Saturday, 26 April 2014

Retro Review of the Week: Project Firestart

Project Firestart
Platform: Commodore 64
Release: 1989 (EU, NA)
Developer: Dynamix
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Designer: Jeffrey Tunnell, Damon Slye
Composer: Alan McKean

Project Firestart was a gaming revolution upon its release in 1989.  Set on the research ship Prometheus, a massive four story behemoth, orbiting one of Saturn's moons, the game gave us, the players, our first real taste of the survival horror genre, from atmospheric cut scenes, a mysterious storyline revealed through log books, documents and dialogue sequences, the pulse pounding fear of running out of ammo, having to find scarce medical kits, discovering a massive, free roaming locale that should be populated but is eerily desolate and of course slow moving, almost invincible enemies closing in on you.  In a time when arcade action games, turn based role playing games and point and click adventure games had each carved out their own niches  in the gaming industry, becoming almost monolithic genres with almost no overlap, Dynamix broke out of the mold and created a believable open world with seemingly limitless methods of interacting with it... and it ran on a system with just 64k of RAM.

The plot of Project Firestart revolves around the attempt by Jon Hawking (our protagonist), a special forces op in the year 2061, to board the Prometheus, a space based genetic research facility, currently in orbit around Titan, discover what the cause of their radio silence is, whether or not the research can still be salvaged and in a worse case scenario destroy the ship via a remote detonator.  Of course once you arrive, the worst fears are realized and the clock is ticking.  You must find the research logs, set the bombs and get out before the government's missile strike beats you to it (with you still on board). 

The game is shown through a combination of left and right scrolling corridor segments and 3/4 view isometric room segments.  The entire ship is discoverable and includes your typical scifi labs, armory and control rooms, but adds to the atmosphere by showing the crew quarters, recreation areas, gigantic observation decks and even a video arcade.  Many mundane items throughout the game can be used, and there are often multiple solutions to problems.  The genetically manipulated creatures that have run amok (oh yeah... spoiler alert!) can be killed with laser rifles (although you'll be needing a LOT of shots to take one down and ammo is limited), or maybe the radiation from the nuclear reactor may be helpful?  How about rigging that gas bottle together with the laser gate to improvise a bomb?  The options are many and figuring out what can and can't be done, while the aliens are breathing down your neck will be a nailbiting experience.

The story is revealed through log tapes and emails accessed on a variety of computers, as well as through conversations with the lone survivor on board, a female scientist in a stasis pod.  What happened on board?  What other threats lurk in the silent corridors? 

The music is dynamic and will shift when danger nears or victory is achieved.  The various twists during the story will keep you guessing as to what could possibly happen next and the pacing seems almost cinematic.  The graphics are rotoscoped, similar to those in Prince of Persia and add an extra layer of realism to the experience.

So why haven't you heard of this game?  Why did it not usher in a new gaming revolution long before Resident Evil and co.?  There are many reasons, not insignificantly the four disk sides it came delivered on, which made it a bit of a slog at times due to loading, but the main one was the failure of the Amiga platform in the USA.  Trip Hawkins, then CEO of EA, had heavily bet on the Amiga as the future of home computing, releasing a myriad of games and applications for the system in it's first few years.  When the system failed to take off in North America (even though it did phenomenally in Europe), EA pulled most of its support and instead refocused on the 8 bit computers (Apple II and C64) that had been the company's bread and butter, as well as the increasingly important console market.  Project Firestart was thus developed for the 1983 released C64, as opposed to its 16 bit big brother.  This meant that it would be one of the last big hurrah's for the 8 bit computer scene in the USA.  C64 owners embraced the game for the gem that it was (it also had unique features like being able to save wherever you wanted and a small inventory), but with that user group growing smaller every day, and no plans for ports to other systems, it remained an insider tip as opposed to an industry sensation. 

Dynamix left EA after completing Project Firestart and moved to Sierra and began making 3D action games like Stellar 7, Nova 9, Red Baron and A10 Tank Killer and non-real time adventure games like Rise of the Dragon, Heart of China and Willy Beamish.  EA for its part would refocus for the first few years of the 90's on sports titles for consoles with only the ocassional computer release (Madden and Fifa, Centurion Defender of Rome and Birds of Prey) being stand out games that were developed in house (the acquisition of companies such as Bullfrog and Origin would of course keep the PC game output flowing).

Project Firestart is a gem of a game, that will keep you on the edge of your seat.  The story is deep without ever getting boring or monotonous.  Every action feels necessary and you will develop a Pavlovian response to McKean's danger music. 

Verdict 5 out of 5 stars

Here's further reading on the history of the game:
And here is the C64 Wiki entry, including tips, controls, a map and a lot of animated gifs that also reveal the ending of the game (if you want full spoilage):

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