I Didn’t Get Where I Am Today Without… Frontier: Elite II

Back in the dark age of computer games, when having a ‘multi-screen adventure’ was something to shout about on the back of a cassette tape inlay, along came a game called Elite that changed peoples’ perceptions of the possible. It’s hard to understand the impact the game had at the time, but if you just look at the influence it still has some thirty-odd years later, you might begin to grasp its significance.

Okay, okay: it doesn’t look great these days but you had to be there. I have no idea who Len is, incidentally.

I did play the original Elite (I had a copy on the NES, of all things) but it’s the sequel, Frontier, that I remember most fondly. Released in 1992 on the PC, ST and Amiga, Frontier basically took everything that was great about the original – the freedom, the expansive Universe – and dialed it up to eleven. Freed from the memory constraints of 8-bit computers, author David Braben created in Frontier a game that featured a singular open world (well, galaxy technically) long before the likes of Grand Theft Auto came along and popularised the concept.

You could travel to Earth, Barnard’s Star, Arcturus and thousands upon thousands more places that I can’t remember the names of, on a map intricately plotted based on real observations of the Milky Way. Apparently, anyway: I’m too stupid and ignorant to know if they were lying.

What really made Frontier stand out for me was the setting. Like many of the ‘big-box’ titles of the time, Frontier came with an extensive manual and also a copy of ‘Stories of Life on the Frontier’, a separate collection of short stories that provided some insights into the game’s world, particularly the conflict between the two galactic superpowers of the Federation and the Empire. Throughout the game you could choose to ally yourself with either faction (or both, if you wanted to be a double-crossing sneaky sneakster), completing missions for them that would raise a rank with them that was separate to your ‘Elite rating’ that gives the series its name. Higher faction ranks resulted in more dangerous missions which would reap higher monetary rewards. A bit like real-life, really, but with more lasers.

In truth, there wasn’t actually that much to do in Frontier. There were lots of missions available through the bulletin boards of the game’s various space stations and planetary bases, but the variety of these was limited to a few different types, such as ferrying passengers, delivering packages or assassinations. This didn’t matter, though: it seemed that there was a universe of possibilities through your TV screen. The procedural generation Frontier employed (again, long before the term was in common use) was clever enough to allow you to suspend your disbelief, and make it feel that everything was hand-crafted. If you’re interested in the technicalities of it all, go and look at jongware.com who have some great articles exploring it.

Bulletin boards were always full of missions and images of ugly people in strange hats.

The Amiga version that I played is, like many early 3D games, almost next to unplayable now for the modern palate. The graphics, which at the time seemed revolutionary, now look so abstract with their lack of texture mapping and horrendous jagged edges that its like being in an explosion at a geometry factory. On the hardware I played it on as well, the frame-rate can plummet in planetary locations to figures you could count on one hand, if not one finger. Space combat – honestly, never Frontier’s strongest aspect – now feels barely controllable.

None of this really matters, I guess: Frontier was amazing at the time and helped cement my love of science-fiction. I distinctly remember reading and re-reading the manuals and fiction book, buildinmg up a world in my mind. This was a game designed in some ways for the teenager, with free time coming out of their pimples. I’m not sure, even if it looked and controlled better, that I’d have the patience to play this nowadays. Frontier and – I assume – its successors such as the modern Elite: Dangerous – are games that reward a time investment that I just couldn’t commit to now.

For a time, though, Frontier was to me the greatest game ever made. Well, maybe apart from Super Mario Bros. 3. And that intro sequence will stay with me forever. I haven’t got my own video of it, so here’s one by YouTuber Trypsonite:

Note: All images in this post are from MobyGames.

Am I the Only One Who Remembers… DreamWeb

As a grizzled old man, I’m fortunate enough to remember the early days of video gaming, and looking across the gamult of its history, you can see easily a pattern that represents the growth of a man. From the early infantile days of Pong to the modern age, which in some ways seems like an early 30-year-old, clinging on to the last strands of youth. As with most things, if you look hard enough you can see the metaphor.

Lying firmly in the awkward adolescent phase is DreamWeb. The game tries so hard to be edgy it lacerates itself. As if to prove just how goddamn adult it is, the original game came packaged with a ‘Diary of a Madman’ book providing some backstory to the game, written in an authentic crazy-man scrawl font. You can tell it gets crazier towards the end as the font gets bigger AND THE AUTHOR STARTS WRITING IN CAPITALS, A PRACTICE LEFT SOLELY TO THE MENTALLY UNBALANCED. The game features violence, gore, swearing and even a sex scene.

Yes, a sex scene. In a 1994 video game. It is precisely as titilating as you would imagine.

Which is odd, because in the cutscene before the DreamWeb was shown to be circular. Time to go back to Geometry 101, red-cloak-wearing-dude.

DreamWeb tries so, so hard to be cool that, in doing so, it forgets it has to be a video game as well. In my pre-blog research I’ve seen DreamWeb described as ‘one of the greatest cyberpunk games ever made’. It isn’t. It barely manages to be one of the greatest games called ‘DreamWeb.’

Eden is your improbably-named girlfriend who really could do better for herself than a bartender who thinks he’s the ‘Deliverer’.

The gameplay consists of scanning your mouse over the fairly samey-looking overhead dystopia, using the games magnifier to find pixel-wide interactive areas. There are puzzles to solve and people to talk to, of course. You play the part of Ryan Cantrememberhissecondname, who is either a mentally unhinged psychopath or the one chosen by the mystical eponymous DreamWeb to save the world. Which, of course, he just happens to do be brutally murdering several people. Apparently they going to commit some heinous event at some point, or something. It’s hard to care, to be honest. There’s some interest to be had at the start in plotting the initial assassinations, but you’re stuck on a very linear path and there’s no scope for improvisation. This is an adventure game, ultimately, and you do what it tells you to. By the time you reach the latter stages of the game, everything seems so rushed that you half suspect the developers got a bit bored with it all too.

The problem with dystopian near-future worlds is that they can be very difficult to get right without appearing trite or unbelievable. DreamWeb doesn’t, to be fair to it, fall into this trap, but the unfortunately the world it presents just has no soul. Even with the decently-written ‘Diary of a Madman’ backstory taken into account (which obviously you shouldn’t, because it’s not in the game), it’s not fleshed out enough for you to care about the detail. But then, there isn’t an air of intrigue or mystery about it either. The characters are mostly anonymous or, particularly in the case of the protagonist, hard to care about. There was never a sequel, and I can’t imagine than many would to revisit this world.

She’s probably wondering if she’ll ever get a job in a better game.

Today, DreamWeb is pretty much forgotten. If it is remembered at all, it’s because of the sex scene – a first for a ‘mainstream’ game at the time. I seem to recall that, when it was released, that was pretty much the main selling point too. Nowadays it seems remarkably tame; nothing more than a shuffle of fleshy-coloured pixels.

If you’re after a retro steampunk adventure, seek out the likes of Beneath a Steel Sky or Westwood’s brilliant 1997 Blade Runner game instead. Leave DreamWeb where it belongs: in the broom closet of forgotten games.


Burn in the Fires of Eternal Torment… C64 Thundercats

If you were a child of the ’80s like myself, you will remember Thundercats. Ohboyohboyohboy, Thundercats was fantastic. It had everything you could want in a cartoon series: action, cool characters, a brilliantly scary bad guy, Cheetara (although perhaps only later was that quite so appealing). And, of course, it had that theme tune. For these who can’t remember, this is how every episode of Thundercats started off:

I mean, honestly. Everything about that (well, apart from Snarf) just screams excitement, adventure and other cool things. Even now just watching it makes me tingle weirdly inside, and not just from the sight of Cheetara doing all those gymnastics.

Thundercats was pretty massive in the 80s; perhaps not up to the popularity levels of Transformers or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but certainly there weren’t many kids who hadn’t watched it or owned some of the toys. And, of course, in the 1980s where there was a successful cartoon series and toy line, there was also a home computer platformer.

To give it it’s due, for the standards of the time this wasn’t an awful game, it was just – in the context of the show – utterly, utterly disappointing. Just go and watch that intro sequence again. Go on, I’ll wait for you. Now watch this:

I mean, honestly. It’s just shit, isn’t it? How disappointed would a 10-year-old boy be having rushed back from the shops tape in hand, to sit around waiting for the game to load for 30 minutes only to be confronted with this? Well, as one of those 10-year-old boys (at the time. Not now, obviously) I can tell you: very.

The game, released by Elite Software is a clumsy mess of a title, with stupidly high difficulty, frustrating controls and an utter lack of purpose. There’s a bit of variety with some of the glider sections, but these are so difficult to control and play they make those infamous tunnel bits in Battletoads seem forgiving in comparison. In the quick emulated replay I did for this post, I couldn’t get far enough to get to one of these bits, but luckily the nice people over at MobyGames haven’t lost all of the muscle memory they accrued for the title, so there’s a screenshot below. Looks great, doesn’t it? No. No is the answer.

He’ll be dead in approximately five seconds.

It’s only whilst writing this that, having stumbled upon the Wikipedia entry for the game, I discovered that this was never meant to actually be a Thundercats title, but is actually a hastily-reskinned game called Samurai Dawn. This goes some way to explaining why it just isn’t very Thundercats-y, some graphical motifs aside.

Ultimately, Thundercats is not a very good computer game. Okay, okay: this was 1987 and standards were different then and, perhaps, nothing could really come close to the expectations I had from the cartoon. But still, the license deserved better. And still does, really. A quick Google suggests that the only other released game based on the franchise is a 2012 Nintendo DS game, which takes its cues from the prematurely-cancelled 2011 cartoon reboot (which, incidentally, if you haven’t watched then you should: it’s great) and, apparently, is also shit. Jaga will be turning in his grave.

What’s coming next

Just a quick update on what’s happening with the blog. After a little bit of an absence you may or may not have noticed a new post on Mass Effect Andromeda appearing here the other day. This is hopefully just the first in a bit of a flurry of more frequent updates. As well as the more lengthy reviews of current titles, I’m going to also have some regular feature-ettes, ideas for which at the moment include:

  • Am I the Only One Who Remembers… – Looking at some games from the past which never get written about anywhere else because they weren’t popular enough.
  • I Didn’t Get Where I Am Today Without… – A small series on the games, films, books, TV series and events that shaped the horrendous facsimile of a human being I am.
  • Burn in the Fires of Eternal Torment… – Want to know what the worst things I’ve ever encountered are? Perhaps because the Internet has proven to us that people like reading or hearing about bad things much more than good, which is some terrible damnation of Mankind in and of itself? That’s lucky, because that’s what this will do.

And there might be more, as well as some random funny stuff. Hope you want to stick around and, hey, bring a friend! No, not that one. A nicer one. Preferably Swedish.

On… Mass Effect Andromeda

Let’s get this out of the way from the start: the facial animations haven’t bothered me in the slightest. Okay, okay, character models seemed more detailed in the likes of The Witcher 3 but, a ‘dead eyes’ problem aside, Mass Effect Andromeda is perfectly serviceable in this regard. It could be better, yes, but it’s nowhere near as bad as some people might make you think.

So, anyway, with that out of the way, let’s talk Andromeda. As a huge fan of the previous games in the series I was awaiting this with breath so baited I could have used it to catch perch. Am I disappointed, like many people seem to be? No. Yes. No. Maybe. Look, it’s complicated. Maybe the best way to look at Andromeda is to consider not what it is, but what it isn’t.

Just give me a car and a a desert, and I’ll give you a lot of ‘wheeeee’s and some tyre-tracks.

Andromeda isn’t Mass Effect 4. Well, I mean, it is, obviously, but it also isn’t. The fictional universe is very much Mass Effect but the story doesn’t follow on from the ending of ME3. Rather, this follows a separate story of a group of humans, turians, salarians, asari and krogan who have decided that the Milky Way is a bit too cramped for them, and thus decided to bugger off to the nearby-in-galactic-terms-but-not-exactly-next-door Andromeda galaxy. After six hundred years of cryogenic sleep, the hardy (and some not-so-hardy) pioneers awake to find that their long-range scans seem to have been about as accurate as a ten-day weather forecast, and crash headlong into a weird wibbly-wobbly space thingy that someone had inconveniently parked in their way.

This is much more a game about exploration and discovery, and as a result perhaps lacks the focus of the original trilogy with it’s more obvious threat and narrative drive. This, I think, is likely to turn a few people off but, for more, I found it a refreshing change of pace from the original titles.

Andromeda also isn’t an open-world game. This is no Skyrim or The Witcher 3 with vast open areas to explore and do as you wish. The game very much takes its cues from Bioware’s last major release, Dragon Age Inquisition, with its multitude of large-ish open areas with multiple quests. Some of the quests are interesting and provide a decent back-story, but, it must be said, a few too many of them revert to the MMORPG form of ‘go here, press a button, go there, press the button again, repeat eight times until the quest progress bar is full’. Compared to the likes of The Witcher 3 or even, to a lesser extent, Fallout 4 the side-quests can be pretty weak.

The game suffers a little bit from a lack of places to explore. Whether it’s just because I haven’t reached the appropriate point in the game yet (though given that I’m 20-odd hours into it that seems unlikely), but whilst there is a big number of worlds that can be visited in the not-quite-as-good-as-the-Normandy-but-still-pretty-cool-Tempest, the majority of these cannot be explored on foot. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem were it not for the fact that the whole emphasis of the game is on exploration and finding a new home, yet you find yourself restricted by a set of rules hidden behind the scenes. Why is it I can land on this frozen planet but not this other one? The answer, probably, is just because a map exists for one and not the other. I realise it would have been incredibly difficult to implement, but just from the perspective of the game as a whole, procedural-generation of planets allowing them to be explorable, even if there wasn’t a whole lot that could be done there, would have improved the game massively.

See that mountain in the distance? You can’t go there.

Finally, Andromeda also isn’t a fully-tested game. Even in the patch version 1.05 that landed (at time of writing) yesterday, there are still issues. Most annoying for me, playing on PS4 Pro, are the occasionally-strobing menu backgrounds and the almost-five-minute waiting times when loading a save that took place whilst in the Nomad all-terrain-vehicle. I’ve not yet encountered anything that fundamentally breaks the game, nor had any crashes, but I can’t help feeling that another two weeks in the oven would have benefited the title.

Still, even after all that, Mass Effect Andromeda is a very good game. The combat is the best it’s ever been, even if the more ‘open’ nature of the game means that there are fewer set-piece combat moments where everything has been tuned to work together. Ryder is a likeable protagonist, with a more fleshed-out background than Shepard had in the original trilogy. I’ve not played enough of the game yet to fully comment on the storyline, but of what I have played I’ve found it decent enough and, as mentioned earlier, a good thematic change from the previous games.

TL;DR: If you liked Mass Effects 1-3 you will like this. You might not love it, and it certainly isn’t as good as it’s predecessors, but I’m enjoying it immensely.