The premise of Desert Falcon, loosely based off of Egyptian mythology, is quite simple. You, being the royal Desert Falcon (ancient Egyptians believed their rulers took the form of Horus, the falcon god) are on a quest for precious gems and hieroglyphics hidden in the desert. In a nutshell, the game is a ancient Egyptian version of Zaxxon with some interesting bells and whistles.
Like Zaxxon, Desert Falcon is a diagonal-scrolling shoot'em up. Unlike Zaxxon, however, there seems to be a lot more places to "crash" your bird. You must avoid pyramids and obelisks or risk losing a life. As well, you will pick up golden eggs, gems, and silver ingots for points, and hopping over any three hieroglyphics in the sand will give you special power ups, such as invincible, air bomb, warp to the Sphinx boss (yes - I said Boss on an Atari game!), and countless other goodies depending on the combination. Words of warning, however... some power-ups are actually power-downs (such as shackles so you cannot walk, and slow-down which slows down the speed of your bird). As well, a few of the combinations from one version of the game do not work on the other (ie- three bird hieroglyphics on the 2600 version is a free life, while three birds on the 7800 version only gives you quick shots).
Gameplay is a bit of a mixed bag. The controls are a little hard to get used to. The bird slows down realistically as it goes to land on the ground, but I find it a little tough to become accustomed with, especially after being raised on the 2600 version that lacks this realism. Also, the speed of the game seems odd. You'll be flying like mad - almost too fast to really fight your enemies -then land and everything seems to slow to a snail's pace - almost too slow to fight the enemies! It definitely takes some getting used to.
Enemies include a wide variety of flying and land-based menaces. The airborne menaces include Phantom Gliders which whisk by, and Warrior Phleas try to confuse you by zipping back and forth. Of course there's Vultures (this is the desert after all!) and a few other surprises like Flying Fish. On the ground, while Mini-Sphinx statues shoot at you and fire pots blaze flames up and down into the air, Burrowing Uwes crawl through the sand and can pop up anywhere. It's interesting to watch how they will burrow under a pond and come out on the other end. At the end of each round you encounter a giant Howling Sphinx. To defeat it and go to the bonus round of collecting gems and gold and silver for extra points, you must shoot it right between the eyes as it howls and throws darts.
All of the enemies are very well drawn and interestingly animated. While the Howling Sphinx and Fire Pots are amazing, a few of the enemies seem a little odd. However, when comparing the graphics and animation of Desert Falcon to later carts such as Midnight Mutants and Ninja Golf, one fully realizes the talent at Atari in 1984. It's a shame that those teams who worked on early 7800 games were not intact when the machine finally saw the light of day.
Equally impressive is the amount of sprites that the 7800 throws around in Desert . I've said it a million times, but it still amazes me that hardware this powerful was developed and ready for the public by 1984. (In a recent interview, Leonard Tramiel commented that the 7800 was a quite "limited" machine, but keep in mind that he also was the same person who in 1986 said that it was impossible to have more than 16 colors on-screen on an ST while companies were developing art programs using the ST's full 512 color spectrum on-screen at once. As Desert Falcon is among many astounding titles available as the first round of games for this machine, just imagine what we would have seen for 7800 games if the programming team had stayed intact for the machine's full life from 1984 to 1990.I don't believe that the Tramiel game programmers had near the skill the Warner game programmers did.)
Sound is very good for a 7800 game. Once again, I digress to my previous point about the original 7800 programming teams at Atari. The opening and closing jingles are catchy and very Egyptian- esque!A suspenseful beat plays in the background, but it cuts out as enemies attack. As most 7800 gamers probably know, this happens in order to make a sound channel available for enemy noises (such as other Pokey-less 7800 games like Dig Dug and Xevious).Some enemy sounds, like the slithery burrowing of the Uwes, are quite well-done. Other sounds, while not "great", are definitely great by 7800 standards.
A vast improvement from the 2600 version (although I still must stick up for that rendition - how many other diagonally-scrolling 2600 games are out there?), 7800 Desert Falcon is one of the best games available for the system. It contains dozens of power-ups, countless levels, tough bosses, great graphics, and reputable sound. If you're like me and don't have the patience to learn games such as Scrapyard Dog, this is the type of 7800 gaming experience you don't want to miss.