Airlock (Atari 2600) review
"Well, actually, the play control's probably the real obstacle. Let's face it, with good control, this game would be nearly as easy as playing Sneak 'n Peek against yourself. Here, you're controlling a character that has barely enough jumping ability to clear one of those coffins and mistiming your jump even by the slightest of margins will cause you to recoil back behind it."
One of those things that might not mean much to younger gamers, but did affect me somewhat was a little incident referred to as the "video game crash of 1983". There's a pretty long story behind this thing, but here's the Cliff's Notes version of the Cliff's Notes version of it: Due to a massive number of console games (many of low quality) glutting the market combined with the growing popularity of computers, video games were being looked at as a fad on its way to being obsolete. This line of thinking continued until the NES proved to be a huge hit in the United States, making it viable for stores to stock games again.
In the grand scheme of things, this event wound up having a huge effect on the gaming industry, as it shifted the balance of power from America (Atari) to Japan (Nintendo and Sega). As a youngster with no knowledge of any of this global stuff, all I knew was that it sure wasn't easy to obtain Atari games anymore, which forced me to spend far more time with certain titles I owned than I'd ever imagined I would in my worst nightmares.
Titles such as 1982's Airlock, a game which might not have singlehandedly caused the crash, but by virtue of its existence could be called a contributing factor. Like I said, there was a ton of games getting released around this time, many of which were poor. And this Data Age effort was bad even by bad gaming standards.
Basically, you're some dude trying to escape a disabled submarine before it's completely full of water and you're escaping life via drowning instead. If you play the basic version of Airlock, this sub consists of five floors which take up an entire one screen. Move on to the more advanced game and you get an additional five-floor screen. You have 10 seconds per level to grab two keys and get to an elevator. If you're still on a level after 10 seconds have passed, it immediately fills with water and you're dead. However, if you complete a floor in under the alloted time, what you have left over carries over to the next one, giving you a little more margin for error.
Making this task more complicated are the obstacles. Each level has a handful of blocks (two on the first screen, four on the second) on the ground. According to the instructions, they're called "barriers", which isn't exactly helping me in figuring out what they really represent, so we'll just say they're coffins containing the rest of the sub's crew. They're pretty harmless after you figure out how to make your vaguely humanoid character jump, but the torpedoes are a different story. You see, you're on a nuclear sub, so all the crazy crap going on has jarred them loose and now they're rolling back and forth along the floor of each level non-stop. If you get touched by them, you'll lose a few seconds of time and, more often than not, that's all it will take for you to wind up drowning. These are MOVING things you have to jump, so they're the real obstacles standing between you and survival.
Well, actually, the play control's probably the real obstacle. Let's face it, with good control, this game would be nearly as easy as playing Sneak 'n Peek against yourself. Here, you're controlling a character that has barely enough jumping ability to clear one of those coffins and mistiming your jump even by the slightest of margins will cause you to recoil back behind it. This is one of those games, that despite being about as simplistic as possible, still isn't easy to complete just because jumping a wee bit early or late just once can spell doom. When it only takes 49 or 99 seconds to beat a game (depending on which version you play), you probably want there to be some factor making it a bit of a challenge to do so. I just personally don't want that factor to be my character moving with the dexterity of someone incapable of walking and chewing gum at the same time.
Games like this were only released because the Atari 2600 had no standards for quality -- if you wanted to make one and had the means to do so, your vision (no matter how crappy) could reach the market. It's the sort of thing that made me happy whenever I saw that sticker on NES games saying they reached Nintendo's standards for quality. Because no matter how bad games like Deadly Towers and Hydlide may have been, they're still light years beyond Airlock's extremely short, yet still tedious, jaunt to the top of a sinking sub.
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (October 21, 2008)
Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.
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