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In Memory
Sean Pettibone

From the Laser Archives: Stella Gets a New Brain


 

 


 

By Michael Palisano

Originally published: December 1996 Issue, AKA "The Laser: Electronic Dreams"

Stella Gets a New Brain! The Starpath SuperCharger Game Collection on CD

A huge gift for all classic gamers from the CyberPunks: Glenn Saunders, Russ Perry Jr. Jim Nitchals, Dan Skelton

(This review is of v1.0 of the CD. Some contents changed with the later releases.)

The Starpath Supercharger needs no introduction to any of us who remember the golden age of the 2600. Itís a good bet that if youíre into classic games, you have the Spercharger. For those of you who donít remember or werenít around back in 1982, what the Starpath Supercharger may be a mystery to you. I would say that this was like the 32X but it isnít quite accurate technically. Nor is it fair. The Supercharger actually had some great games. Hereís a brief description of the system for all of you. In 1982, a company called Starpath unveiled a new device which added to the capabilities of the Atari 2600. This device enabled more complex and much larger games to be played. Designers produced and created games that were previously thought impossible by virtue of itsí extra ram. Games were loaded onto the Supercharger via a tape cassette recorder. Unfortunately, the great video game crash of 1983-84 caused the company to go belly up, but not before it left behind some of the best titles ever to grace the 2600. Many of these games are still legendary. Many people think Doom is merely a descendant of Escape from the Mindmaster. Dragonstomper and Communist Mutants from Space are also remembered fondly by players of the pioneering video game system. 

Several years ago, the group behind this project announced that they were working on a new compilation of games that would appear on CD-ROM. This caused much excitement among fans of the old systems, as we all know that the lifespan of audio tapes is not infinite. The group promised that the CD would have some surprises in addition to what had been released originally for the add-on. They werenít lying.

How long have classic gamers waited for this project? It seems like forever. Now, it is finally here and it was more than worth the wait. In addition to the many, many multimedia features present on the CD, all the original Starpath CD games are included, as well as a few unreleased prototypes. Instead of merely porting all of the original tapes onto CD, CyberPunks made an extraordinary effort to include as many extras as possible. The manual that comes with the CD is well produced with a four page full color cover making for a classy presentation. Also included are full instructions to all the games (excluding Polo) along with some background information, essays and an introduction from Steve Hales one of the people who programmed the games. The two prototype games included are Sweat and Polo. Sweat! is basically a one level demo of a decathlon game that was never completed. The basic code was later used as the basis for Summer Games on the C64. Carol Shawís unreleased game Polo is the other prototype title. Itís a simple Pong style contest involving guys on horses. Unlike Sweat however, it appears to be a finished game which she programmed for Atari way, way back in 1978. Itís good and one wonders why it was never sold.

Can you believe that thereís even more stuff on the CD? Yes indeed, hereís where it gets very interesting indeed. The programmers have added scans of al things supercharger. For completists, this is heaven on earth: All of the boxes, the entire set of original manuals and even cassette art has been scanned in readable GIF Format for viewing (or printing) on your home PC or MacIntosh computer. This has got to be the most comprehensive collection of Starpath documentation that has ever been made available. Advertisements that appeared in magazines, screen shots and literally hundreds of additional scans have also been included with the CD. The work and dedication that went into this CD is nothing short of amazing. Did I mention that the CD also includes archival material from the Vectrex as well? Indeed, as with the supercharger products, all Vectrex games and items are scanned including documentation, game boxes and even most of the original overlays. This is another of the many incredible bonuses that have been included on the disc. It adds more value to the CD than should be allowed by law. The games on the CD all load about 50% quicker and they also load every time. This in contrast to the unreliable, flaky tapes that were originally used as the storage medium for the Games. This was the original impetus of the project. Plus the fact that thereís no tapes to change when you want to switch is a great plus about the Supercharger CD. The Supercharger titles themselves are uniform in their excellence. Despite the limited number of games released for the system. While some are basically rehashes of existing genres, the added capabilities f the Supercharger really add to the experience.

The games all feature enhanced graphics, superior sound and much larger playing areas than their counterparts. The added storage capabilities make the games have much more depth and detail than their cartridge based counterparts. In fact, many of the Supercharger games are technically better than the titles Atari released in the late 1980s and early 90s.

Letís take a look at each of the games included on the CD. Despite the bevy of multimedia and documentation included, itís the games themselves that are the main attraction of the disc after all!

Phaser Patrol is an outstanding clone of Star Raiders. This is the game that came packed in with the Supercharger. There are a lot of commands and the graphics here were the first thing you noticed. Flickering far less than Atariís own excellent VCS version of the game. This game was extremely advanced for itís time with the multiple screens and sophisticated mapping functions as well. The game wasnít a mindless shooter, you had to constantly be on the lookout for the enemy ships while also looking for your fuel level and Protecting your own bases. Instead of giving the player multiple lives, you had shields which gradually diminished in strength as the game went along. This was a more complex version of a standard formula outer space shooter. The execution was superb and the action keeps you entertained for many hours. Phaser Patrol was unfortunately not compatible with the Atari produced Touch Pad controller. Maybe someone can work up a hack. Aside from that this was an outstanding title, and an excellent pack-in choice by Starpath.

Communist Mutants from Space is one of my personal favorites. This is one of the games that I had when I was a kid, I loved this game, it was just so much fun and the cold-war era title only enhanced itís cool quotient to me! While itís basically a clone of Galaxian, the graphics are so well-designed and the gameplay so perfect that itís a must get for the Supercharger. As the aliens swoop down and you avoid them, you are struck by how unbelievably smooth these are especially on the 2600. There is much added detail in the commies, and it really shows especially compared to the pale Galaxian home version that was released about a year after the game came out. There are a bevy of great options which you can choose from. These range from difficulty, top special weapons which can be active or not present in the game. You just canít help loving a game with a title like this one has, and the fact that it plays great too can only be seen as a bonus.

Fireball is a breakout style game that uses the paddle controllers. The gameplay is very similar to the Atari classic but adds a few twists. Instead of a row of bricks, there are two boxes circling a pair of trapped balls. Instead of a mere line paddle, thereís a little guy who moves back and forth on the screen. The object is to release both balls and clear all the bricks. The play action is excellent with the Paddle control smooth and the game isnít that hard to get into. . Itís not the most complicated game ever made, but it is a fun waste of time. Thereís a great combination, eh?

Suicide Mission is a pretty good Asteroids clone. While the graphics are really great, what stands out in my mind is the silky smooth play control and the challenge of the game. Coming much closer to the arcade than even Atariís own version, this is another reason why the Supercharger was such and amazing system enhancer. I liked the rapid-fire shots and the excellent rotation of the ship as well. Of course This isnít quite as good as the real thing due to the plot differences. instead of Asteroids, you are battling against hemogoblins in some patientís bloodstream. The blood cells do not break up into smaller asteroids, instead they break down into squiggly-lined snakes, which isnít as effective. While it may share the plot of a famous sci-fi movie, Suicide Mission is not to be confused with Foxí lame shooter Fantastic Voyage. Itís a really excellent title for the Supercharger.

Escape from the Mindmaster is one thatís frequently listed by many players as their all time favorite 2600 game. Basically itís like Doom, without the blood or shooting. Considering how difficult it was to make play go beyond the basic, simple games, this is a shockingly complex maze game. No, it has nothing to do with Pac Man. You have been trapped by the evil Mindmaster in his mazes of doom and the only way out is to conquer all of his puzzles. You start the game in a maze. While avoiding the enemies, you have to get objects and place them in like shaped holes while avoiding a little alien who is running around the maze. Once youíre done with this mission, you have to find the exit and escape from the maze. There are also a few hidden games, such as a simple one where you have to avoid large rectangles as they fall. The action takes place in a first person perspective. You may not think that the 2600 could do this effect well, but this title proves them wrong. Despite the simplicity of the halls, Mindmaster is effective at creating a tense, scary atmosphere. The music is fantastic and the scrolling, while primitive in comparison to newer systems, is extremely effective. Players have a small radar map on the lower portion of the screen. Itís a really good challenging game and one thatíll keep you busy for hours at a time.

DragonStomper is a great attempt at an RPG - remember this is the 2600 we are talking about. The graphics seem average at first until you realize that the playing area takes place over many different screens, mapping is a definite must in the game. The interface is really simple which is a great plus. Like Mindmaster, this game is shockingly complex for itís own reasons. The game takes place in the hills of a faraway medieval kingdom. You are a knight in shining armor looking for the dragon. The game is one of only a couple of the "multi-load games" This definitely makes a large classic title seem that more involving and time consuming. Itís a thoroughly enjoyable game.

Killer Satellites takes a little bit from Defender and mixes a touch of Missile Command to create a great shooting video game. It looks and plays very much like Defender with the exception of the fact that the satellites descend from the sky and destroy the buildings below with is very much like Missile Command. You have a radar at the top of the screen which tells you of the position of the satellites. Your ship is alone against an attacking wave of deadly attacking satellites. Your mission is to blow them out of the sky. The game begins slowly, but really heats up at the later levels.

Frogger is an outstanding version of the arcade classic. The graphics are excellent, featuring stunning animation, great control and vibrant colors, most of which are sorely lacking. The game is a fantastic adaptation in that the player control and techniques is taken directly from the arcade. The patterns and the style of enemy movement have also been faithfully reproduced. This is one of the best 2600 games Iíve ever played, itís just so much fun to see the game in itsí full glory on the system. You just canít help but be impressed by the outstanding graphics, and addicting gameplay. Through some kind of loophole in the copyright laws, Starpath was able to acquire the rights to this game. This probably upset Parker Brothers to no end since they had released a version on the 26000 in cartridge form about a year earlier. The Starpath version outclassed the PB Frogger in every single department.

Party Mix features a variety of fun mini-games to play with others. While they lack a lot of suspense playing solo, I was able to get a good idea of how they played. There are 5 different titles on this which can be accessed via the Multi-load feature. The games included are very simple such as Bop A Buggy in which two cars go through an obstacle course and Tug of war, which is really just an exercise in Button pushing. The other three titles are all in a similar style to these. Party Mix tried to hard to do too much, and lacked the imagination to pull it off. While it may be kind of fun for more then 1, doesnít really excite as a solo play game. It also uses the paddles, which means up to 4 people can play at once, this mode is not recommended, since everything looks squished together when in this mode. Compared to a multiplayer Doom Deathmatch, Iím not sure if Party Mix would be your first choice. Itís a strange curiosity.

Survival Island is a multi-load action/adventure type of game. There are actually three different levels included in the game, of which I have only been able to get to the first two. The first screen is you swimming towards the island, you have to get your raft and collect various things that are floating in the ocean. Beware however that there are some monsters in the ocean as well as gunmen all looking to kill you. Your energy goes down with each passing moment s you have to rush like hell to get to the island. If you are good enough and are able to reach the island, you get to load up the second level, which takes place on the island itself. In this level the action takes place on a much larger area. You are looking for the secret temple in this area, and there are many paths in which to travel. You can collect some bonus objects as well here, which are critical to your survival. The third level takes place inside the hidden temple as well. The variety in the two levels is good, and the games are surprisingly difficult to beat. This is a later Supercharger game that was only released via mail order with only the tape an a Xeroxed set of instructions. there was never any box art for it, until now. In a great testament to the Cyberpunks, they have commissioned box art for Survival Island. It looks good and fits in well with the style of that time. This is what they mean when they say that little things add up.

Sword of Saros Maze games were plentiful back in the early 1980s so it comes as no surprise that this was yet another one. Thanks to the success of Pac Man, these titles were so completely overkilled by developers back then, that everything from Alien to X-rated titles used this style. Sword Of Saros was a pretty good game. Players had to go through a simple maze and avoid contact with the wizard and the spider. It wasnít that difficult to get out of the maze and find one of the secret rooms. You could literally walk right into them. Once in the rooms, youíd find two rows of objects at the top and bottom of the screen. All you had to do to collect one of them was to stand at it for a second. Each of the objects would give you a special power or weapon. You also had to avoid monsters while collecting various objects in these hidden rooms. Once you were back out of the room, you went back to the maze. When this was completed, you could go and fight the Wizard on another screen. The wizard would release his evil skeleton Warriors and youíd have to avoid them and get to the wizard at the top of the screen. The game was pretty simple, but was a slot of fun.

Sweat! The decathlon game is only a demo. Thereís only a single event and a title screen here, itís interesting, but there just isnít that much to do. Itís more of a curiosity than a game. You may like the direction the game was going in, unfortunately thatís it.

Polo is Carol Shawís never made 2600 game that was mentioned earlier. Rumored to exist for many years, this appearance on the CD is the first time anyone has been able to verify this. Itís the only thing besides the Vectrex stuff that isnít Starpath related. Basically itís just Pong on horses. The game is complete however and there are a bevy of options to choose from. While itís basically just a fancy version of Pong, it is entertaining and most players will be charmed by it. The graphics definitely remind you of very early Atari games like Canyon Bomber, Air/Sea Battle and Combat. The play also is fairly simple as well. Anyone whoís played Video Olympics will be able to understand this game. What you basically have to do is shoot the little ball through the other guyís goal. Not a very complicated game to explain or understand. Itís fun to play and thatís what matters. Thanks to the CyberPunks for unearthing this one.

Today, the infamous Stella CD is a highly sought after collector's item.

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