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Phaser Patrol - The Atari Times

Phaser Patrol

Life at the bottom of the (inter-galactic) food chain
by Darryl Brundage

September 27, 2005
Think we're at the *top* of the food chain? Wrong! Just look at part of the intro of the Phaser Patrol instructions:

The situation: serious trouble. The Human Federation has been caught napping. While pretending to sign a peace treaty, the devious Dracons have launched a surprise attack. And they've virtually captured the Federation's farm galaxy.

Victory seems so close the Dracons can practically smell it with their hideous nostrils. One lone defender stands between them and control of the human food supply. You.

So how's THAT for unsettling? :) (Or maybe they're just into human food -- it could go either way, due to how it's worded -- but I get the feeling that they're definitely into meat...)

Anyway, yes, there's actually a little bit of originality in the tiresome "you're the lone defender going against an entire army/squadron/whatever against a fierce alien race/bunch of bad guys/Willard Scott" scenario.

Other than that, as Starpath redid a lot of common game themes for their Supercharger library, this is just a better version of StarMaster (which was a good game in itself, in my opinion), and it totally blows away Star Raiders and Space Attack (in probably EVERYONE'S opinion! I mean, ONE level for Space Attack, and the game's over?! ONE wave?!!). It might not be as good -- although it's definitely less overly-complicated -- than the Star Raiders sequel of Solaris, but the difficulty level of that game was pretty serious, plus the game was very long, whereas a game of Phaser Patrol can be much shorter, simpler, and still fun all these years after it's release.

Obviously a space shooter, this came packaged with the Supercharger, which, like I mentioned, this cockpit-viewed game's mission is simple: destroy all the aliens. They're in a pretty nasty mood -- due to going out on missions on an empty stomach, I guess? -- and diplomacy, evidently, is not an option. So you get to shoot first and not ask questions later; fine with me! Shoot-'em-ups are my favorite anyway! Die, ugly-nostriled (is that a word?) beasts!

Like the previous games I (also) mentioned in this genre goes, Phaser Patrol is divided into two sections: map and cockpit view. The map view shows a handful of enemy ships and your two starbases, whereas the cockpit view will show the alien ships (when they come into viewing range, which I'll get to), plus information on your ship's systems and their status', such as shields, energy, scanner availability, firepower, and whether you left the iron on or not (of course, I'm kidding about that last one). Also, not every single sector has it's contents identified on the map screen (an alien ship icon means there's an enemy there [duh], no icon means the sector is empty, there's always two starbases in the game, which are marked by starbase icons, and an X means the sector's contents are unknown); however, warping to a sector will reveal it's contents (whether it's empty or there's enemy fighters there) as well as the sectors adjacent to it, and you must clear all enemies that are occupying the map screen.

Every time you begin a game, you start off in an empty sector of space, and once you choose a sector you need to warp to, the map screen will also let you know of how much energy every sector hop is going to cost you. So make sure you have plenty of energy available, since you want to destroy everything that moves out there, right? Right, I don't want to go to that big Intergalactic House of Pancakes in the sky yet either (another food mention; I'm getting hungry here).

Once you warp to an enemy sector (which is completed by moving a cursor with your controller and then pressing the button), you should always turn on your shields (which can be activated by flicking the black and white/color switch on your 2600), since, without them, if you suffer a direct hit or two, your game is probably going to end right there. Turning on the shields brings about probably THE most impressive graphic effect I've ever seen on a 2600 game, where the screen will become totally enveloped in a sheet of dots, which, according to an old JoyStik magazine, is probably impossible without the huge amount of extra memory that the Supercharger adds to the Atari.

In combat mode (when you're in an enemy sector, I mean), your target cursor also doubles as a distance gauge to determine how close an enemy ship is: as you start scrolling around the screen seeking out alien ships, a number will appear beneath your target sights, and the smaller the number becomes, the closer you are to the dreaded Dracon ships; usually once the number hits 40 or less you'll be able to see them on the screen, so you can start attacking those hostile E. T.'s that are mad because you're (probably) in the way of them coming to Earth for all of the Reese's Pieces candy that they can get their grubby, green-colored hands on (at least I'm *assuming* they're green...and I'm not sure they HAVE hands either, come to think of it).

Another really neat effect is when you fire off a shot at the alien scum, and if that shot was locked onto a ship (your cursor will turn red, indicating a lock), then your torpedo will curve towards the enemy ship and blow it away if you time your shot just right. It's nice to have this kind of realism in a game...no, NOT the "realism" where we have hostile aliens breathing down our necks and spaceships to defend ourselves with, but I mean it's more realistic than all the other games out there where you launch a missile, and you use a cursor to direct it towards a ship...ah HA HA HA HA! Come on, if this were in real LIFE, that wouldn't be happening, since you need to concentrate on flying your ship and not getting killed (which is why there are things such as *heat seeking* missiles! Duh!). Also, another neat touch in regards to your missiles are that they blow up in a neat little cloud of death -- kind of like on Missile Command -- so if you miss an alien ship *initially*, the explosion might still take them out. So remember the adage: "guns don't kill people, explosions do"!

Whenever you're nailed by enemy fire and your ship is damaged, you are given a big, easily-read message as to what the damage is, whether it's to your missiles (they won't explode, or even fire, depending on how bad the damage is), if your radar is knocked out, your shields are gone, if your iron that you left on blew up, etc. (Also, as far as the text messages go, you'll also get a ranking at the end of a game.) If you feel the damage is severe (or at least annoying) enough, you can dock with a space station to totally recharge your energy and get everything repaired. Unlike on StarMaster, though, you don't have to manually dock, it's automatic, so all you do is warp to that sector of space and wait a few seconds, and there you are, you're all healed (well, your SHIP is, anyway), ready to rock (in the cold silence of space, actually...uh, never mind) and go back to deep-frying alien butt (hope you like yours well done).

Like I mentioned with the graphic effect for the shields earlier, the rest of the in-game graphics are fairly decent, although, except for the graphics on Escape from the MindMaster, I was never really sold on how great the graphics supposedly were for most of the Supercharger games, especially with all the added memory to the 2600, as they're only a notch above the graphics on the similar-themed games of StarMaster, Space Attack and Star Raiders (but they're still decent, though). Also, the controls are excellent, although I've always wished your cursor's movement was a little faster (I guess the bulky thing can't be moved very quickly, since it's at least twice as large as any of the crosshairs on the other similar games I've mentioned), and even though this is one of the most complex games to play, switches-wise, the controls aren't hard to learn: warping takes just the press of a button, you switch from the map to the cockpit view by using the left difficulty switch, and you use the black and white/color switch for your shields. And, the sound effects are very good, especially those explosions.

There's only a few problems with this game, though, and that's mainly in regards to the "difficulty" (or not) level, since there's only the one game, and that's it: with previous experience with StarMaster, Star Raiders, Space Attack and/or Solaris, you should be able to breeze right through this game (unless you stink at 'em all and/or haven't played those other games, but there's TONS of games that were made for various game consoles throughout the years that are also like this!), and except for Solaris, the other games all had a few difficulty levels. (However, you can make the enemy more fierce by flicking the right difficulty switch to the A position, at least.) Also, starting out with 9999 energy units is far too much; HALF that amount would've made the game more challenging by forcing you to visit a starbase more often (I personally only have to dock with one per game, myself).

Another problem can occur if you play this on an Atari 7800, like I do, but 7800s don't have a black and white/color switch, so you can't activate your shields. This is a bummer, especially if you have a 2600 that isn't working, although supposedly you can press the pause button on the 7800 to activate your shields, but I can't confirm that rumor either since my pause button isn't working (yeah, a dead 2600 and a non-working 7800 pause button, my life sucks :) ). Oh well, the game's still very much playable though.

And on a final note, when I got this along with my Supercharger back in 1985 or so, cd players were out, but they were still pretty expensive (about $300-500, if I recall correctly), so hardly anyone had a cd player, so the most popular format for music back then were on cassettes (since albums were on the decline, and NO ONE took along a portable album player anywhere to play the things), especially if you had one of those fancy new double cassette decks to dub tapes with. So what I did was convince a friend of mine that Phaser Patrol was some interesting new heavy metal band that had a sci-fi theme going when I showed her the tape...which she bought into my prank at first, but then she wanted me to move my thumb (which was covering up the words of "a Supercharger game for the Atari...") so she could see more of the artwork on the cover. Oh well, she believed it at first, tee hee.

Definitely at the top of the sci-fi/shooter food chain, this game is.

And now, I'm going to get something to eat...

Phaser Patrol

(c) Starpath

Laser or Phaser?
Ah, the ever present galaxy map.
They look innocent enough.
Ack! What's that range thing doing in my view?!
Phaser Patrol
System: 2600
Publisher: Starpath
Genre: Shooter
Graphics Score: 70%
Sound & Music Score: 95%
Gameplay Score: 90%
Control Score: 100%

Final Score: 85%

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