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Space Panic (Colecovision) artwork

Space Panic (Colecovision) review

"[insert snazzy tagline about the inability to be heard doing something in space here]"

Space Panic (Colecovision) image

I had been living a lie.

I'm a huge fan of platformers, and I have for years operated under the supposition that Donkey Kong was the progenitor of the genre. However, a little late night Googling revealed that I had overlooked the true originator, a sci-fi-themed title called Space Panic. It was at that moment that I raced to gather my personal effects so I could inspect every arcade in the vicinity.... at 3 AM. Needless to say I didn't get far...

My only alternative was to track down a console edition of Space Panic because I'm too lazy to bother "MAMEing" the game, a quest which led me to the Colecovision iteration. I'm typically reluctant to sample ancient home versions of retro arcade titles because they seldom do the original release justice. With Colecovision in particular, my botched experiences with Zaxxon stuck in my mind as I entertained the possibility of checking out Space Panic. I figured since Coleco's Zaxxon turned out as poorly as it did despite contemporary critical praise, the best I could hope for with Space Panic was a moderate amount of pain. I tensed up as I booted the game, awaiting the certain torture that would lead me to putting a bullet in my Colecovision, or at least swearing off antediluvian arcade ports for a while.

Fifteen minutes later, I found myself immediately replaying it, my wariness forgotten.

Visually speaking, Space Panic doesn't compare to its parent. That's to be expected, as consoles in the early '80s lacked the sophisticated technology required to produce such colorful graphics. I will say, though, that the Colecovision port is not without arcade-ish charms. The game begins with a soft, adorable fanfare that's easy on the ears. This might not sound like much of a compliment, but when you've played numerous arcade ports on first- and second-generation systems, whose simple melodies consist of five to ten notes of nails on a chalk board, discovering an old school console title with a catchy introductory tune is momentous occasion.

The cute ditty ushers you in as the stage materializes before you. Green bricks form several tiers, ladders crop up to connect them, and then tomato-headed aliens crawl out of the shadows, hungry for astronaut flesh. There you stand at the bottom of the level, clad in a space suit with your oxygen slowly depleting, unarmed save for a seemingly useless tool used to demolish and rebuild the floor. Little do you realize that it's the only object that can deliver you from either suffocation or from becoming lunch. Though your adversaries seem to be impervious to your equipment, which renders you unable to use it as a bludgeon, they possess frames so fragile that a short drop could prove fatal to them. That's when you get the crazy idea to deconstruct a portion of the floor so that one of your foes might idiotically fall into it. Once that occurs you have mere seconds to replace the bricks, thereby sealing the creature's fate and sending it down a floor. There it makes contact with the concrete, eradicating the menace and any monster it happens to land on for good. A warning, though: if an extraterrestrial in peril crawls out of one of your holes, then it will mutate into a more powerful being.

In its early stages, Space Panic is precisely what it needs to be. It's a swiftly paced score attacker, but it's not so fast that you are unable to process the opposition's movement. They mosey about at just the right speed, allowing you to ample time to strategize and jump on opportunities when they present themselves. You might even be able to engage in a few Pac-Man-ish risky maneuvers, such as attempting to beat one of the beasts to a ladder and hoping it doesn't catch you as you climb. Because of this, the game can be pretty addictive. I regularly found myself trying to beat an old score or a stage complete time, resulting in some frantic sessions. It's also laudable that the method for defeating your opponents isn't as simple as jumping on them or shooting them, but it's also not overly complicated. Yeah, you may need to press the side trigger several times to annihilate one of the goons, but it's not as though you're setting up a Rube Goldberg just to dispatch a single enemy.

Well, not always, anyway...

Space Panic (Colecovision) image

At the same time, Space Panic's trap 'em up elements demean the experience somewhat, especially once you meet bulkier nemeses. The game eventually introduces green and blue enemies, both of which only splatter if they've taken a multi-floor dive or if you happen to drop one of their buddies on them. In the case of the former beings, you need to punch two or three holes in the floors that are perfectly lined up. Then you have to hope that none of the other creatures accidentally stumbles into one of your traps, thereby bungling the setup. I've especially bumped into this issue when trying to murder a blue alien, which must plummet three floors before croaking. For the life of me, I couldn't get three holes to line up because one of the blasted creatures would slither into the first one while I was digging trap number three, thereby ruining the scheme. Yeah, I could try to take out the upgraded baddies by dropping one of their allies on them, but doing so is unreliable and misses way more often than not. In my experiences, enemies seldom pass under a vulnerable comrade when they're about to take their final plunge, though I have had it happen. Believe me, it's an empowering occasion when it does occur, and it helps assuage the frustration of watching a creature sully your hard work. You feel like a master strategist when you can manage to take out more than a single creeper in one fell swoop. Then you return to the world of reality and realize that your victory was a result of dumb luck.

Killing the tougher enemies is not impossible, nor is it insufferable. This is mainly because you can easily learn how the opposition "thinks" and use that against them. When you're down to a single villain, you can lead him away from your holes by moving to the opposite end of the level. I've played plenty of arcade games where your would-be assassins seem to catch your scent and pursue you. I've played few, however, where this can work to your advantage, and that's one thing I really appreciate about Space Panic. Pursuit is not merely another conflict you must resolve, but something for you factor into your strategy. Only then can you buy yourself enough time to plant three crevices uninterrupted, and only in that way can you hope to lure a blue demon to the highest gap. That's when the game rewards your efforts with a sweet glimpse of your chaser meeting gravity, screaming down three floors, and ending up a greasy stain in Corridor B.

Where retro score attack games are concerned, Space Panic is not the greatest I've played. It is, however, a very enjoyable title that's worth a check for folks who dig old school "kill 'em all" style titles. If you've got fifteen or so minutes to kill and you'd like to spend it watching predatory vegetation from space slip through spacious cracks in the floor, then give the game a whirl.


JoeTheDestroyer's avatar
Staff review by Joseph Shaffer (April 11, 2015)

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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Germ posted April 11, 2015:

In space, no one can hear you... Splatter tomato aliens?
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JoeTheDestroyer posted April 13, 2015:

Something like that. It works better than "dig holes in the floor." I guess "commit vandalism" could have worked, except you're supposed to repair the floor too.

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