around the sun. Never happened, probably never will.

I ignored a lot of flaws then that I notice these days. Never once did I complain about the loose play control, though I remember careening out of control pretty often. Even playing nowadays, I usually spend the first few minutes trying to adjust by flying into obstacles that should be easily dodged. Once you have the play controls down, there's the matter of repetition. I wouldn't normally pick on an Atari game for it, but I'll make an exception for one based on progress. It's just that every level is pretty much the same, just a little faster each time. It's still not the most punishing flaw, as the game's challenge factor eventually becomes both insane and irritating. The scout ships are the game's main method of boosting the difficulty. In later stages, the mothership will appear more frequently--emitting a constant, grating sound effect any time it's on the screen--and drop more scout ships that move with greater finesse. Immediately after you've dealt with any scout ships, the mothership will reappear and drop more, over and over and over and over... The cycle will continue in maddening repetition and then suddenly stop. You'll get a moment's reprieve before the cycle of annoyance begins again. You might hope to grab all the miners you need at that point, but their spawning is random. You could go minutes before seeing another one.

Despite the flaws, Moonsweeper is still an action-packed retro title. Although it doesn't have the same effect on me these days, I still respect the hell out of it. It was a bold move, and one of the few early examples of a score-based shooter actually melding properly with a progress-based system. I still like to pull this one up now and then, play for a few minutes, drop a few f-bombs, and remember the days of yore. Sometimes it's not a bad idea to remember who I was or where I've been. But like any piece of the past, you have to put it away and drag yourself back into modern times and its lack of annoying motherships.

Rating: 7/10

JoeTheDestroyer's avatar
Community review by JoeTheDestroyer (April 18, 2012)

Rumor has it that Joe is not actually a man, but a machine that likes video games, horror movies, and long walks on the beach. His/Its first contribution to HonestGamers was a review of Breath of Fire III.

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