The Fair Shake

Caverns of Mars

Greetings readers! Kick open the virtual doors of “The Fair Shake” and come inside. Our sodium enhanced character above now has a name: Carl. I thank all of you for your name ideas. Sam almost won out, but I felt that Carl was unexpected, so I invite everyone to say hello to Carl, the gaming salt shaker. The Fair Shake is not bound to console games, but will also cover computer games, as in this week’s choice.

The Atari 8 bit computer line was introduced with the Atari 400 in 1979. Initially, specifications for the system was not available to the public. Atari had never intended to release this information as they wished to be the sole provider of software. Over a period of months and years, programmers, both professional and amateur programmers learned how to write on the Atari systems. In 1981, Atari provided a service, known as the Atari Program Exchange (APX), which was a win/win for both Atari and programmers, as programmers now had an official distribution channel to sell their programs and Atari received a small portion of each sale. The most popular title to come out of the APX is this weeks game, Caverns of Mars. Caverns of Mars was programmed by a high school student, Greg Christensen. This game was so well received that a few years later it was released as an actual cartridge game for the 8 bit family.

Why does it look like the surface is bleeding?

Caverns of Mars is a vertically scrolling shoot’em up. The game’s premise is that the ‘Martian Galactic Fleets’ have surrounded your planet, the planet of Terra (It is assumed at some point in the future we will call earth ‘Terra’, similar to how Istanbul was once Constantinople). By the end of the solar day, the Martians intend to launch a large fusion bomb towards Terra, destroying everything on the planet. Caught by surprise, the Terra IV High Command has managed to launch only one ship, the Hellicon VII, with the goal of infiltrating the Martian bases and destroying them with their own weapon. This is where you come in, as pilot of the Hellicon VII, which according to the game documentation, is the galaxy’s most advanced fighter, that bears more than a passing resemblance to a Bat’leth.

Kahless obviously played Caverns of Mars

Once inside, you must avoid the narrow walls of the cavern, Creon Rockets (which look like flying banana peels), and Pyxias refueling rockets ( you make your way deeper into the Martian base. At the bottom of each base lies the Martian base, along with the fusion bomb the Martians intend to launch. Landing on the bomb will cause a countdown timer to start. You now must fly up and out the cavern you just entered before the bomb explodes. The Hellicon VII has a finite supply of fuel that is continuously being used throughout the flight. Running out of fuel will cause your ship to explode, presumably to keep your ship out of enemy hands. Simply shooting some fuel tanks scattered throughout the cavern will refill your tank slightly as will shooting the red Pyxias rockets.

I hate using self-serve…

Caverns of Mars has multiple difficulty levels. “Novice” provides you with two caverns to complete, as well as a “base” level, which has no defenses, but fuel and flying ability become an issue, as the cavern is much harder to navigate. Other levels include names like “Pilot” “Warrior”, and “Commander”. Commander has you flying through five separate caverns and the base level. Each successive cavern also causes the speed of your ship to increase, but the turning ability of the ship remains the same, making the Hellicon VII much harder to control (Perhaps the designers will fix this with the Hellicon VIII). Later levels also have space mines, which can be destroyed by your torpedoes, and laser gates, which cannot be destroyed. These block the cavern by opening and closing every few seconds. No matter the level you choose, you have five lives, and no continues. The fate of the world rests in your hands.

Caverns of Mars has typical blocky graphics if an early 8 bit Atari game. Everything is easily identified. The Hellicon VII is a nice size, even though it looks like a flying Batleth. One nice stylistic touch is the thin border around the cavern walls.  The status bar at the bottom of the screen is easy to understand, with play level, fuel, score, cavern level, and lives remaining all cleary indicated. Fuel tanks are easily identified by the word “FUEL” spelled out in bright white letters. The Creon and Pyxhias rockets are both brightly colored. Space torpedoes are simple squares, but matching with the rest of the graphics here. The fusion bomb looks like a large easter egg with glowing details, and the actual base the bomb sits in is a nondescript building, but one could ask the question, what should a fusion bomb look like?

Sounds for this game will not win any awards today. While the game sounds are simple, with a pulsing tone representing your ships engines, beeps as space torpedoes as fired, and basic explosion sounds as you shoot thing, they do a great job of setting the mood. Music is non existent, so you’ll have to have Rocket Man on in the background if you want some music. Controls in Caverns of Mars are spot on. Shooting with the ship is difficult at first, as the Hellicon VII shoots space torpedoes from the wingtips. Unfortunately, the Hellicon is wider than both the rockets and missiles, so some skill is required to shoot these down. At later levels, the sluggishness of the ship is frustrating, in much the same way that dying in Gradius or Life Force causes any speed bonuses to reset. Hit detection is great and you can skim the walls of the cavern closely, but you must begin turning earlier and earlier as you progress through caverns.

I only acquired an Atari 800XL within the past year, and despite the novelty of the system’s library, I find myself coming back to this title constantly. It is easy to pick up or show someone how to play. I enjoy playing this game with the lights in the room off, and the volume turned up. Sometimes simple is best, and the engine noise will vibrate the tv (and your brain) after awhile. Caverns of Mars has two sequels, Phobos, which is Caverns of Mars with better graphics and sound, and Caverns of Mars II, which changed the gameplay a bit with more flying missiles. Caverns of Mars has also been converted to the 5200 system by Atarimax, so you console-only gamers still have a chance at playing this. Some versions of the Atari Flashback console had this game as a pack-in as well.

Should refueling rockets really be on the front line?

Despite the graphics and sound as lacking as they are compared to today’s games, Caverns manages to hold the player’s attention. One more cavern… One more try. Minutes click by into an hour, or more. You wonder what Terra did to the Martians. You wonder what color the next cavern is (answer, not red). You wonder why the Hellicon VII designer wouldn’t put the torpedo launcher at the center of the ship. Can you beat all five caverns and the destroy on Commander? I bet you can’t. Give it a Fair Shake.