Midnight Mutants Is Awesome
The best game for the Atari 7800? I think so!
If you ask me what my favorite video game consoles are, the first couple are easy: I'll answer the Nintendo Entertainment System and Colecovison every time. I've been known to play the Sega Master System for hours on end, as well. But after that, it gets a bit more tricky. As a long-time Atari fan though, I've gotta say the Atari 7800 is up there. I grew up with the 2600, albeit long after the 2600's heyday, and so it hurts a bit to leave it off the list, but the 7800 is just such a cool, underappreciated system. Plus it plays all 2600 games anyway, which only adds to the appeal for me. I think if I had to wittle down my favorite consoles list, it would absolutely be the NES, CV, SMS, 7800, and I guess Sega Genesis (though I tend to go back and forth between the Genesis and the Super Nintendo).
Obviously, 8-bit is where I usually go when I want to play a game. I like 16-bit fine, and as far as my interest in gaming lies, it kinda ends after the 32-bit/64-bit era. But, that NES/SMS/7800 line-up, man, I can spend hours playing that stuff.
As far as the U.S. goes, pretty much everyone had an NES. Personally, I knew one kid that had an SMS, and no one that had a 7800 (my neighbor had an Atari 5200, but we could never get it to work). Which is too bad, because it's such a neat system. It only has 60+ games, many of which are arcade ports that fit in better with the pre-NES-era, but the majority of them are very good. In fact, the 7800 was supposed to be released in 1984, and there was a small test market, but the sale of Atari to Jack Tramiel/Video Game Crash/various other explanations I've read led to a wide release being held-off until 1986, after the NES had already exploded.
Which wouldn't have been so bad, except that game releases were a mere trickle compared to the NES, and even the SMS. And, when they did come out, the games were outdated arcade ports or PC conversions. Not very exciting to the kids of the day when compared to Mike Tyson's Punch-Out or Phantasy Star. This has been blamed on everything from Nintendo's exclusive 3rd party policy to Jack Tramiel being incredibly cheap. Eventually, some choice 'modern' arcade ports (including a pretty faithful version of Double Dragon and a port of Commando that blows the NES's out of the water) and more up-to-date games were released, but by that point, it was too late.
But, that doesn't matter much to me. I can play all my 2600 games, I can play choice conversions of classic arcade games, and the few exclusive games are pretty terrific. One of those exclusive games was also the last 7800 game released in the U.S.: Midnight Mutants, a 1990 Legend Of Zelda-styled game with a horror theme and starring one the biggest badasses to ever live: Al "Grandpa Munster" Lewis!
What a badass.
I find it hard to hide my admiration for Al Lewis. He was such a cool dude. He hosted horror movies on TBS back in the day, he was in Gremlins 2, and he once zapped Don Adams' cheeseburger in an old McDonald's commercial. How can you beat that? Everyone loves Grandpa, everyone. Needless to say, in the everlasting debate of "The Addams Family or The Munsters?", my loyalty lies squarely with Herman and his clan.
What a badass.
Speaking of The Addams Family, they were no stranger to 8-bit video games, either. SunSoft, creator of several very good NES games (including the legitimately awesome Batman) brought The Addams Family to the ol' grey box in the form of 1989's Fester's Quest. There was also an NES game based on the 1991 Addams Family movie, but Midnight Mutants is actually pretty comparable to Fester's Quest. Did one influence the other? I don't know, but what I do know is that for as good as Fester's Quest is (seriously, it's a pretty sweet game), I'll pick the 7800's Midnight Mutants over it anyday.
Cover art. There it be. Appropriately spooky atmosphere, I dig the blood dripping from Gramps' mouth. But, the cover points to something interesting right off the bat: Atari licensed Al Lewis' mug, but not the Munsters name, and therefore, he's referred to simply as "Grampa" the entire game. We all know who he's supposed to be, though.
The game starts off with an introductory cinema, something exceedingly rare on the 7800:
The plot: A warlock named Dr. Evil is burned at the stake in 1747, and comes back on Halloween night 1992 and imprisons the great-great grandson of the guy who executed him in a "Plasmic Pumpkin". This great-great-grandson is none other than Grampa! It's up to Grampa's grandson Jimmy to free Grampa and defeat Dr. Evil.
We got your back, Grampa.
Seriously, that is a whacked-out story. In other words, it's awesome, and completely befitting a man of Al Lewis' stature. However, the synopsis does point to a problem: You don't play as Grampa! He still features plenty in the game, you can hit the right button at any time for a "Grampa Hint Screen", but if you were actually playing as him, well, kids everywhere would have traded their Nintendo in for a 7800 en masse.
Grampa's got our back, too.
Whoever programmed MM took some advantage of the 7800's power. Compared to how downright ugly some 7800 games look, this is practically a work of art. It looks really, really nice. In fact, MM is my pick for the best looking 7800 game, though there are several others that also look very good. But, MM just gives off that overtly Halloween-ish vibe that the game really calls for. There's a LOT of Halloween-related stuff here: Pumpkin patches, graveyards, ghosts, zombies, headless zombies, zombies with pumpkin heads, bats, crows. Add in some HUGE bosses and this is the perfect game to pull out around October 31. I love the graphics in this game, even if your Jimmy sprite isn't that great:
Well, I guess Jimmy's sprite is okay, it looks better when it's not blown up like that. Also, he looks like he could have come from an early Space Quest game. Seriously, I think Roger Wilco had the exact same head in the first two SQ games.
Headless zombies?! Awesome.
What's really cool about the game is that it's very Zelda-inspired. MM features a huge go-anywhere world. Granted, you have to go certain places and do certain things before some areas become accessible to you, but you can travel around and check-out a lot of the the scenery right from the start. JUST LIKE ZELDA. There really is a lot to see and do in MM, and it's utterly mindblowing to compare this to the single-screen arcade ports that make up most of the 7800's library. For the kids that hung on to the 7800 (or the ones that had clueless parents who thought all video game consoles were the same), this game must have been a Godsend.
As far as the sound goes, the sound effects are nothing special, but that's to be expected. The music is where it's really at. The sad thing about the 7800 is that it had the exact same sound as the 2600, and by the late-80's/early-90's, it was downright embarassing. Hell, the 5200 had waaay better sound, and that was the system the 7800 replaced! There was a POKEY chip that could be added to 7800 carts for extra sound quality (Commando uses it), but it wasn't implemented in this game. Still, MM manages a creepy little tune that WILL bore into your head and stay there for hours. It's simple, and hardly a full orchestal score (because so many 8-bit titles had those), but it really works well in the game. As far as non-POKEY games go, this is some of the best music on the 7800.
The game is really good, but not quite perfect. MM does not use diagonal movement, which wouldn't be too big of a deal, except that the game uses a weird isometric view, which can be a little disorienting, especially when you're trying to line Jimmy's shot up with an enemy. It takes some getting used to.
Also, the difficulty of the game is really high, right from the start. You know how in the first Legend Of Zelda you don't have a weapon until you go into the cave and grab the sword? Well, that wasn't such a big deal, just go straight into the cave above of you. In MM, you start out unarmed as well, but you have to traverse several screens before you can get the knife, all the while bats, crows, zombies and whatnot are slamming into Jimmy. Even once you get the knife, it's not very strong, and useless against zombies (you later trade up to stronger weapons).
Furthermore, instead of having to watch just your life meter, you also have a blood purity meter, meaning you can be poisoned from various enemies. Needless to say, if you completely deplete either meter, your are D-E-A-D.
On top of all that, there is NO password or battery save feature. You wanna beat Midngiht Mutants, you're doing it really old school, in one sitting! I guess I can understand not adding a battery save. After all, the 7800 was pretty much dead when this was released, and considering how cheap management could be earlier in the system's lifespan, why spend that extra bit of cash now? But, a password feature really should have been implemented, because when you die, guess what? That's it, you're starting over.
Okay, so Midnight Mutants isn't quite a perfect game. What game is though? Relatively few games can be considered perfect, and that ranking will likely vary person-to-person. That said, for as tough as MM can be, the goods outweigh the negatives. It has terrific graphics and sound and a way-out-there plot you can't help but love. The 7800 never had a full-fledged RPG, but MM is strictly in the Action-RPG genre, not unlike The Legend Of Zelda. Even if this was the only time Atari went that route, in my opinion they hit a home run. I love Halloween, old monster movies, etc., so yeah, this game has automatic appeal to me, but even if someone weren't into that, I think the game's quirkiness and general fun-factor will still endear it to them.
If someone were a 7800-only kid back in 1990, this was the closest they ever got to an NES game. Sure, there were the ports of Double Dragon, Commando, Rampage and others, but as far as those then-modern, exclusive titles being released left-and-right on the NES, Midnight Mutants is about it on the 7800. Atari released a few other quirky titles, such as Basketbrawl, Scrapyard Dog and Ninja Golf. They're good, but not the accomplishment that MM is. It's easily a title that could have fit in on the NES.
Basketbrawl and Scrapyard Dog actually found second lives on the handheld Atari Lynx, but Midnight Mutants remains a 7800 exclusive. The poor 7800 never got an even break, but at least it never lost one of it's best exclusive titles.
As it stands, Midnight Mutants is my pick for the best 7800, which may not be that big of an achievement since there were only 60+ games for it originally (there are modern homebrews, though). Hell, I'd go as far as to say that the 7800 is worth owning just for MM, although there are many other great games that make the console a worthwhile purchase (and the 2600 compatibility doesn't hurt, either). I discovered MM when I was 15 years old, but if I had seen it in action some 9-10 years earlier when I was first discovering games, I think I would have loved it (and been jealous, since there wasn't a copy available for any of my consoles!). I can't say that about any other 7800 game, really.
Since it's a fairly scarce game, owning a copy can cost more than you're average 7800 game, but for those looking for the showcase title for the system, well, I think this is it. I don't know if Al Lewis was in any other video games, but if Midnight Mutants was his only entry, well, it was worthy.
What a badass.