Few names make nostalgic gamers giddy like Atari. The Atari 2600 is still considered the godfather of home video games and still gets plenty of people playing the comparatively ancient software. The 2600 is so beloved that it manages to overshadow Atari's heavy-duty failures like the 5200 and the Jaguar.
However, there is one unfair casualty in Atari's history: the Atari 7800. When the 5200 was falling on its face in 1984, Atari developed the 7800 to fix the mistakes made with the 5200. The fragile analog joysticks were thrown out in favor of traditional digital ones, visual capabilities were beefed up to then-unheard-of degrees, and the system was fully backward-compatible with the 2600's library and peripherals. It should have been just the thing to bring Atari back to greatness. Unfortunately, due to financial woes and the video game crash, the 7800 didn't actually release until 1986. By that time, Nintendo was already ruling the universe, and hardly anyone cared about Atari.
Atari did keep trying with the 7800 until 1990, first with more-advanced arcade ports then with a scarce few original titles, culminating with Atari's magnum opus for the system Midnight Mutants. Compared to what Nintendo Entertainment System owners were enjoying for years up to that point, Midnight Mutants was probably too little too late for the 7800, but I still think it was a strong send-off for the system.
In the game, you play a guy named Jimmy who has to rescue his grandfather who was imprisoned by a scientist named Dr. Evil. No, this Dr. Evil isn't played by Mike Myers, but there is actually a celebrity presence in the game. Your grandfather is Grandpa Munster (Al Lewis)! How cool is that?
You're dropped in an open world loaded to the brim with all the types of monsters that tend to show up in horror movies from giant spiders and bats to zombies that throw flaming pumpkins. If you didn't get a packaged version of the game (which included a map), then you will find it very easy to get lost, even with Grandpa providing hints with the push of the right fire button. Even worse, you enter the game completely unarmed. What the hell? Even Solid Snake at least started his game with binoculars and a pack of cigarettes! Even when weapons are obtained, fighting tends to be problematic due to the slanted viewing perspective the game uses; it's very easy to miss targets unless they were right next to you. Also Jimmy can't take much abuse; if he loses all his health or his blood becomes impure, he dies. He has only one life, there are no continues, and there is no way to save the game (by password or battery back-up). The trial and error required to get through this game can be truly insane.
At least the game looks pretty while it's making you tear your hair out. The 7800 had graphics hardware somewhere between the capabilities of the NES and the Sega Master System, and Midnight Mutants does a great job showing that off. The enemies are detailed and animated well, the environments look great and have lots of personality, and the graphic of Al Lewis as Grandpa Munster is awesome by third gen standards. The graphical weakness is Jimmy; his animation is more spastic, and he has no real detail. While the graphics hardware was advanced, the sound chips were carbon copies of those found in the 2600. Though there are several tunes that play during the game, they are basic and not memorable. Couple that with sound effects that were clearly second gen, and you have audio not worth putting through your stereo system.
Midnight Mutants might have spun heads if it released at the beginning of 7800's lifespan instead of at the end. However, it was a good if aggravating adventure for the system. Try it out this Halloween; Grandpa says so.