Thursday, February 10, 2011

At Random: UFO! (Odyssey 2, 1981)

This time, my random selection technique has landed upon a game for the Magnavox Odyssey^2 console, programmed by Ed Averett and entitled UFO!  (The title's final exclamation point was a standard in Magnavox's catalog, meant to create excitement and wreaking punctuational havoc for videogame journalists ever since.)

The Odyssey^2 was a descendant of Ralph Baer's original Odyssey TV game system, marketed in the late 1970's and early 80s in competition with the Atari 2600 and Mattel Intellivision.  It had a small library with a number of decent games, and was successful enough to see a little bit of third-party support from Imagic and Parker Brothers.  But the console has been largely forgotten today -- no official retro compilations have been released -- and UFO! is, perhaps, a good example of why this is the case.

In its day, UFO! was fairly well received by the gaming press.  Clearly inspired by Asteroids, but unable to reproduce Atari's rock-splitting gameplay for legal and technical reasons, UFO! instead pits the player's starship against a variety of asterisk-shaped objects and armed enemy UFOs.  The action is fast and challenging, but not particularly varied.

Still screenshots don't render the game's central play mechanic very well at all -- what appear to be three dots surrounding the player's ship, as seen above, are actually two rapidly circling dots and a brighter aiming dot.  The idea is that, as the player moves, the aiming point rotates around the ship toward the direction in which the ship is moving, providing a more sophisticated aiming mechanism than the usual 4- or 8-way joystick approach.

Unfortunately, the system's limited display resolution and digital joystick also means that it's rather difficult to aim straight up or down -- it's hard to move our spaceship vertically long enough to get the gun pointed in that direction.  So we end up dodging enemy objects and fire, flying erratically and struggling to get the turret into position, while firing wildly to keep an eye on where the shots are currently headed.

Of course, the screen is also full of enemies, and while the player's ship has a shield that stays up when we're NOT firing, we can't really rely on it, as we have to keep firing if we hope to destroy enemies, or even aim at them effectively.  A little bad timing, or a shot through the bow from an intruder UFO, and we explode in a cloud of pixels:

It's certainly challenging, but the self-interfering control scheme really lets UFO! down.  With two joysticks, or even two buttons to toggle between turret rotation and ship movement, the play mechanic might have been workable.  But because we have to move the ship in order to change our aim, and we can't keep a desirable gun position in place if we're moving the ship, it becomes irritatingly difficult to make much progress.  In fact, I found that I actually scored better if I just sat in one place, letting my shield absorb UFO collisions and recharge, rather than actually trying to fire at anything.

My gaming skills are not what they were once upon a time, of course.  But in this case I must remind myself that not every old game is a classic.  UFO! has its moments, but the lack of variety and irritating control scheme wore out my patience a little too quickly.

Still, should you be interested in a copy...


  1. I had an Odyssey2 back in the day and I remember playing a marathon of UFO! to get four-digit score. Something about that zero in front of my score really bothered me. The O2 had a few gems, but no real "classics".

  2. I loved this game. Definitely one of the best for that system, I recently went out and found an emulator to play it again. To be really successful you have to rely more on careful piloting to ram ships with your shield to cause the best chain reaction, while relegating the cannon to an occasional shot of opportunity if ships appear in your sites.

  3. And on a totally nerd related note... The font used on the box cover is not the standard font that was found on all other O2 game boxes. Instead, the font used was seen in the Gerry Anderson TV series UFO that ran back in 1969/70 and can be seen during the opening credits

  4. A bit late, but this is one of my favourite games from the early 80's. I live in the UK and the game was called Satellite Attack and the Odyssey2 was called the Philips Videopac G7000. I have to agree with Matthew - I use the shield as the main weapon and the only use the cannon for pot shots if it's pointing in vaguely the right direction.