Wednesday, June 20, 2012

At Random: Attack of the Timelord! (1982)

Attack of the Timelord! is not a game about a rogue Dr. Who, though I wouldn't put it past that Peter Davison fellow, but according to the manual, one Spyrus the Deathless, Timelord of Chaos.  He stars in a game for the Magnavox Odyssey^2 that started development under the more descriptive title, Snake Ships from Sirius.  Arriving late in the system's life, Attack of the Timelord! supported "The Voice" voice-synthesis peripheral to bring a little coin-op flavor to the proceedings.

The Odyssey^2 was the also-ran in its day; at the time of release, its hardware seemed comparable to the Atari 2600, and more sophisticated in some ways, with its keyboard and built-in ROM set of alphanumeric characters and sprites.  But as programmers learned how to squeeze more and more out of the simple but incredibly flexible Atari machine, the O^2's rigid architecture, fixed palette and double-line resolution made it seem old and hidebound before its time.

I mention this because Attack of the Timelord! deserves special attention for its technical wizardry -- it pulls off a few things that almost no other game on the console ever managed.  It is fast and therefore a lot more exciting than most of the games in the Odyssey^2 library, and it crams a fair amount of variety into its scant 4K of ROM. 

The visuals are also nicely done, given the system's limitations; unfortunately, the still screenshots I've captured here can't demonstrate the neat "flickering" trick devised to create intermediate colors with a 60 Hz refresh rate.  This is the rare case where the packaging's "artist's renderings" actually provide a better approximation of the look than actual captures do.  Suffice it to say that explosions and the vortex from which the enemy ships emerge look really nice in motion, and the Timelord's appearances look a lot more impressive live, with a rainbow starburst of flickering lines surrounding his skull-like visage and reaching all the way to the screen borders:

With The Voice installed, our would-be alien overlord utters a few suitably despotic phrases, like "Seize the planet!", "Prepare for defeat!" and "Goodbye, Earthling," as well as the oddly empathetic "Comfort the world."  Perhaps Spyrus the Deathless plans to conquer our planet only so he can try to become the next Bob Geldof.

The invading alien ships (more like squat saucers, really) snake around the screen (hence the original moniker) quickly, and with minimal flickering.  I thought that the snaking movements might have been a clever trick to keep sprites on separate scanlines, but that's clearly not the case in this shot:

The enemy flight patterns are pre-programmed but not overly predictable, creating something like a bare-bones, more intense version of Galaga -- our targets never settle down into a convenient formation, they just keep flitting about until we shoot every one of them.  And the alien ordnance varies -- early waves feature clusters of three dagger-like bombs that fall straight down, but later waves add homing spheres, ground-hugging mines that move toward the player for a brief while after hitting the ground, and more aggressive homing diamonds.

Attack of the Timelord! presents a considerable challenge, especially as the player has but one life to give for his or her home planet; when one alien shot connects, our ship explodes and the score resets to zero, ready for another try at setting a high score.  There are no variations, just 256 levels of increasing difficulty; I can't speak to whether there's any sort of ending, as I never made it past level 3 while preparing this post.  It's no Demon Attack or Space Fury, to cite a couple of likely inspirations, but Attack of the Timelord! is still worth a few quick rounds, and belongs in any serious Odyssey^2 collection.

1 comment:

  1. Cool ! This was the first true console I ever owned. My brother and I opted for this rather than the 2600 that everyone I knew owned. I still have it in storage somewhere :) We ended up with almost every game released along with the Voice module. Time Lord was one my favorite games. One of these days I will dig it out since my closest friend from that era wants to get together and play it a bit :)