Atari Poop – Off The Wall
Eric here, subbing in for Atsinganoi this week, rather than let 1MC go without its regular dose of Atari Poop. Because if there is one thing we all need, it is our weekly dose of Atari Poop. This column is saving your life.
Off The Wall is a video game for the Atari 2600 console that was released relatively late in its life cycle by Axlon, a company actually owned by monumental gaming figure Nolan Bushnell, also the founder of Atari. Historical relevance aside, Off The Wall is a Breakout clone; that is, it is a ball-and-paddle type of puzzle game that focuses on the goal of eliminating all blocks on the upper part of the screen by deflecting a ball at them off of a player-controlled paddle at the bottom of the screen that can scroll back and forth.
In this case, there is a Chinese theme at work. The protagonist holding the paddle is Kung Fu Lu, and it is his mission to defeat the great Dragon at the top of the screen. By hitting the dragon with the ball, the dragon is defeated. Doing this six times, or eliminating all the blocks, advances to the next level. The levels endlessly repeat, so the challenge is to rack up the highest score possible during gameplay.
The player earns extra lives, after initially being given five, by hitting certain score milestones. To make matters a little easier and arguably more interesting as well, certain power-ups are dropped at random in the form of “pots” that Lu can touch to gain better ball-breaking skills. These include the Magnet, which makes an ascending ball stay within the vertical field of Lu’s paddle; the Fireball, which causes the ball to take out many more blocks than usual when it hits; Mega Paddle, which increases the size of Lu’s hand-held paddle on the screen; and Zig Zag, which makes the ball go into a zig zag pattern when it is hit. There is also a Mystery power-up which results in one of the aforementioned previous four.
You may notice the word “Peasant” in the first screenshot. There are ranks that can be gained at particular points of scoring, up to Emperor, although getting there will take a significant amount of skill, patience, and likely some luck as well. Like Breakout, the ideal strategy is to be careful, get power-ups, and try to get the ball caught up on the top of the screen where it recklessly bounces around over and over to rack up tons of points and do massive damage to the wall.
Off The Wall also has a two-player mode, where each player takes turns. Because of the relatively small size of Kung Fu Lu’s paddle (totally not a euphemism there, I promise), this is actually a fairly difficult game. An actual Atari 2600 paddle controller is a must, thanks to the enhanced precision of the fully analog control. Oh, also, once you get past the first level, there is an annoying fly-like enemy that gets in the way at times.
But what is Off The Wall really about? With all this talk of peasants and China and the Great Dragon and fireballs and such, it would make sense to think that this video game contains an interesting storyline behind it, right? Yet, when the elements are individually examined, a dark, horrifying mythology is revealed instead.
Every good narrative has a protagonist, an antagonist that establishes conflict, and the story of how that conflict is resolved. Here, in Off The Wall, our protagonist is Kung Fu Lu, a Chinese martial artist who uses a paddle as his weapon of choice.
Since the gameplay is set in China, we can only assume that this Wall is, indeed, the Great Wall of China. In which case, it may seem strange, that Lu’s goal this entire time is to dismantle the wall. Why? Why systematically demolish one of humankind’s greatest engineering achievements?
The answer is revealed in examining the antagonist: The Great Dragon. He just wiggles back and forth, looking menacing, but never truly poses a threat. What kind of lame dragon is this? He never even spews fire or sprouts wings. Given the opportunity to characterize this “dragon” however they wished, the artists at work have rendered a lame, impotent, pathetic little writhing one-HP loser of an enemy. This does not make any sense. Knock down the entire Great Wall, just to dispose of this little caterpillar-like foe? That seems silly. What is the meaning of this? This story seems absurd.
Unless we are witnessing a game traveling backwards through time.
Once the insight hits you, the pieces fall into place, both literally and figuratively: Kung Fu Lu is not destroying the Great Wall of China, he is merely traveling back to the long period of its construction, and witnessing its beginning. As Lu travels further back, the presence of the worm is explained through one of only two horrifying possibilities.
Either it is an earlier creature-form that represents the earliest protozoan-like biological life that formed the evolutionary predecessors to all other Earthly beings, or Lu is paying a visit to the original Snake himself in the Garden of Eden.
Rather than settle for the usual tropes found in classic martial arts duels of the past, Kung Fu Lu is settling for no less than the eradication of all lifeforms on the planet, and/or going toe-to-toe with Ol’ Scratch himself, formerly known as archangel Lucipher, the dark lord Satan.
So, is Kung Fu Lu a Time Cop who got overly ambitious, or is he a deity himself?
Sorry to disappoint, but the answer is neither: Kung Fu Lu is just your usual garden-variety red-flag Chinese communist.
This is why the communists are the enemies, people. They want to kill you and every ancestor you ever had.
Always with the friggin’ commies.
P.S. If someone out there were to alter Off The Wall to create a hack where the protagonist is Ronald Reagan and he is tearing down the Berlin Wall instead, I would totally play it. I don’t even care that this ending ruins the flow of my article, I’m genuinely telling you that this hack is something I would be interested in.