The 2600 library is awash with 2D shooters; some great, most pretty generic. Indeed , the glut of so many poorly implemented retreads of the same game was a factor in the US game crash in the mid-80s. Solar Storm is a 2D shooter, but it has a few features that make it stand out from the other offerings of the time – the main one being that it uses the sadly underused paddle controllers – a fact that makes it stand out even more so today.
Solar Storm is a wave-based shooter – the idea is similar to the 7800’s Planet Smashers where you are protecting your home planet from destruction by acting as goalkeeper – preventing the enemies and debris from getting past you. In this game the planet’s temperature is the thing you are trying to prevent from rising too high – resulting in a meltdown and ending the game. Anything that gets by you raises the temperature – some objects are hotter than others.
The planet’s temperature is represented by two pulsating bars at the extreme left and right of the screen. The height and colour of these indicating how hot the planet is. When the temperature is near critical they start to flash, letting you know that letting a few more things by will end the game. If you prevent an unbroken sequence of objects and enemies getting by you then the temperature will begin to drop.
Your ship moves left and right via the paddle knob and fires with the action button. The paddle control is great and you can move with great speed and accuracy, an indicator of the onslaught you must hold back. The shooting itself is unusual in that it resembles Defender – your shot is in the form of a bright vertical line instantly reaching to the top of the screen, destroying anything in its path. It takes a short time to get used to not having to “lead your shots” as there is no delay associated with normal bullet type shooting games.
Unfortunately the enemies that can fire have a similar shooting method – the upside is that each enemy can only fire once – so the game becomes a risk management exercise – do you wait for an enemy to fire before taking it out or not? They move down the screen quite fast and sometimes you have to take a chance. With some practice you can hit a ship without being in its line of fire – tricky to do, especially in the heat of battle. This is not a game where you can contemplate too much!
Waves alternate between “enemy” waves consisting of a fleet of ships, some of which can shoot at you and “debris” waves consisting of fast moving hot objects which must be stopped. In both waves, there are objects called sizzloids – which are hard to hit and raise the temperature of the planet more than anything else. Taking a sizzloid out clears the screen of enemies temporarily.
This is quite a low point scoring game – the highest value target, the sizzloid, bags you only 50pts. At every 500 point barrier there is a bonus level in which you gain extra lives by shooting targets from a central position on the screen. Moving the paddle rotates the gun between 1 of 4 set positions. Getting 5 targets gives you an extra life. The bonus level is played against the clock, the time limit decreasing as you progress.
There are 1 and 2 player variations. The nice thing about the 2 player game is that play alternates with each life loss OR end of level – so no-one is sitting for a long time waiting their turn – a common problem with turn-based older games.
Imagic have a great history of good looking games on the 2600 and this is no exception. It has that trademark look and feel. All the enemies are multi-coloured and very well drawn and every moves smoothly. Put simply – the game looks great. Everything is clean, simple and clear which tends to result in a games that ages in a dignified way.
There are nice effects too – you ship scrolls smoothly onto the bottom of the screen at the start of your turn and just under your ship you see the edge of the planet which changes colour with the heat meter – it looks quite volcanic as the heat increases. The “hot” objects are particularly well drawn and seem to have little effects on them to make them look hot! There is no flicker at all in this technical tour-de-force of a game.
Sounds are great – among the best on the 2600. There is a great throbbing sound from the heat meter reminiscent of the background noise of Yar’s Revenge. The pitch and speed of this increases with the temperature – so building the tension.
The shooting sounds are effective , as are the explosions. The old 2600 sounds match the genre well. The sizzloids have an annoying “chattering” sound but it serves to warn you and put you on edge which is the point of them.
Even when your ship scrolls onto the screen at the start of your turn it is accompanied by a subtle little engine thrusting sound.
The “game over” sights and sounds are brilliant too – this game just doesn’t stop dead as many 2600 games do. There is a little sequence in which the heat meter collapses and the screen flashes shades of red, accompanied by a great “winding down” sound before reverting to the classic 2600 screen saver mode with colour palette switching. With a 2 player game, scores (red and blue) are then shown alternately in the classic style.
This is an original, interesting 2600 game that plays, looks and sounds better than some 7800 games. Back in the day, I played this game a lot – even clocked the the score which resets after 9999pts – but going back to it recently has reminded me how slow I am now and I am further depressed by considering I was playing the PAL version which runs slower. What is key is that it provides a good challenge while remaining enjoyable.
This game is in my opinion largely misunderstood and takes quite a pasting from web-reviewers. My belief is that they have tried it for a short time, got taken out by an enemy shot and gave up on it thinking it unfair and and therefore unplayable.
Try it out. It plays beautifully in Stella with the mouse – although a great deal of the game experience is lost if not played on a 2600 with real paddles.
A retro gamer and occassional writer..