Review by Retro
Reviewed: 04/24/01 | Updated: 11/21/02
A game full of fires, fun, and frustration
When a fire starts, it can turn into a deadly situation in a flash, especially when it's a towering skyscraper that has caught aflame. In a matter of minutes, the whole building can come tumbling down. Unfortunately, the same holds true for human beings. Whether a person is a punk or an admirable person with envious achievements, everything they own, everything they are, can be gone all of a sudden when a fire becomes their unwelcome neighbor. It's up to the heroes, the firemen, to put their safety in risk by extinguishing this towering inferno to save the landmark, and more importantly, to save the many lives that are in their hands.
The instruction booklet calls them firemen, but when you start a game of Towering Inferno, you'll grimace at the statement. Nine buildings with nine floors each are inside this Atari 2600 cartridge. Four terror stricken survivors are trapped on each floor behind a white window that's located at the top of the screen in each floor.
Upon entering a level and beginning the gameplay, you'll wonder why the instruction manual calls what you control a fireman, and why it says that people are inside the building. The 'fireman' looks a lot like one of those gardening tools that you use to water plants with, but I guess with a little bit of imagination, you might be able to make it out to be a living person. Anyway, you'll hear and see a room full of wild, hyperactive W-shaped flames burning all over the place the very second you enter a room.
Unlike what would be the case in real life, you don't have to put out each and every one of the flames. Really, if you can sneak by them all, you don't have to extinguish even a single one. But there's so much fire that you'll always have to shoot some ice cold water on a good number of the fiery beasts. The instant that even a speck of water touches a flame, the fire will either disappear completely or break down into a smaller being, based on its size. Many of the fires go through the walls and jump from one side of the screen to another. No matter what, the fires, whether tiny or gargantuan, are always very unpredictable in their movements. This makes for a great challenge from start to finish.
As mentioned before, at the top-center part of the screen, there is a white block, which is a window that the survivors are hiding behind. This window is what you're ultimately going for from the very start in each floor.
Make your way from the bottom of the screen to the top and just throw some water on the window, and you'll hear a refreshing sound as a barrier at the bottom right part of the screen opens up. Make it through this barrier alive and you'll be transported to a screen with nice graphics that shows the building from the outside. You and the survivors are all inside a helicopter that flies from the top of the building to the ground below to let the survivors out (that's what it does, even though it appears that the helicopter lands and then shoots three bullets out the front of it). You'll notice that a few stories of the building are now absent of flames (this is because you just rescued the people and put out the fires!). Then it's on to the next section of the lit up skyscraper!
Anytime a flame touches you, you are instantly transported back to the very bottom of the screen, even if you've already opened the window at the top (of course the window will close and you'll have to do it all over again as frustration settles over you). While the hot as hell fires may keep you from getting to the survivors as fast as you want to, your biggest enemy is the time. The first few floors of a building are fairly easy; you'll be given a good amount of time to rescue the helpless people from the blazes. As you get higher and higher up the building, the time allowed for making your rescue will lessen considerably. If your time happens to run out completely, you've just disappointed the fire chief and your game is over.
Let me be the first to tell you, Towering Inferno is not an easy game, at all. In fact, it's downright tough. There are nine buildings waiting to be extinguished, but even completing one of the buildings borders on impossible. If you do make it to at least a second building, you'll see that the floor plan (how the solid barriers are arranged in a room) of that building is a good bit different, and more challenging to get around than were those of the previous building. This is a real neat attribute to see in an Atari 2600 game, and it's well worth mentioning.
To make the attempt at finding success a stronger one, the makers of Towering Inferno threw in seven variations for us video gamers. Three of the games are one-player, and the other four are two-player, turn-taking style. In most of the games, you just play as long as you can as you try to rack up your score and see how many buildings or floors you can clear. Something that I really like is the inclusion of two ''practice'' variations. In these, you get to play the game as you always do, except that when you get what would normally be a game over, you get another chance! You get as many continues (there are two of these practice variations, one for one player, and one for two players) as you want! Moving the Difficulty Switch around also presents you with some variety, by allowing or not allowing you to see flames that decide to travel through walls.
Towering Inferno is a game that has interesting and entertaining gameplay, and most of its other attributes are nice as well. The controls are a little on the touchy side when moving around, but they're easy enough to get used to. The graphics are colorful and well done in ways, but not so well done in other ways (see what I said earlier about the firemen's looks, the screen in which the helicopter flies to the ground, etc.). Music is totally absent, but many clear and nice sounds are here to be heard. From the sound of the fires burning like an endless hell, to the cheerful sound of extinguishing a fire, to the sound of the helicopter flying, Towering Inferno's sounds are one of its best attributes.
So why does Towering Inferno not get a score higher than the barely above average of 6? The answer all lies in the word frustration. As I said earlier, they expect you to make it through nine entire buildings to complete the game, but it's so damn hard to make it through one building (playing any of the variations other than the practice ones of course) that it almost makes you forget about the game's good attributes. This is all because of the way the time limit goes from being generous at the start (about 20 seconds for each survivor), or bottom of a building, to being downright unfair (about 5 seconds per survivor) by the time you reach the top extremities of the burning landmark.
Though it's overly frustrating, I'm still a fan of Towering Inferno. Along with the mostly nice graphics, crisp sounds, and good fun, it manages to be fairly addictive. Something just keeps pulling at you to play the game over and over again to clear at least one building of hotheaded heat, or to just see how high of a score you can obtain. Playing the game with a fellow video game player also proves to be a good bit of fun.
Towering Inferno is one of the three Atari 2600 games I have that are made by U.S. Games, a little known third party. The other two are Word Zapper (all around awfulness) and Gopher (all around averageness). Without a doubt, Towering Inferno is the best of those three, and I recommend it to any avid Atari 2600 game collector. It may not become one of your favorites for the system, but it would be a solid addition to your growing library.
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