Night Stalker / Dark Cavern
Retro gamers come in all forms. From the guy in his 50’s who considers ‘gaming’ to be hanging off an arcade game joystick with a beer in his hand, to the ‘hipster’ who recently discovered how great Super Mario Kart is on the Super Nintendo. The middle range always surprises me. Like the friend in his mid 30’s who could pull off a convincing Pitbull impression and constantly posts about COD on his Facebook page. Imagine my surprise when a recent conversation went to Intellivison, and one of my favorite games, Night Stalker.
Night Stalker was initially released for the Intellivision system by Mattel in 1982. It was also ported to the Atari 2600 and the humble Mattel Aquarius, which made sense, seeing as the Intellivison was by Mattel Electronics as well. Cross licensing by first party companies just doesn’t happen anymore. It’d be like Nintendo releasing Star Fox on the XBox. (Sega fans, sit down, you don’t have a console anymore.) Inexplicably, however, the game’s name was changed to ‘Dark Cavern’ for the Atari 2600. Maybe the word ‘Stalker’ conjured images of a guy sitting in a tree with binoculars looking at women, only to be saved by his son… Oh wait, that’s Back to The Future. All three ports are similar, but different. Like comparing Hydrox, Oreos and the Great Value cookies from Walmart. Each have their fan base (and detractors). While the Aquarius port is arguable the weakest of the three, I had to showcase the box art. It wins for being ‘accurate’.
The given goal is simple. Night Stalker is an endless survival game, in the vein of Berserk. You are a nameless man inexplicably trapped in a single maze-like room. You must survive as long as possible by killing robots with handguns that are lying around the room and periodically appear. These handguns will replenish your ammunition as you collect them. Being a cavern, there are also spiders and bats that can paralyze, but not kill you, leaving you unable to move or shoot for several seconds. Remember those robots I just mentioned? They are out to kill by touching or shooting you. Points are awarded to you for killing various creatures. As you accrue points more and deadlier robots appear. Oh, stay out of the spider web in the upper left corner, as that’s where spiders originate.
The Atari 2600 version eliminates the spider web and flying bat, replacing them with a blob that steals your bullets, and another type of robot, with two heads, that can shoot behind as well as in front of it. The Aquarius port is functionally the same as the INTV release. The INTV version is by far the best looking. Shooting the robot causes him to explode in a pile of parts. That’s one of my favorite effects of any INTV game. Actually the robot looks like the WARNING WARNING! Robot from Lost in Space. I always hated it, so I have no problems shooting him and his clones. The Atari robots looks like..two letter Cs stacked on top of each other.. WTF? Point INTV. The Aquarius is rather impressive considering the game is created entirely with built in ASCII type characters, and looks like it takes place at night.
Even though it looks prettier, I feel the Atari port plays smoother. I always disliked the INTV controllers (and as a result, the Aquarius controllers) even though you can shoot in a direction you aren’t walking in with the Star Trek communicator looking controller. The Atari joysticks limit you to firing where you’re going. The Aquarius, having a keyboard, allows you to use keys to play, with an overlay on the keyboard indicating what keys to use. But unfortunately, the Aquarius release pales in sound effects. VERY minimal beeps and squeaks. The Atari version at least has a constant whir of robots walking around, while the INTV version has some rudimentary music.
I’ve always preferred the Atari release of this game, partly because of the controllers and partly because the game just feels like it ‘flows’ better. That doesn’t mean I’ll kick the INTV version out of bed for eating crackers. The Aquarius version? Meh. If you have it, great. (You did get one of those Aquarius multicarts, right?) If not, I wouldn’t pay a ton of money for it, since it’s really not a highlight of the system. The Atari version? Pfft. I’ve put in an hour with no trouble on this single game, easily. It’s one of my favorite Atari games that I continually come back to. (Bonus, you can ‘pause’ it by hanging in the starting point, no enemy can shoot you there.)
The INTV version is available on the compilation game Intellivision Lives! which is out on various ‘modern’ systems. I haven’t tried these, but I suspect Night Stalker is way easier with a PS/XBox controller over the INTV/Aquarius deal. If you are really itching to try, it’s part of the Intellvision Lives! demo pack for the PC, so you can play it as you like, now! Whatever you decide to call this game, give it the Fair Shake.