For years, a friend and I could not figure out how to play Towering Inferno for the Atari 2600. We couldn't even get the character to move or shoot at all. After many exasperating attempts to confirm that there was actually a playable game within that cartridge, we finally discovered that you have to plug the controller into port #2 for it to work. Nowhere in the manual does it state that you must use controller port #2, and that's really stupid design, anyway.
So, years later, I break out this game again and, of course, I completely forget about the port #2 thing. After about 20 minutes of struggling with both my actual game cartridge and an emulator, I finally remembered what to do. Now that I've actually been able to play the game for awhile, I can say that Towering Inferno is quite decent for an Atari 2600 game. As a firefighter, you battle flames inside a burning skyscraper while simultaneously rescuing people trapped inside. Although U.S. Games got authorization from 20th Century FOX to use the title "Towering Inferno", it is not based on the Steve McQueen film of the same name, as nothing in the manual, game, or packaging would indicate that there is any connection besides the similar theme of a burning building.
Each tower has nine floors that get progressively more difficult as you ascend. The floors all consist of one room with a randomly-chosen, symmetrical maze and flames that move back and forth horizontally across the screen. As the firefighter, you have a hose to douse the flames, but you can only shoot up and down, not left or right. So when flames block horizontal passages, you either have to wait for them to come into range or find another way around. This is not very easy for two reasons: 1. There may not be another way around, as the flames tend to block both sides of the screen. 2. The time you have to rescue the trapped people and get out is limited.
With each floor, the number of flames increases, as does their speed of movement, and the amount of time you have is lessened. These factors all pump up the excitement level of Towering Inferno, but it also means that getting past the upper floors on the the third building and beyond will depend as much on luck as skill. In these cases, there are simply too many flames for you to fight through in the allotted time, and you'll have to hope for a break that allows you to run in and run out without a hitch. Flames only move horizontally, but their movement is so erratic, they sometimes jump several spaces, causing you to get burned as you try to pass through what seemed like a clear opening just moments earlier. If you touch the flames more than three times, your game ends, but you always get three chances per floor. If you run out of time on a floor, ie, all the people you're trying to rescue die, then it's an instant "Game Over". No second chances there. That is, unless, you're using difficulty settings 2 and 3 which both allow you to continue play from the floor where you left off. Unless you get extremely lucky this is probably your only chance of progressing beyond the first four towers. The last floor of the fifth tower took me about 50 tries to pass. Like most Atari 2600 games, Towering Inferno loops indefinitely, and the only visual reward for clearing a building is that the next one changes color.
But the real reward in Towering Inferno is just getting a little farther each time and, perhaps, a higher score. It's the compelling nature of many simplistic 2600-era games that keeps their fans coming back to them. That spirit is certainly present here: When the odds are stacked against us, and the game's looping has reached the point where it should be too much for the player to handle, we just want to prove we can beat the system.
I think U.S. Games was particularly proud of their burning building scene. The game's packaging even boasts "improved graphics", although what it's "improved" over, I'm not sure. Between each round, a cinema scene of the building in flames and the helicopter descending from its roof is shown. Very, very primitive by today's standards, but at least it looks like what it's supposed to look like.
Although it does not quite compare to the more sophisticated games of the 8-bit era, Towering Inferno is still rather amusing for an Atari 2600 game. For closer-to-home comparisons, it's not quite as stellar as Yars Revenge or Keystone Kapers. It's not a game that would make you want to run out and buy a 2600 right away. But if you already own a 2600, or are just into emulation, it's definitely worth a try. Just remember to use controller port #2.