Anyone who knows video games is aware of certain fundamental truths: Side-scrollers will always go right, news outlets will always find a way to blame video games for real world violence and, most importantly, licensed video games always suck. However, that last one isn't always the case. Sure there have been high-profile catastrophes like E.T., Aerosmith's Revolution X, and Street Fighter: The Movie: The Game, but if you look deeper into gaming history, you can find gems in the rough. Journey Escape is one of those.
This is a game that took me by surprise back in 1982, and, playing it again 30 years later, it held up quite well. The game is loosely based on the album Escape by the 1980s band Journey. By "loosely," I mean it's based just on the artwork on the album cover. That may seem strange, but keep in mind that, at that time, there were games based on the movie Porky's, on Chuck Wagon dog food and on the Kool-Aid Man. In fact, the first image that comes onscreen is an 8-bit rendition of the album cover showing a spaceship shaped like a scarab blasting out of a planet. Title screens weren't common on the Atari 2600, and this one is one of the best-looking on the system. Music was also uncommon on the Atari, and the game features a very good 8-bit rendition of "Don't Stop Believing."
Fortunately, the aesthetics aren't downgraded when the actual game starts. The visuals are colorful and elaborate by 2600 standards, complete with a very colorful star field (which can be turned off if the players find it distracting). Music plays through the entire game, which is okay with one exception that I will note later.
The goal of the game is to get all five members of Journey to the Scarab in one minute. The game is a race through a gauntlet of groupies and photographers (that's not as sexy as it sounds). Journey Escape is like a forerunner to games like Bit.Trip Runner. The mechanics are simple; the difficulty curve is natural, going from obstructions going straight down to obstructions that shift left to right in irregular patterns. No strategy guide could be made for this game, as the obstructions are randomly set on the fly. This is both the gameplay's greatest strength and its biggest weakness. While the randomness ensures that no two games are alike, there are the rare occasions that the Scarab doesn't show up within the one-minute time limit.
While most of the things coming down the stretch are obstructions designed to rob the player of time and money, there are a couple of power-ups. The Roadies give about three seconds invincibility, while the Mighty Manager (who strangely enough looks like the Kool-Aid Man) gives full invincibility until the end of the level. While the benefit is great to the player, the four-note loop that plays while the Manager is active will drive you insane.
Journey Escape was a diamond in the rough back in 1982. It was a unique concept with high production values for the time and gameplay that was simple and satisfying. It proved that licensed games can be good ... until E.T. came out and ruined that.