If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times - Atari 2600 titles rarely shined in terms of graphics, but a lot of those dusty old games are just downright addictive. The graphics in this eight-kilobyte cartridge are nothing to write home about, but Atari preserved the gameplay quite well, making this title one very much worth owning.
For those not familiar with Centipede, the concept is quite simple - blast anything moving on the screen. The game, of course, centers around a large centipede which marches relentlessly toward the bottom of the screen where the player is. The creature is made up of several segments, and will break into pieces when shot, thus making the game more frantic - one large centipede can become a series of fast segments all moving independently and hurling at the player. The centipede's movement is controlled by mushrooms on the playfield. Since pieces of the critter become mushrooms when shot and there are all manner of pests dropping mushrooms here and there, the field gets cluttered in a hurry. And, of course, with more mushrooms comes erratic, quick movement from the centipede. The mushrooms can become a real problem when a scorpion zips across the screen. The scorpion should be destroyed quickly as it's worth a lot of points and drops poison mushrooms, which cause the centipede to plunge quickly to the bottom of the screen. Naturally, harassing the player is a pesky spider which bounces around the bottom of the screen and often presents the most persistent threat in the game.
Speaking of the spider, I remember my little brother pestering me years ago when I was playing Centipede on the 2600. "Ethan, they might as well call that game Doom," he'd say. "That spider isn't going to get any slower and there will always be another centipede to fight. You're finished before you even begin. Why bother?"
Ah, but my brother just didn't get the appeal of this game - it's one of the more addictive titles ever played. When you lose a player, you get mad, feel stupid and swear to do better. When a game is over, it's hard to resist hitting the reset button and playing "just one more time." When a game will cause a person to get upset, curse his slow reflexes and keep coming back, that title will succeed every time.
Fortunately, the gameplay is outstanding because the graphics are pretty darn sad. The 2600's old nemesis, screen flicker, rears its ugly head in this title. Although the centipede, spider and other pests look pretty good, the mushrooms on the field are all blocks. Heck, even the player has been reduced to a block. Sad.
In terms of control, I really wish I had bothered to purchase a track-ball. Sure, the joystick works just fine, but the track-ball was integral to the controls at the arcade and would have made it easier to move the player out of harm's way in the 2600 version. One nifty thing about the game is that inertia seems to have been factored in to the player's movement - when changing directions or starting from a stand-still, the movement starts out slow and then gets quicker. That means some planning ahead is necessary in order to avoid some tricky, concentrated attacks from the pests in the game.
The sound is pretty darn good. Sure, the game doesn't exactly push the 2600 to its limits, but the familiar sounds from the arcade version of Centipede are replicated well enough. That means the audible clues that let the player know when he's in danger or something is happening on the field are there. The sound is particularly important in Centipede as there's so much going on in the game that the player could very well miss a rampaging spider or a pesky scorpion if relying on sight alone.
The only real complaint I have about this game has to do with levels. In short, you get two of them on Centipede -- easy and hard. Atari was, typically, very good at offering all sorts of variations, and there's just not much here outside of the basic game. Perhaps I've been spoiled by the 7800 version of Centipede, which even features a simultaneous, two-player mode (fun, fun!)
All in all, Centipede is a 2600 title which will make any fan of the arcade game smile. Since the cartridge is fairly easy to find, you can probably pick one up for next to nothing off of eBay, a decent vintage gaming store or your favorite flea market or garage sale.