Wednesday, November 9, 2022

The Dreadnought Factor (1983)

Speaking as someone who has fond memories of the system, I can't get over how drab these title screens are
Name:The Dreadnaught Factor
Developer:Cheshire Engineering
Genre:Shoot 'em up
Time:2 hours
Won:Yes (52W/52L)

A fleet of the most powerful ships in the galaxy are coming after your home planet, and you need to shoot them all down before they oblierate it. From this simple premise comes one of the more interesting Atari-era titles, and one that actually comes across on-screen rather than just in a text. When I say shoot down those ships, I don't mean like your average game, gunning down individual ships. No, I mean capital ships. You take down a series of capital ships.

The very beginning of the first difficult, those blue things are how many other ships I have, you better believe you can run out

At the start of every game, one of your ships sets out from your planet to initiate an attack run on the enemy dreadnought. The game is incredibly generous with the number of ships you start with on most difficulties. Each one functions as a life and you start the game with ten of them. On difficulties up to 4, you gain 2 per dreadnought destroyed, with difficulty 4+ having 5 dreadnoughts. On the higher difficulties, you get 4 per destroyed dreadnought. You're more likely to run out of time rather than ships, but you'll still need all those lives.

An empty space. There's a surprising lot of this
An attack run consists of your ship flying across open space before finally reaching the enemy ship. This game plays something akin to a shoot 'em up rather than the kind of thing I usually like, as you can't fly backwards, just in a loop over and over again. Instead you can move up and down, along with controlling your horizontal speed. Rounding these out are a laser attack and a bomb. The lasers shoot straight ahead while the bomb drops directly on your current position. You can only have two attacks on-screen at a time between both weapons.
A dreadnought with a good mix of destroyed and not destroyed equipment
The dreadnought, meanwhile, has a multitude of equipment on it. You have laser turrets, in small variety, which usually shoots straight ahead, but later gains the ability to turn. Large laser turrets, which don't fire straight away, but when they do, you notice. Missile launchers, which try to follow your position but can be shaken off if you're lucky, later missiles seem to home in on your better. Rounding out offensive capacity are bridges, which can be taken out to slow down enemy fire, and on higher difficulties seem to shoot out missiles themselves.

Your targets, or at least the equipment on the ship that doesn't actually shoot at you consist of vents, take out all 16 and you destroy the ship. The planet destroying missile silos, take out all five and you can pass by the ship to your heart's content. The engines, all four, take them out to give yourself time. This stuff is what you take out with bombs, all black and red. You can't shoot things you're supposed to bomb or vice versa.

Once you've made your first pass, the enemy dreadnought gets closer, supposedly for a set distance, but it always seemed to me to be faster than that. If you survived, you quickly start another attack run, otherwise a new ship starts its attack run. I'm not entirely clear on how the countdown mechanics work in this game. The way the manual describes it is a very straightforward "no matter how much time you spend fighting, this time is all that happens" while the game itself seems to be shorter than that. Either way, runs continue until you take out the dreadnought or it reaches your planet.

Meanwhile, if you take out all the vents, that dreadnought explodes. Past the second difficulty, this is when the second dreadnought shows up. The layouts on these ships change as you pass through them. The first ship is always some kind of imitation Star Destroyer, then we get to ships whose influence is less obvious. There's a narrow one, a round one with a hole in the middle, and a wide one. There are more, but those are likely to be the ones you'll see for one's playing time. The game goes as far as to include a variation you'll only see if you play impossible for more than 12 dreadnoughts, but that could just be a rumor, I couldn't make it that far.
Eventually, should you manage to take them all out, victory.
The hole in center configuration
I say this, but on harder difficulties this is not easy. That's fairly obvious, its 1983, you can't save and difficulty leans towards "pulling teeth" more than "fair challenge". That said, this game has a better curve than most titles. The easiest difficulty is a practice one, so you're not thrown in the fire without a chance when you start out. Which is a good thing because the game seems to double in difficulty every time you go up a difficulty, at least until the last, Impossible, which appropriately enough puts you in a situation most, if not everyone will find impossible.
A different shot of the hole in center configuration
There are some issues with the game. For instance, the approach to the dreadnought can get tedious, and what's worse, you are frequently put in a situation where if you don't speed there you're waiting for minutes just to reach the ship. While you do get the ability to slowly hear the ship as it approaches, this in of itself can feel slightly deceptive. While the dreadnought gets closer, this is hardly an advantage. Because of the way the game is set up, its very easy for a player to get in an infinite loop of flying straight into the dreadnought only to get shot if things are going poorly.
The narrow ship configuration
I ultimately feel it controls well for what it is, but there are some issues. You have to deal with momentum and you can never fully slow down. Fair enough, but you also have to deal with momentum vertically, meaning you need to train yourself to not end up stopping right in the path of a laser. There's also an interesting issue in that the game might shoot a laser at you, that you have no chance at avoiding.
Difficulty 4, or Advanced was as far as I could reasonably play. Medium, as far as there is a medium, is difficulty 3. I went as far as using save states to keep my progress, and to slightly lower the difficulty. Even with this later difficulties come off as a bit tedious to actually finish.

Playing this was considerably more interesting than I'm used to from games of this era. Rather than vague shapes fighting against other vague shapes, this had very defined concepts that actually worked. It feels like we're getting to the kind of games that show the formation of ideas that would be expanded upon years later. This in my mind plays like a very rough first draft of the space combat in Star Wars: Battlefront 2. While I did like it, its hard to ignore that it was incredibly frustrating to play on anything higher than 4, even with save states.

The low amount of attacks you can have at once makes the consideration of what you should do in that moment very interesting. Take out a vent or shoot another turret? 2/10

I liked them, its a rare case of doing enemies gradually improving well. You start off fighting a ship that doesn't do much before eventually becoming a potent foe. Really, they did about as well as they could have done considering the era. 4/10


An interesting variety of ships, each of which require a different strategy to take down. Yes, they definitely got some mileage out of their limitations here. 3/10

Player Agency:
While there is a learning curve, once I got the hang of things the ship controlled beautifully. I just don't care for the weird way I had to move up and down, which carried momentum to a degree I didn't care for. 4/10

Its kind of hard to say there's much, since everything is an enemy, but the game does allow you to destroy everything in sight. 1/10

A pretty good attempt at putting forth the feeling of taking out hordes of capital ships, and the panic of preventing your home planet from being destroyed. 5/10

I'm impressed they got this much stuff on-screen, moving smoothly at the time. Its all easily distinguishable too. 2/10


Your typical Intellivision sounds, nothing special. 1/10

That's 22. I feel a bit generous, so one more point and 23. That makes it the highest rate game chronologically, even without the boost.

Most reviews, which are in retrospect like my own, are similarly positive. Even IGN. Jesus Christ, I agree with IGN. Curiously, the only negative review, for the Atari 5200 version I didn't play, describes the game as tedious and a pain to control. This seems to be an issue exclusively with the Atari 5200 version, as the same reviewer talked about the Intellivision version much more positively some twenty years later. Something it seems the reviewer didn't even notice...

It remains to be seen if this title will get dethroned from status as best game of 1983. I know of a few contenders, but its hard to tell if they'll live up to the hype, especially at this stage where promising games frequently end up being disappointing.

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