Before Epic MegaGames made Unreal a household word in 1999, Ubisoft published a game developed by an outfit called Ordilogic in Belgium in 1990 that had nothing to do with Tim Sweeney’s engine. All it had in common with his work was one word – Unreal.
The game came with a large backstory that described a mysterious Sleeper who was awakened and sent a servant, Fragor, across space to the world of Unreal. He was accompanied by two guardians, one good and one evil, but on approaching the planet, he was struck by a comet scattering the elemental powers he had been carrying across the world. The two guardians fought each other for domination. Meanwhile, two humans, Isolde and Artagan, were born.
One of their friends was a dragon who visited them and one day, failed to show up. Isolde went to search for their friend and ended up captured instead by a dark evil that fell in love with her beauty. Of course, Artagan and his dragon friend aren’t going to stand by and wait for the forced marriage to happen and go off to rescue her.
Unreal was a mix of arcade-styled 3D shooter and 2D action platformer that pit our loincloth armored hero, Artaban, on a brutal gauntlet of sword swinging and dragon flying. For the time, it was impressive stuff on the Amiga pushing the hardware to render out huge, detailed pixel art in the backdrop along with the animation for both the hero and the dangers he faced.
The music and sound effects were particularly fantastic stuff — especially the intro theme — and the menu option visuals were something that might have been more at home on a console than a computer. But Ordilogic managed to push the Amiga to remarkable heights with Unreal encouraging direct comparisons to another development house that was also doing the same thing — Psygnosis.
The 3D stuff was a Space Harrier-like interpretation of action where the player controlled an onscreen dragon as the environment flew right at them from ahead. Trees, rock formations, and flying obstacles would scale towards the player as they maneuvered the dragon up, around, and through the dangers. Power ups allowed the dragon to breath more powerful fireball formations and about five of the eight stages in the game involved a lot of this arcade-styled shoot ’em up.
The 2D stuff was impressive, but the gameplay didn’t seem quite as compelling compared to what consoles doled out at the time such as what was found in Capcom’s Ghosts ‘n Goblins, Bionic Commando, or Tecmo’s 1988 version of Ninja Gaiden on the NES. The backdrops and sounds were still incredibly well presented, though, owing much to the skill of the artists and programmers involved.
It was mainly designed and developed for the Amiga and later ported over to the Atari ST and MS-DOS. Today, it exists in that shadow realm of abandonware available for emulation through apps like Amiga in a Box. As for Ordilogic, they eventually became known as Art & Magic with a game published by — surprise — Psygnosis such as 1992’s Agony. Art & Magic lingered on for awhile, but most of the principals left after creating a 1994 arcade game called Western Shooting. Art & Magic was finally dissolved in 2008.
One of the key devs for the game, the artist and game designer, Franck Sauer, maintains a page devoted to Unreal filled with a detailed personal account of the game’s development along with plenty of art associated with the production. If you want to know more about this piece of gaming history, and learn a bit of the history behind the other games he had worked on along with a bit of trivia from the trenches over the years, you can’t really beat the resources that Sauer has put together including a link to the game itself among several others.
Unreal was an interesting milestone and an especially amazing one for the Amiga capturing a lot of what it could do in one go. Today, it’s buried in Google by Epic’s mega-hit and engine tech. But in 1990, it certainly earned its namesake.