The Qotile Ultimatum

Part of being an inscrutable artist weirdo like myself is that you love it when people buy gifts for you, but you never buy gifts for anyone, because you feel an inner obligation to instead create something for them, which you then you take forever to do, and you just end up looking ungrateful.

On rare occasions I buy gifts for myself, because I am a shifty-eyed loner who enjoys pretending that I have living parents or an unconditionally-loving girlfriend who did the actual purchasing. Yes, I prefer to get zooted and daydream about frolicking nude with any one of a large pool of women whom I could easily contact in person, choosing instead the path of no face-to-face interaction, but also the path with no heartbreak, rejection, or tangible risk. Not to mention, it’s socially repugnant to initiate contact with a woman who doesn’t approach you first. If you’re a woman reading this, there’s a 99% chance I’d have sent you a DM by now if we didn’t live in the World Where Everything Can & Will Be Used Against You, aka 2023. (Or WWECAWBUAY, if you’re into the whole brevity thing.) You have to make the first move. That’s the pickle we find ourselves in, I’m afraid.

As it is with many of us, my life has become so astronomically shitty that the last thing I want to do is possibly increase the shittiness. So I seek out the security blanket of controllable nostalgia. In other words, I gather materials that safely remind me of the “good parts” of the movie that is my life.

We all do this in some measure. Evil forces have caught on to this practice, and thus most of our childhood icons have been compromised and used to manipulate us, or worse, appropriated by sexually stunted, agenda-mongering hostiles hired to shit where they eat. With every tick of the clock, fewer and fewer beloved artifacts of our halcyon years of youth remain untainted by politics, deviance, or artistic incompetence.

Which especially sucks for those of us who have fond, fading memories of friends or family members who aren’t among the living anymore, specifically involving those persons and a movie, song or video game. So you hang on to the artifacts that you can logically defend possessing, as an older person quite possibly leading a shitty life (at the moment, let’s be at least somewhat optimistic).

Okay, so, I always bum out on Father’s Day because my father has been not-alive for the last thirteen years, and presumably will remain so for the future. This makes me bum out. I typically react to this by getting more intoxicated than usual, before going to a “big box” store and hunting a nostalgic fix, because those places remind me the most of going to Sears or JC Penney with my dad when I was a little kid.

Transformers are a reliable source of happy childhood memories in which to wallow, but on this particular Father’s Day a few years ago (2018, I believe), I decided to research and hunt down a much different item, although still within my meager budget. Forty bucks, and one of the smartest purchases I ever made.

Atari Flashback Portable [2nd ed., 2017)

On its own, it came loaded with 80 classic games. On top of that, it has an SD card slot in the top, which allowed me to add the entire Atari VCS library (excluding recent homebrews, games that used cassettes, or cartridge memory behemoths like Pitfall II), which is something close to 700 games.

That’s a lot of fond memories of playing Atari with my dad, for forty bucks.

Of course E.T. is on there. I even have both versions; the original one you can’t win, and the fixed one where you actually can! (Just imagine how much Christmas heartbreak could have been avoided!) Chase the Chuck Wagon is on there, as is Custer’s Revenge, and neither is particularly playable nor appealing. The company-killing port of Pac-Man is there, making it a necessary visual aid when I tell Millennials how terrible video games could be once upon a time. Not only that, I finally get to play the games my dad refused to buy me, and they’re every bit as shit-tastic as he feared they were!

Imagine paying full retail price for Earthworld. Or Stellar Track. Or Demons To Diamonds! Holy shit, the donnybrooks that resulted in the family home when a bad game was purchased! (Some families can tell you what happens when you buy the wrong console, that is, if said families survived the incident intact.)

As a kid I was sent to a psychiatrist who observed me playing Frogger and other Atari games, to see how I handled conflict. My dad found out and I was sent to a different psychiatrist.

Not only is Space Invaders still playable, it reminds me of the time when I was around seven and I couldn’t stop puking for whatever reason, while my dad kept cracking up because the sound the game made when you die was nearly synchronized with my technicolor yawns. I used to fake being sick so I could stay home and play Atari; lots of kids at school did. I clearly remember playing Frostbite and a borrowed copy of the abhorrent Slot Machine while “home sick” from school.

Would you stare at this screen for no monetary reward?

Twenty years ago, a friend and I were researching how to build a portable Atari 2600, scaled down from the original hardware and hooked up to a small monitor screen in a Game Boy-like shell just large enough to accommodate the insertion of original cartridges. The end goal was to sell them for big bucks on eBay. My dad was so impressed by the idea, he gifted me a high-end Dremel set with which to sculpt and drill the console shells and circuit boards. We were gonna use color-changing metal-flake auto paint on the exterior and buttons, but the project fell apart because someone else was already hard at work designing their own for mass market, making the necessary components prohibitively expensive and tough to track down.

My dad would’ve flipped at the sight of the Atari Flashback Portable, particularly its custom almost-complete library (courtesy of the Atari Age forums). Instead of typing into the void of a computer screen, I’d be laughing with my dad about how we almost had a million-dollar idea (and how it wasn’t quite the raging success we’d imagined), and then we’d spend several hours squinting at the thing and passing it back and forth.

A handful of ROMs on the SD card are, unfortunately, damaged. Games for the 2600 could be primitive to the point where it’s hard to tell if they’re even functional. But even though the card contains a strip blackjack game (Blue 21, look it up, actual recognizable titties on the 2600), there’s one old title I play more than any other, on a portable I’ve played more than any handheld I’ve owned in my life.

A game that, at present, is forty-two years old.

Yars’ Revenge is the first game I ever felt addicted to. It wasn’t like Space Invaders, or Pac-Man, where you could only get so good. There were strategies and gambles to employ. It was more complex than “push button, shoot alien”; only at first did it appear as mere colorful shapes and objects. Recently I tried to teach a friend how to play it, and every word out of my mouth sounded like the rantings of an insane person.

“You’re a hyper-evolved housefly that can survive the vacuum of space and convert matter into energy. You can avoid the homing missile by hiding behind that multicolored ribbon thing; that’s the Neutral Zone, but it won’t protect you from Swirls, which you can dodge using the wrap-around warp at the top and bottom of the screen. To destroy the Qotile, you have to eat enough of its shield (or touch it) to activate the Zorlon Cannon, which you aim by using yourself as the crosshairs. So remember to get out of the way. And if you kill enough Swirls and hover in the right place after you do, you get an Easter egg.”

Every word of that makes perfect sense in context. Every word! Here, I’ll prove it!

This is a mini-comic that came free in every box of Yars’ Revenge. I invite you to take a moment and savor that cover image. No part of it was created using a computer, not even the lettering. One of the three artists credited stood in front of a canvas and carefully sprayed paint through an airbrush to illuminate that fantastic scene. Look at the explosions and blast effects; with an airbrush (or spray paint can) and some practice, you could do that. Check out the reflective treatment on “YARS'”! Photoshop tools were later developed to replicate the technique!!!

No font or typeface was utilized for the subtitle at bottom. That’s custom lettering, as is the logo. If I had to guess, going by the indicia and my own hunches, it’s the work of Ray Garst. Frank Cirocco probably did the incredible cover art, galactic map and interior coloring, and Hiro Kimura did the interior line art (for a story written by Hope Shafer). The art director was Steve Hendericks, and the cartridge was programmed by the legendary Howard Scott Warshaw, whose initials are displayed if you trigger the game’s Easter egg.

Ready new recruit? Let’s learn all about the Yars!

We’re off to a great start. These Yars not only know their point of evolutionary origin, they have a photo and location. As you’ll see in a moment, in the early 1980’s, the Atari company was on track to become Earth’s one-stop shop for interstellar space exploration. This did not pan out as promised.

Since the ship headed into the future rather than another solar system, a “strange formation” appeared, and with a THOOM!, the Yars are born from the resultant cataclysm. They lived peacefully, supervising hot barf, flitting about like recalled “Sky Dancer” toys, and admiring the majestic cock-silos they’d erected on three neighboring planets.

But what else can these future bugmen do? What of these “new found powers”?

I have a feeling that the Yars are pretty damn huge, and that the one in the middle of page 4 is actually biting into a canal pipe. Why the Qotile is the Yars’ enemy is never fully explained, but post-1977 it was mandatory to destroy an entire planet as a demonstration of terrible might and evil, so there you go.

I’m glad that “for your eyes only” fell out of usage in fiction. It confused me as a child (why is it specifically for my eyeballs?), and it always makes me think of that wretched Sheena Easton tune. Yes, I know what it actually means.

I think the artist missed an opportunity to make the Swirls look cooler. I get that it’s almost a swastika in the game (a Hindu one, mind), but it’s barely recognizable here. Also, the highly-touted ability to convert matter into energy missiles works on the Qotile shield alone, and nothing else. The Destroyer Missile eventually becomes faster than the player, and makes the game almost unwinnable. Shooting it, the Qotile, or a Swirl has no effect. So what now?

(Credit where due: I know many of you are admiring that excellent drawing of an armored Yar in the center of page 7, and I’d be a cold-hearted bastard if I didn’t gift you a nice clean version, for use as an avatar, wicked tat, or whatever you like.)

The Zorlon Cannon is the means to destroy the Qotile, but it comes at a steep cost. In the easy versions of the game, the cannon appears when you nibble holes in the Qotile’s shield. In harder variations, you have to either eat shield or touch the Qotile (which could become a Swirl and kill you at any moment), then fly to the left side of the screen and touch it to activate the cannon. The hard version (Level 6) is more fun.

Uh-oh, shh- here comes the most important part of the briefing.

“Can you help him?”

I’ve played probably a thousand video games in my life, on a dozen different platforms. Almost no computer thrill can match the glorious sensation of shooting a Swirl out of midair after barely dodging the cannon’s fire, or using it to blast the Qotile through a narrow crack in a moving shield. This deceptively basic game plays even better now than it did in 1981. I’ve now played it in airports, laundromats, office waiting rooms, and hotel rooms in other parts of the country. The game’s droning hum, obviously meant to represent the Yar’s buzzing wings, is a meditational comfort for me, like the chanting of the Om. The hypnotic, psychedelic beauty of the Neutral Zone belies the fact that in reality, it’s the game’s code, distorted and sideways.

And, it must be noted, there’s a great deal to be said for enjoying a nostalgic video game experience for long hours completely separate from the internet.

Unless I tell them, no one on earth has any idea if I’m playing this thing or not. It might as well be a book. I like that about it. It keeps the experience private when I’m thinking about my dad.

Granted, I have to attempt to photograph the screen whenever I want to share something about it on Instagram, say for example a fully denuded dealer at the successful end of a round of Blue 21, or when I kept getting the Yars’ Revenge Easter egg at the laundromat. Or the bus:

On the odd chance that you’re curious, when you hit a moving Swirl with the Zorlon Cannon, the same colorful pattern appears as when you hit the Qotile, but there’s a vertical black bar marking the spot where the Swirl was. If you fly under the black bar on the bottom third of the screen, and stay there for enough time, the game crashes with the message “HSWWSH” above the number of the level you played. That’s the programmer’s initials, forwards and backwards. Circa 1982, accomplishing this was the stuff of schoolyard legends. It was this and the invisible dot in Adventure.

I’m grateful for the Atari Flashback Portable’s ability to rekindle all these memories, especially the ones about my dad, because I miss him. It hurts a lot. If you have a dad, be sure and wish him a happy Father’s Day. If you’re a father yourself, I wish you all the best. You’re life’s backbone, and you don’t get enough respect these days.

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