Private Eye: Atari 2600
Three related questions to be answered in a bit –
1. What is Paul’s favorite Hall and Oates song?
2. What game did I pick up locally at a pawn shop?
3. What is this week’s Fair Shake about?
So I recently picked up this game a week or two ago. Pretty much the only system I ‘collect’ for is the Atari 2600. Probably because of memories of a time gaming with my dad, who still takes a passing interest in my latest acquisitions. I have most of the Activision releases, but never had this game. I gotta tell you readers, I popped this cartridge in and had no idea what the hell I was doing. Driving a car, bouncing around, stupid birds, guys with question marks on their heads, wtf? I looked for the manual online. Yes another game released back when manuals were mandatory. #SAVETHEMANUALS! Cleverly laid out like a collection of files on criminals, the manual gives a fun backstory to why you’re driving around as well as laying out the particular goals of each level, or case file. The other side is a nicely drawn map. You’ll need it..
By the way, the answer to all three questions above is ‘Private Eye’. Released in 1984 during the great video game crash, the game puts you in the role of Pierre Touche’, a private investigator who looks like a cross between a pregnant woman and the Gorton’s Fisherman guy. Working ‘Precinct 2600’, Pierre has been tasked with capturing Henri Le Fiend, ringleader of a local gang. Being the land of ‘trial by jury’, you must collect evidence and stolen property before you can pick up Le Fiend, all before the statute of limitations timer runs out. There’s no ‘number of lives’ here, just a timer. The first level allots three minutes to complete it, while the last level allows 20!
Driving his trusty black 1935 Model A Ford which is ‘specially modified’ so it can jump (and toss Touche’ out of the car at the same time). You’ll drive
across several screens around town in search of ‘questionable characters’ (noted by their shady appearance and question marks on their hats). Touching them is equal to questioning them, or roughhousing them for evidence. Occasionally these people will have items on them, perhaps a gun, a bag of stolen cash, or a vase or other things. Each item must be returned to where they belong (gun shop, bank, museum), before you can apprehend Le Fiend and bring him to the police station.
Of course as you progress, more shady people will start THROWING KNIVES AT YOU. If you’re hit by them, you’ll drop whatever you were carrying as the generic bad guy steals it off your stunned body. Once you’ve grabbed all the items and deposited them where they belong, you can pick up Le Fiend, but you’ll be under the proverbial gun as the clock ticks away, or else the game ends. Case #1 “Safecracker Suite” takes place across 32 blocks of town, while the last case, “The Big Sweep”, has 248 blocks to drive across!
Private Eye has mildly above average graphics for the system, typical of any Activision game. Amazingly, if you squint more than Gilbert Gottfried, the car does look like a Model A Ford. Pierre does look like a chubby Dick Tracey. Anyone notice you drive around in Pitfall world? Does this mean Pitfall Harry explores a jungle next to a strip mall? Damn suburban sprawl.. Sounds are also typical 2600 bleeps and boops. The car’s engine changes tone, there’s a jump noise, and a little musical bit that plays occasionally. I feel game is best played with a joypad, like the optional 7800 controller, as opposed to a joystick. It just felt better. Hanging on a joystick does get old after awhile.
This game is overlooked for lots of reasons. It came out at the wrong time. It really requires that the manual be read to figure out what’s going on, so most ‘new’ retro players will skip it. Having a printed map helps too, especially in the higher levels. People even hate on the cartridge artwork (why Activision deviated from the solid color cart with screen capture-as-art, I’ll never know). Private Eye plays more like a later Nintendo/Sega game, and it’s an interesting example to see a more complex game in action on the system. You won’t beat this on the first, second, third, or tenth play through, as not only do you need to know where the items are, you’ll have to figure out the proper order to get them! Do some moonlighting for the 2600PD and give Private Eye the fair shake!