Probably my most favorite video games are thrustlike games – as in roguelikes begat by Rogue (ADOM, Nethack, Angband, Moria et al.). What I mean with a thrustlike is a game derivative of Asteroids, Lunar Lander, Gravitar and Spacewar that feature a simple physics model, a rotating spaceship and a button for thrust. Hence, “thrustlike” and not “gravitarlike”. Also, mostly because I really like Thrust.
Here are some of the games I consider the best examples of this genre.
What I think Thrust does that makes it so much better than Asteroids and other household names is that it takes the simple rule of motion and inertia, and adds another basic concept, counterforce. In Thrust, you not only maneuver the ship through narrow caves but you also have to lift a heavy load (a “klystron pod”) that swings under the ship. And, in most cases the roles are reversed when the heavy pod transfers its excess kinetic energy to your stationary ship, sending you both spinning towards the nearest wall. However, the whole gameplay doesn’t feel as random as it is with many modern physics based games that often require luck or endless trial and error. You are always in charge of the physics, if you are a good enough pilot.
Another thing that I like about Thrust is that the player is easily able to skip a few levels by activating the self-destruct sequence of the planet by shooting the power plant a few too many times. Why I like it is that in a way you feel like you cheated the game (although, you also lost a lot of bonus points). However, without a doubt this was added to make it easier to quickly get to and practice the later levels, it’s a very nice touch it’s built in the game world. It is also possible to get hefty bonus if you manage to both fetch the pod and also destroy the power plant.
Thrust has a reputation for being hard but I can’t really agree with that. The game has a handful of levels and the regular levels are quite easy to finish when you get the hang of it. However, after that the gravity is reversed and the levels loop from the beginning and after a successful completion, the walls turn invisible. And then I guess the game goes reversed-invisible1.
Another proof of the game’s excellence is that it’s probably one of the most ported (officially or not) games, when it comes to radically different platforms. There are equally playable versions for the BBC (also the original version), the C64 (with a rocking Hubbard tune), the 8 and 16-bit Ataris and unofficial ports for Vectrex and Atari VCS2. There also is a C rewrite of the game engine that is open source, which I guess ensures the game can be ported to any semi-modern platform.
There apparently was a sequel, that wasn’t so well received (proving more does not equal better) and I have never seen it.
Gravitar, on the other hand, does much of the same. Thrust (1986) was obviously very influenced by Gravitar (1982)3, which was probably influenced by Asteroids (1979) and Lunar Lander (1973, 1979). Both Thrust and Gravitar have planets to visit, fuel to be beamed up, enemy bunkers that shoot back and, of course, gravity. But to me, Gravitar doesn’t have as crystallized gameplay as Thrust. Thrust is as solid as, uh, Gravitar’s vectors are, umm, sharp.
What’s pretty neat in Gravitar is that you can select in which order you play the levels, the levels are simply presented as planets in a solar system and you have to fly the ship avoiding the star that is in the center of the solar system. This also gives another challenge (or a possibility to optimize your gameplay) since the star’s gravity can be exploited to save fuel. Each level also is quite different from the other levels.
Another game I really liked was Oids. It combines yet more favorites of mine with Thrust: Choplifter and Space Taxi, both outside the strictest requirements of the thrustlike genre. In Oids, the klystron pods are replaced with little guys (android slaves, or ‘oids) that you have to pick up, first of course having to land the ship carefully, and take up to the mothership. Oids is so loved that the Atari ST emulator Oidemu was made just to run the game, which wouldn’t run on other emulators — and Oidemu subsequently didn’t bother supporting any other games.
The saving the little guys idea is lifted from Choplifter (get it?) in which you use a chopper to demolish prisons and then land nearby and wait for the little men to climb aboard, making multiple runs as the chopper can carry a limited amount of men. The gameplay is much speedier in Oids, you constantly have to dodge incoming bullets and homing missiles and the levels generally are much more open than in Thrust or Gravitar. In all, Oids feels like very natural progression from Thrust.
Maybe one factor that made the game so special was the fact it shipped with a level editor.
Space Taxi (1984)
If we bend the rules what makes a thrustlike, Space Taxi is more than a worthy addition to the genre. Especially so, if you think Lunar Lander fits in the genre — both games have similar controls (thrust up, down and to the sides) and also the common goal of landing quickly yet safely.
There was a nice clone of Space Taxi on the Amiga featuring a caveman flying a stone-age version of a helicopter (think Flintstones). The game was called Ugh! and it was later ported to the PC (it’s great) and C64 (it’s crap).
While Ugh! looks gorgeous and is fun to play, what Space Taxi does infinitely better is that every level in Space Taxi is very different from the other levels, and that is not just the layout that changes (on top of that Ugh! uses the same tiles over and over, however nicely pixeled they might be). The rules of the game are often deviated slightly. For example, one level has a beanstalk that slowly grows leaves on which you can land (and the passengers start appearing on) and others simply have disappearing walls or teleports. I guess that still makes the game quite unique, since even now games rarely have radically different levels.
There also is Space Taxi 2, which is a legit sequel but the tiny voice in my head says it can’t possibly measure up. It’s worth a check, though, as it has the same level designs as the original.
Solar Jetman: Hunt for the Golden Warpship (1990)
Solar Jetman: Hunt for the Golden Warpship is pretty much exactly what Thrust was years earlier but with updated graphics. The only difference is that in each level you have to find a different object, each being a part of the Golden Warpship and various other items which upgrade the ship you pilot around. There’s also a bit of Oids in the game, as it features more shooting and has enemies that follow you around the level.
The game provides welcome variation to NES games and I can see why it wasn’t a success among the younger gamers despite the great graphics (got to love the smooth rotation of the ship). The controls are smooth but as all games of this genre, Solar Jetman can be a handful. Especially, if you are looking for more straight-forward action.
The game is the successor to Lunar Jetman (which shares only half of the name and virtually no gameplay elements, except for the little spaceman that you have to get back to the mothership when your probe is destroyed, see above video) — Solar Jetman was developed by Rare who in fact were called Ultimate Play The Game who developed Lunar Jetman for the Speccy (and loads of other very successful games). Solar Jetman was also going to be released for most of the home computers of the time but the ports were canceled and only the C64 port is available to the public.
In the mid-1990s there was a boom for so called caveflyers (from Finnish “luolalentely”) here in Finland. The caveflyer genre probably owes more to Spacewar as it’s mainly about blowing up the other players. There were dozens of similar games that all featured hotseat multiplayer action (some even had computer controlled), various weapons and levels and most importantly destructible environments.
There had been a lot of similar games by hobbyists before the boom, the single game that started it all probably was Gravity Force on the Amiga. However, I think the flood of cavefliers (in Finland, at least) was triggered by Auts and Turboraketti on the PC. I am very sure different areas had a bit different ideas what was the hottest game but at least to me, Auts was it. After that more and more clones started appearing with constantly improving quality and broadening weapon arsenal. My favorite probably was Kaboom. On the Amiga, there was a bit older similar game called Mayhem (1993) which we played a lot. There’s an abandoned PC conversion that you can find in the linked thread.
This subgenre is still alive and there are many modern caveflyers that have Internet multiplayer features and so on.
3D thrustlikes and other oddities
There have been various Zarch (1987) on the Acorn Archimedes (ported later in 1998 as Virus for the Amiga, Atari ST, ZX Spectrum and PC) features similar controls for the player ship except that there now are two rotation axes. The gameplay however features minimal interaction with the landscape as there are no caves. Later in 1999, Psygnosis released Lander for the PC that featured closed levels, cargo hauling and teleporting fuel on the lander. So, Lander pretty much is Thrust in 3D.
So, were there any games I left out that you think should be here? Do leave a comment. Also, I’d like to thank the people who uploaded gameplay videos of Thrust, Gravitar and Oids to Youtube. I had only a NES emulator with AVI output handy.
- Dan Coogan’s Gravitar page a lot of stuff from the world champion
- More Lunar Lander clones you will ever need (including Flash games)
- Zarch for Linux
- Zarch for Windows
- More about caveflyers
- A lot of caveflyers (reviews in Finnish)
- Gravitar and loads of other games, including some Pac-Man sequels, do this as well. ↩
- Including scrolling and everything… even drawing the rod that connects the klystron pod to the spacecraft was a potential project killer on the VCS. ↩
- Maybe the creator of Thrust saw Gauntlet (1984) on the Atari as well. ↩
Here is a 100% subjective list of remarkable software that made existing hardware better, more useful or simply extended its shelf life without any hardware modifications, purchases or upgrades.
The Playstation 3 Supercomputer
As already reported by millions of blogs since 2006, a Playstation 3 seems to find use in a scientific project than in a living room. A cluster of a dozen or so PS3’s provides more computational prowess for scientific research than is available by the usual means for the same amount of money. In fact, there are resellers specialized in selling PS3 clusters. As a collective supercomputer, Playstation 3 users dominate the Folding@home project.
Basically, this means even if the PS3 finally bombed as a video game console, the unsold units could find purposeful life as a cheap supercomputer. This easily meets the criteria for making existing hardware more useful via software.
C64 fast loaders
Back in the 1980s, having a quick few minutes game of, say, Pitstop 2 (OK, I know any respectable player would not settle for a few minutes game of this gem) on the Commodore 64 was a relatively impossible task thanks to long loading times. You could have to wait minutes for a game to load — when loading from a cassette or from a floppy. Some loader routines even had a tiny game built-in to waste your time with while the game loaded in the background. To experience this ritual, watch the below video before proceeding to the next paragraph. Do not skip forward. It’ll make you respect fast loaders more.
Then, someone realized that the original routines for transferring data from the disk drive were in fact crap and wrote much more efficient routines. Thus, fast loaders were born. For example, the disk turbo on Action Replay VI reduced loading times tenfold (while the mentioned turbo was delivered on a cartridge, it was still purely a software affair — in fact the loader could be saved on disk from the cartridge). A game would load in a few seconds.
With the advent of LCD screens, subpixel rendering has become commonplace. This is mostly thanks to ClearType, Microsoft’s implementation of subpixel rendering shipped with Windows XP. This technique implementable purely by software triples the vertical screen resolution. Kind of.
Subpixel rendering exploits the fact most displays have each screen pixel represented as set of a red, a green and a blue pixel (as you can remember from school, white consists of those three base colors). By slightly changing the color of neighboring RGB triplets, the human eye can be fooled to think a pixel is slightly towards the neighboring pixels (thanks to the fact our eyes sense color intensity much better than the actual shade of the color). Think of it as something similar to anti-aliasing.
This works best — or rather is more easily implemented by lazy programmers — on most LCD screens, thanks to the fact the triplet is usually arranged horizontally. A typical CRT screen doesn’t have a similar symmetric pixel geometry.
Alternative keyboard layouts
The QWERTY layout is the most common arrangement of keys on a keyboard. There are alternative layouts that are much faster for typing, as QWERTY was developed to slow down typists who were faster than the technology was back in the stone age. By ordering the keys in a different order, typing can be sped up because the fingers are closer to the keys that are used the most often.
A popular alternative layout is the Dvorak layout. A Dvorak keyboard can look intimidating a first (it looks like someone has vandalized a perfectly good keyboard) but in theory, it should be faster to type. It even takes into account that most people are right-handed — therefore the right hand should do most of the typing. Since it is the most common non-QWERTY layout, it is well supported. For example, Windows has shipped with it since Windows 95.
There is no single layout that was as good for any language as QWERTY is bad. The Dvorak layout has a downside that it is mainly for English — other languages have slightly different typing profile and thus have modified Dvorak layouts. For programmers and other people who frequently need special characters, there also exists a version of Dvorak.
The best potential feature of non-QWERTY layouts is the fact it is less likely you’ll injure yourself. Although, this is subject to debate considering a serious wrist injure comes from quite bad typing habits. People do however mention increased comfort when using e.g. Dvorak.
Turning a $60 router into a $600 router
Something comparable to the PS3 upgrade above, the hardware of some cheap routers can be better harnessed by changing the firmware. This is mostly because companies love to overprice their products (after all, a higher price is the only factor making some things “professional” — *cough* Vista). They simply sell a software downgraded version of a router with a lower price. Lifehacker explains in detail how to upgrade your router, in case it is suitable for the operation.
Also of note is that many wireless routers are capable of more transmitting power than they are allowed to. To put it short, the wireless connection does not work as reliably as it could. Even if the above firmware upgrade was not available for your router, it is very possible that there exists ways to increase the transmitting power. However, the legality of it is a gray area — the power is usually limited for a reason.