Apr 1, 2024

Don't Eat The Dynamite

Atari 2600 (1984)
Release dates for video games that were developed in the 70's and 80's can be a bit challenging to pin down.  The Wikipedia profile for the game reports that it was released in North America sometime in 1983, but I think they're making that assumption based on its copyright date.

Orlando Sentinel  (April 15, 1984)

The earliest evidence that I was able to find for this game being available to purchase in stores is a Zayre Easter Sale circular that was published in Sunday newspapers across the country on April 15th, 1984.  This combined with the publication dates of an unfavorable review from Michael Blanchet that refers to Taz as "Atari's latest game" have led me to believe that the game received a Spring 1984 release, which means that it's turning 40 years old.

The game is centered around Taz the Tasmanian Devil.  It's easy to understand why a game would have been created for the iconic cartoon.  He was familiar to both children and adults who grew up watching Looney Tunes, and licensing the character would have cost Atari nothing because the company was owned by Warner Communications at the time, and they held the character's trademark.

Taz is a simple to understand, but brutally difficult to play.  You play as the Tasmanian Devil, who is represented on screen as a small brown tornado.  You can move the character up, down, left, and right across a playing field made up of eight rows separated by blue lines.  Various foods and beverages fly horizontally across the playing field along with sticks of dynamite.  The object is to move Taz around to eat the food without allowing him to eat any of the dynamite.

The edible items come at you one at a time.  The game begins with hamburgers, which are fairly large and easy to distinguish from dynamite.  They also move at a pretty slow pace, which makes it easy for players to get the hang of how the game works.  Once you achieve a score milestone, the speed will increase and the food item will change to root beer.  Next up is ice cream cones, followed by Fudgesicles, which are especially hard because their size and shape makes them more difficult to pick out from the dynamite.

After you beat the Fudgesicles level, you move on to the Crazed Wave.  The good news is that the apple cores that you eat during the first part of the Crazed Wave are a lot easier to tell apart from the dynamite compared to the Fudgesicles.  The bad news is that this is where the speed of the objects kicks into another gear.

If you manage to make it past the apple cores, your next food is turnips, followed by tomatoes, and an ice cream sundae.  If you get past the ice cream sundaes, the game cycles back to hamburgers, but at a speed that will make your introduction to the Crazed Wave seem slow in comparison.

The instruction manual teases you with a surprise food item that you'll only get to see once you have cleared each of the food items three times.  Frankly, if you're playing this game on original hardware with no cheat devices, I think that this is impossible.  You start the game with three lives, and while you can earn extra lives throughout the game based on your score, you only have to touch the dynamite once to lose a life.  The farthest that I ever remember getting in my first 20 years of playing this game was the tomatoes.  By that point, things are moving across the screen so quickly that it is impossible to avoid the dynamite, especially if you're using a clunky Atari 2600 joystick.

Even if you play Taz on an emulator using keyboard controls and save states, it is insanely difficult to clear all eight food items three times each.  It took me about an hour to do it, constantly saving my game and restarting from the save point to finally get to see the surprise food at the end... and wow, is it ever disappointing.  I guess it's supposed to be a coconut cream pie, but as you can see from the picture above, it's just the ice cream cone with the top two and bottom two rows of sprites removed.  Seeing this for the first time made me feel like Ralphie from A Christmas Story when he uses his Little Orphan Annie Decoder Ring to decode the secret message.  A crummy sprite hack?  Son of a bitch!

Despite it's savage difficulty and disappointing payoff at the end, it's still a hell of a fun game.  This was my family's favorite game for the Atari 2600 when I was growing up, and I still nerd out a little bit at the fact that its programmer, Steve Woita, responded to one of my Facebook posts in response to a fan group question about what our favorite games for the console were.

Unfortunately, the game has not been released on any of the Atari plug-and-play consoles, and it's not included in any of the compilations that have been released over the years.  However, if you want to give it a try, you can play it through your web browser on AtariOnline.org.  Click on the link, then click on the screen and press the space bar to start the game.  After that, all you'll need is the up, down, left, and right keys to move Taz around the screen (the joystick button didn't do anything but start the game).  The World Record according to Twin Galaxies is held by Andrew Fellman with a score of 338,500.  As insanely impressive as that is, that's still over 200,000 points short of what is needed to get to the surprise food at the end, which reinforces my belief that seeing the coconut cream pie in the game without cheating is impossible.  But hey, I've been wrong before.  See if you can beat Mr. Fellman's world record and unlock the surprise food with nothing but a console, a cartridge, and a joystick.  Good luck!