A photo of an archipelagos with a pretentious filter applied to it.

Open World Dreams (Part 2): Islands in the Stream

In last week’s exciting episode, I fondly recalled how my yearning for open world gaming experiences started at an early age, highlighting some of the 8-bit titles that were able to fill that need. We now wind the clock forward a few years to explore the 16-bit era.

Open World: 16-bit Style

The 16-bit era, at least where home computers were concerned, began in the UK with the launch of the Atari ST and Amiga computers. My dad was an early adopter of the Atari ST, so until I got an Amiga about a year later that was the machine on which I cut my 16-bit gaming teeth.

Just as the playgrounds of the early 1980s had rung with the battle cries of the C64 vs ZX Spectrum combatants, so too did the late 1980s playgrounds play host to the clashing armies of Amiga and Atari ST fans. To be honest, and having been in an ideal position to judge, there wasn’t much between them. The Amiga had a better sound chip and sprite-handling capabilities, but the Atari ST could crunch 3D geometry at a marginally faster rate giving it the last laugh as the industry began a slow, inexorable shift towards 3D gaming.

Right off the bat the Atari ST and Amiga played host to a number of exemplary gaming experiences that took advantage of copious amount of RAM (a whole 512 kB!), so it was no surprise that developers began to push the boundaries of established game spaces to literally broaden the player’s horizons.

By Your Command

One of the first Atari ST games I played was Carrier Command, a 3D action/strategy game from Realtime Games (previously responsible for some nifty 3D shooters on the ZX Spectrum). The player took control of a futuristic aircraft carrier, tasked with assuming control of a large archipelagos of islands. At the other end of the map an enemy aircraft carrier had the same goal.

A screenshot from Carrier Command on the Amiga.

One of my favorite things to do in Carrier Command after a cautious approach to an unknown island: launching a squadron of Mantas to conduct a reconnaissance. No enemies? Begin establishing base. Enemy defenses firing up? Prepare to wage a hard fought battle for control.

This was no boring turn-based strategy game—everything unfolded in real-time, giving you direct control of the carrier’s assets. You could fly planes, drive amphibious tanks, man laser turrets and deploy defense mechanisms, all from a first-person perspective.

Of course, the game’s main draw for me was the huge open world—the endless ocean, the secluded islands, all ripe for discovering and conquering. This freedom concertinaed down through every macro and micro level of control. At times it felt like you were trying to keep an impossible number of plates spinning, but doing so never felt short of exhilarating. As an introduction to 16-bit gaming it was certainly a powerful one.

(Incidentally, if all of this sounds familiar, Bohemia Interactive recently released an updated version in the form of Carrier Command: Gaea Mission. It’s not without its faults but it does a great job of capturing the essence of the original and giving it a modern lick of paint.)

Star Gliding, Across the Universe

Next up came Argonaut Software’s Starglider 2, a 3D spaceship shooter that bore little resemblance to its predecessor and made all the more interesting by the addition of an adventure component as the player criss-crossed the solar system attempting to acquire the scattered components of a powerful weapon. Yes, this was basically Star Fox with a never-ending fetch quest.

A screenshot of Starglider 2 on the Amiga.

Flying high above the surface of a planet in Starglider 2. The arcing electricity being generated by the pylons could be “skipped” across to recharge your shields and energy. Once complete, pull up and climb fast. The planet’s atmosphere gives way to the inky blackness of space, allowing you to navigate to another world of your choosing. Just don’t get too close to the sun.

As per usual, the most appealing aspect of this game for me was an entire solar system’s worth of planets (and moons) to explore. Each world had its own color scheme, day/night cycles, enemies, environmental objects and, in many cases, underground colonies.

Publisher Rainbird Software (who also published Carrier Command) experimented by putting the ST and Amiga versions of the game on the same disk, so I was able to compare them directly: the Amiga version had the better sound effects, the Atari ST version had the better frame rate, but otherwise they played exactly the same.

I have fond memories of playing the game with my brother, each of us taking turns to directly control the ship while the other made strategic decisions and suggestions as to how to tackle various missions. DIY co-op!

Bonus Features

I continued playing ST/Amiga games until well into the early 1990s, but I’m struggling to recall anything else I played that offered the player an expansive world to explore. FTL’s Dungeon Master was certainly a ground-breaking RPG, but its tile-based mazes didn’t quite offer the same sense of freedom.

Mike Singleton’s Midwinter took the template established by Lords of Midnight and Doomdark’s Revenge—wander around a huge open world, make friends/enemies, try not to die too much—and transplanted it into a post-apocalyptic future, but I never really played this game until the mid-1990s, by which time I was firmly entrenched in the world of PC gaming. But stay tuned, Midwinter fans—I suspect Justin Keverne will have something to say about this game and its sequel before long.

A screenshot of Midwinter on the Amiga.

Traversing the icy plains of Midwinter, the player comes under attack by a plane. Time to whip out a suitable weapon for dispatching it. Or, if you’re fast enough, ski down into the next valley and hope to evade it.

And then there’s Novagen’s Damocles, the follow-up to Mercenary. Another game I didn’t get round to playing until long after its release. It has much in common with Starglider 2, in that you have an entire solar system to explore (as opposed to Mercenary’s single city on a single planet) and a race-against-time quest.

There was some great work going on in the combat flight sim field at the time, particularly Microprose’s Gunship 2000 and F-19 Stealth Fighter, each of which expanded their digital battlefields way beyond what had previously been attainable on 8-bit systems, opening up a rich seam of strategic options for the player in the process.

But for all these wonderful experiences there was still something missing, still something a little too abstract about these experiences. The hardware wasn’t quite ready to deliver that immersive first-person experience I was craving. Something with worlds of staggering size and architectural complexity, populated by intelligent characters and a near endless array of possibilities for exploration and adventure contained therein. We were getting closer but still felt too far away.

In the next article in this series we head into the early-to-mid 1990s and the PC gaming boom. At this time gaming hardware was beginning to evolve at an accelerated rate, which meant some truly exceptional open world gaming experiences were just around the corner.