Thursday, April 7, 2011

At Random: P.T. Barnum's Acrobats! (Odyssey^2, 1982)

A friend recently gave me a brown paper grocery bag of loose, dusty old Odyssey^2 cartridges.  I figured my first random grab was likely to come up with something I've already written about, or at least played before, but to my pleasant surprise I ended up with P.T. Barnum's Acrobats!, a licensed title based on the famed showman and entrepreneur.  Mr. Barnum died in 1891, so the license wasn't exactly current at the time, but one of his business enterprises, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was (and is) still around.  Mr. Barnum may have had very little to do with acrobats directly during his life, but the name provided a suitable basis for this 1982 video game cartridge, which would otherwise have been nothing more than a shameless ripoff of Exidy's Circus.

It's still an obvious derivation of the Exidy arcade machine, but the Odyssey^2 was getting long in the tooth, and the exclamation points used in almost all of the system's official game titles were clearly not generating the expected market enthusiasm.  Magnavox/North American Philips clearly felt it was time to ante up for a few official licenses, and since the 2600 already had Circus Atari, and Datasoft was selling Clowns & Balloons for home computers, P.T. Barnum's estate reaped the benefit.  Or perhaps it didn't -- I don't see an actual copyright or trademark citation on the cartridge, so it's possible they just used Barnum's name in imitation of Atari's Pele's Soccer, but without all the legal red tape.  But the aforementioned circus remains in commercial circulation, and is mentioned in the manual, so I'll stipulate that the licensing was on the up-and-up.

This cartridge even has an elaborate title screen -- well, that's an overstatement, but it's fancier than most of the Odyssey^2 library, as it actually puts part of the title right up there on the teevee screen!

The gameplay follows the established Circus model -- one seesaw, two acrobats, and a player who must keep one or the other in the air to pop the balloons by keeping the seesaw in position.  To my knowledge, there has never been an actual acrobat act of this nature, for obvious safety and liability reasons.  But here we are, presumably under the invisible Barnum & Bailey big top with the unheard crowd and the odorless scent of Clown Alley greasepaint filling the air.

This was a fairly late title in the Odyssey^2's lifespan, and supports the console's voice synthesizer ("The Voice"), though it just provides kibitzing and commentary and is not required for play.  The graphics are simple, but colorful and attractive.  There is also a nice little comical touch Atari missed out on -- while the 2600 version of Circus leaves an unfortunate acrobat apparently writhing in pain and in need of immediate emergency care, the Odyssey^2 game just squishes the acrobat down a bit, cartoon-style, leaving him in full control of his faculties as he climbs back up and stretches out for another go.  The only unfortunate limitation is the console's 8-way digital joystick -- the Atari version used a paddle controller, and moving left and right at a fixed speed doesn't provide enough precision to play the Odyssey^2 game easily.

Beyond these distinguishing features, it's strictly the usual stuff -- keep the acrobats in the air as long as possible, clear as many racks of balloons as possible, and then turn it off and do something else.

That's all I have to say about P.T. Barnum's Acrobats!  This way to the Egress*, ladies and gentlemen!

* P.T. Barnum reputedly used to use this ploy to get customers who didn't know what an egress was to exit his exhibits prematurely.  As he was also reportedly fond of saying, there's a sucker born every minute!

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