Reprinted with permission from the Atari 2600 Connection Newsletter:
Best Electronics, going through what is rumored to be
the last Atari warehouse, uncovered eight copies of the game Save Mary
and were able to rescue them. The eight copies were recently auctioned
off, and I ended up with one.
The game was to have been released by Atari (I'm guessing it would have been number CX26172, CX26173, or CX26174, but this is only speculation), but was actually programmed by Axlon (founded in 1983 by Atari founder Nolan Bushnell), with Todd Frye-the programmer of the 2600 version of Pac-Man-leading. As far as I know it was never released, not even to the press, though the game was mentioned in the first issue of Atarian magazine. Here's what Nolan had to say about it:
"Then there's one called Saving [sic] Mary which I really like. It is the first game in which you rely on construction rather than destruction to save the princess. You build towers at the base of a river gorge to keep Mary out of the water, which is constantly rising. You have an unlimited supply of building materials, but you can lose a life by either squashing Mary with a piece of building material or building so slowly that you fail to get her out of the water and she drowns. The guilt you feel is tremendous."
This is in fact a fairly complete summary of gameplay. You have a sort of crane that you can extend toward the river and back up. You use it to grab bricks that slide out from the sides at the top of the gorge, then lower them as far as you can to drop onto the platform Mary walks on. You have to be careful not to drop the bricks on her though-while Nolan says you feel tremendous guilt, I feel more frustration because you can only lower the crane halfway to the river bed, and oftentimes Mary will walk under the falling brick after you've let go, and there's nothing you can do but watch her die.
However, Mary is smart enough to seek the high ground as you build, so when you lay down one brick, she will climb up and stay there, allowing you to lay other bricks on that level without risk. In fact you have to lay other bricks on that level, as Mary can only climb up one level at a time, and if you tried to build one pile only, you will squash her with the second brick.
It is a bit difficult to line bricks up directly side by side, having to drop them from so far up, and often they will break, but there is also a fair amount of leeway, so you can leave gaps and still build Mary's way out. Eventually the pile is high enough that you can grab Mary with the crane, and once you've deposited her on the river bank, that round is over.
Best, in their auction notice, said that there are three levels, and I've only played two to be honest. On the first level, the bricks are basically rectangular, and you can fit four of them across the river bed. The next level complicates things greatly, as the bricks are now three squares in a triangle (or upside-down triangle) formation, and so they need to be interleaved somewhat. This requires more bricks and more precise placement to build high enough to save Mary.
The problem is, it just isn't very fun. I guess I don't get what Nolan was so excited about, unless it really was just the idea that did it for him. The gameplay is pretty tedious, though the control is OK and the water level rises at a fast enough pace that the boredom won't go on too long if you don't actually try to meet the game's goal. I suspect that there are three brick shapes, after which they would repeat with faster rising water, but the truth is, I don't plan on playing the game enough to find out for sure.
There are also occasional items that appear on the river bank, like digits or wrecking ball (?) shapes. If you try to drop them into the gorge, they fall only as far as the crane can reach and then disappear from sight. I imagine these are bonus items of some sort, but I don't know what I'm supposed to do with them, and they only appear briefly before disappearing (the bricks break if they slide out too far). I probably won't play the game enough to find out what they're for, but perhaps you can get extra points by giving them to Mary when you've built high enough for her to reach them, or perhaps you get points if you set her down on one of them. Perhaps I paid too much...