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I'm thankful for Tunnel Runner

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Thanksgiving was always a holiday you had to wait for. Unlike something like Christmas Day, where the whole day is sort of celebrated, Thanksgiving is a mostly uneventful day until people start coming over, at least for us kids. Mom didn't trust us in the kitchen with Dad (she's a massive germophobe) so for most of the day we helped her clean the house. She suffers from extreme anxiety so everything had to be perfect for the guests or they wouldn't like it, so she thought. At about 4, most of the house was cleaned and Brian came over. She would feel better when someone else was there and she would stop yelling for a bit. Brian would help in the kitchen and my sister and I would quietly slip away until about 6:30 when the rest of the guests came over for dinner. 

For those few hours, my sister and I would avoid the main floor like the plague where everyone was. Sometimes we would go upstairs in one of our rooms and play on our DS systems or go outside if it was warm enough. On Thanksgiving day of 2016 we tried walking to the park but after a few minutes there neither of us could handle the cold weather and went home. We already got yelled at when we walked in the kitchen door (very stressful before people came) so we just went down into the basement to wait it out. Back in 2016, all of our home systems (except the Wii U) lived in the basement, including the Wii. I had recently set up a coaxial cable splitter so we had the big 27" Orion hooked up on the stand as well as the 12" Hitachi on the floor. Why I did this I do not know. 

If you didn't know, I didn't have an Atari 2600 system until very recently. I had always envied my dad's cousin who had one he wasn't using. I had known about that system he had for years and he didn't get rid of it until March of this year. Thankfully, I finally have it in my collection. I have been playing 2600 games for years, however, using emulation on my Wii.

My sister was never a big Atari fan and still isn't, though on this day I was in an Atari mood and was begging her to play it with me. She reluctantly agreed. A few games of Combat and Pac-Man later, she quit out of boredom and started reading one of her stupid graphic novels. Soon, I was also bored with the games, so I was scrolling through the list of abbreviated ROMs looking for a new game to play. There were a few stinkers I didn't much care for in the "T" section. At this point, I was just clicking on the games one after the other, hoping I'd find a good one. And then I stumbled around Tunlrunr.BIN.

Atari 2600: Tunnel Runner : Free Borrow & Streaming : Internet Archive

Immediately I was impressed. There was an actual title screen. With many games I had found on my emulator myself, I had no idea what I was playing. I had to guess from the abbreviated names on the list of ROMs. Many of these games I found later on YouTube; sometimes I guessed their titles right, sometimes not. It was weird realizing Megaman.BIN was just Megamania, a game I had previously played on Arcade Zone for the Wii. But with Tunnel Runner I immediately knew what the game was called, who made it, and when it was made. And that music, that haunting theme of eight notes endlessly repeated in that menacing tone, music reminiscent of the theme from Halloween. This game was special, and I knew that right off the bat.

I pressed + on the Wii Mote, which acted like the Reset switch on the 2600. I was again impressed by the maze being drawn on the screen and the accompanying sound effects, though I had now idea what was happening. Now what I assumed to be a health bar was filling up at the bottom of the screen. What kind of game was this going to be?

I was thrust into a tunnel with a first-person perspective. "Oh no." I thought. 3D on early consoles like this was not good. I had played Might and Magic 3 on the Super Nintendo before and constantly got lost. The 3D first person perspective was very disorienting and it looked like the same two pictures alternating each time I took a step with an occasional wall or door. I hated that game and I still do. I don't think I ever got past the first area, Fountain Head.

So when I saw a first person game on the ancient and far less powerful Atari 2600, I thought it would be a train wreck of a game. It was impressive, yes, but I didn't think it would play well at all. But for some reason I didn't turn the game off. I pressed the button and saw the maze that was drawn on the screen seconds earlier, but this time with little dots moving about. There was also this weird triangle and this symbol that weren't moving at all. I had no idea what was going on. So I started running. And running. I was actually shocked; I felt like my character was actually moving around! This game that predated M&M3 by, like, a decade had a better sense of movement than that 16-bit game did!

After a while I pulled up the map again, looking for something to do. I noticed that the little arrow symbol had moved a bit, so I assumed that was me. I tried making my way over to the triangle thing to see what was up with that, bringing up the map again every couple of steps. I tried running towards the map and...

Dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun...

Eleven-year-old Harry screamed. I heard the music again, and it was loud. I looked over and saw this diseased, rabid, and incredibly unfriendly Pac-Man inches from my face, chomping its mouth riddled with sharp fangs. By then, it was too late. It came a step closer and...

Dun dun dun dun, dun dun dun dun, dun dun dun dun, dun dum beep boop!

The thing ate me! I was incredibly startled by its sudden appearance, and my scream startled my younger sister on the couch. "What did you do that for?" she said, annoyed with me.

"I'm playing Tunnel Runner."

"What's that? Is it one of your stupid Atari games?"

"Yes, and it's not stupid. Just play it."

"No. I hate Atari."

"Just do it, you'll like it."

"No. Shut up."

"Fine," I said, and continued to play Tunnel Runner. My guess was that that horrible thing was guarding the trapezoid/triangle thing. I checked the map to see where I was relative to the mystery item. I made my way over to it and heard the music again. Dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun... I screamed again. The weird things were back. 

"Stop it," my sister said.

I grabbed the trapezoid just in time and saw that a little symbol on the bottom of the screen was flashing. I realized it turned when I turned. "Oh, so it's a compass," I thought to myself.

I stumbled around the maze aimlessly looking around for the exit. I ran through several doors that just teleported me random places I didn't want to go. After a lot of time had past, a few screams, and a few run-ins with the Zots who promptly devoured me whenever they saw our Tunnel Runner, I realized that the blank space on the edge of the map was where the exit was. I finally beat the first run on my last life with little time left on the timer. On the second run I was almost instantly killed.

"Are you still playing that stupid game?" my sister asks me.

"Yes." I reply.

"Stop screaming. I'm trying to read my book."

"I can't. It's a natural instinct."

"Stop it. You're such a baby. Who's scared of a stupid Atari game?"

"You try playing and we'll see if you're scared," I say.

"Fine." she says.

After she starts the game I explain to her what you are supposed to do. She was also skeptical of the first person viewpoint. I tell her to just play the game. She starts moving, and seconds later she runs straight into one of the Zots and, guess what? Screams.

"I told you so!" I taunt.

"Shut up, Harry," she retorts.

We play the game for a bit longer. She's doing quite poorly. After she gets a game over it's my turn again, and I do a bit better than last time. When I die, it's her turn again. We both scream at the Zots, and whenever one was near we would start yelling at the other in a high-pitched panicky voice things like "Turn left! Turn left!", "Go, go, go, go, go!", and "It's right behind you! Run!" We laughed and just played Tunnel Runner on the Wii for hours until the Thanksgiving guests came over. At one point when my sister was playing I left to "go to the bathroom". On my way up the basement steps I turned off the lights. I heard from below cries of desperation and panic, "Turn them on! Turn them ooon!" I turned them back on and laughed at my sister who was "scared of a stupid Atari game". I got scolded by my parents for that, rightfully so. We had a blast playing Tunnel Runner that night, and for the next few days would go down in the basement and play that game again together. Happy memories. To this day, it's still our favorite Atari 2600 game.

Tunnel Runner - DJ Keebz Feat. Atari 2600 - YouTube

When I got my Atari 2600 in March, this was one of the first games I wanted to get. Shortly after I got my system, there was a sale at my local game store. Buy two games, get one free. I looked through their large shelf of Atari 2600 games and couldn't find anything. I also checked their glass case of pricier Atari games in case it was in there, which it wasn't. I was a little put off on how much some of the Atari 2600 games cost. A lot of them were above $5, which I thought a little much for a game that's only a couple of kilobytes. This was shortly before the pandemic hit and I didn't go back to the game store for a couple of months.

In July I went back to the game store for the first time to pick up some new 2600 games. I picked up Vanguard, Jungle Hunt, Defender, and Q*Bert. My dad had picked up some games before, but this was the first time I personally had been inside the store in months. I paid for all four games and on my way out I thought I'd take a gander at the glass case just for curiosity's sake. I only took a short look at the case, but I saw it. This was the first time I had ever seen a physical copy of Tunnel Runner in person. I was so hyped! I couldn't wait a few more months to get it, I had to get them to hold it for me now. I didn't bring any extra cash with me besides what I brought for those four games, so I couldn't buy it now. How much was Tunnel Runner again?

$20.00? Oh. Well, what has to be done has to be done.

As soon as I got home I called them and asked them to hold it for me. The soonest we could possibly get up there was Friday, one week from that day, so I had to ask them to hold it until then. 

So began the wait. 

On that Sunday my mom kicked me out of the house. We had a rough day arguing and fighting with each other (we've had a lot of those recently) and she had enough. I don't know exactly what it was that made her so mad at me that she'd kick me out of the house; I didn't think I did anything out of the ordinary. I think we were arguing about cleaning the basement and it evolved into yelling at each other about some other things like how I'm irresponsible and how I don't have any interests besides video games and how she always yells at us and I didn't want to be around her anymore and some other things that came out because of how mad we were at each other. We definitely needed some time apart, so being kicked out of the house wasn't bad. Plus, since I was at my grandparents they were nice and stuff. I apologized profusely to them for being such an inconvenience. Our family currently has some issues.

But being kicked out of the house wasn't all bad. My grandparents go to bed at like 9:00, MUCH earlier than me. I have said before that they have a 2600 in their basement as well. I brought it over there during COVID to give it some use before it goes to its new home. We haven't been going anywhere, so visiting my grandparents wasn't very unsafe. I still wore a mask for the majority of my stay just to be on the safe side of things. Basically, what my overnight stay amounted to was staying up late in the basement playing Wizard of Wor and drinking Diet Dr. Pepper. It was weird staying over there; on one hand I was thoroughly enjoying it, but on the other it was kind of depressing that my mother kicked me out of the house. It wasn't bad being kicked out of the house, just a little strange.

I did get to go home the next day. The whole thing was a bit of a mess, but I wouldn't say it was traumatic or anything. But anyways, Tunnel Runner. I did get Tunnel Runner a little early, on the day after I came back, as well as Miniature Golf, which I also blogged about (check it out!). Both games were fun. 

So why did I get this game? Why did I spend an insane amount of money on this game that I could have used on several other games for the system? Because I love this game and needed it in my collection. Why own an Atari 2600 and not play your favorite game on it? I don't regret my purchase at all. Do I ever plan to spend $20.00 on a game for the system again? No. But it had to be done in this instance. Tunnel Runner means a lot to me and I have a lot of memories with it.

 

So what about the game itself? Tunnel Runner was released in 1983 from CBS Electronics, though on the label it does say in a smaller print the copyright belongs to CBS Toys. It was one of the games by CBS that used the RAM Plus chip which added a whopping 256 bytes of RAM to the Atari 2600 system. A few other games that used this chip were Mountain King and Omega Race, both of which appeared and originated on other platforms besides the VCS. Tunnel Runner, however, never left.

CBS Electronics Atari VCS RAM PLUS (1983)

The goal of the game is simple: Get the key, get to the exit, don't die. It's in a first person perspective, which might be a little confusing to some at first, but you will get used to it and there's s a helpful compass down in the corner that will help you out. As you clear run after run things will start to change. New Zots will be added, each with different personalities like the ghosts in Pac-Man. The maze on the map will disappear and you'll have to fill out the map yourself. The Zots will eventually stop showing up, the exit will stop showing up, and most deviously, you will stop showing up on the map. Plus everything gradually gets faster and your time limit gets gradually faster. At 5,000 points, you will earn an extra life. Really, the game plays very much like a first person Pac-Man.

This game is often compared to another similar game on the 2600, Escape from the Mindmaster, which came out the year previously. It is much more complicated than Tunnel Runner, though it isn't a fair comparison as it uses the Starpath Supercharger add-on instead of stock VCS hardware (plus a few extra bytes of RAM). Mindmaster incorporates puzzle solving elements and looks stunning for the time. I haven't had the pleasure of playing it, though it is definitely one I would like to play someday since I love Tunnel Runner so much.

So what do I think of this game? What do you think I think of this game? I spent $20 on it! I love it! The music and sound effects are the best I've heard coming from the TIA before the 7800 era. The graphics are stunning and most impressive, and during gameplay there is no flicker. There's a bit with the Zots on the map, but its surprisingly absent in the actual game. Flicker was a bit of a CBS Electronics trademark. People complain about it in Pac-Man. Hah! They clearly haven't played Wizard of Wor or Omega Race. And Tunnel Runner's gameplay is exceptional. Do yourself a favor and play this game. Absolutely a perfect score for the system, 10/10.



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