Space Shuttle : A Journey into Space – 2600 Review

This ambitious title is a simulation of a complete space shuttle mission developed by Activision’s Steve Kitchen who had access to the actual shuttle simulators as a reference. The player uses the joystick controller and the actual console switches (tv-type, left and right difficulty etc.) to launch the shuttle, achieve stable orbit, rendezvous with satellites, perform a de-orbit burn, re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and safely land on the runway – all without making a fatal mistake and not running out of fuel.

Graphics
This is a 2600 title and one expects a certain limit to the image quality but this game presents the player with a view from the flight deck of the shuttle with 2 viewing windows and an instrument panel that changes with each phase of the mission. Considering the limitations of the hardware it is pretty impressive stuff.
First phase of the game is the launch. The clouds part as you take off and the challenge is to keep the thrust at the correct level while ensuring you are going in the direction using the status display.
At the beginning of the game, the player sees the sky through the windows complete with a few nice, if pixellated, clouds. On launching, the screen shakes and the clouds part as you take off. The sky goes through a sequence of colour changes as your altitude increases and when you achieve orbit there is basic star field and you have a partial view of the Earth below you through the bottom of the viewports. It isn’t geographically correct or anything like that – but it gives the impression of movement as you orbit the planet.
The satellite you must dock with looks reasonable, and when you reenter the atmosphere the view outside flashes dramatically in different colours. The landing phase looks nice too – with a mountain range in the background of a desert scene, and the runway, though very basic, does the job.
The colour scheme is pleasing throughout and the displays you use to control the craft are a bit small but are clear and I assume reasonably close to the real thing given the touted accuracy of this game. Rumour has it that a maneouvre achieved in this game during playtesting (landing using the secondary engines) was attempted on the actual simulator and it worked – resulting in a change to the simulator manual!
Sound
This is used sparingly but is quite effective; probably used to best effect during the launch phase when you hear the roar of the engines. Coupled with the shaking screen and challenge involved in keeping the shuttle on its launch path it is quite an impressive gaming moment for the time and is still compulsive today.
There are warning beeps indicating you are doing something wrong and they successfully generate an atmosphere. The warning claxon makes you panic a bit – especially when you can’t figure what you are doing wrong, or haven’t done! There are additional spot effects such as when the main boosters are separated during launch and the sonic boom caused when you break through the clouds before starting to land.

Gameplay

Rendezvous with the target satellite – match it’s direction and speed in 3 dimensions.

This is split into different parts, one for each phase of the mission, and while each phase amounts to a pretty basic mini-game, limiting you to doing a small number of things, it is quite challenging and varied. Docking with the satellite can be tough, subsequent satellites get more erratic in their movement and it can be quite hard to achieve rendezvous which involves matching the satellite’s co-ordinates in 3D (x, y and z axis), direction of movement, and also its speed, while keeping an eye on your fuel.

Other phases of the game such as launching and re-entry are more reaction-based and are quite entertaining despite it basically involving just keeping a flashing dot (representing the shuttle) on a line displayed on the control panel. It can be quite tricky. During reentry the effects of ionisation are simulated causing intermittent malfunction of your status display. At this point you are flying blind and it can be a tense stage in the game!  The landing phase is quite effective too – watching your distance from the runway and speed, height etc – while not forgetting to lower the landing gear !
The game can be played at 3 levels. The 1st level is more or less an automated demo showing all the phases of the mission. The player can manually override at certain points but “nothing can go wrong” and you are guaranteed to get home safely.
The 2nd level gives full control to the player – you can foul up – but you don’t have fuel to worry about.
The 3rd level is a full-on mission with fuel management. After each rendezvous with a satellite you get more fuel. You can try and rendevous with more satellites and their movement becomes increasingly erratic making it more difficult.  Successfully land and you are assigned a rating based on the number of satellites you docked with and the amount fuel you have left in the tank.

If you do something wrong the game ends and you receive a status code – you have to look this up in the game manual for an explanation. While this was no doubt to save on memory (all that text!!) it adds to the “real” feel of the game – the old Apollo mission computers were probably not much more powerful than a 2600 so status codes would have been how it was done!

The presentation of this title is first class – the 31 page manual is excellent and gives a good grounding on shuttle flight phases, but the jewel in this title’s crown are the overlays that fit onto the 6 switch and 4 switch versions of the 2600 console. This all makes the title feel special and it is obvious to me that this game was a labour of love for its author. Some of the joy of the game is lost when emulating of course so if you can, try playing it on the original hardware.
Overall

This is marvellous stuff – an incredibly brave attempt at what any other sane developer of the time would have run a mile from , and , while it won’t suit typical 2600 game fans who are more into fast reaction based games on the console such as Kaboom, Yars’ Revenge or Stargate, it is a welcome change of pace and sticks out from the hordes of arcade style games available for the 2600.

A 2600 console with overlays
A 2600 bedecked with the overlays that come with the game.
If I was to criticise this game , then it would be on the fact that there is only one mission and the whole game is designed around that – more missions would be great – but this is a 2600 title we are talking about here – some of this game’s individual mission phases have as much interactivity as many an entire early 2600 title.
While each phase of the game is pretty simple, the game is somehow more than the sum of its parts – to me it is a special title and represents a high water mark in 2600 development – only matched by todays’ best homebrew efforts. I really enjoyed this game and it is recommended – as long as you can get access to the manual !!
Review Score
  • 7/10
    Gameplay - 7/10
  • 8/10
    Graphics - 8/10
  • 5/10
    Sound - 5/10
7/10

Summary

A niche title for sure but this game is worth a look if looking for something different. Essentially it boils down to a sequence of simple mini-games but it’s very much more than a sum of its parts.

davyk

A retro gamer and occassional writer..

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