The Laser Guide to Video Games - Review -Astro Chase (Atari 5200)









In Memory
Sean Pettibone


The Laser Guide to Video Games

Astro Chase (Atari 5200 - First Star Software - 1983)

There are many games whose appeal seems to fade over time, while a small number seem to leave a strong impression that endures no matter how much time passes. It might be a function of how old the player is at the time of release, these games enter your subconscious immediately, unconditionally locked into memory, deeping a bond that resurfaces each time you play. This can be particularly true when you're young and have what can be experienced as a revelation. It could also lie in intrinsic quality and appeal, but there are games that seem to stand tall in memory for other indefinite reasons. Perhaps, the elicit reminders of a more pleasant time in life, creating a special appeal that doesn't seem to fade. In fact, sometimes these types of memories seem to grow warmer with time. A prime personal example comes in the form of this excellent space-shooter.
It might not seem that special on the surface but there's a lot more going on beneath the surface than might be immediately apparent. What could have been a forgettable experience exudes charm and humor while still delivering intense action. First Star Software originally developed this classic Atari 5200 title for the 400/800/XL line of computers, and this flawless translation released by Parker Brothers maintains its immediacy and appeal.

Astro Chase balances both aspects and brings a flair to its experience rarely seen in its contemporaries. Developed by the legendary Fernando Herrara, Astro Chase is a game who's straightforward mechanics, outstanding execution and entertaining action give it an enduring appeal. There's a high-degree of polish evident in every aspect of the release. Before the main gameplay begins, players are treated to a cinematic cut-scene where the astronaut parades out of the base, salutes and walks to his ship where he's transported to its cockpit. Then, it's time to blast-off into the heavens as he begins his battle to save the Earth from alien forces and their deadly mines. It's surprisingly elaborate and sets the one-against-the-universe mood perfectly. It exudes a winning sense of humor that gives the game a somewhat light-hearted personality. However, it's a bit deceptive since there's no joking around once the action begins.

Unlike many shooters of the era such as Space Invaders or Galaxian that confined players to a single vertical or horizontal line of movement, Astro Chase is set in a somewhat more open area where you're free to move around in any direction. You can shoot in 8 directions, and navigate a maze-like level strewn with mini-planets and other obstacles. These are immovable and indestructible, which means you have to avoid coming into contact with them. Collisions drain your power-meter which is somewhat limited. However, your freedom of movement isn't completely unlimited. There are barriers that set the boundaries for each level, when you reach these your ship either stops cold or bounces off them depending on the angle you collide with them. Interestingly, while the ship is locked within these areas, your shots aren't similarly constrained. Using this technique allows you to shoot any enemies or mines that appear beyond the invisible line. This provides some clever strategies that you can use to wipe out enemies before they pose an immediate danger to Earth.
You have two basic types of opponents in the game that you have to defeat. There are waves of space ships that attack your ship. These came at you from all directions and must be destroyed before they shoot you. In addition, your ship will be destroyed immediately if you come into contact with them. Fortunately, you do have some help along the way. Along the edges of each stage, power-strips are placed where you can replenish your energy, and become invulnerable to attacks for several seconds. This comes in handy when enemies converge on your ship and gives you the chance to strike back at them with relative impunity.
If it was merely a task of blowing up enemies, Astro Chase probably wouldn't have been as exciting or memorable. What really makes the game interesting is the strategic elements set up by the deady space mines. Each stage has 16 of these targets that are heading inexorably towards the planet. You have to destroy all of them to beat the level. They move rapidly towards the center of the screen and your mission is to destroy them before they reach Earth. If even one gets through, the game ends as the planet is destroyed. Their movement is automatic and they jump several spaces without warning, which means you need to anticipate their paths ahead of time. Frequently, they'll converge simultaneously on different sides of the planet, making it difficult to stay ahead of them. Strategically, you'll need to attack the ones closest to the earth first, and save the outlying mines for later. It's not as easy as it sounds since they have a way of moving unpredictably in patterns that make it difficult to anticipate their movements. After a few rounds, you can get the hang of their rhythms and pacing, allowing you to dispatch them before they reach their target.

As you run around, you'll come under attack from a number of alien spacecraft who fly at you and target your ship relentlessly. You need to fire back and destroy them with your space guns, this isn't as easy as it sounds, especially during later stages when they scream right at you without hesitation. These later stages require fast thinking and quick reflexes that build on the earlier stages, which serves to train you on what to expect in a gradual sense. When you reach the later stages, things get exponentially faster. Previously simple mechanics become much harder, with the game putting up a strong fight against you, as enemies attack mercilessly from all sides at the same time. While these opponents are easy to avoid early on, Astro Chase's numerous obstacles are placed in devious positions, as the attacks speed up, their harder to avoid. This means that, occasionally, your ship can get trapped and stuck on them. The small planetoids are easy to avoid, but the smaller stars can be difficult to avoid, especially during the heat of battle when you're after an enemy ship or attempting to blow up a rapidly encroaching mine. This can impede your progress and you need to maneuver past them quickly and get back into the fight or else they'll blow up the Earth without hesitation.

Conversely, enemies can be trapped in these obstacles occasionally as well, making them easy targets. On the other hand, the mines can use them as temporary blocks as well, that can use them as barriers to block your shots. This can be a little frustrating. but can be anticipated. Waiting for the mines to move can mitigate these temporary blockages, and strike them once they move back out into the open. This is all relatively easy to keep track of during the first few stages. Things quickly grow more challenging in later stages when enemy ships attack at greater speed and the space mines converge on the Earth much faster. This makes for a surprisingly intense game once you move deeper into the action. The good news is that Astro Chase gives some time to get into the flow of things before this happens. Static object placement means the location of obstacles remains constant, so minor memorization of their location helps a lot. You'll still find yourself stuck on these pieces from time to time, which can be frustrating at points, but it's part of the challenge and doesn't really impede Astro Chase's positive qualities.
This unexpected complexity means you have to be careful traversing the map as you search for the dreaded mines. You might be slowed down, but they maintain their pace, continuing to rapidly move towards earth. Locating all of them isn't as easy as it sounds, but fortunately they tend to come at you in patterns and this somewhat predictable approach makes it easy to anticipate their approach. You can clear them out fairly easily on the early levels by systematically moving clockwise, or counter-clockwise through the level. They're fairly far and spaced out enough to make this strategy work in the early stages, but once the pace increases later on, they'll become much more aggressive so you'll need to make quick work of them as the close in, or else watch the planet's destruction helplessly. You don't get a second chance, which raises the stakes and keeps the tension level high consistently throughout. There's a surprising amount of strategy in Astro Chase which gives the gameplay a surprising amount of depth. It's one of the key elements that keeps you coming back for more and a key element in it's enduring appeal.

Another significant factor underlying the game's appeal lies in its superb controls which benefit immensely from the Atari 5200's analog controls. Your ship movement is smooth and responsive allowing you to fly through each stage with a great deal of freedom and dexterity. You don't have to worry about too many buttons, the single-fire approach offers just enough firepower, without unbalancing its action with excessive power-ups, which would have made things too easy, or insufficient weapons that could have made for a frustrating excursion. The design is fairly smart in this area and offers an excellent balance between these competing forces. You can play the game's early stages as a form of practice, while latter areas bring intensified action that requires more dexterity and concentration as you keep track of multiple types of attackers simultaneously. It remains one of the more enjoyable and challenging games on the console, and somewhat unique in terms of approach and execution. Regardless of how long you've encountered the game, it's emblematic of its time, bringing forth a personality that remains appealing and challenging. Nostalgia aside, It's enjoyable on its own terms, but remains an enduring title that simultaneously evokes and transcends its origins. Astro Chase's straightforward yet surprisingly deep play mechanics keep you coming back for more. It stands tall in terms of quality alongside other memorable titles. Astro Chase endures because it remains enjoyable whether you're reliving the past or playing it for the first time, discovering its charms and challenges.

- Michael Palisano