Saturday, December 3, 2022

Apocalypse (1990)

I could have gone back and gotten a proper one, but you're really not missing anything
Publisher:The Fourth Dimension
Developer:Gordon J. Key
Time:3 hours 30 minutes
Won:No (54W/53L)

One of the annoying things about running a blog about playing old games is that you sometimes have to do things you really don't want to do, like spending an ungodly amount of time getting some stupid system to run. Case in point, the Acorn Archimedes, the forgotten computer from the people who gave you the BBC Micro, which competed against the Atari ST and Amiga. It lost. I feel like a part of that was cost, £800 in 1987, or £2400, but the Amiga was $1600 in '85, or about $4000 today. Either one sounds ungodly expensive to me, even considering you were likely to spend as much as an top of the line machine in the '90s.

I think between what I originally paid, and what I've upgraded and replaced on my current machine, I've spent something in the realm of $800. That includes a nice recent graphics card. I literally cannot fathom paying anything like that today. Short of a car or a house, I could not fathom spending that kind of money on anything. You would have to have more money than sense. Great way to start off my review, mocking everyone who bought a computer in the 20th century.

Right, my original point. The Archimedes, which I'm actually using to describe a whole line of computers, but that's what I like typing, is a pain to emulate. Oh, its deceptively easy to figure out, especially on Windows. Thankfully the easiest of Windows emulators also works through WINE, which is a success for me. Even comes with a neat little game called Star Fighter 3000 and the Archimedes port of Elite. Not sure why, but I'm not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. However, I will note that it took me considerable hours of waste to find out even basic information on the system, like how you can escape from programs by pressing CTRL+PAUSE/BREAK. This is just stuff I found out reading through bits trying to figure this game out, emulator websites tell you nothing about running or operating the system. Its an immensely frustrating experience and compared to DOSbox or WinUAE, or even Linux.

Finally, the game itself. The story is that sometime in the future man and his alien allies have accidentally created sentient machines. These machines have rebelled, and are planning on wiping out humanity. They're going to do this by gradually strip mining their worlds before advancing onto the next one. You, in a highly advanced flying saucer, will now destroy their encampments and save the galaxy. In short, not a very complex story.
I should note that the intended progression in this game is that you gradually unlock planets by destroying everything in sight on earlier planets, but in all releases some of the planets are already unlocked. There's a hall of people with high scores which I thought were the playable pilots, but turned out to be the high score table. Not very straightforward.

Briefing seems like a strong word in retrospect
You get a relatively unimportant briefing, then you get to decide where you get put on the map. In addition to this telling you the general layout of the planet, you can also see which locations you've already destroyed.
Yes, the sight looks like a slingshot, feels appropriate
You control the game primarily with the mouse. Note, this computer has three mouse buttons, and the middle one is what we would use as a  right click, the actual right click doesn't do much outside of games to my knowledge. Your flying saucer is something between a helicopter and any other generic early FPS vehicle. There is mouse aiming, in the sense we think of, which I believe is a first. Left click moves forward, right click shoots, while the middle button moves you up in the sky. The latter is irrelevant because you can move up and down with the arrow keys. The function keys all do various things, but the only important actions I noticed were map with F5, two stabilizer functions with F6 and F7, your bomb attack is F8 and escape vehicle with F12. (that being the option to end the level)
What's interesting about this control scheme is that its actually solid. There's very little bad of itself, I would prefer those things mapped down below, but whatever, its the '90s, everyone wanted to take advantage of the whole keyboard. The problem is that turning speed is slow and aiming up and down is made awkward because your saucer's view "rocks" when you aim up or down. That is, bob like a ship in water, back and forth before stopping when its level again.
Which brings up the shooting. Its okay whenever you're trying to shoot ground targets that don't move, but moving ground targets and anything in the sky is a nightmare. You see that slingshot looking thing in the screenshots? There's your target reticule. Aiming is slow and difficult, and better yet, your shots are slower than you are at max speed. Flying targets? They're impossible to get a good bead on when they aren't moving, when they are moving you just can't hit them. They dodge and weave in such a way that actually hitting them is a matter of luck, not skill.
This is unfortunate, because the flying saucers are the only enemy that drop energy for your ship, which is a pretty big concern. The bomb only works on these mobile flying saucers, and when you use the bomb you don't get any energy. This is quite unfortunate.
At this point you just casually go around the area, blowing up any buildings and enemies you can hit. I found a winning strategy was to always be on the move, enemies always aim at exactly where you are right now, because trying to lead the shots is too difficult even for the AI. (they too, have slow shots) Destroying any buildings gives you score, but some give you more, and some shoot back. Its not clear which buildings are things you're supposed to shoot, because firstly, everything gives points, and secondly its not obvious. Houses and trees I get, but the thingie that looks like a guard tower isn't?
Despite the constant threat of gunfire, damage isn't the problem you have, its your energy stores. Yeah, that's your primary concern. On that GUI you have height, energy, cooldown on your weapon and shield strength. Obviously, you can die from taking too much damage, but its energy that's the real concern. Your only two methods of restoring it are taking out other saucers and finding very rare pick-ups. So rare I'm not sure what the deal is.
Utilizing extended lexemes is supercalifragilisticexpialidocious for your computer game
Eventually, you have to escape for whatever reason, running out of power, nearly dying or accidentally hitting F12 with no way to stop it. (that last one is not a joke) At the end of each attempt you are judged by the Royal Guild of Spacing, how very British, and sometimes given upgrades. This is completely moronic in-universe, but whatever. These upgrades aren't that much of an improvement. If you do badly, you might as well have died on the planet. With that done, I am sent back to the same planet to destroy the rest of the installations.
No, that's not a tent, its a ground wasp
You're just supposed to destroy a certain amount of important structures, I guess ones that say you just destroyed something. I think this is something like 30k worth of damage, but I did destroy a considerable number of the flying saucers. So let's get into detail of how I managed upon a winning formula in this game.
Left of the weird light pole thing is a flying saucer
Firstly, while it is true that the flying saucers are a pain to destroy, more luck than skill, I found you can deal with them in such a way that maximizes your chances of getting a lucky shot. Jousting with them works on occasion. That is, going straight at them without turning much, going a fair distance away, turning around, and repeating. You can get a lot of energy this way if you're lucky, but it is luck. Enemies dart around and your shots are so slow that its hard to ever attribute a kill to skill. They also need to be in a group, it doesn't work so well against a single enemy.
Yeah, some of the trees shoot at you

Secondly, those non-moving flying enemies I said you couldn't hit? Well, that's what F6 is for, it turns off bobbing if you're not moving. I'm not really sure if taking those out is too useful though. I got off the first planet with plenty of stuff to spare, so I'm not clear on this.
The second planet wasn't too much of a problem, but the third planet is where the game all of a sudden becomes really annoying. Now there are a ton of enemies I can't seem to kill in a reasonable manner, and I'm running out of power before I can get enough points. The threshold seems to be 4000 points, but that's not great, the game says that's going to result in a loss if I repeat it. At least that's just that, a threat. My method for taking out the flying saucers isn't working as well anymore.
So I try more aggressive tactics. That's hard to do, because you can't just rush in when you can only fire off 5 shots before the game decides you've had enough. You stop to a dead halt whenever you hit something with your saucer, which means you get shot 50 times before you can start it again. This game was boring when it was easy, and now that its hard its just frustrating. The weapon I have isn't very accurate. Its hard determining where I'm going to shoot, small adjustments to aim result in wide changes, and hitboxes on enemies are smaller than they should be. And it needs to be repeated, by shots are just so freaking slow.

These guys must be middle management, its always middle management that's making problems

In the end I'm just so disgusted I give up. Humanity deserves it if the Royal Guild of Spacing is the best they can come up with. I think I could win eventually, but that also requires me to actually feel like continuing. Or at least the closest thing this game has to winning.
However, I will note two points in the game's favor, first, this game was quite fast-paced in a good way for 1990, and it runs quite smoothly no matter what is thrown at it. This is very good. Secondly, that's a pretty big amount of view space to run at that speed in these days, remember, the trend at the time was running like molasses or having a tiny screen. Its just not something that really saves it.

A very ineffective feeling gun and some kind of nominally useful bomb. 0/10

The game has some variety, and its entirely possible with better weapons this might just be a fairly enjoyable challenge. 3/10


Run around 9 featureless plains with the odd group of buildings. 1/10

Player Agency:
This is something that at first felt really clever, but as time went on it was very clear the exact limitations of the game's controls. Its hard to aim, turning is very slow. Vertically aiming is a joke and incredibly annoying. Hitting moving targets is incredibly tedious and doesn't even feel possible. Stopping whenever you hit some requires you wait several seconds before you can start again. Speed consists of running at max and going slowly. Flying up and down is slow. Any sense of cleverness is just riddled with holes. 3/10

I can destroy anything that isn't the ground at least. Assuming I can ever hit it. 2/10

I think this game was supposed to be some kind of darkly comedic setting, but they forgot to include the funny bits. Otherwise it just left me with an overwhelming sense of boredom. 0/10

I'm not really excited about the way this looks, but this feels like a case I should give more points than I really want to. The game itself looks...boring, and we have some well-drawn 2D things, though not great scans or terribly exciting. 1/10

Robots have rebelled because reasons. The council will mock you for dying to them despite being able to offer you better equipment for this life-ending threat. 0/10

Some basic sound effects. Workable, not great, but get their point across. 2/10

That's 12 points.

Despite flashes of greatness, this game is clearly more trouble than its worth, and I sincerely hope that the Archimedes has a better title on it somewhere. In terms of FPS at least, next up, and possibly last is Galactic Dan, a game that remains a mystery until I play it. Curiously, the author of this game, Gordon J. Key, would indeed work on better titles, at least the next out of chronology title, that is...


  1. Reminds me of Cybermorph for the Atari jaguar. Why were there so many tank shooter games on the Jaguar?

    1. Off-hand, I think that's because Atari thought all those games were the future. (IIRC, they made most of the games on the system) At the time that style of game certainly captured the imagination of a lot of people, even if the end results are very questionable today.