Since we’re getting close to Shark Week (the most wonderful time of the year), I thought it’d be perfect timing to talk about the high seas adventure that is Seaquest. Launched in 1982 by Activision for Atari 2600, this is an action-packed, beautifully-colored game that is extremely fun to play, and mildly addicting too.
The sun is perpetually setting in this corner of the ocean, and you are a yellow submarine on a quest to save skinny, blue, treasure-hunting divers from brightly colored sharks (although they resemble the Tetra fish I had in my fish tank as a kid moreso than any Great Whites). Your sub has a limited supply of air, and can hold 6 divers before they start flashing on the bottom of the screen, indicating it’s time to come back to the surface to tally your points and start the next level. It’s tough to get all 6 divers on one tank of air, so you might have to surface to refill your meter. In doing so, you get more air, but you also sacrifice a diver in the process as a penalty. It’s a race against time to save these divers lives!
Each time you bring up a batch of 6 divers to the surface, the levels get progressively harder. The sharks multiply and get a lot faster. Enemy grey submarines show up and start shooting at you, I guess they want your treasure-hunting divers. Your sub is armed so you can fire too (when the levels get faster there’s simply no way to dodge everything), but be careful because if the divers are in the line of fire, they’ll turn around and swim away from you as quickly as they can. As an added challenge, a pirate ship often appears on the surface, moving right and left across the top of the screen. This ship does not stop when you surface for air, even though you do, so you have to try to go to the opposite side of the screen to allow time for your air refill while the pirate ship is still headed your way.
The scoring starts as follows: 50 points for each collected diver (plus any sort of time bonus for the amount of air you have left), 20 points as you shoot each shark or grey submarine. As the levels progress and the game gets harder, the point system goes up. You lose a life by running into any sharks, submarines (or their fire), surface pirate ships, or by coming up for air without any divers on your sub. You gain a life after each 10,000 points you score.
It’s a simple premise, and like most games of the era it’s easy to pick up as soon as you start playing. Also like most games of the era, it’s common to fall into the “oh, just one more game” trap as you try to beat your personal best and try for that next-hardest level and to defeat those ever-quickening sharks. But this is exactly what we all love about these games, right?
As is the case with most (all?) Activision games for the 2600, when you leave it running after your game is over, the screen starts to cycle through alternate color schemes. Speaking as a graphic designer with a deep love for the sea, this adds to the fun for me with this game in particular- I can watch these visualizations for long stretches at a time before starting to wonder if there’s something wrong with me.
I’ve saved the best part about this game for last: the sound. This is my favorite 2600 game for sound effects. The air filling up actually sounds like air filling up. Shooting your weapon yields a satisfying bass sound. Hitting a submarine has an effect that sounds like my Donald Duck impression. When you’re running out of air, or when you explode, you hear emergency sounds that call to mind submarine movies of the 80’s. Lots of beeps and boops indicating warning and danger. Great stuff. If nothing else, play it for the sound, but the crisp colors and fun gameplay are valid reasons to play it too.
I give it 4 stars instead of 5 because it doesn’t have a whole lot of variety, and isn’t quite the broadly accepted gold standard of a game that Pitfall is (which I gave 5 stars, setting a tough standard for any future reviews on my part). Still, it’s one of my personal favorites, and not one that gets mentioned a whole lot. Check it out sometime, you won’t be sorry.