When I started collecting Atari 2600 games in the nineties, Chase the Chuck Wagon was the Holy Grail. There were entire Geocities pages dedicated to its rarity complete with lists of the privileged few who owned a copy, those either lucky enough to find it in the wild or those willing to cough up what at the time were exorbitant prices often exceeding 100 dollars. You can still expect to pay 100 dollars or more for a copy of Chase the Chuck Wagon, but whereas 25 years ago that purchase also included status as an elite super collector, today all you get is a pretty ho-hum maze game.
In 1983, Purina approached game publisher Spectravision about creating a game based on the Chuck Wagon dog food commercials to use as a premium. The job of creating a game worth $12.95 and 2 proofs of purchase fell to Mike Schwartz, whose only other Atari 2600 credit is Artillery Duel, the ubiquitous other end of several of the Xonox double-ender cartridges. Schwartz was given three days to complete the game. After playing it, you’ll wonder what he did with the other two.
The goal of Chase the Chuck Wagon is to guide Chuckie the dog through a maze to the chuckwagon while avoiding the dogcatcher who also roams the maze and another object that bounces freely around the screen. Sometimes the object is a bone, sometimes it’s another dog, sometimes it’s a disembodied cat head. Whatever form it takes, colliding with it causes Chuckie to freeze in place for a few seconds. Since Chuckie only gets 60 seconds (or 30 on the expert difficulty setting) to get through the maze, this is the bigger threat than the dogcatcher, who takes one of Chuckie’s lives but moves through the maze so haphazardly that he rarely poses any real danger.
There are four mazes that loop indefinitely, each followed by a rudimentary bonus stage in which a bowl of dog food falls from the top of the screen that you stop by pressing the fire button. If the bowl is lined up with Chuckie when it stops, you get 100 points. Compared to the 1 point per second remaining on the timer you get for finishing each maze, this is a ludicrously large bonus. This imbalance makes the maze screens (which are, you know, the bulk of the game) completely secondary if your aim is a high score.
The chuckwagon at the top of the screen looks pretty impressive, although the horse appears to be a bit undernourished. Chuckie himself, despite being tiny, is a pretty good representation of a dog. Overall, Chase the Chuck Wagon is actually a pretty decent looking game. The sound effects are recycled from Artillery Duel, but are generic enough to be not entirely out of place in either game. It’s a solid enough package, but the gameplay itself is so uninspired that all the eye candy in the world couldn’t make up for it. Like a lot of promotional items, it reeks of something that had to be given away because no one, not even the slimiest marketing guy in the building, felt right charging for it.
Chase the Chuck Wagon may have lost its status as the rarest of the rare (according to the AtariAge rarity guide, it isn’t even the rarest game published by Spectravision), but it’s still a hard game to find and it will forever be a part of Atari collecting history. Of course, whether that piece of history is worth a hundred bucks or not is entirely up to you to decide.