Monday, August 15, 2022

Caverns of Callisto (1983)

Name:Caverns of Callisto
Developer:Chuck "Chuckles the Jester" Bueche
Time:50 minutes
Won:Not possible

Despite the fact that you probably haven't heard of Caverns of Callisto or its author, both are surprisingly important given their modern irrelevance. Origin, as you probably know, was Richard Garriot's company, the fellow who created Ultima. Originally the series was published by other companies, but difficulty getting money owed to him resulted in the creation of Origin. One of those people was Chuck Bueche, who did some coding work on all three Ultimas at this time, in addition to doing quite a few ports. This isn't his first solo game, but it is the first non-Ultima game Origin published.
The story is not complex, the player is on the moon Callisto and mutants have stolen his ion drive and panels. What kind? I dunno, which makes me suspect that if I'm that non-specific about the problem, I don't have a chance of repairing it. Ion drives aren't even that fast, which is why scientists are planning on using it for travel in locations where that slow speed is less important than consistent speed. Don't know if Callisto has a low enough gravity for that to be effective. Anyway, the player explores the caves to find those parts.

I wonder if the line-based walls are a sign that Origin didn't care too much about this conversion
After I start it up, two reasons why this game is obscure today pop to mind. The first, and one you probably figured out already, is that this was only released on Apple II and the Atari computer range, two computers of which people on average, don't really have nostalgia for. The second, is that this wasn't a very good game even in 1983.
A blue pad, which is one of two positive powerups
Caverns plays like your semi-typical "realistic" side-scroller of the era. That is, your guy flies around, and you shoot wherever you're pointing, and its not automatic whenever you move backwards that you turn around. Two things make this a bad implementation of that. This is one of those games where gravity effects you, which isn't necessarily bad, but here the controls feel very loose. You can sit on the ground, but your fuel drains even there. Turning around is a bit of a struggle, as you have to tap the fire button to initiate a turn, and if you aren't pressing left or right, you've turned up or down. If you're in that position, moving left or right turns you in that direction, but usually if you want to turn, there's something in that direction, so you're already tapping the opposite direction to get away from it. It also renders shooting off a short burst of shots tricky.
I can't say I ever had the gun overheat on me
The weapon you get is a little bit interesting. Hold it down and it'll shoot a burst of shots, then stop. I actually stays level with your guy, so you can do some clever moves if you try. Unlimited ammo, but it overheats. Its very hard to aim, in addition to the aforementioned issues, flying back aims up, while flying forward aims down. Just forget aiming up, because you need to be moving straight up to shoot in that direction. Which means rapidly approaching something that's going to kill you. Down's not as bad but it still feels difficult to aim. As a shooter, its fairly obvious early on that its severely lacking.
Enemies are about what you'd expect. Any given screen you can expect to see floating teeth, which fly and chase after you, something that jumps while chasing after you, spinning blades that go across the ground and don't seem to chase you.  While you can kill them, because of the awkward shooting controls, another method is more ideal. The game does not track enemies that go off screen. Even the demo for the game does this rather than shooting at them. This, combined with its level design, make it slightly more interesting than you'd expect.
I know I keep alluding to it, but I don't fine this an appealing-looking game, at all
There are a small number of stationary enemies, which are more troublesome than the moving ones. You have the more common variety, which is a red pad that shoots out a lot of red dots. Then there's a laser turret, which is more of a puzzle, which guards the ion drive. Unlike moving enemies, stationary ones are always there, and can't be killed. So if you get hit and fall in an awkward spot, you could lose all your lives. There's a blue pad, similar to the red pad, that gives you a shield if you land on it. This is the only way to take multiple hits, and you can recharge this shield. However, getting hit by either stationary enemy ignores your shield, so you might not be in such a good place.
The laser turret goes goes through a series of positions, so timing here is important
The really interesting thing about Caverns is that it has consistent level design. You'd figure a game about traveling through a vast cavern would be at this time randomly generated, since that's how most games worked then. It does feel like me saying at least they tried before handing down a particpation award, but there are still a lot of games where they don't even get that much. Its not a great cave, but you can systematically work through an ideal method of getting past all the worst hazards to get the panels and ion drive.
Now, the problem with this game is that you have to find 9 items, your ion drive and 8 panels, across a generic cave. Exploring a generic, ugly wasn't really an interesting prospect back when it was Gateworld for DOS and I didn't really have anything better to do. Now that its Caves of Callisto and I have thousands of other titles to play it seems a bit of a joke. Still, I soldier on with save states. Surprisingly, I don't need to abuse them that much, just the laser turret and a few other unfortunate encounters. Fuel, as you can see down there, is also a concern, but I only ran out once, and your next life gives you a full recharge anyway.

But I can't "win", as much as it counts for in this game, where winning just starts the loop anew. I eventually find the last panel but I can't actually reach wherever the end is. Oh, well. What this title reminded me of is Action 52, specifically the weird selection of enemies from that game. Which isn't "what would be thematically fitting" but rather "what can I draw at this resolution". Answer, teeth and caves.

Your laser gun's mildly clever uses are unfortunately drowned out by how difficult it is to use. 1/10

Pretty generic. 1/10


I feel like I should be generous. Hey, something I can at the very least make a map and a route for! If it was 1983. 2/10

Player Agency:
Its a bit loose here. Controls feel surprisingly floaty, and my ascent and falling speed were exactly the same. 3/10



The difference between everything is clear, but there's nothing else positive about it. 1/10


Your jetpack makes a noise every time you move. Considering that's all you do in this game, flying around with one, I tuned it all out soon enough. 0/10

That's 8.

Well, if this is a indication of what I can look forward to in 1983, I can say my fears have been realized. I hope that at least some of this is going to be interesting. Surely something will match Sinistar's 20...

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