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The Classics: 'Carnival'

Carnival

The Classics are must-see, must-read, must-play works revered by The Verge staff. They offer glimpses of the future, glimpses of humanity, and a glimpse of our very souls. You should check them out.

The 1980 arcade game Carnival, released by Sega, is before my time. So too, really, is the 1982 port for the Colecovision. But, growing up, I had one friend who, in addition to her NES, also had an aging Colecovision in her basement. On that system, we spent hours playing the first two or three levels of BurgerTime, with most of our sessions ending in frustration at the game’s impossibility. To be fair, though, we were pretty young, and not very good at video games.

A few months ago, when I finally got around to downloading a Colecovision emulator -- Mugrat -- the first thing I did was play BurgerTime. Surprise, surprise, this game still seems impossible to me, and after a few minutes of play, I was already looking around at the Colecovisions other offerings. And that’s when I discovered Carnival. With almost no prior knowledge of the game, I began playing, and I haven’t stopped. I still return to BurgerTime, and I have a few other favorites, and I’m not sure if Carnival is a "classic" to anyone but me, but here’s my case.

The first game with a Bonus Round

Carnival is significant in video game history for being the first game with a "bonus round," where you shoot at a bear with a target strapped to his belly, but the main action takes place in a shooting gallery: hence the name. The music is classic carnival fair, an AY-3-8910 version of Juventino Rosas’ 1888 classic waltz, "Sobre las Olas." It’s also significant musically because it was the first game to use multiple-voice composition.

The gameplay is deceptively simple: you play the gun, shooting at three rows of moving targets which include owls, rabbits, and ducks. The top row (the one farthest away from you) is worth 50 if left unshot, they eat up your bulletspoints, the second row is worth 30, the third row, closest to you, is worth 10. There are also other targets mixed in with the animals: letters of the alphabet, and square boxes with the numbers "10" and "5" which provide you with extra, needed bullets. Bullets are always in short supply. While the owls and the rabbits are harmless, simply disappearing once they reach the end of the 10-point line, the ducks (if you haven’t taken them out by the time they reach the point closest to your gun) become mobile, and, if left unshot, they eat up some of your bullets -- depending on how many you have left. If you only gave a few, well, "Game Over."

There’s also a wheel above the playing field, the shooting gallery, which has eight spokes you must hit before ending the round. Once you finish a round, you get that bear-filled "Bonus Round" previously mentioned. And that’s it.

Like most games of its time, Carnival, is as I said, deceptively simple, which is one of the keys to its engrossing addictiveness. It’s also fairly hard -- death is inevitable, there’s no "saving" your progress or levelling up, and each game lasts a few, teeth grinding Death is inevitablemoments. That said, though in the past few months of what can only be considered casual play, I’ve only gotten to Level 3 (I refuse to look and see how many levels there are!), there is a feeling of near Zen which sometimes happens, when, for mere seconds, it seems, I can’t lose: I’m hitting each target with precision, and I can almost predict where to move the gun to next to take out the pesky ducks. Like all good early games, the simple controls (in the emulator, one arrow to move the gun, one button to shoot) are smooth, giving you the impression that there aren’t really any controls between you and the game. You are the gun, shooting at the carnival animals, all that stands between you and your highest score, ever.

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