As I completed my first sampling of Warlords for the Atari 2600, the only thought that came to mind was "Where have you been all my life?" It was the most apt sentiment I could direct toward the surprisingly entertaining Warlords, which I stumbled upon in the year 1990 while sentimentally digging through my brother's formerly labeled magic box, whose potency had long since dried up. The old days had passed, and I was now living in era far removed from the one where I'd so very often lug that large, heavy cardboard box out from my brother's messy closet if only to try out all of the new games that had inexplicably appeared since the last time I'd dragged it out.
By 1990, the box had grown old and tattered beyond repair, its deteriorated flaps barely connected to the box's sides and its corners held together with masking tape. Sadly, its life was drawing to a close. Yet, somehow, the ol' chap could still find enough spark, however infinitesimal, to conjure up one last present for me: Warlords, which was fittingly one of its finest productions.
Warlords was Breakout meets Pong, a simple-but-brilliant concept that immediately made sense to me. It's wasn't so much that I was a fan of either progenitor as much as I could recognize that the two combined to create a winning formula merely by gauging a few seconds of Warlord's gameplay, which is easy to describe: Each of four players is assigned one of the blocky, three-layered "castles" as seen on the screen's corners and must use its arcing shield to protect the barrier that separates its warlord from the death-bringing tiny ball that endlessly rebounds about the battlefield. If the ball finds its way past both your shield and whatever remains of your barrier and makes contact with your warlord, you're eliminated from the competition.
I was never too big on paddle controls, really, but their application in Warlords felt natural to me--more so than in titles like Kaboom and Circus Atari, whose controller feedback suggested that I was a hyperactive monkey boy (how did they know?). The more I played it, the more Warlords proved that it was far greater than the sum of its parts, and I found myself unexpectedly having a ton of fun with a newly discovered 2600 game when all I was looking to do was reminisce, like all those other times I'd dig through the closets looking for our old toys, records, and artwork. Instead, I'd turned up a hidden gem--a game I found so addicting that I couldn't even think to pack up the 2600, which I decided should remain right there in my brother's room (he was too much of a slob to notice when anything changed) so that I could return to Warlords the next day. I returned to it almost every day, in fact, Warlords becoming a big part of my daily gaming ritual.
So there I was engrossed by a 2600 game at a time when I thought the console was incapable of providing new, genuinely interesting experiences, a time when Mario, Metroid and Mega Man ruled my life and it seemed as though nothing else could ever matter.
What Warlords had was that key ingredient that separated the best 2600 games from the rest of the pack: A large collection of different modes. Some had a fixed rate of ball movement, while in others the ball's speed would increase incrementally every time it deflected off of a shield. There were a couple that allowed players to actually catch the ball and toss it in a desired direction, sometimes with the added ability to control its trajectory upon release. And there was one that had you controlling the shields of two adjacent warlords at a single time. There were so many possible combinations, each one making for a wildly different experience. For that reason, Warlords was one of the most replayable games in any of our collections.
The only recurring issue was that the bottom-right CPU player rarely seemed interested in participating, which took some of the fun out of it; still, even playing against two CPU players was entertaining enough to where I was always eager to return to my brother's room each day to squeeze in a few games of Warlords, which was the sole reason that the 2600 continued to find residence on that wheeled TV stand, which was a popular item in our home. I actually still have one of the three we owned; it's placed in the room adjacent to this one, though it now acts solely as the base for receipts, bills and financial statements. Seeing it makes me long for the days when its only purpose was to serve as support for the TV that magically displayed all of those video games.
Once I figured out of all the most effective strategies for beating the CPU players, Warlords ceased providing any real challenge, so I thought it would be a good idea to introduce my friends to it. I was a bit fearful that they'd reject it in favor of playing one from the avalanche of NES games that was now filling my rack, but they wound up loving it as much as I did. And when three or four of us got together for some ball-bouncing action (you just keep inferring whatever you want, smartass), that's when Warlords was at its best. I've got nothing specific, but I remember us enjoying many prolonged sessions as immersed in an atmosphere that was all at once joyous, raucous and uproarious. More so than beloved multiplayer games like Armor Ambush and Maze Craze, Warlords was a big reason why the 2600 saw its life extended to the mid-'90s--why we'd break it out every couple of months or so, even resorting to hooking it up in my parents' room when all others were occupied.
That's the way it was with those games you'd discover years after the fact. In addition to supplying you great entertainment value, they always had that special power to remind you why you originally loved the host platform while working to keep its spirit alive. Warlords did that for the 2600, granting it years of extra life and affording me the opportunity to spend yet more meaningful moments with an old mentor who it turns out hadn't finished teaching. Considering the insatiable fervor I've displayed in this continued quest of discovery, I can honestly tell you that its lessons weren't lost on me.