Thursday, November 11, 2021

Games 296-297: Ballblazer & Rescue on Fractalus!

These games were released in April 1985, but according to LucasArts they had been completed by March 1984, shelved when an Atari publishing deal fell through, and picked up over a year later by Epyx. As the date of completion interests me more than the date of official release, I'm playing them now instead of later.


If I had to name a single apex game developer, it would be LucasArts. Famed for their adventure library, all-time classics after all-time classics in the adventure genre like Loom, Monkey Island, and Day of the Tentacle left their mills throughout much of the 90's with impossible-seeming consistency, thanks to some of the top talent in the industry. And yet, these famous genre masterpieces can overshadow the company's other accomplishments, which, including three of the best first person shooters of their era, several good SNES action games, and of course the legendary TIE Fighter, would make them an A-list studio even without the adventures.

For a while, I assumed that Maniac Mansion, the first adventure to use LucasArt's famous SCUMM engine (and, at the time, the earliest game supported by ScummVM), was also their first game. In my mind it was the beginning of their legacy, a game that introduced point & click mechanics to the graphic adventure genre in a manner recognizable to the modern gamer, and that hadn't quite solidified their winning formula and conventions yet. The slightly prototypical nature of the game, in which characters can die and have other bad things happen to them, puzzles have multiple solutions, and there are several possible endings depending on how you reached the game's conclusion worked to both its benefit and detriment. We'd see refinement and eventual perfection over the next few years.

Thanks to Mobygames, I learned that this assumption was not the case - Maniac Mansion is predated by a non-SCUMM adventure Labyrinth. Even before that, though, there were four pseudo-3D action games. Until now, I hadn't played any of these games, having subconsciously written them off as irrelevant to the LucasArts narrative, though in truth this was very likely because ScummVM and DOSBox could not support them.

Game 296: Ballblazer

Is that... Bobbin Threadbare?

Ballblazer: The simplest, fastest, and most competitive sport in the known universe. It's basically one-on-one soccer, but made interesting, and perhaps confusing, by its sense of speed in a first person perspective.

The tiles' edges are even anti-aliased.

I expect that the pseudo-3D effect is pure trickery, using pre-rendered frame loops to convey lateral movement, and palette-swapping shenanigans for the back-and forth effect. Rotation is only done in 90 degree snap increments, so everything will be perfectly perpendicular to the horizon. Kid stuff on, say, the Sega Genesis, but on an 8-bit computer with only the most basic support for scrolling tile layers, and coming from the basic looking Boulder Dash, this is impressive.

Ballblazer's manual is long on flavor text but short on gameplay instruction. About half of it takes the form of a transcript of an intergalactic radio interview with former Ballblazer champion Arboster Kipling, who recounts the centuries-old history of the sport, explaining how its high speed, high g-force maneuvers were born in the wake of stellar warfare, and how earthlings are underdog newcomers to the competition. Typical gameplay and strategy is then described in the format of sports commentary of an ongoing match.

Game rules are quite simple.

  • At the start of each point, the ball is launched into the middle of the playfield. You and your opponent start at positions midway between the ball and the opposite goal, and the first player to touch the ball controls it.
  • Your vehicle automatically orients itself. When you do not control the ball, you face it. When you do control the ball, you face your goal.
  • Pressing the button emits a high-energy force blast. When you control the ball, this launches it toward the goal at an angle dependent on timing. When your opponent controls the ball, the force blast can knock it out of their control. Either of these actions also knocks you backward with significant force, but a push that does not come in contact with the ball does nothing.
  • Goals move left and right. Each point scored reduces some of the width between the posts.
  • A standard goal scores 2 points. Shooting the ball into the goal from outside your line of sight scores 3. Carrying it into the goal only scores 1.
  • Scoring uses a push-pull system, where once the combined score of both players equals ten, each point scored by one player also reduces the score of their opponent.
  • Victory goes to the player with the higher score after three minutes elapse, or in the event of a tie, to whoever scores a single point in overtime. Scoring ten points also awards victory, but this is unlikely to happen unless the players are mismatched in skill.


I played some rounds with "B" and recorded two of them, in which the first of them I cream him, and the second it looks like another easy victory until he turns around and pulls ahead at the last minute.

GAB rating: Above average. Ballblazer is confusing and disorienting for a little while, until you get used to its speed, its knockbacks, and automatically rotating weirdness. Then it becomes fun for a little while, but the game's just too simple to have a lot of strategy and lasting value. But you can't beat its presentation. Or can you?

Game 297: Rescue on Fractalus!

If Atari's Star Raiders was the system's original killer app, taking what we could charitably call inspiration from Star Wars (among other sci-fi properties) to make the most cinematic home video game experience possible in 1979, LucasFilm's Rescue on Fractalus comes full circle, pushing the system hard and employing its wide color palette and lots of clever trickery to make a demoscene-worthy flight sim, if not necessarily a very engaging one. The re-entry sequence alone must have been jaw-dropping at the time, first diegetically transitioning from its level select screen by way of an animation that suggests an airlock door opening, the stars fading into view as your ship comes out of hyperspace, the descent into Fractalus as its oppressively golden-yellow exosphere rises from the bottom of your viewscreen until fills your field of vision, and finally, the endless crags of Fractalus fade into view through its thick, Venusian atmosphere.

The soundscape, too, is a work of art. Fractalus is a desolate and hostile place, and though the title and high score screens trumpet a Williamsesque fanfare (one that strongly reminded me of Star Wars: Rogue Squadron), music is wisely omitted from the gameplay scenes as you glide through its harsh winds and arid crags, leaving your ears free to listen to the whines of your engine and the blasts of anti-air gunfire. As you locate pilots, the objective of your mission, the dull thuds of their footsteps against the rocky surface as they sprint toward your ship cannot be mistaken for the hollow clangs of their fists desperately banging on your metal hatch, which grow weaker and longer apart in intervals as they succumb to the planet's toxic atmosphere.

Your radar proves the most useful tool for locating pilots, as the fractal-inspired terrain lines are difficult to make coherent sense of, and most of the time will obstruct your view of the surface where the pilots wait. It's not difficult at all, thankfully, to avoid crashing into the crags. You'd almost have to try to do it on purpose, and the damage to your ship isn't severe if you do. Anti-aircraft guns mounted on these crags will shoot at you, and though they don't do much damage individually, you'll need to destroy any within visual range of a landing site before attempting a rescue, or you'll be shot at like a fish in a barrel. You don't have to be exact with your guns, which is a good thing indeed given the game's low framerate, which only seems to tumble further while you're being shot at.

When you do land within range of a pilot - he needn't be in your sight as long as the blip on the radar is close enough - you have to shut off your engines to coax him out of his downed ship, and open your airlock to let him inside. Switching the engines on too early will kill him. Once you rescue your quota, you can continue flying over Fractalus to search for more or to destroy more targets of opportunity, but you may return to the mothership to increment the stage and along with it the difficulty.

The difficulty is very forgiving until the rather late stages - I started at level 4, and made it to level 22 on my first try, having played for a good two hours, and not had any close calls. A few new challenges get added gradually - flying UFOs are added into the mix, which kamikaze your ship for much more damage than the stationary guns do, the guns become more densely concentrated, fire more frequently and accurately, sometimes landing damaging critical hits, and your rescue quotas increase. By level 16, Fractalus starts undergoing day-night cycles in which night completely blacks out your visual conditions, save for occasional flashes of illumination from enemy gunfire, and you are forced to rely exclusively on your instruments. This isn't as punishing as it probably sounds.

Most famously, the pilots you rescue sometimes turn out to be Jaggis in disguise, and attempt to smash through your canopy once they get in range, and will if you don't kill them with your engine backwash quickly enough. Or, if you were foolish enough to open your airlock prematurely, they'll enter your ship and tear it apart from the inside. The former event was what caused my first death, as I, not realizing how little time you have to switch on your engines before they instantly incapacitate you, had been too lax about it, and erred on the side of not accidentally wasting a pilot.

By level 25, things get much more challenging - in fact, I couldn't beat level 25 in several tries, even as level 22 gave me no trouble at all once I knew better than to dawdle. Anti-air guns batter you from everywhere, constantly, draining your energy reserves quickly. You can't pick them off from a distance, and as you close in for a kill, you invariably fly into range of multiple other guns. Only after clearing a a fairly large radius, which can feel more dependent on luck than skill or strategy, can you start rescuing pilots, who partially refill your energy reserves on collection. Once you can start doing that, it gets a lot easier, except for one thing - the Jaggis can punch through your canopy in less than half a second now.

Below is a video of me failing level 25. I got pretty close, but fell to a disguised Jaggi in the end.

A side-note, you can improve the game's framerate by playing the XEGS cartridge version and emulating an accelerated CPU, which is configurable in Altirra. The 65C816 at 7.14Mhz resulted in a few glitches, but the game seemed to sustain its maximum framerate (which admittedly isn't that great) no matter how intense the action got. This is not reflected in the above video.

GAB rating: Above average. If I could recommend a game on look and feel alone, Rescue on Fractalus would be that game. I almost can, but Rescue on Fractalus just isn't all that engaging. Once the novelty of its technology wears off, you're left with a repetitive and simplistic shooter that takes entirely too long to offer a challenge, and isn't satisfying even when it does. Still, it's very much worth a play, just be sure to play the original Atari version, as the cinematic immersion is badly compromised on machines that don't enjoy its wider palette (like the Commodore 64).


  1. Can a report on The Eidolon and Koronis Rift be far behind?

    Habitat also dates to this period, and seems to share quite a bit of DNA with Labyrinth and Maniac Mansion, but of course you need a time machine to play it.

    1. It looks like Habitat lives on through a relaunch, and can be played in VICE or a real C64. I have no idea if there's any kind of community though. From what I read, Habitat sounds like a griefer's paradise, though you can kind of also see how it informed the look and feel of early SCUMM games.

      The Eidolon and Koronis Rift are scheduled for the 1985 phase.

  2. Wow, Fractalus is a really cool game. Reminds me of Red Baron arcade. Technically impressive, certainly. Doing all that on an 8 bit system? Wow. I like how the crosshair on the console shows you if you're pointing at a target or not.

  3. Ah yes, some games that are technically owned by Disney!

    1. Possibly? The rights situation is a bit complicated - they were bankrolled by Atari but published by Epyx while Jack Tramiel was tied up in legal battles. Atari did eventually publish the 5200 and XEGS versions. Depending on how the cards fell, the games might be owned by Disney, or by Infogrames, or the notorious Bridgestone Multimedia Group.


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