Advice to live by: Kill the babies!

Underwater games on the Amiga weren’t on the whole embraced with open arms (maybe if we’d had a port of Ecco the Dolphin it would have been a different story). Strange then that we ended up with two water-based titles developed by independent teams, released six years apart, both called Aquanaut.

Of the two, the one created by Fissionchip (fish ‘n’ chip!) Software in 1989 is the more interesting, not least because the man who lead the project had explored such a diverse career trajectory before turning his attention to game development.

One of the quirkier entries on Michael Sutin’s CV is an accreditation for co-inventing the ‘Gonk’ novelty furry soft toy which became especially popular during the ‘60s, though I’ve not been able to corroborate that assertion with information found anywhere online. On the contrary, much evidence heralds London artist, Robert Benson, as the sole creator, with Sheila Stanton often cited as his accomplice. I did approach him to enquire if he knew Michael… sadly to be told that he’d passed away last year at the age of 77. Rest in peace Gonkfather. You’ll be sorely missed.

If true – Michael’s shared claim to fame – that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Michael patented a meditation device, stage managed the musicals ‘Hair’ and ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ and collaborated with Pink Floyd in designing many of the psychedelic stage sets for their concerts.

In 1976 – along with Rodney Wyatt – he co-wrote a musical called ‘The Kristal of Konos’, which while never performed as such was transformed into a game for the Atari ST and Amiga where it was abbreviated to simply ‘The Kristal’.

Four disks worth of camp, absurd lunacy weaved together into a multi-genre pastiche is one way to describe Fissionchip’s action-adventure space opera. There are as many alternatives as the game has contrasting components. Part shoot ’em up, part arcade strategy text adventure what-ja-ma-call-it, you’re cast as space pirate Dancis ‘not a typo’ Frake who has woken up on another planet without a Scooby Doo as to where he is, or why he’s there. We know of course because we’ve read the manual.

Dancis must explore ten planets, conversing with the eccentric inhabitants (via a text parser) who provide cryptic clues to help him establish the whereabouts of the balance-restoring Kristal of Konos and banish chaos from whence it came. On route you’ll engage in a series of sword-thwacking altercations, ostensibly inspired by the swashbuckling Errol Flynn films that emanated from 1930s cinema. Repetition of attacking manoeuvres is blocked to discourage mindless button mashing, whilst defeating opponents triggers a boost in strength and psychic points – accordant with a traditional RPG – imperative if you are to survive the climactic scenario.

Taking nearly two years to finish, tucked away above a dry cleaners in Muswell Hill, London, the 14 man development team responsible created a unique, indefinable, well, how can I hope to finish that sentence?

Notably it features a voiceover introduction by none other than Channel 4’s GamesMaster, astronomy virtuoso, Patrick Moore, plus a selection of backdrops drawn by acclaimed sci-fi artist, David Hardy, accredited with illustrating the work of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Carl Sagan, Wernher von Braun, Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, Brian May, and Patrick Moore.

Despite its ‘acquired taste’ leanings, The Kristal was well received by Amiga critics who awarded the game scores ranging from 79% (C&VG, June 1989) to 91% (Zzap, June 1989).

Michael later moved into freelance film and radio voiceover work, and has now been retired for the past eight years.

In his second contribution to the world of Atari ST and Amiga gaming, you star as scuba diving, Leading Aquanaut Lieutenant Commander Ric Flair (Senior Division) who is presumably taking a break from the square circle to rid the world of the alien Ramanishi pestilence who have made themselves at home in an underground lair beneath the sea situated in the Yendor Isles east of the Caribbean. B movie aficionados will feel right at home.

Normally the earth’s protective ‘Sutafield’ barrier – built through the combined efforts of the united nations – at the commencement of the post-war ‘repair years’ would keep the dayglow​ orange critters at bay, yet persistent bombardment and an oversight in the forcefield control room eventually, unwittingly yielded access.

Not to worry, our fearless Wrestler of the Year 1989 is on the case and he’s brought along his fanciest budgie smugglers. We’ve tracked down the leader of the invaders – war chief Zeekee, the cloaked, orb-fondling, oversized goldfish lookalike – and intend to root out him/her/it and restore peace and order to the planet by obliterating said alien’s flagship… well, put things back how they were before anyhow. If there’s one thing we won’t stand for in this world it’s intergalactic terrorism.

Aquanaut is a game of three halves (that can be tackled in any order by selection from the menu); two underwater swimmy-gurgly sections, followed by a crawl out of the primordial soup onto dry land where the action takes on a distinctly more action-adventure orientated, platformy feel.

Part one sees you exploring the great deep yonder in a four way scrolling schmup stage, avoiding or blasting with your explosive harpoon gun radiation-mutated sharks, man of war jelly fish, and sword fish with their hearts set on skewering you with their shish kebab proboscises. It’s wise to swerve radioactive waste, and WWII mines and depth charges duplicated by the ‘scourge of the universe’ rather than rupture them for obvious reasons.

Survival pods dropped by your squadron leader can be collected and their contents exploited for your benefit, elevating the game above your typical brainless button masher. Amongst the party goody bags you’ll find extra ammunition, first aid kits, go-faster propulsion packs, transmitters and so on.

Time is measured by your obligation to replenish your ever-depleting oxygen cache by tapping the deep sea diving bells, whilst lives can be topped up by swimming in close proximity to mermaids. Dolphins are one of the few other benign species you’ll encounter on your soggy voyage. Sadly they can’t perform any tricks with balancing balls or flaming hoops.

Stage two is more of the same only it takes place in a series of labyrinthine caverns stalked by rockodiles and deep sea mutoid maggots, and a greater emphasis is placed on accumulating objects to be deployed later. At certain junctures you’ll need to blast a passageway through bedrock blockades using dynamite to proceed …remembering to put your fingers in your ears first and taking a step or two back. Safety first people!

In the third and final stage we squidge the water and sea urchins from our lugholes and find our feet in the lost city of Atlantis. There you are! Once landlocked, worrying about our oxygen supply is a thing of the past; now we have bigger alien ‘fish’ to fry!

Our goal here is to navigate (and roll through) the flip-screen caverns and chambers to locate a decoder and four pieces of the key that opens the door to Zeekee’s bunker. Items collected along the way such as dynamite and wire cutters can be stashed in your inventory and used as and when necessary. Some are essential, some red herrings, others essentially teleportation devices to hidden areas. Some of the puzzles are so abstruse you’ll think you’re playing a point ‘n’ click adventure.

Progress is made by hurling carnival style throwing knives – as long as you are stationary at the time due to the control mechanics – at giant orange mermen harbouring blood boiling poisonous skin, and alien ram guard dogs, until you reach the final control room destination from which the troublemakers have been orchestrating their attacks to thwart your rescue mission… and trigger all those imaginative death animations.

 

‘Elegantly primitive’ is perhaps the way I’d describe Aquanaut. With its minimal frames of animation, motion and scrolling remain smooth, while the graphics, just sufficiently intricate to conjure a sense of intrigue and immersion resemble a monochrome B movie.

Spartan sound effects, occasionally bordering on Jaws-ish music and the diligence devoted to weaving a convincing pulp fiction plot by way of the extensive manual taken together lend the package a cinematic ambience.

Like the best ZX Spectrum titles, sometimes an Amiga game will light the touchpaper and leave your imagination to plug the gaps. Aquanaut is one such example; an aliens attack/chisel-jawed hero saves the world yarn from a bygone era. It works on the musty pages of a dog-eared paperback collection of novellas, and it works equally well on floppy disk. Replay value may not be its core strength, still, if there’s room on your shelf for compelling ‘experiences’, this one is a worthy contender.

Fissionchip’s next game in their line-up was due to be something called ‘Carruthers’, though it never came to fruition, and sadly the company produced no further titles for the Amiga, or any other platform for that matter. To find out what might have been I took the opportunity to quiz independent producer, writer and musical director, Rodney Wyatt, on the subject.

Taking a brief break from Ferntower Productions in London where he has been applying his manifold talents for the previous 16 years, Rod informed me, “We had two ideas for future games. ‘Carruthers’ was going to be an old style ‘30s and ‘40s type English spy come detective that gets hurled into the future on a mission by mistake and has no idea how to handle the lifestyle and tech that he is faced with. The other was ‘Colin the Librarian’, a manager of a scroll library, a bit of a weed but of high intelligence that has become a Conan type adventurer after an attack by a wandering horde of barbarians. There you go.”

Well, never say never. The Kristal took 13 long meandering years to finally claw its way out from the musty pages of Michael and Rodney’s irrepressible script book, albeit materialising in a totally unexpected form to that originally proposed, so there’s hope yet. Keep your eyes peeled and just one day you may find yourself analysing ‘Carruthers: the Interpretive Ballet’ via a retinal implant cinema that has yet to be invented, or crazier still, reading Colin the Librarian from one of those arcane, paper-based contraptions known affectionately in the dim and distant past as a ‘book‘.

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