Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Alien Fires: Won! (with Final Rating)

Wow! I get to go to a planet with a moon? No way!
Alien Fires: 2199 AD
Jagware (developer and original publisher); Paragon (later publisher)
Released in 1987 for Amiga, Atari ST, and DOS
Date Started: 2 November 2010
Date Ended: 11 April 2017
Total Hours: 11
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: 23
Ranking at Time of Posting: 90/248 (36%)

Alien Fires: 2199 AD has haunted me for over 6 years. For all this time, I've secretly thought that I didn't get very far because I wasn't good enough, or patient enough, or just didn't "get" it. I let myself be lured into the idea that a game this bizarre must have hidden depths.
Everyone in this game learns the same jokes.
When it's all over, you basically have a 1-hour game that stretches into 6 hours because of all the reloading that you have to do, a slew of useless items (the game promises adventure game-style inventory puzzles that never materialize), a dialogue system that you don't even need, and a nonsensical plot. I'm partly frustrated that it took me 6 years to buckle down and win it, and partly frustrated that I even bothered to do that.

Alien Fires turns out to be organized into 6 small levels: three on Galaxy's End and three on the Octo space station where Kurtz is hiding. Once you take an elevator or ladder between levels, you cannot return to earlier ones.
Your goal in each level.
The NPCs mostly exist to tell you useless things like "take the ladder to the next level"; none of them really say anything essential to the plot except the final bosses. Most of them are just goofy. Nonetheless, the artwork for the creatures--credited to Ray Larabie and Tim Cearns--remains bizarre and interesting throughout the game. A few examples:
Despite his smack talk, he never actually attacks you.
A muscular guy with rabbit ears gives me some intel on Samuel Kurtz.
I thought the "snake sign" would have something to do with him. He gladly took it, but he didn't give me anything for it.
Indeed, no matter what you say to him, he responds with "Argh!"
Between levels, at least in the DOS version, you get threatening messages from Octo agents and Kurtz himself. Starting on the third level, each level has a gumball machine near the entrance that you can return to repeatedly to restore yourself to max health. (Some of the gumballs are poisonous and you need a high "understanding" score to distinguish them.)
Who knew that gumballs, which you don't even swallow, had such miraculous healing abilities?
Combat never gets interesting. You just mash the SPACE bar in the DOS version or click the "fight" button in the Amiga version until the enemy is dead or you are. Dodging just delays the inevitable end. Combat on the first two levels is fatal to the player about 75% of the time, and you have to be prepared for lots of reloading. Slowly, as you gain experience and levels, your max hit points increase and your abilities go up. You start finding better weapons. I found combat on Levels 3-5 to be much easier--trivial in some places. The last level returns to an extraordinarily high level of difficulty, particularly for the final battle.
Combat with a level 3 creature who respawns, allowing unlimited grinding if you want.
To win, I switched to the DOS version so didn't have to listen to the synthesized speech anymore. It would have been torture for the big speeches at the end. The DOS version comes with a little mini-map of the room you're in, showing the placement of doors, so that's a nice bonus. There's also a feature in the DOS edition by which hitting the TAB key switches you to incremental rather than continuous movement. This makes it easier to tell if you've visited each tile in each room, which you really have to do to ensure that you find all the items. Finally, saving is easier in the DOS version because you can keep playing after you save. In the Amiga version, you can only "quit and save."

As for those items: All that time wasted finding Mangle Tangle's pocketwatch so you can get his Octo knife is mostly wasted, as on Level 2 you get some significant melee weapon upgrades, starting with an "electrosword" and progressing to a "power axe." You start to find blasters on Level 2 as well, which progress to other ranged weapons like "devastator" and "ripper." The most powerful ranged weapon is simply called "rifle." These weapons require ammunition, which is in short supply.
This awesome-looking weapon turned out to be not that good.
There are a few pieces of armor to find as well, including a helmet, a set of combat armor, and a shield. These items take damage in combat and soon become useless. If I played the game again, I'd know to save them for the really difficult fights.
Finding a suit of body armor.
I found a ton of other items that I never used: a passcard, a remote device, a snake sign, a sapphire, and so forth. They seem like they're going to be necessary to solve puzzles, but then it turns out there really are no puzzles.
This looked awesome and had, as far as I can tell, no use.
Level 2 has a bar, where the bartender, named Whitey, tells you how to get to the next level for 100 credits--the only time in the game that you spend money. But like everything with NPCs, you don't need to know what he says. You can simply push past him to find the ladder to the next level (which, by the way, in the DOS version, you use with the undocumented "9" key on the keypad).
Notably, this is Whitey himself telling me that I ought to talk with Whitey.
Level 3 is supposedly the "mining level," where the ratio of NPCs to hostile enemies inverts significantly. You fight your way through a linear set of rooms, culminating in a docking bay or something, with ships that take you from Galaxy's End to the space station. At this point, the between-level messages come from "Julian Arias, the Lord Minister of Octo" who taunts you that even if you fight your way through Level 4 successfully, you'll never find the hidden ladder.
A space dock transitions you from Galaxy's End (the first three levels) to the space station (the last three).
"Julian Arias," who never actually appears, smack-talks me between levels.
The ladder on Level 4 isn't even hidden. It's in the middle of an octagonal room. Level 5 just has more monsters and weapon and armor upgrades; nothing special.

As you take the ladder to Level 6, Kurtz himself threatens you, claiming that he'll detonate his  "time warp" and "destroy us and all of time."
How are you speaking to me, exactly?
This last level returns to nightmarish combat difficulty, although if you're willing to save-scum a bit, you can learn routes that avoid the toughest monsters, including some tank-like robots that I hardly ever defeated.

In a weird encounter, one of the rooms has a "'97 Chevy" which can be activated with a set of keys you find on Level 2. If you do this, the game goes to the "game over" screen as if you died.
A weird and pointless detour.
You have to make your way to the east end of the level and disable Kurtz's time device, then enter an adjacent room to confront him.
Kurtz has a brief speech about the "horrors of mankind" and how his time device will erase humans from history. Combat with him begins. He's ridiculously easy to kill; I'm not sure he even damaged me in combat.
After Kurtz dies, you get a message that while you've done well, "it's not over yet." Instead, you next have to "confront your most dangerous opponent--an evil Time Lord named Death."
"Death" is freaking impossible. He defeated me 15 times in a row before I finally squeaked out a victory. My power axe hardly ever hit him. I suspect that the best way to win is to ensure you have plenty of ammo and at least one item of armor before the battle begins. I briefly thought about starting over, but I didn't feel like doing all that early-level reloading again.
I believe this is what we call an "11th-hour villain."
After I finally defeated him, the final message (at the top of the screen) blinked in for about one second and then disappeared. Cursing and unwilling to go through another 15 fights just to get the screen again, I hex-edited Iota Tau to 9,999 hit points just so I could win again, lower the CPU speed, and capture the shot this time.
I promise I won for real the first time.
When you win, the game gives you the screen at the top of this post, then asks to save your character one final time. I guess the creators envisioned Alien Fires as the beginning of a Time Lord series.

In a GIMLET, the game earns:

  • 3 points for a derivative, bizarre game world and back story.
  • 3 points for character creation and development. I never quite understood how the game decided which of my attributes would increase upon leveling, but you do start to feel notably more powerful as the game progresses.
My character near the end of the game.
  • 3 points for NPC interaction. The parser is mildly impressive, though it turns out that almost all NPCs say the same things in response to the same questions. NPCs on Level 5 will happily tell you how to seek Whitey on Level 2, for instance. In the end, you don't really need any of it; you can just walk from ladder to ladder.
  • 2 points for encounters and foes. The foes are interestingly drawn, no question, but they don't really distinguish themselves much in combat and there are no roleplaying encounters.
That tail looks like it would really slow you down.
  • 1 point for combat, a mind-numbing, button-mashing affair in which luck plays too much of a role.
  • 2 points for a few types of equipment, much of it useless.
My inventory later in the game. The "bluelight," passcard, snake sign, and remote unit never did anything.
  • 1 point for an economy that only matters on the first two levels, and even then only to get a hint you don't actually need.
  • 2 points for a main quest with no branches or choices.
  • 4 points for graphics, sound and interface. The graphics are more "interesting" than "good." There's a minimum of sound in both versions. While the keyboard interface (or keyboard/mouse on the Amiga) is good, movement in the game, and having to wait for NPCs and objects to render, is a bit of a pain. The Amiga version has better environmental graphics, sound, and music, but a notably worse interface and the inability to understand what the NPCs are saying most of the time. I think they balance out.
  • 2 points for gameplay, mostly for being over quickly. It's linear, non-replayable, and far too punishing.

That gives us a final score of 23.
The box art doesn't quite have anything to do with the game.
The only contemporary review I've been able to find comes from the January 1989 Questbusters newsletter. Reviewer Steven King says he was excited to play a game that promised a time travel plot, but "the excitement stops when you put down the manual" and find yourself in "a rather pedestrian maze game." He goes on to cover the difficult, boring combat and the movement difficulties before concluding that "it is just a skeletal game apparently thrown together to cover a basic concept that didn't have nearly enough thought invested in it."

Even though it didn't amount to much, I have to give it credit for breaking the mold in a few areas, particularly in the NPC dialogue and navigation. Rooms built from square tiles, and movement at square angles, will remain the norm all the way through the 1990s. This game offers weird puzzle-piece shaped rooms and the ability to turn in 45-degree increments.
It'll be many years before we see navigation like this again.
The manual suggests that this game was meant to be the beginning of a series of titles involving the Time Lords. It encourages you to save your winning character so you'll be able to use him in "new adventures." But no further titles were forthcoming, and this ended up being the only game from Jagware and the two principal developers, Jeff Simpson and Sky Matthews. Thanks to some sleuthing from commenter dzdt, we know that Simpson and Matthews were in 8th grade together at an Ottawa boarding school in 1980, so they would have been a couple of years out of high school when they wrote Alien Fires. Incidentally, I think this is the earliest RPG from a Canadian developer.

While we may never have heard from Mr. Simpson or Mr. Matthews again, graphic designer Ray Larabee went on to a long career in graphic design in the gaming industry. He's credited for artwork in several expansions of the original Grand Theft Auto (1999) and for art direction in the original Max Payne (2001), among many others. He eventually specialized in font design, and his fonts have been used in games all the way through last year (Neon Chrome, Pony Island). His co-graphic designer, Tim Cearns, continued in the discipline but not in the gaming industry. I don't know which of the two deserves the most credit for the bizarre visuals that remain a highlight of Alien Fires.
I'm glad to have put this one to bed after all these years, even if it didn't live up to its odd, psychedelic, cyberpunk promise. Moving on now to Alternate Reality: The Dungeon.


  1. Wow, it really is an innovative game. They even beat Final Fantasy to their favorite "arbitrary final boss out of nowhere" trick.

  2. Damn, the PC graphics are really terrible, especially compared to the Amiga. This might be one case where being colourblind is working in your favour.

    1. Yeah, I'd rather have stared at one of the CGA palettes than suffer the psychedelic smears of Alien Fires for another minute. What a terrible design decision.

  3. Sometimes when I go to full screen in DosBox on my laptop something messes up with the palette and everything ends up colour-swapped, so I have to jump out and in again to fix it. I would have sworn that had happened with a few of those images above (eg the 97 Chevy, the warp device) except that the map and text are still the same colour. I'd have to go looking for Amiga screenshots to see what those were supposed to be.

  4. I just noted that did this game disappear from the "Recent & Upcoming" list. Is it so because of having been started in 2010?

    1. No, I just screwed up the list. Thanks for pointing that out.

  5. I just wondered if the bluelight is a reference to Rambo:

    1. And the snake sign could reference

  6. Congratulations on solving this ... very fine game :)

  7. What a bizarre game, seems more like a tech demo than an actual game based on your descriptions. Still, it's nice to fill that blank hole in your results spreadsheet, just one hole left!

    I'm also looking forward to AR: the dungeon. When you polled your readers about which games to cover when you decided to ditch the Dos only rule (but before your current approach of doing them all) it and deathlord were the only non-console games to make the cut, so I'm hoping it will be solid.

    1. I had forgotten that. Wow, that was a long time ago.

  8. Inspired by your victory I dug up the Amiga version and almost finished it... got stuck with the combats on the 5th level and I'm wondering if I should push on, but took a lot of screenshots:

    The artwork is really good, especially for 1987, but it's also very irregular... some NPCs are amazing, others look like crap. :/

    1. If you do finish, I'll be curious if the ending differs at all. There were minor additions to the DOS version that I didn't see in the Amiga--mostly just stray bits of descriptive text.

    2. Yeah, but so far the only difference I noticed is that "Fred the Killer Creature from Planet X" actually attacks you instantly and serves as boss battle for the 5th level...

  9. Canada would like to apologize for this game.

    1. It was brave of you to even show up in this forum.

    2. At least we made up for it with some of our layer games, or can we make up for something this bad?

    3. Also, since this game is from Ottawa, the failure of the authors to write realistic dialogue is probably from them interacting with politicians, rather then actual human beings.

  10. This game must be credited for inspiring what must be one of the largest console RPG franchise now: Pokemon. Because ARGH!

  11. I played this back when it first came out on the Amiga. The box made it look promising - well you know how that turned out. The load time from floppy was what eventually made me stop playing it.

    By the way, since you mention in your very first review of AF that it was the first FPV since Alternate Reality, just wanted to let you know about another FPV game for the Atari 8-bit that came out in 1985 which was screaming fast compared to AF: Mercenary. Give it a try if you haven't already.


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