I’ve been playing and collecting video games since the early 1980’s, and while there’s something to be said for enjoying the greats of the gaming world, there’s no better feeling for me than picking out something I’d never heard of, throwing it into my system, and being unable to tear myself away from it because it was just too damn fun. With that in mind, I thought I’d start up a series about my own personal favorite hidden gems of the gaming world to let people know about the unsung, the overlooked, the ignored, and the downright weird niche titles that had no chance of achieving the heights of a Mario, Sonic, or Zelda.
If the Atari 2600 is acknowledged today for more than the creation of Activision, who published bonafide classics like Pitfall and River Raid, and the critical failure of E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, it’s probably for being the system which beats out even the Nintendo Wii for it’s massive library of shovelware.
For every excellent home version of an arcade game like Defender, Asteroids, and Space Invaders, and every successful original game like Imagic’s Atlantis and Parker Bros.’ Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, there were a dozen steaming piles of crap due to lax regulations and oversight on Atari’s part. Unsurprisingly, many of these turds were licensed games based on everything from dog food (Chase the Chuck Wagon) to major motion pictures (Porky’s) to Saturday morning cartoons (G.I. Joe: Cobra Strike) to sugared childrens’ drink mix mascots (Kool-Aid Man).
Released in 1983, right when the home video game market developed acute shit-the-bed-itis, Snoopy and the Red Baron fell into this abyss of mediocre software languishing on store shelves, and after the E.T. debacle, nobody was taking chances on licensed anything where Atari was concerned. This is a damn shame, because while it’s far from the best piece of software to grace the wood-grained wonder, it’s still a crap-ton of fun, and far better than one might expect for something based on a newspaper cartoon.
In case you don’t want to or can’t watch the video, the gist is that you play as Snoopy, flying his dog house through the air in his fantasy pursuit of the Red Baron. That aerial scallywag has made off with the food and drinks necessary for the survival of the Allies, and Snoopy’s the only hope for the troops to recover their ice cream, hamburgers, popcorn, root beer mugs, and other goodies, and thus win World War I!
The Red Baron is devious, frequently swooping out of the clouds (where Snoopy cannot travel) and gunning for the brave pilot of the Sopwith Doghouse. Snoopy’s armed with his own machine gun which has two fire modes: burst-fire for close-range combat, engaged by holding down the fire button, and single-shot for long-rage action, engaged by tapping the fire button. During combat, the Baron will occasionally toss out a tasty treat which Snoopy will want to grab, but the player has to be careful: every so often the scheming German will release a skull and crossbones which, if collected, robs Snoopy of all his collected goodies so far. This is a big deal because the only way to score extra lives is to catch all the goodies the Red Barron drops and shoot him down enough times to complete the level.
While flying around and dogfighting, Snoopy’s house will sustain bullet holes as the Red Baron’s shots fly true. Eight hits and Snoopy’s down for the count until he launches a new dog house to try again, but the same holds true for the Red Baron who will crash and burn spectacularly behind the mountains in the distance, only to re-emerge a few seconds later with a new plane, ready to pick up where he left off.
Snoopy and the Red Baron plays a lot like an aerial combat version of The Empire Strikes Back, only more fast-paced and geared towards twitch reflexes instead of strategy. Like most 2600 games it’s impossible to beat, or even finish, so you’re only playing for high score. The box advertises four game modes, but they’re all the same fundamentally with only the difficulty changed: medium, advanced, expert, and “I’m a child” respectively. There’s even a scoreless ‘practice’ mode you can play where scores aren’t tallied and lives aren’t lost by setting the difficulty level you want and controlling Snoopy before pressing ‘Game Reset’ to start things off. This is a pretty cool feature, and a nice way to get the hang of things if you’ve never played before.
While far from the best game on the system, Snoopy and the Red Baron is absolutely a hidden gem which languishes in obscurity even today. Modern gamers might enjoy the remake/update, Snoopy vs. the Red Baron released in 2006 for the PS2, PSP, and PC, which is far more expansive and immersive than any 2600 cart could hope to be. Copies of the game can be had for around $20 as long as you don’t mind buying just the cart itself–you’ll need to shell out around twice that much to get the box and instructions. That’s probably too much to pay for it’s admittedly basic trappings, but if you find it loose in the wild for a low price, and you’re a fan of the really old-school game design mechanics behind most 2600 games, pick it up and give it a whirl. I think you’ll agree it fits the definition of ‘hidden gem’ perfectly.