Sunday 14 August 2011

Black Widow

Something to play after you find the computer room.

Black Widow, an Atari invention from 1982. It has spiders in it.

The dimly lit world of Black Widow puts you in control of a radioactive spider, shooting invaders who have crawled onto your web, because Ken Clarke says it's okay. It's a twin joystick game, in which one joystick moves your spider in one of eight possible directions, and the other has it fire in another direction of choice - "Robotron 2084 controls" essentially.

The basic aim, predictably, is to destroy anything that moves, or at least, anything that strolls across your equally radioactive (and self-aware) home. You can also get points for collecting fallen "grubsteaks" ("$" signs), and like all good arcade games, there are a number of strategies you can take to maximize your high score. It's a pretty complex game for 1982.
As a vector-based game, Black Widow suffers from several drawbacks. It's not immensely pretty in 2011, nor has it ever been remade or remastered to suit modern hardware. Likewise, it skipped home consoles of the day, so Black Widow remained an arcade exclusive for almost two decades. By the time it reached our TV screens, the game was no longer cutting edge, and is often the "reserve" choice for Atari when the likes of Asteroids, Centipede, Tempest, Missile Command etc. call in sick.

From a gameplay perspective, Black Widow is very good. You have various types of enemies - the basic sort which just require x number of shots to the face, but also those which explode and those which lay eggs. With different attack patterns and strengths no two enemy types are identical, and as such you don't feel as if you're fighting the same things over and over (even if you are).

Your Black Widow spider is often joined by a large fly (it's the big green/magenta one in the above shot) which fills the role of the typical anti-hero - it's invincible and does no damage to the player, but it'll also eat other bugs and steal your treasure. This bug is, in essence, a rival, but also a friend, because when faced with a screen of enemies it can halve your workload and deal the bugs that are too strong for you.

On one hand it makes for a more interesting experience, but on another, it could be argued that Black Widow is a little too complex for an arcade game of this nature. It'll likely take you a few credits before you have a good grasp of what the rules are - a lot of features aren't immediately obvious as they're never explained. I spent ages trying to avoid this big bug thinking touching the thing would lead to certain death, you're just not likely to realise the error of your ways until you make "mistakes".

Enemies come in waves, and different waves present new challenges. Your web often decides to restructure itself, creating red "walls" to restrict your movement (again, another feature you might overlook in the first few plays). There's also a number of strategies to take, as there are many strange elements in play. For example, as time progresses, the "grubsteaks" change colour and lessen in value. You get more points for pushing eggs off the edge of your web (increasing depending on how close the eggs are to hatching), but in order to get eggs, you have to let your opponents live long enough to lay them. It's got a really nice risk vs. reward thing going for it.

Black Widow has a much shallower difficulty curve than Robotron and Smash TV, so the average user should be able to get through ten, fifteen, possibly even twenty rounds before running out of lives. But it's not a pushover either - things get extremely challenging when the exploding bugs show up, so mastering the game takes patience and skill... as well as many credits. The signs of a good arcade game.

Leaving aside possible control problems when ditching the two joysticks, I personally don't think there's many reasons why Black Widow couldn't have shown up on home systems. Atari were maintaining three different platforms at the time - you'd think they'd give their tried and tested arcade ports a higher precedence than the likes of E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial.

Audio wise, Black Widow is nothing special, and may there be no doubt in your mind that Black Widow has aged. It's stunted by its presentation, which although perhaps cutting edge for 1982, fails to resonate much in the modern age. Really it needs an update, perhaps in the style of Tempest 2000. It's wasteful to let this one degrade in private.

Black Widow is definitely a dated game, but not one to avoid. If dual joystick games float your boat, this could be a game worth checking out.

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