Moon Lander
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8  |  Houston, We Have A Great Game
Darryl B. , 1/4/2006 10:10:20 PM
I tell ya, there's nothing more thrilling than diving into a new, (usually) fine homebrewed game for the Vectrex...

...especially when it's one so well put together like Moon Lander. Just the box alone has one of THE best covers for the Vectrex homebrews (in my opinion, at the time of this writing, in early 2006). It's also near-amazing to see a cartridge that looks like it came out during the Vectrex's heyday, rather than the butchered Intellivision casings from John Dondzila (nothing that I have against the classic Vectrex homebrewer though, but having a solid, rather than a filed-down case, looks pretty excellent indeed, like it's a new release from Vectrex company GCE themselves!).

Plugging it into your Vectrex and starting up a game is also a treat in itself, due to giant numbers filling the screen as some famous astronaut (who's voice is that, Armstrong's? Sure does sound familiar) counts down "FOUR, THREE, TWO, ONE", and then the demo starts up, having your vehicle land on the Moon Lander logo while some pretty cool-sounding music plays (sounding kind of like a Russian waltz, if I had to take a stab at it's genre). You're also shown all the objects in the game, from your moon lander to the home planet you have to eventually arrive at (if you can get that far), etc., etc. A lot was put into this one, that's for sure...

"OKAY ALREADY!" you yell. "Don't tell me about all the nuances up to the point where you scratched your butt as you tried out your first game, how does the damn thing play?"

Well ok then! So, as I scratched my butt for good luck before I start off every new Vectrex game I get...ha ha, just kidding ("I'm a kidder! I keeeed!" says a certain late night Comic Insult Dog). Seriously, though, upon your spaceship approaching a moon's surface, you're given from one to three choices of landing sites in order to try to successfully touch down on, which the landing sites have different bonus multipliers (from the easiest ones that are worth a single score, to the hardest to navigate, which can be worth up to five times the regular bonus). You steer your spacecraft using buttons 1 and 2 while utilizing button 4 for thrust (which pressing up on the joystick can also produce thrust, but I wouldn't recommend this too much if you still have an original Vectrex controller, like I do).

From there, at times an "OK!" indicator will pop up right by your ship once you come near a landing site, but I think this only means that your landing trajectory is in the correct position for a landing, as this does NOT always mean you're "ok" to land right then and there: I've lost several landers before realizing this. So it's best to just ignore those for the most part. There are also several moons that have a bit of a collision detection problem, as your ship sometimes will obviously land a little lower than the ground; if things seem "ok" to you during a landing, but the bottom of your ship keeps passing through the ground, and you haven't received your bonus and all, you'd better hit thrust and try again. Once you do land, though, you'll receive a bonus for any fuel remaining as a few bars of "The Star Spangled Banner" plays, as there's more music than sounds in this game, pretty much (and "Auld Lang Syne" will play at the end of a game as well).

Of course, things aren't always that easy: gravity gets heavier, hurtling your ship towards the ground, plus a wind sock will also appear at the top of the screen, signaling certain moons that have wind to take into account as well. (It's a good idea to -- until you start getting the feel of this game -- press pause with the start of each new moon, since it will give you information on remaining landers, what level you're on, what the gravity and/or wind conditions are, etc.) Some caverns are pretty narrow to navigate as well, and then freakin' SATELLITES will also start appearing after a while, which are even more annoying, costing you a life at worst if you collide with them (they move pretty fast), costing you fuel avoiding them, or just making you worry at the very least, even if you don't have to hit thrust to avoid them or anything. (Plus Killer Satellites [from the Atari 2600 Starpath game?] are worse, as they hover either right above or below you as you try to land, acting even worse than a celebrity-obsessed stalker, grrrr.)

And that's pretty much it, just land on as many moons as you can. Sure, it doesn't sound like much, but it totally blows away the inspiration of Lunar Lander, due to giving a bunch of several different surface conditions to land on, rather than landing on the same surfaces over and over, like on the arcade original. (This game was also supposedly based on Taito's Moon Lander too, but I don't really agree, the gameplay was different.) And there's sooooo many neat little touches it isn't even funny, like all the stuff in the opening screen, a very welcome pause by pressing button 3 (which a lot of Vectrex homebrews don't have, even though most of them NEED it), music during pause, the current level info (even a three band graphic equalizer for the music?!), several of the moons being named after various Vectrex alumni, your home planet in the distance getting bigger and bigger with every few moons you land on, the cinemas of your ship blasting off with your ship getting very large as the moon surface grows smaller and fades away, etc., etc., etc.

Unfortunately, the game does have a few problems with it (along with the aforementioned collision detection deal). First off, I sincerely doubt there's many people out there that can make it through all 30+ levels without using any cheat codes; a continuance (starting on level 10 or so, in my opinion) would really help. After the first several moons, your fuel supply is cut short. The concept of just landing a ship over and over also wears thin after a while; if you want more action, you'll have to go elsewhere for that. After all, with the other two homebrewed cartridges I have so far -- Spike Hoppin' and Vecmania -- I played those every night for weeks, although right now I haven't even had Moon Lander for two months and already I haven't played it in several days (granted, Vecmania had NINE games, so that's a bit of an unfair comparison though). And even though there isn't much sound other than you applying thrust, that's a bit annoying, since it sounds more like a boiling kettle than a ship navigating about. No real big deal, since you'll probably be trying to concentrate on landing most of the time to become too annoying, but it can get grating at times.

However, this was very well put together, having a basic concept be enriched by cinemas and a lot of levels, especially since it only weighs in at 32K. A lot of today's games should explore the gameplay of programs like this (which I'm not counting companies releasing those "retro packages" of old games that they usually screw up). I can't thank Mark Shaker enough for having this game available at his web site, Sean Kelly for using the original Vectrex cartridge molding (or very close to it) to produce a real-looking Vectrex release, and Clay Cowgill and Chris Salomon for creating this game in the first place, especially since this might be one of THE earliest Vectrex homebrews ever: I was surprised to see the copyright date being 1997 during the demo, yet most online sources have the release date as to being 1999 or 2000. When exactly did this come out? If it was 1997, it was right on the heels of Dondzila's/THE earliest homebrewed games of Vector Vaders, Patriots and All Good Things. Some excellent company, there.

After all, you can't beat something that cost me less than $15 total, which included having to spend a few extra pennies on a money order (Shaker accepts Paypal as well) AND a stamp! Plus, once you start getting the hang of this game, other than landing on the 1x bonus multipliers over and over, you can start going for the more difficult ones, as you can get a very satisfying feeling for landing two 5x landings in a row (granted, there aren't many of those in the game though) and watching your score jack up a good 750-1,000 points, which is a very high score indeed, since my current high score after several weeks of playing isn't even 7,000 right now.

However, I just don't understand what happens after you land from moon to moon to moon: are there hidden refueling stations for each moon? Are you doing this for insurance verification? Frequent flier miles? Eh, it's just a game, doofus...but a very excellently-crafted one at that. 8/10

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