Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Arcade Games of the 70's: Canyon Bomber

Over the last couple of weekends, local friends and occasional blog-readers Pungent Onion and Twiggamortis made the trek down to the game room proper to check out the new Spider-Man pinball, and although pinball was the main attraction, the ol' MAME cab got some play as well. One of the oldies-but-goodies that got the most play this time was Atari's Canyon Bomber - and since I haven't thrown around any blather about that one on here, well I figured it was time.

Canyon Bomber is another of those games that I played on a home console as a kid (Atari 2600) but was never even aware that it was an arcade port until I discovered it on MAME, and then finally got the opportunity to play the real machine in person when I made the pilgrimage to the American Classic Arcade Museum back in 2010.

Back in 1977 Atari was a serious player in the arcade scene. They had released Breakout the year before which was a huge hit and spawned numerous clones so they were on the lookout for their next big game. Their research staff combed the streets compiling opinion surveys which all pointed to one simple conclusion - the public demanded blimp and biplane bombing action. In response to this public outcry, Atari elected Howard Delman, who had just completed his first arcade game for them called Super Bug, to design both the hardware and the software for this new bombing game.

Rather than creating new hardware entirely from scratch, Delman took the existing board for Atari's Sprint 2 and made some clever modifications to enable it to produce an entirely different game. With the hardware in place he proceeded to write the software, and after many grueling hours (OK I don't really know - he may have banged it out in a day) he finished up the code for the game and turned it in to his supervisor at a mere 3KB in size - roughly the same as an early Atari 2600 game. His boss's response - "3K?!  What do you think, ROMs grow on trees?! Jesus Christ Tolstoy, think you could shave a few chapters off that tome?!" (I paraphrase).  Delman recounted the scene in the June 2008 issue of GameRoom Magazine:

“In those days, memory chips held 2K bytes of code, and compared to other electronic components, were considered ‘expensive.’ Thus, a program that was just one byte over 2K required a second pricey component. There certainly were games at the time that used more than 2K of ROM. Super Bug was 6K. But my supervisor, Steve Calfee, always liked to challenge people. So when my code came in at around 3K, he said, ‘I bet you could get it down to 2K, and save the cost of the second memory chip.’ Never one to back off from a challenge, I went back to work. With judicious scrutiny of every routine, I was able to finally shrink it to 2K. In fact, it was exactly 2K. There is not a single extra byte in the ROM."

And so, weighing in at a sleek and sexy 2KB, Canyon Bomber was released by Atari in November 1977 with the bold promise of "exciting new blimp and bi-plane bombing action".

At its core, Canyon Bomber didn't stray too far away from the ball-breaking-through-the-wall formula of Breakout, but it flipped it upside down, added gravity and took away the bounce. It also added a few other twists that turned it into a game all its own. In Canyon Bomber you pilot a blimp and a biplane high above a canyon that is filled with boulders - the manual calls them "bubbles", but that doesn't make any sense so I'm going with boulders. Your job is to clear out those boulders, all of which are marked with a point value from 1-4, by dropping bombs on them. Every time you destroy a boulder, its corresponding number is added to your score, so obviously it's preferable to hit the boulders with the higher number. I must say that after playing pinball where millions of points are thrown around like beads on Mardi Gras it was kind of refreshing to play an old-school game where a hard-fought victory is won by a score of 409-401.

When the game starts both players are piloting blimps which fly slowly and higher in the sky. After half the boulders have been destroyed the players switch to biplanes which fly faster and lower. This helps speed the game up when there are fewer bombing opportunities and also offers a slightly different aiming challenge.  At the beginning of each bombing run your aircraft appears at either the left or right side of the screen and steadily flies in a straight line over the canyon until it disappears off the opposite side of the screen. Your task during each of these trans-raster flights is to drop at least 1 bomb on a boulder. If your bomb doesn't hit a boulder or if you fail to release a bomb, that is counted as a miss - and after 3 misses your game is over.

You can only drop one bomb at a time but after that bomb has detonated you can drop another one and you can drop as many as you want to during each bombing run - just don't get overeager with the rapid-fire and miss. As you bomb the boulders they disintegrate and any boulders that are located directly above them tumble down to fill the crevice you just created so it gets harder and harder to hit a boulder with each progressive bombing run.

And to make things a little more difficult - the opposing player (human or computer) is flying their aircraft at exactly the same time with the exact same mission so not only do the boulders get more scarce the longer you play, but when there are only a few left you are both gunning - er, bombing - for the same boulders. So you have to balance your timing and aim with strategic thinking to avoid your opponent stealing your boulder out from under you. Whoever has the most points when both players have used up their 3 misses is the winner.

It sounds pretty simple, but it gets difficult fairly quickly as the number of easy target boulders rapidly diminishes.  If you are able to destroy all the boulders on the screen the screen refills with a fresh new supply of boulders flown in from a nearby canyon for your continued gaming pleasure. I'm told that this refilling occurs twice, but I don't think I've ever cleared an entire canyon more than once so I don't know.

The graphics, as one would expect from a 1977 game, are fairly simplistic, but they are colored with all three monochromatic shades of the rainbow - black, white and gray.  Electronically the canyon is expressed as a featureless black silhouette.

But this display is nicely spruced up by the overlying artwork on the monitor bezel which combines with the canyon silhouette on the screen to actually provide a bit of a 3D effect to the scene. And in addition to making the canyon look much nicer, the bezel artwork also adds another dimension to the difficulty as it partially masks some of the boulders along the edges of the canyon.

Note that the ONLY thing you can control is the timing of your bomb release. Selection of the aircraft, altitude, speed, direction - all those details are controlled by the computer. The player's only control is a single button. 1 BUTTON! Not too many games can make that claim, so I think I can safely say this is my favorite 1-button arcade game. In fact the one-button action played an important role in the selection of Canyon Bomber during Twiggamortis' trip down as he introduced me to a little game he calls Edward 40-Hands which entails duct-taping a 40oz beer (Old English in this case) to your hand. Apparently the proper rules require you to tape one to each hand but that sounded like a sure way to get beer spilled all over the machine so we went with 1. By the way - Golden Tee was the other 40-Hands game for the evening. But I digress.

In addition to the 1-button controller, Atari also added a High Score Reset Button to the control panel.  Back in those days saving a high score was still a pretty novel concept for video games and they were erased every time the machine was turned off anyway so I guess the inclusion of the reset button isn't all that peculiar, but still it seems to defeat the purpose of saving high scores a little if any knucklehead can just hit the button and wipe it clean. I guess maybe gamers in those days were more concerned with tracking their high score achieved in each individual sitting as opposed to all-time.

I will say that the 1-player game gets dull fairly quickly, so I don't play it much by myself. The computer player just basically holds the fire button down and fires indiscriminately so once the boulders start getting thin he (she? it?) is no competition whatsoever. But if you have a friend to take the stick of the opposing plane then this simple little game can be a lot of fun.

I read that David Nelson of Manchester, New Hampshire holds the official record for Canyon Bomber of 1,399 points set on November 17, 2007.  Finally, a high-score record that doesn't seem THAT much higher than my high score!  (1,021).

To experience the arcade game properly you'll have to either track down a real cabinet (ACAM in New Hampshire is the only location I've seen) or boot up the ROM in MAME because like most of the simplistic arcade games of the 70's it never received an arcade-perfect port since by the time consoles were truly up to the task everyone had lost interest in the game. That being said, in 1978 Atari did a halfway decent job of porting Canyon Bomber to their new console the Atari VCS - known later of course as the Atari 2600 - which is where I was introduced to the game.

I suppose they captured the gameplay well enough on the 2600 port, but I only vaguely recall playing it when I was a kid and never considered it to be on my list of favorite Atari 2600 games so it didn't make much of an impression on me. And although I consider the arcade game to be marginally playable as a 1-player game, I can't say the same for the Atari 2600 port at least in this day and age. You pretty much HAVE to have a second human present for that one to keep your interest for very long at all. The cartridge contained 8-variations of the game, including for some reason the completely unrelated "Sea Bomber" which smacks more of a recycled but less fun version of Air-Sea Battle (which IS one of my favorite Atari 2600 games). And for some reason Atari elected to forego the blimps and biplanes altogether and went instead with horribly drawn helicopters and jets. Atari, did anyone ever ask you for helicopter and jet bombing action?  No. I believe the original request was for blimp and biplane bombing action. Stick with what got ya here will ya?

If you'd like to try the Atari 2600 port of Canyon Bomber and you don't have Stella up and running you can play it on Vizzed HERE.

Although the arcade version of Canyon Bomber never got its due respect, the Atari 2600 port has been included in a few different retro Atari collections including Atari Anthology on PS2 and XBOX, Atari - 80 Classic Games in One on PC, and the Atari Flashback Classic Game Console which plugs directly into your TV.

So in a nutshell, Canyon Bomber is at least worth a look if you're playing solo, but like I usually find myself saying on these really old video games, it really shines as a 2-player game. So grab your 40, boot it up in MAME and check it out - just be sure to download the artwork file too so you have the canyon overlay. Bombs away!

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gnome said...

Another amazing retrospective on an arcade that I was never aware of.

Then again and to my defense Canyon Bomber is a bit older than me, but still...

The one button elegance of the design is especially impressive in its innovation.

Thanks for the lovely write-up dear MadPlanet.

MadPlanet said...

Thanks Gnome! Wish I could make the same claim on Canyon Bomber's age versus my own but alas, I cannot. Give it a shot on MAME if you get a chance - the one-button control panel translates perfectly to 1 button on a keyboard and 2-player play works fine on the keyboard as well.

Fallguy40 said...

I don't think I've ever played this one but I might give Edward 40 hands a try sometime.

MadPlanet said...

Just have a nice soft place to lie down ready.

Oh - and you don't even need the elusive mythical arcade stick controller for this one Fallguy so you got no excuse not to pull it up on MAME and check it out! ;)

Greg L. said...

These are sweet! I was looking to start a retro arcade like this a little while ago, and I'm on my way to a really great game room. I found the best game room store and have been working on making my room a lot like this! Thank you for the inspiration! said...

Love Canyon Bomber, and agree its a much underated game. Can't agree with you on the Atari VCS game, though. Totally addicted to that on my DS in one-player mode.

MadPlanet said...

Thanks for the comment! "Love Canyon Bomber" - now there is a statement you just don't hear often enough - and obviously I echo the sentiment! Maybe I was too harsh with the VCS port, I'd be willing to go back and give it another try. But I've never played them on a portable device. The perception of the game on a DS collection might be a bit different than on a VCS cartridge/console setup.

The Dark Rift said...

man that's awesome!

MadPlanet said...

thanks Dark Rift. Haven't heard much from you here or on 8-Bit Dreams in a while. You taking a break from posting stuff just like I am?

The Dark Rift said...

@ madplanet

yes. I got very busy doing stuff for a living. Its kind of hard to earn right here so it needs a double effort really. glad you are back sir!

The Retro Brothers said...

This is a real classic game that doesn't seem to get the recognition it deservers

The gameplay is simple yet deceptively compelling

A real classic for me!

MadPlanet said...

Agreed Retro Bros - a fairly unheralded classic. Simple but fun just like a good arcade game should be. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!