Few games can inspire such words; fewer games can live up to them. Warlords for the Atari 2600 was, indeed, one such game.
Think of it as a deathmatch version of Breakout. Each player takes one corner and must defend it while attacking the other 3 corners. A fireball is left to freely roam the screen, bouncing off walls, your castle, and your shield. If it hits your castle, it'll cause a bit of destruction, breaking one "brick" at a time until it gets through and exposes your "crown". If the crown is hit, you are eliminated - you'll want to avoid that if you have any hopes of winning the game.
The game continues in this manner until the last man (or woman, as the case may be) is left standing. After a few rounds of this, the total number of wins is calculated and the winner is announced... pray it's you. The velocity of the fireball is variable, depending on what it collides with. The darker, inner "bricks" of your castle cause the fireball to bounce and fly at a faster rate; lighter, outer "bricks" slow it down. The velocity of the fireball remains unchanged when colliding with shields and the wall of the playfield with one minor exception - by holding down the button, you can "catch" the fireball with your shield. Releasing the button causes the fireball to fly out at its maximum velocity. This feature is only available in certain game types, which I will discuss at length.
There are various game types and styles of play that you can select depending on the number of players and the difficulty you wish the AI players to play at. In some game modes, the shields cannot "catch" the fireball, adding a twist to the game. In one of the more memorable game types, one player controls two shields at a time. In this mode, the selection of shields is limited to the two left and two right shields. This opens up new styles of play and allows for a difference in your attacks. If one castle becomes obliterated, that shield is lost. It's a terrible loss, but not a devastating one as you're not out of the game just yet. If you can manage doing this to your opponent, you will find him at a distinct disadvantage, but not a total disadvantage. Depending on your opponent's skill, he may just end up turning the tables and obliterating you instead. The only thing I dislike about this play mode is the lack of Al to support computerized opponents. It's strictly 2-player only, which is unfortunate since it's quite a fun way to play.
These extra play modes were, if I recall correctly, not available in the arcade version of this game, so it's nice to see Atari adding some new twists and keeping the game fresh. What's missing from this version, however, is the addition of extra fireballs. Over time, in the arcade version, additional fireballs would spawn, making the game even more hectic. Also, eliminating an opponent adds one extra fireball. The game can reach levels of insanity as more and more fireballs go bouncing all over the screen. I'm not sure what argument caused this decision to be made, but it would have been a welcome extra play mode.
The AI is quite good on advanced settings while quite stupid on lower settings. Being the only real person laying can be a nightmare if you're taken out first as the other three opponents can end up bouncing the fireball back and forth for hours, never getting a hit, never finishing the round. Other than that, they can end up providing a good deal of challenge.
Capable of catering to four players at once, the bitter struggles for power were usually legendary. Friends and foes were quickly forged and later dissolved. The rooting out of personalities would make this game a psychologists dream. One by one, your well-meaning siblings and best friends would turn on you, some building alliances with you, some building against you..
These various personalities would surface and submerge depending on the situation. It makes for a really good time, in the end. Many, many Saturday afternoons were spent enjoying this game after a morning of sugar coated cereals action-packed cartoons, and I think you can see why. Even today, many can appreciate this game.
The graphics are comparable to its arcade counter-part, perhaps not nearly as detailed, but they more than make up that by providing the same fast-paced gameplay along with additional features to keep things fresh. The only major, noticeable difference is the lack of a dragon to introduce the fireball. Also, it doesn't look much like a fireball, really more of a flashy square. Still, it gets the job done.
There's no music and the sound isn't that hot. When the fireball collides with a shield you get this rubbery "bounce" sound that conveys the idea quite nicely, while a loud crunch accompanies a "brick" being broken. The sound and light show produced when the fireball hits a "crown" is explosive, violent, and loud.. exactly what you'd expect, but that's about it.
Gameplay is, obviously, near perfect when you've got a number of friends over. The AI, as I said, is quite good, but nowhere near impossible and gets old after a while, simply incapable of providing much of a challenge once you've got the hang of it. The AI can surprise you every now and then, slipping a shot in while you're not paying attention, but not terribly great when compared to an all out brawl with real, human players.
Overall, this game is well worth it. It shows just how a simple concept can end up being a terrific game. I highly recommend it.