A Glance at the Past: Human Cannonball (Atari 2600)

When it comes to bucket lists, many people include the unique exhilaration of skydiving as a sort of go-to abnormal experience. Personally, while I’d still like to try that, my bucket list contains only two concrete activities: the goal of the Game Hoard to play every video game, and being a human cannonball. An increasingly rare thrill and one very few people can claim to have experienced, it feels like a more special task than sky diving, even if it isn’t quite as dramatic as dropping out of an airplane. Interestingly, these two bucket list items intersect here, in an Atari 2600 game that has the player launching a human cannonball into a bucket of water. It certainly isn’t a flashy game or one with a complex objective, but in a way, that matches the actuality of the spring-loaded launch of a real human cannonball, making its simple focus almost appropriately interesting but decidedly reined in.

 

Human Cannonball is all about that simple goal of firing the little man and landing him safely in the bucket atop the tower. It’s not a complex task, with only a few factors to really consider: your cannon’s position, the angle, and the strength of the shot as represented in miles per hour. Every round is about figuring out how to ensure the human cannonball lands safely by adjusting these values, but depending on the game mode, certain variables will change.  Playing on your own or against a human player, the different modes will set certain values for you that you must accommodate, such as putting your cannon in random spots, shifting the cannon’s strength every round, and of course tinkering with the cannon angle. Since you can’t control one or more variables, you have to try and calculate how best to use the ones you do control to ensure the daredevil doesn’t splat on the ground. In some modes, you even have the ability to move the tower around while the human cannonball is in flight, helping you to correct a bad launch.

Play will continue until you either get seven successful launches or hit seven total misses. The only unusual complication in Human Cannonball is a few modes with a moving window, a wall blocking the path to the tower and the player having to include timing in their adjustments. Naturally, launching at the wrong time will cause your trusting daredevil to ricochet off the moving wall and splat on the ground, the word OUCH appearing over his crumpled body.

 

That is, unfortunately, the whole extent of the game. Human Cannonball is a very simple series of math puzzles on trajectory, but it doesn’t even really push those boundaries too far. It can be interesting figuring out the sweet spots for different cannon settings, but the game never really demands all to much of the player. The range of how it will set up the cannon is somewhat limited and can often be accommodated by slight adjustments, not to mention the fact that repeated plays can lead to you memorizing exactly how to respond to certain variable amounts. When the cannon is usually setting your firepower between the ranges of 20 and 40 mph, the changes you need to make to the cannon aren’t substantial enough to make the task all that rewarding. Trying to get more wins than losses helps it be less about each individual launch and more about the long game at least, but it can’t shake that Human Cannonball keeps things a bit too simple.

Human Cannonball is a puzzle game, but it doesn’t have the puzzle design that makes games of this ilk last. The random puzzles Human Cannonball make are too basic and will lose their luster on repeated plays, especially when it’s incredibly likely the random variable changes will lead to repeats or barely different situations. If Human Cannonball was more difficult, it could have gotten away with pre-made challenges, perhaps ones that tap into obstacles like the moving window, but it mostly just asks you to set the fundamentals of the launch and thus can’t really push the player to do much besides take a mental note of what worked before and repeat it with slight tweaks. The different modes do mean you can preserve some of the freshness by bouncing between them with every go so you don’t get complacent and memorize solutions as easily, but you can even transfer that knowledge easily enough since you only have three major concerns in the game. There will be a lot of splattered men when you begin, but once you feel out how the cannon behaves, you’ll hit the point where losses are less annoying and wins less exciting because you know the goalpost to succeed in that run is easily achievable.

THE VERDICT: Human Cannonball is too simple for it’s own good. It’s a series of slightly shifting math puzzles about adjusting trajectory, and while the game offers plenty of modes to twist that challenge around, they all draw on the same knowledge. Feeling out what works starts off interesting, but once you know the basics, it transfers all too well to every variation, the game’s appeal disappearing as you realize that it no longer can really put up a fight unless you leave it alone for a while and forget what you learned. The game’s design shouldn’t have been doomed to such dullness, but the action is constrained to a small range of options for firepower, position, and angle that don’t push the limits of what the player has to adapt to.

 

And so, I give Human Cannonbal for the Atari 2600…

A BAD rating. A very poor showing for a real life activity I’d very much like to participate in, Human Cannonball did at least try to make a video game out of it but will likely be one of the few to attempt it just for how uninteresting the logistics of a launch truly are. If it got more absurd with the concept, Human Cannonball could make the task more thrilling as a video game, but the reality of the action is that it’s meant more as a spectacle or a personal experience. Since Atari stayed too close to real life in designing the game, your most interesting challenge is a moving wall and the kookiest thing to see is that you can make the water tower move.

 

Unable to embrace the potential of the freeing medium of video games by adhering too closely to the more mundane aspects of reality, Human Cannonball is not so much about the impressive feat of firing a man out of a cannon as it is about figuring out a dull range of similar math equations. Human Cannonball is pretty much a series of algebra problems given a visual and interactive element to make it less dry.

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