18/05/2017

DEATH STAR INTERCEPTOR (ZX SPECTRUM)

Two articles in a row about ancient ZX Spectrum games? Oh, but I do spoil you people. Today’s game also raises an interesting question: namely, when is a licensed game not a licensed game? Well, let’s find out with Software Conversion’s 1985 legal-minefield-em-up Death Star Interceptor!


“System 3 Software Presents: TEXT, the All-Typographical Adventure!”
Clearly the most immediately striking part of this image is, you know, the Death Star. The Death Star from Star Wars, except this isn’t a Star Wars game, except it is a Star Wars game. It’s kind of confusing, like seeing the Death Star hovering ominously close to the Earth. Not a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, then? No, the Death Star is close enough to our humble sphere that the human race will be temporarily distracted from listening to Duran Duran and perming their hair, or whatever went on in 1985. But that is unequivocally the Death Star from Star Wars, and the premise of this game is that you’ll be flying a spaceship with X-shaped wings on a mission to destroy it, which makes the part of this opening text that claims the game is based on an “original idea” seem rather cheeky.
What you may notice, however, is that there’s a credit for John Williams and Warner Bros. for use of the Star Wars theme music - and only the music. More on that in a while.


Just to re-confirm how much of a Star Wars game this is, here’s the default high score table. I have to take issue with this: I know he’s an astromech droid, but there’s no way R2D2 is a better pilot on Chewbacca. Also, good work using the wrong “role” there, chaps.


So the high score table is a clear indication of Death Star Interceptor’s Star Wars roots, but the game’s “Mission Briefing” - as well as the blurb on the back of the game’s cassette inlay – assiduously avoid mentioning any trademark Star Wars terms and phrases apart from "Death Star". The X-Wing is now “StarFighter One,” the Rebel Alliance are the Earth Defence Council and the plot provided tells the story of an evil empire that requires humanoid slaves to work in their mines, extracting a precious substance called “Aix” that prolongs life-spans but is also extremely dangerous and causes mutations, so Death Star Interceptor has managed to rip off a little bit of Dune as well.


Here is the cover art itself. That’s no moon, it’s a space station! And also the moon. Again, it does feel very strange to see Star Wars playing out near planet Earth. Earth must be a very confusing place for Star Wars characters, what with it not being an entire planet made of deserts or jungles or ice. As you can see there’s no actual mention of Star Wars, but that is one hundred percent an X-Wing down there. I might be labouring the point, but the amount of effort that’s gone into keeping this game balanced on a knife-edge of Star Wars / Not Star Wars is genuinely fascinating to me.



The copyright notices on the title screen were true, and John William’s Star Wars theme does indeed appear in the game, playing if you leave the game on the title screen for too long as some kind of aural punishment for not starting the action quickly enough. Despite sounding as though it’s being played on an ambulance siren, I suppose as far as ZX Spectrum music goes it’s not too bad – and it’s recognisable as the Star Wars theme, at least – but then you get to that final drawn-out note and your ears shrivel up and die like a salted slug. While I was editing this music ready for upload, I forgot I’d left the game running in the background until theme started playing while I was listening to the captured audio. Trust me, hearing two instances of this music playing at once and not in sync is a sonic experience you do not forget in a hurry (more’s the pity).


Okay, I’ve put it off long enough, I should probably play the actual game. Death Star Interceptor is divided into three sections, of which this is the first – the take-off. You’re controlling the X-Wing – sorry, StarFighter One – at the bottom of the screen, and your goal is to fly through the very centre of the rings at the top of the screen. Sounds easy enough, right? You pull back on the joystick, the game emits a sound effect akin to Mechagodzilla’s cries of pain after stubbing his toe, and your ship takes to the skies!


Except once it’s moving, the X-Wing randomly wobbles from side to side, often veering all the way over to the far side of the screen. So, you have to use left and right to nudge this buckin’ space bronco back on course, something that’s easier said than done when the target you’re aiming for – the dot in the very centre of the “space gate” - is so goddamn small. If you miss your target, your X-Wing somehow manages to crash into thin air, and you lose a shield. It’s the 8-bit computer game equivalent of trying to guide an extremely drunk friend to their bed, except you don’t even get the reward of photos for future blackmail purposes, just more uninspiring gameplay.


If and when you manage to take off successfully, Death Star Interceptor moves into stage two. You’re flying towards the distant Death Star, while being attacked by the Empire’s space fleet. TIE Fighters fly in from the top of the screen, and you can shoot them. You don’t have to shoot them but you can. On the easiest difficulty setting the enemy ships don’t even fire back, they just try to ram into you. It’s Space Invaders, essentially – although thinking about it, the TIE Fighters’ swooping movement patterns make it feel a bit more like Galaga.


As simple as it sounds, there are a few problems that make DSI’s space combat sections a real chore. The first is that you can only fire one projectile at a time, and your lasers only disappear if you hit something or they fly off the top of the screen. As you can see, you’re often facing multiple TIE Fighters at once, so a missed shot means you’re completely defenceless while you wait for your unfathomably slow laser beams to make it off the screen. The simple inclusion of a rapid-fire weapon into DSI’s gameplay would drastically improve the entire game without making it too easy – there are still a lot of enemy ships, and you can only fire forwards or at a forty-five degree diagonal if you shoot while moving left or right. There is no rapid-fire option, though, and so the combat feels dull and frustrating.


The other thing is the controls. I’ll say this for them, they’re sharp and responsive and you know where your ship is going to be once you’ve used them. On a technical level they’re fine. However, they’re laid out with “aeroplane” controls – that is, you pull back on the joystick to “climb” and push forwards to “dive.” This is all well and good in a more three-dimensional flight game, an Afterburner or a Star Fox, but DSI takes place on a flat black plane with no illusion of depth so it doesn’t feel like your altitude is changing at all. You’re just moving forward and backwards, except you have to push up to move backwards and down to go forwards. You might not have a problem with this, but my brain could just not figure this out at all, so I crashed a lot because I foolishly pressed up to move my ship up the screen.
Oh, and then there’s the noise the TIE Fighters make. You know how in the Star Wars movies, TIE Fighters emit a roaring scream as they fly by? Now imagine that sound as produced by a ZX Spectrum. Yeah. Now stop imagining it, I don’t want you getting upset.


However, all these problems (well, apart from the sound effects) can be negated by this one simple tactic: if you park your X-Wing in the bottom-right corner, nothing can hit you and you can fly to the Death Star unimpeded. Sure, you won’t get a high score, but what’s more important – your personal glory or saving the Earth, you arrogant fool?


Having survived the journey to the Death Star, we’re now into DSI’s final section: the trench run itself. I’m still amazed the game’s creators got away with this, with my only explanation being that Lucasfilm’s lawyers had bigger fish to fry than small British games developers. And they even licensed the music! That must have been an interesting phone call.
“Let me get this straight, you want the license to use the Star Wars theme music, but you’re not making a Star Wars game?”
“That’s correct.”
“So what is your game about?”
“Well, it’s about a war amongst the stars. A plucky pilot must destroy a huge planet-smashing space station by flying down its equatorial trench and firing a missile into its exhaust port.”
“I see. And what’s the name of this space station?”
“The Death Star.”
“The Death Star?”
“Yep, the Death Star. It’s based on an original idea we definitely had.”
“Well, in that case, I don’t see any problems. Good luck with your game!”


As for the trench run gameplay itself, it’s pretty similar to the previous section but with more emphasis on avoiding things. This is especially true of these laser beams that stretch across the trench, and you must slalom your way between them to avoid taking damage. “Hold on,” you might think, (as I did,) “if I can control my ship’s altitude then maybe I can fly underneath the laser beams? It didn’t work in space, but it might here because things are a bit more three-dimensional.” So you push forwards to lower your ship’s nose and descend and… nothing happens. During these laser-grid sections, the game completely disables your ability to move your ship up and down, presumably in a vain attempt to maintain the illusion that you can control your altitude during the other sections. It’s even mentioned in the game’s instruction in bare-faced “we locked your controls for this section” kind of way.  How wonderful.


The real danger of the trench section comes from the wall-mounted turrets. They fire horizontally, and very quickly, making them especially difficult to avoid. You can technically destroy them, but they generally come in pairs with one on either wall, so the odds of blowing them both up before they shoot you are slim to none. One saving grace is that DSI is quite generous when it comes to the amount of damage you can take: you start with four lives and for each life your ship has five shields, so you can take a bit of punishment before hitting the Game Over screen. Most Spectrum games would let you take three hits, tops.


We’re coming up to the end now, and the exhaust port is in sight! What do you mean you can’t see it? It’s right there! You know, the four-pixel-wide oval in the middle of the floor!


Look, here it is a bit closer up. Of course, if the exhaust port is this close to you and you haven’t shot it already, it’s too late. If you do manage to fly past your target without hitting it, the level actually loops around and you’ll get another chance eventually. I missed the bloody thing multiple times, so I have to image the Not Luke Skywalker flying this ship, repeatedly hurtling around the Death Star’s equator ike my nan trying to drive off a roundabout while ruing the fact he didn’t pay attention when that old bloke with the beard was banging on about some kind of force.


I eventually managed to stay on target long enough to deposit the payload, and with that Death Star Interceptor is complete. On the easiest difficulty and after basically skipping the entire second section by hiding in the corner, anyway. You see all these single pixels? Most of them are stars, but one of them is slowly moving from left to right, so I assume that’s meant to be your ship escaping from the imminent explosion.


At least I hope it was, otherwise our hero has been blasted into atomic dust. God speed, bootleg Star Wars man. May your merchandising potential generate billions of dollars of revenue per year forever more.


Aside from its wonderfully entertaining attempts to pretend it isn’t a Star Wars game, is there anything about Death Star Interceptor that makes it worth bothering with? Yes and no. It’s not as bad as perhaps I’ve made it sound, with solid collision detection, good controls (aside from the up / down layout) and a perfectly acceptable core set of gameplay mechanics – I mean it’s hard to mess up the standard Space Invaders-style gameplay, although DSI gives it a good try. It’s one of those games that’s frustrating to play because it’s a whisker away from being a much more enjoyable experience – the addition of a faster-firing, less pathetic main weapon and the removal of the TIE Fighter sound effects would go a long, long way towards making his game something you could spend a fun half-hour with. As it stands, though, DSI is the videogame equivalent of knockoff “Space Wars” action figure from Poundland: that badly-painted Dark Father toy with bendy lightsaber might be amusingly dumb for five minutes, but it’s still a cheap piece of tat.

1 comment:

  1. The original idea was probably "hey, let's make a Star Wars game without paying George Lucas one red cent!"... not that that was a particularly original idea as by 1985 pretty much everyone had already made a legally distinct game about shooting down bowtie-shaped fighters and/or dogfighting through a trench to destroy the world-ending battlestation. (Perhaps most famously, Mattel's Star Strike)



    In seriousness, the "original idea" seems to refer to the Commodore 64 version of the game, which is SLIGHTLY less trademark-infringing. The ships appear to be original designs, and the titular Death Star looks kinda like a steel potato.

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