Project Firestart
for C64

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Mr Creosote:
Company: Dynamix / Electronic Arts
Year: 1989
Genre: Action, Adventure
Theme: Based on Other Media / Horror / Science Fiction
Language: English
Licence: Commercial
Views: 1364
Review by Mr Creosote (2023-10-07)
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James Cameron's Aliens was one of the biggest blockbusters of the 1980s. A shitload of computer and video games were made based on it. Which made sense, given the the movie had been mostly about shooting monsters – a genre well established in game circles. In 1987, no less than two officially licenced games were published on the C64 alone. One solid, one actually rather good. Though two years later, they were both easily topped by this unofficial version taking more than just a few basic cues from the movie.

You take the role of a lone soldier on a mission to investigate a space station (aptly named Prometheus) with which radio contact has been lost. Right in the first room, there is a mutilated body with a severed hand. The man apparently used his stump to write “Danger” on the wall in his own blood. It is as it must be: everyone on board has been killed by mutant creatures. Everyone? No, there is one person left to save, before triggering the self-destruct and getting the hell out of there.

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All throughout, Project Firestart impresses with its efforts at movie-like storytelling. The intro is split in two, with the first sequence playing upon boot and the second one after running the credits. In-game, it uses closeups as well as cutscenes, which may be timed or linked to certain player-triggered events.

Adding to that, the game does a very good job at implicitly telling its story just through its locations. Running through the long, now lifeless corridors. Finding the signs of fights. The bodies. Plus, as a third column, the log entries and internal communication still stored in functioning the computers, telling what sort of experiments went on here, how they went wrong and giving the player the necessary information to understand those fragments they find.

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Yes, the graphics may be coarse and blocky by today's standards. The scrolling may be slightly jerky. The animations may not be as impressive as they used to be. Yet, the game manages to build up a remarkable atmosphere. A looming feeling of constant danger. Which, to a degree, players can manage by diligently closing doors etc. Though knowing that at some point, they will go face to face with the mutants anyway. Which does not occur often initially, but when it does, they arrive with an intensity which can still get hearts pumping and adrenaline rushing.

Meaning it is all in the change between phases of seemingly “nothing happening” and then sudden, short outbursts of violent danger which makes things all the more intense than if it were just non-stop shooting. Traversing the decks, always on the lookout to solve those small puzzles, for example to get access to previously sealed off areas, repair the nuclear reactor and so on, a constant feeling of urgency is driving things forward. Supplies, such as weapons and ammunition, are scarce. There is no reward for killing mutants. The fewer encountered, the more avoided, the better.

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Tendril, what are you doing here?

Unusual for its time, Project Firestart does not make its player the blazing hero, but hunted prey. Instead of the usual power fantasy, it provides the thrills of constantly being on the run. Of fearing what may be behind the next door. Even more so when discovering that not only a global clock is ticking, but the game world itself is turning more hostile, for example when the new type of mutants suddenly turns up.

In 1989, all this was pretty much unprecedented. All the more impressive how fully formed the ideas already are, how tight and flawless the execution is. Five years before, people had marvelled at Impossible Mission, itself a fine game. Project Firestart illustrates how far game design, ambition had progressed in this short timeframe. How far developers had been able to push the C64, but also how much grander, how much more engaging and immersive games could be. Impossible Mission, today, is an important piece in every museum exhibition about computer game history. Project Firestart is a game still to be enjoyed.

Comments (13) [Post comment]

Mr Creosote:

Fully agreed. When I played it few weeks ago, I was totally gripped and found it incredibly tense. It would be interesting to know whether this could still work for someone younger who did not go through that age. Whether this immersion would even happen.

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Trezzer (aka Helvedeshunden):

Project Firestart is insanely good. So ambitious for an 8-bit game and it looks incredible. Some Amiga sci-fi games failed to look this good. It's almost impossible to play without being hit by a sense of paranoia I otherwise wouldn't feel in a game until Alien Isolation. The ending is just bonkers and ballsy.

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theLobdegg:

Honestly, your memory sounds pretty spot on. I think there was a sort mean spirited zeit geist here at the time. Like the whole edgy for edge's sake thing. Some of it aged really badly.Iirc there may also be a twinge of racism in RotD. I think there's some good to take away but also some hard 90's cringe there. Like I said, mixed bag. I do think its at least an interesting footnote in Dynamix' gameography.

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13 barn owls in a trench coat:

I played it [Willy Beamish] when I was 12 or 13 and probably missed some references, being a Cypriot kid who knew little of US culture, but it felt opaque, mean-spirited, and like there were a bunch of adult references I was missing. But I can't say for certain that more knowledge wouldn't make me enjoy it more. (Casting an eye over a plot summary doesn't fill me with hope, though.)

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Mr Creosote:

I must admit I never played it. Maybe with my daughter soon...

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13 barn owls in a trench coat:

I dislike Willy Beamish, but I think that's because it's really not for me, rather than any inherent lack of quality.

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Mr Creosote:

I have Rise of the Dragon in mind as absolutely great. Though it has been 20 years, so I may just be remembering its ambition rather than its execution. Heart of China, on the other hand, is indeed quite clunky, now that you mention it. 90% his is great enough :D

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theLobdegg:

I'd say Rise of the Dragon is a bit of a mixed bag. There's a lot that's really cool about it but also some stuff I suspect a lot of people wouldn't mind dropping. Tho I'd say it's like a 90/10 split between the good and the bad respectively.

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Mr Creosote:

I didn't even think of those! That is another thing about this company, how they moved across genres so effortlessly and excelled in all.

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stirz ✅:

That is a true gem on the C64 and as I recall it required a lot of disk space.

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Eden:

Their CRPG record is certainly spotless! (Also, am I the only one who can't help but think of Betrayal at Krondor as a proto-FMV game? I love its manual so much, with the costumed gallery at the end.)

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Mr Creosote:

Did Dynamix ever make a bad game? My feeling is their track record is pretty much spotless. Not only that, a large number of their works was great in their day and even holds up well today. Case in point, Project Firestart.

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