Atari 2600 Expanded Homebrew Review: Thrust+ Platinum Edition

Matt Barton's picture
Author and Photography Credit: Bill Loguidice
Editing: Matt Barton
Online Layout: Bill Loguidice and Buck Feris
Notes: All photographs were taken directly of the actual products in the author's private collection. Screenshots were captured running the latest ROM version of the game on the Stella emulator.
Also see: AtariAge Thrust+ Platinum product page and Stella, the multi-platform Atari 2600 emulator
Thrust+ Plantinum Edition
(© 2000 – 2003, 16K AA Edition Programmed by Thomas Jentzsch, part of Xype; Published by AtariAge; Cartridge by Pixels Past; Sound Design by Paul Slocum; and Label Artwork and Manual by David Exton; Thrust+ is based on the 1985 Commodore 64 Thrust game sold by Firebird)

Regular readers of Armchair Arcade know that there is a thriving homebrew development community for classic or orphaned game systems. No such system today has a more active homebrew developer community or consumer support than the venerable Atari 2600 Video Computer System (VCS), which debuted in 1977 and held its own in the mainstream consumer market until the late 1980’s. There are now dozens of homebrew titles for the 2600, with more on the way. A common question is, how do some of these homebrews compare to the commercial games of the past? What follows is a review that answers that question for one such game, Thrust+ Platinum Edition (PE), which has been described as a cross between Atari’s arcade classics Gravitar (1982), Asteroids (1979) and Lunar Lander (1979).

Scan of the back of the Thrust+ Platinum Edition box, which distinguishes itself from the prior D.C. Edition with a sticker on the front declaring “PLATINUM EDITION” and describing the product’s genesis. Thrust+ PE is the third revision of Thrust+, originally released in 2000. Thomas Jentzsch, the author, and part of Xype - a loose organization of 2600 homebrew programmers who decided to join together to present high-quality homebrew titles - has steadily provided modifications to that original release. The latest versions are the 2003 cartridge edition, which will be described here, and 2004’s ROM edition, which is the version used for the screenshots.

Thrust+ Platinum Edition cartridge scan.Those familiar with the Commodore 64 (C-64) Thrust (Firebird, 1985), will immediately recognize that it was the direct inspiration for the first 2600 version. The latest version, Thrust+ PE, goes one step further and incorporates a rendition of Ron Hubbard’s original Thrust music, as interpreted by Paul Slocum on the 2600’s more limited sound hardware. So 2000’s Thrust+ replicated elements of Thrust’s gameplay, 2002’s version, Thrust+ DC Edition, added additional controller support, and Thrust+ PE expanded the sound design, creating the final revision that will likely ever be made available on cartridge.

The Thrust+ PE backstory, found on the manual’s inside cover - which also covers some of the gameplay elements - follows:

The Resistance is about to launch a major offensive against the Intergalactic Empire. In preparation for this, we have captured several battle-grade starships, all we lack are the essential power sources for these formidable craft, Klystron Pods. The Resistance would like to commission you, Captain, to retrieve these pods from the Empire’s stockade planets.

Many of the pods are stored deep under the planet surface and are heavily protected by batteries of “Limpet” guns, powered by a nearby nuclear power plant. By firing shots at the power plant, the guns can be temporarily disabled. The more shots fired at the nuclear reactor, the longer the guns will take to recharge allowing you to slip past their defenses. Warning, should you fire too many shots at the reactor, it will become critical, giving you just ten seconds to clear the planet before it is destroyed. Remember, we need those pods. DO NOT LEAVE THE PLANET WITHOUT ONE. Of course, if you have retrieved the pod and feel like wasting the planet, the Resistance will reward your efforts. Once you have retrieved the pod, proceed directly to low orbit where we will jump you to the next stockade.

Intelligence reports indicate that further into the enemy system, they have engineered planets with REVERSE GRAVITY and something…even more deadly…

Scan of the inside cover of the Thrust+ Platinum Edition manual.When played on a real 2600 system, Thrust+ PE offers four different control options, all with a nod to the hardcore gamer. The first option is to use the standard joystick, which rotates the ship using left/right stick movement, fires using the fire button (or thrusts when the shield is active), thrusts by pushing up, and activates the shield or tractor beam by pushing down. The second option is to use a standard joystick with the BOOSTER-GRIP, a device originally packaged with Omega Race (CBS Electronics, 1983). This allows the BOOSTER-GRIP to fire using the trigger button and thrust using the booster button. Atari’s Driving Controller.The third and most optimal control option, which was the one used for this review, is to use the Driving Controller, which was originally packaged with Indy 500 (Atari, 1977), for ship rotation and optional firing, and the FOOTPEDAL, which fires on the yellow button, thrusts on the red button and activates the shield or tractor beam on the green button. The fourth and final option is to use the FOOTPEDAL as above, but also utilize the joystick via the FOOTPEDAL passthrough connector.

Partial FOOTPEDAL box scan.

Thrust+ Platinum title screen.With the controller configuration set, it’s time to begin the game. The first screen is a nicely rendered title screen with energetic opening music. Once fire is pressed, the game begins, with no “grace period.” The player ship is immediately warped into action and the planet’s gravity begins to have an effect. Ready for action!The first order of business is to use short thrusts to keep the ship from crashing into the ground. Seconds after that’s achieved, a green Limpet gun, on the lower right, begins firing. A quick use of the shield - which drains energy - takes care of any shots from the Limpet that get too close. To the lower left is a yellow fuel cell, which can replace lost energy from the use of thrust or shield. In order to acquire fuel, the ship must be directed over a particular spot above the cell to activate the tractor beam, which is the same function as the shield, so using one negates use of the other.

With the Limpet gun destroyed, the ship successfully captures a Klystron pod and must now thrust away from the planet.Once drained, the fuel cell goes away. If shot, the fuel cell is destroyed. In this initial level, it’s important to destroy the Limpet gun as quickly as possible, because the goal – capture of the green Klystron pod – is just to the Limpet’s lower right. In lieu of destroying the Limpet with the ship’s gun, the blue nuclear power plant to the far right can be attacked. The ship descends into the planet’s depths in search of the Klystron pod.The more times the power plant is hit, the longer it takes for the Limpet to get back online. If the power plant is hit too many times, however, it goes critical and the ship must escape – with the pod – within 10 seconds, or the planet blows up and the mission fails. The Klystron pod is captured by hovering over a certain spot and activating the tractor beam, which, as with gathering fuel, takes some maneuvering. If the ship is not over the correct spot, as before, the shield is activated instead.

Additional levels follow the same basic theme, albeit adding more Limpets to contend with and twisty underground caverns to navigate. Other level additions include switches that need to be shot to activate doors, reverse gravity and other surprises, such as the one hinted at in the manual, with “a reward at the end…but only if you’ve completed enough missions!”

There are five game variations and three difficulty levels which affect certain in-game factors, such as the force of gravity and the ship’s rate of fire. There are eight total levels, or planets, but only six – either 1 – 6 or 3 – 8, are available based on the variation chosen.

The graphics are extremely well-done, with no flicker, and are reminiscent of vector graphics, but in a “chunkier” style. Perhaps even more surprising, the visuals compare favorably to Thrust on the C-64. Thoughtful visual touches abound, such as the smoke that rises from a working nuclear power plant, until after it takes a few hits and the smoke is no more. The scrolling of the playfield is also well-done and apparently utilizes a new technique invented by the author just for the game.

The music was discussed earlier, and again compares favorably to the C-64’s Thrust. There is no in-level background music, which is actually preferable with a game such as this that requires so much concentration.

The sound effects are minimal, but every action is accompanied by an effective sound. This effectiveness carries over from the ship’s thrust all the way to the countdown to a planet’s destruction.

I mentioned earlier that the optimal controller configuration is the one that uses the Driving Controller and FOOTPEDAL. Unlike the other methods of control, the Driving Controller allows the ship to freely rotate 360 degrees, which takes both hands, particularly if that controller is also used for firing. The FOOTPEDAL then allows the player’s feet to control the rest of the action, creating a very unique and fun setup. In fact, this setup makes an otherwise single player game into something of a party game.

When I first tried Thrust+ PE and attached the Driving Controller and FOOTPEDAL and started the game, I had two other people with me—my sister and wife. My sister, a non-gamer, took control of the red thrust foot button. My wife, who rarely plays games, took control of the green shield and tractor beam foot button. I used the Driving Controller to steer the ship and fire. At first, it was a challenge coordinating all of our actions, but after a while, a natural rhythm formed and we started having success. Each player had an important function and was dependent upon the other for the single ship’s survival. It was at times frustrating, but the game has this indomitable “just one more try” vibe to it that only the very best arcade-style games have. We played for hours, taking turns at each of the controls, laughing up a storm, shouting at the screen and each other, having a great time; again, with two people that are fairly typical non-gamers.

More recently, a childhood friend - who I hadn’t seen in about 10 years - came over for a visit. Of course it was a great opportunity to play videogames like we used to. Out of the huge collection of classic and new videogame and computer software that I have, the most fun we had and the most played was – you guessed it – Thrust+ Platinum. I worked the FOOTPEDAL better than he did and he “drove” better than I did, so we had our tasks set before us, and, just like in the old days, we did our best to beat this game together. Unfortunately, we didn’t get all the way through, but of course there were several “just one more try” play sessions.

Photo of an “optimal” game setup consisting of Thrust+ Platinum on cartridge, an Atari 2600, Driving Controller and FOOTPEDAL.Besides the audio-visual elements, production values and unique control scheme that can make friendly cooperation an unexpected gameplay element, the way the game “feels” is just right. I want to stop short of calling it physics because that has negative connotations to some in regards to modern gameplay, but nevertheless, the gravity feels sufficiently “heavy,” the ship’s thrust must be handled carefully because of momentum, and “hooking” the Klystron pod and trying to fly with it has an effect on your thrust and inertia, often acting like a pendulum at the bottom of your ship if you don’t maneuver carefully with it attached. This almost real-world environmental reaction is certainly a big element of what seems to make the game enjoyable for so many different people. Add that to literally pixel perfect collision detection - meaning if you crash into something you know it’s your fault - and you have a nearly faultless game experience.

The Thrust+ Platinum 2600 cartridge is presently available from the AtariAge store for a reasonable $35.00 (US), which includes a full color box and manual. For an extra $10.00 (US), you can bundle the FOOTPEDAL, which can be used with any game on any system that uses standard Atari-style controllers, such as the C-64. The FOOTPEDAL is also available by itself for $15.00 (US). Generously, the game is also available as a free ROM download for use in your favorite 2600 emulator. Without the use of one or more Stelladaptor’s on your compatible computer and the right peripherals, you’ll have less of an “authentic” controller experience, but the game is still highly enjoyable using just a keyboard.

Thrust+ Platinum Edition
Advantages – Because homebrew games such as this cater to hardcore consumers, interesting controller options can be and are supported. This is a classic Atari 2600 game that deserves to be placed near the top of any all-time “best of” listing. Can be purchased as a cartridge or freely used in an emulator.
Disadvantages – The most interesting control options will be difficult for many to pull together.
Overall – Must Have (5 out of 5 stars)

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