Subterranea for the Atari 2600
At first glance, Subterranea, makes you think that perhaps Imagic dropped the ball or got lazy, but like many games for the Atari 2600, you have to play for a little bit before all of the charms of the game are full revealed. I received Subterranea as a birthday gift from my Grandmother way back in 1984 and was not exactly thrilled. I had not really heard of the title, although I knew that Imagic usually meant quality, and when I fired up it appeared to me to be yet another Defender style clone. This would not have bothered me that much, but I had gone through a heavy Defender phase the summer before and was ready to move on. Still it was a new game, so I sat down to play it, and I am glad I did. The game is somewhat like Defender, it has you move back and forth on a horizontal screen shooting things, but this game has a twist. You need to move deeper underground as you play, and the enemies you will encounter will change as you go down each level.
I know that the opening paragraph makes me sound like a Subterranea fan, and I am, but that does not mean the game doesn’t have a few faults. Firstly, the game’s sound is just ok, nothing to write home about. I know that sound is limited on the VCS, but something about the pitch of the game gets a little grating over time. Secondly, and the biggest strike against Subterranea is the sparseness of the screen. While things look like what they are, the screen is otherwise a blank canvas. The game could really do with a little more color or detail in the background, or even in the floors or ceilings of the cavern. I can see why they did it and I know it makes perfect sense, but I don’t gotta like it!
Subterranea needs a blank slate because the number of enemies that can attack you at any one time is pretty impressive by VCS standards. We are not talking Smash TV, but it is enough that you need to watch where you are at all times and you need to know where the collision will be. Any color or background pixels would be very distracting. Besides the very wide selection of enemies and challenging gameplay, Imagic really hit the nail on the head with the controls. The ship you are controlling almost feels like it has a real physical presence. If I didn’t know any better, I could swear that there is actual momentum and physics in the game. I know this is just a clever illusion, but BRAVO to Imagic.
I always hold Imagic to a higher standard of gaming and Subterranea is no exception to their track record. They take a decent game system, add some polish and a bit of innovation and slap one of their compelling silver labels on it, sealing in the quality. The game market crashed the year after Subterranea came out, if half the game were as decent, we might all be playing the Atari 2600000 today. I give Subterranea 4 out of 5 stars. Not a genre or system definer, but a mighty fine title.