WHITE LINES GO A LONG WAY
Free games have always been bundled up with gaming devices to tempt people to buy them, whether it was the Spectrum Six Pack that came with my first hardware acquisition or the obsolete Anthem that came with my most recent. However, there is one freebie that to my mind stands out from them all, Mine Storm.
Like its pack-in predecessor, the Atari VCS' Combat, Mine Storm is correspondent with the console on which it launched, yet remains unique by virtue of being hardcoded into its host machine - the ever-desirable GCE Vectrex.
Built to display sleek neon lines rather than chunky multicolour pixels and arriving with its own display and space-age controller, the monolithic Vectrex looked and sounded like something from the future. That future was, of course, short-lived (the Jaguar, 3DO and Dreamcast all had longer shelf lives), which has only served to enhance the machine's legacy given that there's not been anything like it since. Similarly, I'd argue, there's not been a game quite like Mine Storm, either.
Given the games' hardware foundations, as well as the fact that in both the player has to skate around avoiding and eliminating all the obstacles tumbling across the screen, it's understandable that Mine Storm is often compared to Atari's Asteroids. The distinctions are mostly superficial, but Mine Storm does have some features that make it, by quite some margin, the most distinctive of all the Asteroids clones that appeared in and around that time - and in many ways better than the game that inspired it.
Specifically, the fact that you are forever trapped by mines rather than benign rocks is significant. Rather than have them already floating about you, Mine Storm's explosive obstacles are first seeded and then activate seemingly at random during the course of the level, so that you have to forever be wary of a mine being armed as you pass by. Similar to Asteroids' rocks, the mines will detonate after just one hit (with larger mines erupting into two medium-size mines, and then two small ones), but where some would lock to a trajectory across the screen, others will hone in on your position, adding a small measure of panic that is otherwise absent from its chief inspiration. Then, once you've taken out the requisite alien saucer and cleared the screen, the minelaying ship will swoop in to trap you once again.
Yes, the Mine Storm vessel looks like an out-of-shape coathanger and moves rather too abruptly to be a convincing arcade-era spaceship - often causing new players to overcompensate and meet an early end. Thankfully, you only needed to reach level 13 to claim a moral victory, as that's when the game would crash. Back in the day if you wanted the torture to endure, you had to pick up the phone to the manufacture, who sent out copies of Mine Storm 2, which was effectively a patched version of the original game.
Despite the fatal bug in the original code, Mine Storm remains entirely synonymous with its hardware host and was probably the best game to appear for it. Both blew my tiny adolescent mind back in 1983 when I first played them and although the experience was short, lasting only a weekend, it was formative enough to have stuck with me all this time.
Like most people who got to sample one during its short commercial existence, I've wanted a Vectrex my entire adult life, although I've long been at peace with the likelihood that I'll never own one. Until someone considers releasing a miniature or remodelled version in the manner of the SNES Classis, my occasional forays into the realm of software emulation will suffice to keep me entertained; and will continue to ensure that Mine Storm tops my Asteroids-inspired playlist until a better classic comes to light.