"Who defeats the Gond?" the 80's commercial asked as a group of boys crowded around Vanguard on their Atari system. "Luther beats the Gond" they reply, followed by this big, dumb-looking character "huh huh huh" laughing after the Gond is defeated.

I don't know if you recall that ancient commercial or not, but "The Gond" is the boss at the end of each tunnel in the scrolling shooter named Vanguard. Vanguard was originally a 1981 coin-op by SNK (yes, they made games way back then, and Ryo and Mai weren't a gleam in their eyes yet!). Coin-op Vanguard boasted a joystick for movement, and 4 buttons for shooting up, down, left, and right. I laughed when I recently read a review of the game, and the writer casually claimed that you needed to be an octopus to be able to play the thing. 5200 Vanguard simplifies control by using one fire button which shoots in the direction you are moving. In order to minimize deaths caused by moving towards an enemy as you aim to shoot it, your ship moves very slowly if you are firing. Other than this necessary concession, 5200 Vanguard is very faithful to the coin-op.

Vanguard is an early shooter, and to me it doesn't have the replay that other shooters have, such as my more favorite games like Defender, Asteroids, or even the original Space Invaders. Certainly its an obscure game that you won't find on many home consoles (the 2600 had a version too). You control a ship that fires in 4 directions, and you fly through scrolling tunnels defeating an assortment of enemies. Defeating enemies is a must since you gain fuel by toasting opponents.

Each tunnel is comprised of different zones. You begin in the First Zone, which is made of boxes it seems. There are several Energy boxes that you can fly through for invulnerability, so this zone is usually pretty easy. Next comes the Rainbow zone, a diagonally scrolling level with balloons coming at you from all sides. There are usually several Rainbow Zones in each tunnel. The Styx zone is like the First Zone with no Energy and deadlier enemies. The Stripe zone also has left-to-right horizontal scrolling, and its my favorite zone since it offers a high and a low path that you must choose between. The Bleak zone scrolls vertically and has little "C"-shaped snakes, and then arrows. The snakes can be docked-with 3 times for points; the arrows leave explosions when destroyed, and these can also destroy your ship. After all this comes the Final Zone with the boss -- the Gond, a fat bug. You must avoid force-fields and shots and try to hit the Gond to get to the next level.

Vanguard is a nicely ported game. The hum of the tunnels and the Vanguard "Charge!" theme are well represented. Several levels have background music, which was an added treat in the early 80's. Vanguard is challenging; the scrolling gets faster as you progress and some enemies' patterns change as you go. One of the extra goodies we got with 5200 games like Vanguard in the 80's was that the 'points' displayed on the screen after shooting stuff -- Atari 2600 games almost NEVER showed that. Also, there are some nice options in this version -- you can pick any of the first 3 tunnels, and any of the 7 zones which occupy each tunnel, to begin your game.

Vanguard's claim to fame is that its enemy craft move in bewildering, maddening patterns. I can't think of any game like this one at all. Explosion sounds and music are excellent. In fact, the intro theme was rumored to have been "borrowed" from Queen's "blast-off music" from the Flash Gordon movie in the early 80's. I wouldn't know since the sight of that movie makes me rather violently ill and I'll no doubt never watch it.

5200 Vanguard is definitely worth picking up, and this version is the closest you'll get to the coin-op version. Oh, and for the record, I can defeat the Gond about 3 times before I'm toast.

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