Mark of the Mole
Mark of the Mole. If the name alone doesn't intrigue you, then the history behind this interesting piece of Atari history will. Based on the 1981 The Residents album of the same name, Mark of the Mole was an early pioneer in the music game genre. Had it been released, it would have been one of the first games to be based off a rock album (Data Age's Journey Escape and the Journey arcade game came out about the same time this prototype was being programmed). Greg apparently got the idea for this game while listening to The Residents album of the same name while programming his other unreleased game Snow White.
To fully understand this prototype we first need to examine the album from which the game draws its inspiration. Mark of the Mole was the eighth album from the highly influential band The Residents, which was released in 1981. Mark of the Mole was a concept album which was billed as part one of a trilogy (four albums dealing with the Moles would eventually be release). The album tells the story of a group of Moles who come to the surface after their tunnels flood. The Moles arrive in the land of the Chubs and are taken in to become laborers because the Chubs hate hard labor. However after a Chub scientist invents a machine that can do the same labor the Moles have been doing, they are now seen as a hindrance on the Chub society. A brief war follows and ends in an uneasy truce with no clear victor.
Although the story could provide just about anybody with great ideas for an action game, programmer Greg Easter went another direction. Instead of an action or adventure game, Greg decided to make a music game. That's right, a highly original music game for the humble 2600. So exactly how would a music game about Moles work? Read on to find out!
Although the story is complicated, the goal of the game is simple. Controlling the Mole from the cover of the album, you must duplicate the piece of music heard at the start of the game. So how does a Mole make music you ask? With a big hammer, what else?
The surface is divided into three sections: the musical score at the top of the screen which displays your progress on the current song, the keyboard which allows you to enter notes into the song, and the hole which takes you down into the tunnel system. There is also what appears to be a pile of rocks to the right of the keyboard, this represents the Chub city but it doesn't have any function in this prototype. After watching the opening tune, move your Mole down the hole to start the game.
The tunnel system is divided into four identical rooms. Each room is a different color (red, blue, green, and pink) and corresponds to a different note. If you noticed at the beginning of the game, each note in the song had a specific color. These colors are your guide to which note you need to bring to the surface. For example, since the song starts on a red note, you should first go to the red room. Once there, move your Mole about midway up the wall and run into it. If done correctly the Mole should hit the ceiling with a hammer and made a note. Once you have your note, move back to the surface by exiting via the top hole. Beware that there is a nasty bug in this prototype that can cause your Mole to get stuck in the wall if you are not lined up correctly. If this happens, reset and try again.
Once you are back on the surface, move the Mole up to the keyboard and press left. If done correctly the note should appear up in the score. You must repeat this procedure for the rest of the notes in the song. Take note (pun intended) that although it may not be immediately obvious, there are also rests in the song. To enter a rest simple push the keyboard without having a note from the cavern. You can tell when a rest has been entered because the cursor will move on position over. You can push the fire button at any time to hear what you have in the score. Unfortunately there does not appear to be a way to remove notes from the score, so make every note count!
Getting the exact positioning of the notes can be tricky, so here's the solution: Red, Blue, [rest], Red, Blue, [rest], Green, [rest x 5], Red, Blue, [rest], Red, Blue, [rest], Pink.
So what happens when you complete the song? Nothing! Unfortunately it appears that the rest of the game hadn't been programmed yet. Greg Easter confirmed that this particular prototype was an early version of the game which was made specifically for The Residents to show them how the game was coming along. Greg also mentioned that he had a much more complete prototype with more songs and more gameplay implemented such as Chubs that would run around and steal your notes. When this happened you would have to return to the surface and scare them back into the city. There was also a feature that would turn off the note/cave colors and you would have to rely on pitch alone to determine the correct note. Unfortunately the version with these features is now lost.
It is unknown what Atari's plans for the game and how much input the The Residents had in the final design. The overall concept and subject matter of the game seems like it would be hard to market to the general masses, especially if they were unfamiliar with the band itself. The game was never mentioned on any internal documentation, and he only known reference to Mark of the Mole comes from a short promotional video where a two second clip of the game is shown. When Greg left Atari the game was nearing completion, but still had some programming left to do.
Although Mark of the Mole is buggy and incomplete, it shows a lot of promise. The gameplay is like nothing else on the 2600, and was truly unique for its time. Unfortunately the game as it currently stands isn't a lot of fun to play as there isn't any challenge other than getting the notes in the right order. The later version with the Chubs implemented and the 'pitch only' option would make the game a bit more interesting. Hopefully this version will surface some day.