If you hadn’t heard, NASA has been celebrating their success since the wee early hours of this morning when Curiosity, the new Mars Rover, successfully touched down on the Red Planet. But what if we were able to send someone with it and they got stuck on the planet? Would we send Gary Sinise or Val Kilmer back to pick them up? If it were up to George Lucas, we might have had to shoot our way through alien defenses to rescue our probe and the hapless astronaut sent with it. And hope that they weren’t aliens.
Back in 1982, a little company by the name of Lucasfilm decided to branch out with a division dedicated to the silicon astronauts exploring the new frontier in everyone’s home. The division would be called Lucasarts, and their first game would be a futuristic action title for the Atari 8-bit computer called Rescue on Fractalus! arriving on shelves in ’84 thanks to Epyx.
Your mission: to take a ship down to the world of Fractalus and rescue fellow pilots shot down over the hostile planet. The manual was crammed with fiction from the opening briefing paragraphs to statistics on your Valkyrie fighter that would make Konami and its Vic Viper smile from the NES.
After an automated launch, it was up to you to navigate Fractalus’ surface and avoid the “Jaggies”, the alien enemies you would occasionally need to blast into space dust. That’s really who they were called. Fractalus was also the name of what was used to generate the mountainous terrain on the surface, fractals. Jaggies were, well, appropriately named as programmers and artists did their best to minimize the jagged look of early graphics with whatever aliasing tricks they could come up with. And since they hated jaggies, what better way than to make them bad guys in your own game?
Fractalus had sixteen different levels of difficulty, the first three being “training” without lasers trying to fillet you, with a score system in place. Later on, players would deal with turrets and saucers while trying to see if the pilot running up to their ship was actually human.
There was also the corrosive atmosphere that gave you mere moments to get the pilots running at your ship into safety before they melted into puddles. Players needed to remember to open the airlock as they desperately knocked on the hull, and that was after landing close enough to where they were, lowering your shields, and shutting your systems down. Pilots could also turn into ash if you accidentally tripped the engines while picking them up. But it was a good thing to do if it was a Jaggi banging away at your cockpit windows.
In an interview with one of the original designers, David Fox for the book Halcyon Days courtesy of James Hague, Fox relates a story that George Lucas had input on the game by suggesting more action. At first, Fractalus was just a simple arcade flier where the player just rescued pilots, but when Lucas tried it, he wondered why he couldn’t shoot anything.
Lucas also suggested the idea of randomly putting aliens on the surface. At first, they’d be pretty obvious if you turned your ship to face the direction they’d be coming from before landing. If you let them get too close, they’d pop up in front of your ship and start trying to break their way in for one of gaming’s earliest scares. Later, they would be wearing helmets just like the human pilots – and if you rescued one, don’t expect to come back.
Fractalus found its way to many platforms from the original Atari 8-bit computers to the Spectrum ZX, Commodore 64, and the Apple II, and was a decent success enabling the young company to begin its gaming blitz all through the eighties right on through the early nineties. There’s even a fan in Australia who is working on his own modern remake for the game and has an Alpha release out for Windows.
They went all out with a full set and effects creating the look for the game in this UK ad which also doubled as the box art. Activision’s label is also posted as they handled the distribution for Lucasarts’ debut across the pond. What no one could guess was that Rescue on Fractalus! would also be the start of Lucasarts’ long and crazy journey into gaming history.