“The thing’s hollow — it goes on forever — and — oh my God! — it’s full of stars!”
-Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: a Space Odyssey
Today I was able to witness a rare event: a partial solar eclipse (in my area) over North America. Here in sunny Southern California, our star would not be defeated by a mere moon, so the only observations I could make was a kind of dull grayness to the sunlight, it got a little dimmer and a little chill outside. That’s it. Still, the last time any such total eclipse was even visible anywhere in the States was in 1979, and the last time that a total eclipse was visible from coast to coast was in 1918. There won’t be another eclipse over the United States until 2024. If the robots don’t take over by then, I’ll be on my way to becoming a well-gray mage.
“May the shadow of the moon fall on a world at peace.”
So in light of the 2017 eclipse, I figured we’d talk about something else rather rare. It has to do with space as well, so there’s that. Mine Storm was an arcade-style shooter published by General Consumer Electronics as a launch title of sorts for the Vectrex home console.
If you’re sitting there thinking to yourself: “Self, you have no idea what a Vectrex is, so don’t pretend like you’re in the know”, well then you can cure that disposition by checking out the hardware review on the Vectrex I wrote up. In short, the Vectrex was and is the only vector display console ever made, and it was an incredibly short-lived device which was only officially on the market from 1982 to 1984. It fell prey to the North American video game industry crash and not even its vivid vector display, its innovative accessories, and its general uniqueness could save it. Now it’s regarded as a sort of rarity in the retro-gaming community.
As an anecdote, I took a trip to a retro game store recently and asked about Vectrex carts while chatting with the vendor, who just looked at me and laughed, said he hadn’t seen any of those in years.
I bought my Vectrex off a friend for $50 but he had no cartridges to sell me at the time to go along with the console. That’s where Mine Storm comes in. Mine Storm was a game that was built into the system. If you switch on a Vectrex without plugging in a cartridge, then Mine Storm will load up shortly after the Vectrex intro screen and jangle play. This built-in game ensured that the pricey Vectrex had at least some immediate value for those who shelled out the cash during the small window of time when it was available.
If you’re interested in reading this retro review of Mine Storm then odds are that you’re at least somewhat familiar with the far more famous game that it’s a clone of: Atari’s Asteroids.
Mine Storm shared many similarities with Asteroids, but it of course came from an era in gaming when blunt imitations were more rip offs than homages, and that seemed to be perfectly acceptable at the time. Asteroids was a smash hit in the arcades and it represents one of the earliest games to draw people to the arcades in droves. Asteroids was Atari’s best selling arcade game ever. It beat out Space Invaders as the general public’s arcade darling. It became so popular that arcade owners had to install larger boxes in the cabinets to hold the massive influx of coins that players were dropping into the game on a daily basis. Atari and arcade operators together earned over $600 million thanks to Asteroids. So yeah, one could say it was a smash hit, and cashing in on its success through clones was inevitable.
Like Asteroids, Mine Storm features several stages which increase in difficulty and the objective is to manipulate a pivoting spaceship to blast away enemies, which in this case aren’t asteroids but mines. Each stage begins with an enemy mothership Minelayer cruising through space, seeding mines that resemble stars. The stars eventually spawn into different mine forms of different shapes and sizes. Your objective is to destroy each mine in order to advance to the next stage. Very arcade-esque.
There are four types of mines in the game. Some of them merely follow a set trajectory and move across the screen, and when the reach the edge of the screen they’ll reappear on the other side. Other types of mines include ones which will shoot back at you when you destroy them, some which split into smaller mines when blown up, and others which will actually chase you like magnets. If you’re hit by a mine or by its projectiles, you’ll lose one of five lives you start the game with.
Your ship can fire in any direction by turning in place. There’s also a thrust option for moving in a line and a teleportation ability that makes your ship jump from spot to spot on the screen. That’s an interesting feature and while it can help you out of a tight squeeze, it’s also extremely unreliable. I’ve reappeared after teleporting right in front of the path of a mine and I haven’t figured out how to predict where exactly my ship will drop out of hyperspace. Still, the option’s there for those who like a little extra risk in an otherwise skill-based game.
The Vectrex was all about taking the arcade experience home and I’d say that it does a bang up job. The console used a wide, flat, rectangular controller with four large buttons and a joystick, though the stick is too small and lacks a knob so it can’t be gripped in the same way as those belonging to full arcade cabinets. More importantly, however, Mine Storm is a fast-paced, challenging, demanding, responsive game which evokes those early days of the arcades when developers were obsessed with space shooters. Even for me, someone too young to remember the golden age of arcades in the smoky, neon, early 80’s, this game feels transportive.
The 8-bit Review
I’ve just about given up on trying to take pictures of my Vectrex display which accurately captures the beauty, symmetry, clarity, and ghostly qualities of its brilliant vector art. Pictures just don’t do it justice. I even scoured the internet to find some images for you to enjoy but they still fall short of the actual light this machine puts out. Turning up the brightness to max, the contrast of light and dark is almost blinding but it’s impossible to look away. There’s a cutscene-in-miniature which plays after completing a stage wherein your ship centers in the screen and it’s surrounding by a corona of flickering white light. I had to let out a gasp when I first saw it. Vector art is unlike anything else video games have been able to achieve in the department of visuals.
Speaking of other visual achievements in games, my grading for Visuals takes into consideration the graphics in other games from 1982, the year that Mine Storm and the Vectrex hit the market. Compare Mine Storm‘s vector art (which still looks clean and sharp to this day) to other games from ’82 like Pitfall!, Dig Dug, Pole Position, Donkey Kong Jr., and frickin’ E.T., and Mine Storm makes the others look muddy, blurry, and definitely outdated. While Mine Storm’s non-pixel based graphics look dated as well, they existed with a definition and a radiance which non-vector games couldn’t match, which helped these graphics to age much, much better and still be captivating today.
The one downside to the black and white effulgence was color. Mine Storm had no capacity to portray colors. Therefore, the game (and other Vectrex games) came with a plastic film which was set over the screen. The overlay includes a blue grid, the title of the game at the top, and the game’s controls at the bottom. My own overlay is pretty scuffed up so it only succeeds in muting the sharpness and brightness of Mine Storm’s graphics. I prefer to play it without the overlay and it looks exceptional even without color.
Apparently the game could interface with the Vectrex’s 3-D imaging headset but I can’t report on that from personal experience!
There’s little in the way of music in Mine Storm. Lest we forget, Pac-Man popularized catchy little ditties two years earlier in 1980. Pac-Man of course represents the exception to so many rules in gaming at the time and a pioneer but Mine Storm doesn’t even come close to the pretense of a soundtrack. Its only music is a plodding series of notes full of dread when the Minelayer flies across the screen before each stage begins, music which has been described as “ominous”. It sounds to me reminiscent of the Jaws theme, setting the tone for the moody visuals and mines that will chase you down through the void.
Beyond that tiny snippet of music, there are the sound effects. Most of these are pretty awful, jarring, grating, scratching, metallic noises. The biggest criminal is the sound your ship makes when activating its thrusters, though the shooting and exploding noises are less offensive to the ears. I wish the “beeps and boops” were a little softer but as it stands I play Mine Storm with the volume well below the half-way mark. Plus the Vectrex itself emits a very tube TV-ish buzzing.
One thing that really surprised me was how responsive this game was. My associate I purchased this Vectrex from said his father had discovered it in a foreclosed home and he commandeered it rather than throw it away, but it sat in a garage for years and out here garages can reach temperatures well above 100 degrees. When I plugged in the controller and switched the device on for the first time in who knows how long, the buttons on the gamepad felt a little stuck at first but then after a few rounds of play they loosened up and the reaction time of the game’s spaceship matched my own. That’s perfect considering how much in this game is dependent upon your skill at maneuvering and shooting. Even a microsecond’s gap of time between punching the button and the vector ship spitting its bullets could mean disaster in Mine Storm. It has the responsiveness of a true arcade game.
Mine Storm is a points based game, meaning the acquisition of points and achieving high scores forms the primary basis for playing the game and enduring its challenges. There are the successive levels and their skyrocketing difficulty, though, but there’s something to take note of with the built-in Mine Storm and that is the version one bug. The Mine Storm which came with the Vectrex included a glitch which prevented players from advancing past the thirteenth stage, provided they could make it that far and blow up all the available mines. Apparently, the creator of the Vectrex, Jay Smith, didn’t think anyone could make it past level 13, since no one “at the office” could. However, his son beat it after the console’s release and he’s recorded as having uttered the words: “Dad, what is this?”
It’s an interesting piece of video game history as far as glitches go because if you were one of the few people who bought a Vectrex back in the day, you could apparently phone up General Consumer Electronics (or Milton Bradley) and report the bug, after which you’d be sent a complimentary copy of the game that was bug-free. This second version was known as Mine Storm II and because so few people owned a Vectrex and even fewer people called in the glitch, Mine Storm II is an ultra-rarity in the retro market! I had a good laugh thinking about what it would be like if developers offered improved copies of their glitchy games for free today. There would be many much free games…
Mine Storm benefits from the innate simplicity of arcade games. Only three of the four Vectrex gamepad buttons are used: Fire, Thrust, and Escape. The last of these is the interesting one of the bunch but as mentioned it’s unreliable. The only hindrance to pure intuitive accessibility is the nature of the various mines. You’ll only figure out enemy patterns of attack and movement through trial and error, while playing the game itself. I certainly had to since I didn’t have access to a manual. Every once in a while a UFO of sorts will appear and move across the screen laying down new mines, but that only seems to happen if you can’t clear a stage fast enough. Otherwise there’s not enough to truly surprise in terms of content in the game. It is as highly accessible as the old space shooters were.
This game is pretty difficult. I’ve offered as many friends and family as I can a chance to take a swing at it and generally, as was the case with me, they lose all their lives on the first round. After that initial game over, they’ll make it as far as the third or fourth stage, depending on their familiarity with hand-eye-coordination interactions. I haven’t even made it as far as that thirteenth stage. The game is engaging but like true arcade games, it’s best enjoyed in smaller doses. This isn’t a game I’ve been cruising through for hours and hours on end.
I consistently keep coming back to play some Vectrex here and there. I’m sure that’ll wane with time as it always does. The novelty of everything eventually wears thin but the Vectrex is easy to just plug in, set on my table and enjoy a few rounds before I put it away again. I’m not a gamer who was ever so concerned with high scores as a means of measuring one’s digital accomplishments, but I am however keen on exploring into the game as far as I can and getting up to that thirteenth stage.
This is a hard category. On the one hand, Mine Storm is a built-in game (unusual) which was in rendered in a beautiful black and white vector display, on the only console ever to be wholly dedicated to vector. On the other hand, it’s an obvious, shameless clone of Asteroids. If I judged on the first basis, it’d be closer to 10. If I judged on the latter, it’d be pretty much a 2 or 1. Since Mine Storm does make a few changes to the Asteroids gameplay and setup, and since Mine Storm appeared on one of the most unique home consoles ever, I’ve got to cast this score in the favor of it being generally unique.
My Personal Grade: 6/10
If you can ever get a hold of a Vectrex, it’s a remarkable machine and my favorite pre-Nintendo console. Mine Storm certainly won’t win any awards for originality but it’s a time machine back to simpler gameplay and steeper challenges, a window through which we can look to observe the past and that window is full of stars.
Aggregated Score: 6.8
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