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Posted on Feb 9th 2011 at 01:52:36 PM by (singlebanana)
Posted under Atari, Dark Cavern, 2600, Game Review, Retro, Classic Gaming



Game:  Dark Cavern
Year:  1982
Publisher:  M-Network
Developer: APh Technology Consultants for Mattel Electronics
Designer(s)/Programmer: Hal Finney
Rarity (according to AtariAge): 2 = common+
Controls: Joystick
Number of Players: 1
Average Cost:  $1 - $3 loose, under $10 CIB
Also Available On:  Dark Cavern is exclusive to the 2600, its predecessor, Night Stalker is available on Intellivision, Mattel Aquarius, Apple II, and IBM PC.

Tagline/Description: "It's a battle for survival in an underground cavern!  You have five men.
They enter the cavern one at a time through the center trap door.  Once inside, blobs, spiders and robots begin to enter the left and right doors.  Direct your man down the tunnels.  Pick up ammunition as you go.  Keep clear of the creatures... avoid robot fire. Shoot to destroy!  Get hit by a robot's bullet... action stops.  Now bring out your next man... get them before they get you!!!"

As soon as you pop in a copy of Dark Cavern and hit the power switch, it may seem very familiar and rightfully so.  Dark Cavern was published by the M-Network, a subsidiary of Mattel Electronics.......hmmm.  Mattel Electronics?  The same company who developed the Intellivison, one of Atari's biggest competitors?  Yes.  So why would a company like Mattel Electronics create games for their more successful rival and undercut their own system?  Sure, money has a lot to do with it, but more interesting is the history behind it all. 

What the Mattel is Going on Here?*
(*a special thanks to IntellivisionLives.com for providing information used in this time-line)

-- Atari released in 1977, Richard Chang head of Design and Development for Mattel Toys looks to create game system to compete with the 2600.
-- Glenn Hightower of APh Technology Consulting is sought out to develop what would later become the Intellivision (1980).
-- Hightower soon realized that he had struck a bad deal with Mattel (his team was receiving less than $30k per developed game and no royalties) and asked his senior developers to take a leave of absence from Mattel and became private contractors employed by Hightower (not APh).
-- These private contractors reverse engineered programs for the 2600, and created working prototypes. 
-- Hightower negotiated with Mattel and told them of an outside group he knew who could program for the 2600 and presented the economically beneficial idea to them; the Atari 2600 had over 10 million consoles in U.S. homes, while the Intellivision had only 2 million.
-- Atari 2600 games were introduced under the guise of M-Network and even many of the titles of Intellivision counterparts were changed so they would not reflect badly on Mattel's graphically superior system (Night Stalker changed to Dark Cavern, Astrosmash/Astroblast, Frog Bog/Frogs 'n Flies, etc.).  Games like Burger Time, Lock 'n Chase, and Bump 'n Jump retained their titles since they were developed by Data East. 
-- Games for the 2600 were shaped almost identical to Intellivision cartridges; a special adapter was added to the end of each Atari cartridge to make it compatible with that system (see comparison below).

While Dark Cavern and Night Stalker are very similar on the surface, there are several features (both good and bad) that separate the former from the latter.  The first thing you will probably notice are the graphics.  Night Stalker looks much better and best exemplifies the setting of the game, which helps to create a more accurate atmosphere.  The walls of the cave are covered with stalactites and stalagmites, there is a large spiderweb in the upper left hand corner of the screen, enemies leave a lot less to the imagination, and your protagonist moves in a more fluid, human-like motion.  However, what makes Dark Cavern distinct, and in opinion better, is the game play.

Enemies and their traits play an important role in both the 2600 and Intellivision versions of this game.  In Dark Cavern (like Night Stalker), your goal is to destroy as may robots as possible by dispatching them with your laser.  Ammunition is in limited supply and can be collected by picking up a gun icon that appears on the screen.  Dispatching a robot in Dark Cavern earns you 1000 points, and if there are other robots on the screen, you are awarded an additional 1000 points for their eradication for destroying them before a robot is replaced (i.e. the first robot = 1000 pts., second = 2000 pts., third = 3000 pts., and so on).  Though robots look more like.......well, robots, in Night Stalker, an important difference in Dark Cavern is that the robots have eyes which point toward the direction of which they are moving (instead of remaining stationary).  This addition to Dark Cavern can be very helpful in determining an attack strategy and possibly even earning your character a kill by attacking safely from behind.

In Dark Cavern, blobs take the place of the immobilizing bats present in Night Stalker; though blobs and spiders are not worth any points if destroyed, they play an important part in the game play.  Running into a spider will not cause you to lose a life, but instead paralyzes your character for a few seconds and allows robots to get to them.  Blobs can be passed through without harm, however, by doing so you lose all of your bullets.  This additional challenge, though seemingly small, plays a big role in the gameplay of Dark Cavern and in a pinch, shooting or passing through a blob may be an important decision when it comes to saving a life.   

Another significant difference between Dark Cavern and Night Stalker are the controls.  While your character's movement might be best described as stop-and-go in the latter, in Dark Cavern, movement is continuous and can only be stopped by running into the cavern walls (similar to Pac-Man).  Not only does this present an added challenge to the game, but I would argue that it makes control of the game a lot better.  Since motion is fluid and what I would term "rounded," it eliminates the possibility of changing direction and getting stuck on overhanging walls, as can happen as a result of the precision you have to use with many stop-and-go titles.

The sound effects in Dark Cavern aren't anything special, but they are entertaining and efficient overall.  The replay value is high for such a simplistic game and the price point is outstanding.  If you are a fan of Night Stalker and are also collecting for the 2600 (or vice-versa), Dark Cavern is a cheap and worthy pickup.   

Dark Cavern (2600)

**video courtesy of AtariGuide.com

Night Stalker (Intellivision)

**video courtesy of Umma6umma

RATINGS (on a scale of 1-4: 4 being the highest):

Controls: 4
Graphics: 2
Sound Effects/Music: 3
Concept: 3
Replay Value: 3
Cart/Box Art:  2
Overall Score: 2.83

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Graphics make it look like Wizard of Wor, and gameplay is a mixture of Wizard of Wor and Pac-man. Once I move, I'll make sure to hook up my Atari 2600 and pop this in, as I have a CIB 2600 copy of it.

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