The Laser Guide to Video Games - Review - Pastfinder (Atari 800 & co.)









In Memory
Sean Pettibone


The Laser Guide to Video Games

Pastfinder (Atari 800 & Co. - Activision - 1984)

Derived from earlier Activsion releases such as Beamrider and the Dreadnaught Factor, this excellent title expands and elaborates on the traditional shooting formula seen in those titles to create an exciting, challenging and title that's unique and challenging in its own right. This is an engaging and interesting hybrid of shoot-'em-up action and sophisticated strategy, Pastifnder brings a slightly more cerebral approach to its blasing mayhem. On the surface, its stuctutre resembles a traditional horizontally scrolling shooter. Players traverse a series of levels, shooting opponents while avoiding obstacles. These are rendered in excellent quasi-3D that lets you jump over or glide underneath them. Its fairly interesting in its own right, and these mechanics are helped along by the game's outstanding implementation. The controls are smooth and responsive, allowing you to navigate its levels precisely and effectively with little impeding your progress. Moving your ship around the 3D levels is surprisingly simple, despite the elaborate special effects. This is helped immensely by the consistent level scrolling. There's no slowdown, or stuttering. Instead, the action is fluid and speedy, making the shooting sequences intuitive and challenging .

In addition to these standard actions, players have to keep an eye out on other factors. Your mission is to collect various relics scattered through various levels. In addition, other obects and power-ups can be collected along the way. In addition, you have to maintain a look-out on your ship's rapidly increasing radiation levels. If it reaches the top, your ship explodes and you lose a chance. You can compensate for this by collecting and using the scattetred power-ups. This sounds simple enough but, be warned, these can only be implemented between stages fot the most part. An additional layer of risk comes with many foes, which fire at you and also unleash preset bombs that will destroy your ship if you come into contact with them, Unlike many other shooting games, you control the speed of acceleration that can makes things go by incredibly quickly or slow to a crawl depending on your situation. You might want to speed things up if you're radiation levels are increasing rapidly but slow things down if you want to collect some of the power-ups. This adds an interesting layer of strategy to the gameplay, but the game goes even deeper.

While these systems might seem a little bit complicated at first, the narrow learning curve make it easy to get into. The game's elebaorate system of power-ups seems a little complicated, but becomes much easier once you get the hang of things. It helps immensely that these enhancements can be collected in the course of each level but the trick is that they can only be activated between stages. There's a limited number of these available, and you might not need them at every stage. Interestigly, you can choose to stack them together and use them simultaneously, but these circumstances should be rare. Each brings a unique function that can either aid in your defense, (scrambling an enemy attack or puttins up shields) or offense (reducing accumulated radiation levels) to help you gain an advantage. There are four distinct types of power-ups in the game and these can be used immediately or saved for latter sections. You can collect multiple power-ups on each stage and these can come in handy, especially later on during the more intense and challenging levels. Its not always easy to keep them on hold, but it patience pays is rewarded later on

One of the more interesting aspects of Pastfinder comes in its non-linear structure. Unlike many shooters of its type, you can choose which section to play next after completing a stage by selecting it on the map which appears on the lower section of the screen. These can be chosen and played in any order you desire, and this non-linear approach helps to extend the game's replay value substantially. Players check the map for several main functions. Its color-coordinated sectors show you which type of level you'll face. Red sections show you that the stage is highly-radiated while green sections have lower damage. This lets you pick the correct power-ups between stages such as the reduction ones on high-level radiation stages or the scramble power-ups for the levels filled with enemies. The levels themselves are painted in the same shades as the maps which helps you keep track of your progress in the game. It's a nice touch that highlights the generally excellent and consistent production values throughout. In addition to these standard squares, you have to navigate and reach towards more elaborate and challenging areas.

As you progress through your advenrture, you'll uncover black sections that indicate cleared stages. This aids you in figuring out where you've been which lets you know you can collect additional relics and avoid repetition as indicated. You can also drop these off in certain collection areas, but these only appear as circles after you've collected enough relics in the main stages. They aren't always linear in position and you'll likely need to fight through several stages to get to back them. However, you need to be somethat carerful about this once you have a few in your possession. When you lose a life, you lose half the relics you've collected to that point. making the risk to reward ratio a bit higher than you might be accustomed to. It can be a little frustratng to lose so much progress so quickly and this is one of the few areas in Pastfinder. This portion doesn't seem as fair or balanced as the rest of the game. It can be frustrating but you'll need some patience and endurance to fight throuh these areas. After you've gotten through these sections and the relics have been placed on the piles, you'll accumulate generous additional bonus points, making it worth the effort. Completing this task also unlocks new levels which become increasingly elaborate and complex.

Pastinder's learning curve is fairly narrow but the game provides ample room for players to explore an d build up their skills in the times between the more elaborate stages. You can return to certain areas and try again for a high-score or to collect additional power-ups. You can do this to build up your arsenal for the more complex stages later on, or rack up points for a high score. The structure is fairly complicated as far as contemporary releases go, but its fairly straightforward. It requires a little more effort than mindlessly shooting everything in your path, but its more satisfying since you need to complete sub-sets of objectives before you gain access to some of the more elaborate and interesting sections. As stated earlier, superb production values and above-average aesthetics make Pastfinder a joy to play. Its 3D renderings are a bit minimalistic, but the straightforward approach makes it more intruiging, and immersive. Animation is fluid and displays an impressive level of detail with numerous opponent ship types, elaborate barriers and numerous other elements presented in a clean, crisp manner. The sense of depth is simple but effective, giving you an excellent feel for the flying mechanics. You can fly above and below the obstacles fairly easily, though some of the gaps are narrow making certain sections harder to navigate.

This approach could have backfired, but the implementation of its intuitive controls that make is simple to change speed and altitude at the press of a joystick. Likewise, menus can be navigated the same way, making for an elegant and simple interface that's simple yet consistent. Pastfinder combines traditional shooting with other elements relatively seamlessly. Its basic mechanics are straightforwars yet highly effective. While the added elements of power-up collection and map navigation add complexity, the implentation is straightforward enough that it doens't get in the way of its solid play mechanics and entertaining, immersive play. The added challenges help to keep you motivated as you gradually gain power-ups and the admission to more elaborate sections. This helps to keep yout motivated thoughout and makes what could have been a slog an engaging experience. There weren't many other shoot-'em-ups like this produced, making its unique mix of action and strategy one of the more immersive and challening titles released during its era.

- Michael Palisano