Ain’t nothing like the unreal thing

As in the movie industry, it makes sense for games to have a unique title so that people know which one you’re referring to when you name them. Clearly GT Interactive didn’t get the memo or they wouldn’t have published Unreal as Unreal. It would have been ‘You’re Not Going To Believe This’ or ‘Get Outta Here, You’re Having a Laugh’, and when I say we’re here to talk about Unreal you’d have known straight away that I meant the one by Ubisoft published in 1990 for the Amiga, Atari ST and DOS. Not the Windows-based FPS that significantly evolved the tournament deathmatch genre in 1998.

Never-mind, we can’t fix the past now, and this would hardly be the top priority if we could. We’d obviously be too preoccupied undoing stupid things we said or did in high school for that.

Unreal – the original one – arriving a year after Shadow of the Beast, takes Psygnosis’s 2D platforming foundations and slathers on an extra layer of 3D Space Harrier style flying segments that I’m not at all convinced anyone was crying out for. It wasn’t exactly a raging success in Superman!

In Unreal’s rendition of the same principle, you embody the protagonist’s faithful fireball-shooting dragon sidekick, Dracus, tasked with obliterating an army of prehistoric opponents. When you’re not otherwise engaged aerially eluding forestry-based obstacles such as mountains and trees within a cyclically looped landscape.

One of Franck Sauer’s delightfully alluring loading screens, created using the Amiga’s 64 colour Extra Half-Brite mode.


In contrast to the seductively intricate scenery found in the puzzle-platforming 2D levels, everything is rendered in low resolution. Thus is blocky by way of compensation for the rapid pace that demands such intensive dependence on our system’s processing resources.

It’s not as though it ruins the enjoyment since these stages aren’t that much fun to begin with. They’re the parts you tolerate to get back to the more compelling platforming action. Unfortunately, they outweigh those five to three.

Enemies – often more sparse than obstacles – appear from nowhere, and due to the limited draw distance give us little time to react. We don’t possess a traditional allocation of lives, but a number of hit points that dwindles down from 99 as we concede damage.

See if you can spot the same bats in Paradise Lost, lovingly ‘borrowed’ from Unreal.


Pyramid-shaped bonus crystals replenish these to stave off our demise, though – highly unorthodoxically – should this occur, it doesn’t spell the end of the game. Instead, we continue in ‘training mode’. We can attempt all the levels as before (now with infinite hit points), yet our progress counts for nothing because we don’t earn any points.

Snap re: loading save games. We have three slots available to use at any stage… and are punished for doing so because not completing the game in one sitting is somehow considered cheating. Also, if we find ourselves in training mode because we’re already six feet under (or would be in any other game), the save feature is disabled.

Oh well, Bruce Forsyth is sadly no longer around to remind us how important points are so I don’t see that it matters all that much. Rest in peace Brucey, and your bonuses. Good game, good game.

Unreal’s plot unravels leisurely spread over nine pages of the manual, though can be condensed very briefly to:

Artaban and Isolde are a blissfully happy, loving couple. She’s beautiful, which is noted by the ‘Master of Darkness’, Polymorphe. Being a superficial chap and not overly concerned with the sanctity of existing relationships, he whisks her away for a quicky …forced marriage. Artaban disapproves so teams up with benevolent dragon, Dracus, to rescue her. Danger, daring and swashbuckling ensue.

One of Franck Sauer’s beautifully HAM-ed up finale screens.


Interestingly, if you take the enlarged, bold initial letter of each paragraph printed in the manual it spells ‘tiinddsbagptaa’. Oh, they seemed to be going somewhere with that. Maybe not.

This being a French game I’m duty-bound to state that it’s weird, even if it’s not very. And it isn’t especially odd, just a bit quirky. Sometimes in a positive way, elsewhere not.

Unreal falls a long way short of Shadow of the Beast’s 13 parallax layers, delivering only 2. In parts, it’s visually stunning regardless, and intriguing in that the separate platforms that can be traversed are comprised of independent choice path planes rather than being directly in line with one another as in the scaffolding in Donkey Kong for instance. This and the ability to walk (or wade) partially submerged within the malleable ground/swampland lends the environment a much more organic feel, reminding me of Simon the Sorcerer, especially where the wintry areas are concerned.

Mobility is not what you’d describe as graceful; more sluggish and rigid than is ideal, we’re forced to plan ahead to take any delays into account. It’s not clear if the game would be any less impenetrable had the controls not been so awkward. We’ll never know without a remake.

We have a single weapon at our disposal; a sword that can be flame-grilled (or fuelled with fire-dowsing water) to supercharge it. Either way, Artaban (known as Targan in the previews) waggles it ever so slightly threateningly like a tickling stick rather than hacking and slashing as is typically the accepted protocol. It doesn’t make him the most convincing medieval warrior I’ve ever met it must be said.

This isn’t the only occasion on which Unreal lives up to its namesake, though unfortunately not in the ‘woah, that’s awesome!’ surfer dude use of the word. I was shooting for unbelievably ‘ropey’, hoping you’re familiar with the British colloquialism.

One end of level boss encounter involves an abominable snowman that lurches around the screen jumping without bending its knees (or moving any other muscle) until he launches an attack. Similarly, the humongous insect guardians are only animated where their wings are concerned, making them too appear highly artificial.

Swaying vines – screaming out for a Tarzan impersonation – drift back and forth with absolute rigidity, much like a perfectly straight fairground carousel pole, minus the wooden horse. Even when we take a running leap and grasp one mid-swing to bridge a gaping chasm, it fails to flinch in response.

Believe it or not, vine-swinging is even accomplished more effectively in Jungle Boy! (the platformer developed by Cloud Nine, awarded 5% by Amiga Joker). I haven’t got the foggiest clue what they said about it. I didn’t feel the need to translate their German review after seeing the picture of a jester throwing up!

Artaban is intermittently pelted by sweeping curtains of rain; a real mood moulding moment worth savouring. Except the hard-fought fabrication of this absorbing ambience is shattered by the catatonic (frozen?) waterfall, and excessive layering of sound effects and activity. All occur simultaneously and too rapidly, battering the senses with tweeting owls, rippling streams and falling debris. Had they been subtly reined in and slowed down the wilderness tableau could have been magical.

Elsewhere laziness gives way to stunning examples of attention to detail. In the arctic stages our progress is impeded by voracious snowy blizzards that modulate our inertia mechanics; an effect that’s also particularly well implemented in Turrican.

If we can land safely on them – overcoming the further hindrance of the slippery pathways – icebergs tilt precariously as we shift our body weight disproportionately to one side or the other. Compounding their credibility, they sink further beneath the water in response to pressure from above.

As we leap away, or edge back towards their centre of gravity, they re-balance themselves taking into account the buoyancy of the chilled water reflecting back our upside-down mirror image.

Rafts serve the same purpose in the thawed areas. As we leapfrog across them they bob, splashing the displaced water to either side as you’d expect to happen in that real-world thingy you hear so much about.

Few other games could match a sense of realistic physics to this degree in 1990.

Another standout feature is the high resolution (for the time, obviously) 64 colour title screen created in ‘Extra Half-Brite’ mode. A gloriously pixelised interpretation of Tim White’s original produced for the box cover. It’s equally as enchanting as anything seen in Shadow of the Beast.

What follows is an intro animation courtesy of Thomas Landspurg that appears to have been plucked straight out of a demo scene exhibition piece. Constructed using a series of interconnected ray-traced chrome spheres, a primitive bird of sorts wings its way into view. Hovering over a sea of crimson-black lava it enigmatically ushers in the opening credits. Credits that include more demo-esque metallic marbles forming the words Ubisoft and Unreal, which proceed to twist, gyrate and jostle in time to the Maniacs of Noise’s entrancing music. As an ensemble, it’s not what you might call ‘theme-appropriate’, yet there’s no denying how lavish and cutting edge it all is.

In fact, it’s a telling indication of the disjointed hodgepodge of sublime and mediocre elements that follow, and people’s disparate response to them. It would be too cliche to mention Marmite… so I won’t.

In the 2D stages presided over by dual revolving moons we’re presented with a mixture of flick and smooth scrolling transitions to transport us between scenes, antiquated and contemporary styles converging in one game.

Similarly the 3D levels – forming the bulk of the game – were advanced for the era, yet also hamstrung by technological compromises that lead to pixelated visuals and hastily looped terrain.

As I said – without alluding to Marmite – few games incite the same degree of love and loathing of different factions of the same title. For some, Unreal is a superb platformer sabotaged by misplaced, flying Galaxy Force-ish FPS sections, whilst others argue vehemently vice versa. What is clear is that you’ll struggle to find a gamer who doesn’t appreciate some individual aspect of the package, even if they would have chosen to leave half of it on the cutting room floor.

Rather than proceeding to work on the sequel alluded to in the closing credits, artists, Marc Albinet and Franck Sauer, and coder, Yves Grolet, shifted their focus towards developing the graphically stunning Amiga-exclusive showpiece, Agony. Unreal II is so unreal it doesn’t exist, and thus sadly we never managed to fathom out what that ultra-futuristic looking stealth jet had to do with our unevolved cast of ye olde heroes.

6 thoughts on “Ain’t nothing like the unreal thing

  • June 14, 2019 at 7:40 am

    Another fine game, that I actually have no trivia to share. I am sure there were lot of concept art sketches in magazines in previews and maybe even Frank keep some of them on his site. Anyway I like to share my knowledge so if You are looking for something You can always ask me 🙂

  • June 17, 2019 at 4:18 am

    I’d imagine the French magazines gave the best coverage of this one, especially where previews and interviews are concerned. I have found that in the past where local mags really go out of their way to champion their own homegrown talent. It makes sense, plus it would have been easier for devs and marketing people to visit the offices in person to do interviews etc. I tend to skip over the non-English articles unless there’s nothing else available and I’m forced to have a go at translating them.

    Thanks for the offer. You’ve talked to so many devs over the years you’re a treasure trove of interesting info. I’ve just finished a big article on Akira. I don’t suppose you have any insider knowledge of that one? I know you tend to focus on *good* games so possibly not. 😉

    I’ve mentioned the cancelled console games very briefly. Other than that I think most of the other details are common knowledge in Amiga circles. Well, even the proposed SNES/MD game by THQ isn’t exactly a secret.

  • June 18, 2019 at 3:06 am

    Yes, that was popular trend here in Poland too, after 94 when Amiga market start to shrink many big developers left market and many smaller studios start to fill the gap. Our magazines were full of reviews and previews of our local developer studios. Usually even if game was not the best, even if editors point out it was bad game by gameplay and by technical standards for what Amiga can achieve, they usually give it some points and were bit proud about it.
    In Sweden there was a “Datormagazin” it have Digital Illusions developer diary feautre for few issues and they scored some rare screen shoots from their games in development like Hardcore and Malfunction.
    Similar situation were with Italian mags, they have nice artist display articles with some prototypes, concept arts and other art, they score NAPS and Light Shock early shots.

    Few years ago I force my self to finish Akira, indeed it was bad game and people were right. I have no luck with contacting anybody who worked at ICE.
    I was interested about how development look from inside. But this is not only my case many journalists try to contact them, last time I hear Hardcore Gaming 101 try to contact them also with no luck.

    I mostly focus on games I play and finished, so I at least know what to ask. Last time I was playing Core’s Blastar and got little chat with Roberto Cirillo because I was sure (and I was mistaken) that Blastar and SoulStar are somehow connected.

    • June 19, 2019 at 4:08 am

      Interesting isn’t it, that small communities tend to rally around each other once they start dwindling. It’s like castaways clinging to the same sinking raft. 😀

      For me Akira was another one of those interesting to research, but not much fun to play games a lot like Cliffhanger and Judge Dredd. That’s largely down to the source material and exploring how it was translated. It doesn’t really matter to me how well the game turned out unless I’m investing £25 in it.

      Yes, I found that Hardcore 101 article too and have linked to it in mine. I noticed the author doesn’t mention trying to contact Rupert Lewis Jones who also worked on the graphics. I wonder why that was considering he went to great lengths to reach out to everyone else. I considered it since I know where to find him, but given your experience etc. it would probably be a waste of time. I expect developers are used to people contacting them about games with an awful reputation just to point and laugh, and make shouty sweary videos, so naturally put up the barriers.

      It’s a shame because there are multiple sides to many stories. The only one we know re: Akira is bad game = useless developers, which isn’t always the case.

      Good point. I think if you’re going to ask questions you really need to familiarise yourself with the product first, as you do. Otherwise you end up with a bland, generic interview full of the same old Q&As that are already common knowledge. When the interviewee is doing most of the work it’s only fair that the interviewer does their homework beforehand. I’ve seen too many interviewers use a copy/paste template, and it’s very annoying.

  • June 19, 2019 at 6:43 am

    I think You should try to contact him. Maybe You will learn something new. Be nice and polite, and in some cases You will get answers (at least it works for me) . I am sure that sometimes developers do not like to talk about bad games, it is normal – they put probably lot of hard work and spend their time on something that’s flops. It is like it is nothing to be proud, consider also how easy some people in net can write bad things about developers without understanding their situation. Devs simply like to protect their live and time from trolls and negative spam. In my opinion by reading only reviews we will never known full story about game, there are interesting stuff that going in dev teams, funny stories, tragic stories, stuff we can learn by approaching authors and talking with them.

    • June 20, 2019 at 7:09 am

      OK, well I’ve made the approach and will wait and see what happens. I’ll probably just get the article finished and then post a follow-up if anything comes of it.

      Developers likely fall into two categories (well loads more, but let’s keep it simple and benefit of the doubty). Those who work hard on a project, put everything into it, and then are surprised when the reception is negative. Then the ones who know what they’re doing isn’t really going to cut it, but are being stymied by circumstances like deadlines and their boss making clueless decisions. They could flag this up, yet if the project is too far down the line to have the resources to fix, it’s a lost cause. They keep plugging away until the inevitably poor game is finished, pick up their pay cheque and move on. Then get blamed for the results because it’s their name in the credits.

      True, magazine reviews have their limitations and serve different purposes for different parties. If the game developers/publishers get involved and contribute via Q&As between the critic’s opinion you’re getting a very slanted view of what it is they’re selling. Obviously time, focus and space limitations factor in for the magazine publisher too. It’s all so much easier twenty or thirty years later when the project is effectively a historical artefact and we’re digging it up like the tech nerd equivalent of Indy Jones.

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