This is the end, my only friend

It’s tough to imagine that a 16-bit Choplifter clone set for release in the early nineties would have caused much downwash, yet Apocalypse – first announced in November 1991 two months into its development cycle – generated eleven preview articles spread across seven independent Amiga publications. One of them even written using a bizarre set of distinctively non-Anglais nonsensical words collectively known as ‘French’.

I love the smell of Choplifter in the morning. This is Romeo Foxtrot. Shall we dance?

Meet the Chameleoncopter. Following thousands of years of evolution in the jungle…

 

We were under no illusions as to the unsophisticated heritage of the proposed Vietnam-themed shooter since programmer Jason Perkins (of Ruff ‘n’ Tumble fame) speaking on behalf of Strangeways Software was totally upfront from the outset.

“The thing about the game is that it’s got really simple graphics and bog-standard presentation, but it’s just really playable. What we’ve tried to do with Apocalypse is capture the essence of that playability, but bring it into the ’90s.”

“Basically, we wanted to improve upon the original Choplifter in just about every way. The thing about the game was that there wasn’t really much to do. The landscape was completely flat, you had a few buildings to crash into and some tanks shooting up at you. Occasionally you’d get a jet plane, which would just zoom on screen and crash into you, and that was that, really. For Apocalypse, though, we’ve tried to make everything as realistic as possible, with a wide variety of opponents, different levels, lots of objectives and the sort of presentation that people expect from a classy 16-bit product these days.”

ACE preview (January 1992)

You can find the demo cover disk at the Amiga Magazine Rack site. I didn’t notice any noteworthy differences other than the mission accomplished/failed screen.

 

A tall order perhaps considering the typical success rate of revamping primitive classics for more advanced systems. Still, the highly publicised three-disk work-in-progress captured our attention purely due to the sublime visuals showcased initially in CU Amiga (and later featured on one of their August 1993 cover disks).

They seemed like scenes plucked straight out of the 1979 epic war movie it aimed to evoke – meticulously crafted by three graphicians in exquisite 32 colour pixel art rather than lazily digitised from screen-grabs. Anyone could do that.

As the hype – fuelled by multiple developer interviews – subsided, Apocalypse apparently lost its way on route to western shores. An occasional follow-up would rear its head in ‘where are they now?’ articles, though nothing more substantial that might suggest the intriguing schmup would ever emerge from the glistening tropical foliage of its far-flung inspiration. If you were in possession of a big red stamp imprinted with the colourful military acronym ‘SNAFU’, you’d be justified in cinematically branding Apocalypse’s manilla dossier with it.

Short story kept short because we’ve all heard it a million times before: the game was due to be published by Mirrorsoft, then wasn’t thanks to Robert Maxwell raiding the pension pots of thousands of unsuspecting employees and winding up swimming with the fishes having toppled from the poop-deck of his luxury yacht.

Apocalypse hibernated for several years in an unfinished state with no publisher to fund or distribute it. In the meantime Strangeways Software was dismantled owing to internal squabbling, much like the prison that shared its name. Now known as ‘HM Prison Manchester’, the high security detention (and former execution) centre was gutted to the tune of £50m worth of critical repairs in April 1990 following the longest prison riot in Britain’s penal history.

“Don’t have much to say about Jason. We worked together on Dominator. Founded Strangeways Software to develop Apocalypse on the Amiga. And then we fell out. Can’t say we were ever friends again after that, and his behaviour during the collapse of Strangeways I found pretty unforgivable. Maybe he feels the same about me. Who knows? We never talked about it. Never will, either. I hear he’s doing well.”

Interview with Paul Docherty for C64.com

“If you’re still waiting for the tasty helicopter shoot-’em-up Apocalypse to appear you’d better get yourself a sleeping bag and a Thermos, we’re afraid. Currently signed to Virgin after Mirrorsoft’s collapse, the project is still languishing deep in Development Hell, due to lengthy legal wrangles over who the game really belongs to.

Incidentally, Apocalypse’s developer Strangeways recently disbanded for practical reasons, with the individual members now pursuing solo projects. However, it’s still possible that programmer Jason Perkins and graphic artist Dokk may return to the game should the admin troubles sort themselves out.”

The One (issue 44, May 1992)

“Apocalypse. Publisher: Image Works Original ETA: Easter 1992

Briefly: Formed In November 1990 – by coders Gary Liddon and Jason Perkins and artist Paul Docherty – and disbanded in April of this year due to ‘artistic differences’, Strangeways were another new force in software development.

They said: “We want to slacken some jaws… we really want to be the Williams of the home formats.”

Body Count for the SEGA Mega Drive by Probe (1994)

 

In those 18 months they had many innovative ideas, two of which almost came to fruition on the Amiga: Apocalypse and Body Count. Apocalypse paid tribute to Choplifter, Defender, Fort Apocalypse and other old favourites of that ilk. The emphasis was on destruction – there was little on-screen which could not be wrecked. It was a fire fest in which the screen was awash with explosions. It was also, in the words of Gary Liddon, “a technical stunner… three scrolling levels of parallax, massive block animation… you could animate the whole background… dozens of sprites, and a component animation system which means you can bolt sprites together and the pieces can animate independently.”

What’s the score? It reached a playable stage but what with the Mirrorsoft muddle and Strangeways splitting, Apocalypse didn’t get any further. New development team Miracle Games are handling Apocalypse now, and it should be released through Virgin Games in the first quarter of next year.”

Amiga Power (issue 18, October 1992)

“You’re looking at the first ever published screenshot of the new game from Renegade, Ruff ‘n’ Tumble. The game, as you may have already heard, is being developed by Renegade’s latest team of Wunderkind developers, programmer Jason Perkins and artist Robin Levy. Both geezers were part of Strangeways, the team that was producing Apocalypse for Mirrorsoft prior to its collapse.

The Ruff ‘n’ Tumble project has been known of since late last year, but it’s only now that the hard-edged platform romp has reached a presentable stage. And… that’s about it, really. The game’s still shrouded in Renegade secrecy, and so there’s little else to tell just yet, other than it’s due out later this year. Until then, you can look at this screenshot a bit longer – you won’t see it anywhere else.”

The One (issue 53, February 1993)

“More game delays this month. Now we hear that Virgin’s Apocalypse is unlikely to surface before the Summer, and the continually put-back Frontier and Desert Strike are now expected to arrive in April. Well, they say the best things in life are worth waiting for.”

The One (issue 53, February 1993)

Finally resurrected the prison was re-opened for business in 1994, the year in which Apocalypse ultimately saw the light of day courtesy of publishing adopters Virgin and the get-out-of-jail-free ‘Santa Clause’ Strangeways agreed with Mirrorsoft. Incidentally, the same group who also salvaged Cannon Fodder – but not Mega Lo Mania 2 – from the curse of Mirrorsoft. Apocalypse 2 – surely only a tease at the time – also failed to materialise.

“It’s got to the stage where we have to decide how much can really go in – and the rest we’ll save for Apocalypse 2!”

The One for ST Games preview (Jason Perkins, December 1991)

With Strangeways now no more than a name, development duties were passed to Miracle Games headed by Delvin Sorrell, today known as Patricia Curtis.

“We’ve kept around 90% of the original graphics and about 50% of the original code. It’s certainly a lot better. We’ve padded the gameplay so it lasts for a longer period, and we’ve slowed the helicopter down so the screen doesn’t blur anymore.”

The One preview (January 1993)

Not actually a giant Martin Sheen, rather a slow crossfade effect. Oh, you’d already guessed.

 

Formerly christened ‘Rebel’ (re-branded by Mirrorsoft’s John Norledge), the Choplifter overhaul was eventually unveiled to critics in May 1994. A largely receptive audience Miracle Games and Virgin were relieved to discover. Hailing from the UK, France, Germany and Australia, the majority of the ten scores published touched down around the 80% mark, with outliers dropping as low as 49%.

It was a surprising response in that the finished product confirmed the immediate suspicion that there would be too little meat on the bones to make Apocalypse a worthwhile investment. A premium £25 price tag ensured there would be no leeway for justifying the emaciated assignment with its perfunctory five-level challenge. Six were proposed from take-off, though the Beirut style ‘Beach City’ stage must have been washed out to sea in a tidal wave. I knew this would get “hairy”.

Well over three and a half years in the works – delivered two years after EA’s Desert Strike stormed the charts, buoyed by gung-ho Gulf War antagonism – Apocalypse really needed to be something special to re-engage gamer’s attention.

No evidence was forthcoming; assuming sufficient RAM is installed Apocalypse handles gracefully with aesthetics to match. Without the gameplay bite to back it up, however, it’s Shadow of the Beast wearing a rotary blade cap.

Nevertheless, what’s disappointing given that the visuals are its strongest asset is that after being prodded and poked for so long by different teams, the beautiful backdrop tiles don’t quite align. This creates a kind of disjointed jigsaw effect that ruins what would otherwise engender an unshakeable suspension of disbelief.

Wow, it could almost pass for a slidey block puzzle!

 

Some tiles are even placed adjacent to entirely none sequential ones creating an abrupt juxtaposition in scenery where unexpectedly hard edges meet. This is especially apparent where the waterfalls end and jungle begins. Stray pixels are one thing, whole tiles are on another plane completely.

Aside from the obvious corollary, others compared it to Defender, Fort Apocalypse, and Airwolf. Games that served us well on earlier 8-bit platforms because they offered addictive, instantly accessible gratification at a time when expectations were low and presentation wasn’t the forerunner on the list of priorities. By 1994 we demanded that all ducks were in alignment since we’d experienced a number of titles that got the balance spot on.

With scant narrative the mood-setting intro takes a shot at answering the Big Question… why are we here?

 

Apocalypse’s basic premise is to rescue a minimum threshold of POW hostages (one of whom is our most bestest chum) from various locales including a ruined temple and battleship and return them safely to our base of operations or the field hospital.

Cambodia, home sweet home to Colonel Kurtz, although actually filmed in Baler in the northern Philippines.

 

Until we ransack the place.

 

 

 

 

 

Statues seen in the closing segment of the 2/3/5/whatever hour movie (it’s undergone many revisions over the years) served to populate the scenery of the fifth and final level of Apocalypse.

 

You definitely won’t find this scene in Coppola’s interpretation of Vietnam. The VC weren’t known for their Navy battleships and Hueys.

 

 

In contrast to Choplifter and its spiritual sequel, not a whole lot of aid is tendered in the movie that very loosely inspired Apocalypse.

Did you know that Coppola directs Apocalypse Now in Apocalypse Now? How cameo-tastically meta.

Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad revolves around Martin Sheen’s boat trip upriver destined for Cambodia to ‘terminate’ military mastermind Green Beret Colonel, Walter E. Kurtz (played by Marlon Brando), quashing him and his tinpot rogue army for not entirely logical reasons. Shhh, keep that to yourself, it’s confidential. It’s particularly intriguing given that the novel on which Apocalypse Now is based was written in 1899 and so naturally (on the surface at least) has nothing to do with the war in Vietnam.

Kurtz: (intercepted radio message) I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. That’s my dream; that’s my nightmare. Crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight razor… and surviving.

During an insane war, someone behaving insanely isn’t altogether surprising or atypical. Embarrassing for the military perhaps.

 

Colonel Lucas: Your mission is to proceed up the Nung River in a Navy patrol boat. Pick up Colonel Kurtz’s path at Nu Mung Ba, follow it and learn what you can along the way. When you find the Colonel, infiltrate his team by whatever means available and terminate the Colonel’s command.

Willard: Terminate the Colonel?

General Corman: He’s out there operating without any decent restraint, totally beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct. And he is still in the field commanding troops.

Civilian: Terminate with extreme prejudice.

Colonel Lucas: You understand, Captain, that this mission does not exist, nor will it ever exist…

Only six infantrymen, scientists or military consultants can be transported at once – two if we already have a medical team on board – since we fly an attack helicopter rather than a Chinook, artificially inflating the challenge via the same mechanic as Apocalypse’s forebear. That’s it in a rocket shell, the rest is glossy window dressing.

OK, so the exercise is complicated by some serious enemy ordnance such as tanks, Hueys, bazooka-waving troops and cliff-mounted covert-ish Howitzers.

Plus mastering the art of strafing the jungle floor or beaches, showering them with chemical cocktails and shrapnel. Sometimes war can, er… be fun. Don’t tell the British Legion I said that.

Kilgore: You know, one time we had a hill bombed, for 12 hours. When it was all over, I walked up. We didn’t find one of ’em, not one stinkin’ dink body. The smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smelled like…

(sniffing, pondering)

…victory. Someday this war’s gonna end…

(suddenly walks off)

Nevertheless, the tougher test remains battling distraction from the mesmerising visuals that elevated Apocalypse far above your average shoot ’em up at the time, whilst trailing below the high watermark set by the likes of Project-X, Banshee and Apidya. Stunning in their own right, though perhaps a tad too similar from one level to the next to really hit the ball out of the park. Entrenched deep in the entangled thickets of the Vietnam jungle, don’t be surprised to learn that the colour palette mostly comprises greens and browns and there’s a swaying palm leaf or two to swat out of your eyes.

More modest than Shadow of the Beast, three layers of parallax scrolling – some entirely shrouded by silhouettes – separated by gradient-shaded lagoons are plenty to forge the impression of being stationed in a dense, luscious jungle fighting for survival in the line of fire from a groundswell of Vietcong guerrillas. They’re not of course, not officially anyway, this being a ‘fictitious’ combat zone; the “insignificant island of Majipoor” according to the box.

For the record, we’re not part of the allied US army either, in spite of the stars and stripes fluttering in the wind in their appropriate colours. You can’t really afford to get bogged down in one-sided politics when developing a game intended for an international audience.

Either way, unavoidable haunting memories of intensely emotive Vietnam war movies are perfect fodder for filling in the blanks to engender a hostile atmosphere and sense of impending doom. All that rapid-fire gun patter and explosive eruptions contribute a bit too it should be noted.

“As far as being a highly realistic war game goes, Apocalypse looks and sounds the business, evoking a powerful image of war. But it does verge on the excessively difficult side, and although this provides longevity, the game becomes exceedingly frustrating.

It’s also let down by the fiddly control system, and although the helicopter is easy to fly, the fire button serves the same function for both weapons and changing direction resulting in firing accidentally – sometimes at your own men.

More depth in the gameplay, rather than just an advanced shoot-’em-up, would have benefited the game, and a save game option would have removed some of the frustration.

However it is graphically brilliant and the realistic, sampled sound effects make the game stand out above others in this genre.”

Amiga Computing (66%, issue 74, June 1994)

Behold the devolution of the lesser spotted Sheen…

 

 

How often in games have you seen waterfalls (and the pools they supply) frozen solid like concrete because no-one could be bothered animating them? You’ll find no such slapdash apathy here. In setting the record straight Apocalypse exhibits the most convincing shimmering pixel art waterscapes you’ll encounter from this era. Some introduce further intricacy through superimposing a layer of overhanging vegetation, partially obscuring the torrential efflux behind.

Presented on an old-school CRT TV where the pixels blend together via a form of accidental anti-aliasing they’d look even smoother, gushing and swirling like the genuine article.

On other levels waterfalls are supplanted by stormy seas, presumed disturbance causing waves to rhythmically lap the shore.

That’ll be the napalm – the last thing you need when you’re waiting for optimal surfing conditions. 😉

“Apocalypse is very involving. It’s an impressive blend of shoot-em-up action and mild strategy. Easy to get into but a real challenge once you are there.”

“The sort of game you’d happily tackle with a stack of 10 pence pieces. Apocalypse is a sexy, rip-roaring, shoot-em-up with a strong element of tactical awareness. Very good.”

Amiga Format (86%, issue 59, May 1994)

Lock in position facing the camera and you can shimmy around without tilting, so there’s less chance of colliding with walls and ceilings. It also makes us feel cooler than ‘String’ Hawke, which is far more important.

 

As a consequence of the swift momentum and accommodating scale, the enemy soldiers appear tiny. This obliged the artists to attempt the seemingly impossible task of imbuing them with personality working within the tight constraints of a mere handful of pixels. With a similar panache evinced by Cannon Fodder and Sensible Soccer they pulled it off admirably, employing nearly 2000 frames of animation all sprites considered.

Willard: Everyone gets everything he wants. I wanted a mission, and for my sins, they gave me one. Brought it up to me like room service. It was a real choice mission, and when it was over, I never wanted another.

The way the opposition troops scamper back and forth like headless chickens in response to setting ablaze their villages brings an appreciative tear to my fallout-clogged eye. Their villages smouldering, ravaged by wildfire, they continue to dodge bullet-showers, groping the dust clouds for their cute little bazookas in order to return fire before they too perish. It’s all so thoroughly endearing you’ll want to scoop them up in a ball and hug the living daylights out of them. Once they’re riddled with holes, lifeless and no longer a threat of course.

Mind your head! This is the one level where you really have to ‘tread’ carefully. Touch the walls and you’re the savage’s next meal. The key to getting out alive is remembering that not all walls are solid.

 

More likely we’ll be the ones on the back foot doing most of the dying, which gives us an opportunity to marvel at the re-spawn transitions. These are of the ‘fade to white’ variety associated with nuclear holocaust. It doesn’t matter that they’re facilitated by little in the way of technical innovation, it’s the impact and magnitude of what they represent that counts.

“I like a challenge but this is nothing but unplayable and frustrating. Anyone who has ever played football with a deflated ball will appreciate how I feel about Apocalypse. It is slow, hard and you can barely get the thing into the air. I was hoping for a lot but despite its undoubted good looks it is a bit of an empty shell.”

CU Amiga (49%, May 1994)

Audio too is something to behold. Mobilising our RAH-66 Comanche prototype, it accelerates progressively, constrained by what feels like authentic inertia, tilting into a slick swoop while the engine purrs accordingly.

The horror, the horrorcopter! As featured in the 2003 Hulk movie starring Eric Bana.

Curiously, what constituted the basis for Apocalypse’s protagonist sprite – the US Army’s Comanche ‘stealth armed reconnaissance and attack helicopter’ – suffered a few setbacks of its own during development. In the works since the early ’80s, the program was ultimately scrapped in 2004 having racked up a deficit of $6.9 billion! To be considered battle-ready a number of exorbitant modifications would have been essential and the number of units to be constructed reduced too far to be cost-effective. Instead, the US Army decided to upgrade their existing fleet and invest in ‘unmanned aerial vehicle’ technology. Oops!

Still airborne, slowing to a levitating standstill (known as the ‘Hover Out of Ground Effect’ in the biz) we can engage the chopper’s 3D-mimicking swivel arc/torque to gracefully switch directions. Cycling through the gears you’ll notice a change in the engine’s pitch as we phase between subtle take-offs and rotary blade overdrive. Whilst these sound effects were sampled from The Killing Fields movie rather than created from scratch, they still had to be implemented in such a way as to suggest they are operating in synchrony with our instructions to evoke a resounding sense of control and urgency. Mission accomplished!

Other sounds were custom-made by the in-house development team. Whenever you hear a distressed infantryman shriek in terror that’s Strangeways founder Gary Liddon exercising his vocal chords. In contrast to earlier games of this nature it’s perfectly possible to make our own side ‘ouch!’ in pain should we apply a cockpit-mounted cannon, mine, napalm-thrower, rocket, or heat-seeking missile too liberally.

“A1200 – Disappointingly, you don’t get 256 shades of green in the jungle foliage. Or anything else any different from the A500 version.”

“Overpriced at 30 quid, undoubtedly, but a deeply enjoyable game all the same, and well worth at least 81%.”

Amiga Power (80%, issue 37, May 1994)

With the groundwork so painstakingly laid to support a vastly absorbing, atmospheric and thrilling shoot ’em up it’s such a shame that what transpires just below the surface is such an empty experience. One hamstrung by a paucity of levels, little variety between them and only a single static screen in lieu of a finale.

Sticking rigidly to the original design plan, ignoring all knowledge of gameplay evolution, appears to be the stray bullet that shot Miracle Games in the foot. It neatly explains why classic games are best enjoyed on vintage platforms, celebrating their limitations rather than attempting to obfuscate them with bells and whistles that – whilst pretty – contribute nothing to the fun-factor.

In exact opposition, the movie unravels from the humble beginnings of a remarkably basic premise, metamorphosing into a disturbing, unforgettable fever dream. A soul-juddering experience that burrows into your psyche, makes itself at home and won’t check out …until you do.

3 thoughts on “This is the end, my only friend

  • October 11, 2019 at 2:43 am
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    Cool article 🙂 You should try to contact Paul Docherty for full story.
    From all press I have read I can tell You that Apocalypse was going to be bigger game if first dev team manage to finish it. They have finished first level, rest of levels were finished by second dev team by using graphics done by first team. Second team do not create new stuff. In my opinion first level is best one, while rest of them feel like not polished and do not introduce new mechanics. I remember seeing nice picture with map of island where action took place with positions of each mission and extra tips about mission objectives and additional stuff that can be done to make that level easier.

  • October 11, 2019 at 1:33 pm
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    Thanks. Hmm, I suspect that could be a touchy issue and Paul has likely said as much as he intends to in public. I wouldn’t want to go poking a hornet’s nest.

    It’s an odd one this. Some previews went into minute detail about all the graphical and gameplay intricacies to a degree that you don’t often see with unfamiliar titles (as in not based on a licence I mean). It was a very ambitious, intriguing game from the outset that in the end seems to have stretched resources too far. The publishers shot themselves in the foot really by being so gung-ho with the hype junkets, setting up unrealistic expectations. Ironically the slick graphics worked against them if you know what I mean. You’d think everyone concerned must have been thoroughly sick to death of working on it by the time of release so were glad to just get it done and out the door.

  • October 11, 2019 at 5:41 pm
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    Probably You are right, ambitious projects took lot of time and people assigned to work on them without guaranteed high sales after finishing it. There were few previews with nice in depth articles about development, team goals and tools they used, one even show alternative intro splash screen with screeming helicopter pilot and screens from alternative intro animation.
    After all that development hell game still fells rushed. As I say before first level is best one because it represents what original team was aiming for while rest ones simply copy mission objectives without introducing anything new. Last level in template ruins feel as worst part of it, hard to navigate and ends with nothing cool. I was expecting some boss, some nice action sequence and I get nothing.

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