But the 2600 was in production far past when most of the public had given up on it as obsolete, dead and buried - which it actually was during most of its run anyway, obsolete, that is. Towards the end, games were released for the system that, back at its birth, would never have been expected - among the most notable examples is Xenophobe.
I remember when Xenophobe first appeared in the arcades. It was a sensation - with three people being able to play at the same time on the split screen. It was a game hard to ignore, for both its appearance and its game. I remember playing and getting chills down my spine. What I couldn't believe was when I first saw the name on a cartridge for the 2600 - how could a game as current as this have been made for such an old system?
If you're wondering how I came across such a rare find, as I understand it is, I have to say it came to me. In late 1998, I had placed a "wanted to buy ad" in a newspaper's classified section and got a response from a guy who came by my apartment with a bag full of games. Most of them I already had, some I hadn't. When I saw Xenophobe I couldn't believe it - this game was released for the 2600 when the system was but a memory to me. Knowing how rare it is, I almost felt bad paying the guy only a buck or two for it.
For those unfamiliar with Xenophobe, here's a synopsis of the plot - you are sent to rid a series of multi-level space stations of Xenos, hideous alien creatures that you encounter in one of various forms- pods, critters, rollerbabies, tentacles, snotterpillars and festors. You must clear each station of Xenos, or activate the self-destruct yourself. If you don't clear the station in time, it explodes. While clearing and saving a station is the best outcome, it's better to blow it up yourself than letting it be overrun. A transport disc takes you from your ship to each of the stations. On the stations, you can pick up items left behind for bonus points, grenades that can be thrown to kill Xenos, and more powerful guns. Elevators transport you to the different levels of each station. When your health runs out, the game is over.
For how limited the 2600 is, it is amazing how much of the game is captured by this translation of the Bally arcade game - it bears more of a resemblance to its arcade origin than early efforts such as Pac-Man. The music is there. The split screen is there, if only two. The space ship, transport disc and space stations are all there. Most of the aliens are there - even tentacles are there, although festors are noticeably absent - as are the items to pick up, the elevators and the different weapons. During a one-player game, the name "Xenophobe" bounces in the bottom window, and changes to "Game Over" when you're killed, which on the 2600 is kinda impressive by itself. Of course, the graphics are plain and simplistic - the overwhelming color is red, as it is used to frame the screen and color much of the background. All of the aliens are blue, and in the case of the snotterpillar, kinda seethrough. The tentacles don't grab you, they just knock you down and take some of your health away. Your character is a blocky, generic-looking form, although more realistic than figures such as in Berzerk. Details such as the gun are not present - shots seem to come out of your stub of an arm. But if the details can be set aside for a moment, it's easy to feel as if you're actually playing Xenophobe, which on the 2600 is just an odd feeling.
A better version can be found, probably more easily, for the Atari 7800. Graphics are far more detailed and rendered in more colors. Your character looks like a person, although you do not have the option of choosing different characters as in the arcade original and other versions. Items in the station, the gun in your hand and backgrounds are far more detailed. The aliens are more detailed and are green for the most part, but the festors are missing again. Your health is represented by a number, not a "bar" as in the 2600 version. But what is most striking when comparing the 2600 and 7800 versions of Xenophobe may be what they have in common - sound. The music and sound effects for both versions are almost identical, which may say more for the 7800's limitations rather than the 2600's abilities. While the 2600 is at least a playable version of the game, and interesting simply for its very existence, when it comes to Atari consoles, the 7800 version is obviously the winner.
But when handhelds are included, it becomes a toss-up. The Lynx is well-known for its near perfect translations of arcade games, and Xenophobe is one of them. The graphics on the Lynx are in some ways superior to the 7800, again increasing detail and color; festers are included, although after being zapped by one you may wish they weren't, and you can select your character from several distinct choices. However, the 7800 is actually more faithful to the original in some ways, such as the depiction of your spaceship - perhaps someone changed it because the Lynx hardware allowed for doing more - and in that you can now use a jetpack to fly around. The Lynx version also allows a player to control a Xeno, the snotterpillar, during games with others, although this is something I've never been able to try myself. Regardless, changes like that do not substantively effect the gameplay. When it comes to 7800 and Lynx versions of Xenophobe, it's more a decision of playing on a console and a television or a handheld with a small screen rather than which is better. It's also a matter of which you're most likely to find - with Lynx probably being the easiest from any number of dealers, while the 7800 version can probably still be picked up, certainly more easily than the 2600 version.
There's an interesting note to be made on the cartridge labels. The label for the 2600 - the red variety typical of the 2600's later run - sports the dark, sinister image of a frightening alien with long, sharp teeth. It's the same monster depicted on the Lynx card label. However, for the 7800 cartridge, the label features a cartoonish looking scene - which may be appropriate, as the game is more cartoonish than frightening. One can only speculate as to why the difference between the 2600 and 7800 label images, although the Lynx label brought the 2600 label art back.
I guess in the end, the thought I walk away with is - it's sometimes still amazing what the 2600 can do.