Keystone Kapers is the Retro Game of the Week for 8 August, 2016

Released: 1983
Publisher: Activision
Developer: Activision
Platform: Atari 2600
Genre: Platformer
Played on: Stella emulator, Playstation gamepad

So the Olympics in Rio are in full swing, and it is time to put forth an Olympic-themed game, right?  I mean, it’s not like there aren’t any — Summer Games for the Commodore 64, for example, or the arcade game Hyper Sports?  Because the obvious connection of the Summer Olympics and a game about olympic competition would definitely be interesting to people at this point and pull in traffic to read this niche, almost ignored little blog of mine.

You’d think so, but no.  Because I just don’t care about the Olympics, and I’d rather do a game that I’ve actually been interested in over the last week.  So take that, promotional common sense!

Instead, we dip our toes back into the Atari 2600 pool and pull out a game I had nearly forgotten about over the years and rediscovered last week — Keystone Kapers.  Inspired by the slapstick silent films Keystone Cops, Keystone Kapers puts you in the role of a policeman attempting to catch a thief in what is presumably a three-level department store or mall (and its roof, making four levels), with a one-direction escalator connecting each floor to the next one and an elevator that moves between the three main floors.

Scattered around the level are several obstacles such as large old-style radios, bouncing balls, and shopping carts that the policeman must avoid by jumping or ducking; touching them will give the policeman less time to catch the criminal (a timer shows how much time you have before the criminal escapes, and if it runs out, you lose a life).  Later levels include toy airplanes that will kill the player if touched, not just remove time.

As the policeman, you start on the lowest level, farthest from the escalator, and have to catch up to the criminal who starts one floor up in the middle; given that you are much faster than the criminal, this is a fairly easy thing to do if not for the obstacles.  There are also pickups worth extra points, adding to the bonus you already get for time left after catching the criminal on each stage.

In playing the game, I found that on the early stages, it’s easier just to run across each level to the escalator until you catch the criminal, as the number of obstacles aren’t much of a hindrance.  Later levels, however, require a bit of timing to end up just behind the criminal after riding the elevator from the lowest level, since the amount of time spent ducking under the toy planes and the high-bouncing balls eat up a bit too much time to do a direct run to the criminal.  Since the criminal will run away from you if you get to that level ahead of him in the elevator and can go back down to the previous level, you have to either get there just as the criminal is about to reach the elevator to be able to run him down before he reaches the edge or just after he passes the elevator to catch up with him that way.  It’s simple, but it works.

Keystone Kapers is just another example of how very simple gameplay can be put together to make a simple yet fun and sometimes challenging game.  As the levels progress, the obstacles get faster and more numerous, and what seems like a simplistic and easy game at first quickly becomes a true challenge for even the best gamers –it makes you feel comfortable at the beginning, like you are gliding through it easily and feel like there can be really no challenge, but the game is simply preparing you for the nightmare gauntlet that comes later.  The controls are simple and accurate, making the player feel responsible for their own mistakes in play, something many (especially modern) games fail to do.

It’s a gem of a game and an example of how the Atari 2600 wasn’t just a console filled with ugly, poorly done games as is the unfortunate perception of many.

And if you still wish this was an Olympic-themed game, think of it as a strange version of the hurdles event.