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Moon Patrol
Reviewed by Chad Polenz

I didn't expect Moon Patrol for the Atari 2600 to be a faithful adaptation of the arcade game, but it is pretty darn close. It's fun and challenging and it would have been perfect if not for the bad play control.

In this game you drive an armored vehicle, the "Moon Buggy," on the surface of the moon. Unlike other early side-scrollers where all you had to do was run and jump, Moon Patrol ups the stakes by making the gameplay multi-tasking. You're able to drive at three different speeds, shoot above and in front of you simultaneously and you're able to jump as well. You'll

To beat the game, all you have to do is reach the finish while carefully avoiding boulders, craters, mines, tanks and UFOs. The button fires your lasers and pushing up on the joystick jumps the Moon Buggy. The faster you're driving the further your car will jump. No doubt there will be many instances in which you'll want to speed up and then immediately slow down (and vice versa).

Different obstacles and enemies are worth different amounts of points. You receive a 1-Up after garnering 10,000, 30,000 and 50,000 points. There are five levels to the game, each of which contains five checkpoints, but there is no stoppage in gameplay until you complete each level. You're able to choose from three difficulty settings when starting out. As an added bonus, this game even gives you the option to choose whether you'd like to have background music or not which is quite novel for an Atari VCS game.

Moon Patrol is a classic action game in that it's something of a button-masher and relies on the player's dexterity. It has a unique hook to it in that it's a game of finesse since victory is dependant upon keen judgment and foresight, not just brute force.

Since this is a game of multi-tasking, it's important to always keep your eyes peeled. When groups of UFOs attack in clusters it's quite easy to fight them off by simply tapping the button, however, you must be wary of upcoming craters and boulders.

The UFOs are probably the easiest challenge in the game, since your laser shots upward are actually able to neutralize their shots down at you. Imagine if you could have done that in Space Invaders!? You're able to move back and forth fairly easily to dodge their shots, too. I recommend watching the road more closely than the sky, because letting rip on the fire button will provide a high degree of protection against the alien baddies.

The biggest ordeal lies in timing your shots and jumps over the crater/boulder combinations. It will take quite a bit of practice in order to memorize the patterns, how to adjust your speed and when to take your shots and jumps. This wouldn't be such a struggle if the controls were better, which brings me to my next point…

It's amazing how many video games rely on the use of jumping. Usually, it's human or human-like characters that jump, but in the case of Moon Patrol, for the first time ever, a vehicle is actually able to jump. Jumping in video games is a skill in and of itself, since it relies on timing as well as the game's concept of gravity. Given that this game takes place on the moon, I suppose it's fair to expect the jumping to be a tad delayed and for gravity to be fairly "loose." Awkward controls take time to get used to, but here it's an aspect that will almost never feel comfortable to most players.

Perhaps it's a flaw that works on a more subconscious level because you're able to drive and shoot quickly and the UFOs all move fast, but you're thrown when you realize how capricious the jumping controls are. Even though your jumps are, technically, proportional to your speed, you just never get the feeling of true jump control. Simply "playing conservatively" is no guarantee of success, either.

Controls for shooting in this game are frustrating beyond belief. Why is it that you can tap the button quickly and a bunch of shots will fly upward, but only ONE shot is allowed to travel horizontally? The last stage in the game involves destroying many tanks and boulders while jumping unevenly-spaced craters. You simply cannot fire fast enough to destroy the tanks with enough time to jump the craters (trying to jump the tanks will result in your being shot mid-air). You can bash the button all you like but you'll always be a slave to the "one shot at a time" rule! Arrgh!

There were actually times in which I would hit the button and nothing would happen. I thought it might have been my controller so I tried using another one to no avail. I even tried playing the game on the easiest setting and I still couldn't get past the final stage because of the poor fire control. Being a finesse player is one thing, but actually being able to play the game properly is something completely different.

It's funny how a game with very basic graphics like Pac-Man can look terrible on the Atari VCS, but a game like Moon Patrol with multiple backgrounds and moving images can look pretty good. Not that this port is a mirror image of the arcade original, but it does retain the game's look. The colors are vivid, aesthetic hues, making the game very easy to look at. Although I find it funny how the Moon Buggy looks like it was painted with Pepto Bismol, and seems to have legs instead of wheels.

The game even makes use of parallax scrolling with two backgrounds and a foreground giving a real feeling of movement. Even the UFOs are animated quite nicely, moving very smoothly and not choppy. There is no screen flicker in this game, either.

Moon Patrol for the Atari 2600 might have been one of the first carts to have optional background music. It's surprisingly catchy and sounds like some kind of 1960s pop song.

The actual bleeps and bloops are pretty standard for a 4-bit game. Games of this generation had a tendency for grating sounds, but in this case they're all pretty cute and easy on the ears.

This is the kind of game you'll not only want to play multiple times, but the kind you'll feel you can't turn off until you complete it. Although the controls take time to get used to, the game seems as though it could be finished, regardless. I'm not sure what happens on this particular port if you reach the end of Stage 5, but I'd guess it's of the prototypical Sisyphus fashion whereby it simply starts over but at a higher degree of difficultly.

It's hard to find a game for the Atari 2600 that is truly challenging and fun to play over and over again. Moon Patrol falls into that class of game. The only thing keeping it from being one of the all-time greats for the system is the controls. Oh well, it's still worth a go.