My first game of the week for Atari 7800 is probably a game everyone familiar with the system has played, Pole Position II. Naturally, Pole Position II is the sequel to Namco’s original arcade smash, Pole Position. The original Pole Position is a game I am very familiar with playing both in the arcades and on the Atari 2600 & Vectrex home ports. However, I don’t have any recollection of actually seeing and playing a Pole Position II cabinet after its 1983 arcade release and not having owned an Atari 7800, the only home console it was ported to, meant I wasn’t familiar with the game whatsoever.
Despite this lack of ubiquity in most 80s gaming circles, Pole Position II was identified as the pack-in title for the Atari 7800 when the console was originally announced in 1984. This actually made sense at the time since Pole Position II was only a year old and the game seemed like a good choice to show off the graphical & scaling capabilities of the system. However, by 1986, my guess is Pole Position II was not a title most players were clamoring for to be ported on a home console and thus, wasn’t a big selling point for the 7800. Atari stuck with their 2 year old plans and bundled Pole Position II with the 7800 anyway. The problem is, Pole Position II honestly isn’t all that impressive when it comes down to it.
The upgrades from the 2600 Pole Position are minor and some cases, not at all. Sound effects? About the same since the 7800 used the same sound chip as the 2600, which means they aren’t impressive at all. Graphics? About the same. Maybe the cars look nicer and the scaling of the roads is cleaner but the visuals are still quite bland. Boring green foregrounds and either mountains, city or amusement park in the background depending on which race you run. You’ll also only see Atari logo billboards strewn about the roadsides so get used to them. Gameplay? About the same except now you have the aforementioned 4 courses to choose from.
In Pole Position II you first must run a qualifying heat which determines which position your car start in during the actual race. Pressing down on the joystick puts your car in low gear and pressing up gets you into high gear. Pressing the right side button will cause your car to accelerate and left side button is for the brake. I rarely, if ever brake when playing Pole Position II or any racing game for that matter but instead either let off the gas or else down shift when I need to slow down. Avoiding cars is the most difficult aspect of the game as they always seem to be situated on corners when you have less control of your car or else riding side by side not allowing you to pass. When you do happen to come up onto a car that you can pass, they tend to drift into your lane right before you do. I’ve dropped more than a few F-bombs when this happens because I know that essentially hitting a car and watching yours then explode will mean you will run out of time and not be able to finish the race. It takes an almost perfect run just to finish, which is frustrating but at least this lends to replay ability in order to master.
I can see why Atari wanted Pole Position II as part of their launch line up initially but I do think they had better options when it came to pack-in title options by 1986. You can’t necessarily attribute this decision to the assumption that Atari had left over inventory from 1984 they needed to sell. The boxes that the 7800 were sold in are actually different from the initial 1984 test run vs. the boxes that were sold from 1986 through the lifespan of the system which means Atari’s marketing had a chance for a re-do if they wanted it. My general feeling about Pole Position II is that it is an okay game but far from great and definitely not the upgrade that owners were likely expecting when they bought their 7800 and this was all they had to play.
Currently in my collection: game, manual