Saturday, August 15, 2009

Oddities: Journey Escape

Drat. This is now the second time I've mentioned Journey in this blog. But I guess it's hard to separate 80's gaming from the 80's itself, and thus 80's music will come up from time to time.

And in the 80's, Journey was huge. Data Age, an American game company publishing mostly lousy and marginally successful science-fiction games for the Atari 2600, decided that a licensed videogame based on the band would be the ticket to financial prosperity. So they abandoned their "cheap-games-with-supporting-sci-fi-stories-by-virtually-unknown-author-J.-Ray-Dettling" strategy for a "one-cheap-game-with-pricey-hot-music-industry-license-JOURNEY-friends-we're-talkin'-JOURNEY-here" approach. (There was also a separate, completely different coin-op Journey game from Midway, but that's another story altogether.)

I still have an original copy of the game, complete with box and manual, in my collection. Mostly for kitsch value, I swear. It features the ultra-cool airbrushed artwork from the Escape album cover, which is good because the actual song Escape doesn't figure into the game, although the theme does inform the gameplay.

The worst thing about Journey Escape is the opening music; the 2600 could be coerced into doing decent two-part harmony with careful modulation of its sound chip, but Data Age didn't take full advantage of all that bit-twiddlin' data-tablin'; there are two parts playing, but they still add up to a feeble, beepy rendition of the intro to Don't Stop Believin'. Then a blocky scarab ship makes a break for it, and we have already witnessed most of the cartridge's limited storage being blown on the license.

The best thing about what remains of Journey Escape is that it doesn't try to recast the band members as heroes on some kind of mission; the gameplay bears at least a superficial resemblance to life on the road for a touring arena rock band. All they're trying to do in this post-concert adventure is to make it to their awesome scarab ship. This involves dodging managers, backstage hazards and groupies (depicted as hearts with legs), preserving their share of the concert box office by not taking damage from said obstacles, and getting helpful boosts from their roadies (in the form of temporary invincibility, not illegal narcotics as one might suspect.) The fire button goes unused after starting the game, so it's a fairly passive exercise in bobbing and weaving.

If the member in play manages to reach the ship, we hear the opening tune excerpt once more, and a different band member enters the maelstrom. You can tell the band members apart because they... gotcha! I lied. You cannot tell the band members apart. At least there is music playing during the game itself, which was no mean trick on the 2600, although it's not recognizable as a Journey song. And there is an actual ending, when all the band members are safely delivered to the ship. This is the Atari 2600, so there's no celebratory ending animation or anything, but the game does indeed stop.

Journey Escape got some positive press, and sales to music-loving gamers and Journey fans with access to an Atari 2600 were substantial enough to make it not-impossible to find today, but it wasn't really a hit. Unfortunately, or perhaps fittingly, when Data Age went under in the mid-80's industry crash, it was rumored in the press that they still owed Journey quite a bit in royalty payments. But gamers had tired of the era's hastily-produced cash-in games, and moved on to other things. Mostly because there were no new videogames to buy in stores anymore... hmm...

Oh, crap! Maybe Journey had it right after all. If only we had taken their musical advice, and didn't stopped believin'!

Oh, wait. Actually, we gamers didn't. Investors, executives and toy store buyers did. Fortunately, Shigeru Miyamoto came along before too long and fixed it. Pa-Rappa did his bit as well.


  1. Are you aware of the J Ray Dettling/Unabomber connection? This looks like kookfeathers, but it's still interesting:

  2. J. Ray Dettling happens to be a real rocket scientist and very pro technology. If anything, J. Ray is more likely to be a unabomber target.

  3. I actually know Ray Dettling. In addition to being a scientist and technologist he is also a musician -- and a good one. He's a great guy and I believe his connection to the Unabomber is bs. Kaczynski eschewed technology while Ray's band, at the time I knew him, was named for a particular type of electrical circuit.

  4. I played in that band for seven years. It was originally called the "Wheatstone Bridge Band". A wheatstone bridge is an electrical device used to measure precise resistances. After many thought we were a country band, we changed the name to "The Bridge" which most connected with the Golden Gate Bridge. We were very successful. I also lived at Dettling's house with his family during those years and helped him with a few aspects of the Journey Escape game. We designed the characters on graph paper. Dettling met with Journey to discuss the game design, a meeting I wished I could have attended! And there is no connection between Dettling and the Unabomber. That was a deluded coke-head's paranoid vision.