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Secret Quest (Atari 2600)


Atari 5200 Guy

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Secret Quest, the last 2600 U.S. released game, gives the 2600 the dignity to go out with a bang. Not that it wouldn't anyway with all the popular games it had received during its production run. No matter how you look at it, the 2600 proved that gaming hardware was only limited by imagination, and Secret Quest takes that imagination and gives players an adventure they won't soon forget.

 

While misleading in a way, the label tells the game was made by Nolan Bushnell when in hindsight he basically designed it and oversaw its development by giving advice, a fellow by the name of Steve DeFrisco actually coded the game having never programmed the 2600 before. What we ended up with was a rather large action/adventure game of a sci-fi nature that will take some patients to master. So, my hat's off to DeFrisco for a fabulous job on this 2600 game.

 

Our main character is a guy that actually looks like he could use a shirt, or if that is his shirt we need to get him a new one. I'm not sure if that is a helmet on his head but we will just say it is and leave it at that. Our objective is to visit all eight, I'm going to call them "bases", to enter a code that starts a self-destruct sequence. Once that has been started our main character has only seconds to find the teleport to beam him off the base before it destructs.

 

Sounds easy, right? Well, with the first base it is, and the second base is not too hard either. But after that the game begins to get really difficult and it becomes very easy to get lost. Once you find and start the self-destruct sequence it is very hard to find and reach the teleport in time. If Nolan's idea was to frustrate and test a player's mind and patients then he accomplished what he set out to do.

 

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Against you are two elements; energy and oxygen. Using your weapon uses your energy. If you run out of energy you will lose the ability to lose any weapons. You can still navigate the levels but simply won't be able to kill any enemies. Running out of oxygen, however, and it's game over. Oxygen is more like a timer. Whether you move or just sit there you are using oxygen. Both can be replenished by killing enemies. Some enemies drop energy while others drop oxygen.

 

Actually, Secret Quest is a very well made game. You can actually tell that each element of the game was thought out before being placed in the game. The thick, colorful borders that outline the rooms are used in a way to help the player visually tell where they are, especially with levels containing more than one floor. Enemies are colorful even if some are hard to tell what they are suppose to be. Sounds are good and, while there is a small hint of background music, it's not so much that it's annoying. At some points you almost can't hear it so it's almost like it's not there at all.

 

Where Secret Quest shines is in two features. The first feature, well, not exactly an "in-game" feature but something that not many games this early in the video game industry's starts ever did, is having the player involved in the game's strategy where hours are lost simply trying to navigate the levels. There's only eight of them but there might as well be a hundred. With the possible exception of the first two levels the remainder of the game will have the player drawing out maps just so they don't get lost. Seriously, the third level of this game when I first reached it made me rethink the way I thought about 2600 games in general.

 

Now, the second feature of this game, which really should get an award of some kind but I'm not sure what kind of an award that would be. You see, Secret Quest actually has a continue feature. How it works seems a bit complicated at first but once the steps are performed a few times you start to get the hang of it. During the game, should something go wrong or you are done playing for the day, you move the TV TYPE switch to the black and white setting, and then back to the color setting again. On a 7800, simply press the PAUSE button. You will leave the GAME SCREEN and be presented with what the instructions called a STATUS SCREEN. Here, see for yourself.

 

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If you've never seen this screen before allow me to explain. The top section are the bases left to be destroyed. Just under the left-most section of those bases is the level you are on indicated by large flashing rectangles. Just to the right of this is the weapons you currently have, which you can have three but only one equipped at any one time. Now take a look below all that and you should see some funny looking characters in an almost-hieroglyphic style. Need a closer look?

 

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These characters are your password to continue play at the beginning of the level you are on. It only works when you are on the first room of the first level. Basically, start a new game and immediately access the STATUS SCREEN. Once there press SELECT on the console. You can now edit the funny characters at the bottom of the screen using the joystick; up and down to select the characters and left and right to select the character you wish to change. This password feature is unique in that it only works under one condition. You may notice at the start of the game that there are two dashes, or underlines. The game instructions say to enter your initials here. So, the initials placed here determine what your password will be. And the password will only work with those initials.

I never knew the 2600 could pull off a game of this magnitude. It's simply mind blowing! Atari.IO's high score run with this game was my first time learning that this game even existed. Since then I have managed to locate a loose copy of the game and have been spending hours on it trying to beat the game. The password feature is a saving grace for the very reason that you can start off where you left off, including the amount of energy and oxygen you have left.

 

If you are new to the 2600, or a 2600 vet who has not seen this game yet, this would be the game to try to find. It is a rare title from what I understand but there are copies that turn up every now and then on E-Bay's and Goodwill's online auction sites. Just recently before this writing, Goodwill had two unopened copies show up on their auction. So...keep looking if you want a physical copy. Otherwise download your favorite 2600 emulator and a ROM copy of this game and give it a shot. It's a really good game that should not be missed. Fans of Nintendo's Zelda might find this game of interest.

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That's how I learned of it.  I believe the 2600 really shined during its last production run.  Some of the new games produced proved that the 2600 was capable of so much more.  It's astounding what Atari developers were able to do with the hardware.

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I would have to say that the crash would have probably happened anyway.  It might not have started at the same time as it did but I believe it would have still happened.  The reason why I feel that way is because I don't blame Pac-Man or E.T. for the crash but rather too many games hitting the market faster than the public could keep up with.  

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