The Laser Guide to Video Games - Review









In Memory
Sean Pettibone


The Laser Guide to Video Games

Lead (Atari 2600/VCS - 2010)
Juno First (Atari 2600/VCS - 2008)

Homebrew gaming can occasionally offer a mixed bag with quality ranging from dismal to euphoric. Langing squarely in the latter category are these pair of releases from Atari Age. Both are inspired by classic arcade shoot-'em-ups descended from Galaxian and Space Invaders but the difference in approach and unique style each brings to the table makes Lead and Juno First two prime examples of what happens when everything comes together. Developed by Simone Serra, Lead is probably one of the most polished, entertaining and, challenging shooters on the 2600/VCS. Its not strictly an arcade translation, but its alien foes' design and structure strongly resembles Space Invaders. What you'll immediately respond to is likely the slick graphics, sleek interface and fluid controls. Its elaborate menu screen is just the start. Lead's sleek, retro look is immediately appealing with a design that's incredibly polished and immediately engaging. It mimics the look of classic arcade games with flashing score displays, shimmering level layouts and colorful waves of opponents that jump off the screen, streaking in vivid waves of light brillaintly, the action almost exploding against a straightforward black background. Lead's pulsating soundtrack is phenemonal by 2600/VCS standards. It builds on and reinforces Lead's relentless pace with thumping beats punctuating the action that feel more at home in a DJ Booth than an arcade. All of which creates an aesthetic that's immediately appealing and engaging, mixing retro style with modern approach to make for an instantly engaging title.

At first glance, you might mistake Lead for a rather generic space shooter that guises up an old formula with flashy music and graphics. This might be fair if you only play through its first level. Structured as a traditional shooter, your ship stays firmly rooted at the bottom of the screen as you shoot a wave of bullets at a descending waves of enemies. The minor twist in the first level are two side walls that twist and turn as you play, constraining your movement along with your enemies. Its an interesting idea, but hardly enough to sustain a complete game for any length of time. The big twist comes in the second stage, where instead of shooting the enemies as they attack, you have to dodge them. There are no shots to fire here either, its pure avoidance. Not what you'd expect at first, and definitely sets up a fairly innovative title In this approach, its structure resembles a string of connected mini-games, but their seamlessly connected allowing players to build a unique flow and momentum as they're propelled through Lead's hyper-kinetic, action-packed stages.

Lead's mixed-skill approach is the key to its long-term appeal, challenging a different skill-set with each stage. It isn't all about mindless shooting either. There are are number of 'scramble' stages where you have to avoid contacting falling ships that cluster in patterns, that resemble puzzle games than traditional shooters. The action returns to shooting on other stages, but the rules are twisted during subsequent stages. On these levels, you have to avoid contact with the shimmering walls at your side.or avoid rapidly descending foes. Different types of stages appear at random intervals, keeping you constantly on guard.

It gradually builds in difficulty and intensity, challenging players with varying play mechanics and obstacles that shift and turn with each stage. Even you memorize the order the stages arrive in, the rapid change in rules and mechanics keeps you off-guard and constantly aware of shifting play mechanics. Enemy patterns are fairly straightforward, but the rapidly increasing speed creates tension where enemeis might seem to appear suddendly right behind you. Several modes of play are available which further diversifies the action, there's a more basic 1K mode with reductionist, de-make style graphics and somewhat simplifies the action. This is probably the simplest mode and makes a good introduction that allows you to learn the basics effortlessly.

From initial power-up, Lead creates a seamless experience that smartly throws players surprising challenges without feeling cheap or gimmicky. Its presentation is consistently superb, with a flawlessly-designed classic appearance, distinctive soundtrack and most importantly, finely-tuned rhythmic gameplay that throws enough curves to keep you coming back for more. It's a remarkable achievment by any standard, all the more impressive when compared to commerical releases, truly an outstanding title that proves the durable VCS platform retains seemingly endless potential, despite the many years that have passed.

Taking a more traditiona, but equally successful approach is the arcade-conversion of Konami's Juno First. Developed by Chis Walton along with Nathan Strum, Erik Ehrling and Glenn Saunders this was alos published by Atari Age, and retains a high-quality throughouit. The elaborate opening sequence unfolds as it would in the arcade, and a single button press from the main menu suddenly thrusts you into the action. The initial stages in Juno First are relatively easy to understand. Piloting a ship, you move horizontally firing at waves of enemy ships. More interestingly, you can move the playfield back and forth, allowing you to skip back and forth through the stage. More sistant enemeis appear on the radar in the upper portion of the screen. This allows you to strategically move out of the line of fire, place your ship in advance and counter attack patterns.

In order to survive you also need to anticipate where and when your opponents will attack. Enemies attack in large waves and are somewhat easy to knock out, succumbing to a single shot. However, they shoot back diagonally, which makes them trickier to avoid. At the top of the screen, youi Each wave consists of a large number of enemies and your progress after clearing all of them. Adding a bit of strategy, at several points in each level, special pods appear that unlock 'HyperSpace' mode, when powered-up, it gives you temporary invulnerability and double points for each opposing ship you take down.

Aside from all of this, there's the constant pressure of the fuel gauge ticking down. It's not that important on the earlier stages, latter waves are longer, with more enemies, reducing your margin of error. Keeping focus on these elements simultaneously isn't as easy as it sounds, since you have to balance your timing amd firing without getting zapped from an unexpected direction. Helping you along the way are Juno's remarkably smooth and fluid controls, which allows the action to flow seamlessly. You're involved in the game without worrying about the interface getting in the way.

Its scrolling playfield is probably the most central element of its appeal, allowing for a much greater freedom of movement than most shooters on the VCS allow. It adds depth to the mechanics, and allows for a looser structure. As the intensity of attacks increases in later stages, you're likely going to lose ships more frequnetly. This could be frusrarting in most shooters, but the design gives you a break in its unlimited continues where you can start at the stage where you left off. It lets you play, building your skill and endurance seamlessly, quickly adding intensity and speed, as enemies multiply above you.

Juno First's authentic aesthetic and slick visuals are incredibly stylish and coherent, with cool-looking enemies, detailed sprite-work and contrasting bright color designs that gives Juno First an appealing, surprisinglyy coherent look. Its graphics doen't exactly duplicate, but instead effectively mimic the sharp visuals of the 1983 arcade game. In-game sound effects are appropriately thunderous, with heavy weapon fire, explosions and thick bleeps complimenting the action at every interval. Effectively, promotion comes quickly and the rapid increase in speed keeps interest levels and motivation high throughout. As in many classic shooter games, the immediately gratifying gameplay and mechanics make for an immensely appealing title that rewards repeated play with numerous secrets and power-ups. Making a good run unlocks another surprising feature - an in-game high-score table that allows you to enter your initials, as was standared practice during the classic acade gaming era. Unfortunately, high scores disappear when you turn off the syste,. However. they can be saved permanently, using an optional device called the Atarivox.

Juno First is a surprisingly robust arcade-style game, on a system where many commercial conversions released durings its heyday fell short of expectations. Showing a remarkable faithfulness to the original arcade title in terms of speed, challenge and polish. Juno First and Lead make complimentary book-ends with high-degree of technical polish, impressive graphics and hypnotic gameplay that produces a recurring desore to keep playing. Its difficult to measure these titles against each other since they take different approaches to arcade style games. Both highly-entertaining titles are enjoyable in their own right, offering an outstanding balance depth, high replay value and most importantly, gameplay challenge. Lead is slightly more cerebral, while Juno First's viscreal thrills are sustained and consistent, with no interupptions or sudden rule changes between level.

Comparing both by playing them back-to-back in sequence shows there's surprising nuances seperating these games. Lead and Juno bring slightly different emphasis, and each title feels unique enough that both are worthwhile. These definitely expand expectations of what's possiblle for the traditional shooter genre on the VCS/2600. There's an impressive level of detail, balance and polish in each vivid gameplay session and the attention-to-detail and sheer passion is evident throughout both. Lead and Juno First are both near-perfect examples showcasing how enormously skilled developers can ignite a renewed energy and excitement by simultaneously remaining faithful to the inspiration while stretching techincal boundaries on seemingly forgotten hardware. Both titles are of modern homebrew communities have brought new, invigorating energy to seemingly dormant systems, even decades after their commercial apex.

- Michael Palisano