Released in 1985, The Eidolon from Lucasarts was one of the earliest free-roaming, first-person shooters on PCs. It was an innovative technical achievement that leveraged the fractal tech they had used in games such as Rescue on Fractalus! and The Koronis Rift into creating a mysterious world filled with creatures, danger, and a mystery introduced by the attention lavished on the documentation.
The game’s “manual” was illustrated like a diary complete with textured, yellowed pages to immerse players in the Victorian technomancy of its “author”, one Dr. Josef Vincent Agon. Players, walking by his abandoned mansion a hundred years later, find their curiosity leading them into his home and the secret lab within. It seems that in 1850, while exploring the mysteries of the “mystical powers of the mind”, Dr. Agon created the Eidolon — a large, bronze sphere-like machine. Sitting inside of it, Agon was able to transport himself to a strange dimension of cavernous tunnels and dangerous monsters, moving about with the machine until it ran out of energy. He would continue visiting this strange world until one day when he mysteriously disappeared.
Lucasarts’ writers pushed the idea of the manual as being a part of the actual game by integrating its elements into the prose describing the monsters, the importance of the fireballs found floating in the caverns, and how to overcome the barriers protecting the mysterious dragons at the end of each of the seven levels. It would be a technique that many used to help promote the atmosphere developers were building for each of their titles and one that Lucasarts would repeatedly turn to over the years through products such as with the spectacularly illustrated manual for Indiana Jones and the Emperor’s Tomb. Even though that game was done by The Collective, Lucasarts’ fingerprints were hard to miss.
One complaint that is sometimes made about a number of first-person shooters is that they can often feel like controlling a camera with a gun mounted below it. In the Eidolon’s case, it was true. The Eidolon was what the player sat in with a control panel on the bottom third of the screen displaying things such as how close to the level’s dragon one was, energy level, fireball types, and magic jewels captured to break through the barrier protecting said dragon. A cannon mounted overhead defended the player by blasting anything in your way with fireballs.
Monsters such as flying Biter Birds, trolls, and Greps would drain the Eidolon’s energy by attacking you. When all of the energy was drained, you were zapped back to the beginning of the game. At the end of each level, a mighty dragon awaited once the barrier protecting them was breached after finding the right gems scattered around.
Fireballs were the key to survival, not only because the red ones can charbroil your foes, but because the different colors had different effects. Gold ones replenished valuable energy reserves. Blue ones could freeze enemies in their tracks for a few moments. Green ones could transform bad guys into hopefully weaker targets. The Eidolon could even absorb fireballs or negate ones flying at it by firing back at them with the same types or more powerful variants, something that reminded me a bit of Treasure’s Ikaruga in which your ship could absorb bullets if it were the right color.
It was ported to a wide variety of platforms ranging from the Amstrad and the ZX Spectrum to the Commodore 64 and Atari 8-bit computers. Performance-wise, depending on the platform you were on, it could also be smooth sailing or a tad laggy. On the Apple II, for example, while it could be exciting to play, it also often felt as if the Eidolon were floating through molasses.
This was also a challenging game. Balancing the need to defend the Eidolon, absorb fireballs to replenish its reserves, and explore the tunnels without getting lost for the gems needed to breach the barriers protecting each dragon and then surviving the battle with them added up. “Dying” sent you back to the start — there were no checkpoints or saves. Like many arcade-like titles in the day, it was all or nothing.
Unfortunately, The Eidolon like a number of Lucasarts’ other classic titles, hasn’t yet seen wide distribution on a digital download service. Instead, it exists in that shadow realm of abandonware which means that so long as you have a decent emulator, anyone can give it a try if they can find it out there.
For 1985, it really was ahead of its time in a number of ways from its packaging to encouraging players to shoot fireballs back at fireballs not only to defend themselves but to restore their health by creating their own power-ups. Oddly enough, the names of its monsters had a little trademark symbol next to a few of them on the back of the box, hinting that it might even have been intended as the first part of what could have been a new series. One can only imagine what might have emerged with The Eidolon’s engine in an RPG setting years before Blue Sky’s Ultima Underworld had set the CRPG world on fire in 1992.