It’s time to conclude our snake trilogy with Serpentine, the maze chase game where the hunter is also the hunted. It’s all been building up to this. First, you saw how the maze chase genre was open to interpretation, then you saw how snake-based gameplay could compliment it. And now, it’s time for some serious snake-eat-snake action! Er, snake-eat-other-snake. This isn’t like Nibbler; you eat other snakes, not yourself. On purpose.
Imagine that you’re playing a maze game like Pac-Man, but instead of just running away from the ghosts, you’re also chasing them. That is the premise behind Serpentine. Apparently, the game takes place far in the future where the world is ruled by two feuding snake kingdoms and the maze is really made up of city ruins forming corridors. Your job is to ride a snake like a horse and steer it to victory. On a scale of “1” to “completely grounded,” I’d give this premise an “excited Gary Busey.”
So anyway, once you get to the gameplay itself the game is quite sensible. The rules are that you can’t hit an enemy snake head-on unless it’s shorter than you (in which case its body will turn green) and finishing off an enemy snake makes your body one segment longer. You only start with a body three segments long and can’t eat any enemies wholesale. You have to eat their tail segments to whittle away at their length and once you’ve eradicated one, you gain an extra segment. Thus it is very rewarding to earn extra segments to make your job easier. There’s just one catch: Your snake randomly lays an egg during play, which takes away one body segment. The upside is this: if your egg remains on the map without being eaten for long enough, it will hatch and grant you an extra life. If an enemy snake’s egg hatches, it will become a two-segment snake and the level will take longer to complete, since you will now have four enemies to eat instead of three.
If this sounds crazily unbalanced, don’t worry. Your snake has one key advantage that you wouldn’t expect from any other maze chase game: it moves more quickly than the other snakes. If you were to chase an enemy snake down a straight corridor, you would be guaranteed to win. The challenge comes from the enemies’ high maneuverability, and from their numbers. Two snakes can fill the same space, and while one is running away from you another snake can come toward you in the same hallway. Since running into an enemy headlong kills you, you are forced to retreat and continue chasing the shorter snake after you’re safe. This cat-and-mouse mechanic makes killing your first snake quite challenging and (admittedly) at times tedious, but it’s an intense experience nonetheless.
This video was from the port for the Atari 8-bit Computer. It was originally released on Apple ][, and then ported to the Commodore Vic-20 and a few others. The reason I’m showing this version is that it has the best graphics of all the versions. True, this version only has five levels instead of the other versions’ 20 levels, but I (predictably) never get that far so it doesn’t matter.
Serpentine isn’t perfect. In fact, I was tempted not to include this game on my list. In the end, though, I felt it deserved a spot. Let’s look at the flaws: Being thwarted from eating a snake for the twentieth time because you have to escape a pursuer is disappointing and being outmaneuvered for a solid minute can get frustrating, but once you finally eat that snake, it’s quite satisfying. Despite these two major complaints, the rest of the game is pretty solid. Anticipating which corner your prey will turn down, then making the same turn and nabbing him is very rewarding (when you listen to your instincts and do it) and what I really like about this maze-chase game is that even though you’re constantly running from your enemies, they’re also constantly running from you. The AI opponents show a bit of teamwork at times, cornering you; but if you’re smart and stay on the offensive, they’ll be unable to force your hand. It also has a medium speed–Snakebyte was slow and steady (unless you cranked up the speed), Nibbler was overwhelmingly fast, but Serpentine is just right. I discovered while researching this article that Serpentine is also, in fact, a mineral group.