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.