Saturday 6 April 2013

Rescue on Fractalus! (Atari 8-bit)

Well there goes the once mighty LucasArts, shifted by Disney from 'internal development to a licensing model' a few months after their acquisition to no one's great surprise. Sure you could argue that not much has changed by this as they've basically just been licensing out Star Wars games for a good while now, though somehow I never lost hope that they could turn it around and recapture some of their former glory (and maybe even make us a damn Star Wars point and click adventure already.)

But nope, three decades after LucasArts' first appearance with Rescue on Fractalus! and Ballblazer for the Atari 5200, the last games with their name attached ended up being Angry Birds Star Wars and Kinect fucking Star Wars. If they'd been the developer for those titles I'd say it was practically a mercy killing, but they were actually busy making the awesome looking Star Wars 1313 when the axe fell. So tragic.

LucasArts were probably most loved for their adventure games (an unavoidable side-effect of making Monkey Island, Sam and Max, Day of the Tentacle and Grim Fandango), but they developed a fair few flight combat games as well (like TIE Fighter for instance) and just like the movie side of the Lucasfilm business, they came into the fray rayguns blazing first time out.

Rescue on Fractalus! (can't forget the exclamation mark) was released on a whole lot of systems in the mid 80s, though I'm playing the Atari 8-bit version as it seems to be the original, if not quite the first one released. Plus it's apparently the only version that has this cool animation of our mother ship at the start.

The game definitely ain't much to look at with its ultra basic cockpit and 2 colour mountains, but it's actually pretty impressive in motion for the time I reckon. It really does feel like I've been dropped into a low detail voxel world, despite it all actually being created with fractal magic (hence the name Fractalus).

This fractal landscape effect was actually programmed by Loren Carpenter, co-founder of Pixar, right after pulling off the same trick for movies by creating the cool ground-breaking fractal CGI planet terraforming Genesis effect simulation in Star Trek 2.

Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan
Sadly recreating this effect on an 8-bit system with 48k ram in real time meant a few compromises with the graphics. The villains in the game, an alien race known as the Jaggis, were actually named after the jagged edges caused by a lack of anti-aliasing. In fact the original title of the game was Behind Jaggi Lines (look at the cockpit struts), but I guess that turned out to be too subtle for them in the end.

I have to be honest, this isn't the first time I've played this game. I've owned a copy of the ZX Spectrum version for years, but I never did figure out how to play the bloody thing. I mean I know that these green dots are crashed fighters and that I'm here to rescue the pilots, but I have no idea how to pick them up.

It's easy enough to swoop around the landscape in my fighter though and I have full freedom to fly anywhere I want, as far as I want. But the terrain probably just repeats infinitely and it doesn't much matter where I go if I can't do anything when I get there. All I can really do here is try not to bump into mountains while I'm pressing every key on the keyboard in turn until something happens.

Occasionally I come across blue UFOs or these green pixel gun turrets on the mountains, but fortunately pointing a crosshair at them and pulling the trigger is a concept even I can get my head around. I've got a shield so I can absorb a bit of damage, but they each go down in one direct hit.

Unfortunately though, the downed allied fighters are just as fragile and I managed to blow up one of my own pilots here instead of the enemy turret. Somehow I doubt I'll be getting a medal after this mission.


Well so far I've wrecked two enemies, one friendly, and managed to rescue exactly zero pilots, which apparently isn't quite enough to give my mother ship reason to come and pick me up. This is a bit of a problem, as it seems that my shield gauge (marked E) also doubles as the fuel gauge and I've just ran dry.

My fighter hangs around in the air staring into space for a second like Wile E Coyote, before nose diving back down and exploding. Good job I didn't have anyone else on board really.

Well I tried hitting every key on the keyboard, but it seems I'm going to have to give up and check the instructions for this one, because I'm just lost.

Okay I checked the manual and found out that this is what I'm flying! That's a genuine Industrial Light and Magic built model that is. They even included multiple views of it, possibly in case any bored 3D artists stumbled across it decades later and decided they wanted to build one for themselves. And they should.

It's called a Valkyrie Fighter by the way, which is possibly related to how the title music sounds a whole lot like Ride of the Valkyries.

Oh by the way, the box art is great. They actually built a full size mockup of the game's cockpit just for the cover, and it really does match up exactly with the ingame art. Though I don't remember seeing any of these dudes in spacesuits around when I was playing. I should probably start it up again and see what I can do about that.

Right, now this is making a lot more sense.

I'd already figured out that the LR screen on the right was a radar pointing me towards downed ships, but I didn't realise I had to press 'L' on the keyboard when I was close by to land next to them. Deactivating my fighter's systems and shield by pressing 'S' should then encourage the pilot to leave the safety of his crashed ship and come running over with nothing but his stylish pink space pyjamas to protect him from the deadly corrosive atmosphere. Then I just need to wait for a knock at the door, press 'A' for airlock, and once he's in I can reactivate everything by hitting the throttle and fly off to rescue someone else. Or sit there and listen to the knocks get more desperate if I'm feeling like a dick.

It's all pretty straightforward, but man there's no way I would have ever figured it out without the manual.

This game's actually pretty chilled out. I just fly around the landscape looking for contacts on my radar, shooting the occasional green dot that harasses me along the way. It actually reminds me of the X-Wing games in a weird way, despite being entirely planet based and conspicuously lacking in dogfighting. Though I suppose Fractalus would have been one of the inspirations for that series now that I think about it, and this cockpit is clearly based on an X-Wing, so hey it makes sense.

You know, it's just occurred to me that they could have so easily made this a Star Wars game and took advantage of the license, but they didn't. It's funny really, when I think of how the poor company ended up.


ZX Spectrum
Don't worry, I'm not going to go through all the different ports of the game like I sometimes do, I was curious whether my old ZX Spectrum copy of the game played any better now that I know what I'm doing, and shockingly I'd have to say... nope. It's slow and ugly, I can't see the bloody enemies against the mountains, and worse the cockpit struts aren't angled so it's not behind jagged lines anymore!

I rescued someone just to get some closure, then turned the game off forever. I'm finally free! The Speccy version can haunt me no more.

Meanwhile though, back on the Atari, I've filled my rescuing quota of four pilots and returned to the mother ship a hero. Don't ask why the tunnel looks blue on the way back in, it just does.

But before I can even climb out of my ship and meet up with the brass for some tea and medals, the lift carries me up another level and I'm blasted back out into space.


You know, this game doesn't seem to have much variety to it. Or any really. Aside from a few extra turrets on the hills and more pilots to rescue, everything's pretty much the same every time I come down here. Sure I'm losing my shield a little faster now, but everyone I rescue gives me a little energy refill, so as long as there's still pilots around I'm fine.

Rescuing these people isn't exactly a challenge right now. As long as I fly around and clear the area of enemies first, land close by, and get them inside the ship before their suit melts, I'm fine, and it's kinda hard to screw that up. They only leave their ship after I've gotten in range and lowered my shields, so all I have to do is listen out for the knock then hit the airlock button. A monkey could do it.

Oh shit, I just hit the shield button and vaporised the pilot as he was knocking on the hatch! I wasn't my fault, 'S' is really close to 'A', okay? Crap, I'm a bad bad person.

Maybe they should have made it so that 'S' only works to turn the shields off, considering that I can also reactivate my systems by just hitting the throttle key (which is a considerable distance from 'A' and less likely to be accidentally hit). I guess I just need to look at what I'm doing from now on.

Hey it's a green helmet guy... OH SHIT IT'S A FUCKING MONSTER! WHERE'S THE FUCKING 'S' KEY?

Well that was a little different, though it's all sorted now. My kill count went up by one as well, which is a nice touch, though it doesn't change the fact that I got zero pilots rescued from this landing. Plus if there's a secret message hidden in the writing on his suit, I can't decipher it.


I keep playing this expecting something to change (or maybe even to reach an ending) but all I get are more green dots. Look at them all, each one getting ready to shoot me. Lining my crosshairs up with them on the middle dashboard screen isn't a guaranteed kill, but spraying a few bullets nearby usually gets the job done. It seems I don't have to be dead on target to blow something up in this, and with them sitting so close together I can hardly miss.

O...kay, this is new. It seems I've finally encountered night time, and it's only getting darker out there. I can still just about see a silhouette of mountains, but it's getting near impossible to figure out what I'm flying through.

Also look at that damn score. It ticks up by 1 every second I don't fuck everything up and explode, and yet I still entirely failed to get a screenshot with it at 123456.

You have got to be shitting me. Absolute pitch black darkness.

Well what the fuck do I do now? Fly the ship totally blind with just my radar, altimeter, artificial horizon, wing clearance bars, compass and targeting scope to guide me? Actually when I put it like that it doesn't sound so implausible. Hold tight friend, I can't see a damn thing and I'm coming to save you!

It's funny how everything on this cockpit works and has a useful function. Even those random blinking lights on the bottom middle are actually an enemy turret lock on indicator. I think it's a shame that proper cockpits in space sims eventually started to be phased out in favour of a HUD. I miss them.

Plus I miss space sims.

Oh shit, that's the last thing I want to see flashing on screen out of the pitch black darkness. Because it means I've just wasted my time again landing here and now I'll have an extra flashing dot to hunt down. Still I didn't do so badly with my landing considering the complete absence of visibility, and the sun's already starting to rise again so the darkness was barely an issue at all.

By the way, the radar only shows pilots, not ships, so once I've rescued someone (or killed them) I'll never accidentally stumble across their ship again. Good game design that. I mean I've been trying to blow up the crashed fighter after every rescue (to stop them falling into the sinister hands of the Jaggis), but the damn things are hidden behind ridges so often that sometimes that all I can do is land near the radar dot and hope the pilot is able to see me.

And so I return to base for the 13th time (it started me on level 4 for some reason) and the lift carries me up again. I decided to find out how just many levels there actually are in this game to see how close I am to the end, and it turns out that the game doesn't actually have an end. It just keeps going like this for 99 levels and then loops back around to the start.

I actually thought I was in with a chance of finishing this as well for a minute there as well. So much for my fragile dreams. I suppose I'll turn it off here then.

I wasn't expecting much out of Rescue on Fractalus! and to be honest I didn't get much out of it, as it's a pretty shallow game. It controls surprisingly well though, it's reasonably fast, and by some miracle it actually did feel like I was flying over virtual mountains in it. There's just enough detail on screen to see it as a 3D world when you're moving and it's a pretty impressive effect considering it's coming out of a computer from 1979. But it's a game entirely based around following a dot on the radar, shooting some green dots along the way, landing next to the dot and pressing 'S' then 'A' (or sometimes 'S' again). Then you fly off and do it again and it apparently never ends. Good news for people who hate closure.

So yeah I'd say that overall this was a pretty decent start for Lucasfilm Games and I'll probably never want to play it again.

You can read more about Rescue on Fractalus! at programmer David Fox's website:

If you have anything you'd like to say about Rescue on Fractalus!, all that stuff I wrote about it, the passing of LucasArts, the site in general, or that cool ground-breaking fractal CGI planet terraforming Genesis effect simulation from Wrath of Khan, then you're in luck because you can totally talk about any of that stuff in the comment box conveniently situated below.


  1. Looks like a game to respect more than like. I haven't even played it and I'm still going to miss the cockpit that lets and expects you to fly on instruments in a 8-bit game.

  2. I think the secret message on the alien suits is the initials of the designers - LC for Loren Carpenter, DF for David Fox, CK for Charlie Kellner (who did the music) and PL for Peter Langston, who produced it.

    1. Yeah, I think that was it. I remember David Fox confirming it for me on twitter.

      Maybe one day there'll be a game where the monsters have RH on their spacesuits. I think that would be nice.


Semi-Random Game Box