S6:E5 The Vindication of Desert Falcon. Interview with GCC’s Michael Feinstein. Full Video and Audio Podcast

This new Audio and NOW full video podcast format explores the legacy of the first original title for the Atari 7800 and the last title by GCC for the system they created, Desert Falcon. Join us in conversation with GCC’s Michael Feinstein in this  audio and our new Full Video Podcast Format on youtube.


(1) The Vindication of Desert Falcon. Interview with GCC’s Michael Feinstein: ITVB S6:E5 – YouTube


Full Text of Desert Falcon Review

In the game you play as a falcon.  You fire with the left button, and use power-ups with the right button.  You can fly through an isometric landscape at multiple altitudes (like Zaxxon and Blue Max), but can also walk on the ground and swim through water.

Your job is to fly through each level and kill the sphinx “boss” at the end. While you fly, enemies of many types fly at you, while you dodge various sized pyramids and other objects.  Bonus items and hieroglyphics are spread across the floor of the desert.   You gain bonus powers by picking up three hieroglyphics. 
The game feels strange at first.

It’s like a lost arcade game from an age that never existed.
The up and down y-axis movement of your falcon makes it not easy to gauge exactly how high you are in relation to the enemies flying towards you, so the controls are immediately off- putting.   
The game also requires you to land, hop around, and pick stuff up which was not normal at all for the time. 

Gems, precious bars of minerals, and hieroglyphics are spread across the randomly generated levels.   To get them, you lower your bird to the ground, where he starts hopping across the landscape and/or swiping through the water.

Gems and bars are good for points, while the hieroglyphics award superpowers after you have collected three of them.
The instruction manual mentions 8 different hieroglyphics, (like ankh, bowl and eye), and 10 superpowers like air bomb, decoy and omnicide. However it does not specify  what to collect to create which super power. It’s a game of mystery.    

All of the powers are built out of three hieroglyphics, which is complicated, The common ones that I found  (like speed-up, fast shoot, skip level), are not even mentioned in the instruction manual.  

Furthermore, not only do you need to collect things,  but you need to read the bottom of the screen to see if they are enacted automatically (i,.e free points) or need to be deployed with the right fire-button.  And even then, if you get one that is called something “kill sphinx” for example,  you need to have the patience to not use it until the end of the level.

Because of this , the game requires both quick reflexes, and your ability to recall the “recipes” you have learned to create certain powers and mix both those skills at the same time.  Your reflexes and brain are  taxed at the same time, in a sort of “pat my head, rub my stomach at the challenge”. Given the isometric view, you are also fighting enemies at multiple altitudes AND dodging randomly generated objects at the same time. 

It was a lot to ask of players, but I think if it was released in the golden age, it would have been seen as a brilliant game that offered arcade gamers a fantastic challenge.   I could imagine Bill Kunkel or Arnie Katz raving about the game in the pages of Electronic Games, just because it offered something new and a great challenge.

But this game did not come out in 1984, it was released for the 7800, VCS and 8bit in 1987 when the Tramiels owned Atari. At that time, Atari “game design” chops felt old and suspect.  They hadn’t really been “in the game” for almost three years. 

Even to me, an Atari 7800 owner from Christmas 1986, much of the game design in the Tramiel era of Atari felt archaic  to me, like It was from a different era and mindset entirely.  

Long-gone were 70’s and the lore-filled silicon valley buildings filled with Atari programmers hacking away on games while Nolan Bushnell fueled them with a steady diet of beer parties and hot tubs.  

Long gone was the Kassar-era days of the early 80’s  where guys like Tod Frye and Howard Scott Warshaw bounced ideas (and their very bodies) off the walls, while thumbing their noses at Warner Brass, smoking joints, and creating crazy-ass shit like Sword Quest Earthworld.  

No, this game came out in the no-nonsense era of Atari Corp. A time when games were an afterthought to selling 68000 based computers.  A time when Nintendo and Sega had taken-up the mantle of video games, and the ideas and games of the Golden Age felt quaint by comparison.    

Nintendo and SEGA seemed to exude a LOVE for games.  Everything about those companies felt like they geared towards making better and better and more fantastic and immersive games at every turn.   By  1987,  by contrast, Atari Corp. still had the 2600 going, released the mothballed 7800, and announced the XEGS, yet another video game system based on the Atari 8it. It was a crazy strategy to support all of them at the same time. All of it was selling for rock bottom prices, and honestly, with very little care about the nuances that were so important from Golden Age Atari.  Game boxes were cheap, manuals short and flimsy, cartridge labels black and white. It was all designed to sell as many units of whatever to as many customers, at the cheapest prices possible.  

The Tramiel way.

This was very noticeable.

While Nitnedo and SEGA games were easy to find at almost any toy store, Atari’s were buried, hidden, or non-existent.    Even at The Federated Group, a chain of stores Atari purchased, you’d be hard-pressed to find a complete set of any of their games or software, while the salespeople knew next-to-nothing about the product lines.   

Atari Corp. just did not feel like a serious player in video games.  Instead it felt like they were selling off old stock to fund their next Atari ST monitor or disc-drive upgrade.

So when this game came out, for me, it was easy to write it off as just another “crappy Atari Corp product”.  1987 was too late for these types of games.  People wanted Mario Brothers, Zelda, Metroid, Contra, Shinobi,  and Final Fantasy.   No one needed a Zaxxon clone where you played with a bird and hopped on the ground.

I don’t think I ever bought this game when I had my original 7800 back in 1986/1987, but I did get a copy with my 7800 blowout-super-sale-package in 1995.  Still, I’ve rarely if ever played it.

And now, 34 years later, I realize I may have made a mistake.
In our recent interview with Michael Feinstein from GCC, he told us that he started the game with another programmer in 1984   He went on to describe how it was developed at GCC and the enormous effort and care the GCC team  put into the game.

I was shocked when I heard this.

I’d been wrong the whole time.

This game WAS from The Golden Age.

Desert Falcon was not some kind of one-off throw-away new title from Atari created in 1987, it was instead, the first original 7800 game, written in 1984 for launch on the system.  It was created by GCC, the genius minds who invented Ms. Pac-Man and Food Fight, and developed 80 or so Atari 2600, 5200 and 7800 titles for Atari Inc. from 1982-1984 as a kind of “outsourced secret weapon” for Atari Inc.

It might not have seen a release until 1987, when Atari Corp. created versions of the 2600 and the Atari 8bit, neither of which were made by GCC, but its pedigree was planted firmly in the era of Golden Age Atari.  

With that realization, it was easy to see the game in a new light.  
It was designed to test and show off all the aspects of the system itself.  To help debug the hardware, and push it to its limits.

It was like that moment in a  dumb movie where the jock removes the nerd girl’s glasses and suddenly she is pretty.  She was pretty the whole time of course, it just took the jock to look at her with his eyes unblinded.

In my eyes then, Desert Falcon has been vindicated.

For the past few days I’ve been obsessed with this game.
It’s a showcase for all that could be done with the 7800.
The action is fast, with lots of objects on the screen. The game feels like a cross between Zaxon and Xevious, with the hieroglyphics power-up adding a deeper 3rd dimension. It utilizes both fire buttons and the whole range of movement from the joystick. Color-palette shifting is used to make each new level look more and more interesting. The sounds are very well-done for a TIA-based game, even incorporating music at the beginning of the game, and pulsing soundtracks as the levels are played.

There are so many options when it comes to the power-ups, it’s almost mind boggling.  This truly is a game of discovery, but also randomness, but also deep, and challenging.  It’s not perfect by any means, but once you get into it, it feels engrossing to try to figure it all out

In many ways, this game is a poster-child for what we refer to as “The Vertical Blank”.

It represents  “what could have been”.
It was created  by the right people at the wrong time and then buried for years.

If this is what GCC was making in 1984, I just wonder what amazing stuff they would have pushed the 7800 to do by 1987. What wonders did we miss because Jack Tramiel didn’t understand or care about video games?Would all of our games be called “old man cringe” by the younger generation if Atari and GCC were blowing the roof off the joint with amazing games in 1987, instead of just rolling-out what looked like, on first inspection anyway, an  “adventurous tech demo”  with the name Desert Falcon?

But now Desert Falcon now holds a new place for me.

I crave playing it, to learn all the combinations and see what lies beyond level 4, the highest level I’ve achieved.

I now know that it was the last great project  that the video game masters at GCC made for Atari, and Atari didn’t even care.   

In July 1984, GCC must have felt abandoned by Atari in 1984 as developers, just like we did as fans.

In many ways GCC are the mirror-image of Atari fans.  
Maybe that’s why I’m so fascinated by them.
They are we and we are them.

And that’s why I’ll be mounting my Desert Falcon, and flying it many many more times in the future.

I’ll try to catalog the hieroglyphics, I’ll try to figure out the best ways to get through each level.

I’ll shoot the end-level Sphinx boss, then collect the gems in the bonus stage beyond, and move onto the next challenge. I’ll get past level 4, and make it to the next level and beyond.

It’a golden-age game of course, so I know that there is no real “ending”, but instead it’s a fatalistic exercise. The cliché of  “the journey being more important than the destination. ”Except it’s true. 
Like many games from the golden age, an existential version of life itself. Where you can play the game, even perfectly for a time, but in the end, there is only one way out. One final destination.
And to me, that final destination is no further than, directly inside, The Vertical Blank.


Topics Games Discussed:

Michaels’s Game Credits


Recorded, Mixed, Edited and Produced by Steve And Jeff Fulton

Music :Eyes Like the Sun – Tony Longworth : support Tony’s Patreon music https://www.patreon.com/tonylongworth

Theme by Brian TravisTitle: Into The Vertical Blank theme Words & music by Brian Travis (c)(p)2021 Taste This Moment Music ASCAP http://www.briantravisband.com/ 

Branding by Daryl Litts




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