Do you remember the movie WarGames with Matthew Broderick? Do you remember how (spoiler alert) nuclear Armageddon was prevented by getting a military supercomputer to play tic-tac-toe with itself? That was a great ending to a great movie. I bring it up because, if the WOPR was asked to play 3D Tic-Tac-Toe, humanity would've been wiped off the map.
I was ready to write off 3D Tic-Tac-Toe just on the stupidity of the name; however, after playing it, I wanted to write it off for the shoddy execution of a weird idea. Instead of the traditional 3x3 grid of tic-tac-toe which provides a maximum of eight ways to win, the game provides the players with four levels of 4x4 grids, providing a maximum of 76 ways to win. Four-in-a-row can be attained horizontally, vertically, or diagonally like in the traditional game. The catch is that the row could be on the same plane or spread evenly across all four.
Leaving aside for a moment the fact that complicating an inherently simple game like tic-tac-toe is a screwed-up idea, the execution is very flawed. The grids are drawn in an angular fashion in order to fit all four on screen on top of each other. Unfortunately, it makes determining diagonal rows a headache, and the vertical ones are not much easier. That becomes a bigger issue when trying to create a multi-plane row. Also the controls are painfully sluggish. I shouldn't have to press down on the joystick three times to get the cursor to move down once!
There are eight single-player modes and one for multiplayer. It is nice that there are multiple difficulties, but the AI thinking time is a pain. Whenever the computer thinks, the screen flickers out and comes back on when the AI has made its move. On the easier settings, the screen would cut out for upwards of ten seconds; however, on the harder settings and with longer-running games, the screen cut out for so long that I thought the game crashed.
The visuals and sounds are serviceable enough, but there is no flair at all. It's just white grids with a blue background, and the most you get in the sound department is a simple beeping tune when a row is complete. Granted there is only so much that can be done with tic-tac-toe even without the limitations of the Atari 2600 hardware, but they could've at least had differing color schemes.
3D Tic-Tac-Toe is a clear case of "What the hell was Atari thinking?". It was a strange idea trying to add new dimensions (excuse the pun) to tic-tac-toe. Unfortunately, all this game shows is that one doesn't mess with perfection. Even if you wanted to add extra complexity to a simple game, you don't need this cartridge or even an Atari 2600. Just go to a toy store and buy Connect 4x4. That is a much better example of complicating a simple game.
Fortunately, the lead developer of this game, Carol Shaw, took the "keep it simple, stupid" idea to heart. Two years after 3D Tic-Tac-Toe, she created River Raid. Well, everybody has to start somewhere.