Greetings readers! My name is Paul Potvin, and I welcome you to my small corner of 1More Castle. Don’t mind the construction cones, it’s a work in progress. The hastily written sign above the door reads “The Fair Shake”. We’ll be discussing games here, of course. ‘Great… another video game blogger, here we go.’ Do we really need more articles on how great Mega Man 2 is? How much fun Mario Kart is? In my humble opinion, no. In fact, if you want articles on blockbuster games that won all sorts of accolades, look elsewhere. Here at The Fair Shake, I’ll be writing about games which for one reason or another have been maligned, but quite possibly, shouldn’t be. Group think is prevalent everywhere, doubly so when it comes to video game reviews. Lots of people claim a game “sucks”, having never seen, let alone ever played it.
My goal here will be to show that some games should not simply be referred to as “commons” to be traded as part of a lot, or “garbage“ , but actually are fun and enjoyable on their own merits. They should be given, quite literally, a fair shake. If I get a few people to try some obscure games, great. If a lively debate ensues, wonderful. If someone says “Ya know, I never played this, it’s actually pretty good.“ I’ll be pleased. I’ll also have an artist and all around good guy, Joshua Reinke, along for the ride providing some fun drawings and doodles, both by hand and computer. If you enjoy his work, feel free to contact him at Joshreinke@gmail.com. Without further ado, I present.. “The Fair Shake” Volume 1, Episode 1.
Summer is soon to be here, for those of us residing in the northern hemisphere. Ahh yes, summertime, my favorite season of the year. The longest days of the year occur, with hopefully a few weekends taken up by outside barbecues. Most barbecues (good ones, anyway), come with lots of cold, refreshing drinks. Beer? Sure. Soda (or pop, or even tonic, depending on your location), can usually be had. What about the children? For my childhood hood, the drink of choice was the topic of this piece, Kool-Aid, or rather Kool-Aid Man. It’s amazing to think that thirty years ago, a major toy manufacturer, Mattel, by way of their video game publishing unit, M Network, would combine the Atari 2600 , with then-General Mills somewhat creepy anthropomorphic 6 foot tall pitcher of cherry Kool-Aid and program a game. An unrelated game to the Atari version but having the same title of Kool-Aid Man, was also released for the Intellivision. Initially only available via mail order by mailing in 125 UPC codes cut out from Kool-Aid packages, this Atari game has angered many a player and would be Kool-Aid customer for 30 years.
The concept, like most early 1980’s home console video games, is simple. Eliminate the bad guys before the timer runs out, or the game is over. The game starts with a bang, as Kool-Aid Man bursts through a brick wall in your back yard! The damage is forgotten by the next screen, as the setting of the game is supposed to be your swimming pool. Evil “Thirsties” have swarmed over the pool and are coming from both the left and right edges of the screen as they slide across from one side to the other. They occasionally drop long straws from their round bodies (no mouths on these baddies, these are Atari graphics) in order to drink all of the pool water. No mention of chlorine is made, so we’ll assume it’s non-treated water that hopefully no one has urinated in. Oddly enough, the Thirsties appear to be small cherries with drawn out eyes that say “this water tastes like pee”. If the Thirsties drink all of the pool water, the game ends. The game also ends if the timer at the top of the screen reaches zero.
The owner of the house in this game is no where to be found. Presumably, because he’s too busy staring at the hole in the wall that Kool-Aid Man created. Not to worry, as Kool-Aid Man is here to take on the Thirsties by quenching their thirst with what else, but Kool-Aid. Kool-Aid Man is controlled by the player and for most of the game, is in the form of a simple juice pitcher without a face. I’ll let the reader imagine how Kool-Aid Man could quench the thirst of a Thirstie, but for the purposes of the game, touching a Thirstie that is drinking from the pool causes it to disappear. However, touching a Thirstie that is NOT drinking will cause Kool-Aid Man to bounce around the screen helplessly for several seconds. Kool-Aid man is uncontrollable during this two or three second interval as he goes around the screen off the walls and the top of the screen. During this time, you might think you were playing a ball in Breakout (or Arkanoid, depending on your age). If he bounces into another Thirstie, he will be uncontrollable for even more time. This can lead to a minute or more of Kool-Aid Man aimlessly bounding around the screen, and has caused many a video game swimming pool to dry up as the timer runs out. This particular point causes many players to throw down the controller in frustration and swear off the game.
To aid in Kool-Aid Man’s quest. large square boxes labeled with an S (Sugar), or K (Kool-Aid powder) appear at random intervals, sliding across the screen from one side to the other. There is also a large W representing water. Why it needs to be in the air floating by, as opposed to simply drinking pool water, is an unanswered question. Maybe Kool-Aid Man knows, like Mexico, to ‘not drink the water’. One could imagine the property owner throwing this out the back door of the house to help Kool-Aid Man. Whenever these items are touched by the player, Kool-Aid Man undergoes a transformation into the familiar walking, talking, smiling pitcher of juice that we all know, accompanied by musical fanfare.
The actual scene harkens back a few years when Bill Bixby would change into a green skinned Lou Ferrigno. By ‘harkens’ I mean, it’s nothing like that. This transformation lasts around three seconds. During this time, Kool-Aid Man is invulnerable and immune to the effects of wandering Thirsties. Perhaps more importantly, the water level in the pool is increased a bit. This is the only way to add water to the pool, and this crucial point is ignored by many players. Kool-Aid Man can quench Thirsties and eliminate them in this Kool-Aid Man power up state.
Levels are not numbered, but the scoreboard is above the timer. Points are awarded when a Thirstie is eliminated, and bonus points are awarded at the end of each level based on time remaining. A level ends when all the Thirsties on the screen are quenched and eliminated. Time not used is awarded as bonus points. A new level will then begin with a few more Thirsties, with both the enemies moving AND drinking water faster. The game is like most early games, “unbeatable”, and the only bragging rights awarded to the player are a high score. When the game ends, the background changes to black.
Graphically, this game is average for 2600 games. An unchanging background with single colored enemies, with the color depending on what row they located on. Kool-Aid Man colors seem to change as he changes location. A repeating slurping sound is heard when a Thirstie’s straw connects with the pool. Kool-Aid Man makes some obnoxious “Bonk-Boink-Bink” sounds when he is bouncing off the walls due to contact with a Thirstie. The game’s protagonist is easily recognizable during his powered-up state, which delighted at least one child in the ’80s. Control is instantaneous and in eight directions. No joystick button is used to play this game, so it is very easy to show someone how to play.
Even with these simple controls, claims of unplayability have been made by people. Many people hate this game, most likely due to the loss of control when touching an enemy. . In this writer’s eyes, that is part of the charm. There are no multiple lives in this game. Levels do not reset. You will touch an enemy at some point. You’ll get angry. You’ll swear expletives at the screen as Kool-Aid Man careens around. This game is a lesson in self control. There is strategy to be discussed, however. Do I get the Thirstie next to me, or get the power up? (Answer: always make a run for a power up if it‘s close enough to get in time, as you can go back and take out the Thirstie later). Other games, like Freeway or Enduro, also take control of the player away momentarily, but none do to these extremes. Kool-Aid Man for the Atari 2600 will test your sanity and anger threshold. One has to wonder how many joysticks were broken due to frustrated players throwing them across the room. Having grown up with this game, I remember my single-digit aged self playing this game, not really knowing what was going on, but never throwing controllers. My father had bought a pair of expensive-for-the-time Wico Command Control bat style joysticks. I think he’d have been pretty upset if one were broken. These joysticks make any 2600 game a pleasure to play, in my opinion.
This game was always in my rotation along with the ‘greats’ by Activision, Imagic, and Atari, and I never felt the derision some people and reviewers have towards this game. It’s a test. Lots of people hate tests. Like many gamers, I suspect people just jump right in, without reading the instructions. One of the last bullet points in the instruction manual reads “When Kool-Aid Man gets bounced around by the Thirsties, relax! It will only last a few seconds. Just be ready to take over when he settles down.” Easier said than done, but it truly is the key to this game. Looking for a challenge? ‘OH YEAH!’ you think? Give this game a fair shake. (You didn’t think I’d get through an article on Kool-Aid without OH YEAH, did you?).. TFS.