The Laser Guide to Video Games - Review - Rescue On Fractalus (Atari 800 & co.)









In Memory
Sean Pettibone


The Laser Guide to Video Games

Rescue On Fractalus (Atari 800 & co. - LucasArts & Atari, Epyx - 1985)

The panoply of heavily-advertised video game titles that receive a lot of attention before release, but fail to live up to expectations is large. In many instances their impact usually fades quickly, their influence quickly fades. This could have easily been one of those releases that don't reach the heights they aspire to. However, Rescue On Fractalus is an exception where an anticipated game actually redeems its marketing and brings something unique to the table. Occasionally, you'll find one that exceeds its goals and stands the test of time. In the case of the landmark collaboration between Atari and LucasArts, the build-up was tremendous but, not without some hiccups along the way. Most significantly, a bootlegged version appeared several months before its release, under seemingly innocuous titles. This had the unfortunate effect of blunting the impact from the seemingly endless magazine cover stories it received. This also seemed to throw its release off-track, since it arrived on disk almost a year after its grand announcement, almost slipping anonymously onto shelves, belatedly under the Epyx imprint for largely opaque reasons, at least as far as the average player was concerned. Not that this seemed to have affected the game itself which largely delivered on its promise with a robust, exciting experience that represented a significant leap forward in terms of visuals, gameplay and interface.

But that's another story. Focusing on the game itself reveals a surprisingly innovative, clever and surprisingly quirky game that feels forward-looking while following traditional constructs. Far from the flashy, superficial game it seemed destined to become, Rescue on Fractalus has actually held up well after all this time. Officially released in 1985, Rescue on Fractalus was a landmark title that offered what once seemed like revolutionary visuals, cinematic presentation and engaging gameplay. Now, it looks strangely dated, but also unexpectedly charming. Perceptions on the game will probably differ depending on how and when it was first encountered by the player.

Rescue on Fractalusí high-quality production values were a step beyond what was seen in contemporaries. Starting with an elaborate scene where your vessel flies off its Mothership, then glides onto the planet. This is followed by some great animation on the planet surface and numerous small touches, such as the way the pilots run towards your ship that brings its world to life in a somewhat believable style. The game evokes but also transcends the era of its creation. Its polished production values enhance the experience, making for a rare game that continues to be entertaining and interesting despite the longevity of its origins. Rescue on Fractalus has many enmeshing elements that feel timeless and resolutely undisturbed by its age and construction. Its non-linear gameplay allows for freedom and exploration, though there are enough guardrails that keep things moving along.

Its retrograde storyline isn't difficult to understand while the lack of overtly embedded plots and passions means its storyline doesn't feel overly constrained within its time. The lack of falsely-constructed references keeps its imaginative world from seeming obsolete. The relatively straightforward interface, traditional gameplay elements and streamlined interface makes for a refreshing change of pace from the cluttered, claustrophobic feel that hemmed in later titles. It predates the excessive cultural accumulations that seem to have built-up over the years within the sci-fi and shooting genres.

Its most innovative feature was its use of fractals, a specific type of computer-generated visuals that offered more detailed and immerse 3D graphics than anything seen before. It used complex calculations to render worlds with remarkable consistency and depth. This gave the game a unique look where the environment appeared uneven and spiky at first. It marked a dramatic change from the blocky, plain look of other 3D-style games releases around the same time. Its environments seemed a little confusing at first, but once your eyes adjusted, they began flowing rapidly with remarkable detail and resolution for their time. It helped to immerse you into the game's world to a degree many contemporary titles couldn't match. An initial cinematic introduction helped to set the stage for an intense adventure that brought a few unexpected surprises along the way.

You begin with a relatively straightforward interface and control scheme that's fairly intuitive. The screen is divided in half with your main window filling the upper-portion while the indicators are consigned to the lower portion of the screen. Here, you'll find your radar, altitude indicators, number of pilots in distress, velocity indicator and other synthetic devices. Seeking out pilots is relatively simple - when one is close by, the distance indicator begins counting down as you fly towards them, and they'll also appear on the sensors. At this point, you can navigate your ship until its closer until their ship is in your line of sight. The radar also shows the location of both moving and stationary Jaggi targets, which is quite useful at certain points when they're firing at you from a distance. Aiming your shots requires you to align the reticle in their general location, you don't need to be completely accurate to destroy them.

Rescue on Fractalus' forgiving approach gives you some leeway and helps to compensate for its somewhat asymmetrical controls and slippery responsiveness. It takes some practice to get accustomed to your ship's somewhat uneven controls, but once you get used to it, the game starts to flow nicely. The controls are admittedly a little odd, especially by modern standards but, this works in its favor. The unique feel gives Rescue On Fractalus' flying portion a distinctive feel. It doesn't aim for realism in the traditional sense, but it doesn't need to. The somewhat odd sense of gravity works well because you're supposed to by flying on the surface of an alien world, and this strange sensation actually makes you feel more immersed in the action than a more traditional approach to flight simulation might have offered.

You can easily navigate through the game using the interface, and Rescue On Fractalus doesn't clutter up its UI with too many extraneous features. Using the joystick controller allows you to fly through its surfaces with ease, banking and turning is procured with a quick motion while landing and operations are controlled with a single keystroke on the computer. It might take a few rounds for novice players to learn all the ins and outs, but the learning curve is relatively minor compared to other flying games. Your overall score is dictated not just by how many pilots you save, but also the number of Jaggi installations you dispatch.

Rescue On Fractalus' environments were remarkably smooth for their time featuring robust topography and smooth frame rates that gave a convincing sense of speed and motion. Despite their uniform brown color, this allowed for some impressive sequences and fights when you faced-off against the Jaggi opponents. Aiming the shooting reticle was the easy part, finding the proper alignment could be a little tricky thanks to the game's uneven physical world. It made shooting a bit more challenging, and you had to anticipate your shots. This mechanic created a sense of realism that made the experience more realistic and engaging. It was far more sophisticated and nuanced than other shooting games, This combined with its robust flight-simulation aspects to create a uniquely challenging and immersive experience.

One of the more surprising aspects of the game is the mechanic that occurs when you rescue a pilot. Instead of merely gliding over them as in other games of the era, Fractalus requires you to complete a multi-step process. First, you have to locate them on the surface of the world, and get in close enough position to rescue them. This isn't always as easy as it sounds, especially during the night missions where you have no visibility and need to rely almost entirely on your navigational tool. Even when visible, its occasionally difficult to get in just the right position. Once located, you have to then land on the surface at close-enough range so that they can run to your ship. However, don't forget to turn off your flying system when you land, or else your engines will incinerate them. Then you need to wait for a few seconds until the stranded pilot runs out of his ship towards your vessel. Once they reach your ship, you need to open the airlock when they knock on the door, at which point the airlock will close automatically, which delivers a quick burst of energy.

It's not that simple, however. When you reach later levels, the alien Jaggis can impersonate a pilot, and will attack you unknowingly if you aren't careful. You can defeat them by turning your engine on before they attack your ship, but this takes a bit of practice. In the earlier stages, they're easy to identify since they wear green helmets, though in harder areas, they initially look the same as regular pilots, which makes it much harder to anticipate their attacks. You need to listen closely and If you aren't careful, they'll sneak up, smash your windshield while letting off a loud shriek, before they kill you. This is one of the more unexpected things in the game and a surprising twist that keeps you on your toes when you least expect something untoward to occur.
Facing standard enemies in stationary postions was hard enough, but you also had to contend with flying assailants and saucers as you flew through its canyons and valleys searching for erstwhile pilots. These were much harder to destroy, and were far more dangerous since they'd typically ram right into your ship, making it essential to dispatch them quickly.

In later stages, your foes seemed to assemble near the stranded pilots, making it essential to beat them before their rescue. This brings a sense of urgency to the flying sequences, which could have otherwise fallen a bit flat. While its pacing is a little slow in its earlier stages, things begin to pick up in a hurry once you move on to the more challenging areas that offer less forgiving opponents.

The alien jaggis attack relentlessly when they locate you, firing without hesitation while you have to avoid increasingly harsh landscapes and a sun that doesn't stay up for as long as you'd like. The later levels can become quite intense as you have to perform multiple-tasks simultaneously. They're increasing aggression leads to unfortunate situations where they fire on you when you're in process of rescuing a pilot. You'll probably mistakenly fire on one them and kill them, which makes things significantly harder since you lose valuable energy fighting them and lose out on the energy boost you might have received by saving them. Its a fairly solid design that gradually ups the stakes as you reach its higher numerical stages, with rapidly diminishing energy levels leaving little room for error.

There's an abundance of flashy sequences in the game, its elaborate cinematic introduction and dramatic effect when you blast off the planet when you finish a mission are quite imaginative for their era but don't be fooled by appearances. Rescue on Fractalus is an impressive technical achievement that showcases a remarkably sophisticated design and evocative visuals, but there most important thing to remember are the solid gameplay underpinnings that give it an enduring appeal.

- Michael Palisano