I played this game with FernGully some months ago and it was pretty fun. I played this game earlier today, by myself, and it was a grueling, frustrating experience. This is Aquattack for the ColecoVision.

Information on Aquattack is surprisingly limited. It doesn’t even have a page on Wikipedia. It was developed and published by Interphase Technologies, which was apparently just one Canadian man named Stephen Wiley according to the few sources I found on the subject (I don’t even know where they got their information). Those were really the days. A lone developer could be their own boss and publish their own homemade games on a serious video game console. It’s strange how long it took for us to regain that ability.

Don’t get me wrong, though. I’m not about to sing any praises here. Aquattack is absolutely nuts and it’s… it’s not really good in my opinion.

My instruction manual says that the story revolves around a certain Captain Blitztek, agent of Euram (it’s fictional, don’t bother Googling it), who has to retrieve hydrogen bombs from the Axtoatles (seriously, they just made names by throwing random letters together back then) in order to stop their warmaking plans. The second paragraph of the text then goes to great lengths to detail how to play the game, and none of it will you prepare you for the whooping you’re about to receive if you play this game, because the game has three acts, all with very different control schemes. I’m not exaggerating.

Two beakless kappa look on as I attempt to survive the onslaught of 'copters and tanks.

Two beakless kappa look on as I attempt to survive the onslaught of ‘copters and tanks.

In the first phase, you pilot a “hydroship” travelling left along a river, using the joystick to move up and down on the screen or to speed up or slow down. There are obstacles like wooden-looking things and bulbous green smiling head things that Wiley probably thought were identifiable enough when he drew them but are still confusing gamers three decades later. You have nine hit points, so it’s fairly forgiving at first. However, you’re quickly assaulted by helicopters that drop player-seeking bombs in front of you and a steady stream of tanks that shoot you from the sides of the river. While the helicopters are invulnerable, you can take out the tanks with a gun, which you can fire in eight directions using the keypad.

It’s actually not terrible. It’s pretty weird, and the controls don’t seem very responsive at times, but it’s manageable, and even a little fun. Strangely, despite the fact that the instructions clearly label this as a one-player experience, if you have a second controller, you might be able to play with a friend, which seriously increases the entertainment value. One person steers while the other shoots. It’s pretty fun.

What makes it even more challenging is the fuel gauge. It steadily depletes over time, and you have to wait for a refueling craft to fly over, at which point you can move underneath it and replenish the bar. The refueling craft only shows up at a certain point in the stage, as far as I’m aware, and there is a set distance to the stage, so you have to make good time or you’ll run out of fuel before you reach the end. Eventually, the screen darkens, showing that it’s night-time (or that you’re in a tunnel), which is pretty neat. This is technically referred to as the “second level”, but it didn’t feel all that different to me.

The dark phase provides thematic variation, but doesn't feel that different overall.

The dark phase provides thematic variation, but doesn’t feel that different overall.

All-in-all, this first act of the game is not that bad. It’s diverse enough and provides enough of a challenge to be interesting, at least for a game of its era. The controls are kind of clunky, but they’re not impossible.

Then you reach the end of the stage and discard your boat for a hang glider. The instructions say that the controls for the glider are “realistic”, but they’re honestly just confusing, especially when you’ve spent all this time mastering the boat controls. Now, pushing the joystick up and down doesn’t move you up and down anymore. Instead, they raise and lower your glider. How do you move side-to-side? Pushing left and right, of course. I can’t imagine the thought process behind this. Well, I can, but it’s flawed. Given that the two vehicle-oriented acts function similarly, suddenly flipping the player’s controls is a bad move. We already know that we can move from side-to-side by pushing up and down – it actually makes the most sense, since we’re seeing all the action from a side view. If left and right made the boat speed up and slow down, why shouldn’t they raise and lower the glider? Maybe it’s not “realistic” enough, but it at least retains some semblance of the previous control scheme.

As soon as you’re thrown into this new layout, blimp-like assault stations and hovercrafts fire missiles and shit into your squishy and stupidly-unprepared body until you give up on trying to relearn how to control the game. I actually haven’t beat this part. It frustrates me to no end. Maybe some day I will do it, but not today. I know it’s possible, and maybe even fun if I could just get around the bizarre layout swapping, but by that point I lose interest.

Three enemies threaten to destroy me from different angles. This is nuts.

Three enemies threaten to destroy me from different angles. This is nuts.

If that weren’t enough, your ammo is decreased to four bullets that you can only fire forward. You can replenish your ammo if you manage to dive down at ammo depots along the way. That’s not a bad game mechanic, but everything is already hard enough as it is. The jump in difficulty is tremendous. And this is a home console game, not an arcade game. It doesn’t need to be designed to suddenly beat you up and take your money, because you already paid for it.

If you can somehow make it through this stage, the last obstacle is a field of bouncing radioactive bars. You just have to run across it and retrieve the four hydrogen bombs one at a time. It doesn’t look that bad for the final stage. Well, visually, it’s seizure-inducing, but the controls and dangerous elements have been substantially simplified.

I prefer not to review games before I can complete them, but I got most of the way through this one, and I felt like I had to say something. The problem isn’t in the individual level design. It’s not a horrible game. The boat phases are fine, even though the firing controls don’t seem very tight sometimes. The hang glider phase is okay, and the final phase looks alright enough. The problem isn’t that the game shifts to completely different play styles. Vehicle-driving levels appear in lots of modern games. This sort of diversity was well ahead of its time, and for that, Interphase deserves some recognition.

The problem is that the game shifts to these new modes of play in a completely unnatural way. You should only ever flip your player’s controls when you’re deliberately trying to screw them over. Something as fundamental as moving left and right (or… up and down… it’s hard to talk about sidescrolling shooters) should absolutely never change during the course of a game unless you’re giving the player some kind of curse. There may be other cases to be made, but I can’t presently think of any. Furthermore, if you are going to go ahead and do something like that, at least give people a chance to acclimate to the new scheme before turning them into Swiss cheese.

Even if the game’s controls didn’t change so drastically (and in such a disorienting manner), the player should have been given some time to breathe and adjust to the hang glider phase itself. Introducing harder enemies in greater numbers is how a consistent game experience retains its challenge over time. If you’re going to throw us all into an almost completely different game midway through our experience, then you have already increased the challenge. At that point, the player is learning how to play all over again, so go easy on them and build up the difficulty once more.

Now, is this an absolutely bad game? No, not in my opinion. The individual sections are not terribly designed, though the hang glider segment’s enemy selection seems to ramp the difficulty a bit too much, too quickly. The primary problem is in the way they are linked together. A good game can teach the player how to play by virtue of level design, without thrusting them immediately into foreign and dangerous situations. With some tweaking in the manner I’ve described, I believe that Aquattack could have been much more approachable, and much more entertaining as a whole.

My personal recordings were rather terrible, so here’s a video of somebody else almost beating the game:

You can easily obtain a copy of Aquattack by buying an officially-produced ColecoVision Flashback, which comes with original ColecoVision controllers and a plethora of other fun-but-forgotten games.

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