Atari 5200 Game Opinion Summaries Series II: Part III

There are only six games covered this time, but what this update may lack in quantity of games it makes up for with quality: several of these are among the very best games I have played on the 5200, and indeed perhaps of the 1980s as a whole.

Table of Contents

Space Dungeon
Star Wars: The Arcade Game
Tempest [Cancelled Game Homebrew Release]
Wizard of Wor
Vanguard
Xari Arena [Cancelled Game Homebrew Release]

Rankings

The Summaries

Space Dungeon – 1 or 2 player alternating. Two controllers required.  Supports the Atari 5200 Controller Holder.  Developed by Taito America Corporation and published by Atari in 1983.

Space Dungeon is an innovative and brilliant game that I had not heard of before the ’00s, as with most games on this console, but everyone really SHOULD know. Space Dungeon is one of the first twinstick shooters. Indeed, this might be the very first game which uses the classic twin-stick control scheme, with one stick for aiming and one stick for moving. This game, one of few games developed by Taito’s American branch which would mostly just be a publishing arm, released in arcades in 1981. As a result, it pre-dates Williams’ much more famous Robotron 2084, the so-called (but not actual) “first twin-stick shooter”. That game became a massive arcade sensation which made twin-stick games popular, and proved to be a second major success for creator Eugene Jarvis, following Defender. It deserved the success, Robotron is an amazing game which does just about everything right.

However, that this predecessor in its genre, Space Dungeon, was forgotten and has remained a very obscure title only released in arcades, the Atari 5200, and a half-baked PSP collection port is a tragedy! Because this game is AMAZING. The original arcade game gets most of the credit of course, but this Atari 5200 port is fantastic, playing just like the arcade game except for a lower screen resolution and some slowdown. I said in my first Atari 5200 Game Opinion Summaries list that Defender was my favorite 5200 game, and it still may be because that is an exceptional port of one of the very best pre-crash games, but this game gives it a serious run for its money; honestly, it’s probably a tie between these two games. They are both A+ graded classics, hands-down. The game lacks variety once you get used to it, but other than that is one of the absolute best games of its era. And again, it is quite innovative too.

What makes this game so good, and so original? First, the controls. I am not sure what the first arcade game with twin-stick shooting was, it seems to be unclear whether it was this game or another game released in 1981, Mars from Artic Electronics, but either way, at the time this control scheme was very new and the game implements it extremely well. You move with one stick, and fire with the other. It must be said though, both movement and shooting are eight-way only, and are digital-only. So, this game does not make use of the 5200’s controller. Fortunately, the game works well on this stick and playing this game on 5200 controllers feels great; of the digital-only-control 5200 games this has some of the best controls. It probably helps that you won’t be using those mushy buttons but instead just two sticks.

Before I continue, I do need to mention that when buying this game do make sure to get the Atari 5200 Controller Holder. It is a plastic piece which you can lock two 5200 controllers into, effectively giving you one stable twin-stick joystick. If you don’t have one the game is playable, but MUCH less comfortable to play unless you make your own controller holder somehow. Getting a loose cart copy of this game is relatively cheap, but the Controller Holder costs more. It is only used by this game and Robotron, but is well worth it regardless. Comparing this game with the Controller Holder to Atari 7800 Robotron, which doesn’t have one, is a night and day difference!

Space Dungeon is, as with most games of the era, and endless score-attack game which goes until you die. Along the way you will challenge an infinite number of randomly generated mazes. Before each of the first ten levels, custom text boxes introduce the stage, and new game elements are introduced in each of the first few levels. If you get good enough to get past level ten, though, the game continues on pretty much the same from then on. Getting that far will be a significant challenge however, because this game is satisfyingly hard! Space Dungeon has a good difficulty curve, starting easy and steadily introducing new elements through those first few levels until you’re fully used to the game, at which point the real challenge begins.

In each level of Space Dungeon, your ship explores a six by six screen maze. That’s 36 screens per level. The game has a fantastic on-screen map showing both where you have explored and a lot of useful information; more on that later. The open space within each screen is always empty, but randomly placed walls and openings along the sides of each screen add some variety; no two levels will be exactly the same. In each maze, your goal is to find your way to the exit which warps you to the next stage, while getting as many points as you can along the way. There are 14 treasures scattered around each level of the dungeon, and when you touch the warp to the next stage you get bonus points for each treasure you are carrying. Random selections of enemies will try to stop you. There are eight types of enemies in the game, with several types being added in levels two and three to the base set. The enemy types have a nice variety of types, including wall lasers, a slow but hard to kill enemy that won’t be much of a threat, fast-spawning foes, and more. Some rooms have few enemies, while other rooms have many. The most enemy-heavy rooms are colored in as red on the map. If you kill enough enemies in them the levels will be cleared and go to a normal black square on the map, making them easier the next time you enter them as you explore around. It’s a mix, and due to the random generation you never know what you are going to get when you enter a room.

So, the core gameplay loop is to fly around, explore the map, get treasures if you want, and then go to the exit, while killing as enemies along the way. You never HAVE to get treasures, it is optional. I usually try to get them, though. It’s a great design with great controls and enemies that are a very well thought through balance of challenge and fun. Enemies explode in pretty cool ways too, scattering bits of themselves all over the screen every time they blow up. This really shows off the 5200’s graphical capabilities, a purely sprite-based console like the NES would have a very hard time with this most likely! It can sometimes feel unfair that the enemies can attack you from any direction while you can only fire in the eight cardinal directions, but you get used to it. Every situation is survivable with the right actions.

When you lose a life, highly interesting game mechanics come into play, reminiscent of a both a Souls-like game and a Rogue-like. You see, you don’t just respawn. Instead, you start back from the level’s starting screen. Your map exploration data for the level is carried over, including which rooms are red enemy-heavy ones and such. Unfortunately, the actual contents of rooms is not carried over, so if you die in a room with some interesting setup of enemies when you get back to that room those foes will not be there. This is one of the only flaws in this game, really, but I’m sure keeping 36 screens of stuff in memory was way too much. But anyway, when you die, you drop all treasures you were carrying. All of them are left on the screen you died on, and a map marker shows which screen you died on. So yeah, this game has corpse runs! The idea may have been seen in some game before this one, but it’s very interesting to see it here in this twinstick shooter. There is an additional wrinkle, too: one enemy type, the Thief, also collects the treasures as it goes around. The Thief’s location is marked on the map at all times. If you shoot the Thief it drops all treasures it is carrying, but a few enemies appear as well. You cannot kill the Thief for good, it’ll fly off after being shot. So, wait too long and the Thief will get your treasures and you will need to hunt down the Thief instead of your corpse marker. Helpfully, the map always tells you where the Thief is. This whole system is a really interesting mechanic which adds a lot of depth to the game.

And that is Space Dungeon. While like all classic games the simple design could get repetitive, this game mixes that repetition up with its always-changing levels and room layouts add variety. With simple but very responsive controls, good graphics with lots of stuff going on on screen as the enemies blast apart, and gameplay that is a hybrid of an arcade twin-stick shooter with some elements of a roguelike adventure game mixed in, once I bought the game in early 2021 Space Dungeon almost immediately became one of my favorites. The game is repetitive, sure, but it is incredibly engaging and fun as you explore the maps, look for treasures, fill out the maps, blow apart enemies, and then do it all again on the next stage. The difficulty is incredibly well balanced, providing a good but approachable challenge. This is my favorite game that I bought in 2021.

Space Dungeon has only ever been released in arcades, the Atari 5200, and on the PSP in the Taito Legends Power-Up collection. Sadly there has never been a release on a modern console with two sticks. There should be.

 

Star Wars: The Arcade Game – 1 player.  Has analog controls.  Developed and published by Parker Bros. based on the Atari arcade game, in 1983. Yes, this is an official port of an Atari game that was not not made by Atari. Licensing…

Atari’s first Star Wars arcade game is a vector graphics game. This game is a target-shooting game which borders on rail shooter. Think of as being basically like a light gun game with a joystick, except if you move to the edges of the screen you can move around a little to change direction or avoid obstacles, depending on the stage. The game has three different sections: a space battle against oncoming TIE Fighters, a flight over the surface of the Death Star shooting at towers trying to take you down, and finally you re-enact the famous Death Star trench run scene, albeit sometimes with obstacles added in the trench, as the game gets harder, in order to up the challenge. I don’t know if I’ve ever played the game in an arcae, but I have played home versions of it, such as this or the very good port included in Rogue Squadron 3 for the Gamecube. It’s a good, classic arcade game.

This home console version is as straight a port of the arcade game as the Atari 5200 can muster. Obviously the graphics here are sprite-based and are no match for the perfect lines of the vector arcade game, but even so this is a pretty nice looking game. Each of the three stage types are here, and they all play just like they should. The controls are very good, and are fully analog like you would hope for. Your cursor moves responsively and while it takes some practice to reliably hit targets, once you get used to it the game can be quite fun. It is repetitive, as you’ll just do those three stage types on repeat as you destroy one Death Star after another, but they do add more enemies and obstacles in the stages as you progress, so the game does change as you get farther into it. This is a simple game. In the first stage, the TIE fighter attack, you just need to survive. Shoot the shots heading towards you and shoot down what TIEs you can. That may sound easy, but the TIEs are fast and can be hard to hit, it’s tricky. In the second, which first appears in the second loop, you fly over the Death Star’s surface, shooting the tops of towers. If you get all of them you get a points bonus. They are shooting back though, this is no bonus stage. And last, you go down that trench, avoiding walls and such that may appear in later loops, before the exhaust port appears. Shoot into it to destroy the Death Star. Otherwise, you’ll repeat the trench run until you run out of lives or destroy it, after which it’s on to the next level to do the same thing again but slightly harder.

You start with nine hits before you get Game Over. It’s a generous enough amount that beating the first loop will be simple, but make no mistake, getting a high score will be plenty challenging. That’s pretty much the game, though. It just has the one mode. It’s a pretty good game with good graphics and decent audio, and is and a solid port of an arcade classic. However, this game is simple to a fault. There’s little depth here, just memorization and twitch reaction. I like games with a bit more strategy than you find here, which is probably why I prefer games like 5200 Space Invaders or Galaxians over this or Blaster. Oh, while Blaster is better than this game, both games are good. Also, Star Wars: The Arcade Game can be frustrating at times as I try to stay alive while TIEs zip by too fast to hit as I pile up damage. Also, the very limited amount of movement you can make can be an issue as well, you are mostly railed onto your path and while you can avoid some obstacles and shots by moving the cursor to the correct edge of the screen to turn slightly away from it, dodging isn’t easy. Sega’s Star Wars arcade game from a good ten years after this one also has limited movement, but you can move around a bit more in that game than you can here. It works as it is, but is occasionally annoying. And of course there is no way to reproduce that vector look on an ’80s TV. Overall, I think Star Wars: The Arcade game is good, but not great. It’s fun, but doesn’t have the variety or depth to keep me coming back long term. Still, this game can be had for a reasonable price and certainly is worth owning.

Arcade port. This version was also released on the Atari 8-bit computer, there without the analog controls of course. Other ports were released on many other platforms: Atari 2600, Apple II, BBC Micro, Commodore 64, Colecovision, Atari ST, PC, Sinclair ZX Spectrum, Amiga, Amstrad CPC, and Commodore 64. The arcade version is also included in Rogue Squadron 3 for the Gamecube.

 

Tempest [Cancelled Game Homebrew Release] – 1 player. Has analog controls.  Supports the Atari 5200 Trak-Ball controller.  Developed and almost finished by Atari in 1984, but cancelled and not released. An unfinished prototype rom leaked later on. Almost 30 years later the original programmer went back and finished the game in 2012, and AtariAge published it in 2013.

Tempest is one of Atari’s more popular classic arcade games. It was another vector monitor game, a tube shooter where you spin around the outside top of a tube shooting enemies coming up towards you from the bottom. As with a lot of games though, the 5200 version was never released, it was cancelled along with most 5200 projects in the works in 1984. Fortunately, this one had gotten far enough into development for it to be salvageable into a completed game, as I described above. The result is a pretty fantastic conversion of Tempest to the 5200. This is a great game and a standout for the 5200. However, it is impossible for me to look at this game without thinking of Tempest 2000 and its sequels. I know it is deeply unfair to this game to compare it to a game ten years newer and that was made for much more powerful hardware, but I have a lot more experience with Tempest 2000 than I do the original game, honestly, so I can’t help it. Tempest 2000 is a trancendent masterpiece and one of my favorite games ever. This game? It’s quite good, but isn’t on that level. But for the hardware this does about as much as you can. It is a clear downgrade from the arcade version of the original Tempest as well, but not much could be done about that.

As in the arcade game, in Tempest for the 5200 you control a ship which moves around the upper edge of a polygonal shape, either a wall or circle of some kind, which extends into the distance below. From the bottom of the shape, enemies emerge, moving upwards towards you. If they touch you, you die. They also will shoot at you, though your shots cancel theirs. You can’t shoot all the time though, you have a shot limit. So, you need to shoot them first, but also shoot carefully, in a fast-paced and hectic game with stuff happening all over. It’s a lot to take in, but it’s also what makes Tempest so much fun. This is a simple but very well made game with brilliant design and very strong “just one more game” qualities. All of the enemies from the arcade game are here, as are the level maps. There are quite a few unique stage layouts, and though of course the game loops endlessly once you’ve seen them all it steadily gets harder as it does so. You probably won’t see most of them without a lot of practice, though, because Tempest is tough. The gameplay and controls here are very good. You move left and right with the stick. One button fires, and the other one uses your screen-clearing bomb. You get one bomb per level. This game has full analog movement. The controls are even better with the Trak-Ball controller, too. Tempest was designed for a spinner, and the 5200 does not have one of those, though homebrew ones do exist. The Trak-Ball is the next best thing for most of us, though, and fits the game very well. Once you get used to it, moving around by spinning that ball is a whole lot of fun. You have slower and more precise control with the trackball than the joystick.

For features, there are three difficulty levels, Beginner, Normal, or Expert. In Beginner or Normal modes you can start from any odd-numbered level from 1 to 9, but in Expert you can start from levels all the way up to level 81. There are only a dozen or so different level maps, but each time they loop the background color changes, which is a nice touch. There are apparently 96 individual levels, just like the arcade game, but given the utterly insane speeds of the higher stages I’ve never gotten even close to seeing them. I mostly play this game on Normal. I presume it loops after level 96?

I should mention the major downside of 5200 Tempest, though: the graphics. While great for the 5200, these low resolution, very pixelated graphics can be a bit hard to make out sometimes. Where, exactly is that enemy in that pixelated blob? Are they on this block of the stage or the next one? And are they on top, or not? It can be quite hard to tell when you will touch an enemy and die, and when you still have room to shoot them and they are actually aren’t quite on the top. The lines of the well are a different color from the enemies, their shots are a slightly different color, you are a third color, and the game highlights which space you are on top of, but even so the graphics are low resolution and extremely pixelated, to making out details is tough. This is probably the games’ biggest drawback. Well, also I wish it had background music, but the arcade game didn’t have it either. Impressively, considering the games’ 3-d nature, Tempest runs very well, with no slowdown and minimal flicker. This is a crazy-fast game that runs pretty smoothly. Once the screen really fills up with enemies some may seem to blink a little as they move from path to path, but it’s minor. It runs amazingly well. Staying alive will be the challenge.

Even in this very low-rez form, Tempest is an impressive and somewhat creepy game; the tension as you shoot down that well at the creatures crawling up at you can get to you. This is particularly true once some reach the top and start moving around the top lip towards you. You’d better hope you have some luck or a bomb! Tempest is kind of a horror game in a way, and this is even more true in Tempest 2000. This is a tense, challenging shooter where focus is key. The game is on the line between chaotic randomness and strategic shooting; you can do okay at Tempest, and have fun, while just spinning left and right and shooting down randomly, but if you want to do well at the game thought is required. I like a game to require strategy, and this game does if you want to do well, but just randomly zooming around and shooting can also be fun, in the earlier levels at least. The game eventually gets insanely difficult, particularly if you tackle the higher levels in Expert mode. Tempest 2000 is an easier game to play long sessions of, this game is more punishing. Even so, Tempest is a fantastic classic game and this is a great port of it. Sure, the pixelated graphics take some getting used to, but you’ll get it. If you like Jeff Minter’s shooters or have a 5200 Trak-Ball controller this game is definitely a must own. Tempest for the 5200 is not my favorite Tempest game, but given how exceptional Tempest 2000 is, that isn’t much of a criticism. The game is still fantastic and holds up well today. This is a fun and addictive classic which shows what this hardware can do. This is yet another game that Atari absolutely should have released back in 1984, this is the kind of game which convinces people to buy your system!

Arcade port. This version is 5200 exclusive, but the arcade version is available in many classic compilations for modern platforms. There is also an unreleased Atari 2600 version, which is much worse, and much less finished, than this one. Atari ST, Amstrad CPC, and BBC Micro versions did release in Europe, but at the time that’s it. The arcade version is available for many modern platforms in various collections: The PS2, Dreamcast, PC/Mac (several different times each), Linux, SNES, PS1, Saturn, GBA, PSP, DS (two times), Xbox, iOS/Android, and N-Gage all saw Tempest release in collections. There is also a standalone digital Xbox 360 release.

 

Wizard of Wor – 1 or 2 player simultaneous. Developed and published by CBS Electronics under license from Midway Games in 1983.

Wizard of Wor is one of the best pre-crash arcade games developed internally at Midway. Midway’s most successful games of the era, such as Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man, weren’t developed by Midway itself, but Wizard of Wor was. Apart from a very short-lived attempt at making their own console, however, Midway would not start making home console versions of its game until the mid 1990s, however, so the game was licensed out for home systems. CBS Electronics made this port, from the time CBS had a short-lived videogame development division before the crash. Unfortunately the speech samples from the arcade game don’t make it to this version, but otherwise this is a very faithful conversion of a good game. The graphics are not the best that the 5200 can do, but it looks nice enough and represents the game well. Unlike the Atari 2600 version there is zero flicker in this version, which is great.

The arcade version of the game is a single-screen action/maze game where you need to kill all the enemies in each stage to move on to the next one. It’s a bit like Night Stalker on Intellivision or Berzerk, except I’d say it’s better than either of those. The games’ pacing is a good balance of fast action and strategic thinking. The play area is wider than it is high, six tiles high by eleven tiles long, and there are many walls breaking up the space. There are various maze layouts, with harder ones as you progress. The current level number and both players’ scores are always on screen, along with a little map showing where both players and all enemies are. The level name is regularly shown as well. This map is necessary despite the single screen nature of the game because some enemies can only be seen on the map. Oddly, Wizard of Wor on 5200, as with most all versions of the game, flips the players — the first player starts on the right and uses controller two. Strange. And you can’t just play as player two, the two player game is simulaneous co-op.

In the game, the two players start in the two lower corners of the maze. You start as a Worior, trying to kill the evil Wizard of Wor and his many minions. This is a pre-crash arcade game, though, so it is endless; if you are so good as to complete all the mazes, it just loops back around. In each level, from your start point you move around the maze, aiming to shoot the enemies as they appear before they can kill you. Walls stop movement and shots, of course, but there are also open areas. There also are portals on each side of the screen to move to the other side, though unlike in Pac-Man you cannot use these all of the time, sometimes they are closed. You attack with shots, and can only shoot one shot at a time. You will need good strategy as well as quick reflexes to succeed here. Enemies kill you with a touch or a shot. Your shots can stop their shots if you shoot at the right time, but dying is easy and lives scarce, you only get three to start. It’s a hard but extremely well-designed and addictive game. There are five enemy types in total, each with quite different abilities. As an aside, if you look them up, you’ll see that the enemies all have amusing names — Warluck, Burwor, and more. Some can turn invisible, watch out for those. When the Wizard himself appears, do your best to shoot him down before he flees.

The controls are simple, you move with the stick and fire with a button. This game has digital controls, so it is not ideal for this controller, but it works well enough for this initially slow-paced game. Once you get farther in, though, you’ll probably want a digital controller to do your best at this game. It’s entirely playable on the regular controller, which is, again, all I’ve got other than the Trak-Ball that is not for games like this, but it will make reaction times slower. The game starts out quite manageably, as the enemies move around slowly enough for you to easily kill them. But once you face the enemies that can turn invisible some of the time, and worst of all the Wizard of Wor himself, staying alive will be a plenty challenging task. The invisible enemies are on the map, but good luck following that map and the main game screen at the same time without dying! It can be frustrating when you try to shoot an enemy’s shot but instead you die while also killing the enemy and lose one of your very limited lives, but it’s all fair. If you shoot too late, you’re getting hit.

The game ups the tempo as you go not only with harder enemies, but also with the audio — there is music of sorts in this game, a background tone which increases in tempo as you kill more enemies and get closer to clearing the level. It really adds to the experience, and the tension. More games from this era should have music. The sound effects are all very close to the arcade as well and sound great. This game makes a lot of sounds, it adds to the fun. It is disappointing that the speech samples from the arcade game are absent here, several 5200 games do have speech, but that is one of the few issues with this otherwise great version of the game.

Additionally, as for that two player co-op mode, it’s pretty interesting. On the one hand, the game is cooperative, as your goal is to kill the same enemies in order to proceed. Of course you compete for score, but you also will kill the other player if you shoot them. And that’s not all, you get bonus points for killing the other player, and they do lose a life. So yeah, whether this is cooperative or competitive entirely depends on who is playing… heh.

Wizard of Wor is a very well designed game with good pacing, a good, simple concept, and great execution. The colors, dungeon names, Double Score Dungeons which boost your points, the tension of trying to get the Wizard before he gets away, this is a great game! Really, the games’ only issues are that the simple concept may get repetitive after a while and that the controls are digital and not analog. The slower reaction time of digital controls on an analog stick will make it harder to stay alive as the game gets harder, unless you have a digital stick for your 5200. After dying a couple of levels in over and over, rarely getting farther, this game can start to feel old, even with how good it is. After a while you may want to play something else, but you’ll be back. Regardless of that, Wizard of Wor is good to great. This game makes a fantastic first impression, and while dying again and again early on can be frustrating, the game is more than good enough to be worth going back to and improving at, trying to beat your best score each time. This is a great version of an under-appreciated arcade classic and I absolutely recommend it, Wizard of Wor is great!

Arcade port. This version is also on the Atari 8-bit computers. Other ports were released on the Atari 2600, Commodore 64, and, under the name The Incredible Wizard, on Midway’s own short-lived console, the Bally Astrocade, though Midway didn’t make the port themself, they abandoned the system after just a few years. The 2600 version has very bad flicker, making it much harder to play than the other versions. Emulated releases of the arcade game are also in several modern collections, including the Midway Arcade Treasures 2 collection for PS2, Xbox, and Gamecube, the Midway Extended Play collection for PSP, and the Midway Arcade Origins collection for Xbox 360 and PS3. The 360 version is Xbox One/Series backwards compatible.

 

Vanguard – 1 or 2 player alternating. Developed by Atari under license from SNK, in 1982.

Vanguard is a port of the SNK arcade game of the same name. Atari bought the rights to this somewhat successful game, and ported it to their systems of the time. This 5200 version is very similar to the Atari 2600 version, just with better graphics and more content, as you would expect. Vanguard is a very early shmup, and is one of the first scrolling shooters of note. It’s a decently good game with simple gameplay and some oddities. Yes, in some ways this games’ early release date shows. Each level in Vanguard is made up of sections, each a short stage of their own. There are six different types of sections you will see, some which scroll left to right, one diagonally, and some vertically. Different levels will arrange the sections in different ways, so the game isn’t the same every time. The game only has one kind of powerup, and it makes you invincible. In some stages these powerups show up regularly, and are one of the games’ defining features. While invulnerable the music changes, which is neat. You can’t shoot while invincible, either. You can fly right through the walls and stuff though, which is fun. The graphics are somewhat simple but are good enough, and it’s nice that the game has at least some music, too many games on this system don’t have any even though the hardware is perfectly capable of it.

On the note of shooting, when you can shoot, you shoot in all four directions at the same time in this game. And you’ll need it, with how enemies come at you from all sides as you tackle the different stage types the game throws at you. The game lacks depth; this is a very simple game, you just fly and shoot or, while invincible, just fly. You’ll die often but there isn’t much to the game. This game, unfortunately, isn’t so much about memorizing interesting enemy patterns as it is reacting to what the game throws at you and trying to not die. The variety of stage types is nice, but there are only a few enemy types in each stage. Also, the controls have not been at all adjusted for the 5200’s analog controller, so control is entirely digital and you have just the one fire button. The game is slow-paced and does not run fast, either. This game gets old quickly as you wait around for things to happen. For instance, the invincibility powerup is cool the first time you grab one and at times can save you, but given how totally invulnerable you are, getting one is basically ‘you don’t need to play for the next while’ material, which is not great. And on top of that, the analog stick delays your inputs somewhat in a way they could have adjusted for, but didn’t. River Raid for example did adjust the controls to make them analog, and as a result that game feels a lot better to play on the 5200 than Vanguard does. River Raid is honestly more fun than Vanguard, too.

Overall, Vanguard is okay to good. The game is above average, but barely. It may be worth trying considering its importance and low price, though. Still, with slow and flawed gameplay with little enemy variety, Vanguard hasn’t aged as well as the best of the static-screen shooters of its era. I do find this game somewhat fun, but once you’re used to the various stage types Vanguard gets old fast and it doesn’t really keep me coming back. The game is a decent challenge, looks okay, and I like the variety of stage types, but with very slow and simple gameplay and sometimes frustrating controls, it is around average overall.

Arcade port. This version was also released on Atari 8-bit computers. A similar but downgraded version is on the Atari 2600. The arcade version has modern platform digital re-releases, including a standalone release on PSP in the PS Minis line and in the SNK 40th Anniversary Collection for PS4, Switch, and Xbox One.

Xari Arena [Cancelled Game Homebrew Release] – 1 or 2 player simultaneous. Has analog controls.  Supports the Atari 5200 Trak-Ball controller.  Developed by Atari in 1983-1984, but not released until AtariAge published it in recent years.

Xari Arena is a cancelled game that was in development in 1984 when Atari pulled the plug on the console far before its time. It’s sort of two player cooperative, and kind of competitive, Breakout, but with some weird, unique twists. It’s got fantastic graphics and audio, too. Unfortunately, while the game was complete, Warner Bros., Atari’s owners at the time, chose to never release it… not until fans got ahold of it much later and released it themselves, that is. The game seems to get a mixed reception among the fans who have played it, either in emulation, on a flashcart, or as I have it in AtariAge’s semi-official boxed release. Some people love this game, while others find it not very good at all. Once I explain how it plays, I think it makes sense why it’s divisive.

But what do I think? I absolutely love this game! With some of the best graphics, audio, and controls on the system and outstanding gameplay, Xari Arena is an all-time classic. While not quite as amazing as Defender or Space Dungeon are on the 5200, this is still an A-grade classic deserving of some of the highest praise you can give. Xari Arena is a truly exceptional game that gives Warlords and Arkanoid a serious run for their money as the best Breakout-style games ever made. It’s a tragedy that Atari cancelled this game, because with releases like this one and Tempest the 5200 might have gotten more of a following than it had. One of the 5200’s biggest problems, after all, is that it didn’t have a large enough exclusive library, as most of what Warner’s Atari published for the system during the maybe 15 months they released games for the 5200 were games that were either enhanced Atari 2600 games, or didn’t push the hardware all that much. This game is not like that, at all. This game was designed for the 5200, has exceptional analog controls that are great with a 5200 controller and are even better with the Trak-Ball, and, again, looks and sounds fantastic. Take the time to learn Xari Arena and hopefully you will love it.

The game does take some time to learn, though. So, this is a one or two player game, for any mixture of two human and computer players. The standard game is for two players, you against a human or AI opponent, though you can play with nobody on the other side of the screen if you wish. Yes, you can set either player to AI. Player one is on the left side of the screen, and player two the right. On each side, there is a wall of bricks. You lose if your entire wall is destroyed. You control a paddle that the game calls an energy cell. Again, you can freely move around your half of the screen, but cannot move into the opponent’s side. In addition to the two paddles, two kinds of objects move around the screen, spiral-shaped fireballs which will destroy the bricks in the two walls if they hit them but you can bounce with your paddle, and round target enemies called Xaris. Xaris stay around the middle part of the screen, but fireballs will go anywhere. When all Xaris in a level are destroyed, both players move on to the next level. A warp and counter in the center of the screen keeps track of how many of them are left. The game has 32 levels until it ends, so unlike most games of its era this game is not endless, you can win. Beating the game will be quite a challenge though, the difficulty level steadily increases as it goes along.

The thing is, though, when you touch one of the Xaris you take damage unless you have touched a fireball. If you touch a Xari without any fireball power in your paddle, your paddle will have an ‘exploding’ animation for three seconds and won’t bounce back anything, ball coming at your wall or target Xari. You do not want this to happen! So, you first need to absorb fireballs, which Xaris periodicly shoot out. You can choose to absorb or bounce back fireballs with your controller, but will need to absorb some in order to survive contact with a Xari. Each time you touch a fireball you absorb it and a hit is added to your paddle, up to a maximum of four. Once you are filled up, balls you hit with the paddle will always bounce back towards the other side of the field. Also, if you touch a Xari, it will drop the paddle level by one, so you can use up your paddle’s power to start clearing enemies once you have absorbed some balls. Alternately, you can try to hit the target enemies with fireballs you bounce back at them, as this will also destroy them if you make direct contact. Xaris are small so hitting them this way can be tricky, but it will happen. As a level goes on things will get more and more frenetic. With two dozen Xaris moving around and a whole bunch of fireballs all over, franticly trying to keep them from destroying your wall while also destroying the Xaris and bouncing back as many fireballs as possible is a significant challenge. It is also an incredibly fun one, though.

For controls, you move around with the stick or trackball, reflect fireballs with the lower button if you are not carrying a full load of four but still want to bounce a ball back instead of absorbing it, and use a fire extinguisher shield with the upper button. Fire extinguishers shield your wall of bricks from damage for a moment and destroy all fireballs in or near your wall. You can only use your fire extinguisher a limited number of times, and the number is shown on screen. You get one more per level completed, and choosing when to strategicly protect your wall with them is key to the games’ strategy. This game starts out easy enough, but as you get farther in things get faster and faster and crazier and crazier. The screen can have like 25 targets and a dozen balls or more bouncing around, and trying to keep track of everything is quite a task! The player who destroys each Xari gets points for it. For the scoring, after each level, each player gets bonus points depending on how many blocks are left on their wall. There are also point bonuses. So, while both players may always be on the same level, the scores will show how well each one is doing. The two players may both be working towards the same goal of defeating all of the Xaris, but you still compete for score. Every few levels there is a little on-screen animation showing Xaris flying around, like the interrupt screens in Pac-Man. It’s pretty cool stuff. Of course, there is one final one after you beat the game at level 32, if you can get that far. Interestingly, if one player dies, the other will keep going. The computer will continue by themselves if you die first.

The graphics in Xari Arena remind me, more than anything, of a Williams arcade game like Robotron. In terms of visual design the Atari game designer working on this game clearly was heavily influenced by Robotron, for the better, and it shows here. From the paddles to the fireballs and Xaris to the font choices for the games’ text, despite solid black backgrounds, Xari Arena has extremely bright and colorful graphics with a very strong graphical style that is both very of its time and also is timelessly beautiful looking. There’s barely any slowdown at all, either; this game runs fast and smooth. The fire extinguisher sets off a wall of light along your side that looks really cool, too. The visual look of this game stands out from most other games on this console, it looks amazing and barely looks like an Atari game at all! If this console can do this, with this many things moving around on screen all the time and with this much flash, it’s a real shame that games which pushed it were, for the most part, not released. As for audio, Xari Arena has both music and sound effects, so this is another point in its favor. The music is only decently good and not the best ever, but still, it’s a solid track which fits the gameplay well and is very catchy and memorable. The sound effects are very well chosen and each one fits its use perfectly. This game has some of the best graphical and audio presentation on the Atari 5200, with games like this released the system could have been a hit.

Overall, Xari Arena is a masterpiece. This game may be a bit complicated to explain, but spend a few minutes getting used to it and its genius quickly becomes apparent. The fantastic graphics and sound help, the system needed more of this and less barely enhanced 2600 ports, but the gameplay is the real star here. Xari Arena is a fast and frantic game with depth and absolutely brilliant design top to bottom. I still can’t believe this was cancelled in this fully complete state! Warner Bros. really mismanaged the 5200 exceptionally badly, and their choice to not release this gem should be on the list of their mistakes. If you have a Trak-Ball controller for the 5200 this game is an absolute definite must have, buy a copy today. This is a perfect game for that controller. If you don’t have a Trak-Ball, the game also plays quite well with the regular controller, though if you love games like this a Trak-Ball is a great investment. The Trak-Ball works extremely well and makes this amazing game even better.

Buy Xari Arena today, there aren’t many better games out there. This game was originally developed for the Atari 5200. A homebrew port for Atari 8-bit computers exists, but I can’t imagine the game playing anywhere near as well on digital controllers. It also was included in Atari Flashback Classics: Volume 3 for PS4, Xbox One, Switch, and the modern Atari VCS computer.

Rankings
——–

The games this time are all quite good.

Space Dungeon > Xari Arena > Tempest > Wizard of Wor > Star Wars: The Arcade Game > Vanguard

Compared to the games from the previous two parts of this update, Space Dungeon and Xari Arena are the overall top two games in the batch. Tempest is fourth, only behind The Dreadnaught Factor. And the other three are good games in the mix with the system’s higher-quality titles, with Wizard of Wor a good bit ahead of the last two.

Overall Atari 5200 Top Ten

1. Defender
2. Space Dungeon
3. Xari Arena
4. Centipede
5. Galaxian
6. The Dreadnaught Factor
7. Tempest
8. Castle Crisis
9. RealSports Baseball
10. Moon Patrol

Top Honorable Mentions: Super Cobra, Magical Fairy Force, Pitfall II: The Lost Caverns, Pole Position, Missile Command, Wizard of Wor

Defender and Space Dungeon are A+ classics that are among the best games of the 1980s. Xari Arena, Centipede, and Galaxian are A grade hits deserving of high praise. And the other five are A- tier titles I like a lot. The Atari 5200 is a fantastic console that deserves a much better reputation than it gets.

About Brian

Computer and video game lover
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