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LONG BLOG

Memories of Iron Helix (1993)

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The first CD-based game I ever played was Iron Helix (Drew Pictures/Spectrum Holobyte, 1993). You probably haven't heard of it, but it was released also on Sega CD and Mac. Given how it's a Windows 3.1 game, it definitely won't work on Windows 10 without something like Dosbox, and since I doubt my old Windows 3.1 install disks still work (plus my current PC has no 3.5" disk drive), I didn't replay it for this blog. As such, I'm telling what I remember of the game when I did play it -- over twenty years ago -- and what I can find online about it today.

In my blogs, I link to only screenshots and images I have taken myself, and since the game's box isn't at my home now either, I can only post these links to the cover art (that shibboletho recalls being deceiving) and this playthrough on the easiest difficulty on YouTube and another on the highest(?) difficulty. The big box really did have a mostly gray sleeve with holes for the "speakers" and a closeup of the "Defender".

The game is set in the distant future where humans are in a bout of cold war with another spacefaring species. The premise is that a human military exercise goes awry when a new secret weapon (the titular Iron Helix) one ship carries accidentally leaks onboard, contaminates the crew and mutates their DNA after which the onboard defense systems consider them invaders. A computer glitch changes the computer's target in the exercise from a barren planet to a populated alien planet, and the crew can't undo this as their mutated DNA fails the biometric identification. This means the ship has to be destroyed before it can release the weapon and start an interstellar hot war.

This is where the player comes in: they remotely control a probe that enters the ship through a hatch. The probe has to collect the crew's uncorrupted DNA samples and video recordings from around the ship to reprogram the ship to, say, self-destruct. The antagonist is the onboard defender drone, who will chase down the player's drone and shoot it down on sight.

As I remember it, this game was for single-speed CD-ROM drives (preferably more). Single-speed meant data transfer of 150KB/sec, double-speed 300KB/sec, and I trust you can imagine the quality of the video that could be streamed this way. As I understand it, Sega CD had a single-speed CD-ROM drive. The end result is that as Iron Helix focused on video quality and good framerate, the prerecorded videos play in very small windows and are typically of reduced colour depth. I'm pretty confident the transition animations in the game screen were also prerendered (I can't imagine doing those graphics in realtime on a 486 without a 3D accelerator), which explains why the drone's camera view is also small and that the player would probably might rather want to watch the map view instead.

But how does the game play?

The game controls like old dungeon crawlers: the player sees (prerendered animations) through the drone's forward-facing camera, the drone turns in right angles and can move (typically) only one tile at a time. There are doors that block the player from moving, ladders and elevators. As I remember it, the ship's layout was identical on all three difficulty levels, but the locations of the samples and video recordings change.

The map view is very useful in this, as it shows the locations of both you and the Defender.

This was, indeed, a game of cat and mouse. The player had to use the elevators, where the Defender couldn't follow the player, to escape (or take a moment to plan). The manual stated that the Defender would know which doors the player opened and elevators they used, and use that information to hunt down and eliminate the player.

I believe I finished the game only on the easiest difficulty, as I rather played other games released in 1993 instead (Doom (id Software, 1993) and Master of Orion (Simtex/Microprose, 1993)). That said, the gameplay itself is very basic, but this is not to say the tiny viewport (and the 14" or 15" display I used) didn't give me a sense of claustrophobia.

On harder difficulties, going by reviews I see elsewhere (such as Mobygames), the player would need to find DNA samples from certain crew members to access more areas in the ship, as the places where the samples could be found were different. The Defender would also move much faster. Three destroyed drones and the game is over.

So how would I feel about it now, 20+ years later?

(Although, to be honest, I'm pretty sure I tried it again before Microsoft dropped 16-bit program support from Windows.)

Going by the various review clips I see on Mobygames, the reception varied from ranking it alongside Rebel Assault (LucasArts, 1993) and Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers (Sierra On-Line, 1993) as the best CD games on PC, to recommending watching Alien instead.

The underlying gameplay truly is simple, to the point that I imagine even I could try implementing something like that on an 8-bit system (and might actually want to try just that). There were no "proper" puzzles and the point is in running away from the Defender and scanning for DNA or video practically everywhere.

It is a shame that I haven't played Alien: Isolation (Creative Assembly/SEGA, 2014), as Iron Helix brings to my mind the idea of hide-and-seek I imagine that game is like, only much more polished. Maybe someone reading this has played both games and can share their opinion below?

If I were to design a remake of Iron Helix for the modern systems, I see two paths: one, a low-budget entry that keeps the current constraints (only right angles, movement square by square) but adds better randomization to clue placement and also some puzzles (say, minigames); or two, drop the movement constraints and make only one narrative arc focusing on puzzles and not combat to the extent System Shock does. And as much as I am a fan of procedural generation, I don't think the first could work.

As for the original, were I given the option of playing it today, I might try it out for 15 minutes. But that's about it.

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About Flegmaone of us since 11:34 PM on 01.17.2015

Very much unprofessional writer, don't take anything I write without a truckload of salt.

On a hopefully long-term break from saying anything.

Given the amount of work Niero had to do to purge my Disqus logs the last time, I'm not going to agree to Disqus TOS and use the service again ==> I won't be replying to your comments as much as I'd like to. Except maybe via site PM functionality. If it works.