Aquaventure: The Game That Deserved a Release

One of the nice things about modern, curated compilations of games from old platforms is that they provide an opportunity for “lost” classics to finally get an audience.

In many cases, “lost” classics were completed and reached a full prototype phase, but just never ended up getting duplicated and distributed to the public. Sometimes this is understandable; at other times, it’s a bit of a mystery.

Aquaventure for Atari 2600, which you can play not only in Atari Flashback Classics but also as part of the Atari Collection 1 cartridge on Evercade, definitely falls into the latter category. This game is good, so why didn’t it get released?

The simple answer is that no-one seems to know. Even the ever-reliable, who generally know the backstory of any Atari game you’d care to mention, are stumped a bit by this one — though they did at least manage to dig up the fact that it was developed by Gary Shannon and Tod Frye, and that it was first released to the public in 2005 as part of the built-in games collection on the Atari Flashback 2 clone console.

Like the best arcade games from the early ’80s, Aquaventure is a pretty simple affair. Playing the role of a nameless diver, it’s your job to descend deep into the abyss beneath the waves, retrieve pieces of valuable treasure and return them to the surface.

Along the way, you’ll have to deal with the jagged walls of the coral reef in which the treasure is hidden, some rather aggressive marine life and an air supply which is frankly inadequate for the job at hand. Fortunately, you have two allies on your side: a mysterious mermaid, who helps you bring your booty home upon your return to the surface, and your friend Trax the turtle, who tracks how much air you have left. He doesn’t actually help you if you get into trouble, he just crawls along the beach at the top of the screen and acts as a timer.

That’s essentially everything there is to know about Aquaventure, since the formula just repeats over and over, getting more difficult each time. The coral reefs get deeper, requiring you to progress through more screens to reach the treasure — and return safely — and the speed of both the undersea creatures and your air consumption increases dramatically.

At heart, Aquaventure is all about score. Since there’s no way to “finish” the game, your incentive to replay is entirely down to your enjoyment of chasing high scores, or simply seeing how long you can survive. And, to be fair, that makes for a very addictive experience, since each game is quick and easy to engage with, making it very likely that upon losing your last life you’ll start again for “just one more” go.

There’s a nice balance of risk versus reward in there, too, in the tradition of the best arcade games. You can score some reliable points simply by making a beeline (or fish-line, perhaps that should be) for the treasure and getting back up as soon as possible, since you get points for advancing screens and collecting the treasure. But you get more points if you shoot the fish and other marine life along the way.

Trouble is, if you shoot a fish or one of its friends, it disappears for a moment before coming back really mad. It sweeps across the screen at high speed, making it significantly more likely to gnash on your tender parts, and is quite difficult to hit. It is not, however, indestructible, as the thrown-together instructions in Atari Flashback Classics suggest; it’s just hard to actually score a reliable hit. But think of the points. Think of the points.

If you’re accustomed to modern games, coming back to Aquaventure will require you to adjust to a couple of things — most notable of which is the fact that Atari 2600 games hail from an age where the concept of “hitboxes” didn’t exist. Rather, collision detection tends to be handled on a whole-sprite basis. The player sprite in Aquaventure is quite an awkward shape, being tall and thin, so you’ll need to bear this in mind when zipping around the various obstacles ahead of you; it’s all too easy to accidentally clip your legs on something, and this is just as fatal as a direct hit to the head.

Once you get your head around this side of things, though, Aquaventure is super-addictive. It may be simple, it may be repetitive and after a certain point the sheer speed of the game demands absolutely perfect play, but it’s most certainly a game that will keep you coming back for more. And this, of course, makes it ideal for handheld play either on the Evercade or on the Switch; you can play a game or three in the space of five minutes and feel like you’ve had a worthwhile, enjoyable experience.

So, with all this in mind, why didn’t it get released? It looks like we’ll never know for sure, since according to AtariProtos it was never listed in any internal Atari documentation, nor was it announced to the press. By all accounts the game itself appears to be complete, though it may well have been that there was more work to do on it prior to an official release; an opportunity to earn extra lives seems conspicuously absent, for example.

The most likely explanation — this is pure speculation, mind — relates to the copyright date of 1983 that appears on some versions of the game’s opening screen. As those familiar with this period in gaming history will know, the 1983-1985 period was a somewhat turbulent time for video game console sector, with third-party manufacturers flooding the market with subpar products, and even Atari themselves putting out some notorious clunkers.

The excess of dodgy games on the market at that time led to what is colloquially referred to as the “great video game crash”, with revenues from the still-blossoming video game industry dropping by a whopping 97% over the course of two years. The problem was so serious that it led some analysts to express concern for the long-term future of video games and the devices with which to play them — and then, to simplify the story somewhat, Nintendo came along with the NES and everything got much, much better very quickly.

The really unfortunate side of this whole period, though, was that the turbulence in the market meant that a lot of games just never made it onto store shelves and into the hands of players. While no concrete evidence one way or the other appears to be forthcoming, it seems likely that Aquaventure ended up caught in all this, and ended up languishing in obscurity until a full 22 years later as a result.

Regardless of what really happened back then, though, we can enjoy Aquaventure in plenty of places today — and you should! While its simplicity might mean you don’t want to play it for vast tracts of time at once, you’ll likely find it’s a title you’ll keep coming back to time and time again. And, if we ever have the chance to see our friends and loved ones again, I suspect it’ll make a great game to base high score competitions on.

Until that time comes, this is still a game I enjoy purely for my own gratification on a regular basis. And with it readily available on both the Evercade and as part of the Atari Flashback Classics collection, I always have a copy close to hand!

More about Aquaventure
More about Evercade 01: Atari Collection 1
More about Evercade
More about Atari Flashback Classics

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