Steeplechase (Atari VCS, 1980)
Before I get into the game, I want to get into the term "Steeplechase".
For me "Steeplechase" has always stood for the name of an amusement pier in Atlantic City (though there was one in Coney Island, too, I never saw it). I can't say my family and I went "down the shore" a lot when I was growing up near Philadelphia in the late 70's, early 80's, but the few times I went I remember two of the Atlantic City piers, Steeplechase Pier and Steel Pier. For a 516kb image of Steeplechase Pier, click here. The linked picture is quite a bit before our time, but in some twisted symbolic way that only quality writers can pull off, Steeplechase Pier and the amusement piers like it are a cultural grandparent to our beloved pastime of video games so I don't feel entirely off-topic to bring it up here.
If you go to that linked picture you can see people on "holiday" in 1910. 99.99% of the souls in that picture are undoubtedly worm food by now, (with the possible exception of the children on the lower right corner). However, to most of them Steeplechase Pier and Steel Pier were highlights of their holiday. 30 years later, the children and teens going to those places with their families would likely have the same sense of nostalgia so many of us retain from going to arcades in our growing up periods. Hmm, what was my point... oh yeah. In the 2070s, the pictures we have of our Arcades from the 70s and 80s will somehow look as grainy and as dated as this does to us now. Time and populations are really weird that way.
Okay, I admit it, I didn't have a point, but that's a cool picture of Steeplechase Pier and I wanted to share.
Anyway, the word "Steeplechase" was associated to that pier for me, and somewhere along the way, I learned it also has something to do with horses jumping over hurdles in a race. I was surprised to learn that Steeplechase originally refers to racing from the church steeple of one town to the church steeple of the next town, jumping over whatever got in the way -- ditches, fences, walls, hedges, creeks, etc. Steeplechase for the Atari VCS is more about the horse-hurdles variant.
With two pairs of paddles up to four people can compete in two different race types with three levels of difficulty for each. The first three games are regularly spaced hurdles with beginning, medium and hard difficulty. The last three games are irregularly spaced hurdles, also with beginning, medium and hard difficulty. If you are playing with three other people, I can't see that it makes much of a difference which difficulty level you play, but if it's just you and one other person, the remaining horses are controlled by the computer, and then it does matter, because the computer is tough to beat.
So, what's the game anyway? Okay, four horses each with their own lane race across the side-scrolling screen from left to right and jump over the hurdles approaching them from the right when the trigger button on the paddle controller is pressed at just the right time to have the horse jump over the obstacle. (Yeah, it's a run-on sentence. Just deal with it.) If the player presses the button too soon, or too late, the horsey graphic performs a grimace-inducing, knee-bending stumble-slide which slows your horse down.
The "paddle" part of the paddle controller is used to control how long the horse spends in the air when jumping over the hurdles. The hurdles are of different widths: narrow, not-so-narrow, and friggin' wide. The paddle controller moves a height bar on the right side of each horse's lane. If you're a starting player, you just set that bar as high as it will go, and if you time every jump just right, you know that you'll clear even the friggin' wide hurdles. However, the horses don't actually progress towards the right side of the screen while jumping. The more time the horse spends in the air, the further they will fall behind the other horses. In a beginner-level game, the player can get away with just jumping with the bar set high. A more nuanced style of play involves setting the bar to match the length of jump needed, this allows the horse to spend less time in the air for the narrow and not-so-narrow jumps. This increased attention to not only timing your jumps but also your jump efficiency is a necessity to getting even close to beating the game-controlled horses of games 2,3 and 5,6.
Here is a YouTube video I found that shows a full game of Steeplechase (being played on an emulator, but hey, I'll take it) (Edit: there's no link anymore. Discovering this in 2021.) (EDIT in 2022 I found another example.)
(EDIT Jun 2022: So, does internet etiquette dictate that I should tell this YouTube I'm linking to their video or is it perfectly cromulent to just link to it and forget about it?)
This game is not what I would consider an attention grabber. Nothing explodes, nothing moves very quickly, and yet, you'll find yourself frantically trying to keep up with the jumping and the height bar as you spend a lot of time looking at the other horses' collective rear. Steeplechase is an easy game to understand, but I do not consider it a simple game to play. Putting the height bar on the opposite side of the screen actually made it a little tough to pay attention to the height of the bar and the timing of the jump. Also, the thrill of successfully jumping a barrier is not as positively rewarded as the punishment and negative impact of watching a horse crumble to its knees after failing a jump. After a few races and seeing her horse hit the ground again and again, my daughter was ready to turn in her saddle and frankly, so was I.
Sadly, I was unable to muster the enthusiasm from my other two family members to give it a shot, nor was the daughter interested in playing again, even if I could get the others to play. Lesson here: if you have a four player game, get everyone to play it with you first, otherwise, it may be hard to get them all to play after they hear the grumbling of the first guinea pig.
Kudos belong to Steeplechase for creating game-controlled opponents with simple but effective A.I. In the easiest games, the competing horses are clumsier and their jumps aren't as well timed. For the medium level, their jumps are well timed, but they might not be jumping efficiently. For the hardest level, if you're not playing perfectly you will be eating their dust/mud/turf.
Next time we play... Circus Atari!
As a sort of PS: The manual for Steeplechase reminds me that while consoles like the Intellivision and Odyssey^2 were pushing "serious" fun, by calling their games simulations, games for the Atari at this time were all about having fun. There's a lot of space in the manual spent on describing the attributes of each of the four horses involved in the race. While none of the horses seemed to have any intrinsic differences that I could detect, it's an interesting contrast. Intellivision manuals went out of their way to describe in detail every last feature of a game, down to describing the sound effects. The manual writers for Steeplechase had no problem including "flavor" material to make a customer reading the manual chuckle a bit. While such marketing-driven humor rarely ages well, it's still interesting to see.