Atari 2600 Review: Pigs in Space
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Pigs in Space
Groundhog Day is here, and I can’t think of a more appropriate way to observe that revered occasion than to take a look at one of the many games involving hogs on the Atari 2600: Pigs in Space.
By remarkable coincidence, I just happened to win a copy in the trivia contest two weeks ago. Since I do not have a way of capturing quality images from my television, I’ll be taking them via emulation.
Pigs in Space is based on the sci-fi parody sketch that was featured frequently on The Muppet Show.
To summarize, three pigs voyage through the stars aboard the spaceship Swinetrek, boldly doing nothing of particular importance. The game itself is somewhat unusual in that it’s effectively three very different games in one, and each game had a different programmer.
After switching on the console, the player is greeted with this screen:
To quote the announcer on the show…. “PIGS… IN… SPAAaace!”. I would have been delighted if the Atari generated tones mimicking that introduction, but I guess it was not to be. A copyright of 1983 is given, two years after the show had aired its final episode.
“I wonder how many parents bought the Atari 2600 Kids’ Controller thinking they’d need it to play this game.”
– DeLorean Silhouette
Like a number of later Atari games, you don’t have to lean over and pull the reset switch to start, you can can just press the joystick button. Being lazy, I appreciate this. Setting the left difficulty switch to ‘B’ gives the player an extra life every 10,000 points, but I personally find this makes the game too easy, so I leave the switch on ‘A’.
On the next screen we are reminded once again that this is PIGS IN SPACE, and are presented with a set of three disembodied pig heads in profile from which to choose. Each represents a different member of the crew and a different mini-game. They may be played in any order, even the same game multiple times in a row, but each becomes more difficult the more it is played (until a maximum difficulty is achieved, that is).
Selecting the left pig (Captain Link Hogthrob) starts our first game, Chickenvaders. This game is the most derivative of the three, but nevertheless probably the most fun. It would be easy to say it’s Space Invaders with chickens (a variation I can appreciate), but there are a few subtle differences.
“The graphics are good, but I wanted more Muppets. I thought there’d be more Miss Piggy, Kermet the Frog, Gonzo or whoever, or those old men in the balcony. But I liked the game, it was a lot of fun!”
– Atari Joe
According to the manual, which I found on AtariAge, the chickens are dropping eggs at Link, and Link is throwing link sausages at them. (Oh, “Link” Hogthrob, I get the joke now! Only took me, what, 25 years? Also, I’d rather not know why a pig is carrying sausages around.) All the projectiles look like lines. When struck by an egg, Link is transmogrified into a chicken and flaps away off the screen. When one of the chickens is hit, it is sent to the “bird dimension”, a less disturbing fate to be sure.
Leading the chicken armada is Gonzo (or at least his head) on a flying saucer. (Gonzo, in fact, had appeared as an antagonist in Pigs in Space a couple times. Known as “Dearth Nadir”, he once commanded chicken storm troopers.) Pelting him with pork products provides points aplenty. Sorry.
Unlike Space Invaders, there are no shields to take cover from enemy fire, the enemy only fires one shot at you at a time, and only the horizontally nearest enemy fires at you. One detail I like is that, true to the show (with a few exceptions), you don’t see the captain’s legs. As the hostile hens come closer, he becomes more and more submerged, giving the player a little more room to work with, though eventually you’ll lose a life if their approach is not stopped.
Destroying… I mean, banishing all the chickens completes the level and sends you back to the menu. Each time this game is chosen, the chickens move faster (though Gonzo always seems to plod along at the same speed).
Chickenvaders has some of the best character graphics and animation I’ve seen on the 2600. Gonzo’s spinning head (3 colors!) and the transformation into a chicken are particularly well done. It’s reasonably fun to play, though Space Invaders is certainly better in that regard, with faster enemies that fire more unpredictably, and the presence of shields to complicate things.
But wait, there’s more! Next up: The health concerns of Italian food.
We go to the next game by selecting the middle pig from the menu. But this is not just any pig. This is the pig, the one and only Miss Piggy, or First Mate Piggy as she is cast.
Hogthrob may have been the captain, but it’s Miss Piggy who was the real star of the show. Indeed, the cartridge art not only depicts her the most prominently, but the title even reads “PIGS in SPACE starring MISS PIGGY”. One could say she was the Seven of Nine of porcine science fiction.
This game is Pastaroids. In case you are wondering, the only resemblance to Atari’s Asteroids is in the title. The gameplay here is more original than for the previous one. It reminds me most of Activision’s Freeway. Piggy is caught in the midst of a pasta storm and must spacewalk to the Swinetrek, which is slowly traversing the top of the screen.
Starting at the bottom, she must avoid spaghetti (which travel left) and meatballs (which travel right) to reach the ship before her shipmates abandon her. Well, okay, according to the manual the crew come back for another pass, but either way is entirely within character for these swine. Accomplishing this causes the screen to be filled with more spaghetti and meatballs the next time the game is played. These obstacles knock Piggy down to the lane below, often right into another obstacle, and so on.
Pressing the joystick button compels Piggy to use her trademark karate chop, which can be employed to destroy oncoming meatballs. Noodles are impervious to all attack, naturally.
At the beginning, I was unaware of the karate chop ability, and so, while the first few rounds were easy enough, they quickly became very challenging, and success seemed as much based on chance as anything. Even so, I was once able to complete this mini-game fifteen times before expending all my lives. As soon as I discovered the karate chop, the game became much, much easier.
“Atari made a second Muppet game, called Miss Piggy’s Wedding, but the Children’s line was cancelled before it could be produced.”
– DeLorean Silhouette
If you have extra lives enabled, this is the game you’ll go to to restore any lives lost. You don’t get as many points as you do with the others, but it is easier and faster to complete than both.
Graphically, Pastaroids is not quite up there with the others, but it’s not bad. The depiction of Miss Piggy here is a bit crude (and, arguably, without the spacesuit seen on the cartridge she has bigger problems than pasta), but the motion of the Swinetrek tilting side to side like a ship tossed at sea is nicely implemented with five frames of animation. It’s the gameplay that is lacking. Depending how it is played, it either feels tedious or frustrating, but never really achieves “fun”.
However, there is one game left. Selecting Dr. Strangepork gives us “Escape from the Planet of the Gonzoids”, or as I like to call it, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Boomeray”. The Swinetrek is moving up through a passage, and the player must make sure the ship does not come in contact with any walls or projectiles until it reaches the exit. If the corridor seems to pass by too slowly at times (and it will, especially at first), at your own peril you can speed things up by moving to the top of the screen. I won’t try to describe what occurs when the ship collides with an object, but it is an unsettling combination of sight and sound indeed.
The tunnel is always symmetrical, but sometimes divides into two passages. Continuing the game’s food obsession, the manual explains that this is a pizza mine and that the Gonzoid robots placed along the walls are throwing deadly pizzas (which once again look like lines… but horizontal ones!).
There are places where destroying the Gonzoids is essential for passing safely, but the way to do so is not straightforward. Literally. The ship is equipped with the bizarre “Boomeray” which fires a dot which moves upward, then curves to the left or right (whichever you moved last), and then downwards. The shot cannot pass through walls.
The placement of the enemies above the walls is such that the player must take advantage of the curving path of the boomeray to clear the way. This comes with risk: the returning dot can destroy the ship. Offhand, the only other classic game I can think of where you can be damaged by your own fire is Fortress of Narzod for Vectrex (no doubt there are others).
The progression of difficulty in this game is odd. Each time the game is successfully completed the mine passes a little faster, but also the Gonzoids alternate between firing quickly and slowly. The result is that the second round of this game is easier than the first. After roughly half a dozen rounds, the alternating pattern settles on a moderate firing rate.
“Atari also had a line of Sesame Street games for the Atari Kids’ Controller. They were Alpha Beam with Ernie, Big Bird’s Egg Catch, Cookie Monster Munch and Oscar’s Trash Race. A fifth game, Grover’s Music Maker, was canceled in 1983.”
– DeLorean Silhouette
There is one significant problem with this part of the game: the layout of mine and the placement of the enemies is the same every single time. Had the developers been able implement a bit of variety here, I’m sure the entire package would have a better reputation, but as it is they may have been pushing their eight kilobytes of ROM to the limit. I can’t help but think, though, that with a bit of time they could’ve implemented something akin to River Raid’s procedurally generated level design.
(I would like to add that Dr. Strangepork gets the short end of the stick through all of this. Being the hidden pilot of Swinetrek here and being omitted from the cartridge art entirely, his only real appearance is on the menu screen. Anyways, we still love you, Dr. Strangepork.)
So, looking at the whole, we have three games in one cartridge which aren’t too terribly challenging and tend towards repetition quickly.
That said, I love that Pigs in Space for Atari 2600 exists. That someone looked at one small piece of a favorite show, and figured, “We can make a game out of this!”. And I sincerely enjoy the quirky humor and the small graphical touches. Had I been the person who originally purchased it, I might well have been disappointed, but as a collector, I find it’s great.
Pigs in Space was designed by Michael Sierchio at ATARI and programmed by Bill Aspromonte, John Russell, and Rob Zdybel.
1 – 2 PLAYERS
model # CX 26114