In a way, it's almost unfortunate that we're stuck using the word "simple" to describe simple games, as this can have the unfortunate effect of implying a lack of depth, or at worst, outright inferiority. Take, for instance, the Atari 2600. There's no denying that those games were quite basic in their design, as dictated by the limitations of the technology, so it's reasonably fair to call them simple. We could also call them fun, but what about innovative?
I'm not just talking about innovative in the "well, it was the first of its kind" or "it would go on to influence such and such" sense. I mean, games that really pushed the accepted boundaries and tried something different. Conventional wisdom might point to a small handful of titles, but many of the 2600's games were surprisingly inventive, even when compared to current games.
China Syndrome is a 2600 exclusive produced by Spectravision, and is exactly the kind of game I'm talking about. It's a fairly bare-bones arcade style puzzle game with a bit of a mean streak. Taken at face value, the crude graphics and "follow the bouncing dot" gameplay aren't all that likely to impress anyone, or to cause the word "inventive" to come to mind, but behind the less-than-stellar presentation lies a slew of fresh ideas that give this game a truly unique feel, and it's painfully addictive!
The story is, you've just been chosen to be the manager of the "Spectra Island" nuclear power plant, located just a few miles south of "Spectraville," but before you can start working, you need to demonstrate your ability to handle a crisis by passing a test. This test is a simulation of a catastrophic emergency in which an earthquake has hit the island, causing radioactive particles to begin leaking out of the core. Your job is to extract these particles using a "joystick controlled" robotic arm. Failure to do so will lead to a Nuclear Meltdown, and possibly to the titular China Syndrome - more on that later. So it's a puzzle game posing as a simulation of a potential Nuclear Disaster. You have to admit, for a 2600 game, that's a fairly unorthodox and (dare I say) post-modern plot. The game's manual sticks with the theme, looking and reading more like an operations manual than an instruction booklet. There's even a map of the region and a cross-sectional diagram of the cooling tower.
Of course, none of this extraneous information has any effect whatsoever on the gameplay, which is pure vintage Atari. There are 9 levels, each of which divides the screen into 3 separate zones, a red one, a blue one, and a yellow one, respectively. You control a robotic arm, though it mostly resembles a cross-hair, and appropriately so. Each of the three zones will emit a radioactive particle, which will bounce around in a style not unlike the ball from Breakout. Your robotic arm can move freely between zones, but the particles cannot. After a particle has been bouncing around for a while, it will "split" into two separate particles, which will proceed to bounce around. Unless dealt with, these particles will continue to bounce and multiply until reaching a fatal tipping point. Needless to say, your goal is to prevent this from happening.
This sounds reasonable enough, and at first, it is. You move your cross-hair shaped robot arm over the target and press the fire button to extract it. You can't move the arm and collect particles at the same time, but this is a minor problem, overcome by moving slightly ahead of the particle and thus allowing it to run into you. This simple skill will become essential as the game progresses. In later stages, you'll also have to deal with cooling vents, which cannot, under any circumstances, come in contact with the robot arm. These vents get bigger over the course of the game, and by level 9, they take up a sizeable portion of each zone, severely restricting movement. As would be expected, the particles themselves also move faster in the later stages.
This is where the puzzle aspect of the game really comes into play. Instead of simply being a game of speed and reflexes, as early console games are so often stereotyped, it becomes a game of increasingly complex mental calculations. You can, for instance, make things a little easier on yourself by observing the trajectory of each particle. Since the three zones are rectangular, particles that are moving more vertically than they are horizontally will naturally bounce off the walls faster and more frequently than ones moving on a more horizontal path, and therefore will split sooner. In the event that things start getting hectic, you can use this knowledge to take out the more troublesome particles first. Also, while your robot arm moves fast enough to keep under control, you'll inevitably hit a point where it just can't keep up with the particles, at which time your only option is to calculate their trajectory, and try to position yourself where they are about to be. This is easier said than done, especially when each failed attempt means the particle keeps hitting the walls, potentially splitting again in the process, thus bringing on more particles that need to be dealt with in the same manner.
Also, let's not forget that this little dance is going on simultaneously in all three zones, so you also need to move from one to the other, which takes up even more precious time. This means that you must constantly watch the entire board, and assess which of the three zones is the most immediate threat, which one can wait a few moments, and if any lucky breaks are about to come your way. It also means that the first few seconds of each stage are absolutely crucial. Each stage starts off with only one particle in each zone, and containing these right away means dealing with a whole lot less additional particles, which is extremely important because, given the game's mechanics, the more you allow particles to build up, the harder it will be to get them back under control. Because of this, your objective can go from laughably easy to maddeningly hard in the blink of an eye. Critics have often regarded this as a design flaw, but the lack of balance actually helps to create the sense of urgency and mounting pressure that would otherwise be missing from such a minimal game.
There are other issues, however, that ought to be regarded as design flaws, or as signs of laziness. There are, for instance, only 9 levels, and while you get a 1-up for ever level you complete, your lives max out at 9, effectively preventing the need for a second digit to be added in either case. The game over sequence is also utterly mind numbing, as you sit and watch the entire screen change from black to red, one row of pixels at a time. I'm sure it's supposed to graphically represent a nuclear meltdown taking place, and is being shown slowly for dramatic effect, but it just ends up being noisy and boring. Beating all 9 stages, on the other hand, simply presents you with a painfully unsatisfying "All Clear" message, while you write down your high score.
Speaking of the high score, the points system in this game could either be regarded as brilliant or sloppy, depending on how you look at it. Scoring in this game is based exclusively on how many particles you catch. One point per particle. That's it, absolutely no extra points to be found... anywhere... at all... ever! Narratively speaking, this makes sense, as a simulation of a nuclear emergency is not likely to contain bonus points, but it also means that you're not actually rewarded for doing a particularly good job. In fact, the better you do at this game, the lower your final score is going to be. Thus, the real challenge of the game becomes one of beating the game with the lowest score possible.
The manual also makes a passing mention that if you take a picture of your "all clear" message, you can send it in and receive "due recognition." Details on how to do this, where to send the picture, or what you'll get are a bit sketchy. Incidentally, Spectravision still operates to this day (under the name Logic3) so I wonder if the offer is still valid.
The game also makes rather creative use of the 2600 hardware. The two difficulty switches are used to determine the speed of the robotic arm (although the faster setting is jerky and hard to control) and the number of lives you start out with, and setting the color switch to black and white will actually pause the game, which isn't much nowadays, but on the 1982, the ability to put an Atari game on pause was very forward thinking. There are 4 variations. A normal more, two hard modes, one of which starts off on level 1, the other on level 5 (for score lowering purposes) and an easy mode, which is essentially normal mode, except the game loops on level 4 instead of progressing.
Hardly the kind of game one would call ahead of it's time, China Syndrome is a clever, strange, sometimes frustrating, and surprisingly fun little game from the 2600 library, and one that deserves a little more recognition than it gets. Given the game's lack of success, finding copies can be a bit tricky, but at the same time, it isn't really a collector's item, so if you do find it somewhere, the price should be at least halfway reasonable.
Well, that's all fine and dandy, but what the damn hell is a China Syndrome anyway?
I don't know a lot about nuclear physics, but it's my understanding (with a great deal of help from Wikipedia) that the China Syndrome is a kind of "worst-case scenario" of what could happen in the wake of a nuclear meltdown. It basically involves radioactive material melting through the floor of the building and sinking into the earth below, causing no shortage of environmental harm. The term itself comes from an offhand remark about how the radioactive material might melt clear through the Earth's core and pop out the other side somewhere in China. This, so I'm told, is physically impossible, but the term stuck.
The phrase was then brought into pop culture through a 1979 movie of the same name, which had something to do with a nuclear plant covering up the fact that the facility was not quite up to code. It's a common misconception that the Atari game is loosely based on the film, but aside from the title and subject matter, the two are actually completely unrelated.