Thursday, April 21, 2011

At Random: Pick Axe Pete! (Odyssey^2, 1982)

Climbing games were a genre unto themselves in the early 1980s, with Donkey Kong and Space Panic leading the charge in the arcades and home computers and consoles getting in on the action, primarily with unlicensed ripoffs of Donkey Kong and Space Panic (until Coleco snapped up the rights to both games.)

But my random pick this week turned up one of the semi-honest partly-originals -- Magnavox's Pick Axe Pete! for the Odyssey^2 console.  It clearly borrows from Donkey Kong -- the rolling boulders that menace Pete resemble Nintendo's barrels.  And it may have been inspired by Bill Hogue's Miner 2049er to some degree.  But it feels fairly fresh and is definitely one of the better games in the Odyssey^2's limited library.

Pick Axe Pete! challenges the player, as Pete!, to survive the levels long enough to score points by hitting the "gold bearing rocks" with his pick axe, and now and then to pick up a key and dive more deeply into higher-scoring levels of the mine.  There are 9 different boards, selectable at startup by pressing a digit on the console's famous keyboard from 0 through 9.

The rolling boulders that menace our hero are fairly predictable -- once they come out of a gate, they bounce along to the end of a level, drop down, and then bounce back in the other direction.  What's not very predictable are the other events that have to happen to actually satisfy Pete's objective.  He must locate the key to escape each level, but it shows up more or less randomly.  And while his fabled Pick Axe is in his hand at the beginning of the level, it eventually times out, and Pete! must then dodge nimbly for his life and hope he survives long enough for it to reappear.  If it does, it lands somewhere else on the screen, and he can only reclaim it if he can get to in time.  These time elements are a constant nuisance -- most of the time Pete finds himself at the top of the screen, in prime key-grabbing position, only to have his Pick Axe disappear just as a boulder heads his way.  The key also does not last long once it appears -- it quickly decays into fading pixels, making it even harder to grab.  So while there is a degree of skill and strategy involved in playing Pick Axe Pete!, there's also quite a bit of luck involved.

There's quite a bit going on in this game visually, by Odyssey^2 standards -- the boulders are animated with sufficient detail to look like they're actually rolling, which is efficiently done using the Odyssey^2's built-in character set -- the rocks alternate between a solid spherical block of pixels, an X and an asterisk.  It's a neat little trick that looks good in motion at 60 frames-per-second, but rather lame in screenshots:

There are spinning gates (similarly animated by using a standard square block and a letter I) on some levels that knock boulders and Pete around, and the ladders allowing Pete to climb up appear and disappear at random.  He can't climb down, as the ladders generally only appear from the level he's on to the next level up, but a fall from one level to the next is not fatal (though the animation looks a bit odd, as his pick axe keeps on swinging, protruding mysteriously from his chest as he flails his arms and legs in thin air.)

Pete's not completely at the mercy of his appearing and disappearing weapon -- he can jump and duck, though jumping seems to be a lot more productive than ducking given the boulders' patterns.  And the official game manual is almost completely useless here, indicating that Pete's evasive moves are based on the positions of his hands when we hit the action button.  It works nuch better if we simply ignore the instructions and just experiment with the timing to learn what he can do; I tend to stick with the jumping.  Pete's fairly detailed animated moves, and his pick axe, seem to be the only "original" graphics in the game -- the limited 4K size of this cartridge, large by the console's standards, likely made reliance on stock graphics a space-saving requirement.

When Pete has managed to pick up a key and enter a door -- no mean feat -- the screen flashes red while he flails his arms, giving the impression that something much more dire is happening to our rugged hero as he travels to the mine's next level:

And the action resumes with more of the same, ramped up to a slightly more difficult level.  Time has passed, of course, and beyond the glow of nostalgia Pick Axe Pete! now qualifies as a fun game only in brief sessions.  There's not enough depth here to merit serious attention by contemporary gamers, but until we've mastered the mechanics it presents a degree of entertaining challenge.

I often wish a sequel had come along during the brasher, edgier Sega Genesis era, only because I really wish there was a cartridge out there called Kick Axe Pete!  But the Magnavox intellectual properties seem to have vanished along with the first wave of the video game industry -- nobody has inherited the North American Philips mantle and kept these franchises alive.  The parent Dutch company, Philips, is still around, so we know who owns the rights, but they seem uninterested in releasing these in any official sense of the word.  Perhaps the memories are just too painful.

(A historical aside -- according to Wikipedia, Philips did have another unsuccessful brush with the video game industry; in the mid-90s, after a misbegotten attempt to collaborate with Nintendo in a similar fashion, they manufactured Atari's ill-fated Jaguar CD add-on!)


  1. I grew up with an O2, and this is one of the games I remember quite well. I think with Pick Axe Pete and UFO! you've covered what are arguably the two best games for this console.

  2. I recently got an O2 from a friend (i'm in the 40s agegroup) and never having played it before, i am enjoying it. thanks for the overview of PaP--its a bit odd, and I appreciate your tips above, since the game is unusual and i'd figured out most of it, but appreciate the confirmation of my own dive and experience with this piece of gaming history.

  3. I downloaded it for Mac. I am using the keyboard to play it. How do I jump and crawl? Thanks.