The fiftieth anniversary celebrations continue for Atari with Caverns of Mars: Recharged, a remake of their 1981 vertically-scrolling shoot ’em up (ish) of the same name (minus the Recharged bit, of course). The original game which was one of their home-only titles, rather than a coin-op, saw you making your way down through tunnels, shooting enemies and fuel cells (somewhat like a rotated version of Scramble) before setting a bomb and heading back.
The original was actually pretty playable, albeit ruined by the opened up sections where the screen is full of enemies and rockets and essentially turned into a very basic version of a shoot ’em up but yeah, there was a degree of fun to be had from navigating the tighter tunnel sections and figuring out your way home.
If you’ve been keeping up with the Recharged series, it’ll be no surprise that this remake is the work of Adam Nickerson, the sole developer at Adamvision Studios, as it follows the series’ trends, interface and general aesthetics while tweaking the gameplay from the original formula.
Caverns of Mars: Recharged, changes one core game mechanic but it makes a meaningful difference. Now, when you fire a shot, your ship slows its descent a little. However, doing this uses up your fuel a little quicker so you’ll need to balance fuel consumption against the danger of trying to navigate the levels at full speed. It’s a pretty cool mechanic albeit not a wholly original one as Downwell did the same thing just a few years ago. But it’s definitely an improvement having it there rather than letting the game just play out like the original.
As with other Recharged games you get an Arcade mode where you just play through the levels until you take too much damage and lose your ship. This is a reasonably fun mode that is pretty playable at first but that Atari difficulty does come through and ramp up which does kind of spoil the party a little. However, you also get a campaign mode where you can play through individual levels. This is pretty good if you want to make more solid progress but again, the difficulty does spike before too long.
In both modes you can pick up upgrades and weapons to make things a little easier but there’s definitely an issue with any short range weapons as some objects are explosive and have large areas of damage, meaning that you can’t help but take damage. That just feels unfair and should have been easy enough to playtest out of the game as it’s clearly an obvious issue.
And then there are the enforced ‘upgrades’ between arcade levels where you are given some sort of boost but at the cost of either your fuel or hit-point capacity. Given that the upgrades aren’t usually that good and that you are forced to pick one from a choice of three you probably don’t want, this just all slows things down and feels like a persistent annoyance rather than anything useful, helpful or fun.
However, when Caverns of Mars: Recharged is doing its thing and spacing out the dangers, there’s a degree of fun to be had. Especially when you pick up one of the better weapons and are treated to a laser or some spread fire. Combining the fuel management with some Scramble-style maneuvering is immediately quite enjoyable, certainly more so than the original game. But yeah, it does all start to get a little too difficult and at that point you’ve got a choice to make: give up or continue.
The problem is that continuing just means more of the same but harder. There’s no real incentive to keep going beyond trying to earn some trophies. There is a global leaderboard but we can’t see there being much excitement generated there (which is noticeable as right now we’re still playing Pinball FX which is great for that sort of thing). There’s not even any eye candy to keep you going. As with all the Recharged games, this one has that same flat look to it with solid colours that do a good job of looking how Atari games would logically look if you take the visuals of the Atari 2600 and refine it slowly over the decades but there’s no real variation to it and it all just looks a bit lifeless. It works well enough in terms of keeping the action clear at all times but it’s never particularly interesting or pleasant to look at.
And really, this all sums up the Recharged series as a whole. The games are all reasonably playable, a little dull to look at and lacking any real personality and yet they all feel pretty authentic in terms of being the sort of thing we could imagine doing now (if they still existed in anything but name). The problem is that many games look better than this (although bless them for not going down the 16-bit, pixel art route) and most play better too.
That’s not to say that Caverns of Mars: Recharged doesn’t have any merit. It’s okay but just okay. And that’s sort of okay, right? As long as you don’t expect this to be a shoot ’em up that’ll live in the memory for another 42 years and you don’t mind a tough, but repetitive, challenge then Caverns might be for you.
+ Visuals are clear
+ Controls are tight
- Gameplay isn't always fun or fair
- Upgrades are an annoyance
- Visuals lack any real flare or style
- Finnicky collision detection