Monday, June 20, 2011

At Random: Turtles (Odyssey^2, 1983)

Magnavox's Odyssey^2 console struggled for years against strong competition from Atari and Mattel, and it wasn't until 1983 that parent company North American Philips made a last-ditch effort to get serious with an authentic licensed conversion of a coin-op arcade game: Turtles.  (Also notable as one of the very few Odyssey^2 game titles that does NOT end in an exclamation point.)

The original arcade version of Turtles was created by Konami and distributed in the U.S. by Stern Electronics.  It was never a big hit here (despite Magnavox's box copy calling it a "superhit arcade game"), and must be somewhat rare, as I've never played the original in authentic arcade cabinet form.  But it was a decent game with cute characters, and the gameplay was well within the O^2's limited technical capabilities, though at 8K in size, it was one of the largest ROM cartridges ever released on the console.  It was not an exclusive -- there were two handheld versions by Entex, and even the Emerson Arcadia 2001 got an official conversion.

But Magnavox was really trying with this one -- unlike every other Odyssey^2 game I have written about recently, this one has an actual title screen.  It even replicates the arcade game's opening cartoon, as mama turtle enters the office building in search of her little ones:

The screen layout was, of course, changed from the vertically-oriented arcade game to the Odyssey^2's standard TV screen format.  And the look of the original coin-op is only approximated here -- the mazes are rendered in the usual box-and-line style seen in K.C. Munchkin and other Odyssey^2 titles, and the sprites are greatly simplified.  Mama turtle is rendered as two sprites in different colors, allowing her to have a green shell and pink head and legs, an attractive rarity on the Magnavox system.  The enemy bugs, on the other hand, use an old Odyssey^2 trick, deploying the system's built-in ball and X shapes in alternation to create a semblance of movement.

Sounds are also sparse and simple, though the program does a pretty good job of replicating the raspy "death noise" from the arcade game whenever mama turtle has an unfortunate encounter with a bug.  And with the add-on Odyssey^2 The Voice accessory, the action is accompanied by a rendition of the original arcade music.

It's a maze/chase game -- the player's goal as the mama turtle is to rescue each of her babies by carrying them to safety on her back while avoiding marauding beetles.  She must enter the six cubicles to find the baby turtles -- and she must remember which ones she has already rescued, as they can't be seen from the outside and revisiting a cubicle wastes time.  Some cubicles do not contain a baby, but release a fourth bug which she must now avoid.  Once she picks up a baby, a "home" icon appears, and mama must deliver the baby to safety:

The bugs also get smarter as the game goes on, indicated by color changes.  But mama turtle is not completely defenseless - she can drop "bug bombs" in her wake that temporarily paralyze one of her pursuers, and pick up replacement weaponry in the center of the screen.  If she manages to rescue all the babies on one floor, a brief intermission shows her climbing up to the next floor of the building, with the bugs in hot pursuit:

The basic gameplay never changes, but it gets more difficult, and we also see some maze variations as we go -- this is the third floor, which retains the cubicle layout but changes the wall structures a bit:

There's no defined end to the game, at least as listed in the manual, which continues to cite the standard Odyssey^2 victory rule: the "winner" is the player who earns the most points in some predetermined amount of time.

From a historical perspective, this game confirms the host system's technical limitations -- the O^2 was not nearly as flexible as the Atari 2600 -- but if Magnavox had invested more of its resources in software that pushed the system, it might have had more success in the industry.  It may have been too little, too late, but Turtles is a fine, addictive little arcade game, and one of the few true gems in the Odyssey^2's library.

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