After playing games on my beloved Atari 2600 for the past 20 years, I've learned something about arcade translations for that beloved system -- they're either great, or they stink. Truly, great arcade ports are considered to be some of the best games for the system (i.e., Space Invaders, Frogger, Berzerk, Missile Command, Asteroids et al), while bad ones will be universally hated (think of Pac-Man or Reactor, for example).
Moon Patrol, released by Atari in 1983, has all of the elements that rank it right up there with some of the great arcade ports for the 2600. Sure, the graphics aren't all that great, but they look darn good for the 2600 and the addictive gameplay of the Williams arcade translated well to this gem of a cartridge. This is one of my favorite games for the 2600 in that it's quite difficult, but never frustrating. While some 2600 games are easy to beat, this one is difficult by comparison.
The graphics, while not eye-popping, are very good for the 2600. The "screen flicker" that plagues some Atari games is absent in this cart, and the game scrolls very smoothly. The player drives a moon buggy, which looks rather like a blob, but enemy ships look rather detailed, as do the obstacles than can ruin your progress on the surface of the moon.
The sound, on the other hand, is very impressive. The arcade version featured some catchy, whimsical music that played along during the game. That is actually preserved very well in this version, and the player is treated to a bit of a musical score when the game first starts. Sure, it all ends when aliens show up and start shooting at the player, but the fact that element was preserved adds a little something extra to the environment of the game. Great job, Atari!
The rest of the sound effects are very good, too. Those are never outstanding, but the sounds allow the player to easily figure out what's going on around him in this busy, active game. For example, a short series of tones play when an alien ship appears on the screen. If a missile is dropped on the ground and digs a whole which could trap the player's ship, another tone sounds. There aren't just a whole lot of individual sounds, but they are distinct enough to help alert the player of impending trouble.
The gameplay is very simple. The idea is that the player controls a moon buggy and must make several trips across the surface of the moon with it. Unfortunately, fiendish aliens want to stop the player, so they fly around and try to shoot the moon buggy. The player can fire both horizontally and vertically. Vertical shots blast aliens out of the air, while horizontal ones bust up rocks that are on the surface and will damage the moon buggy if it collides with them. The moon buggy can also jump to go over holes, small rocks and mines. The player can also move along at three speeds -- slow, medium and fast.
The only real difference between the arcade version and the 2600 port has to do with the way you control the craft. In the arcade game, the player had individual buttons to control the firing and the jumping. Since the 2600 has but one joystick button, hitting it will launch both a horizontal and vertical shot. But to jump, you must press up on the joystick.
However, it's not that much easier. Indeed, this game is very challenging, and game starts out slightly difficult but gets hard to beat in a hurry. That's fine with me because I have enough Atari games that are a bit too easy. This one, on the other hand, has kept me coming back for years. And, the most difficult thing about this game is turning it off rather than saying, "Aww, just give me another try. I'll beat it this time!" Now, I picked this cartridge up for $2.50 in 1990 at a pawn shop in Conway, Arkansas. That's some of the best money I've ever spent, as this game is just incredibly fun.
As if it wasn't obvious already, I highly recommend this game. When people ask me why I bother with that old 2600, this is one of the games I pull out to show them why the system is still great. The only real problem is that two people can't play
simultaneously, and people seem to gather around when this one is on and want to take a crack at it.
Moon Patrol is fairly common and can be purchased for a couple of bucks at eBay, so you've got no excuse for not owning this if you actively collect carts for the 2600.