Escape from the Mindmaster - The Atari Times
Escape from the Mindmaster
What superior lifeforms do when they're bored.
by Darryl BrundageAugust 29, 2007
Well, here it is, the cream of the crop, one of THE very top games of the entire 2600's library, complete with probably the best 2600 game ending as well (possibly not including some from modern day homebrews though, but hey, we're talking over 20 years after the fact now though!).
Taking the old sci-fi concept/storyline of some superior alien race being bored and kidnapping some lowly life form -- why he isn't named "Jobob" or "John Boy" is beyond me though -- of an inferior species, yep, there's the premise of the game there: you must prove your worth and figure your way out of a series of tests and mazes in order to impress the alien race so much that they won't destroy your planet to make way for a new hyperspace bypass. (Ok, so that last part isn't mentioned in the instructions, but you get my drift.)
Due to the added memory of the Supercharger, there's so many advances in this game for a 2600 program that it isn't even funny. First of all, the majority of the game is rendered in 3-D. In order to figure out how to get through a maze and onto the next one, one of your several trials includes passing a peg test, where you must find puzzle pieces that act as keys and deposit them in their proper places to gain entrance to that level's exit.
So, say you first run across a square peg in a maze. You pick it up, looking left and right each time you pass by a wall segment, which oh, there's a ROUND area in the wall, you can't put it there. You keep going, then you run across the round peg. Well, you can only carry one peg at a time, so you might as well hang onto the one you have until you find the correct wall area to insert it into, then you have to go back for the other pieces and fit those into their appointed areas.
Sound easy so far? Well, unfortunately - and here's another part of the game that's really amazing for a 2600 program - there's mini-games scattered throughout the mazes. Run into one, and you have to do your best in each one for a maximum score. One of them is reminiscent of Frogger, where you have to make your way across the screen horizontally without hitting blocks, and another similar one (the very first test) you must dodge blocks as they vertically rain down on you. Another mini-game is like the old Simon handheld, where you have to repeat patterns, another one challenges your reflexes (move the controller in the direction pointed to as quickly as possible), and the last and most difficult one is like Lunar Lander (wow, even ALIENS like Atari!), but the controls are flipped (pressing left activates your spaceship's right thruster, and vice versa, etc.). Whew...
So, once you complete a mini-game...well, personally I always forget what the hell I was going to do beforehand, where puzzle pegs/wall areas were for the pieces I had seen before I had entered the blasted game, what I was planning on doing next, etc. So MindMaster even messes with your head in that aspect (or at least mine anyway).
Oh, and I'm not done yet: there's also an Alien Stalker that's thrown into the mazes along with you. He's trying to get out as well, and I'm assume he has an axe to grind with you, since if he catches you, then you lose a chance in trying to escape. Also, I think he's disgusted that you don't evolve anywhere as quickly as he does, since he changes his appearance with every maze or two. A showoff, yet a jackass at the same time...he must be related to the alien who kidnapped you in the first place.
Worse yet, quickly-moving forcefields also start appearing, and colliding with one will also cost you a chance in getting out. The puzzle pegs also start out simple, but then get very complex in no time flat. How complex-looking do they get? Lets put it this way: if you were to take Indiana Jones' gun from the Raiders of the Lost Ark game and shoot either the fly from Yars' Revenge or Pac-Man into a pixilated mess onto a wall, yeah, that's what they would look like, a blocky as hell mess, and many of said peg pieces look very similar to each other in that fashion. Pretty soon you're just going to TRY to see if whatever piece you have fits into the wall, whether they appear to or not (which they probably won't).
And if you're to get far enough into the game, THEN you'll get mazes filled with one way doors, which you can enter a section of the maze through a door, but then you have to use a different one to get out. And then if you're really a glutton for punishment, just mess with the difficulty switches to make things even MORE difficult: one will decrease your amount of chances to escape from 9 to 5 (heh), the other one makes the Alien Stalker move faster.
However, the last maze is very special, having a creepy vibe of being in just black and white, and is dead silent, no warning sound of the Stalker, since you're totally alone in that one (eh, so who hasn't evolved NOW, if he couldn't make it that far? Hah!). Make it through that and you're treated to a screen of fireworks going off and your final score and rank being tallied (points are awarded for mini-game performance, how much time is left upon exiting a maze, and along with chances left and the Stalker speed), taking you through a very unique experience indeed.
The graphics are fairly good, although there isn't a lot of detail to much of anything, but the animation suffers: once you start moving through a corridor you can see the walls and all being drawn (animation is nowhere as fluid as another 3-D game of Tunnel Runner, once things start going fast) and the Stalker jumps forward and back, nothing fluid there. The sounds would be sparse and ok - with some nice, brief musical pieces once a mini-game starts and ends, and when you lose a chance to get out - but unfortunately the horrid warning sound of the Stalker really kills it. How bad is the sound? Imagine taking someone who can literally type 150 words per minute that can do Morse Code just as quickly, but the tapping of the Code machine (or whatever it's called) is replaced by someone dragging their fingernails across a chalk board. Really, it's that awful and annoying. At least controls respond well though, unless you feel the urge to slam your controller against something in an attempt to silence that awful Stalker warning sound.
However, this is a very rare game that I'm actually awarding 100% to, though. And this isn't something that was a rave from my teen days, then I played it years later and thought "eh, it's not as great as I remembered", I only just got this game a few years back (like in 2004 or something!), I never played it over 20 years ago when it was first released. Seriously, it's THAT great, unless you just want a quick, simple shoot 'em up or something. And this takes three full cassette loads to play through a game as well (a load with every other maze), unlike some Supercharger games that take one 15 second (or so) load to play, then there's room for several game previews left on the tape; there's no previews here, but you're not really going to miss them.
Consider yourself really lucky if you obtain this and a Supercharger, though, since both are somewhat rare, and unless the problem's been fixed, last I heard several years ago, it doesn't work well in emulation, the puzzle pegs all appear in a certain order every time. And that's just wrong, since it's random on a real Supercharger and 2600. I think it works fine with the Stella Gets a New Brain cd instead, so there are ways around that.
If you should be so lucky, though, work hard, Earth Man (or Woman): do as best as you can on the mini-games, get through those mazes as quickly as possible, and run into the Stalker as few times as you can. Earth depends on you to impress the alien race, in this, one of only a handful of puzzle games to ever come out for the 2600.
And if you're returned home, make sure to clout that alien upside his head on your way off his spaceship.
Then call a lawyer. Last I heard, kidnapping was illegal (on this planet, anyway).
Much superior alien race, my A**. (Censored by the Counsel of Beings That Are Much More Superior Than You, So Get Over It Already)
I played the heck out of my Atari, and this was probably the best, most fulfilling game on the system. The Supercharger breathed new lift into the 2600 and had some great games including Dragonstomper, a superior version of Frogger, and this classic. It deserves the 100% score.
Awesome! Especially with that last sentence.
I introduced several 2600 games to the nephew the other month, and this was the last one. He thought the sound of the approaching Stalker was "terrifying". That's great, especially when a lot of youth shun these old games because they think they're lame with the graphics and all.