Atari is back! And so are "Transformers"! But is either any fun if you're no longer 15?

By Tom Bissell - Jeff Alexander

Published May 13, 2004 10:41PM (EDT)

Jeff: Atari is back!

Tom: Yeah, it's pretty great to see that good old distinctive Atari logo on a game again. Especially when that game is "Transformers."

Jeff: So you were a big Transformers fan?

Tom: Hell, yes. I loved Transformers. I used to pit my hapless Go-Bots against them in these massive cross-genre robot holocausts.

Jeff: Uh huh.

Tom: I loved toy miscegenation. The best for me was G.I. Joe versus the Transformers. The Joes and Cobra had to make an emergency pact to fight off the invading Transformers. My god, I used to go on epically playing for days. It was like my own little David Lean film.

Jeff: G.I. Joe fought against Cobra, right?

Tom: Yeah. And what the heck was the deal with Cobra's command structure? You had a supreme neo-pagan king in Serpentor, and in Cobra Commander you had a commander-in-chief-type figure who may or may not have had authority over Serpentor, but then you had all these secondary leaders like Destro and Major Blood and the Baroness and Zartan and Storm Shadow.

Jeff: Zartan was...?

Tom: Zartan was the swamp guy. He changed colors in the sun.

Jeff: Right.

Tom: I mean, can you figure out, logistically speaking, how Cobra managed to accomplish anything? How did they delegate power? It's no wonder an army with only one pilot always managed to beat them. May I ask who was your favorite Joe? Mine was Mutt. Followed by Wild Bill.

Jeff: Actually, I didn't have G.I. Joe. We were more of a Lincoln Log kind of family. And this Gen X nostalgia is pretty insidious, you know. For one, we're not that old, and for two, imagine what your little flowchart of Cobra's command structure has displaced in your brain.

Tom: I used to have Wallace Stevens' "A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts" memorized. Yeats' "Easter 1916," too. Not anymore. But I can tell you the original names of the whole introductory line of Transformers Hasbro introduced in 1984 -- and what they transformed into.

Jeff: Maybe we should get to the game "Transformers."

Tom: You're just jealous because you can't name very many original Transformers.

Jeff: No, I can't. I didn't have Transformers either.

Tom: Were you home-schooled?

Jeff: No. But could you please answer a question for me?

Tom: Proceed.

Jeff: Why, if the Transformers are from planet Cybertron in another galaxy, do they transform into things found on this planet? Why would robot aliens even know what semitrucks and helicopters look like? And why would Megatron, leader of the evil Decepticons, transform into a pistol perfectly sized for a 10-year-old's hand? I would think it's kind of hard to justify that if you're attempting to stage a realistic Autobot-Decepticon battle.

Tom: You know, it's not like I have an MFA in transforming or anything.

Jeff: And why do some Decepticons transform into a giant cassette recorder and complementary cassette?

Tom: You mean Frenzy and Lazerbeak.

Jeff: What use is a boombox in robot battle? Was that for psy-op warfare against the Autobots?

Tom: Another good question. I don't have answers, unfortunately. Neither does Atari's "Transformers." This game has one of the most skeletal plots we've ever come across in a contemporary video game.

Jeff: It's true. I'll try to sum up: Autobots and Decepticons, locked in unending battle. Both want something called "minibots." These minibots go to Earth. Autobots have to find them before Decepticons. Bang, you're in the Amazon basin looking for minibots.

Tom: Nota bene: Minibots give you weapons upgrades such as shields, sensors, heat-seeking missiles, and so on. So what's the game like?

Jeff: I'm told it's reminiscent of "Halo," which we haven't played. Frankly, I'm not so into the whole robots-in-combat thing, a genre whose pleasures seem to me pretty demographically specific.

Tom: You're suggesting that mostly 10-year-olds like this kind of game.

Jeff: Ten-year-olds, and perhaps those weirdos who build robots for that absolutely bizarre robot-demolition-derby show on USA.

Tom: A message to the world's Islamists here: Gentlemen, sometimes even we hate our way of life.

Jeff: It's superfluous to say, really, because these PS2 games are backed by so much graphical firepower, but "Transformers" looks spectacular.

Tom: We're in the Amazon, driving around as Optimus Prime. It's big and green and stunning.

Jeff: It's really disappointing that you can only be three Autobots: Optimus Prime, Red Alert and Hot Shot.

Tom: Optimus Prime, who was once given voice by Orson Welles in the animated "Transformers" movie.

Jeff: Ouch. [Editor's note: Actually, Welles was the voice of Unicron.]

Tom: No, he was really good. After "Citizen Kane," "A Touch of Evil," "The Magnificent Ambersons" and that Nostradamus special, I think it was his best project.

Jeff: The really cool thing about "Transformers" is how it's a really ambitious driving game when you're transformed and a decent first-person shooter when you're untransformed. And both are done with an impressive amount of detail, the driving especially. The terrain is so varied that you actually have to do things like find the highest ground so you can look around and figure out where to go next. There are rivers and caves and mountains and they're all there for you to explore. Plus, when you're running around as a robot, you leave big robot footprints.

Tom: I like the fighting. When you blow up a Decepticon, the smoking parts go flying everywhere, and a tire from its annihilated body will go bouncing past you. I also like how the load boards are this "warp screen," which makes waiting for the levels to come up less irritating. They've made it seem like you're actually doing something -- that is, traveling through a warp -- while you wait.

Jeff: You're very gullible, then. What is most interesting to me in "Transformers" is how good the enemy's artificial intelligence is. Look at this: they see you, encircle you, hide, dive for cover ... they fight like Viet Cong! But this game's amazing three-dimensionality gives you plenty of options too.

Tom: Problems for me: Too much of "Transformers" relies on jumping puzzles. Like trying to get across this frozen river in Antarctica. If you don't perfectly time your jumps from one island of ice to the other, you fall in the water and have to go back to the beginning. I hate this stuff. It drives me crazy. I'm not a laboratory rat. I'm just a guy who wants to blow up Decepticons and find some minibots.

Jeff: The boards are also way too big. It's a weird complaint to make, because the game gives you so much to do, but the fact is, I've got a life to lead, and "Transformers" looks like one of those games you could spend days playing making little to no headway.

Tom: Take a game like "Desert Storm II," or "Return of the King." They both seem like they have big worlds, but they don't in actuality. You're very subtly guided as to where you need to go. Their hugeness is an illusion, a beautiful one. Games like "Transformers" or those new "Legend of Zelda" games ... well, I travel quite a lot in real life. Tell me: Why do I find the prospect of taking Optimus Prime across the unknown tundra more disheartening than actually doing so in real life?

Jeff: I don't know. But if you were 15 I bet you would love this game.

Tom: That's quite possible.

Jeff: Maybe if Atari did a "Voltron" game...

Tom Bissell

Tom Bissell spent five months living in Vietnam in 2004. "The Father of All Things," an account of his first journey to Vietnam with his father, a veteran of the Vietnam War, will be published by Pantheon early next year. A portion of the book recently appeared in "Best American Travel Writing 2005."

MORE FROM Tom Bissell

Jeff Alexander

Tom Bissell is the author of "Chasing the Sea." Jeff Alexander is a writer living in Brooklyn. Their book, "Speak, Commentary," a collection of fake DVD commentaries, was published by McSweeney's last fall.

MORE FROM Jeff Alexander

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