“In a ravine she lived, and took shape as a spider of monstrous form, weaving her black webs in a cleft of the mountains. There she sucked up all light that she could find, and spun it forth again in dark nets of strangling gloom, until no light more could come to her abode; and she was famished.”
-J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion
Forget surly, gazelle-faced Scarlett Johansson for a moment because this is a real arachnid femme fatale. Put down those razor blades, you acarophobics, here comes Black Widow!
The year was 1982. It was a great year in gaming, though an inevitably flawed one, and the golden days of the arcades were still humming right along as the industry crash loomed dead ahead. Many titles that are now iconic legends were released that year from Dig Dug to Donkey Kong Jr., from Joust to Pitfall! and Q*bert, and yes, lest we forget, E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial. The Atari 2600 saw the release of both E.T. and the home version of Pac-Man that year, two games which undoubtedly contributed to the coming recession. It was the calm before the storm. Everyone cried “Peace! Safety!” before sudden destruction that left companies reeling, gamers disinterested and the industry in ruins. Until Nintendo, but that’s another story.
In the midst of busy 1982 came Atari’s obscure title: Black Widow. On the surface, it looked like Robotron 2084, and indeed the gameplay seemed very similar. Others more familiar with Robotron 2084 have pointed out all the similarities but since I haven’t played it myself I’ll leave the comparisons to those writers. Besides, in the early 80’s gaming was all about making clones of what was popular. It’s a part of what led to a flooded market that in turn contributed to the crash. Now, maybe things haven’t changed much in 30 years. There are still some shameless clones being made but we could talk about that brand of plagiarism until I’m blue in the face.
Speaking of clones, though, I found it interesting to learn that the Black Widow cabinets were conversions of Gravitar cabinets, which didn’t sell well because reasons. Apparently the Widow art was slapped right over the Gravitar art. Cost effective!
Black Widow may have been overshadowed by other arcade titles, or it may simply have been released too close to the crash, but whatever the explanation this is a game I don’t see talked about very often. I’m convinced it deserves more popularity than it enjoys. Why? This multi-directional, dual-joystick shooter put a plot twist on one of the most feared arthropods in existence, pitting the eponymous ebon predator against her own prey. In this bizarre paradox, the hunter became the hunted and the black widow had to defend her web against a siege of angry mosquitoes, hornets, and beetles. Shouldn’t have voted Trump!
The object of the game is to destroy the insect invaders in waves of assault which steadily rise in intensity, a challenge considering the bugs rush at you from everywhere. Sounds like a nightmare. The black widow’s only defenses are her nimble legwork and the ability to shoot what looks like glowing webs from her face. These projectiles deflect and scatter when hitting a target, which makes the widow’s attacks erratic and sometimes randomly effective. The widow can also push eggs and larvae off the edge of her web, or through the web’s center, to get rid of them before they hatch. What kind of a spider is this?!
Kill enemy bugs and they’ll drop dollar signs for the black widow to pick up, which are apparently called “grubsteaks” (officially the grossest word I’ve written). These are your bonus points. They deteriorate in value over time (from 500, 250, 100 to 50) so picking up the $ as soon as possible is best. Did anyone stop to ask what a black widow would do with money?
Yeah, the devs didn’t do their research but screw entomological accuracy! It doesn’t matter because this game is all kinds of retro-awesome. And bear in mind that this is coming from someone who believes quality retro-gaming began with the NES. Cheaply made games with terrible design or knock off clones and horrific ports made the pre-Nintendo era a casual wasteland that was bound to fail until quality control came in. But that age was not without its own jewels here and there. With Black Widow, how can you not love that psychedelic, neon vector art that looks like it leaped out of Tron, or the extremely fast-paced, adrenaline-laden, points-collecting gameplay?
When starting a new game, you’re allowed to start at either wave 1 or a few other incremental waves. Beginning at the first wave is obviously the easiest though you can start with the high intensity stages if you want your abdomen handed to you. Two joysticks are used to play the game so it functions comfortably on the modern controllers. The left stick is used to maneuver the widow and the right stick is used to shoot in any of eight directions.
Something which elevates the superficially simple gameplay of Black Widow is precisely a technical element which made Pac-Man such a success. Both games include enemies that function by different patterns and behaviors, with strengths and weaknesses. Unique strategies must therefore be employed in dealing with them individually. Drawing upon these strategies at increasingly hectic paces is what keeps the brain engaged, immersed, and pushed to its limit by an otherwise seemingly basic game. The fact that this is done through less than a dozen “rules”, not by adding new elements or constrictions as the game progresses, is a testament to the streamlined genius of classic arcade games.
Unlike Pac-Man’s four ghosts with their four different movement patterns and personalities, Black Widow features eight enemy insects whose differences must be recognized in order to get anywhere close to the advanced stages of the game. Keep in mind these quickly get faster and more aggressive with each subsequent wave. Here they are as they appear in the order of images above:
The mosquito is the basic bug. It flies into the web then mucks about aimlessly and leaves grubsteaks when defeated by the widow for easy points. The beetle is larger than the mosquito but not slower for its size. It moves directly for the widow, trying to eat her, but it will also head for and devour grubsteaks if they’re left on the field. What a jerk for denying the widow points and thus extra lives!
The hornet will target the widow or grubsteaks. If it reaches the latter, it turns the $ into eggs which must be pushed off the web before they hatch into more hornets or spoilers. The spoiler is a dangerous bug that’s practically invincible. The widow’s shots can’t hurt it so disposing of them in egg form is essential. Spoilers don’t seem to care about the widow though as they often just fly away from the web shortly after hatching, so again this is just points denial. The grenade bug is an unusual species which doesn’t appear in nature, thank God! When killed, they explode. The blast radius will destroy other insects and eggs, and it generates 500 solid points, but if the black widow is caught up in the explosion she’ll get blastigated.
Every fourth wave will end with something like a Galaga bonus stage. A segmented chain of thunderbugs rushes into the web, dive-bombing the widow and moving extremely quickly. Shooting them down causes each bug to drop away from the formation and shoot like a rocket at the widow. If you shoot them in this stage, they’ll just blow up with a small blast radius. It’s pretty easy to lose a life here but killing the whole swarm yields 5000 points.
The last two bugs are the rocket bugs and the bug slayer. The rocket bug is invulnerable and it throws missiles at the widow. The bug slayer is ubiquitous, appearing in every wave so far as I know. It is also invulnerable to the widow’s attacks but it’s actually a harmless insect. The widow won’t die even if she touches the slayer. However, the slayer isn’t exactly a friend. It’s a rival, competing with the widow for good eats: valuable grubsteaks and even other bugs. The bug slayer is the ultimate bottomless pit and if you don’t beat it to your prey you’ll find yourself short on extra lives. At least the slayer notifies you of which bug it’s about to eat as its prey will briefly flash before being consumed.
There is actually a rare ninth bug, the bonus bug which is basically just a huge dollar sign with wings. The bonus bug is slow moving but tough to prioritize if you’re fighting against the hordes for your life. However, taking it down can render a ton of points depending on the wave in which you encounter it: from 25000 to even 415000 points!
With all this in mind, it’s clear that your mind has to balance several things at once: staying out of danger, shooting bugs, picking up $, and prioritizing bugs or grubsteaks that are about to be eaten so you aren’t denied valuable points.
I’m finding there are a lot of so-called “classics” from the Atari era that are just too inaccessible to me, either in terms of graphics or gameplay or a combination of both in one ugly, unrefined package. I do really think that this playing field makes the real gems shine all the brighter, though. Games like Black Widow are a real joy to play and I discovered it personally after downloading Atari Flashback Classics vol.1 on my PS4. So no, this was not a game I ever played in the arcades and I therefore have no nostalgia attached to it, but I think it’s one of the best on that vol.1 collection.
Black Widow has been re-released in a few Atari compilations over the years: Atari Anniversary Edition Redux for the PS1, Atari – 80 Classic Games in One! for PC, Atari Anthology for PS2 and Xbox. Seems to me like Flashback Classics is the most readily available for current gen gamers, so I’d encourage you not to pass this piece of history up.
The 8-bit Review
The multicolored vector art goes a long way in making this game look great even after so many decades. It’s aged very well and there’s more rhyme and reason to the graphics than in other contemporaneous vector games. The neon polygon shapes of bright primary hues really pop on that black background, especially the cobalt of the widow’s web. The colors really seem to glow, especially if you crank up the saturation on your TV like I did. Little lightshows between stages, the web flashing like a kaleidoscope, are some of the more visually impressive sequences I’ve seen from Atari.
Arcade games without music were pretty much the norm in the early 80’s but things were already changing with some titles introducing little jangles and ditties that breathed extra character in the cabinets. Pac-Man, Galaga, and Dig Dug were already playing around with the beginnings of music that could frame and define their personalities. Black Widow, on the other hand, isn’t particularly ambitious in this area. There’s no music at all, none that I found at least, and the sound effects are crude metallic chirping and marching noises. Yes, the robotic bleeps and boops may be endearingly evocative of the era, and there’s a certain harmonious quality to them, but games were fast changing and this may have been yet another reason why Black Widow was left in the caboose on the popularity train.
The waves really turn up the heat quickly. Bugs that were slow-moving on the first wave seem like they’re racing across the screen by the fourth and there’s a fair amount of them to worry about as well. While it may seem like a good idea to hang out in the dead center of the web and fire off in all directions, the varying paces at which the enemies move and certainly the blast radius of the explosive insects will inevitably force you to maneuver. On top of that, later waves begin to introduce walls and barriers in the webbing itself. Green segments of web the widow can pass through just like blue segments but these will prevent enemy bugs from proceeding outward through them. Red segments are worse. They prevent all movement through them, whether inward or outward and it’s easy to get stuck in your own trap and overrun by bugs. Again, worst nightmare ever.
One element of the otherwise enjoyable, fast-paced gameplay that’s a blow against the game lies in the eight-directional limitations of the widow’s movements and fire. Eight directions is not enough and that becomes increasingly apparent as you’re forced to line up your shots rather than relying on diagonal angles. I don’t know if increasing the amount of directions would’ve dragged down the speed of the game too much or not but as it is there’s a lot of missing that goes on because you sometimes can’t get the line of fire just right.
The game’s idle screens inform players have to play but only the rudimentary elements are covered, like picking up grubsteaks. The behaviors of the enemy insects aren’t immediately obvious when first playing the game. It’s something that you’ll either have to read about (you’re welcome) or you’ll just have to learn by observing as you play the game and get your game overs. First time I played I couldn’t exactly tell what was going on with all the different bugs and why some of them could be killed and blown up while others couldn’t, or why some ate the $ while others didn’t and where the eggs were coming from. There are such a variety of bugs as well that the sheer number of them makes enemy taxonomy difficult. It’s certainly not game-breaking and this is a far cry from the most inaccessible Atari games, of which there were plenty, but it may make for frustrations in beginners. At least you’re not dropping your own lunch money into the game anymore!
“Intense” is a good way to describe the latter waves. Starting from these in a new game without getting sufficient practice and training your brain to think at these speeds for the next few minutes is not recommended. It’s certain suicide. A wave that includes rampant bugs flying everywhere shooting missiles and eating each other while trying to corner the widow is a sight to behold, however briefly. With sufficient practice, I’m sure the game can be aced and this is one of the beautiful things about games from this era. There weren’t a whole lot of rules to memorize, exposition to sit through, DLC to download and get ripped off on, numbers to crunch or items to collect. It was simply about racking up the points, a definitive goal with a set number that you could either reach and exceed or fail to. This alone made games worth playing in that time and it came with its own set of bragging rights. While merely beating one’s high-score isn’t a provocative motivator anymore these days, it’s nice to be able to play something challenging and see how far you can get. It won’t hold your attention for hours (probably), but each time you return to Black Widow you can see if you can get just a little further.
The PS4 Flashback Classics adds trophy support for a little extra replay value. Trophy collecting seems to me like the natural evolution from points-collecting gameplay, so if you’re one of those who needs to platinum everything or get every achievement then you’ve got at least that to work toward in Black Widow. Otherwise, replay value is in getting and beating high-scores and enjoying the gameplay for the sake of the gameplay itself.
While still a clone, Black Widow stands out to me among most of the Atari/arcade games I’ve played from the early 80’s. It certainly looks better and has a more iconic aesthetic than Robotron 2084. It does a lot of things really well, with my biggest complaint being its limited eight directions. Besides that, its deceptively simple appearance masks an engrossing gameplay experience that is quite intense. Plus that vector art is superb.
My Personal Grade: 9/10
Retro-gaming perfection right here. Well, not exactly perfect but very enjoyable and engaging nonetheless. This quickly became one of my top three favorite games on the Atari Flashback Classics vol.1 collection. Its art style, complex enemy patterns, and pace are three things which put it a head above its peers. Many of them, at least. Black Widow may not be as famous as several other games from 1982 but it was a great concept and it had great execution. Sometimes I’m dispirited trying to enjoy games from this time period, especially if I’m anywhere near the Atari 2600, but Black Widow helped me see there are pockets of goodness here and there just waiting to be found. For those looking for a taste of the golden age of the arcades, I definitely recommend this one.
My only question is: Why are there so many old games based on creepy crawlies? Centipede was horrifying enough. Now I gotta go fumigate my house.
Aggregated Score: 7.0