Monday 10 August 2020

Tunnel Runner (Atari 2600 review)

Developer: Richard K. Balaska Jr.
Publisher: CBS Electronics
Released: 1983

Tunnel Runner is a 3D maze game that adopts a first-person perspective.

The object is to escape mazes by finding a hidden key and then locating the exit to the next room. Holding down the fire button displays a map, but it must be used sparingly as Maze Zots constantly roam around trying to eat you! Care must also be taken when exiting, as doors with a down arrow pull you back one room, sideways arrows transport you somewhere else in the maze, and single or double up arrows move you 1-2 rooms ahead. For such a graphically primitive title on an under-powered system, it's remarkable how intense the gameplay can be and it surprisingly evokes feelings of perpetual stress as if it were a survival-horror game. Part of this comes from the excellent SFX which alert you when you're in the vicinity of a Maze Zot, and I like how they become louder or quieter depending on your spatial distance to them. Also, the Maze Zot sprite scaling when you're captured is astounding for a late-1970s console, with the enemy taking up a large portion of the screen. The action could seem repetitive, but what keeps things interesting are the continual additions such as new enemy types and maps that begin hiding the exit. Amazingly, while the first game option keeps the same layouts every time you play, the second variation randomly generates mazes; this is incredible for replayability and it's a feature that's way ahead of its time. The 3D engine moves along at a good pace and a neat detail is that the floors exhibit a helpful flashing texture when you're near an exit. The only issue is the controls, as while they do a respectful job it can be hard to stop on a dime, or keep your momentum while turning corners.

Tunnel Runner is a real gem in the Atari 2600 library and it's hard to put into words how impressive the 3D engine is unless you've experienced it. What's great is that the top-notch gameplay compliments it perfectly and those looking for a unique Pac-Man (1980, Arcade) style title should certainly give this one a go.

Random trivia: The game will crash if you manage to reach Level 130.

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