Scrolling shoot ’em games tend to embrace tropes and trends possibly more so than titles in any other genre. To anyone who isn’t a die-hard aficionado, this can make them seem wearisome and unworthy of deeper analysis. With their largely throwaway plots, overly familiar bullet-hell routines and power-up mechanics it’s easy to see why a layman would skim over their nuances.
A500/CDTV shooter, Fantastic Voyage, breaks the mould to a certain extent in that it’s based on a movie and so the themes and dynamics of the game were largely fixed from the outset.
Opening subtitle: This film will take you where no one has ever been before; no eye witness has actually seen what you are about to see. But in this world of ours where going to the moon will soon be upon us and where the most incredible things are happening all around us, somebody, perhaps tomorrow, the fantastic events you are about to see can and will take place.
Even in 1991, this would be considered an odd choice of license since the movie in question is a clunky old sci-fi yarn harking back to 1966 that kids would likely not be familiar with. It stars Stephen Boyd, Raquel Welch, Edmond O’Brien, Donald Pleasence, and Arthur Kennedy; again, names that probably wouldn’t have meant much to young gamers at the time.
Cora Peterson: We’re going to see things no one has ever seen before. Just think about it.
Grant: That’s the trouble. I am.
Now the story, that we could get on board with… literally. Kind of. In the midst of the Cold War both the Russians and Americans have masterminded highly sophisticated miniaturisation technology that allows the military to shrink anyone and anything down to microscopic levels.
This would be a huge scientific breakthrough for espionage and defensive purposes, except that the effects only last for precisely 60 minutes. Not a second more or less. Then the objects/people revert back to their true size no matter where they happen to be at the time. When the aim is to explore the inner workings of structures normally smaller than the human form, you can imagine the repercussions I’m sure.
Grant: Wait a minute! They can’t shrink me.
General Carter: Our miniaturizer can shrink anything.
Grant: But I don’t want to be miniaturized!
General Carter: It’s just for an hour.
Grant: Not even for a minute!
Who could blame him? I expect he ‘feared the reaper’.
In gaming terms, it wasn’t a place developers had to ‘boldly go’ seeing as a few men (and women) had already been there before.
In honour of the same movie, three years later Psygnosis would unofficially rehash the concept – only in 3D – with the release of Microcosm. Beforehand, however, Accolade explored similar territory via their 2D scrolling shooter, Anatomic Man, for the Amiga (1988), while Rex Ronan: Experimental Surgeon (1993) and AnnaTommy (1994) later offered a similar experience for SNES and Windows users respectively.
Officially licensed Fantastic Voyage games also exist for the Atari 2600 (1982), Spectrum (1984) and Amstrad (1985).
Meanwhile back at the ranch, luckily one scientist, Dr Jan Benes, has hit upon the solution to the ephemeral shrinkage dilemma. As the Czechoslovakian gadget guru has been operating behind the Iron Curtain on behalf of the Evil Red Tyranny he will need to be extricated if his knowledge is to be exploited. Good news, he’s ready to switch sides!
With the assistance of American intelligence agents, Benes slips free from the Russians’ control and flees to the US. On route travelling in an escorted car, however, an assassination attempt coordinated by the Eastern Bloc renders him comotosed with a dangerous blood clot fogging his precious brain.
As the clot is located in an inoperable area it’s decided that a surgical team will be miniaturised and injected into Benes’ body on a navy submarine (christened ‘Proteus’) via the neck to access the site and destroy the clot, thereby saving his life. Of course, the goal is to bring him back to consciousness so he can share the closely guarded secret of controllable miniaturisation to further develop the US’s military capabilities. His personal health and well-being aren’t of much concern because that’s just the way the military works.
Once the site of the clot has been reached the plan is for Duval to dissolve it with a ray-gun style laser, and escape the body before the crew begin to grow back to normal size. Ramping up the sense of anticipation, another notch they must factor in is artificial ticking time bomb number two; hang around inside Benes’ body too long and they’ll be attacked by his own natural defences. That is his immune system with its protective white corpuscles and antibodies.
Complicating matters further there’s a saboteur on board the craft believed to be responsible for damaging the laser. The US are wary of Duval, the leading brain surgeon sent in to carry out the operation, yet have no choice other than to draw upon his expertise as he’s the best man for the job. Covering their backs they send in their own medical professional to supervise, plus a layperson bodyguard to take care of the physical aspects of keeping the mission on track.
General Carter: (after the briefing before the mission) Any further questions? Anybody?
Grant: Just one, General.
General Carter: Yes, what’s that?
Grant: Where do I get a cab back to town?
Grant, the chisel-jawed neanderthal of the party (and some of his superiors), serve to remind us that women are delicate creatures who shouldn’t be lifting anything heavy or thinking too hard, unless it involves making a man’s dinner or cleaning the house. Good to know, thanks.
Col. Donald Reid: A woman has no place on a mission of this size!
Grant: (to Miss Peterson) I bet you were very handy around the house. Do you cook?
Nevertheless, keeping in mind the era in which the movie was made, it offers a refreshingly enlightened alternative promoted through other characters. Duval’s assistant Cora is a strong-minded, capable and fearless female with a responsible job to do; maintaining the mission-critical laser and supporting the doctor as his trusted right-hand wing-woman. It should also be noted that she’s the first to volunteer to venture outside the relative safety of the Proteus on a reconnaissance errand.
Grant: For a nice young lady you play with the damnedest toys, Miss Peterson.
Cora: That’ll teach you where to keep your hand.
Then as if to flush any goodwill reaped down the toilet, a situation is contrived whereby Cora is attacked by body-hugging anti-bodies that must be plucked from her skin-tight wet suit posthaste to avert suffocation.
In interviews the director, Richard Fleischer, reveals that in the first take the cast purposelessly avoided her breasts for propriety’s sake. Only because it looked ridiculous in an emergency situation (creating a “Las Vegas showgirl” effect in Fleisher’s words) they were instructed to retake the scene minus the chivalry.
With nothing off-limits, everyone made a beeline for her chest and it appeared lascivious as well as ridiculous. Finally, the cast were assigned areas of the body to clear/fondle and this version was given the green light. It still looks as hammy as Porky Pig balancing a ham sandwich on his snout so they might have been better off cutting the scene altogether.
Cora: Listen, the heart.
Dr Michaels: Yes, it’s slowed down a great deal.
Grant: It sounds like heavy artillery.
Dr Michaels: It throws down quite a barrage. Over 40 million beats in a year.
Dr Duval: And every beat separates a man from eternity.
Despite planning to steer well clear of the heart to avoid violent turbulence, an arteriovenous fistula forces the Proteus to be re-routed right into the danger zone. Starting in the neck’s carotid artery on a journey towards the brain that’s quite a dramatic time-wasting detour. Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock.
(Carter reaches out to kill an ant crawling on the table and changes his mind)
Col. Donald Reid: You’ll wind up a Hindu. They respect all forms of life, however small.
Monitoring the calamity from the control room the sugar-fuelled General Carter and his advisers determine that stopping the heart for no more than 60 seconds will be safe for the patient as well as permitting the crew to pass through unharmed. With a dozen or so micro radar detectors assigned to establish the Proteus’ position, overseen by an army of surgeons, the plan is executed successfully. Hoorah! We’re back on track!
Ooh eck, what now? Passing through the inner ear another dire threat is introduced; ‘science’ informs us that the tiniest noise could cause shockwaves to engulf the Proteus, killing everyone on board. Better warn the medical team to keep stum then, and definitely not to drop any surgical appliances! That could be fatal. You could easily imagine this was deliberately orchestrated to keep viewers on the edge of their cinema seats. Fancy that.
Ultimately upon reaching the blood clot, the team have just 6 minutes to perform the operation and evacuate. It’s looking feasible until the real saboteur is revealed; Michaels (Donald Pleasance), the man assigned to monitor the suspect. Who’d a thunk it? Just because he played the bad guy in all his previous roles we shouldn’t make assumptions. 😐
In spite of his best efforts to crash the sub he’s overcome by aggressive leukocytes and perishes, leaving the more trustworthy members of the crew to complete the objective and escape through a tear duct in the corner of one eye. Just in the nick of time, obviously. This is depicted in-game in one of the introductory stills, an image duplicated from the movies’ promotional artwork.
Centaur Software who developed the licensed Amiga game chose to skip past the movies’ prolonged preamble straight to the miniaturisation incident. We briefly witness the process via an animated cut-scene and then boom! we’re inside the scientist’s body navigating his labyrinthine innards.
In contrast, it takes over five minutes for the first words to be uttered on the big screen, and another thirty-five minutes before the crew are finally lodged in the submarine and ready to roll. It’s the very definition of tedium. Though I do like the bit where sceptical Grant is convinced of the possibility of miniaturisation following a single sentence of explanation. With the Apollo 11 moon landing only three years away I suppose anything seemed possible. If it happened at all. 😉
Grant: I don’t mean to be inquisitive, but this ‘CMDF’, for all I know it could stand for the consolidated mobilization of delinquent females.
General Carter: Combined Miniature Deterrent Forces.
General Carter: We can reduce anything down to any size we want. People, ships, tanks, planes…
Grant: General, I’ve heard some wild ones. But this takes it.
General Carter: We can shrink an army – with all its equipment – and put it in a bottle cap. That’s why we call it Combined Miniature Deterrent Forces.
Grant: (with a silent whistle) If the other side ever gets hold of a thing like that…
It’s the lack of human characterisation right up until the last cut-scene in the game that helps to slice through the flabby build-up. Yet simultaneously makes it difficult to connect with the hero of the hour given that this is merely a lump of submerged metal as opposed to Grant played by Stephen Boyd.
Several other alterations were more critical to making this a feasible game conversion. In the movie, the crew don’t possess any weapons other than the laser, and that’s really more of a surgical tool than something used to attack opponents, or defend themselves.
Obviously, in a shoot ’em up game assaulting enemies rather than avoiding them is essential. Accordingly, we find that our sub is armed with missiles and various other weapons become available as we progress. With these, we’re tasked with destroying most of the physiological debris that litters Benes’ body, or else be obliterated by it. In any case, if we can wipe out three of these critters or obstructions in a row our shield receives a welcome boost in strength, so mounting an offensive reaps rewards. Plus, passageways are often so narrow you’ll struggle to squeeze through without first clearing a path. Evoking a sense of claustrophobia appears to have been the goal, and Centaur nailed it.
From the outset, and throughout the three lengthy levels, the Proteus is interpreted as a foreign invader that must be eliminated. As in the later stages of the movie, making time a precious commodity. Ramping up the tension, the action sequences take place over a period of exactly one hour to reflect the artificially enforced time frame of the salvage operation. Quite a few years before TV series, 24, made this their signature gimmick.
(as the submarine enters the brain)
Dr Duval: Yet all the suns that light the corridors of the universe shine dim before the blazing of a single thought…
Grant: …proclaiming in incandescent glory the myriad mind of Man.
Dr Michaels: Very poetic, gentlemen. Let me know when we pass the soul.
Dr Duval: The soul? The finite mind cannot comprehend infinity, and the soul, which comes from God, is infinite.
Dr Michaels: Yes, but our time isn’t.
Proteus is under the control of humans, and as we know, they need oxygen to breathe. No, really! I aim to educate. This is injected into the body in canisters in the game – they can be found floating randomly for our sustenance. Mmm, tasty. Back in 1966, it was a bit more complicated; the crew would exit the sub in the lungs to extract oxygen from passing alveoli, re-pressurising the hold.
Ditto for fuel. It’s essential that canisters are gathered to ensure we have enough to keep moving, presumably since we don’t have a nuclear reactor on board, or a microscopic particle of nuclear fuel to hand.
Capt. Bill Owens: This craft is nuclear powered, all except for your wireless.
Grant: All in all, quite a canoe.
Capt. Bill Owens: Designed for e. piscatorial research – spawning habits of deep-sea fish.
Grant: That reminds me, I better spawn a radio message.
Analogous to the movie the goal is to reach the blood clot in the brain and go to work with the precision laser gun. The difference in the game is that we must first build it from nine circuit boards found scattered throughout the body. Why they wouldn’t have already done this before embarking on the odyssey is a mystery, but whatever, it gives us another challenging subtask to attend to along the way.
Three developers spent nine months producing the game and you can certainly see why. Most of the parasites and antibodies were drawn based on electron microscope photographs taken of real anatomy to ensure they were accurate, whilst other entities spring from novel, fictional origins. This becomes apparent as you approach the finale and the situation takes an abrupt turn towards the bizarre.
“Much of what you will see inside the human body during the game is based upon scientific fact. However, Fantastic Voyage is a mixture of fact and fantasy. In level one you will experience graphics based upon electron microscope photographs of the interiors of blood vessels and various blood cell types like leukocytes and erythrocytes. But, you will also have to deal with cancer cells which crawl around and fire weapons. You will also encounter other hazards which are purely fictional creations.”
– taken from the game’s manual
Naturally, the backdrops too were inspired by the physiology of the human body. Although this being a nineties Amiga game, and with the developers focusing intently on presentation, they are enhanced by colour-cycled parallax scrolling routines in various neon spectrums, and a clever rippling effect to signify we are travelling through various liquid solutions.
“The backgrounds in the sub-atomic world of level two are based upon the tracks created in the bubble chambers of particle accelerators when they are subjected to beams of sub-atomic particles called neutrinos. Other objects in level two, such as protons, gluons, quarks and other particles had to be artistic creations since no one has ever seen them! Level three’s backgrounds are based upon electron microscope photographs of the brain’s neural network.”
– taken from the game’s manual
To appreciate these backdrops to their fullest our sub is equipped with floodlights, illuminating the area immediately surrounding it, alternately unveiling and cloaking the terrain as we manoeuvre. It’s an impressive feat, one that neatly explains how it is we can see anything at all located this deep within the human body. Something the producers of the movie forgot to take into consideration.
Plot holes and continuity problems are a common theme throughout, exacerbated by a commendable novelisation by Isaac Asimov that goes to great lengths to make the science logical and credible. Due to the movie being delayed this was published six months prior to its cinematic release, sweeping a spotlight over the many inherent flaws. That’s the inevitable drawback of employing the godfather of sci-fi to enhance your work.
Thanks to coder, Marc Hawlitzeck, the controls are straightforward and practical. Holding fire you can manoeuvre back and forth whilst continuing to shoot in the same direction. Releasing the button and pushing in the opposite direction to the one in which we are travelling allows us to turn around and shoot the other way to eliminate threats creeping up from behind. Unfortunately, the usual music or sound effects toggle applies. Music is only available for owners of Amigas equipped with 1mb of RAM.
Fantastic Voyage’s controls would be really helpful but for the strange push-scrolling mechanism that waits for us to reach the edge of the screen before adjusting the playfield. Permitting little time to react, the incredibly tough game is made that much harder. This applies equally to the beginner’s difficulty level – there are three grades from which to select, differentiated by the number of hits we can sustain before going hull up (the nautical equivalent of going belly up obviously, duh). At which point we’re transported back over what feels like an unreasonable proportion of old ground.
“In order to get maximum fun and excitement from Fantastic Voyage, we strongly recommend that you play the game in a darkened room with the contrast control of your monitor set to high. Pump up the volume and turn out the lights!”
– taken from the game’s manual
To me, the gameplay isn’t sufficiently robust to convince me to endure the pain. Regardless, the hypnotic aesthetics and sense of wonder conjured by Christian Fleckenstein’s graphics, nestled with the mysterious intrigue of Bjorn Lynne’s 23-minute long synth-pop soundtrack make it compulsive viewing. Much like the strangely alluring, gloriously antiquated movie it aims to evoke.