It’s a new year so I’m way overdue for a new article. Towards the middle of last year, a friend challenged me to play 5 classic Atari 800 games. None of these are games I played in my youth, so I don’t have the nostalgia that others have for them, other than the general nostalgia for that era of game style and graphics. I had a really limited set of games on my Commodore 64 and I never owned an Atari computer or game system back in the day, not even the venerable 2600. I only had the c64 and later my brother’s NES. There’s of course a lot of similarities between the c64 and the Atari 800xl – both had 64k RAM, had similar processors with the Atari 6502b clocking at 1.79mhz and the commdore with the 6502 at 1.23mhz, similar ports and peripherals. Even the keyboard layouts are similar and both use the classic, DE-9 Atari style joysticks.
When I started to get into retrocomputing, I managed to pick up an Atari 800XL and floppy drive in practically new condition. With a 5 pin cable from 8 Bit Classics, I was able to hook my Atari computer up to my Commodore 1702 monitor with no problem.
Here’s my complete setup, which includes the 800 itself, my 3 favorite joysticks, the video cable and monitor mentioned above and the Ultimate Cartridge from The Brewing Academy.
The Game: Necromancer
One site describes it as a “nothing less than a medieval fantasy acid trip.” That’s pretty spot on. The first thing that stands out with this game is the introduction music. It’s slightly spooky, r:eminiscent of some of the music on the C64 such as Ultima 3. It’s really a great start to this game. Here’s a video of me launching the game and listening to a few bars of the music.
The first level of Necromancer is pretty easy to figure out. You control a sort of floating fireball, which you can use to destroy enemies, such as the occasional spider or the army of ogres that eventually surround you. Initially, I thought the ogres did damage to your wizard placed in the center of the screen, but instead they damage your trees. Your goal is to plant as many trees as possible, which slowly grow and then defend them from the ogres. Again, I mistakenly though the trees were to be a sort of living shield, but actually they are used for the next stage. Like all games of this era, the graphics are simple and some of the sound effects seem very familiar, as if game designers of this time period often reused sound effects all the time. I’m not sure if that’s true, but I swear I’ve heard the exact same sound effects on the c64 or in 1980’s arcade games like defender.
Once you have enough trees the level changes and the game turns into a sort of puzzle game, reusing your trees to get thru the puzzle. I was totally clueless on this level having no instruction booklet and not “cheating” by checking the internet. I’m impressed how drastically the gameplay and music changed between stages. The result is a transition from an action game to a really neat puzzle/platformer game, avoiding claws from the ceiling, spiders and positioning trees from area to area in order to advance.
The final stage is to battle the necromancer himself, but I must admit I didn’t get this far. You can see gameplay on the internet about the final levels of Necromancer where it looks like you battle him and avoid the spiders and repeatedly have to destroy the Necromancer to win.
For the time Necromancer was a great game. It’s a really creative, unique combination of action, magic and puzzle solving with interesting sound, music and graphic. The seemingly random music on the 2nd stage especially sets a discordant tone for the chaotic nature of this part of the game. Necromancer is a great example of the creativity involved in the 1980’s era computer games. Without fancy graphics and sound effects, in a competitive marketplace, game designers had to make their games stand out. There’s only so many versions of pac-man and space invaders folks could play, and you coudln’t rely on 3d graphics to wow people. The way the tree sprites move around like creepy ents and sparkle the way only 8-bit pixelated sprites can…it all seems to hint of magic.
As I mentioned, there are many parts of Necromancer that I still haven’t figured out. It’s obvious that the little ogre things with clubs harm your trees while they are growing, but what harms them while they are adult trees? Why do they suddenly get chopped down? Are they set on fire by the spiders? There’s a lot to figure out unless you download the manual. The controls are fine. It’s not hard to figure out how to move around when you only have a joystick and one button.
Even today its still a fun game, but it might have far more replay value within an Atari 800 emulator. Having played video games for…geez…over 35 years?…I quickly lose patience if I have to start over. So a saved game feature will really help someone new to this game and others of this era. I’m reminded of my frustrations with Spelunker and The Standing Stones on the c64, where I didn’t get very far with either of these games until many years after Commodore stopped making computers. By then there were cheats and emulators on modern PC compatible computers, where I could skip levels I had literally, already played to death. I’m a sucker for novelty, but you have to go through a lot of repetition in order to get to the interesting stuff on these older games unless you use cheats and emulator saved games. Necromancer, like the aforementioned c64 games, looks like it gets insanely hard in order to achieve later levels. Prepare for a lot of grinding without a save game.
Still, given that this was published in 1982 when I was a mere 10 years old, it has aged really well. It’s definitely worth having in your retro collection.