Vanguard is a scrolling shooter developed by Tose and published by SNK in arcades in 1981. Centuri distributed the game in the USA. It was ported to the Atari 2600 by David Payne in 1982 and to the Atari 5200 in 1983. In the game's story you pilot a space ship through a chain of caves to defeat the Gond, a villain trying to wipe out space colonies. Each part of the cave system is named and include the Mountain Zone, Rainbow Zone, Styx Zone, Stripe Zone, Bleak Zone, and to the City of Mystery. Each zone is occupied with a different type of enemy ship and has natural hazards that must be avoided. Your ship steadily loses fuel which is replenished by successfully destroying enemy ships. In the arcade, Vanguard uses a joystick and an unusual 4-button firing configuration, one for each direction. It also was one of the first scrolling shooters to scroll in multiple directions over the course of the game. The tune that plays when you start the game is lifted from Jerry Goldsmith's Star Trek: The Motion Picture soundtrack, and the tune that plays when you touch the energy block is Queen's Vultan's Theme (Attack of the Hawk Men) from the Flash Gordon film.
I first played Vanguard around 1986 on my family's Atari 2600. My family and our neighborhood friends pretended it was like Star Wars and we were characters like Yoda and Luke. I remember being really impressed by the box art on the 2600 because it gave me a sense of wonder about what was further down the tunnel. At the time, I assumed Vanguard was an exclusive Atari title, and it wasn't until years later that I learned it was originally an arcade game.
I used to own Vanguard on the 2600, but no longer. My high score as a child was 76,870, but I haven't really made an effort to beat it.
Best Version: Atari 2600
— This section contains spoilers! —
- The game is a pioneer in the scrolling shooter genre with alternating scrolling directions. This not only makes the play more interesting, it's also impressive on a technical level.
- Having synthesized speech was still very notable for arcade games in 1981.
- The Atari 2600 port, since it couldn't recreate the 4-button firing of the arcade layout, alters the game slightly to have you shoot by default in the direction you're moving, but lets you press the fire button to stop shooting and move faster. That was a really clever tactical mechanic.
- The cavern walls in the Atari 2600 port use wonderful rainbow bands that are visually appealing.
- The 2600's box art and manual is pretty great.
- The game's graphics are pretty bad. Drawing cavern walls with boxes was cheap even by the standards of 1981. Donkey Kong came out this same year.
- The game only has two alternating cave systems, both of which are nearly identical. Even if the designers kept reusing the same stages, they could have come up with plenty more systems and that little bit would have given the game more depth.
- I don't like how enemy shots block your own. They probably shouldn't interact at all, but, if they do, they should cancel each other out.
- The Atari ports don't accurately handle the 4-button firing mechanic of the arcade, so you're forced to move in the direction you want to shoot which alters the strategy.
- The Atari 2600 port doesn't show how far you've made it in the current stage which is important tactical information, but it does add a pause between each section which is helpful.
The 2600 box art has a lovely painting by Ralph McQuarrie. Your ship is firing at enemies down a tunnel that's both industrial and cavernous. The art is very impressive and perfectly depicts the game. This is my favorite cover.