You're probably all familiar with the tried-and-true tank simulation formula of the original Battlezone, created way back in 1980. Damon Slye, who would later be known for his excellent flight simulators (such as Aces of the Pacific and A-10 Tank Killer), decided to make his own version for home computers - with (gasp!) a plot.
They are a bit sluggish by today's standards, but any game that could show 3D graphics back in the early '80s was mighty impressive. While the Stellar 7 series has its roots in the early days of computer gaming, it had a resurgence during the early '90s, when CD audio and full motion video were all the rage. These newer renditions are much faster and smoother, although they still look ancient by 21st century standards. All of them revolve around mankind's attempt to destroy the evil Gir Draxon.
The story of the original Stellar 7 goes as such: An evil emperor named Gir Draxon from the Arcturus system is sending out an armada of his most elite forces to wage war on Earth, occupying other systems as he goes. So you, a guy named John (and his super battle tank, the Raven), have to fight his forces across several levels. The story isn't exactly Arthur C. Clarke material, but it helps to set things up for what really matters: blowing stuff up, Terran-style.
Outside of this plot, the gameplay is just like good ol' Battlezone. You drive a tank around the countryside, occasionally shooting at wireframed enemy units. Enemies are quite varied in both form and behavior, and there are even places to recharge your energy. Once all the enemies are destroyed, the level ends and you are warped to the next system. The original version of Stellar 7 features wireframe graphics, which were pretty neat for the time. They run at a fairly decent framerate, and the models appear to be more complex than those of Battlezone.
This is the spiritual sequel to Stellar 7, which gained quite a bit of exposure due to the large amount of platforms supported (everything from the Apple II to the Amiga). The game takes place in the year 2005 - aliens have conquered Antarctica, and it's your job as tank commander to take it back. Your crew mans the controls of the Slye-Hicks MX-100 "Arctic Fox," capable of traversing the rough icy terrain with ease, and with several unique functions including an aimable cannon, guided missiles, rear-view camera, land mines, and a digging function which buries the Fox under snow, leaving you invisible to enemies while you monitor their patrols with your radar screen.
This time, the emphasis is on strategy, rather than run-and-gun tactics. An indicator on the top of the screen shows you the status of enemy contacts, informing you when you've been spotted or if there is a patrol nearing your position. There are several different types of buildings you can destroy, and they all have different effects - for example, destroying an enemy radar dish will result in fewer air attacks due to the fact that they can't find you. Also, some enemies (like the scout sled) will report back to headquarters when they've spotted you, so if you encounter a sled, expect to encounter a whole lot more. You can also use terrain to your advantage - there are mountains and crevices scattered about the landscape. You can use the mountains as cover, and the crevices are typically more of a hazard to you than they are to enemies (be careful not to back into them).
Graphically, the game has shown quite a bit of improvement. Enemy tanks are still wireframes, but in many versions of the game, they are actually filled in. Terrain takes many different colors, and the cockpit is well-designed and really gives you the feeling of commanding a futuristic tank. The Atari ST version looks the best, with its selection of colors evoking an almost retro-futuristic style.
After nearly ten years, a complete remake of Stellar 7 was released for 16-bit computers. It's been improved in nearly every way - the plot is more fleshed out, the graphics are much improved, and there is a brand new powerup system - along with many new enemies for fight. Before the game begins, you see the evil mastermind Gir Draxon speaking with his attendant, Raf Torin. He gives the order to send forth the armada, and thus starts the game. In between levels you see more exchanges between Draxon and Torin, with some pretty neat artwork to boot.
On to the gameplay - with the enhanced power of the early 90s computers, the action is much faster than the previous games, and the movement in much smoother. In controlling the Raven, you are given an initial stock of all seven powerups (three uses each), and a cannon with infinite ammo. The controls are simple enough - the arrows move and turn the Raven (turning controls are inverted when you move backwards, which is a nice touch), the space bar fires the cannons, and the Tab and Enter keys select and use powerups. The game can be played without powerups, but they will come in handy at some point. These special aweapons range from a shield that protects you from damage, a cloaking device that makes you harder to hit, turbo thrusters (or as I call them, "Joyride Thrusters") that make you move forward really fast, and an extra powerful cannon that can destroy obstacles as well as enemies.
The enemies have relatively decent AI that they can actually shoot you and perform evasive tactics (though their mileage may vary depending on how large the foe is and how good you are at leading shots). Keeping with the true arcade style of Battlezone, points are awarded based on enemies you destroy, and Dynamix also added the additional benefit of a hidden warp system (destroy the right tree or rock, and you get to skip a few levels) as well as some pretty fun bosses (the Guardian at the end of each level is truly large, even for the time).
The graphics, for the time, are pretty good. This was Wolfenstein-era technology, and even though Dynamix opted for a full-3D, flat-shaded polygon system, it doesn't detract from the game's visual style very much at all. Plenty of imagination went into the model designs (even though the trees look like crystal formations at times), and the non-model graphics (cinema scenes, the tank's cockpit, among other things) are also very well drawn and are very reminiscent of other Dynamix games like Rise of the Dragon.
On to the audio spectrum of things, Stellar 7 boasts full compatibility with PC Speaker, Sound Blaster, and Roland MT-32 systems. The PC Speaker sounds are annoying at best, and the Sound Blaster sounds are really only there to use the FM chip (though there is speech in the game's introduction, and if you got the CD-ROM version, all other cutscenes). But to be perfectly honest, Stellar 7 really isn't worth playing unless you have an MT-32 hooked up. You can hardly tell it's MIDI anymore, the way it's set up - you have booming explosions, computer blips, and a pretty cool soundtrack. It's a wonder to listen to, and I'm quite surprised that it manages to outclass even some modern games' soundtracks despite its age. Unfortunately, the CD audio soundtrack is a little bit lacking.
In the only true sequel to Stellar 7, Gir Draxon crash lands on an alien planet and discovers something that will bring him back to power. After blowing away some poor little creatures, he once again sets up his empire. Meanwhile, you (a guy named John, again) are hanging around Terran Command (a secret base hidden inside an asteroid) when your computer, S.A.R.A.H., picks up a suspicious distress signal from the Nova 9 system. The ones that sent the signal are initially in a panic, shouting something about Arcturans, when the signal cuts out. They send another communication shortly after, explaining that nothing has gone wrong and that they do not need assistance. SARAH recommends that you investigate, so you hop in the Raven II and do some investigating (after blowing up some Arcturans).
The story is much more interesting than Stellar 7's, bringing more depth to the characters (and more characters overall - like Sparky, your robotic maintenance engineer who often complains if you bring the Raven back full of holes). SARAH will even contact you mid-mission, giving you useful intelligence on the situation at hand (she also has a sense of humor at parts - "Hey, John, those land mines can't float on water! What are you trying to do, blow up a dolphin?")
The original power-up system has been axed in favor of a slightly more arcade-styled system. You must pick up power-up modules which will be stored in your ship's inventory, and can be used at will (though some activate automatically, like the invincibility item). The interface for using items is somewhat improved over Stellar 7's, allowing you to use individual keys to select items as opposed to cycling through them. You will also get multiple weapons to select as you wish - your Cannon which has infinite ammo, land mines (limited, and their use is also somewhat difficult), and a laser cannon which Sparky will install if you've been a good boy and not bashed up the tank too much.
Occasionally, SARAH will open a warp gate that will take you back to base (so Sparky can repair the ship, charge the shields, and install new gadgets like a rear-view camera). During these points, the game cuts to a story interlude, so SARAH and John can speak to each other about the latest happenings (plot-wise).
The coolest new addition to Nova 9 is how the game handles tank damage. Unlike in Stellar 7, where your tank's health was only measured by a simple bar graph, Nova 9's damage system is much more complex. As you take hits, your systems will go out one by one in a realistic manner. It starts with your shields - the front, rear, and side shields each have their own individual health. Once those go down, your tank's hull begins to take damage, resulting in your radar systems shorting out, your inventory slots becoming unusable, your propulsion systems slowing down, and your maneuvering jets going out (on an individual basis - sometimes it'll be faster to turn left than right). When your tank is on its last legs, the alarm starts to sound, flashing the whole screen red and emitting a harsh buzzer sound.
The game's graphics have improved from Stellar 7 - the cockpit is better drawn, with more animated elements (like the servos which show you the status of your maneuvering jets). The environments are more convincing, and explosions involve more debris and firey goodness. The models have more polygons, and the cutscenes are even better looking than before.
The game's sound, again, requires an MT-32 for the most enjoyment. The Sound Blaster sounds are competent enough to get by, but you're seriously missing out if you lack the MT-32. The explosions are even cooler, and the music is just incredible. It really drew me into the game. The game's main theme still draws shivers down my spine when I hear it.
After the awesome remake of Stellar 7, one would think that Dynamix' next effort to be of similar quality. Well, this one's more of an arcade-style game. The weapon selection system has been removed entirely. Instead, you have three different primary weapons - a slow firing cannon, a quick firing laser, and a Fat Boy bomb which kills everything on the screen. Now you just follow radar blips to pick up powerups, and once those are all secured, you fight the boss. The controls are a bit different too - your tank always moves forward, and pressing up or down merely changes its speed. It's a lot clunkier than the other games, especially since you can't back up and fire. The action is smooth and quick, and the graphics are pretty neat for a Sega CD, but it doesn't have that classic feel that Stellar 7 did. he music is once again full CD audio, with a completely new soundtrack by Chris Stevens. The opening cinema is actually much better than the 3DO version (despite being lower quality). Two fighter pilots are escorting the Raven when they're attacked by Gir Draxon's fleet. Your friends are played by real actors, both of whom die rather grizzly deaths. Once again, the action is narrated by Michael Dorn.
Draxon's Revenge is yet another remake of the original Stellar 7, although with vastly improved graphics designed to show off the 3DO. All of the polygon models are textured and look much better than any other version, although they still look primitive by today's standards. The gameplay is much smoother too, even though it has a tendency to slow down pretty often. While it's an excellent rendition of Stellar 7, it's also brutally difficult - with no extra lives and no continues, the only viable way to see the ending is through a cheat code. Of note, however, is that this game features a few CG cinemas and CD audio of surprising quality. Michael Dorn (Star Trek: TNG's Lieutenant Worf) provides narration, and the music is composed by Chris Stevens, who wrote the music for a few other key Dynamix games (including Rise of the Dragon), though he originally had no part in the earlier Stellar 7 games.