Monday, July 25, 2011

At Random: Smithereens! (1982)

Toward the end of its life, the Odyssey^2 started getting some more sophisticated titles from Magnavox and parent company North American Philips.  Smithereens! -- this week's random pick -- is one of those later, more polished titles; in other words, it's a 4K cartridge instead of a 2K cartridge, and has a few surprising touches.

I remember this game primarily because it was one of the prototype Odyssey^3's featured titles in early magazine coverage of that machine -- and unfortunately, that coverage made it clear that many of the games on the "new" console were the same old games with the same old little Odyssey^2 men, with higher-resolution background graphics added for show.  But I'd never played Smithereens!, so I'm pulling it out of the collection and trying it out this week.

Smithereens! is a rendition of a classic head-to-head video game scenario -- two players separated by a pond have catapults and boulders, and aim to knock each other's towers to rubble.  It's set in the medieval era, according to the manual, and was known in the UK as Stone Sling, a more descriptive title that unfortunately also brings certain men's athletic garments to mind.

Here's something subtle and kind of cool -- usually Odyssey^2 games had a single-color border, which on a TV without massive overscan (and on modern emulators) always made the action look a little bit boxed in.  In this game, an interrupt timing scan line technique is used to make the black and green areas of the background "bleed" properly into the margins. It's a small but welcome sign of a little more technical care on the part of Magnavox.

Missiles are lobbed by pulling the spring-centering Odyssey^2 joystick away from center, holding it for a while, then letting it go back to center; it's a "flick-firing" mechanism that feels nice and tactile on the original hardware.  The action button is not used, and there's no way to aim except by developing a sense of joystick direction and timing.  There's also some strategy involved here, as the player has to hold the catapult back for a fairly long time in order to approach the target; it may pay to knock the top off of one's own tower first, so that more lower-angled shots can be fired more quickly later.

The goal is to take out the towers, but doing other kinds of damage earns points as well.  If a player hits the opponent directly, a new opponent walks onscreen and the game continues.  The manual tells us that the injured combatant is seeking medical attention, but as a boulder to the head is not generally a treatable condition, and the injured party simply vanishes, and another figure walks onscreen after a brief delay, I trust the visuals more than the documentation.  If a player hits the opponent's catapult, the opponent saunters offscreen with the damaged one and brings back a new one, a charming little bit of animation by Odyssey^2 standards.  This brief interruption in the defenses also gives the opposing player a chance to do a little extra damage; the manual is correct when it says, "You can wreak unmolested devastation until he returns."

There's some "dynamic damage" going on here too, long before that term was coined -- the two towers that provide each player with some measure of defense can be seen deforming and crumbling, gradually and semi-randomly.  It's not a true physics simulation, but the "noise" involved does keep the visuals a little bit fresh.

If one player manages to completely destroy the other player's tower, there's a brief, beepy trumpet fanfare played by a suddenly fourfold enlarged version of the victorious player:

And then the game continues, with the highest-scoring player after three battles declared the ultimate winner.  Like many two-player Odyssey^2 games, Smithereens! actually requires two human players -- it cannot be played solo against the CPU, except as a way to practice one's aiming technique.  But the extra ROM space was devoted to a little extra polish instead of simplistic AI, and given the scarcity of cute little graphical touches in the Magnavox library, the effort is appreciated.

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