Sunday, October 29, 2023

Hack 1.01: A boy and his dog

I've been playing Hack on and off for a week, usually unable to pass the second level. Half the time I die (or suffer an unacceptable loss) it's my own carelessness; usually because I moved too fast in a dark tunnel and attacked something I shouldn't have, though more than once I descended the stairs and forgot to wait for the dog, which turns him feral when you return, and you need him early on. Some of the other times death is a lesson, but with increasing frequency it's something that felt unavoidable. Starvation because I didn't find any food, getting swarmed by monsters while resting to heal wounds from the last battle, getting dumped into the next level by a hidden trapdoor (what, am I supposed to search with every step?) without the dog, starvation while resting, etc.

I've learned some things though.

  • I've lived longest as the knight, the only class to start with any decent armor, though with low strength and so much armor, he can't carry very much.
  • Monsters sometimes leave corpses, which you should eat whenever possible - normal food is too scarce not to - unless they're poisonous (kobolds and acid blobs so far). Unfortunately, the knight's low strength means sometimes you can't pick up the corpse to eat it without shuffling your inventory around, and the dog might eat the corpse while you do this. Speaking of which, the dog won't eat poisonous corpses.
  • Don't attack floating eyes. Let the dog do it.
  • Killing leprechauns is a great way to instantly gain a level or two, but first make sure you've stashed your gold out of his sight.


I've decided to try to be a caveman, and that I'd be okay with occasional savescumming henceforth. I figured that the caveman's greatest weakness - poor armor - is more easily corrected than the knight's literal weakness of low strength. There were a few false starts, but when I found some +3 chain mail on the first level, I decided this would be my winning character, and this time I saved and backed up before going down to level 2.

There were a lot of boulders in this level!

Some of my misadventures to come:

  • On level 5 I got my strength sapped all the way down to 12 points by giant ants - I've heard before that this is a classic Nethack noob trap, but I'm not sure how this could have been avoided. Later, I foolishly attacked a nymph, whose song compelled me to strip my +3 chain mail, and stole it and a bunch of other stuff. A pack of orcs killed me on level 6.
  • I simultaneously got messages that I "feel hungry" and "are worried about the dog." I went back for the dog, who started attacking me - I dropped a ration, but the game interpreted this as dropping all of my rations and the dog ate them all in one chomp. Pretty soon after that I starved to death, and an adventurer's guild scribe presumably wrote a heartbreaking children's novel based on the incident that scarred generations.
  • I started teleporting around the level randomly and I couldn't figure out why. Something I ate? Something cursed that I picked up? A trapdoor dumped me down a level, and my dog must have followed but went feral and attacked. Dropping food for it didn't help, and as I neared death, I heard the howls of Cŵn Annwn.
  • I couldn't find my way out of a generated level 2. My dog and I starved to death searching for  hidden doors.
    Real nice to put a bear trap right in front of a door too.

And then, after making a new anchor save before entering level 3, I started randomly teleporting again. And I realized why - I ate a leprechaun. And the effect doesn't seem to expire. Theoretically I might be able to work with this, but it's honestly just too annoying. Time to restart.

I know I'm not going to be able to beat this without savescumming, but I don't want to completely deprive myself of the Hack experience - rolling with the punches, identifying items through logic, coming back from almost certain death through experimentation / sheer dumb luck, even losing significant amounts of progress. And no obvious compromise presents itself; without backups all setbacks are irreversible, with backups nothing discourages you from just reading every unidentified scroll and wearing every random piece of jewelry knowing you can revert to a backup at the first sign of trouble.

Monday, October 23, 2023

Game 388: Hack 1.01

Andries Brouwer's Hack expands on Fenlason's original and forms the basis of what would eventually become Nethack, and I've decided to open my 1985 playlist with Hack 1.01, skipping over version 1.0 (Brouwer's preliminary release, not to be confused with Fenlason's version) as its source code appears to be incompletely preserved and no PC version exists.

Ported to MS-DOS by Don Kneller around May 1985, the readme file claims to be a complete conversion of the Unix version 1.0.1 with the exception of engravings, which were removed because of memory constraints. A few unidentified features from 1.0.2 are also retroactively implemented. Niceties like color and IBMgraphics found in hack121, the version of Fenlason's Hack I played earlier, aren't supported here, but I have greater confidence in this port's authenticity this time around.

I am playing with DOSBox configured to emulate a Tandy for its CGA-compatible 80-column mode, but without any distracting snow that I see when emulating an actual CGA card. As with the Roguelikes I played before, I'm going to go into this as blindly as possible, and play fairly until I win (ha!) or get bored with playing fair. They say the best way to approach Nethack is to dive right in and get used to dying.

Differences from Fenlason's version are immediately apparent. The starting shop is gone, class selection is in its place, and for my first run I tried playing a tourist.

Another of Brouwer's additions - a pet dog.

Tourists start with lots of gold, lots of food, and some healing potions, but have mediocre stats and are armed only with a camera and some darts. And I started off right next to a hobgoblin, who already landed a hit before I could make my first move!

For my first move, I tried blinding it with my camera. This worked, but before I could make a second, I was struck by a blind, angry hobgoblin.

No fair, but I tried again.

Tourists aren't the strongest.

This time I easily killed the acid blob in the starting room by chucking darts at it while the dog attacked up close. It left a corpse, which I left alone, being too heavy to carry without dropping stuff.

Some observations I made while exploring the first level:

  • The dog tends to get in your way a lot. It's easy to accidentally attack it when you're just trying to get around! But it will move out of your way if you wait a turn or two.
  • Pushable rocks may be found in the corridors, which operate by Sokoban-like rules. Sokoban wouldn't be available outside Japan until 1987, but Zork had a similar puzzle room earlier.
  • Some corridors are so narrow that you can't squeeze through if your inventory is too full.
  • Sometimes after querying a monster type, you may request more info, and get a lore dump!
  • The dog will wander off and fight monsters. You'll get a message about noises in the distance when this happens.
  • The dog will eat dead monsters of certain types.


Before long, though, I got waylaid by a gnome, and unable to fight back effectively or run away, I died again.

Next I tried a "speleologist" who started with two potions - one of object detection, one of gain level, some food, a 'large box' which seemed to be a refrigerator, and studded leather armor but no weapon. I did better against the level 1 monsters than my tourists had, though this might have had more to do with the level gain than the classes' better stats, and I managed to locate two potions of enhance armor and a battle axe. I also found a magic wand which turned my dog invisible, and while seeing jackals and goblins get mauled and eaten by an invisible dog was funny, it also caused me to keep attacking the unseen dog by accident. But this all came to an end in a corridor corner, where a hobgoblin trapped me while I rested from a fight against giant rats.

I tried a fighter. Armed with a two-handed sword, ring mail, and decent strength, my first kill was my own dog, who I accidentally one-shotted while walking through a corridor! I killed a hobgoblin in a room at some expense to my own health, and then a kobold right behind it finished me off.

The knight is bedecked with enchanted ringmail, a helmet, gloves, and wields a sword and shield with a spear in reserve, but has strangely low strength, less than even the tourist's. This character survived longer than anyone yet, his armor offering decent protection against the beasts on the upper levels, but there were misadventures. A piece of armor that I tried wearing turned out to be cursed and unremovable. An evil eye paralyzed me for a rather long time, forcing me to sit back helplessly to the point of near starvation while I watched my dog zoom around the room protecting me from the spawning enemies. A fortune cookie found in a room offered cryptic advice when eaten, something to do with enlightened corridors. When I took the stairs to dungeon level 2, my dog did not follow, and when I returned, it had gone feral and attacked! Retreating, a homonculus with a sleep-inducing bite attack killed me.

The cave man has an enchanted mace, enchanted bow, leather armor, and impressive strength. But he didn't last, as a bad scroll ruined my armor and soon after that a hobgoblin killed me from full strength.

Finally, the wizard class is oddly strong and begins with quite a bit of magic paraphernalia, none of it identified. Two wands, three rings, two potions (healing and blindness), and three scrolls (teleportation, amnesia, enchant armor). One wand turned out to be damaging and the other for digging, but I had no means of identifying the rings. Exploring level 1, I stepped onto a trapdoor and was dumped down to level 2, where I found a supremely annoying item store. Supremely annoying because a gas trap placed right at the door ensured I could not enter or leave without falling asleep, there didn't seem to be any way to recognize what any of the items were without picking them up first, and no way to find out the price except by offering to pay, which automatically pays if you have enough gold for the bill. Before very long, my damaging wand ran out of charges, and nearly defenseless, a hobgoblin killed me.

And then I realized I could have used my wand of digging to rob the store (or could I?)

So far I'm not really enjoying this. With Fenlason's Hack, I learned stuff and saw new and weird things with each attempt, but here, I feel like I'm not given many options, and more often than not I'm just getting killed by overpowered monsters and wondering what I was supposed to do otherwise.

In some ways this version also feels less advanced than hack121, which calls its authenticity into some question. Hack121, for instance, let you query all of the visible objects in the room, which I can't imagine going shopping without using, but this version doesn't. There's also no torches or lanterns, which were so important in Fenlason's design - could those have been added later, or did Brouwer just remove them?

If anyone has tips on how to best survive and navigate Hack's early game, I'd appreciate it. I don't want to get too deep into spoilers (or savescumming) just yet. I know a lot of the information and strategy out there pertains more to Nethack than Hack, especially this early, early version of it, but perhaps some of it is applicable here.

Monday, October 16, 2023

Intermission: 1984/1985

Just over two years ago now, I began the now complete 1984 phase of Data Driven Gamer, coinciding with my move out to Boston Metrowest. These years, far surpassing the 400 days it took to cover 1983, reflect the ever-increasing complexity and volume of video games over time, but have also been perhaps the most eventful years of my life so far.

As for the state of gaming in 1984, global sales had fallen far from the heights of 1982, but you wouldn't know that from looking at my ivory deck. Compared to 1983, a year with 16 entries and two harpoons, 1984 had 19 entries and three harpoons across a wide distribution of regions, making it perhaps the deck's best year yet.

I went back to my chart of 1982 and 1983 whales by platform, adding 1984. Arcades continue their downward trend, no surprise. Console games actually uptick a bit, but the driver is Nintendo's local output, as US console games have bottomed-out with a mere two Atari cartridges successful enough to attain fame. Computer games more than make up for the arcade deficit, and North America sees the biggest gain, jumping from 17 to 33!

Platform type 1982 count 1983 count 1984 count
Arcade 19 total
15 Japan
4 NA
14 total
9 Japan
5 NA
11 total
8 Japan
3 NA
Computer 16 total
13 NA
1 Japan
1 UK
1 AU
24 total
17 NA
3 Japan
3 UK
1 AU
43 total
33 NA
3 Japan
6 UK
Console 10 NA 7 total
6 NA
1 Japan
9 total
2 NA
7 Japan


As before, I broke this down by genre, adding to my 1982-1983 chart.

Genre 1982 count 1983 count 1984 count
Adventure 5 total
4 NA
1 AU
6 total
5 NA
1 Japan
8 NA
Arcade 5 total
4 NA
1 UK
6 total
4 NA
2 Japan
18 total
13 NA
4 UK
Platformer 1 NA 7 total
4 NA
3 UK
7 total
6 NA
1 UK
RPG 2 NA 3 NA 6 total
3 NA
3 Japan
Strategy 3 total
2 NA
1 Japan
2 total
1 NA
1 AU
4 total
3 NA
1 UK


Once again, "arcade" is a catch-all term for action games that aren't platformers, and "strategy" is a general miscellaneous category. Some placements aren't so obvious - is Tetris more arcade or strategy? I picked arcade. How do you even classify Ghostbusters and Spy vs. Spy? These got lumped in arcade as well.

The arcade category had the largest gains, so I broke this down into yet more granular categories, before giving up on the last seven and sticking them into "misc."

Genre 1982 count 1983 count 1984 count
Shoot 'em up
3 total
2 NA
1 UK
1 Japan

1 NA
4 total
3 NA
1 UK

6 total
3 NA
3 UK
2 NA 1 NA
Pinball 2 NA

2 total
1 NA
1 Japan
7 total
6 NA


Arcades still in decline

Arcade games continued their fall from relevance, and stagnated technologically with a trend toward reusing cheap and dated hardware. Atari, the sole American developer represented, stood alone in pushing the cutting-edge, with high res, stereophonic games Marble Madness and Paperboy, and the polygonal 3D non-whale I Robot, though the cheap and shoddily made Return of the Jedi showed even they weren't immune to industry-wide downsizing.

I need to give a special mention as well to Nintendo's non-whales Punch-Out!! and Super Punch-Out!!; two of their last original arcade games, which featured huge, detailed, and colorful boxers that scaled up and down in a quasi first-person view.

Still, there were good and important games this year. Technos' Karate Champ was the deepest versus fighting game yet, almost certainly influencing the modern formula despite playing completely unlike it. Pac-Land is a critical stepping stone in the evolution of the side-scrolling platformer. Tower of Druaga, though nightmarishly cruel, planted seeds of its action/adventure/rpg gameplay into something that would start growing almost immediately.


Exit Atari

It's cliche to point out that 1984 was a bad year for the North American video game market. If arcades were in a decline, the console market was grim. So grim that by June 1985, Computer Entertainer magazine declared, at this time, we are not aware of any games scheduled for any dedicated game system. Ouch! But good things were on their way from Nintendo, who were already testing the American waters with their "VS." line of Famicom-based arcade machines.

Atari 2600 reached the end of its relevancy to me with two of the most advanced titles ever released on the system; Pitfall II and H.E.R.O., both by Activision, both deserving good ratings in my deck, though I had not covered the former. The system did make a post-crash comeback of sorts, even as its successor the 5200 did not, and the 7800 was practically dead on arrival, but it only puttered along as a cheap Nintendo alternative, its huge back catalog doing more to keep it on life support than any exciting new games did.

As for Nintendo's output, Excitebike was far and away the best of them, demonstrating the essence of Shigeru Miyamoto's design philosophy; that controls are the heart of the game, that you want them responsive and intuitive, that you get them that way through intense testing and refinement, and the sooner you can do this, the smoother the rest of the development process will be.


If 1983 was the beginning of a trend of platform games on 8-bit computers with deeper gameplay than traditional arcade-style games, 1984 evolved this trend with no fewer than five new titles with a strong emphasis on exploration, making them in retrospect kind of like Metroid. KOLM for short.

Below the Root, despite clunky controls and frustrating platforming mechanics, stands out as the best of them, with its big, open, and imaginative world of treehouses and caves. No other game this year rewarded exploration nor compelled me to discover its hidden secrets quite like it did. Montezuma's Revenge, a claustrophobic and mazey KOLM with an arcadier angle, joined it in the ivory deck.

Two KOLMs scored average; Epyx's Impossible Mission and Datasoft's Bruce Lee. Both not only anticipate exploration-based Metroidlikes but also cinematic platformer conventions. Both are also irritating to play with dodgy controls and physics, and punishing design in the fashion of the day. Then there's Jet Set Willy on the Spectrum, whose mansion was the most cleverly-designed game world of them all, and sabotaged any joy of exploring it with absolutely ridiculous difficulty and game-ruining bugs that author Matthew Smith couldn't be bothered to playtest, let alone fix.

Roleplaying goes east

For the first time since I started doing these intermission posts, we have no Wizardry or Ultima in this category. But the influence of both is felt.

The most interesting RPG trend of 1984 were no fewer than three proto-JRPGs. None of them are good, but they were all interesting in their own ways. Black Onyx started off the year as one of the very first computer RPGs available in Japan, and plays like a very simplified version of Wizardry, with a few distinguishing features like an explorable town with conversational NPCs. Hydlide, a somewhat infamous game with poor combat and hours of mandatory grinding, bridges the gap between Namco's obtuse arcade dungeon crawler Tower of Druaga and classics like The Legend of Zelda and Nihon Falcom's Ys series. And speaking of Nihon Falcom, their first whale Dragon Slayer is a dog's breakfast of conflicting design patterns and no central vision, but it's a start, and perhaps even more interesting is Panorama Toh, a fascinatingly weird Ultima-style proto-JRPG that I made some progress in with the help of a few commenters. Without my whales-and-ancestors approach, I likely wouldn't have even heard of it, but I'm glad I got to try it.

Two other games - Seven Cities of Gold and SunDog: Frozen Legacy, feel a bit weird to group with RPGs, but being mainly about exploration and logistics, I think are better fits than any other category. In SunDog in particular, the way you explore the galaxy with modal views that zoom down to solar system level, planet level, continent, and city feel like a natural extension of Ultima's open world design. Unfortunately, the RPG mechanics are undercooked and the game goes on way, way too long, far past the point of exhausting its own gameplay possibilities. Seven Cities fared a bit better with more rewarding exploration and substantial gameplay, but only to a point.

Strategy schmategy

As a de facto "miscellaneous" category, 1984 had twice as many whales fall into this category than 1983, making for an eclectic bunch with little in common. And not one of them was bad!

Robot Odyssey, one of the first puzzle programming games ever, was my favorite of them. Already managing the unreal feat of simulating electronic circuits in the space of 48KB, complete with a WYSIWYG designer, Robot Odyssey goes a step further and provides context for its puzzles in the form of an Atari Adventure-style world to navigate and explore with your squad of rewireable robots. It earned a harpoon and my admiration as one of the best games of its kind.

The Ancient Art of War, one of the earliest realtime wargames, took me nearly a month to complete, and made it to my ivory deck despite a great deal of dated inelegance, standing out as more than just an obsolete predecessor thanks to its focus on energy management and supply lines. The Lords of Midnight, a wargame with an identity crisis, didn't quite make it, but it did make me feel well-immersed in its vast world, before utterly destroying me because "immersion" and "being able to see the big picture and coordinate a strategy" are goals at odds.

Lastly, and stretching the appropriateness of the "strategy" label, Will Harvey's Music Construction Set is unratable as a game, but laudable nonetheless as a powerful and intuitive piece of composition software that manages to also be educational and fun.

Indoor sports

Never my favorite type of game, computer sports were more represented in 1984 than they'd ever been before.

The ZX Spectrum's Steve Davis Snooker, to my surprise, earned the sole "good" rating here with its rich simulation model and convincing physics. I don't even like snooker or fully understand its rules and the game still grew on me and my wife with a bit of practice.

Ballblazer, the very first video game by LucasFilm, is a futuristic soccer match with a speedily-rendered first person perspective, and earned marks for its presentation but fell short of greatness with shallow, simplistic gameplay.

Summer Games demonstrated Epyx's mastery of C64's VIC-II video hardware and established their decade-long sports dynasty, but I found these games simplistic. Pitstop II delivered the most convincing sense of automotive speed outside the arcades yet, but trying to steer its oversensitive formula cars with a digital joystick is not pleasant.

Shoot'em ups in (3D) space

Space sims, flight sims, tank sims, and sub sims altogether constituted a major category of my 1984 playlist. If I'm not mistaken, the last such computer game I covered had been Star Raiders, of 1979!

Elite, like Star Raiders before it, earned its harpoon with solid space combat, freeform open-world design, and an RPG-like power curve where success brings cash awards to spend on ship upgrades, and with it comes opportunity to pursue more challenging and more rewarding goals yet.

A pair of dissimilar Atari combat flight simulators were both standouts that came up just a little short of a good rating. LucasFilm's Rescue on Fractalis was one of the best looking and sounding computer games yet, but repetitive and shallow gameplay failed to keep me engaged. Microprose's F-15 Strike Eagle struck a good balance of realism and accessibility, but the horrible frame rate kept me from giving it the full recommendation.

Then there were two 3D combat sims for the ZX Spectrum by Realtime Games. 3D Starstrike, a blatant copy of Star Wars, was the more competent of the two, edging out blatant Battlezone copy 3D Tank Duel, but not enough deserve much critique.

Finally, there was GATO, a submarine sim that just couldn't seem to figure out how realistic it wanted to be, and wound up being too simplistic and too slow-paced at the same time.

The rest of them

Seven computer games within the broad "arcade" category defied further classification, compared to two before.

Tetris, of course, earned a good rating, and being able to emulate its (more or less) original Soviet mainframe format was a thrill in itself.

Beyond Castle Wolfenstein and Karateka were two ambitious and authorial but flawed Apple II games. Wolfenstein's random layouts don't quite gel with its stealth gameplay, all but forcing you to rely on your passes, which never quite feels like it isn't cheating. Karateka has elegance and flair, but not much to do except fight waves of identical baddies with a battery of sluggish punches and kicks. Rescue Raiders, an arcade/strategy title joins them as another game that didn't quite live up to its potential.

And then there were the C64 games that were just plain weird; Ghostbusters, Spy vs. Spy, and Donald Duck's Playground. An action/strategy hybrid without much of either, a trap-laying battle of wits that always devolves into button-mashing stick fights, and a set of arcade-style minigames that sneaks in an educational lesson about change-counting (and perhaps on consumerist work ethic). All of these games I just rated average and moved on.

Game of the Year

Three games of 1984 earned harpoons; Elite, Robot Odyssey, and Below the Root. Elite is certainly the most iconic of them, the start of a series that co-creator David Braben remains involved with to this day, and inspiration for every space trading/combat game since, but I feel that the other two are more complete as games.

I had been leaning away from picking Robot Odyssey, as it's a discretionary whale, hand-picked out of personal interest and of somewhat niche appeal. But you know what? It's my list, and I enjoyed it more than any other game of the year. So congratulations, robots - you win this round.

Why aren't you playing this right now?

Upcoming in 1985, we will see:

  • The industry remains crashed for some time into the year. American-developed console games cease to be, and surviving arcades continue to subsist on games from Japanese studios Konami, Capcom, and others. Even Atari's coin-op division becomes a Namco subsidiary.
  • Nintendo's Famicom continues to dominate the console list. Though the NES won't be available stateside for most of the year, several of these games get early U.S. releases as VS. coin-op machines.
  • Interplay has its first products as a fully-formed corporation.
  • Introductions of no fewer than four British studios.
  • Lord British returns with his greatest and most revolutionary title yet. Chuckles gets to throw his balls around a little too.
  • Two of the most famous edutainment games of all time debut.
  • Sega makes a comeback after a year of exclusion.
  • One positively super game gets a limited U.S. release.
  • Jaleco and its partner Alpha Denshi get arcade retrospectives.
  • The first whales for Apple's new Macintosh computer.
  • Mindscape, the U.S. publisher for one of them, gets retrospected to my best ability, but it's really a certain APX ancestor that interests me.
  • Historical strategy studio Koei gets introduced as I retread territory covered by Wargaming Scribe.
  • The start of one of the best-selling computer game franchises of all times is prototyped but shelved for years.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Rescue Raiders: Not won!

Verdun was my Waterloo.

Well, I tried. I liberated the strangely identical-looking cities of Cherbourg, Caen, Saint-Lô, Orléans, and even Paris, but Verdun just wore my patience out. The farther I got, the more it became clear to me that you don't beat Rescue Raiders' missions with skill or strategy - you out-endure them.

The game locked up here and this wasn't the first time. I quit.


This isn't to say that Rescue Raiders' gameplay doesn't evolve at all. As you progress through the campaign, you get some upgraded weaponry; tanks gain a 105mm cannon, your bombs get incendiary payloads, and your machinegun gets replaced with an unguided missile launcher which can utterly devastate ground forces and even engage the enemy helicopter at short range.

But these upgrades all serve to make you even more dependent on your chopper to accomplish anything. Upgrades go both ways - your tanks get cannons, but their tanks get cannons, and the chopper becomes your only reliable armor killer; and I once watched a single enemy tank rip through all six of mine. The enemy chopper likewise starts using homing missiles against you and decimates your armies with upgraded ground weapons. It even gets better at dodging your anti-aircraft missiles.

Speaking of which, the enemy starts using anti-aircraft vehicles themselves by the third mission, so you'd better start learning to dodge them yourself.

And to top it off, forget about using tanks to take out AA guns; now they tend to be guarded by anti-tank guns. It's not uncommon to find a triple-whammy of AA guns, AT guns, and a heavy bunker gathered together in one horrible turtle cluster. Nothing can get close to that but you, and you may need to sacrifice a chopper or two in your bombing runs.

But once you level them, they make great air cover after your engineers repair and convert them.

On the bright side, money becomes less of an issue. With your armies of such limited use, you can reserve your cash for replacement choppers - each one costs $20M which you earn in about five minutes - and with so much time spent flying back and forth across the map, by the time you even need armies you probably have enough to buy whatever materiel you need. And if you need more cash, no problem - just hang back near the helipad for awhile and let the enemy come to your side of the battlefield, where you can waste them under the cover of your AA and SAMs and rearm at will. I never came close to running out of lives myself; excess cash just got dumped into so many extra lives that the screen couldn't even display them all.

You do need armies; first to escort engineers to AA guns and bunkers, because you definitely want to take advantage of fortifications as much as possible. AA guns in particular are one of the few reliable defenses you have against the enemy chopper; salvage whenever possible, and protect the hell out of them.

Once you break through to the enemy base, you'll need to build a big army to assault it, and this is where things get real frustrating. It was bad enough on the first mission, and with an upgraded enemy chopper, it only gets worse. Without demolition trucks, the assault is doomed, but there are so many ways I've lost them, forcing me to start it all over again. I've had my anti-aircraft vehicles self-destruct after firing and destroy my demolition trucks with shrapnel. I've had the enemy chopper dodge the wall of missiles and take out the demolition trucks, or the tanks guarding them. I've seen the helicopter explode and the pilot parachute out, landing right on top of the demolition trucks, inexplicably destroying them.

I've even blown up the demo trucks with a combination of crossfire and my own shrapnel after a mutually deadly dogfight intended to protect them.


But more than anything else, I've flown away from the front to rearm, and returned to find that the demo trucks just aren't there any more; the low-res radar being woefully inadequate to illustrate what happened.

Then when the game froze on mission 6, I gave up.

There is one video series on Youtube showing a successful playthrough, and even lovelier things awaited in the final two missions; stealth choppers in Brussels, and no radar at all in Antwerp. Thanks, but I'll just watch the ending there!

GAB rating: Average. Rescue Raiders promises "the intellectual challenge of a strategy game," but I don't see it. As an arcade game, this can't avoid comparisons to Choplifter, which looks, controls, and plays much better, even if the earlier game doesn't play fair all the time either. As a strategy game, well, there aren't many strategies available to use, and to win missions I found myself just trying the same thing over and over again with minimal variation until it eventually worked. It's not a great look that the easiest mission felt like it afforded the most strategic breadth! Rescue Raiders may be an important game historically, which is why I played it, but I can see why it didn't take the world by storm.

Monday, October 9, 2023

Game 387: Rescue Raiders

Ok, I was wrong. There's one more game to close out my 1984 phase.

Rescue Raiders' existence and importance as a proto-RTS was made known to me by commenters on a Wargaming Scribe article concerning the "first" RTS. I had this one filed as a 1985 game, but while going through and finalizing my 1985 playlist, realized it actually came out in 1984. Coincidentally, that means we're ending the year on a Sir-Tech game for the third time in a row, though it's no Wizardry title this time.

Rescue Raiders, resembling a Choplifter! clone at first, stands as an interesting contrast to The Ancient Art of War of the same year. War looks like a primitive realtime wargame, and plays somewhat like one, but is not directly ancestral to the modern RTS template. Rescue Raiders, on the other hand, looks like Defender/Choplifter at first, and certainly draws influence from both, but eventually it becomes clear what you're actually playing - this is a MOBA! You control a heavily armed helicopter, your target is the enemy base on the far side of the map, and you'll need to raise and escort an army to take it out before they do it to you. Rescue Raiders influenced Herzog and Herzog Zwei, which in turn influenced the genre-codifying Dune II, making it a direct ancestor to the entire RTS genre.

"We have Command & Conquer: Red Alert at home."

AppleWin emulates Mockingboard speech synth, but MAME has better analog joystick support.

Recruiting a small army for initial ground gains

The goal of Rescue Raiders is to assault the enemy's base on the far left side of the map and take out their time machine. It's a strictly linear path, with bunkers and flak guns that either side may take control of dotting the terrain in the middle, effectively making it a one-dimensional tug-of-war in which the front constantly moves back and forth as both armies funnel their war machines into the grinder. Hopefully it trends toward the left, though holding onto your gains becomes increasingly challenging the farther out you get. Armies cost cash, which generates at a fixed rate, and newly-recruited units spawn at the bases, so the closer you are to victory, the farther your reinforcements have to march to reach the action, and the enemy has all the less distance to march in order to push back.

The chopper, which you control directly, is by far your most powerful weapon, able to airlift infantry, bust bunkers, and single-handedly devastate mobile platoons on a single armament. Your weapons include:

  • Seeking missiles. Meant to hit targets off-screen, you'll need to acquire a "lock-on" by using the radar display to align yourself vertically with your target before firing. The most powerful weapon, but tricky to use, not 100% reliable, you only get two per loadout, and it's much too easy to accidentally fire both of them at once.
  • A front-firing machinegun. You get 50 high-caliber bullets per loadout, and if you can fly low enough to the ground without landing, this can devastate ground units, as it slightly outranges even tanks.
  • High-explosive bombs, for bunker busting or for when you just want to destroy a mobile ground unit without exposing yourself to return fire. You get ten bombs per loadout, and it's very easy to destroy tanks and trucks, but more difficult to hit ground troops. 

Your chopper is too awesome to not use, but it's also incredibly expensive to replace - you start with three backup choppers, each additional replacement costs as much as five tanks, and if you run out, you lose. It's also not enough on its own; attacking AA guns is very risky, attacking SAM sites is suicidal, the time machine is impervious to conventional weapons, and you'll need to constantly fly all the way back to your own base to reload, refuel, and repair, which takes longer and longer the farther out you are.

The enemy has choppers too, which are also their most powerful weapon, capable of destroying your entire army in one swoop if they get close enough. Unlike you, they get unlimited backups, not to mention unlimited ammo, and they are aggressive. You quickly learn to never engage choppers at visual range; they will happily crash into you. Watch the radar, take them out with your missiles, and if you miss, or if they sneak up on you, run.

Your other units cost money to deploy - a bag of cash is generated every fifteen seconds - and act independently, marching forward and firing at the enemy until they themselves are destroyed. Frustratingly, you cannot order units to halt, which makes it impossible to reinforce your front line with anything that you can't airlift!

  • Tanks cost 4 cash bags each and are your workhorse ground unit, being the best weapon against AA guns and resilient to enemy fire, though enemy tanks and infantry will eventually wear them down. If you do not have tanks in the front of your line, then enemy tanks will easily destroy everything that isn't behind a tank. Tanks are completely defenseless against choppers.
  • Infantry cost 5 bags for a squad of five. They aren't as powerful as tanks, but can be airlifted, and more importantly, can take control of enemy bunkers and use their defensive weapons.
  • Engineers cost 5 bags each and will repair and operate AA guns. You can airlift them, but you don't want to, because this turns them into normal infantry.
  • Anti-aircraft carriers cost 3 bags each. These are one-shot chopper killers and are incredibly important; you can't babysit your army every second, and if your line runs out of anti-aircraft carriers, the enemy chopper will destroy everything. They have a long range, but self-destruct when firing, and occasionally miss, which will suck hard for you. Thankfully, the enemy does not use these... yet.
  • Lastly, demolition trucks cost only 2 bags each. These serve one purpose only - to destroy the enemy time machine, and are completely defenseless.


This is a difficult, frustrating, and often random and unfair-feeling game, and it took me several tries before I could even finish the first and easiest mission. Taking out the enemy base is the hardest thing; your army moves slow, taking over six minutes to cross the map. The enemy has no real chance of taking your base this way, so instead, you get limited choppers, and they get unlimited. As you get closer, the enemy chopper is respawning pretty much constantly, taking no time at all to fly back into combat range, while you need to fly all the way back to your base in order to reload your precious missiles and back again to support your army, and pray it doesn't get crippled in your absence. Reinforcing the army is impossible; what you build at the base is what you get, and if it's not enough, then there's nothing you can do but watch it fall, build a new army at the base all over again, and try to stop the enemy from retaking too much ground as you wait for it to slowly march all the way back again.

Here's a video of a successful mission 1:


I don't know if I'm going to be able to finish this game, but I'll try. Expect at least one more post on the game before we move into 1985.

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