Guest Review by: Jonathan Rose
Activision released several stellar titles in 83 and 84 that
were heavily impacted by the great video game crash in 1983, so
much so that many of them barely got any market penetration
before being pulled from production. Of Activisionís
offerings, none are more obscure than Pastfinder.
Pastfinder (originally called Explorer) was programmed by Dave
Lubar, who also worked on Master of the Lamps and Hacker while
freelancing for Activision. These are highly regarded, top
of the line games, and Pastfinder is no different. Pastfinder
was released on disk and cartridge, and it was the last proper
Activision game to get a cartridge release on the Atari 8-bit
In the game, you are the titular Pastfinder, a member of an
elite squad of time travelers who explore dangerous, radioactive
ruins in search of lost artifacts. Your ship, a fluidly-animated
spider-like craft, crawls and jumps myriads of different levels.
The game is organized around a central map grid of hundreds
of levels, with each sector colored green, yellow or red, an
indicator of that sectorís radiation level (colors differ slightly
in the prototype). The radiation level is tracked via your
Radiation meter, which increases at a steady rate, the speed being
determined by the color of the zone you are in. Radiation acts as
a timer, forcing you to move quickly before the meter fills up and
destroys your ship.
Using the map indicator, you select the direction you want your
timeship to go and select the target zone. You may also receive
hints, via arrows, of the direction in which an extra life may
lie, which often factors into your planning. Once you pick a zone,
you are taken to the Supply screen.
There are four main power-ups in the game. These are selected
before entering a zone. The first three last indefinitely, until
the time ship equipping them is destroyed. The last one is a one
use item. Their functions are as follows:
|Lowers the rate your ship accrues radiation
|Protects you from the
enemy craft's laser attack
|Prevents the enemy ship from tracking/seeing you
|Eliminates all accrued radiation and resets the
All of these are important, but the Heavy Metal and Deradiator
devices are critical for surviving high rad areas. The Beam Shield
and Scrambler become critical later in the game, when the enemy
ships become relentless.
Once you select a zone, you enter the level proper. There
are hundreds of these, and each of them are unique. They all
consist of a vertically scrolling map (the scrolling speed is
controllable by the playerís acceleration), and height in a key
factor, as every item, enemy and obstacle has an elevation.
Jumping changes the timeships elevation, and speed determines the
length of time the ship spends elevated.
The levels themselves are chock full of walls (these come in all
kinds of forms, and can have different elevations, tunnels, and
moving sections etc.), stationary targets (these are either at
ground level, or jump level), enemy ships (always ground level)
artifacts, bases, forts and power-ups.
|Forts and Bases
||You use these to score
|| These come
in a dozen or so forms, and can be shot for points. Some
are airborne, some are at ground level.
||Circular disks that you collect to deposit at
forts and bases, these are the main goal of the game, and
what you are ranked on
|Looking like a stack of wafers, these count as 5
||These credit you one each of Heavy Metal, Beam
Shield, Scrambler, or Deradiator, depending on the type.
||This UFO looking craft randomly attacks from the
top of the screen, homing in on your craft and firing
||A small, bouncing crystal that drops your rad
meter by about a quarter when shot. These are
critical to survival, and a lot of your strategy,
particularly in red zones, revolves around shooting them.
Your timeship can speed up by jumping when you press
forward, slow down by pressing back, and spin left or right. The
fire button shoots a repeating laser on auto-fire. Learning what
you can jump and what you cannot is critical to survival, as is
keeping an eye out for the jumping crystals, as they are the only
in-level target that will lower your radiation level. Effective
use of them is vital to long term survival.
As you move through the level, you must constantly adjust your
speed and height to avoid obstacles, and to get the right altitude
to hit targets, while avoiding walls (high and/or low) and the
random attacks of enemy craft. As you pick up artifacts and time
capsules, your artifact counter goes up. Losing a life via
radiation, collision, or getting shot will halve the number of
carried artifacts, which can greatly affect your final rank (shown
on the supply screen), which combined with the constant radiation
time pressure, adds a nice risk/reward aspect to the gameplay
As you explore the zones, previously explored areas will show in
black. Black zones increase radiation at the original zoneís
level, but are empty of anything but walls. This can be deadly in
red zones, as there will be no way of lowering radiation in level,
so speeding through previously explored areas is a must (as is
having a spare Deradiator or two on hand).
Eventually, after several missions bases (white ovals on the
map, strange looking towers in the level) and forts (black squares
on the map, a landing pad in level) will appear on the map. Once
you make it to a sector containing one of these, you can pilot
your ship to land on them, which will score all of the artifacts
you currently carry, and eventually raise your ultimate rank,
similar to the way Star Raiders works. This is independent from
your point score.
Pastfinder is a brilliant game. Itís challenging, but has a fair
and even difficulty progression. The animation and graphics are
top notch for the era. Play control is incredibly tight, and makes
piloting your timeship intuitive and fun. Deaths always feel fair,
and the result of an actual mistake on your part. The light
strategy elements and huge, non-linear map only add to the
addiction factor, and the incredible number of different levels
always draw you further into the game to explore new areas, even
after many play-sessions. Pastfinder is the perfect swan
song for Activisionís last efforts on the Atari 8-bit line.
Special thanks to Jonathan Rose for helping
write this review.
to 8-Bit Software