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Dolphin – Atari 2600

Dolphin – Atari 2600

Dolphin, Activision, Atari 2600, 1983Platform: Atari 2600

Developer: Activision

Publisher: Activision

Release Date (NA): 1983

Genre: Arcade-style games

Nerd Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed by Space Invader


Let’s face it, our world is different than it was in 1983.

For one thing, a game such as Dolphin, released that very year by Activision, could never come to fruition in today’s world. It is mentioned in the manual that Matthew Hubbard, the programmer, intended for his program to spur in gamers an interest in ocean life. This on a 4kb cartridge, with a 1.19 MHZ 6507 processor and 128kb of RAM at his disposal.

In a time when information in the home came solely out of encyclopedia sets and “infotainment” had yet to progress much further than sock puppets, Dolphin almost made sense as a device for aquatic learning. There’s something to be said for that — modern attempts would be ruined with kid-friendliness, stocked with annoying cutscenes starring anthromorphized sea creatures that speak like slow children. Here in ’83, though, we need only stand a poem from whatever stoned Activision moppet was charged with writing manuals.

Dolphin, Matthew Hubbard picture

Programmer Matthew Hubbard, pictured here with his fine flippered friends.

Listen! An endangered dolphin is calling you!
Only by learning the dolphin’s sonic language
can you guide her through schools of sea-horses,
battling a monstrous squid, to gain magic powers
from an elusive seagull. Hurry! Lend an ear …”

-Quote from game manual for Dolphin

You read that quote up there? Magic seagulls. Right. The real reason Dolphin works is that it doesn’t try very hard to educate. The manual features some interesting facts about dolphins. They’re mammals that breathe through blowholes, they feature sonar sophisticated enough to presuppose shapes and sizes of distant objects, they mimic human speech, have been known to save ailing swimmers and boats. The manual implores gamers to visit their local library for more information, too.

The game itself, thankfully, is pure arcade in a deep-sea wrapper. “Here’s a dolphin,” it says, “It lives in the ocean. There are also squids and seahorses in the sea. Now get some points.”

Save the dolphins (or, Meet Berta)

The game stars a dolphin I like to call Berta. Poor Berta isn’t without her share of issues — she’s green, for one — but this doesn’t stop her from swimming merrily at the bottom of the deep blue sea, avoiding seahorses.

The seahorses in Berta’s ocean are a little different than the ones you’ve seen on National Geographic. They have a habit of grouping in odd vertical formations that create an obstacle to her movement. Fortunately, one seahorse doesn’t show up to each of these walls, and Berta must find the “gap” and swim through it.

You'll never catch me, squid.

You’ll never catch me, squid.

The placement of the gap is forewarned by the pitch of a sonar ping. If you hit a seahorse, the little guy slows you down, which doesn’t seem like a big deal.

Still with me? Our antagonist comes in the form of a giant squid with a deep-seated hatred for all of dolphin-kind. He pops up at the end of each level, and you’ve got to outswim him. This is when the importance of avoiding the seahorses becomes apparent — this squid will eat the hell out of you.

There are also seagulls in this game. When the squid is in hot pursuit, a seagull will occasionally appear and swoop down to the surface of the water. Just like in real life, if you touch the seagull at this moment, your dolphin will start flashing radioactively (magic seagulls, remember?) and you can turn the tables and kill the squid.

That’s life in the world of the sub-marine. You didn’t know? Sheesh, read a book.

Walks like a dolphin, talks like a dolphin

Activision titles had a reputation for making monkeys of competitive in-house Atari cartridges, occasionally featuring superior gameplay and always offering more advanced visuals. This case is no different. The visuals do well inspire a feel of hanging out under the sea.

One reason is the little-known ability of the ole Atari to produce 128 simultaneous colors across its blocky 160 x 192 resolution. If used properly, the machine’s arsenal of colors could sometimes be persuaded to dither smoothly in and out of one another, providing visuals that, in a still frame, at least, could occasionally rival the next-gen (at the time N.E.S.), with its 15 on-screen colors. Hell, the Genesis, two generations down the line, could only produce 64. While the Nintendo had the upper hand when it came to memory, resolution and everything else that involves making a picture that actually resembles, well, anything at all, the 2600 could look half decent in the hands of the right programmer.

Got to ... touch ... the magic seagull

Got to … touch … the magic seagull

This advantage, frequently exploited by Activision, was seemingly ignored altogether by Atari, who produced games that resembled giant building blocks. But I digress. The water looks watery, the sunset, in particular looks sunset-ey, with clouds that actually drift across the horizon, and the dolphin looks, well, green. This is still the Atari, people. You can’t win ’em all.

The sounds of the deep sea

If pretty pictures on the 2600 are a surprise, the real shocker in Dolphin is that the sounds aren’t maddening. Simply, Atari 2600 games tend to sound uglier than a toddler on a 30-year-old Realistic(tm) synthesizer set on “violin.” This is the non-embellished truth. Even the best-sounding games for the system tend to feature shrill beeps and droning bops that inspire quick reaches for volume knobs and “mute” buttons.

Mr. Hubbard (the dolphin-loving programmer, remember?) somehow found a way to work with these beeps and bops, reproducing fairly effective sonar pings that echo as Berta laps around the deep blue. It’s the only 2600 game I can think of that actually sounds relaxing. The sounds offer important audio clues, as well, hinting at the opening of those weird schools of seahorses.

The lowdown

Whether you’re partying like it’s 1983 or like it’s 2015, this is not a common game. Then, as now, themed game settings tend to be little more than minor aesthetic changes to tired, common game engines. Dolphin may not be quite as fact-conscious as, say, the Discovery Channel, but its gameplay mechanics borrow nothing at all from its early-’80s contemporaries. You’re not a dolphin-shaped shooting device killing odd-looking creatures, and you’re not in a maze full of Pac-Man ripoff pellets, you’re a dolphin surviving in the ocean.

The dolphin is flashing radioactive. Which means it has touched the magic seagull. Which means this squid has seconds to live.

The dolphin is flashing radioactive. Which means it has touched the magic seagull. Which means this squid has seconds to live.

Written by Space Invader

Sometime in the early 1980s, in the heart of the Silicon Valley was born one Angelo. No one knew it yet, but he would grow up to become the mighty Space Invader, master of the old technology and writer of the third-person profile.

The Atari 2600 and Xbox 360 vie equally for Space Invader’s heart, but he can’t seem to choose one and settle down. Something is just so appealing to consoles that have names featuring numbers between 300 and 3000.

Little is known about Space Invader’s past, but he is rumored to drive a Buick and is said to have a tremendous singing voice.


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  1. “Gain magic powers from an elusive seagull” is the greatest string of words ever written in regards to anything.

    • Space Invader
      Space Invader says:

      Right? It was definitely one of the few cases that absolutely necessitated quoting the manual. Good luck finding the programmer’s new wave band on the Web, though.

  2. wow what a weeeird yet kinda cool looking game! Great review!


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