Remember growing up with an Atari 2600 and being jealous of all your Oddyssey2 friends who got to play UFO! while you were stuck playing Asteroids?
Wait, I got that backwards. Anyway, John Reder has ported UFO! to the 2600, so now it’s possible for you to relive the childhood of that kid you made fun of in third grade because his parents bought him an Odyssey2 instead of a 2600.
UFO! was the first of the “Challenger Series” games released for the Odyssey2. These games had more ROM than previous Odyssey2 games (4K instead of 2K) and in many cases were “inspired” by popular arcade titles of the time. The most famous of the Challenger Series games is K.C. Munchkin, which forever sealed its place in gaming lore when Magnavox was forced to stop production because of the game’s similarity to Pac-Man. Other games in the series included nods to Circus, Defender, Galaga and Donkey Kong as well as one actual licensed arcade title, Turtles, and a less lawsuit-worthy sequel to K.C. Munchkin.
UFO! clearly owes a lot to Asteroids. The player controls an Earth Federation battle cruiser which can move and shoot in any direction and tries to destroy as many UFOs a possible. The UFOs come in three varieties. Standard UFOs drift aimlessly through space. Hunter-killers track the player. Starships track the player and fire computer-guided missiles. The unique aspects of UFO! are the force field, represented by a train of dots circling the player’s ship which offers protection, and the firing mechanism, which allows players to set the trajectory of their shots with a red dot that moves around the ship as the ship moves on screen. UFOs can even be destroyed by colliding them, but this leaves the player defenseless for a few seconds while the force field recharges.
The Atari 2600 port of UFO isn’t a perfect clone of the original. The battle cruiser is there of course, along with the force field. But the hunter-killer UFOs have been replaced by a flashing dot that tracks the player and the starship is missing entirely. Also missing is the flying debris from a destroyed UFO that would occasionally create a chain reaction in the original game. And without the Odyssey2 keyboard there’s no typing your name in after setting a high score.
Even with the missing elements, UFO delivers the fun of the original game, which went beyond being a cheap Asteroids knock-off and managed to feel unique despite its derivative origins. The force field effect is recreated perfectly here. The missing starship can be seen as either a blessing or a curse, depending on whether you see it as a something that adds urgency or as just a source of cheap deaths. I do miss those chain reaction explosions though.
UFO is now available to purchase in cartridge form from 2600 Connection. If you’d like to try before you buy, the ROM image is available for download at John Reder’s website, tacticalneuronics.com, to play in your emulator of choice.