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Videogame Classics

Reviews of the greatest video games of all time, from classic to modern games.

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1989 - Epyx - Released on Atari Lynx

Electrocop - videogame classics


Videogames of the Damned

Daniel Thomas MacInnes' videogames blog, offering commentary and reviews on classic and modern games.

The spirit of "independent game journalism" lives on!

Electrocop screen shots - click for closeup
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(106k page)

December 20, 2003

You are running down a corridor. You may have taken a wrong turn, but you can’t remember, and there’s no time for that, anyway. Roaming bands of robot walkers and wall cannons have destroyed your weapons, your health is low, and the building you are in will explode in two minutes. Where the heck was that exit? Which floor will it drop me onto this time? You turn left, then left again and back down a narrow hallway covered with ice. You then take a wrong step, and spin helplessly across the icy floor, right into the path of a hovering mine which blows you to bits. Don’t feel bad; at least you’ll get your picture in the paper.

Electrocop is a wonderfully tense action-adventure, and a classic of handheld gaming. It is just about the best game ever made for the Atari Lynx. That this game is brilliantly executed should come as no surprise; Epyx, the development studio, was also the designers of the Lynx portable. In 1989, after selling the machine to Atari Corp., they unveiled six launch games that showed off the Lynx’s abilities: vivid colors, sprite scaling, 3-D effects, smooth sprite animation. In many ways, this little handheld was the most powerful console on the market, surpassing even NEC’s Turbografx and Sega’s Genesis (which also debuted in 1989). The Nintendo Gameboy, needless to say, didn’t even come close.

Of all of Epyx’s launch games, Electrocop best shows off the 3D effects of the Lynx. The game takes place in an office building, with fifteen levels of twisting, turning mazes. The hero, armed with a single-shot gun (don’t they look like the phasers from “Star Trek?”) runs down hallways, opening locked doors, finding more powerful weapons, and battling various enemies. And the game literally puts you in the maze; walls and floors scale and zoom smoothly as you run into and out of the screen. Half of the floors resemble a space station, and half resemble a collection of circuit boards inside a giant computer.

The game draws its influence from Atari Games’ Xybots (1987), which features a gun-toting hero in a 3D maze. However, Xybots only moved forward, only in lurching steps, and never sideways. In Electrocop, everything scrolls smoothly, and the visual details are never lost or overly pixilated. This is a genuine visual landmark; consider that Electrocop nearly achieves with two-dimensional sprites what Tomb Raider and Super Mario 64 do with polygons seven years later.

Throughout each level, you must hunt down or avoid various robotic foes that litter the hallways. Some, like the walkers, are slow and easy to spot, but others will suddenly appear out of nowhere. Floating mines will explode as you draw closer, and viruses will hop around the floor, infecting tiles as it goes. There are hazards everywhere, and as quickly discover, your weapons take damage, too; pretty soon, you will find yourself defenseless.

Reaching the nearest door becomes an essential oasis. At these stations, you can repair yourself and your weapons, and temporarily shut down the machines (but only once per station). Each door, however, is locked; if you don’t know the code, you will need to activate the code breaker program. But it takes time to crack the code. The punch line? That comes when you open the doors; some lead to weapons, some lead to dead ends, and some lead to exits. The cruel joke is that many levels have several exits, which may send you back to the beginning. Your final objective is the fifth floor, but you will have to dart across all fifteen floors before reaching the end.

To top everything off, the entire complex will be destroyed in sixty minutes. The clock moves menacingly in real-time, and nothing you can do will stop it. This really is the masterstroke; you have to find a balance between playing it cautious and rushing headlong. Always being cautious will cost precious time, and always running full-speed will get you killed. Tension, kids. It’s all about tension.

Electrocop is the creation of Greg Omi, who later delighted audiences with the superb Lynx version of the arcade puzzler Klax. Like his collaborators at Epyx, Omi knew how to make challenging games that worked your brain as well as your reflexes. That mainly comes from Epyx’s long history of computer games, with a different tempo from most arcade or console titles. Since they didn’t have to target teenagers with pockets full of quarters, they could afford to slow down the pace, and introduce more strategy or adventure elements. Of course, this is pretty much the norm for today’s games, but in the late 1980’s that distinction was still there. Perhaps that’s why games like this have stood the test of time so well.

I also have to bring attention to Bob Viera and Lx Rudis, who were responsible for the audio in Electrocop. These two were responsible for the sounds and music for all of Epyx’s launch titles for the Lynx, and after the company faded away, they migrated to Atari and continued to work their magic. The audio on Lynx is typically mediocre (especially compared to the Gameboy), but Viera and Rudis knew how to marry thunderous booms to Electrocop’s wonderful visuals. The main theme is especially catchy, with a couple movements and variations; the best surprise is a Bach piece that plays when you access the doors.

I don't know what was in the kool-aid those crazy kats at Epyx were drinking, but they seemed to have their pulse on the future of videogames, before anyone else realized what that future was. Electrocop lay at the forefront of that movement - years ahead of its time.