One of my fondest video game memories is the Activision classic Kaboom! for the Atari 2600. Back in the days when the simple appeal of repetitive, score driven gaming could hold your interest for hours on end this was the top shelf for a pre-teen like myself.
Current younger gamers may have some exposure to the game either through various Activision collections on current or recent gen consoles or through Atari 2600 emulators but there is a major difference between these versions and the original. That would be the controls.
Back in the Atari 2600 days there were various controllers for the system and each game required that you use the proper ones. The vast majority used either the tried and true joystick controller or the Atari Paddle controllers. With today’s generation of consoles there’s no acceptable approximation for the paddle controller. A simple box with a round spinning wheel that gave you “stop-on-a-dime” precision for games that required them. The nearest you could get to the experience today would be an arcade trackball. Kaboom! was the ultimate paddle controller game. It was the one that wore them out.
It was a simple concept. There was a villain on top of a wall dropping bombs and you were a stack of water buckets at the bottom of the wall. You had to catch the bombs as they were dropped. If you missed one: KABOOM! You started with three buckets stacked and every time you missed a bomb you would lose a bucket. When you missed three total the game was over.
My older brother and I would literally spend hours on this game every night. The instruction manual (a rather hefty one for such a simple game) spoke of a special event that we were obsessed with unlocking.
If you were able to reach the incredible score of 10,000 points the villain, in his acknowledgement of your incredible achievement, would honor you with some mysterious gesture.
My brother and I pounded this game for a long time to get there. Back then, there was no internet, so you couldn’t buy the game, run home and hop on line to find out every piece of information you needed or wanted about it. Your gaming “community” was the other kids in your fifth grade class who also had an Atari or who became your sworn enemy because they had the Intellivision console. My older brother was in his 20s, so his gaming community back then was his old high school buddies he still got high with.
Kaboom! gameplay became an art form. There were eight levels. With each advancing level the villain would sweep back and forth across the wall stripping the bombs with greater speed.
Like any repetition-based game you could boil down the first 5 or 6 levels to an art form only missing when you became too complacent. Levels 7 and 8 were the wild cards. To get to 10,000 you would have to cycle through all 8 levels and continue at the crazy-paced level 8 over and over again until you lost. The last two levels were so fast and chaotic that it was nearly impossible to nail down a pattern that gave you a continued 90 plus percent success rate.
There were lots of tricks. Every thousand points, you would get an extra bucket if you were down to less than three. Every time you missed a bomb, the game would revert back and start you at the speed of the previous level. The perfect strategy if you had all three buckets was to deliberately miss the last bomb that would put you over the next 1000 point bonus so you could go back and rack up all the points you could by repeating the previous level knowing that you’d pick that third bucket back up with the first bomb catch of the next wave at a slower speed.
On the odd numbered levels, the villain would strip the bombs close together back and forth across the wall in a pretty simple pattern. On the even levels, he would spread the bomb drops farther apart and throw in an occasional erratic move at the right side of the wall.
The paddle controllers, while precise, also did show a little drag. One of the controllers was just a little better than the other and my brother and I would always have to call dibbs on the “good” one. One of them had a little bit of a jerkier motion while moving your buckets across the screen. In certain spots you could take your fingers off and the buckets would twitch. Sometimes you would hit that spot at a bad moment and even though the effect was minimal it could cause your buckets to twitch away from where you needed to be causing you to miss.
All of these factors were part of our intense study of the game. And for a short period of time it was big part of our night-life. I don’t know how many hours, days, weeks, months my brother and I put into the game, but we began to take on a rather defeatist attitude about it after a while with talk like “it’s impossible. The 10,000 point barrier can’t be reached.”
We had spent so much time speculating on what the hell the mystical 10,000 point reward could be that we had built it up to being just about anything up to and including the game cartridge jumping out of the console and giving you hand job on the spot. The smart money was on my brother’s speculation that the villain would “tip his hat” to you. Hey, with Atari 2600 graphics a hat tip was a pretty reasonable expectation!
It all came to a head one night. I was pounding through level 8 over and over again approaching 10,000. Finally, I was down to my last water bucket. Almost there! Almost. And then, at 9,998 points, I missed the next bomb. Game Over.
That was the bubble burster and we both pretty much lost our taste for the game. We had both had enough.
We played Atari after that, but Kaboom! was just an occasional joke and we moved on with our gaming lives. This would have been about around 1983.
The story picks up about 12 years later in the mid 1990s. My brother was married and had two kids by this time. I was married but didn’t have either of my sons yet. I was unpacking some old junk in my modest apartment and came across my old Atari 2600. It still worked fine, but the TV/GAME converter box didn’t work, so I literally took the metal end of the cord that went into the switch box and duct taped it to the metal TV antenna and tuned the TV to channel 3. Don’t laugh folks, that worked like a charm back in the channel 3 days of non-cable ready TVs. Crystal clear pic as long as you didn’t bump it.
Anyway. Older. Married. College Degree. Full Time Job. It was time revisit Kaboom!
All the time spent on it when I was younger. Man, no way I was going to whip my skills back into shape, but it was worth a shot.
It took about 90 minutes. I don’t know what changed all those years later. Night after night. Week after week. Neither me nor my brother could break that 10,000 barrier. Then, without touching it for a dozen years, I played for 90 minutes and hit it.
Now before I finish this story, let me say that if you play this game in one of these collections it’s just not the same with a keyboard, XBOX controller or on a Game Boy. It’s JUST NOT THE SAME without the paddle controllers.
In any case, at 10,000 points the villain smiles briefly. Normally, he had a simple “V” on his face that was his mouth frowning. At 10,000, the “V” frown turns upside down into a smile.
What a crock of shit.