Circus Atari (Atari VCS, 1980)
One of the inspirations for doing what I'm doing here (even though it's been progressively less frequent) is the fact that "back in the day" I didn't actually get to play most of these games. Intellivision? I know one person that had it, and I only ever saw AD&D in action-but never got to play it. I had one friend with an Odyssey^2 and I never ever even saw it hooked up. I'd never heard of the Bally Professional Arcade back in 1981 and, though I'd seen the Channel F in catalogs, I'd never seen one "in the flesh" until 2002. So, it's always a pleasure, while in the process of getting through these games, to take out a game that, not only did I play it back in the day, not only did I play it often, but I actually played it often with other people, which is why I attach some significance to it, I guess.
Circus Atari is based on an arcade game called Circus (Exidy, 1977). It could be described as a derivative of Breakout with a thematic twist. Your "paddle" is a teeter-totter that you can move right to left across the bottom of the screen. On the "low end" of the teeter-totter is a clown who is to become your projectile. Parading across the top of the screen are three rows of balloons (red, white (though I thought they looked yellow) and blue). A second clown comes into play by jumping out from one of the sides of the playfield when you press the button on the paddle controller. You have to maneuver your teeter-totter to catch that incoming clown on the teeter-totter's "high end", so that the clown on the "low end" is catapulted into the air towards the balloons. The goal being to pop as many balloons as you can, while scoring points and going through clowns as if they were a disposable commodity.
The clowns are animated while they are projectiles, flailing their little arms and legs about in an effort to keep themselves upright while airborne. When up among the balloons, they'll pop as many as they come close to before falling back towards earth. When you fail to catch the plummeting clown, he becomes what is known in show business as "Circus Pizza" -- he lands with a splat, head grotesquely flattened on the floor of your tent, arms and legs still attached but wiggling like recently detached lizard tails. This never fails to amuse me. Never.
(My corporate sponsors have informed me that some clown union has threatened legal action. I must point out, that the loss of life in funny ways is only funny in imaginary circumstances. My dark humor is purely in the context of the videogames of which I write.)
(Ethics require me to admit that I actually don't have corporate sponsors and there is actually no clown union... as far as I know... it's more of a guild... I think...)
The cartridge, as expected from Atari, has several game variations, mostly amounting to one and two player variations of: with and without overhead "bumpers", an easier version for beginners, and a two-player only version that has the players "share" the balloon field while alternating turns. This last variation is interesting in that if you don't "clear" a row, then your opponent might, getting all the good points. A feature of the game is that the red button allows you to switch the high and low ends of the teeter-totter to give you some flexibility in catching the poor, doomed, and yet, happy, soul.
Speaking of doomed, yet happy... my children did groan a little as I recruited them for their reactions to this gender-neutral game. Their initial reluctance did give way because what child doesn't like to see a clown go splat? After about 15 minutes, I turned it off to write this, but they were actually interested in playing some more! I forbade this, of course, because I'm a power-abusing father.
While I do think of Circus Atari as a Breakout derivative, it should be noted that, unlike Breakout which bounces the ball around in a straight line, circus clowns trace through genuine parabolic arcs...elegant yet simple in their mathematical beauty. Okay, not as simple as a line, but the arc does lend a certain, curvy grace to the flight path. In accordance with a law of physics, the clowns do soar higher and longer if you land the incoming clown further out on the edge of the teeter-totter. Sadly, the inevitably tragic ending of the clown is not intensified by this increased flight duration, but it does let you pop more balloons.
Frankly, (may I call you, "Frankly"?) we only play it to watch helpless passengers of the equation describing a parabolic arc, often ending their trip in the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of show business. No business like it; no business I know.
If I assigned numbers to games, I'd give this a good number. A number that everyone would recognize, but not be bored by. Probably a number created by multiplying two large primes and adding a one to it. Circus Atari is that much fun.
Ironically, I'd been putting off this entry for such a long time, because I thought I was going to have to play 3D-Tic-Tac-Toe and I am admittedly hesitant to do so. I was very happy to double-check my previous entry and realize I had intended to play Circus Atari. However, what must be done must be done, and I do intend to play 3D-Tic-Tac-Toe next. And soon. Really!