by Alva Chua
A transforming mech in a contemporary game is often seen as an anime trope, and comes with associated baggage. Although Game Arts’ 1985 release Thexder may feature a transforming mech, it was closer to the science fiction roots of the concept at the time, and less of a cultural signifier.
Sierra Online may have ported and published the game in the West because transforming robots were in the zeitgeist, but Thexder had its own character.
The main sprite’s particular strut and the cinematic flair of the music, with increased gravitas from Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, made the protagonist a kind of robotic Errol Flynn.
Speed and agility were more than just Thexder’s primary verbs, they were required skills. Limited reserves of energy and shields felt like tangible science fiction concepts more than mere game conceits, and the instant escape afforded by transforming into a spacecraft was crucial. Darting in and out of conflict, your ship’s pixel-thin laser beam could slice through swarms of enemies if only you could manage its manoeuvrability in 360 degrees.
The simplistic geometric enemy designs and grid-mapped levels felt an appropriate reflection of the technology you were playing on. In 1986, a computer hobbyist playing a game on a PC was already using an exclusive piece of high-tech equipment. That in itself was enough to evoke the jump to imagining the control of a robot space fighter not being all that different from a home computer. Films had been and would continue to suggest the same thing, from The Last Starfighter’s arcade machines to Robocop’s DOS-like operating system.
Game Arts fully embraced these technological aesthetics a year later in Silpheed. Vertically scrolling shooters were hardly new, and we had seen polygons used in video games for years. Arguably, a richer, more detailed environment for such games could be done with sprites. But these polygonal graphics, wireframes in particular, had an air of austere military competence. Polygons themselves seemed like advanced technology. Your spacecraft was no longer a drawing; it was the blueprint of a weapon.
Silpheed leaned into this with schematic intro sequences for the player’s ship, and even the massed enemy fighters that would fall to single shots. Standard shooter gameplay was dressed as dogfighting, and fighting reused boss models between levels was now facing different variants of enemy capital ships. Instead of the colourful shop interface of other scrolling shooters, you would dock at military outposts to retool between levels. It almost made playing on a cyan and purple CGA monitor immersive.
It was more than just polygons that made ‘80s PC games aspire to being science fiction artifacts. Baroque interface presentation, like the messy onscreen circuitry of the IBM PC version of ASCII’s Psychic War, attempted to dress up your computer as a futuristic interface device. Although sadly, with a bit of added cheesecake.
French development group Exxos proved to be masters of this conceit, with titles like Purple Saturn Day featuring sections where the gameplay was literally focused on managing an obscure alien technological interface. Par for the course for a group who claimed at a press conference to represent a being from “outside the universe.”
Prior to the somewhat obtuse space Olympics of Purple Saturn Day, they had created Captain Blood, a game that integrated its interface aesthetics into its plot and gameplay. The Gigeresque organic forms of your spacecraft interior represent a prison for a protagonist who can only interact with an alien galaxy by firing clones at fractal landscapes. The wasted arm that serves as your cursor seems to evoke Spielberg’s E.T. but makes you the alien this time.
Games like these made the act of interacting with them the part of their fantasy, arguably obscuring weaknesses in gameplay, but possibly enhancing their immersion for those willing to buy into the pantomime.
Some of the simplest games today are played on mobile devices with interfaces that exceed the imagined functionality of these games from the 1980s. In some modern games the reverse of the technological fantasy becomes true, and we are convinced to believe that their interfaces are part of something ubiquitous or mundane, often with apps integrated directly into devices we use in our daily lives. While this does present interesting new opportunities for immersion, it doesn’t always seem quite as shiny.