Phoenix was a hit arcade game in 1980-81 before being ported to the Atari 2600 the following year. A vertical fixed shooter in the tradition of Space Invaders, Phoenix was an evolution of the Space Invaders concept, which added a number of innovations: enemy variety, swooping enemies, regenerating enemies, shields, and a mothership boss — one of the first boss battles in video gaming.
The game consists of five waves, which repeat in a cycle. In the first four stages, you face waves of bird-like enemy space aliens. The first two waves consist of smaller enemies who bear some resemblance to their Space Invaders forebearers, in that they march across the screen in a tight, grid-like formation. But these enemies will break out of their formation and swoop down low to dive bomb the player, and then fly back up again.
The second wave features a larger number of enemies, and for some reason the player is afforded rapid fire on this stage only. On all other stages, you have to press the fire button every time you want to shoot, but on the 2nd wave alone, you can hold the fire button down and it will fire automatically.
The next two waves, three and four, feature larger bird-like enemies, which can be killed by scoring a direct hit on their body. An off-center hit will clip one of their wings, which will regenerate after a few seconds if the body isn’t quickly finished off first. These larger bird aliens fly from side to side, not in formation, and change altitude occasionally, and swoop low to touch the ground. It seems that touching the ground is what triggers their regenerative powers, but in addition to that, as they get this low they also pose a threat to the player, who will be destroyed if they collide. In the arcade, these regenerating enemies start out as eggs, which hatch and grow before your eyes to become full-grown birds, but on the Atari 2600 port this is simplified, and the egg phase of their life cycle is omitted.
The fifth wave is the mothership: a huge, saucer-like ship that fills most of the screen. The boss is destroyed by shooting its commander, who sits in the center near the top of the ship. The bottom of the ship must be chipped away first, to expose the pilot’s cockpit. The rim of the saucer rotates, creating a revolving barrier that must be shot through. This takes time, during which the saucer slowly descends, dropping bombs all the while. As the mothership sinks lower, the reaction time afforded to the player to dodge these shots diminishes, making it increasingly difficult to stay alive. Judicious use of the shield and rapid fire button mashing is the way to survive.
My favored technique to defeat the mothership is to activate shields the moment the wave begins, and fire as rapidly as possible to blow through the shielding in front of the pilot, then as soon as the shield drops, I swing over to the left edge of the ship, where the shielding is thin, and blast away at the rotating rim. The body of the mothership tapers upward toward the outer edge of the ship, giving you a few more pixels of breathing room to react to incoming fire, which is very important. By being at the edge of the ship, you can always escape to safety by dodging left, completely out from under the ship’s breadth, and thus out of its reach. After shooting away the rotating rim, I wait for a clear moment when the mothership isn’t dropping many bombs, and then move back to the center, hit the shields again, and blast away until one of my shots manages to hit the pilot and destroy the ship.
In the arcade, the mothership was also protected by a fleet of escort birds, of the type from the first two stages, but on the Atari 2600 there wasn’t enough computing power to handle all that action, so they are left out, and you face the mothership one-on-one.
Then the cycle begins anew, much like the legend of the mythological phoenix going through death and rebirth.
Phoenix featured three distinct background tracks. Not full songs, these are just simple loops. The first two stages use an electronic wail or warble which somehow evokes bird-ness. The second two stages employ a loop with a swooping pitch from high to low, which evokes and reinforces the swooping motion of the diving birds. The mothership music is a more robotic, mechanical beeping that evokes classic sci-fi movie soundtracks of what space sounds like — beeping, echoing, un-melodious.
The shield adds a dimension of strategy to the gameplay. Using the shield involves a set of trade-offs. In exchange for temporary invulnerability, you cannot move. Further, the shield lasts a fixed amount of time, about 1.5 seconds, and thereafter cannot be used again until it recharges. There’s always a certain amount of luck involved with using the shield — because you’re immobile while it is up, and cannot control when it goes down, the timing of enemy fire can put one of their missiles right in front of you just as the shield goes down, without no time to move out of the way. Thus, while shields can bail you out of a jam, it can sometimes result in a mere delay of the inevitable. In addition to protecting you from the enemy’s shots, your shield will destroy enemies if they touch it, making it an essential offensive weapon for close engagements. When the enemies are very low, it’s too dangerous to take them on without the shield, as their shots cannot be dodged, and they can also crash into you. Thus, despite its slight drawbacks, learning how to use the shield effectively will help you to avoid deaths and last longer into the game.
Phoenix is still as good as it ever was, but I don’t think it has aged as well as some of its contemporaries in the shooter genre. It’s primary drawbacks being that it gets pretty repetitive, and that this is accompanied by very little increase in difficulty after you’ve run through it the first cycle. There’s a nearly imperceptible increase in enemy aggression, but it isn’t much more than the initial cycle, and doesn’t seem to increase beyond that. The game awards a single bonus life, at 5000 points, otherwise this game would be easy to play indefinitely. Back in the day, my best scores on this game were around 135,000. While the game is generally pretty easy, accidental deaths are still tough to avoid completely.
It’s worthwhile to point to as an example of the evolutionary path shooters took, and was a noteworthy step forward in the emerging genre of fixed shooters.
Thematically, I liked Phoenix quite a bit. The theme ties in with the phoenix of legend, with its cycle of death and rebirth, giving the game a mythic quality that most video games seldom aspired to have. This gave the game an intangible quality that made it seem like more to me than perhaps it really was. I think this shows the power of narrative, and how even just a tiny bit of storytelling underlying the basic gameplay can enhance the player’s perception and reception of a game.