[Mr Creosote] Last year, LucasArts closed its doors. Instead of spreading even more malice than already out there about them not having produced good games for many years anyway, we would like to go back to the beginning of this development studio under the name of 'Lucasfilm Games'. One of their first two games called itself Rescue on Fractalus.
[Herr M.] The first thing you may notice about this title and what probably made you wonder about the other games from this studio, too, is that there seems to be no connection with the 'Lucas' name brand. Everybody would have expected something along the lines of one of the most famous science fiction films of all times, wouldn't you think?
[Mr Creosote] It was just that back then, their own games branch had not established any market presence yet and so, licencing the video game rights to Lucas' own fairytales promised to be a much more profitable deal. And we should probably also explicitly mention that the games studio had absolutely no stake in the adventure genre at the time yet.
[Herr M.] It was almost a bold move to solely rely on the name 'Lucasfilm'. On the other hand, it was probably not even such a bad idea to build on an innovative gameplay concept and unusual technology instead of hiding in the shadows of some mega blockbuster.
[Mr Creosote] Unusual technology should be the defining term: In the early 80s, the home computer and video game console landscape was still very multifaceted. Not all techniques could be equally applied on all systems. Lucasfilm's first games were developed and optimised exclusively for Atari's 8 bit systems of the time while other companies' systems only got inferior ports.
[Herr M.] That optimisation really shows: Hearing the name Atari, at first you will probably think of very simple games, all about endlessly repeating one single action until time or lives run out. Fractalus is comparatively much more complex than expected: It has a real flight model, fractal landscapes and a gameplay mechanism which, although basically simple, comes with a couple of surprises. This shows quite a creative mindset within this (then) young development team.
[Mr Creosote] Let's begin with the fractal landscapes. Fractals are geometric shapes which are special in the way that they cannot be classified by one of the typical geometric dimensions. In practical terms, it avoids both the effect of pixel graphics falling apart completely when you get too close and also the (measured by what was possible back then) spartan look of vector graphics, as used in Elite, for example.
[Herr M.] Most people will probably know the good old Mandelbrot set, into which you can arbitrarily zoom and discover additional, repeating patterns. Adapted to Fractalus, this means that the programmers could generate an infinite number of landscapes, which only needed a very small space. It is a technique which also some other, later flight simulators (e.g. Microsoft Flight Simulator 5) used, but this one was probably one of the first tries to offer diversified landscapes in doing so… assuming you can live with everything being made of the same monochrome brown.
[Mr Creosote] Lucasfilm themselves also used the same technique again for some of their followup games. Though of course, measured by today's standards, it does not look all that great anymore. It also looks rather monotonous.
[Herr M.] Which might also be a problem of the limited number of different objects appearing in the landscapes. Although, as we said, this is really judging it by today's standards. I would imagine that it was considered quite impressive in the 80s.
[Mr Creosote] For sure these graphics were right there on the forefront of technological development! Though the game does not just rely on this technology, but it contains a couple of gameplay ideas as well. Instead of the usual trigger-happy shooter which you'd expect of a spaceship game, it is the primary goal to save crashed pilots from the planet's surface.
[Herr M.] Originally, it was even supposed to be a completely non-violent game, but then, George Lucas himself is said to have asked where the firebutton was. This last-minute addition is actually noticeable in the game: The real emphasis is on locating the stranded pilots and taking them back to the mothership. You can decide for yourself whether you want to face the armed opposition in battle or try to evade them just using your flying skills.
[Mr Creosote] Basically, that's it, apart from one last twist: Not all of the helmeted pilots are actually humans waiting to be rescued. Disguised aliens try to trick you and destroy your ship.
[Herr M.] Though not right from the beginning: It is a really nice feature that throughout the 30 levels, the game almost develops a small plot. At first, you are the rookie who is finally allowed to command one of these cool jets in order to save the shot-down aces. The first levels go smoothly, you collect a couple of crash pilots, spot an enemy anti-aircraft turret from time to time and fly back to the mothership. Gradually, new dangers come into play. First, those suicide UFOs and then pilots with these strange green helmets… which turn out to be aliens. So they're learning.
[Mr Creosote] Until they finally even exchange the green helmets against grey ones. So they can't be distinguished visually from the humans anymore. Which doesn't only make things rather thrilling when the pilot/alien closes in on your ship (whose shield you had to turn off), but also shows another original idea: giving the sound effects an essential function in the gameplay.
[Herr M.] Yes, since if you, like I did at first, always open the hatches right at the same time as the pilots starts running towards your ship, you will get a rather nasty surprise sooner or later. Because if you let one of the 'Jaggies' (that's the name of the green guys) inside, he begins to trash it. The green helmets are just the first warning sign, later you learn to depend on the sound, because the real pilots knock.
[Mr Creosote] So far, so good, but gameplay-wise, I still have to say the same thing as about the graphics: It gets rather monotonous over time.
[Herr M.] Yes, it repeats itself rather quickly and especially the first levels are much too easy and boring. Before level 20, almost nothing is happening and even level 30 is still rather harmless for veterans of the space battles of X-Wing or Tie Fighter. Especially because each saved pilot will even 'heal' you a bit, so that you can be rather generous about your shields.
[Mr Creosote] Very unusual, because it was still completely normal to be merciless with the player at the time.
[Herr M.] Also, long-term motivation is definitely missing. As thrilling as the setting of the battle above an alien planet might seem and as much fun as it is to save the first pilots to beat the high score, a real goal is actually missing. Some kind of career or a campaign, which could have consisted just of a couple of short texts in between would maybe have done wonders.
[Mr Creosote] Sadly, I have to agree with that. As nice as the basic ideas might be, the gameplay is just too thin to really excite on the long term. Yesterday's technology, of course, also doesn't keep you playing anymore.
[Herr M.] But at least it can be entertaining for a short while. On my first trip to the planet surface, I was almost a little bit impressed: The take-off from the hangar, diving into the atmosphere and this nice moment of desorientation until suddenly, 'manual' (control) lights up - that was pretty nice. And then, waiting for the pilot's knock or the alien which comes almost jumping through the windshield (preferably when your energy is already low), is, as simple as it may be, still rather thrilling.
[Mr Creosote] Fractalus certainly isn't a bad game, but we shouldn't let rose-tinted glasses distort our view. It's just not enough to be treated as a timeless classic.
[Herr M.] Maybe I'm easy to please, but what I wrote above is free of nostalgia, because I played this game just a couple of weeks ago for the first time. It may not be a real classic, but it really shows the efforts of innovation which make it surprisingly playable.
[Mr Creosote] Of course, everybody should remember those beginnings. The name Lucasfilm Games/LucasArts will still primarily be connected to their adventures, though.