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Dark Side

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by Sam Derboo - August 7, 2014

Older game enthusiasts from the United Kingdom are rather fond of their microcomputer heritage, much to the perplexity of international onlookers. Retro gamers beyond the British Isles may sympathetically raise an eyebrow in acknowledgement for Elite, but just about everything else that was big in the UK in the 1980s, from Jet Set Willy to Wally Week, is usually met either with disbelief or with condescension, mostly because the technical limitations of Britain's favorite computer, the ZX Spectrum, make it hard to appreciate in retrospective. Other titles are hardly recognized at all, even though they occasionally made exceptional innovations in their time. One of those pioneering works was Driller, by a company named Incentive Softare.

Back when Incentive Software appeared on the scene, it didn't exactly seem like a hot candidate to be writing video game history. Before getting into microcomputers, founder Ian Andrew had a business selling postcards to collectors. His first game was like a cross between a maze game and Mine Sweeper (which it actually predates), called Mined-Out, which was still published by Quicksilva. After he founded his own company, he mostly published simple text adventures and some arcade ports, most of them developed by outside freelancers. But Incentive Software added a unique quirk to its releases, by offering an additional incentive - hence the company name - with small prizes for high score challenges.

The nature of the company changed fundamentally in September 1986, when Ian put together the internal team Major Developments, consisting of his brother Chris, Stephen "Bug" Northcott and Paul Gregory (later joined by Sean Ellis for the 16-bit versions), to realize an idea he had carried around in his head for a year. Together they created Freescape, a system that would nowadays be called a 3D engine. The initial title, Driller was not the first game to feature solid polygonal 3D graphics, but its complexity was thitherto unseen on a home platform. Since combat action merely plays a peripheral role in most of the games, they can also be considered progenitors of free-roaming 3D adventure games, and some of them might fit somewhere early into survival horror genealogy.

Freescape was also the first multi purpose 3D engine that would be publicly identified by its own name - early releases of the games that used it proudly presented the Freescape logo on the box. Incentive Software continued to produce four standalone titles and two bundled sequels using Freescape until 1991, when finally everyone was invited to create their own 3D worlds with the 3D Construction Kit - two years before Doom would rise to fame, in part for its modability.

Afterwards, Incentive Software changed its name to Superscape and transitioned to developing "Virtual Reality Software" for more or less serious applications, which manifested itself in a 3D web browser for interactive spaces called Viscape. The Superscape engine also found use in several British TV game shows, including The Satellite Game, Cyberzone and Virtually Impossible. The company later returned to its gaming roots, sort of, by becoming a publisher for 3D mobile games, before finally disappearing around 2008.

Driller (ZX Spectrum)

A Virtual Web Page in Viscape


Driller / Space Station Oblivion - ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, Commodore 16, Amiga, Atari ST, IBM PC (1987)

European Cover

American Cover

Driller comes with a whooping 20 pages of background that tells of a dying Earth, humanity's colonization of the planet Evath and the history of its two moons, Mitral and Tricuspid. There's also a whole bit about the life of the protagonist, Lesleigh Skerrit (the name is usually female in the real world, yet the novella takes care to never attach any pronouns). But all that needs to be understood is what translates directly into the game's mission: Mitral was soon chosen as a place to ban outlaws, so-called Ketar, founding a kind of space Australia. The new colonists, however, ended up overmining the moon and thus creating pockets of gas within. Shocked, the Ketar abandoned the moon, leaving their security system to its own devices. They obviously didn't think things through when they evacuated to an unpopulated continent on Evath, as an exploding moon now threatens to throw the entire planet out of orbit. Thus Lesleigh is sent on a special mission to go to Mitral and drill holes into its surface in order to drain the gas. Only four hours remain until Evath's satellite is going to burst under the pressure.

The journey starts in an excavation probe on Mitral's surface. The tank controls are rather appropriate for the vehicle, and certainly excusable for the time period. The goal is to find the location of the gas pocket in each of the moon's 18 sectors and call down a drilling rig. The closer it gets to the actual source of the gas, the higher the percentage of gas tapped. The threshold for success is 50%, while anything less requires the player to have the rig called back and try again, which consumes energy each time. Sometimes there are hints to the location. The first sector, for example, has the spot marked with a huge "X". Another time two arrows can be found on the ground, and the point where their lines would meet is the place to go. In many sectors the clues are much more cryptic though, and can only be guessed at. Sometimes pure trial and error is the only solution. Driller is therefore not designed to be solvable in one game, but rather forces players to learn from their mistakes and mark their findings on the accompanying map in order to do a better job next time.

This map is not simply a sheet of paper, but meant to be folded into a polyhedron to simulate the weird ways in which the maps are connected. Each sector is essentially a small room, with doors leading to other sectors. Many borders have no walls, and driving off the plane usually results in the vehicle falling sideways onto a little map that only has an indestructible gun turret and nothing else. Navigating the moon's surface can be confusing and frustrating. It's eventually possible to activate a set of teleporters to get around much faster, though, which helps a lot.

The excavation probe is equipped with a laser to defend itself against the many defensive installations on Mitral. All of them are stationary, but it would be too hard to hit moving targets, anyway. By hitting the space bar, the controls switch to aiming mode, which allows to move a crosshair on the screen and shoot at the targets. Usually one hit is enough to destroy those that are vulnerable at all, but most of them are immune to the laser to begin with. The focus in Driller is certainly not on the shooting action. Instead, the laser is used much more frequently as a puzzle solving device.

The gun is the tool for all interaction with the environment in the game. It is used to flip switches, clear obstacles and consume energy or shield crystals (depicted as pyramid shapes). The puzzles are fairly simple from today's standpoint, but when considering they were realized in a 3D engine that couldn't be any more primitive, the possibilities are quite impressive. Many just require hitting switches in the right order, usually contained to one room, but there's also one big switch puzzle that requires travel all around the moon. But there are also a few more intricate mechanisms: In one sector, a building is protected by a particularly vicious turret that can not be shot down, but when shooting all the cables that lead over a pylon to the building, it loses power and becomes harmless. One defense installation has a huge block suspiciously hanging above it on a rope - of course the solution is to shoot the rope, dropping the block onto the enemy. At some point it's even necessary to raise and lower the vehicle to dive under and shoot over obstacles.

The folded map of Mitral from different sides.

All the graphics are put together from very simple geometrical shapes, but they're grouped into forming recognizable buildings and other structures. Movement is choppy, and scaling vertically uneven terrain especially rough, as the view just jumps to the target height in one frame, which can be disorienting. The game also runs very slow on most platforms - usually not more than 1 frame per second. The amount of movement units per step and the probe's turning angle can be adjusted to make things flow a bit more rapidly. But pushing those too far can be very dangerous when maneuvering around gaps, and moving at maximum step size can cause glitches when trying to transition to another area.

On the other hand, the engine was years ahead of its time and featured elements not even the later Wolfenstein 3D and Doom did. Objects are often actually placed above each other vertically without any of the trickery id's games require, and it's possible to look up or down, and even tilt the view to the side, although there doesn't seem to be any practical application for it other than getting back up in the death chamber after falling off the moon's "edge". It's also possible to find and enter a jet, which can fly all over the landscape and discover some places the probe could never reach.

Driller's home platform was the Amstrad CPC, which can rely on the use of colors, but not enough to do away with dithering altogether. (There is no shading in the game - the dithering just represents different colors.) The game was then ported to a number of systems, but the 3D geometry data is the same between all of them. Ports went as far down as the ZX Spectrum, whose limitations forced the game to run in monochrome, so shapes are only distinguished by varying degrees of dithering. The field of vision is also a bit more narrow, and the speed reduced a bit.

The info screen gives detailed data about progress in the current sector.

One would expect the Commodore 64 version to blow both of them out of the water, given its superiority for just about any arcade conversion in existence, but strangely that is not the case. Either the guys at incentive software didn't have a very good grasp of how to take the system's sub processors to their limits, or they might have been just unsuitable for 3D polygon calculations. At any rate, Driller runs much, much slower than even on the Spectrum or CPC, even though the 3D Window has a significantly lower horizontal resolution. At least it features a SID music track where all the other versions (even the later 16-bit ports) only have minimal sound effects when firing lasers or bumping into walls. There's also a version for the C64's underachieving sibling Commodore 16 around, but it might have been an unofficial conversion. It was definitely not made in-house at Incentive Software, as all the staff names sound Eastern European. It looks the same as the C64 version, except for the loss of some colors in the HUD. It also runs just as unbearably slow. Those who just hate it when a program has any redeeming qualities at all will be delighted to hear that the music is gone, though.

The IBM PC version is not adjusted to system speed, so it requires throttling to be kept at a reasonable pace. It's technically possible to have the game run much faster than any other versions, but that also speeds up the enemy lasers to impossible degrees. It supports EGA, CGA and Hercules graphic cards. The former replaces all dithering with individual colors, using a comparatively garish palette. CGA mode fortunately is not the infamous cyan-pink combination, but kept in muddy colors like brown and green. Hercules is very similar to the Spectrum graphics, aside from a much higher resolution.

A little less than a year after the first release, Incentive Software created enhanced 16-bit versions for the Atari ST and Amiga. Those feature a completely reworked HUD where everything can be controlled with the mouse by clicking on various icons (but the old keyboard shortcuts still work). The laser can be used at any time just by pointing and clicking at the 3D view window, which helps to make the controls feel much more fluid and natural. To compensate for the increase in efficiency, the time limit is shortened to one and a half hour. Aside from minor color differences, both versions look exactly the same, but the Amiga version actually runs at a somewhat stable framerate, while Atari ST users experience severe slowdown when many objects are in view, just like the 8-bit versions. So the Amiga version is by far the preferable way to play Driller.

Driller might actually be familiar to some '80s computer gamers from the US, although not necessarily by that name - Epyx brought it to North America as Space Station Oblivion, a name that sounds a lot more marketable if somewhat pretentious.

Surprisingly, there even is a fan remake of Driller by the freeware group Ovine by Design. It uses a typical modern 3D engine with textured models, W-A-S-D & mouselook controls and a streamlined interface. It plays much smoother as the original, but also feels somewhat lightweight for it. It just isn't the same without the abstract charme of the stark geometrical shapes and overall lo-fi feel, and the remake only really serves to highlight how bare and insubstantial the content is.

The freeware remake sacrifices much of the game's personality for flashy but cheap visuals.

Quick Info:

Developer:

  • Major Developments

Publisher:

  • Incentive Software (EU)
  • Epyx (NA)

Designer:

  • Ian Andrew
  • Chris Andrew

Genre:

Themes:


Driller (ZX Spectrum)

Driller (ZX Spectrum)

Driller (Amstrad CPC)

Driller (IBM PC)

Driller (IBM PC)

Driller (IBM PC)

Driller (IBM PC)

Driller (Atari ST)

Driller (Atari ST)

Driller (Atari ST)

Driller (Atari ST)


Comparison Screenshots


Additional Screenshots


Dark Side - ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, Commodore 16, Amiga, Atari ST, IBM PC (1988)

European Cover

American Cover

European 16-bit Cover

Released about half a year after Driller, Dark Side is the game's only true sequel. Even then it takes place centuries later, though, as Ketar activity has been uncovered on the dark side of Evath's other moon, Tricuspid. Soon researchers discover their evil plot to... harness solar power! Well, and then to destroy Evath with a "particle beam transmiter" as soon as enough energy is built up. The game once again comes with a huge backstory, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense, is terribly written and riddled with typos. Like in Driller, the actual mission involves travelling to all sectors of the moon, but this time it's to find and deactivate certain Ketar installations, called ECDs, to prevent them from somehow destroying Evath. However, they only can be take down in a specific sequence.

Not much has changed in terms of the world's structure. Tricuspid's map has the same polyhedron shape with 18 sectors as Mitral, and the hero is once again dropped alone on the surface. But instead of a boring mining probe, the player is equipped with an awesome jetpack, which can be turned on at any time to fly above the scenery, which is often required to find secret passages and avoid enemies or obstacles. This makes sure that Dark Side still is a game of resource management, even though there are no drill rigs to call upon. The jetpack consumes fuel whenever it is used, and at the start the supply is not very generous. So among the items of the Tricuspid bucket list should be the goal to find shield charge stations, the first of which luckily is found in the starting sector. But shield is not fuel, and so the player also has to find some stacked twin pyramids, which allow to exchange one for the other.

But much more urgent is the need to find and deactivate the ECDs, as time is at a strict limit that only gets extended when taking down an ECD. But contrary to Driller the HUD doesn't contain a time display, so you never know when it's going to end, leading to many surprising Game Overs. At first the mission seems much more straightforward than Driller's, as all targets are essentially large pillars and visible in plain sight, but that comes with many caveats. The ECDs are all connected by cables on the ground, and as long as it is supported by two adjacent ECDs, a deactivated unit will always recover immediately. So the player has to trace the connections, destroy the lone ECD at the end point and then follow the cable to the next ECD. This is not always as easy as it sounds, because of course there are countless obstacles in the way, and eventually it comes to ECDs that are interconnected on multiple lines. The final ECD, found on the eponymous Dark Side of Tricuspid, can only be reached after finding four teleporter crystals all around the moon, and solving a convoluted teleporter puzzle.

The sphinx may seem out of place - it is a shameless plug for the next Freescape game.

To prevent things from getting to easy, the Ketar stationed several red tanks on Tricuspid, which take much longer to destroy than it's worth bothering with them. At some locations radar beacons are installed, which should be destroyed, but they are often placed strategically to fool the player into walking past them, whereupon they are caught and thrown in a prison cell. It's possible to bribe boxes at the door by shooting at them to "pay" them either with shield or fuel. Escape leads to a huge tunnel below the surface, which spans the whole circumference of the moon.

Still, Dark Side is easier and not nearly as opaque as Driller, and can be solved in just a few sessions. Acting fast is much more important, though, so taking good notes where to go at which point is essential. To provide an additional challenge, Incentive Software included 40 "cryptic hints" in the manual that somehow related to the game in a counter-intuitive way, clues like "Don't be square-Go for it!" or "Emulate the journey of Scott the adventurer." One of those who could explain what all these meant by the closing date was promised "a 2 week, expenses paid trip for two, to Baltimore, USA" - at least for UK players. It is not known whether a similar incentive was given for the North American release, which was published by Spotlight Software and sported a much more elaborate cover illustration than any of the British versions.

The original engine didn't experience any noticeable improvements over the predecessor, and the version differences between the 8-bit platforms are largely the same as with Driller. The Atari ST and Amiga, on the other hand, received even more special treatment. Enemies can now move around the sector they're placed in on predetermined lines, as do some other objects. Dithering is re-introduced to these ports, sometimes used to simulate (static) shading in dark areas, or for some neat lighting effect like the blinking of the ECDs' sun receptors. The starting position is moved a few steps backwards on these two platforms, maybe to give a better initial overlook of the first sector and/or to keep the player out of range of the now mobile enemy tank. The gameplay is also optionally accompanied by music, although it is little more than constant portentous whirring, with a beat building up in the background and some quiet notes here and there. It's also either that or sound effects.

Quick Info:

Developer:

  • Major Developments

Publisher:

  • Incentive Software (EU)
    Spotlight Software (NA)
    Micro Status (EU 16-bit)

Designer:

  • Ian Andrew
  • Chris Andrew

Genre:

Themes:


Dark Side (ZX Spectrum)

Dark Side (Amstrad CPC)

Dark Side (IBM PC)

Dark Side (Atari ST)

Dark Side (Amiga)


Comparison Screenshots


Additional Screenshots


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Page 1:
Intro
Driller
Dark Side

Page 2:
Total Eclipse
The Sphinx Jinx

Page 3:
Castle Master
The Crypt
3D Construction Kit

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