The Laser Guide to Video Games - Review - Espial (Atari 800 & co.)









In Memory
Sean Pettibone


The Laser Guide to Video Games

Espial (Atari 800 & co. - Tigervision - 1984)

This vertically-scrolling shoot-em-up has unlikely origins in a somewhat obscure arcade game released in 1982, and subsequently converted for home computers a year later. It seems to have drawn inspiration from Xevious, but has a few unique features that keep it from being completely derivative. The basics should be familiar by now - you're piloting a lone space-ship and face off against a seemingly endless series of alien opponents through multiple stages of play. Unlike many of its bretheren, players aren't confined to a single shot and instead can fire two different projectiles. You have a standard missile-fire which is effective at taking out flying opponents and a bomb that can be used when you want to dispatch ground-based foes. Both enemy types appear constantly and you'll need both types Espial's gameplay is split between these two types of enemies and this dual nature make for a deeper, more challenging game.

Its shoot-and-bomb approach was admittedly pioneered by Xevious and while the implementation is quite as smooth, Espial is still a more dimensional game that offers something with more depth. Using two visual planes of attack makes for a more interesting game. Its a surprisingly strategic shooter that's a bit deeper than many of its immediate predecesors. The only drawback is that since it only utilizes a single button, both shots fire at the same time, making it difficult to draw on both methods of attack at different points. This wasn't that much of a big deal at the time, and actually represented a step forward. It's only somewhat limiting in terms of actual gameplay, which is remarkably smooth and transparent.
Its not as simple as something like Space Invaders or Galaxian. Instead of attacking from fixed positions, they fly at you from divergent locations, swooping in different waves that aren't as predictable as they might have been. Their patterns are made more difficult to anticpate by the fact that they disappear and re-appear at different intervals, which might be seen as a glitch, but makes for a more challenging experience. The trick is to find the opponent's patterns and move out of their way before they come back into view. Otherwise, things can get frustrating in a hurry. It can be mitigated with practice and a little concentration, so all you need is a little patience at first.

Obviously, it's not the most complicated game, but there is some challenge in building the reflexes and dexterity to beat the oppenents. In this respect,it doesn't diverge from the play-mechanics in similar games, and despite some innovations, Espial stays largely in line from a sturctural standpoint, with other shooting games of the era. One interesting exceptions derives from the primary measurement of success which is, as you'd expect, the point score, which is displayed faithfully at the bottom of the screen, though there's an interstesting quirk. You're also given a measurement oif the miles your ship has travelled, which seems a bit strange at first, but works as an odd way of metering your progress throught Espial's stages.

Using the example of other contemporary shooters, Espial stands out from the pack in a number of other significant ways. The most immediately apparent are its visuals which diverge in a good way from expectations Instead of using the typical black backdrops in most other games, players are treated to a surreal landscape of colorful, shapes and designs that makes for a smooth, somewhat brighter appearance. Its visuals also bring smooth-scrolling backgrounds, and effectively animated enemies. While its gameplay mirrors the arcade game, its eleborate visuals are faithfully reproduced to a fine-shine on the Atari Home Computer version. Its aesthetic quality repesents a significant leap ahead of the 2600 version in this regard. It plays much smoother wuth more responsive controls, a greater selection of opponents and better scrolling throughout. Sound effects are fairly good and represent its era faithfully. The biggest minor annoyance comes in the theme-song jingle, which is fine on its own, but repeats every time you lose a life, growing tedious in a hurry.

Aside from this disappointing techical aspect, Espial is a fairly engaging and challenging shooting title. It doesn't the elaborate power-ups, extravagant weapons or bullet-hell trappings of later shooters, but it brings a refreshing simplicity. Its straightforward design allows you to concentrate on the task at hand with mininal distraction. The basic play mechanics are solidly entertaining and Espial implents them effectively. You won't need to master elaborate special moves or attacks, and this simplicity is its secret weapon. Mastering the basic attacks, anticipating enemy movements and showing persistence throughout an ever-increasing pace are hallmarks of classic-style arcade games. Espial brings these elements to the fore, with an shallow learning curve and steep mastery slope making for an appealing, challening and, entertaining program.
- Michael Palisano