Thursday, November 13, 2014

Shades of Resonance: Fond Reminiscence - Memory Log #17


I can't pinpoint the exact date, but it must have been sometime during the middle of 1982 when I lost interest in the Atari 2600 and drifted away from video games for what seemed like many years (about one year in reality, the memory likely embellished by that oft-cited child's perception). I remember this time-period well because it represents the game-less void between (a) the time video games lost their initial novelty factor for me and (b) that sparking of re-interest that occurred throughout the course of both 1983 and 1984, when I began frequenting arcades with my brother James and the Commodore 64 came into my life.

During my time away, however, the innards of James' magic box of 2600 games never ceased its unwitnessed, inexplicable expansion, and there was a whole slew of new games waiting for me when I returned to Atari's maturing console ("aging" is a thing that only happens to lesser entities). Though, there was one game in particular that I came to most associate with this second phase of 2600-playing: Venture, whose abbreviation of "Adventure" led me to believe that the two were somehow related. "They made a sequel to one of my favorites without me knowing?" I wondered, perhaps a little skeptical. "This I have to see."

I went in expecting to be immediately thrust into something resembling Adventure's world of castle-crashing and dragon-slaying, but I was instead presented this rather curious starting screen. At first glance, I didn't know what to make of it. "If this is anything like Adventure," I conjectured, "then it has to be a miniaturized version of it." I thought as much because Venture had the tiniest video-game "hero" I'd ever seen--a mere speck of dust in a world as dominated by giant, incongruous shapes. Really, with all of that disproportionate real-estate and all of those ghosts scattered across the map, it actually looked more like some open-space version of Pac-Man. Though, there weren't any signs of chompable pellets or even familiar adventuring tools like keys and spears, so it wasn't immediately evident to me what Venture was supposed to be.

So I gravitated toward the small opening as carved into the right side of that otherwise-enclosed bottom-left polygon. As I entered the room, the perspective suddenly shifted to a zoomed-in view, and the previously miniscule hero was revealed to be a wandering red happy face. Venture had now taken on the look of Berzerk, its hero able to fire laser-like shots in eight directions and the room patrolled by a small collection of analogous guardians (though Venture's a little less identifiable). Similarly, the point was to escape from the room as quickly as possible but only after completing a task: If you wanted to truly end the enemy occupation and clear the area, you had to first procure whatever item the room was safekeeping.

More than figuring out the correct processes for advancement, my mind was still focused on that unexpected screen transition, which for some reason I found mind-blowing; in a snap, the action's form had shifted from "unstructured Pac-Man" to "whacky Berzerk clone" ("That's like two games in one!"), a small shape on a map becoming a screen-filling room whose scale and geometry remained unchanged! I couldn't even think of an arcade game that did anything that awesome! (Ironically, Venture started life as an arcade game, which would have been news to me at the time.) I think my overly excited reaction to what was in reality a mildly interesting game-mechanic was more an early symptom of my developing obsession with symmetry.

As I played on, I found that Venture had a bit more variety than I originally expected. The top-left room, for instance, instead featured four moving barriers that could kill the hero with any kind of contact, requiring a more stealthy approach to swiping the jewel they protected. But it was never a good idea to hang around any room longer than necessary, I learned, since idling about and depleting the unseen timer beckoned the arrival of the frightening-looking "orange skull head" (as best I could identify it), which would unrelentingly home in on me until I either left the room or fell victim to its deadly touch; its appearance was accompanied by an unpleasant rumbling noise that only heightened the tension, sending me into panic mode.

Truthfully, I was never a fan of the "floating head suddenly materializes and chases you out of the room" mechanic that so many games of the era seemed to embrace (Berzerk, not coincidentally, had the smiling Evil Otto, who was similarly pushy); I couldn't stand when a game would deprive me of the ability to move about deliberately and plan a course of action. I understood why it existed (it was an arcade-tested device designed to keep the player moving), but I just didn't like seeing it in my console games.

The face-like second map featured a change in palette (walls were now colored blue and the ghosts a dark shade of orange) and more intricately shaped rooms, but there were no notable changes to the basic gameplay; in fact, it had less variety due to the absence of moving barriers or any other distinct obstacles. It didn't change my opinion that I'd discovered a little gem of a game, but I was disappointed that Venture had run out of surprises so soon.

And that's really all there was to Venture: After you cleared the second map, it looped back to the first, with the monsters' speed increasing in each round. The goal was simply to accrue the highest point-total possible; though, since I paid little attention to such things, I was more interested in trying to advance as far as possible. Though, I could only make it as far as the fourth round, at which point the ghosts' speed grew so overwhelming that I couldn't even manage to safely reach any of the room-entrances. Where was that darn bat when I needed it?

Venture had its shortcomings and some annoying quirks--you could die from making contact with the enemies' mangled corpses, of all things, and the jittery hero would become stuck on walls and spaz out if you weren't precise in your movements--but I still felt that it was one of the better 2600 games. Yeah, the bar was often low--the criteria for what made a good 2600 game basically entailing "Can you identify a single object onscreen?" and "Can you walk three steps without being inexplicably smashed, splatted, or blown up?"--but Venture's creators did a good job of adapting their arcade game to a console that had severe limitations.


Really, that's what most video games were at the time; they were often minimalist in design, short in length, and aggressively simple, and it was up to you to apply your imagination and make of them what you could. For me, part of the fun of playing these games was trying to interpret what I thought their enemy characters were supposed to be (I identified Venture's assortment as aliens, snakes, spiders, jokers, devils, Berzerk-style robots, and headless owls whose eyeballs were instead mounted on the bone fragments seen jutting out from their necks). That type of interaction was a legitimate part of the experience, and I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

It's far too often that I listen to a podcast and hear so-called enthusiasts refer to the 2600's library of games as "a pile of junk," which I think is an unfair assessment. Really, they're just products from a different time--strange artifacts married to an era whose sensibilities greatly differ from today's. True--the majority of these old games may not hold up too well when compared to the quality of their modern descendants, if at all, but they're far more precious than people realize.

For me, Venture will always be a reminder of such.

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