1980s 8-Bit 3D Adventures with Freescape

George Bachaelor looks at Freescape, one of the first filled-polygon 3D gaming engines.

Last issue of Paleotronic, my article on RPG games focused on the birth of RPG games on home computers. It looked at how they were heavily turn based text adventures, inspired by the likes of Dungeons & Dragons board games. This issue of Paleotronic is all about the moon, so to tie in to the moon theme, I jump ahead to 1987, the launch of the Freescape 3D “being there” RPG home computer gaming experience.   

Freescape – what was all this about? It sounds a bit odd. I mean it’s the middle of the 1980’s, arcade machines are top of the video game industry money tree, this was the era of legendary beat em ups like Yie Ar Kung Fu, legendary football games like Tehkan World Cup, legendary run n jump platformers like Ghosts N Goblins and legendary space shoot em ups like Space Harrier. What the hell was a Freescape? That’s exactly the question i was asking myself as i saw the advertisements while flicking through the pages of my Amastrad Action magazines.

At the time i took little notice, i was too enthralled and captivated in playing arcade and action games on my CPC. Classic games such as Spindizzy, Glider Rider and Arkanoid. These were the games that i loved and would play all day and night. Little did i know at that time the incredible impact the Freescape three dimensional engine would play in gaming history.

Taken from the words freedom and landscape to create ‘Freescape’, Ian and Chris Andrew of Incentive software were the brains behind the idea, an idea formed in 1985. Incentive had already been very busy in gaming circles for a number of years releasing original home computer games like Splat and Back Track in 1983. However it was their 3D RPG idea in 1985 that made them to coin a better phrase ‘absolutely famous’ within the home computer games industry. The idea soon became a working concept during 1986 and from there it took another 12 – 14 months to bring to life the Freescape 3D engine in a game, that could be released for sale for the home computer market.

An ambitious and very unlikely concept is an understatement. Nobody else was looking into such a difficult gaming concept, it was one that went completely against the gaming status quo. Even more intriguing was the project had been conceived on one of the most unlikely of machines.

Total Eclipse was a 1988 video game released for the Amiga, Atari ST, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, MS-DOS and ZX Spectrum computers. The player has to navigate around a pyramid and solve puzzles in order to lift an ancient Egyptian curse before it causes the Moon to explode, devastating the Earth with its debris. The game was the third to the Freescape system, which allowed for relatively fluid first-person navigation of the game environments.

You would have thought a 3D games engine would have been developed on the most powerful of machines at the time, the truth is that it wasn’t, it was the complete opposite. Probably most looked over about the story, even though the story gets told a million times, is that the Freescape engine and first game released with it – Driller was coded on an Amstrad CPC6128 (128kb). The Amstrad CPC needs credit where it’s due, to me, the CPC6128 is the best 128kb machine ever made. More often than not, the Amstrad CPC was playing second fiddle to the likes of the C64 and Spectrum’s as games were normally released on a C64 or Spectrum first. It was quite unusual for such a progressive new tech being launched on an Amstrad CPC.

I mean who in their right minds would have thought that an 8-bit machine could produce such an incredible solid looking 3D world as a first person RPG game at that time. Sure it had already been somewhat done with Elite on the BBC micro and on other systems with such titles like The Sentinel, but that was just wire frame graphics, no one had ventured to the next logical step. This was time when 16-bit machines the likes of the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST were demonstrating their much vaunted power and memory over their 8-bit cousins.

So my humble CPC was at the forefront of this new gaming development that allowed solid 3D polygon graphics to showcase a 3D world in much more detail than previously had been done and with a more real life feel of exploration. Extraordinary feat by creator Chris Andrew to get so much out of a machine with such little power by today’s standards.

Driller and the Freescape engine had finally brought to life a proper 3D, first person,  RPG game to home computers. It was a massive leap forward not only in RPG games, but for gaming in general and should be recognized as possibly the birth of solid graphical first person gaming.

The origins of how Freescape came to be is just as fascinating because the story has roots in those RPG gaming text adventures that I mentioned in the last issue of Paleotronic. Around 1984, at a local computer club meet, Ian Andrew met Sean Ellis, a first year university student. Sean had showed Ian his ideas for an adventure gaming system he had developed with his Amstrad CPC. From there, that meeting lead to The Graphic Adventure Creator or GAC being developed. Remember adventure games were part of the gaming landscape back then, so GAC was another success story for Incentive even at double the price of full price commercial game on cassette. It meant anybody could put together a graphic text adventure and they did,’t require any programming knowledge. To emphasize this point, Incentive released GAC homebrew games on their Medallion label, to not only make profits from, but to also demonstrate what could be possible with the software. It is believed over 117 titles were released with GAC on different computer systems, some were good and others not so good, the whole point about GAC was about the user being involved in creating their own type of RPG game.     

Dark Side was another 1988 Freescape-driven game and the sequel to Driller (see bottom of page). Like Total Eclipse it was available for a number of different 8- and 16-bit platforms. The game is set on the alien moon Tricuspid orbiting the planet Evath. The terrorist Ketars have hijacked the moon’s facilities and built an immense beam weapon on the moon’s dark side with the intention of destroying Evath. The player is a government agent secretly sent to the moon tasked with deactivating the weapon before it becomes fully charged. This is accomplished by destroying a power network of Energy Collecting Devices (ECDs) that are positioned around the moon’s surface. However, a number of enemies in the form of tanks and flying turrets attempt to stop the player. While Dark Side is more of an action game than other adventure-oriented Freescape games such as Total Eclipse or Castle Master, it did employ a number of concepts that would make their way into many more-modern ‘first-person shooter’ games, such as the use of beam weapons, jet packs and shields; and elements such as crosshairs and an HUD.

Looking back, perhaps this thinking led to Ian and Chris Andrew’s original ideas of where they wanted to see home computer gaming. Adventure games were still very limited in what you could experience as an RPG. This experience though, may have brought forward their thoughts for greater realism in games. If it was to be done it had to be created by themselves. The norm of creating 3D games was to use z-buffering to order objects and viewpoints, its very heavy on processor requirements and just wouldn’t be able to do what they wanted. Chris’s efforts in finding a solution paid off.

Working in assembly rather than another computer language, he was able to devise the box sorting method, allowing each individual element to be held in a bounding box, meaning the z-buffer was capable of being completed with one click instead of many. With some other coding tricks, the Freescape engine was now possible for solid 3D RPG gaming to be played and enjoyed in real time, it was an innovation that was just so far advanced of where the rest of the home computer gaming market was positioned.

What I find interesting about Freescape, is the setting of the first game using the new gaming tech.  An alien moon that orbits another world called Evath, in a region of our galaxy 2oth century mankind has yet to explore, this moon is called Mitral. Science fiction and being a moon explorer were chosen to be the first location of the new gaming experience. Perhaps this was just coincidence, maybe it was Incentive’s way of recognizing the giant leap they had taken in computer games just as humanity had taken that giant leap in history by landing on the moon in 1969. Space travel and moon journeys remained very much part of popular culture in the 1980’s just as they are today.

The background story of the Driller game is ideal not only for the Freescape engine but for giving realism to the gaming experience. Evath has two moons, Mitral and Tricuspid. Mitral has been heavily mined by an outlawed people, the Ketars, who have now fled the moon. A vast amount of gas has built up underneath Mitral’s surface and should Mitral explode, thousands of Evathians will be wiped out as Evath is thrown out of orbit. This resulting freeze will wipe out your planet’s entire population. Scientists have calculated a meteor is due to strike Mitral in a matter of hours and this alone will cause this disaster.

Your overall mission in Driller is to make safe each of the 18 sectors of Mitral by positioning a drilling rig over the gas pockets in each sector before the meteor strikes. In order to achieve this you will need to: (i) Gain access to and enter each ot the 18 sectors. (ii) Determine the gas centre and place the drilling rig on each sector to release at least 50% ot the gas below. (Use geological clues, intuition and trial and error for this). (iii) Locate and absorb sufficient Rubicon crystals for your continuing survival. (iv) Avoid and/or destroy the laser beacons, and scanners. As a sub mission: Amass as high a success rating as possible!

The first Freescape game, Driller (1987), was more of a puzzle game than either action or adventure. Driller is set on Evath’s other moon, Mitral, which has been left in an unstable state by the Ketars and is going to explode due to a build-up of flammable gases in four hours, destroying Evath with it – unless the player can stop it first. One does this by navigating a ‘probe’ around the moon and deploying a number of drilling rigs on its surface, to subsequently drill into it and let the gases escape. There are eighteen regions that must each have their gas levels reduced below 50% to avoid the explosion. Sometimes this requires multiple attempts at positioning each rig. The player must also fend off attacks from security systems by destroying or disabling them. Driller received many positive reviews from videogaming magazines, including 97% from CRASH, which declared it “one of the best games CRASH has ever seen.” Its readers also voted it the best game of 1987. Your Sinclair gave it 9/10 calling it “superb”, and Zzap!64 and Amstrad Action both awarded it 96%.

When playing the game now, the Freescape engine may not appear to be anything special in today’s gaming terms, but back in 1987, it blew away home computer gamers, original, unique, mesmerizing, it was an instant success story, receiving high acclaim from all the magazines for every home computer it was released on.

Concept and game designer of Driller, Ian Andrew wrote in the Amstrad CPC game manual “Freescape represents many thousands ot man hours committed to bringing this great advancement in realism to your computer screen. For the first time, your can explore a solid, three dimensional environment with complete freedom of movement. You can move to any point in 3 dimensional space and then look in any direction and see the view as if you were actually there. The full perspective of the alien environment, complex gameplay and vast detailed landscape contribute to the uniquely absorbing atmosphere of Driller.”

While the first game in the Freescape series took about a year or more of development, the second and sequel to Driller, Dark Side was released around 6-9 months later in the middle of 1988. Even quicker, a third game in the Freescape series, Total Eclipse was launched at the end of 1988. Both games again having settings or themes based on or about moons.

Dark Side is set 200 years on from Driller, however this time the action takes place on the dark side of Evath’s other moon, Tricuspid. The Ketars who had set up Mitral to explode are back for their revenge, this time though they have constructed a massive weapon called the Zephyr One and they plan to blow up the planet Evath once and for all. Your mission is to destroy the Electronic Collection Devices (ECD’s) that will be used to power up the Zephyr one within a time limit. If successful you will make it inoperable if not, then the Zephyr One will arm and blow the planet to rocks and dust.  Dark Side introduces more elements than Driller, with much improved speed of movement and a lot more puzzles to solve.

Total Eclipse, the third game in the Freescape series sees your mission take place in Egypt. In ancient Egypt times a high priest had set a curse on the people as they had stopped worshiping and providing sacrifices to the sun god Ra. A great pyramid had been erected, at the top most chamber a shrine was built for Ra the Sun God. The curse was set, should anything ever block the sun’s rays during daylight hours it would be destroyed. Now it is 26th October, 1930 and in just two hours the moon will totally eclipse the sun, triggering the curse of Ra. The offending moon will explode showering the Earth with colossal meteorites and upsetting the ecological balance plunging civilization into a dark age of starvation and conflict. It is 8 o’clock, you have just landed your b-plane next to the great pyramid. Your mission is to reach and destroy the shrine of the Sun-God Ra which is located at the apex of the pyramid.

Total Eclipse maker Incentive held a contest to promote its Freescape game in 1989.

The graphics of the Freescape games mentioned above, may have been geometry based, looking rather pointed and edged shaped but it was truly realistic for the era.  The reader must remember we are going back in time, some 31 years ago, as mentioned above, Freescape was designed with very limited hardware and memory, however it proved to be very adaptable. You could use the Freescape engine to create different 3D environments consisting of as many extras as the machines memory and processor speed would realistically perform. Extras may have been cuboids, four-sided frustums (called pyramids by Freescape), triangles, rectangles, quadrilaterals, pentagons, hexagons and line segments. A “sensor”, was used for gaming purposes to detect the position of the camera relative to the sensor in the game world. Actual gameplay may seem inexplicably slow-moving by today’s standards, patience was essential as you were for the first time moving in a game as if you were there yourself, walking about exploring, going through doorways, shooting at laser beacons – you know the usual stuff you would find while exploring a new world.

With each new game that was released utilizing the Freescape engine and there were six in total (Driller, Dark Side, Total Eclipse, Total Eclipse II, Castle Master and Castle Master II), improvements were made in overall speed and playability as well as some form of enhancement on the previous game.

Driller was basically exploring and getting to grips with a first person RPG. Dark Side was more involved. You had a jet pack from the beginning of play and now the gameplay involved a blend of arcade, strategy and adventure. The speed of movement had increased about five per cent on Driller. While the first two games were wide open, roaming experiences, the third game in the Freescape series, Total Eclipse saw your character entrenched inside a tomb of a pyramid and to get to the top chamber felt like trying to find the exit out of my local Ikea store. Once again an increase in speed of about five per cent in comparison to Dark Side. The game’s appearance looked much more simplified with larger sprites and less instruments on the head up display.

While Freescape was a successful venture for Incentive software, it really took everybody by surprise, as if gamers, the home computing gaming industry and the 1980’s just weren’t ready for this type of gaming to be the norm. It didn’t kill off RPG graphic and text based adventure games and it sure didn’t see the big players the likes of Ocean Software, Codemasters, Gremlin, Virgin et al changing what they had already been doing. Other software houses just did not jump on board with this new gaming tech nor did they decide to make clones of copying Incentive’s style of first person 3D RPG gaming – that was to come to ahead in the 1990’s

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