Friday, 1 March 2013

3DO Games #4

Star Fighter a.k.a. Star Fighter 3000 (1995)
By: Fednet / Krisalis Genre: Shooting / Strategy Players: 1 Difficulty: Medium
Featured Version: 3DO First Day Score: Lord knows, I've been playing it years!
Also Available For: Archimedes, PlayStation, Saturn

This screen is so suddenly-noisy it makes me jump!
As has been documented here on numerous occasions, my failed attempts to embrace most games that the modern systems have had to offer is a source of confusion and frustration. This hasn't always been the case though, obviously, and at many times from the distant past right up to... ummm... a while ago, I've enthusiastically welcomed all sorts or innovations, either gameplay related or those facilitated by the advancement of technology. Some of these occasions have been and will continue to be relayed here, but one of the greatest examples of the latter came the first time I played this game. Sadly, the 3DO didn't last too long and my local second hand game store had soon marked down all the games they had for it. I picked up a handful of titles for £10 each including Star Fighter but didn't really know much about any of them. The others ranged from average to quite good but Star Fighter, being the one I knew least about, was the last one I tried. I later discovered it's actually based on a game released the previous year for the Acorn Archimedes but the 3DO version had undergone some significant tarting-up. I didn't know this at the time though, of course, but its splendour was soon apparent nonetheless.

A skyscraper falls to the Predator's laser power! 
The next few minutes were one of those moments that I'm sure all gamers have had - a moment of wonder and amazement that made me realise just how much technology had advanced since my MegaDrive which was still my main console of choice at that stage. It was the realisation that I was playing the first game that I could call truly next-generation. A lot of games in the early days of fancy polygon graphics were more like tech-demos which looked flashy but didn't really inspire much beyond looking at them. Star Fighter was different and I was transfixed. The game starts off with numerous movie-style animated company logos before launching into a lengthy CG intro sequence. All of this was impressive and set the tone for the game well, but it was the game itself that affected me so. This begins when the 'camera' zooms in from above to behind a green, roughly triangular aircraft which is cruising slowly through a complex of some sort nestled in the middle of a green valley.

The first 'mission pyramid'...
From here, unless you'd read the sizeable instruction book (which I hadn't), the first step was to experiment with the buttons. The d-pad obviously moves the craft, which I later learned is called the Predator Mk-IV, while the three face buttons change the camera view, launch an ECM (Electronic Counter-Measure), and, most interestingly, fire up the engines. The two shoulder buttons yield more surprises - the left one cycles through several weapons while the right one fires them! However, after a probably-long period of messing around and getting used to flying your craft and blowing up random stuff, you may remember that this is actually a game with an objective. The story, as explained in the intro, places you in the middle of a sizeable war but the game itself merely consists of a 'training simulation' to determine your worthiness. Nonetheless, that means there are a number of missions - an impressive forty five of them no less - which are presented in three successive 'pyramids'.

Descending on an ICBM site guarded by SAM's...
You can tackle each horizontal row of missions in the pyramids in any order you like but the next row is only unlocked once they've all been completed. If you can complete all fifteen missions, the next pyramid then becomes available and the new missions are unlocked/selected in the same way. A few missions take place in open space but a majority of them are set within the confines of a planetary atmosphere over a grid-based world map. Whichever it is though, aside from a few less-violent responsibilities such as escort duty, they generally require the destruction of a particular building, complex, or area. This can be achieved in several ways. The most basic is by using the aforementioned lasers which have a decent range and rate of fire but obviously, being unlimited in supply, aren't the most powerful. You also start the game with a few ATAM's (air-to-air missiles) and ATGM's (air-to-ground missiles), both of which can be locked onto a target simply by facing it and firing at the appropriate time. The other weapons are less easy to obtain.

The first open-space mission features this station...
They include floaty Mines which are dropped behind your ship, Multi-Missile which fires three independently-targeting missiles, Beam Laser which acts as a homing version of your default weapon, and Megabombs which are best dropped from high in the atmosphere. As well as obtaining these, you can add to your stockpile of ATG and ATA missiles, and it's also possible to upgrade several aspects of your ship. The most obvious one of these is its lasers which can indeed be boosted in power significantly, but you can also increase its shield and engine power, as well as tighten up its controls and fit it with 'wing pods' which have an engine and laser of their own. Doing all of this is made possible by the floating crystals which are left behind for a few seconds after the destruction of... more or less anything actually. These are eight different colours in all and collecting them in certain orders will boost your supplies of any of the weapons, upgrade your ship, or even award you with the 'Megaship' which temporarily upgrades everything to maximum!

The map screen is extremely helpful...
Another way to obtain these treats is to keep your eyes open for parachute drops. You'll be briefly notified with a flashing message whenever one appears at which point you'll need to check its location on the map. If you can get to it in time, not to mention successfully collect it (they're pretty small!), they will either offer a random upgrade, cycle through a load of crystals randomly, awarding you anything that results from the sequence, or just give you the Megaship for a minute or two. Whichever way you collect the crystals though, upgrading the ship is definitely needed as it's pretty slow and weedy to start with. Its shields are of course gradually depleted by enemy fire which includes ground-based laser cannons and SAM (surface-to-air-missile) batteries, as well as defence satellites, large and rather powerful enemy cruisers, and enemy fighters similar to your own which have their own lasers and ATAM's, and they aren't above ramming you either!

Lots of targets in this mission including those towers...
It's not all bad though, as some missions provide a few friendly fighters to help you out. You can command them yourself or you can leave them alone to do their thing, but they're easily destroyed so it's best to support them where possible. During most missions you'll also be supported by the 'Mother Ship' which drifts about seemingly randomly. Many missions are started from within its docking bay and most are ended by re-entering it (manually, which can be tricky!). Being a bit of a large lumbering thing, it is often picked on by enemy fighters as well. You'll receive a warning whenever it's under attack and, while it has some pretty formidable defences itself, it's still best to help it out - if it's destroyed, it's an instant game over! Even if that didn't happen though, it would still be worth having it around. Your shield power gradually builds up again after taking damage - I often seek refuge in the upper atmosphere while this happens - but if you dock with the Mother Ship before the mission is complete, your shield will be recharged much quicker.

The targets on this mission are the many rockets!
There are lots of helpful touches to the game like this which are a great demonstration of the level of planning and design that was put into it. As mentioned earlier though, the most immediately-impressive aspect, at least back in the mid-90's, was its rather striking visuals. Everything is presented in vivid polygonal 3D and, although the number of polygons used and the detail of the textures is understandably looking very basic now, back then it blew me away! With the exception of the missions set in open space, there are several different planets on which the action is based. A couple of them are Earth-like in appearance (and may even be Earth for all I know) while others are more alien such as a dusty grey Moon-like world, a barren grey/brown mountainous world, and a very gloomy looking example with a dark green landscape and fiery sky! Missions take place on most of the worlds at varying times of day too, so the lighting and colour of the sky can be different colours, and the direction of the sun affects the lighting on the buildings and objects as well.

A Megaship approaches the Mother Ship from behind...
There is even more variety in the buildings, objects, and other features that each world is home to. The landscapes include hills, plains, valleys, lakes, trees, and all the usual stuff you'd expect to find while 'occupied' areas include normal stuff like skyscrapers and office blocks, military installations such as radar stations, aircraft hangars, communications towers, and several kinds of laser cannons and SAM sites, and some worlds even feature things like castles. Nearly everything in the game can be destroyed too (leaving behind crystals in the process) and that includes the landscape itself. It's possible to shoot your way through a hillside if you so desire, although it isn't especially useful admittedly, but this does mean if any enemy stuff is located on anything but flat land at sea-level, you can destroy it by shooting the ground out from underneath it which takes far fewer shots! Shooting a lush green hillside turns it a muddy brown and this ground damage is even visible on the detailed map which is a great example of the fantastic attention to detail.

Just out of range of a load of laser cannons!
Helping to further immerse you into the role of a combat pilot is the superb and atmospheric soundtrack by John Avery which consists of seven original trance style compositions. The game cycles through them in turn as you play but you can arrange them in whichever order you wish from the options screen which also lets you switch the flight controls around. The in-game options screen features a 'Formation Control' screen which allows you to organise any of the friendly fighters who may be keeping you company, and also allows you to set up the game's two 'cameras'. You can choose between external, cockpit, tracking, and flyby views of your own ship, the Mother Ship, any enemy ships, and even your weapons (it's especially splendid to follow a Megabomb all the way down from orbit!) which allows for some great joshing around! Your ship itself is among the more detailed objects in the game and actually reminds me a bit of the USS Defiant (nerdy Star Trek stuff). Obviously they're not the same colour but they're both flat, manoeuvrable, and pack a hell of a punch!

A high-altitude battle against some cruisers...
Indeed, piloting this little ship plays a big part in the immense enjoyment that comes from playing Star Fighter. The draw distance on the large buildings is admittedly far from amazing (although not bad for the day) but the game runs at 60 fps so everything that is on screen moves with a silky smoothness, and it's possible to move the ship around it all with as much or as little precision as you yourself can manage, even at its default settings. It's not perfect though - there is some slow-down when there's a lot going on (try blowing up a gas pipeline at point-blank range, for example!) and the collision-detection is occasionally untrustworthy (I've spontaneously blown up when I thought I was skimming a hill-top a few times), but inconveniences are few and far between with a vast majority of game time being immensely thrilling, relaxing, or intriguing, depending on how you play it.

Want a challenge? Play the game like this!
My good friend Luke has never understood what I see in this game - he condemns it as too slow, and I suppose the pace can be quite sedate in the earlier stages, but if you want more speed and excitement, there's an engine button calling your name! Flying around at full-pelt alleviates Luke's speed concerns but also makes the game significantly harder as it's obviously a lot easier to crash at high-speed! The more you get used to the various 'planets' in the game though, the more you'll learn where to do what. Each is used in several missions with different parts of them constituting the mission targets each time, but you can always go anywhere at any time. You don't necessarily need to restrict yourself to the mission targets either - your first stop should be the aircraft hangars on the planets that have them as this will stem the flow of enemy fighters. After that, try taking out the SAM sites to avoid being targeted every time you fly past. Sometimes, taking out radar stations can minimise the enemy's defensive capabilities too. Maybe after that the actual missions targets can get a bit of attention!

High-speed asteroid runs can be risky but rewarding!
Whether you play strategically or by applying some brute-force though, the complete freedom of movement is liberating and makes it hugely enjoyable just to cruise around doing anything - shooting stuff up, trying silly tricks, or simply drifting through the upper atmosphere with the wind rushing by. From here you can see the whole landscape with all its ground detail which means you can pick a spot and head straight down to it, or even perform a thrilling kamikaze dive, plummeting all the way down! It's a hugely atmospheric game thanks to the superb graphics, music, and sound effects, and a hugely entertaining one thanks to the varied and and interesting missions, precision ship control, and wonderful freedom. These things combined equal very nearly my favourite video game of all time! A sequel was planned for the ill-fated M2 console too; I guess I can only imagine what that might've been like, but I'm just grateful this first game exists. When I first bought it, I'd never played anything quite like it. That wasn't so surprising back then, but what is surprising is that I've still never played anything like it all these years later. A truly unique and mesmerising game.

RKS Score: 10/10


  1. It really surprised me just how much better the 3DO version of this game is compared to the Playstation version. The 3DO has bright visuals and decent draw distance where the PS is so foggy you can barely see where to go.

  2. Yeah, the Saturn version is the same, it's awful - inferior in so many other ways as well. I was planning on doing a cussing review of it once I work out how to emulate the Saturn (I don't have the PS1 version) :P Have you played the 3DO version then? I guess I don't need to tell you what I think :)