It has been a while since I picked up anything for my Atari 7800 ProSystem, in fact prior to the pick-up I am going to discuss here, I can’t remember the exact game that was the last purchase. Granted there are a lot of options in recent times thanks to homebrew efforts giving us new ports of old arcade games. But as I have mentioned on this blog before, arcade ports on old systems rarely get me to part with my cash given that I might own the actual arcade machine or the port already exists on everything under the sun. I get the feeling to want to see what the 7800 could do on it but again, I’m more about something different or original. So with the reproduction of old prototypes for the 7800, I could not skip the opportunity. Those have arrived in my possession so let’s take a look!
The games in question are called Sirius and Plutos, originally developed by a company called Tynesoft. Sirius is thought of being close to an Atari 8-bit PC game called Zybex; Plutos was created for Amiga and Atari ST platforms first. From what I have read, it sounds like the company ran out of money to keep operating before they could get these two games released but no one is really sure why the 7800 efforts were pretty much completed then shelved. It really is too bad as they are excellent additions to the library and would have certainly gratified content hungry 7800 gamers back-in-the-day. I obtained these from a special limited run repro that a hardware savvy member of AtariAge was doing; a different repro had taken place about 10 years ago but finding one of those was rare (and not cheap) so it was playing the games on an emulator instead.
Sirius – Let’s start with the first 7800 Tynesoft effort, Sirius. This is a sidescrolling space shooter that you could compare to something like R-Type. There are 4 levels (asteroid, space station, organic space structure, ancient ruins) filled with enemies and structures that you have to avoid running into. Enemies will fly around in group patterns and there is a boss fight at the end of each level.
The controls are straightforward and can be played with a single-button CX-40 joystick if you prefer. There is no bomb function so it is simply grab the power-ups and hold the fire button down. In terms of an 8-bit shmup, it isn’t uncommon to find games where power-ups aren’t terribly well thought out but if you are used to playing shmups that are from the 90s and up it is hard to shake the expectation for more. As it is, there are only two real power-ups in Sirius – one to upgrade your gun to fire a little faster and then add some spread ability to it and another to obtain a drone fighter and upgrade that slightly. There isn’t much to explore in upgrades but getting them quickly is important as the game throws a lot at you almost from the get go.
As such, the game is tough and so far I have managed to only make it to level 3. Once your lives are gone they are gone and I haven’t caught any bonus lives for a high score yet. There are gems to find on occasion which give you a point bonus but I have not come across anything hidden at this point.
Boss battles are ok, the first is a pair of large enemy ships, the next two are organic bosses in the wall which was a popular boss style back in the day.
Graphically the game is nice – it moves along smoothly even when cramming enemies on the screen without flicker and the overall amount of color plays to the sprite pushing strengths of the system. All of the enemies I’ve noticed also have a few frames of animation and the levels are nicely detailed. I particularly like level 3 (pictured below) which has faces and other objects spiced throughout the level layout. It doesn’t run in the 320 resolution modes but on a CRT TV it looks good. The bosses aren’t the size of what you find in Midnight Mutants but that’s ok, not every game has to have bosses that large.
The area where the game is lacking is the audio. There is zero music, even on the title screen. Apparently the game doesn’t have an ending so it is likely that the game is unfinished – the ROMs this is based on lingered for years on Atari 7800 development kits and couldn’t work on the real thing until someone came along later and fixed that code. So there could have been a soundtrack of some kind planned for it that might have been added as the final item but this is an area the 7800 is usually lacking on anyways since it was rare to find a POKEY audio chip put into a cart.
I really thought that Sirius was going to be the game I enjoyed the most out of the two but then I tried the other one…
Plutos – Sirius had a copyright date of 1989 and Plutos had one of 1990. While developed close to each other, the slightly later date on Plutos shows that the programmer and the extra artist helped create something a little better for the system the second time around. As mentioned, this was released on the Atari ST, here’s a video of that:
and the 7800 port
As you can see, Plutos is also a scrolling space shooter game but this time it is vertically scrolling (ala Raiden or 1942) instead of sideways. Instead of the 4 levels that Sirius has, you now have six although it does cheat a little – elements in a couple of later levels reuse assets with a new color palette but it did appear that they did not repeat the entire level tile for tile. A larger variety of enemies, attack patterns and animations are found in this game compared to Sirius, which gives the game more replay value and interest. Except for the sound I do prefer the 7800 version which is doesn’t worry about fuel or a plethora of ground targets to focus more on blasting and it has an interesting power-up system that I will try to explain.
The power-up system in Plutos is a huge improvement over Sirius. There are 3 power-up styles – simply labelled as 1, 2 or 3. 1 is the shot you start off with, which is a pair of fireballs/bullets. 2 is a spread shot and 3 is a beam based weapon. Each weapon can be leveled up 4 times by simply grabbing the same number but where Plutos differs a little is that if you grab 5 of the same number, it resets it back to the basic shot level. Also, grabbing a different numbered power-up apart from what you are currently using will reset your gun to the basic level of that gun. Hopefully I’m not making this sound confusing – you really just want to pick a gun per level and focus on getting it to level 4.
Although it is a little odd in that Gun 2 has wildly different spread types. Basic level fires 3 shots at once with two going to your side; 2nd level in that switches to a triple spread rocket shot; 3rd level gives you a wave beam weapon and the 4th is like the second level spread but with purple balls. On the other two guns it just changes the color, speed and damage of the shots.
Another bonus Plutos gives you is co-op play. By using one of the difficulty switches on the 7800 when on the title screen, 2 people can go at it and it doesn’t affect the frame rate in the least, which cranks along as smoothly as Sirius does. The 2nd player gets some really cool ship animations though as the craft rotates around as you move it, just a nice little touch.
The bosses aren’t anything too special, being big enemy space ships that move side to side while firing a few piddly shots off at you. Those shots don’t have any fascinating patterns like one might expect from playing 90s era shmups and if you are sufficiently powered up then the battle won’t last very long. The control is also similar in that you don’t need the second fire button that 7800 joysticks offer.
Graphically, Plutos shows that the team improved their knowledge of the 7800 hardware. The credits do list a second artist so that helped. Compared to Sirius, the use of color stands out with many enemies featuring a variety of color shades, not exactly something you would expect to have found on a stock NES (both games mentioned here run on stock 7800 hardware) and the animations are improved. The amount of detail in the levels was also kicked up a notch or two as you rarely come across empty space. On that note I should mention another scrolling shooter on the 7800, Planet Smashers. This blows PS away in every category and is just more fun.
They also came up with these neat screens in between each level. The second one isn’t something I’ve ever seen in another game on the 7800 and feels more like a screen you’d find in a Jaguar game like Tempest 2000 or Defender 2000.
The game unfortunately lacks a music track (the Atari ST version did as well) so just like Sirius you get the sounds of constant shots and explosions. While it doesn’t grate on my nerves while playing, a 7800XM enhanced version of either of these games (which could use either Pokey or YM2151 sound chips) would be quite welcome as games like this need soundtracks to drive the feeling. Play Tempest 2000 without the music and its like playing a different game.
Overall, I am happy with both games. While among shmups at large they probably would be considered generic, for the 7800 library they stand out since that needed a little bit more of that genre. Don’t get me wrong, I love Galaga or Desert Falcon or Robotron but in the late 80s the scrolling shooter was big news and the 7800 just didn’t have enough of it. Granted it doesn’t really do the console any good at this point, only if you are a collector. If you are a collector and come across them then I’d highly recommend these games, especially Plutos.