Thursday, March 17, 2011

At Random: Speedway! Spin-Out! Crypto-Logic! (Odyssey^2)

This week, my random pick has come up with one of those easy-to-find, dirt-common games known as a "pack-in."  As the industry has matured and launch libraries offer more experiences to different kinds of gamers, the practice of including a game in the box with the console has started to fall by the wayside.  But if you bought a Magnavox Odyssey^2 console in 1978, you also got a copy of the three-in-one cartridge, Speedway! Spin-Out! Crypto-Logic!  And if you're collecting Odyssey^2 videogames today, you probably already have multiple copies of this one.

Keeping in mind that the entire three-game cartridge is a mere 2048 bytes in size -- less space than it will take me to discuss the game here, not including screenshots -- it wasn't a bad choice for a pack-in.  It offers some variety -- enough to keep new players interested, but not so much that they wouldn't go out and buy a new, more polished cartridge sometime soon.  And it's a game that would probably not have sold particularly well if it were not the console's pack-in.

Speedway! Spin-Out! Crypto-Logic! fires up with a no-frills menu - a black screen with text reading SELECT GAME.  We have to refer to the manual to figure out what this really means -- pressing 1, 2, 3 or 4 on the system's keyboard fires up one of the available games (2 and 3 cover two variations of Spin-Out!)  To select a different game, the player must reset the console to return to this start-up screen, no doubt saving a few opcodes.

Speedway! (game selection 1) is a vertically-scrolling "race" game -- and at least the box description is accurate, offering the opportunity to "Race against the clock and an electronic maze of other cars!"   The other cars aren't actually competing in the race, you see -- they just present a set of obstacles as they drift lazily from one side of the road toward the other, suffering no damage at all when they knock the player's car into a crumpled heap of pixels.  And the scoring is simple -- the player scores points while the two-minute clock is running, but does not score points while recovering from a crash.  There are two difficulty levels, with the second level running twice as fast as the first.

The second title, Spin-Out!, is a completely separate racing game, patterned after the classic Atari Sprint coin-op (which for some odd reason bore the name Indy 500 on the Atari 2600.)  Start-up option 2 provides 3 laps of play, option 3 15 laps.The track is squarish and there's no player-vs.-computer support, but with two players competing to rack up laps it's not a bad rendition of the concept.  And the track walls are solid, preventing the "rack up laps by circling tightly around the center of the playfield, crossing the two demarcation lines" trick some other versions of this idea allowed.

As game number 3, Crypto-Logic! is the "cheater" here -- it relies on the Odyssey^2's built-in character set and so does not have to devote precious cartridge space to new graphics.  There's no built-in dictionary, either -- instead, one player uses the system's keyboard to type a phrase on the enciphering line, the computer scrambles it, and a second player attempts to decipher it.  Wrong guesses are counted after the puzzle is solved.

All of these games, and the genres they represent, have become relics in the modern era -- they're so very simple that it's hard to imagine anyone spending more than a few minutes with them today.  But back when simple interaction with an image on a TV screen was itself the "wow factor," Magnavox introduced lots of new players to the thrill of videogaming with this very cartridge.  As gamers who want to appreciate where we are today, we owe it to ourselves to, on occasion, take a look back at where we've been.

As a typical pack-in, there are almost certainly more copies of this game available than there are people who really want one these days.  I'm kind of surprised it's not less expensive, but if you want a copy, you may be able to find it here:

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