Review: Fatal Run (Atari 7800)

In this review, we race through the Atari 7800 game, Fatal Run. We find out how well this racing survival game plays.

This game was released in 1990. We previously reviewed the Atari 2600 version and it failed to impress. So, we decided to try an alternative system to see if the game is any better.

The game follows the protagonist who is driving a car from town to town. The mission is to race through the towns and launch the satellite. Along the way, vaccines need to be delivered to people in the various towns along the way. The faster you get from one town to another, the more lives you end up saving. For every life you save, you get a bonus in cash to spend on upgrading your car. Along the way, you need to watch out for people who are trying to run you off the road.

What I will say right off the bat is that this is already a vast improvement over the Atari 2600 version. None of this was at all clear in the other version and it just left me scratching my head. The text ticker at the beginning of the game really helped clear a lot up in this version. Of course, this leaves a lot of questions. One question is why people are trying to run you off the road when you are running around saving lives? Another question I have is that if you are launching a satellite, why do you end up with an animation of the launch of a space shuttle? The latter question I think is a mix up.

The game places you on the road right away. There is a lot of information on the HUD to go through. On the left hand side, you get your speedometer, the level you are on (green number), and the information ticker that tells small bits and pieces of what is happening in the game. There is also a timer that tells you how long you’ve been on the road.

In the middle, you have a rather crude radar. Red dots indicate vehicles (you are one of them). Blue dots represent item pickups. Green dots represent obstacles (be it on the middle of the road or on the side). Beside this is the car display. This represents the various parts you need to maintain. If the part is green, it is in perfect condition or close to it. Yellow indicates damage. If it is red, then it is heavily damaged. Slow blinking red means it is severely damaged. Fast red flashing means it is destroyed or nearly destroyed.

Some of the parts on this display can be a little confusing at first. The side armor, bumpers, and tires are straight forward. The section in the middle represents the wind shield. The little triangles (hard to see) by each tire are the breaks. The smaller hollow blob on the front represents the engine. The larger blog on the back part represents the fuel tank condition. The more damage you take on these sections (especially the engine), the slower your car will run, so maintaining these between legs can be paramount.

On the right hand side are two meters. The first meter is damage. This meter is not to be confused with the parts indicator. You can have a fully repaired car, but still have a high damage rating. If this meter fills up, your car blows up. This meter needs to be separately maintained when you make it to the shop. The second meter is much more straight forward as it is just the fuel gauge. Run out of fuel and it’s game over.

The final part of the display is your weapons dash. You start off with four, but there are eight of them total. Each weapon has it’s own limit in terms of purchasing power (soft limit), but the hard limit is 9 per weapon. These weapons are machine gun (my weapon of choice, great for blasting slow pokes in front of you), oil (second weapon of choice, great for getting rid of tail gators), smoke screen, missile, death crystal (labelled as diamond in the shop for some reason), dynamite, nitro, and shield. You can use your secondary button to toggle between them (look for the yellow box to see what is selected and at the ticker if you don’t know what it is) and the primary button is used for firing that weapon.

In terms of controlling the car, up accelerates, down is your brakes, and left and right steers the car.

If you make it to the end of the leg, you’ll get to look out your side window and look at how many people survived waiting for your arrival. One by one, they’ll either celebrate your return or explode into a cloud of smoke and leave behind a grave stone (must be some disease these vaccines stop). For every survivor, you earn $100. If you do particularly well and save more than 10 lives, you’ll get $200 for every survivor after. The best I ever got was two perishing, but generally averaged between 2 and 4 perishing out of 15.

In total, there are 32 legs in this journey to the launch pad. For every four legs you complete, you get a checkpoint password. Each leg take anywhere between a minute and a half to two and a half minutes. This, of course, is barring your car limping from leg to leg because you have a busted engine and have no cash to repair it. In that case, you can expect to be spending up to five and a half miserable minutes on each leg until your car finally puts you out of your misery.

The crucial element is the vehicle shop. Besides not driving terribly, understanding this shop system can make the difference between almost breezing through the entire game and not making it past leg 10. You control a cursor and you have the option of buying anything you like. Towards the beginning of your journey, keeping a good cash flow is crucial to your survival because the last thing you want is having a flashing red engine and less than $1200.

The system is divided into two sections, an upper and lower level. On the upper level are all the car parts you can buy to outright replace anything. Unless that part is severely damaged, it may not be the best idea to just constantly get new parts. The exception to this rule may be when an upgrade is available (an 8 gallon tank vs. a 16 gallon tank for instance). Also available are weapons. Some shops only have the bullets to replenish your machine gun while others may have a few other weapons/items available for purchase. Finally, there is fuel available (almost looks like a car battery) in every store. How much you can hold depends on the capacity of your tank (max 32 gallons).

On the lower half (can be easy to miss) is your car itself. If you move your cursor over the car, you’ll be given the option of doing minor repairs on various parts of your car (like repairing chips on the windshield or repairing breaks one at a time). While the hot buttons can be a little hard to find at times (especially brake locations), this can save you a lot of cash if you only have a few minor scratches to your car. Most crucially is the fact that this is the only place you can make “general” repairs to your car. If you remember that damage meter, then this is where you bring it back down to nothing. It’s extremely unlikely you’ll finish the game without repairing this.

When you are done repairing your vehicle and replenishing your weapon supply, you can hit the “quit” button (odd choice of word, truth be told) to challenge the next leg.

So, right away, the biggest problem this game has is the learning curve. Even if you are used to playing racing games that allow you to tinker with and repair cars, this can be a tough one to figure out. In fact, the difficulty curve is determined almost exclusively by how much you can figure out the repair shop interface.

The repair shop is anything but intuitive. You have to hover over your car and hover over the part just to see if it is an upgrade to what you have. Some of the parts on the car itself are hard to find. General repair work is very well buried on this interface (which is ultimately a critical thing to repair). How much you can make heads or tails of this interface will decide if this game is a fairly straight forward game or one of those games that makes you want to pull your hair out.

Another problem I have with this game is the long and drawn out nature of it all. If you are doing well, 32 legs is a pretty long endeavor. If you are doing poorly, you can find yourself limping around for several legs before you either blow up from a lack of cash or somehow scrambling to make it back in good standing. Regardless, the fastest thing is, sometimes, the racing itself. There’s almost nothing else that is very quick about this game. It’s similar to my experience with StarCraft where it often takes a long time to either win or lose.

A more minor issue revolves around enemy AI. The bigger problem revolves around collisions with objects. Whether this is an item you can pick up, a puddle you can skid through, or a fence that you can crash through, enemies will stop dead in their tracks instantly for all of the above. It is a very strange sight to see. The problem here is that you can suddenly have an opponent instantly stop in front of you and completely pulverize your front bumper almost instantly because of it. So, pretty annoying at times.

The other problem is that the AI is very predictable. They are either very slow and you have to move around them, fast and speed past you, weave back and forth, nudge you from behind, or block your path. It seems that the behavior is randomly given to the vehicles, but ultimately become predictable in the end. It might have been better to give certain attributes to certain vehicles, but as it stands in the game, it’s just randomly assigned.

Also, I don’t thing it is possible to get a perfect save rate. The game always seems to insult your skill by killing off at least one or two people as if to say, “you did great, but you’ll never save them all!”. I think if it was more possible to save all 15 people, it would have been more interesting. In fact, a goal time alone would have been very helpful (ala make it to the end in 1:20 to save everyone, 1:30 will save 14, 1:40 will save 13, 2:00 will save 12, etc.). That, at least, would have been great to see implemented in some way.

Finally, a progress meter would have been great. All you get is a gauge of how far you traveled that leg. While the legs are usually around 5.3-5.7 miles, it still would have been better to have a meter or a percentage of how far you have left to go.

There are positive things to say about this game of course. The parts upgrade is a great idea. It makes strategy more interesting in terms of money. Do you hold out until the part gets damaged or do you spend the extra cash to grab that next engine upgrade? It certainly makes gameplay more interesting between legs.

The cash earning system is also nicely done. It makes pretty good sense and is easy to understand.

While I don’t completely understand it, the password system is a nice idea for a game that takes so long to play. It’s possible to pick things up where you left off if you underestimated how long it takes to play this game. In a way, it’s a bit like a less abstract and complex version of the Mega Man 2 password system.

Generally speaking, there is a fair bit of game to appreciate. It features various ways of repairing and maintaining your car. There is a weapons system and, of course, a monetary system that works pretty well. The interface for maintenance, unfortunately, has a pretty steep learning curve. It’s unfortunate that figuring out everything in that one screen can dictate just how hard the overall game is in end. The AI isn’t exactly perfect, and some parts of the HUD in the racing sequences are a little bit vague. The ending might have even been flubbed. It is also a fairly drawn out process to either win or lose. Still, the upgrade system adds an interesting element to the gameplay and the password system is rather interesting. So, a marked improvement over the previous version I played.

Graphically speaking, this game has its strengths and weaknesses. A strength is a large portion of the HUD is pretty straight forward in the racing sequences. It provides a flawed, but reasonable system for telling you what is going on. The repair shop system is less than intuitive unfortunately. It could have been better implemented. The third person perspective, the cars, and the background scenery were all decently realized. The ground, though it did have its changes in color pallet, could have been less barren. So, a game with hits and misses i this department to say the least.

The audio turned out far better than I was expecting. Having played numerous games where this was a sore spot, this game is surprisingly tolerable. The music isn’t that bad and the sound effect are decent enough. While nothing mind-blowing here, it wasn’t bad either.

Overall, this game turned out far better than anticipated. I played the Atari 2600 and was very disappointed by the game. This game really redeemed itself thanks to the somewhat more powerful specs. While it wasn’t the most amazing game I have ever played, it does have some good qualities. There is the interesting system of buying and repairing your vehicle, the password system to pick things up where you left off, and a straight-forward reward system. The AI wasn’t exactly perfect and the learning curve is unfortunately steep, and things can get pretty drawn out here. The graphics had their strengths and weaknesses and the audio is pretty tolerable. So, a surprisingly decent game.

Furthest point in game: Launched the satellite (beat level 32 and won the game). High score: 198,325

General gameplay: 18/25
Replay value: 7/10
Graphics: 7/10
Audio: 3/5

Overall rating: 70%

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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