Monday, September 30, 2013

Blast from the Past # 1 - Solarwinds

"Blast from the Past"

How we can learn from these dusty games...

Greetings, and welcome to my new series 'Blast from the Past'. Every article in this series will attempt to dissect an old game using today's standards, and see what stands out. We'll take particular interest in things that were done 'right' back then, and haven't been reused since.

Since this is the first installment, why not break the rule?

Today's game:

Solarwinds: The Escape (Episode 1) // Solarwinds: Galaxy (Episode 2)
Developer - Stone Interactive (now known as Digital Extremes)
Publisher - Epic MegaGames - 1993
Platform - DOS
Takes about 2 hours to complete





I'll be honest, this is a childhood favorite. Its one of the games that I've played as a kid that gave a lasting impression. Imagine the horror when I found out what the critics thought of this game! Once my temper went down, I actually sat down to list the things that made this game great.
Then I played the sequel, made later the same year... the horror! The two games were so different that it occurred to me that the best way to talk about what Solarwinds: The Escape did right was to compare it with Solarwinds: Galaxy.

Without further ado...


Solarwinds is a very unique game. The closest reference game that has been suggested is Star Control 2. If you disagree, tell these guys.

This is a third-person topview spaceship combat/exploration game where you control your ship with the arrow keys (up/down to control thrust, left and right to steer the ship). You can use beams, missiles and shields as per any decent sci-fi ship game.
You also have access to Engineering (energy management), Cargo (to transport some objects), Communicate (which allows you to dialogue with certain NPCs), Science (which retrieves information from a database about the planet you are orbiting or ship you are fighting), Weapons (which allow you to choose some specifics), Missions (your quest book) and Scan (which show you long-range scan readings).

You play the role of a bounty hunter that has just arrived to a new sector. Your ship is able to fight, and transport goods. The game is essentially a series of quests/missions that either involve transportation, combat or exploration.

Game Systems

Solarwinds is fairly unique. Its a wonder no other similar games have been attempted. Arguably, some have done so in 3d (Freelancer comes to mind), but they're hardly spiritual successors of the game.
The systems in the game are all fairly straightforward, in such a way that, despite not using a mouse, you can still manage your ship from a systems standpoint all the while fighting off an enemy. For a game of the DOS era, it does remarkably well with input management, while still providing the player with meaningful choices.

One systems particularly worth mentioning is the energy allocation system (in Engineering) which allows you, in real-time, to distribute energy units to different systems:
- Weapons: How much damage your beam deals.
- Lifesupport: How fast your hull regenerates.
- Sensors: What shows up on sensor scans.
- Engines: Your cruising, and hyperjump speed.
- Shields (Broken down into Front, Aft, Left and Right): prevents hull damage at the cost of energy units (which cannot regenerate).

In Solarwinds: The Escape, the player deals with scarce resources and must prioritize its needs. Sure, more firepower would be nice, but how confident am I that I won't get hit first? I'd sure love the extra engine speed, but what if I end up in a fight and can't muster the dexterity and mental acuity to swap my energy points back to weapons and shields then?
Without stealing the show, the energy points allocation does spice things up for the player, and truly contributes to the overall feel of the game. You're basically like Han Solo trying to manage all of these colored buttons on the side we keep seeing in sci-fi movies but never quite know what they do and it feels great because it gives your ship personality. You can go in like a slow tank, or be a quick interceptor-style ship.

Solarwinds: Galaxy screws it up very early by giving you way too many energy points. Possibly, its trying to keep a continuity here, as you're playing the same protagonist, following the events of the first installment, but very early on, it gives you the freedom to be everything, which alienates the concept of choice.


The theme of the game revolves around your reputation as a bounty hunter. It gives you a reason to randomly take on assignments. People pay you for what you do in various ways, and expect things from you. A lot of that goes through fighting obviously, but the ability to transport objects really underlines the theme of bounty hunting beautifully. Some missions require you to transport cargo from A to B, and sometimes, payment comes in the form of cargo you can use.

In Solarwinds: The Escape, a bunch of 'twists' are used to keep the system fresh. Granted, its a fairly simple system to implement: these are objects which can be used to dropped, and depending on where they are used, they may trigger events. However, some 'quests' make it much more exciting. One of the quests leads you into a position where an NPC seeks asylum on your ship and demands that you bring him to a planet.
Upon transporting the NPC to the Planet, he becomes a new point of contact (on a planet you couldn't otherwise contact before). While extremely straightforward, this show creative use of 'simple systems' to do more.

In Solarwinds: The Galaxy, transporting is literally employed as a 'key container'. You're simply given color-coded keys that open warpages (6 total if I'm not wrong) and this is about everything you'll be using. Solarwinds: The Galaxy has truly failed to convey the theme here, and missed the entire point of this subtle system to dumb it down to a fighting game.

As is the case with many RPGs nowadays, Solarwinds comes with a dialogue system where the player is allowed to choose his answer. Most of them are purely inconsequential and the game is fairly linear in that regard. However, this too contributes to the theme. As a bounty hunter, the player must expect to discuss with potential clients. As per real life, forgetting to ask for payment can be quite... unfortunate.
While the system might feel entirely unnecessary, it does provide a reason for the player to return to a planet after certain milestones.

In Solarwinds: The Escape, extra care has been put towards making the 'travel back' meaningful. For example, if the player was leaving from coordinates 0,0, to reach 10,0, he'd go in a straight line on the x axis. As a result, some enemies would probably be lurking around 6,0 so that the player would naturally encounter mild resistance in the early game.
Yet, if the mission then leads you to 10,10 before having to come back to 0,0, your trip back will be along both the x and y axis, and you might encounter more resistance around 6,6.
While most enemies in the game are orbiting unimportant object, the player often finds himself encountering them naturally by laying an optimal course.
In this example, the dialogues (and need to get your pay back as opposed to a pop-up telling you you've earned money) allows to control the pacing of the game through encounters.

In Solarwinds: Galaxy, the journey back home to get payment (or rather, your next mission) is tedious at best, or actually demands that you burn your hyperjump fuel (which sucks). Nothing ever happens on a trip back, and it just makes for longer 'on-paper' gameplay time without actually bringing anything fresh.


Story is generally inconsequential. Solarwinds is no exception here, if not for the fact that it has an interesting premise. It has often been praised as a good rendition of a sci-fi plot and I tend to agree. Much like games such as Deus Ex: The Conspiracy, it slowly builds up and teaches you that what you see is not exactly what you think it is.

In Solarwinds: The Escape, the narrative is finely crafted. Quests come in organically, and you're thrown into an adventure before you know it (ok, the 'hook' isn't as organic as everything else though).
What truly stands out here is that the player has choices. On a number of occasions, you are given a straightforward mission (which you can accomplish as is, in most cases) but you're later offered a different way to complete it when you arrive there.
For example, the first mission you get is a simple kill order: you must destroy a ship. As you get there however, you get hailed and the NPC turns out to be a scientist. You can either carry out your order (and get your bounty), or reconsider and hear him out. If you're a bit curious, you can even get both (by transporting the scientist on your ship, and still destroying the ship).
Though most of these appear to be secondary to the game (as optional bonuses), the game actually teaches you something for the late-game. Later down the road, you are faced with exactly two 'quests' that are essential to the completion of the game, and that are actually traps (one of them gets you killed or in severe danger, whereas the other makes you destroy the game's winning condition).

While the game pretends its using its story as a supplement to gameplay, its slowly reeling you in, and punishes you for not listening. That's a very frustrating yet satisfying wake-up call; many games refuse to do that to their players nowadays.

In Solarwinds: Galaxy, the story is poor, badly rendered, provides no real choices (aside from a very sad ripoff from Solarwinds: The Escape) and is insignificant. You are simply told from the get go to follow orders until you reach your own objective, and you get 2 or 3 people to remind you of it along the road. There's simply no surprise here, and no choice.
The story is also a serious letdown from the original. It was clearly rushed in.

Level design

Both games sadly use a 'time to kill' approach where half of the play time is spent moving to specific coordinates with very little to do (you can always check your energy decisions, but oftentimes, you won't have to).

In Solarwinds: The Escape, the galaxy is vast, has an organic feel, and allows you to encounter some non-mandatory npcs/enemies. Though its long to travel, there's also some scenery in the home cluster so that moving about isn't so dull (and you get a lot of enemies early on that you probably won't want to fight, which allows you to build a relationship with certain sectors you'd like to avoid).

Furthermore, a second sector exists, but is out of your reach until you acquire hyperdrive capabilities. You could technically just set the helm and wait for 4 hours (I know I did when I was young) but it would be an utter waste of time to prove a point, and the level design job here does a good job at telling you you're not ready to go there without actually putting blockers (in space?!).
A lot of space objects have interesting scan descriptions to keep the lore-lover entertained.


Solarwinds: Galaxy bears a hypocrite name. The systems look hardly organic. There are few objects/ships, all of which are quest-centric, and only a single planet in the entire game has an actual description.
Furthermore, it seems like the developer was not aware of limitations of the original game when this 'sort of mod' was created: to increase combat difficulty, he resorted to adding more enemies per battle (yet the original game is almost exclusively 1:1, 2:1 combats). The result here is that the enemies end up firing at one another. The funniest part is the final boss, which is formed of approximately 8 smaller crafts. When I rushed in, 3 of them died because of the backliners, and by moving around them a few flings, 2 more died under friendly fire. This was a laughably sad moment for this anticlimactic game.


Solarwinds: The Escape was an ambitious project in a time where procedural galaxy generation was beyond tech capabilities. To cope for this, design decisions were made to create a game that could be enjoyed in a short lapse of time with data that could fit on a floppy disk.
The high level concept of the game is great: a 2D space exploration/fighting game with a bounty hunter theme in a conspiracy-based story. There's a lot of design mileage to get from that, but its hard to support without feature creep and better tech.
There was much untapped potential with the energy allocation system, partly because the ship probably couldn't handle more ship systems and ways to interact with the galaxy. The galaxy is already sparsely populated with events as it is, I can't imagine how much shorter the game would've been with more interactive components.
Yet, a seed has been planted. Energy management has resurfaced not too long ago in the indie game F.T.L. with great results. I'm hoping to see more of that.
Transportation, to me, is a good example of a simple feature that can go a long way. I believe Solarwinds: The Escape did do a lot of good things with it, and could've possibly gone even further (which is what I had hoped Solarwinds: Galaxy would've done). The Sequel, unfortunately, really messed it up by refusing to use this system as a means to extend gameplay.
As a video game Producer, when you're put in charge of a game that is in maintenance, identifying these systems is key. You want to find them early, and look for effortless ways to bring in more fun with the limited funding you have. Solarwinds: Galaxy, being a rushed in sequel, was possibly made under the same circumstances: the developers anticipated to recoup their investment on the first title by reusing their core game and tweaking it a bit, but in doing so, they forgot to leverage this critical system that could've made this game so much better.
Solarwinds wouldn't be a lot more fun with more enemy types, but it would greatly benefit from being able to vary its objectives.
In a game with a bigger scope, dialogue decisions could've been fleshed out through a system of factions. On a number of occasions, the player ends up choosing such or such faction over another by his choices already (trust the government? the rebels? the alien? the other alien? etc.)
Having a branched storyline, or procedurally-generated quests and allegiances could've also worked.
Overall, the original game did well for its time, but it would be a lot better today. Unfortunately, a botched-up sequel insured that this brand would die forever with absolutely no plans for a comeback in the 21st century!

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