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  • Writer's pictureJoe Pace

Player of Games, #67: Phaser Patrol

Some games were just too big for eight bits. And so Atari came up with the Supercharger, a cartridge you would plug into the console that had a wire leading to a cassette that had to be played on a tape deck. If this sounds more like a Mission Impossible plot than a video game exercise, welcome to 1982. Everything was being figured out on the fly by stoned twentysomethings in California basements. But from out of the madness, such joy. Two of the best Atari games of all time were accessible only via that kind of Rube Goldberg jerry rigging. The better of the two, and a true game changer, we'll get to later on. Today, I'm talking about Phaser Patrol.

This game had a mind-blowing two screens the player would toggle between using the Hard/Easy difficulty switch on the Atari 2600 console. The first screen was the strategic display, showing thirty-six boxy sectors of space. Initially, a couple of friendly sectors are evident, while the rest are full of the unknown. You'd pick one, flip the switch, and be off to the tactical screen. Maybe it was empty. But maybe there were hostile Draconians, ready to attack in their traditional paired formation. As the titular phaser patroller, you had four onboard systems to concern yourself with (and which could take damage from enemy fire): Shields, Torpedoes, Long-Range Scanners, and the Computer (for targeting and navigation). For Star Trek kids long since weaned on the Original Series, this felt just right (though even at our tender ages we noted the mild contradiction of Phaser Patrol pilots relying solely on torpedoes). The game had a fluid, engaging first-person ship-to-ship battle engine, and the ability to warp to a safe sector for repairs and then back into the fray was something new to an arcade generation not yet exposed to the concept of the saved game.

I was seven and my brother nine when the Supercharger came into our Atari lives. This was essentially the breath before the plunge, the time when the poor little Atari was doing its best to cling to relevance before video gaming jumped ship to the far greater possibilities of the home computer. I can still remember playing this, though, for hours. Well, my brother played. I was the navigator. I think that meant I watched him play, inhabiting a sort of First Officer role, warning about low shields or lurking bogeys. And at the time, that was good enough for me.

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