Tuesday, 15 November 2011


I need to conserve brain cells, so time for a short break from the Game.com.

For now, Dropzone, a 1984 Atari 800 game published by U.S. Gold. It's yet another thing that caught my eye during my rounds at Sega Retro, and another opportunity to commend the work of the British video game industry twenty-seven years too late. Woo.

Dropzone was written by British programmer Archer MacLean, who would later find fame with International Karate, IK+ and other things involving mercury. Originally built for the Atari 800 when it was fresh, Dropzone found its way onto a number of platforms, most of whom failed to give it the respect it deserved, and thus the game fell of the face of the Earth. Time to rectify this.

Dropzone isn't a complicated game and certainly doesn't do anything revolutionary, but what it does offer is a solid gaming experience which I think is worth checking out. The premise is a mixture of 1981's Defender and 1982's Choplifter, in that you fly left or right around a playfield, save people and blast enemies. The objective is to eliminate all the threats and bring your comrades to the... drop zone, after which a new, more challenging level emerges and you'll likely be killed.

It's a simple concept, but that doesn't mean it's a bad one. There are a number of different enemies with varying patterns, and it improves on Defender by offering some fairly detailed backgrounds to look at. It mostly follows in the footsteps of Williams (and a number of other companies of the era) by filling the screen with vibrant colours and particle effects whenever something explodes. At the time home consoles and computers were seen to struggle with these sorts of things, leaving the user with a severely watered down experience, but that's not the case with Dropzone - things might be a bit blockier, but when you die, you get the full set of fireworks.

Like Defender, Dropzone is a difficult game, and with only one hit point and three lives, game overs are common. But unlike what you might expect from a home computer game from this era, everything seems to work perfectly. There's no lag, no sprite flicker and it comes paired with a fine layer of polish, leading to an experience that's unexpectedly good for a 1984 Atari 800 release.

Dropzone is by no means an Atari 800 exclusive, but aside from this version and the almost identical copy on the Commodore 64, I don't feel the other versions are worth bothering with. It was brought to the NES in 1992, where it managed to look worse than its computer cousins, and the Game Boy, Game Gear and Game Boy Color in the years that followed, losing a bit of the magic in the process. There's also an updated version in the form of Super Dropzone for the SNES, PlayStation and Game Boy Advance, but again they struggle against the competition and have their retro qualities stripped from them.

But despite having been seen on several platforms, most versions remain exclusive to Europe, and a short production run has confined Dropzone to the history books. If you're a fan of old school Atari games from the early 80s, this one should be right up your street, but you'll have to do a spot of digging to find it.

So, Dropzone. Check it out if you have the chance. It's nothing particularly special but it's a very solid release worthy of your probably non-existent Atari 800 collection.

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