A Glance at the Past: Fantastic Voyage (Atari 2600)

There’s always been something that appealed to me about the concept behind the film Fantastic Voyage. A submarine crew shrink down to enter a human body to try and save it, fighting not huge monsters or superpowered forces, but the tiny things inside us all now magnified to be threatening to them. It’s not hard to see the gaming potential of such an idea, and back on the Atari 2600, they decided to give it a go with a simple adaptation that manages to adhere to the ideas of Fantastic Voyage pretty well.

 

Rather than trying to match the film, Fantastic Voyage on the Atari 2600 decides to set up a simple and repeating objective of entering the bloodstreams of patients to clear the blood clots before it’s too late. Piloting a tiny submarine, you are armed with a single forward-firing laser that can be fired immediately after the last shot either hit or went off-screen, meaning its easier to rapid fire if the targets are close to you. You can’t just fire the laser all willy-nilly though. You are inside a human body, and not everything you find along the way is detrimental to the patient’s health. Your lasers won’t hurt the patient, but if you shoot their vital blood cells, the patient’s health will diminish. In a rather clever design decision, the submarine you pilot has no real health bar in this game. Instead, the health of your patient is your primary concern and the one that can lead to your failure. The bottom part of the screen contains both a heart monitor and a clock, and while the clock isn’t really worth watching for how miniscule its effects are, you do need to approach the mission with some speed or else the ticking clock will begin to effect the patient’s health. Your effect on the heart monitor is the more important aspect to keep track of, because if you let certain enemies by or you hit your submarine into them, it will adversely effect the patient’s health. Flatline, and your run comes to an end, but every time you clear a blood clot the heart monitor resets to a healthy pace and you are supposedly sent into someone else’s bloodstream to begin the process again but harder.

Fantastic Voyage could have easily been a basic space shooter that was just inserted into a human body as a gimmick, but the heart monitor and the set up of the stages makes it a bit more interesting. Sure, the simple graphics limit the game’s ability to sell the concept, but there quite a few things that help with the suspension of disbelief. Hitting the walls of the blood vessels you are in is, of course, detrimental to the patient’s health, the body releasing fast and hard to hit antibodies that will hurt the patient if you don’t blast them in time. As earlier mentioned, the body has some cells that you don’t want to shoot, as it needs the blood cells in order to function properly. Instead, you need to avoid crashing into these big obstacles so you don’t give the body a double blow of damage. The game screen flashes slightly to indicate when the body takes damage, so it’s not too hard to tell when you’re doing something wrong, although connecting the wall touching with antibody presence is a bit difficult to pick up on. Most other enemies like clotlets and defense cells can be ignored or shot, but on your second patient of a run, the game introduces the difficult to kill bacteria. It takes three shots to take them down and the more health they have, the more damage they’ll do when they go off-screen. They are often clustered or put in tight quarters to make them hard to deal with effectively, requiring you to quickly figure out which ones you will deal with and which ones you’ll have to ignore and hope the patient can take it. The blood clot itself is usually in a tight space as well, requiring you to squeeze in and land 15 shots or else you’ll crash into it and instantly lose, the only way to lose that isn’t tied to the patient’s health. Luckily, not everything is an obstacle to saving the patient, as you can find key-shaped enzymes floating in most phases that you can shoot to release some healing agents to calm the patient down. Of course, how you interact with any of these things in the body will grant you some points to try and earn high scores with, but I found it pretty interesting that shooting enemies isn’t as straight-forward as you might’ve expected for such an old game.

Fantastic Voyage’s gameplay loop is surprisingly fun, helped along by the fact that each new patient ups the difficulty in keeping them alive. The phases are all set up to feel different at the start, usually introducing one of the new obstacles or getting you adjusted to a shift in gameplay. For example, one level is all about the vessel contracting and avoiding contact with the walls, the best place to learn that touching them creates the annoying antibodies. In your second patient though, the bacteria are added as the challenge is upped, and soon, phases will mix together multiple elements and ask you to balance shooting the bad things with not accidentally shooting blood cells or touching the sides. It’s a game that challenges you to master it, but at the same time it makes the first clot achievable enough that most people won’t be too frustrated trying to play it.

 

The game’s options present you with six ways to play Fantastic Voyage. There’s an Easy, Normal, and Difficult mode, but each one has an extended version that makes the phases longer but doesn’t really add much to them besides length. Unfortunately, I feel like the Easy mode is far too easy, and that’s not me criticizing it’s presence or anything. The problem with Easy mode is that it’s way too hard to lose, almost like a mode meant more for children with no experience with games than anyone wanting a challenge. Even when I was trying to deliberately kill the patient by hitting the walls and enemies constantly, the only way I found to really lose on Easy was crashing into the blood clot. The enemies and obstacles you encounter are about as abundant as they are on Normal though, so Easy does at least serve as a decent means to acclimate yourself to the game so you can take on the harder modes and not die so quickly. Normal and Difficult are thankfully pretty balanced, although it’s not likely you’ll save too many patients. Still, the game is endless and does need to kick you out at some point, but the game does at least make it possible to stay in there for quite a while before the difficulty presses you up against a wall.

THE VERDICT: An adaptation of Fantastic Voyage could be a lot more interesting on a more modern console, but the Atari game still has a lot going for it considering it’s limitations. Focusing on the patient’s health makes shooting things more interesting, and the fact that different types of targets have different effects on the heart monitor makes this more than just a game about shooting enemies. Despite the limitations of the Atari 2600, it does sell its premise quite well, even if it stretches believably a bit that a person would have veins that are jagged and constantly winding. With a challenging gameplay loop that requires thought to overcome, Fantastic Voyage is a well-balanced experience for people interested in retro games.

 

And so, I give Fantastic Voyage for the Atari 2600…

A GOOD rating. Fantastic Voyage’s simplicity makes it a game that is fun to play, but not particularly exceptional. It works with its premise well and does not sacrifice any of the fun in doing so, although it might be a tad confusing to players who don’t pick up on the functions of the blood cells, enzymes, and antibodies. The manual is even a bit bad at explaining itself, but once you’ve figured things out well enough, Fantastic Voyage has that old arcade feel of a game you want to keep getting better at. It’s got enough variety to its parts that it’s not all about automatic action, and while Easy mode is far too easy, it does at least help with the accessibility and can train you up in a stress-free environment to handle the better difficulties.

 

While I wouldn’t exactly call this a FANTASTIC Voyage, this GOOD Voyage certainly has earned itself a spot in most any Atari 2600 collection.

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