Saturday, May 6, 2023

Encounter (1983)

Wait, if Novagen was formed after selling the game to Synapse, how are they the developers in the title?
Publisher:Synapse Software (original release)/Novagen Software (Amiga/ST)
Developer:Paul Waokes
Time:1 hour 10 minutes
Won:No (68W/60L)

Encounter, at first glance, is yet another Battlezone-clone. There are two things that seperate it from the pack, it's the best looking first person game so far, which doesn't mean a lot now, and more importantly, it runs like a dream. These two combinations are very much a winning combination at this point in time, because games are still trying to do something interesting and to do something fast.

Paul Waokes, if you don't know, was basically the developer of Novagen, a British software house known for Mercenary, a game I haven't played but look forward to. It's an interesting story as the the development of this game and the formation of Novagen. Waokes was a member of a local computer club, who, coincidentally worked for a newly formed software store owned by Andy Krouwel, who would help Waokes form Novagen...later. In the beginning, he merely encouraged him, like everyone he knew, to get the game published.

This resulted in the first of the game's many publishers, Synapse Software, an American company. Unfortunately, while the game sold massive numbers for the time, Synapse only paid him once. This company somehow ran out of money in 1985. It's a bit weird that I've already covered two games released in the '80s by Brits who got scammed by their publisher. I assume a lot more people got scammed, but it's kind of weird that I can cite two examples off my head like this now. (The other being the boring sub sim The Hunt for Red October)

Now, I should point out that while Encounter is a very impressive game from the get go, being a more impressive version of an arcade game, Waokes is a genius. Not just because he developed an impressive game, but because that's just what he can do. One thing you wouldn't notice just from this is that the Waokes developed a way to make cassettes load much faster than the usual speed at the time.

I tried out the original Atari 8-bit release and the 16 computer releases. Unlike a lot of games, the technically inferior Atari 8-bit version is still a very solid game. Because of issues getting the more advanced systems working during this time, I played that original version. The only real thing I'm missing is slightly nicer graphics and an intro tune.

A portal, bringing in an enemy.
It works like you expect most early FPS/"tank sims" work. Functions like any pre-mouselook FPS, minus the ability to sidestep. That it, it works, but you're liable to get shot from behind. It works very well for the time, but as could be expected that missing sidestep ability and the length at which you have to take to turn around are annoying. You're basically helpless against some enemies if they come up behind you. The gun is very nice though, very good rate of fire. Everyone dies in one hit, be it you or the enemies.

The game has several difficulty settings, which basically just affect the speed of things. I played on novice, but there's also advanced and expert. No matter what you do the game is going to more or less stay the same. You against a horde of flying saucers with no Z-axis affecting things. They spawn in, one at a time, in an endless green plain whose only distinguishing feature are pillars. Your shots and enemy shots reflect on these pillars. You have to get lucky to take out an enemy with these, but they're very helpful. No, I can't say you can hurt yourself with your shots or enemies with their shots.

Not the prettiest flying saucers now, but passable.

Two types of enemies, one that wanders around before shooting you, and one that chases after you or drones. For the first kind, they pop in through a portal, then after a little while they start shooting at you, with the same gusto you can shoot at them. As you can imagine from the controls it can be difficult to dodge these bullets, so the most effective way of dealing with them is not to be that close and to take them out quickly.

Then, the drones, which the manual implies are missile drones. They run directly at you, and if they hit you, you lose a live. They're harder to deal with than the other kind, because you have to turn to face them with the game's turning arc. That's the real challenge, even though they zig-zag to dodge your shots. Both types of enemies are implied to have advancing AI as the game goes on, but I didn't see it too much with these guys.

This is about to end badly.

After killing all the enemies you're required to on a stage, you can then advance to the next one via a portal. Be quick or you can't reach it. This gives you a section where you have to avoid big planets. I kind of question it, but considering the entire game would be doing the same few things over and over again otherwise I can't entirely fault the logic. I found it more annoying. It feels quite random as to whether or not you have the kind of planetary placement that allows you to advance, sometimes I lose through no fault of my own. Dying here merely returns you to the last level, advancing takes you to the next level.

Come to think of it, the skyboxes might just all be palette swaps of each other.

Level 4 is where the game gets interesting. The shooting enemies are now very eager to start shooting, and this is where the pillars stop being a novel part of the landscape and an actually interesting part of the game. Now no longer an interesting, it's practically required to bounce shots off pillars, all while safely behind another one. It doesn't happen all the time, because curiously, the AI varies up to whatever level you're currently on.

As I get through these later levels the game starts really coming into that tank duel idea it seemed to be pushing, the shooter tanks more often start being clever, or annoying to kill depending on how you feel. Enemies fly around, taking potshots at you, and actually catching up to them can be as much of a challenge as actually shooting him. Conversely, despite the increase in difficulty, the game isn't actually more fun. I get the idea, but it turns out chasing someone around an endless void is really boring. I found myself too disinterested to continue at around level 6.

Decent fire-rate, but a generic blaster weapon. 1/10

The AI feels very clever for 1983, but unfortunately it has a negative effect on how fun the game is as time wears on. 2/10


A repeating grass plain marked by pillars along with the odd interstellar journey. It's okay. 1/10

Player Agency:
If it weren't for the eons it takes for the tank to turn around, I'd find this a good scheme, as it stands, merely okay. 4/10


Another game where you feel like you're against the universe, despite being a part of some sort of military organization. 1/10

I can see someone in 1983 being blown away by the way this game looks. Now it's kind of plain. I like the skyboxes though. 2/10


Simple but effective sound effects. 2/10

That's 13. Which might just make it the best of the very early FPSes.

That said, I look forward to future Novagen games.

I'm just going to put in an aside about Time Bandit. If you don't know what it is, it's another proto-Gauntlet kind of game, the Atari ST version being very advanced. To the point where if it that was a fair port of a 1983 game it would be so far ahead of everything else it would be funny. Except, originally, it was released on the TRS-80, in a very different state, one I don't wish to play. As such, while I may get around to it much quicker than every other 1985 game, it will be as a 1985 rather than 1983 game.

Also, Freescape/3D Construction Kit games. I played a bit of a couple of them and I realized that this was not really what I wanted to spend my time on. The engine was never really the strongest on the FPS side, and these felt far more like adventure games. I don't enjoy navigating through these games, so, I just cut them out. That leaves some Japanese stuff as the only remaining games for 1991, outside of replays.

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