Music Meets Gaming – Journey Escape

Sometimes, the search for a video game can rival the search for an album. Finally found one! It’s really nothing to rave about, but when I finally spotted a copy of The Legend of Zelda for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) at what I deemed to be a fair price, I couldn’t pass it up. Sure, the gold casing has seen better days and I needed to manually solder in a new battery to save game progress, but this legendary game sells for a much more than you’d think considering how common it is. I got it for a reasonable price, and can always appreciate the reliable adventures Link can provide me for a few hours on a rainy afternoon.

Journey Escape may be on the opposite end of the video game spectrum, though I can say this about virtually any Atari 2600 game. Most home console games from the early 80s required a massive amount of imagination to determine what is on the screen, have little replay value when comparing them to those released on consoles even five years. Considering that there was rarely much depth to any console-based games before the NES came around, so to make any direct comparison between Journey Escape and The Legend of Zelda wouldn’t be proper. The fairest method of judging an Atari 2600 game is to compare it to other Atari 2600 video games.

In that regard, does Journey Escape hold it’s own? Let’s take a closer look.

 

First off, if anyone reading this is an aspiring video game collector, this is among the most affordable you could hope for. When I re-acquired an Atari 2600 a few years ago (I sold a Schecter seven-string guitar to free up some money), this was one of the first dozen or so games that was bundled with the console. I would have thought that Journey Escape was a solid seller because I see it all over the place, right alongside Pac-Man, Defender, Missile Command, and a certain movie-licensed game that should not be referred to by name (the Macbeth of video games). Either that or they were giving the things away at their concerts, firing them out of cannons into the nosebleeds during their their second encore. Bootlegging of Atari carts was common practice, but maybe not to the degree that ones of this game could be obtained alongside counterfeit t-shirt vendors on the outside. Nonetheless, a very common game.

The plot of this game is as straightforward as most of the era. This is essentially a rock star simulator. The band has finished a concert, and they band needs to get to their escape vehicle (the Scarab-shaped thing illustrated on the cartridge) to get to the next gig. Sounds simple, but you need to avoid running into groupies, promoters, photographers, all of which want to steal a chunk of the $50,000 you need to protect. Managers and roadies help provide additional assistance to the band, each providing a different way of keeping your hard earned income through invincibility and cash bonuses. I’m leaving out plenty of detail here, but the instruction manual (found here) explains all.

If you do click the link to the manual, you can see the character sprites in all their glory. The manager resembles the Kool-Aid guy, the photographer either an egg resting on a cup or a crystal ball, and a heart with legs represents groupies. For these depictions, the game can lose no points. These designs actually show solid creativity given the graphic capabilities of the Atari 2600. I really can see these things for what they are intended to be: a “mighty” guy with a crown on his head, a camera with a flash of light emitting from it, and… no, that heart with legs is still creepy as hell. More motivation to keep your distance, I suppose.

 

The game is named after Journey’s seventh studio album, Escape, but it’s hard to determine how connected the album and game are not having the album myself. The song “Keep On Runnin’” seems an obvious link because that’s all this game consists of. I’m not sure that each band member would have the stamina required to make it through the crowds with the type of precision necessary, especially if they were smokers or heavy drinkers as is the rock-star way of life. Should Journey not have placed their name on this game, it could as easily have been given to an Olympic-level athlete: Bruce Jenner’s Escape, Sebastian Coe’s Escape, or Waldemar Cierpinski’s Escape (that one has a great ring to it, I must say!).

Of course, few Olympians had the staying power of Journey, and the corresponding televised marketing campaign made great use of the band’s popularity. The game’s commercial shows concert footage of the band mixed in with shots of the game on television. The sprites used for each band member is not nearly as colourfully dressed as they are in their stage clothes, but at least this clip is honest about the plot. The footage may be somewhat misleading, but the claim of “The world’s first rock video game” should be put up for debate (Asteroids, anyone?). Some of the members of Journey even chimed in on an MTV News segment, where drummer Steve Smith, a self-professed video game expert, give the game his stamp of approval. No conflict of interest there, right?

 

Steve Smith demonstrating his joysticking technique (I hope)

Not many people would fathom dusting off their Atari to play Journey Escape, but I’m not many people. To re-familiarize myself with this title, I turned on the system to see how long it would take for me to tire of the game, and also how high a score I could achieve. Most gamers will tell you that you can play the Atari 2600 using a Sega Genesis controller, so it may be easier with that, but I always use the joystick to feel the authentic frustration brought about by the hardware’s limitations and age.

The opening title screen plays a song of worldwide fame, “Don’t Stop Believing”. And speaking of believing, you pretty much have to go on faith that is what you are hearing. For Atari sound standards of the day, it’s a solid job. Practically every other noise the game emits grated my eardrums to no end, making me wish I bought the matching album, threw it on the turntable or in the cassette deck (I’ve got to go with 1982 technology) and muted the TV. Which reminds me, I don’t know if it’s just in my neck of the woods, but I never come across Journey’s more popular albums when looking through assorted record bins at flea markets or rummage sales. I’d gladly pick Escape up for a few bucks, if only to provide the game with the soundtrack it rightly deserves.

The order in which the band escape to the vehicle goes as follows: drummer Steve Smith, keyboardist Jonathan Cain, bassist Ross Valory, guitarist Neal Schon, and singer Steve Perry, who likely would be swamped by the most people in reality. You can tell each person apart by their initials that appear near the top-right of the screen. The first person begins with a minute to leave the concert safely, and any additional time remaining gets added to assist the next man up. Did I ever help them all escape? To best walk you through the experience, allow me to recap the best of my achievements.

After several stumbles, the first run of mine that resulted in finding the scarab in Level 1 ended up being my best run. Lead-off man Steve Smith, moving his feet as if his bass drum pedals were attached to them, managed to find the vehicle with 3 seconds to spare. Not wanting to be outdone by the guy who’s routinely mocked as “the guy in the band who hangs around musicians”, Jonathan Cain gained the team an additional six seconds, and the cash total climbing back up to $47,100. Not all credit goes to Mr. Cain, as he met a good friend in the manager along the way, who may or may not have provided him a refreshing, powdered beverage. Ross “The Boss” Valory kept the rhythm section from splintering, gaining a surplus of cash from multiple roadies on his way more gains in his finish time. He threw a flying knee to the top of the vehicle, as unconventional a method as any to enter a car. Regardless, that left a whopping $58,200 in funds plus 1:13 on the clock. That kind of pressure proved to be too much for Neal Schon to bear. In spite of his best efforts and time advantage, he hit too many sleaze-bag promoters and gear geeks asking questions that would leave his guitar tech scratching his head, and came within two sprite lengths of the scarab as time expired. I never took note of the cash total remaining, but I’m certain the groupies smelled him coming a mile away, pinched his wallet and left him for dead as they often do. Unfortunately, Steve Perry remains locked in the dressing room, trapped in the cartridge like a genie in a bottle. In spite of other gossip circulating, that’s the real reason you’ll never get a proper Journey reunion.

All in all, I had a good time revisiting Journey Escape, especially once I figured out that you could run horizontally up the screen instead of just diagonally or upward. The learning curve of the game isn’t steep, and ramps up appropriately as you progress. As for negatives, you appear to be at the mercy of lady luck when it comes to encountering the roadie and manager characters that assist you, as I has a few runs where I didn’t see any of these allies appear. Unless you can cross a level where you run into only a couple of obstacles, being able to jump into invincibility mode is needed to get through a level. One aspect that I’m sure caused joysticks to be thrown against the wall was that you can actually run past the escape vehicle, which as far as I know, means game over. I’ll also add that the album and game cover looked like it could have inspired a more captivating game. My patience kept me from seeing how this is portrayed in final screen when you manage to get the entire band gets into their escape vehicle. As a fan of shooter games like Galaxian, it looks like it could have launched into a promising sequel.

 

Eat your heart out, REO Speedwagon!

Journey Escape was produced by Data Age, who not so shockingly didn’t last long as a game developer considering this is their most noteworthy game. The band licensing cost and marketing campaigns are said to have led to the company’s demise. However, Frankenstein’s Monster looks intriguing, and is a cartridge I should definitely be on the lookout for. Just because they bowed out of the industry doesn’t necessarily mean all their product was bad.

The Atari 2600 and other video game consoles were originally intended to replicate the arcade machine experience at home, but this particular game was not modelled after an existing arcade game of the same name. However, a year later, another Journey-themed title did hit the arcades in 1983 to give another stab at the gaming craze. I think of it as a do-over as opposed to a sequel. The plot isn’t drastically different, and the band members look unique from one another actually resemble themselves. That’s about all I can say about it without having played it, but you could always trust this sharp-dressed TV presenter to tell you what’s good. He makes references to other existing games to seem “with it”, but we all know his kids helped him write that script.

At the end of the day, is Journey Escape a game worth playing? Sure. For a little while, anyway. What harm could it do? At worse, you’d be five dollars poorer and only slightly resent the band for having ever endorsed it. I’d say it’s far from bad, yet far from greatness. In spite of poking fun at them earlier, I’d rank the graphics above average among 2600 games, but the enjoyability and replay value falls slightly below average. If you want to go on a real journey with your Atari, pick up Pitfall II: The Lost Caverns. Like Atheist’s Unquestionable Presence album, ahead of it’s time, holds up to this day, and never disappoints. Except for when you miss your checkpoints, collect a good chunk of gold, and are then knocked all the way back to the beginning by an incredibly strong bat as your score wipes out. That part stinks.

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