Comet landings from the past – The Halley Project

Halley’s Comet would swing by Earth again in 1986 so Mindscape did their part to get people excited by releasing their game in 1985. Don’t be too surprised about the lack of screenshots — there really wasn’t a whole lot to actually see in the game outside of what your imagination filled in.

If you hadn’t heard yet, the ESA reportedly landed a probe on a comet today after a ten-year, 6 billion kilometer journey by the Rosetta spacecraft to deliver it. At least we hope that it landed okay.

According to the info I had read, it seems the lander, named Philae, might have “bounced” on the comet before (we hope) it came back down onto it. We’ll know more tomorrow when the ESA re-establish radio contact with the probe. Nevertheless, it’s a huge triumph for science and space exploration for a project like this to have even made it this far.

Back in 1985, Mindscape took things a little further with their edutainment title, The Halley Project. It was available for the Apple II computer, Commodore 64/128, Atari 8-bit, and even the Amiga.

The 5.25″ disk came packaged in a small, black binder which was designed as some kind of “top secret” packet complete with the lingo and labels. Inside was a cardboard pouch that you had to tear open to get your “mission documents” which had even come in a small folder. There was also a cassette tape in a plastic blister on the inner cover of the binder with the disk that had a mission briefing on it! The binder itself was made of thick, hard cardboard — this was made to take a beating — making it a creative piece of retail marketing. A long strip of paper with a star map including all of the constellations was also part of the package and proved to be a clever piece of copy protection since it was vital to playing the game.

After the credits, this is what players see inviting them into the super-secret pilot program for...The Halley Project.

After the credits, this is what players see inviting them into the super-secret pilot program for…The Halley Project. P. L. A. N. E. T. stands for “Planetary and Lunar Aerospace Navigation and Exploration Team”. Top Secret!

The game cast the player as a prospective pilot invited into a secret series of tests exploring their knowledge of the solar system as well as how well they can get around it. Basically, you’re given a clue and by figuring it out, will need to find and land on the planet or moon that it references. All travel is done on a single plane — it’s a flat Solar System — and the flight mechanics are incredibly simplified. Essentially, all you really have to worry about is whether you can match the stars onscreen to the star map the game comes with to find your way to your desinations. That, and whether your knowledge of astronomy is good enough to find your way around. The game even comes with a list of astronomy sources that you could look up at the library to help out.

It's home sweet home from the far edge of the Solar System. Why anyone would build a hangar on a comet that visits Earth every 76 years isn't quite explained, but it was way cool for the 80s.

It’s home sweet home from the far edge of the Solar System. Why anyone would build a hangar on a comet that visits Earth every 76 years isn’t quite explained, but it was way cool for the 80s. Here, my speed is at zero and I’m quite a distance from the comet. The H (for high power) and L (for low) gauge is used only when you’re about to land on a planet. But get used to this view for the whole game.

The instructions go into a step-by-step methodology for launching, hitting hyperspace (you need to rev your engines up to 300,000 km/s and you’ll automatically make the jump traveling millions of km a second), and finally reaching your destination. Then, players will need to “orbit” (which essentially means coming within 100k km or less of your target) and nudging left or right until the “special landing spot” comes up for them to initiate the largely automated landing procedures.

This is the radar map that's used in the game in conjunction with the star map strip. Hope you didn't lose it!

This is the radar map that’s used in the game in conjunction with the star map strip. Hope you didn’t lose it!

The radar above is used for navigation. Travel in the game is done by finding the planet that you need to get to, approximating the distance, and then hyperspacing out to it hoping you can apply the brakes in time to avoid overshooting it. That’s the short explanation.

The long explanation is that the planets are always moving and you’ll need to count from the sun (that orange dot on the map) outwards to find the planet you need. You can zoom the map in and out as it’s always centered on you — the shot above shows the Solar System zoomed out a bit — and then guesstimate just which direction to go in by what constellation to head towards using the star map and matching the stars seen from your view port. The distance shown is how far you are from the edge of the circle depending on how it’s zoomed in or out. That’s helpful for when you jump a few milliion kilometers and then stop to get your bearings and a new read on just how far you need to go.

When you’ve touched down, you’re given a small view of your surroundings before getting ready to take back off and either head back home to Halley’s Comet (where the secret P. L. A. N. E. T. hangar for all of you top secret pilots is located) or another destination. On coming home to the comet, you just fly straight into it. Full speed ahead!

There are different ranks, starting with Raven (which simply tells you to go to Earth) and finishing at Starbird for the tenth mission with increasingly difficult clues and more planet or moon hopping. But there’s also a “secret” eleventh mission!

Once you finish the ten missions, you’ll get a special code that has to be written on the “Registration for Certification” that comes with the “dossier” to be mailed to P. L. A. N. E. T. headquarters (Mindscape) who will then send back an actual certificate with your name and the code needed to access the final, secret mission. If you completed that and mailed proof back, you could get into a drawing for a special prize.

Much of the time spent with The Halley Project was in figuring out the clues and learning the best and most efficient ways to get around the Solar System to beat your times and progress to the next rank. It wasn’t the most detailed space sim, nor did it boast that it wanted to be, but it did try to engage players’ imaginations and kindle that fascination for all things space in anyone that attempted to be the best of the best as a part of The Halley Project. Unfortunately, like a number of Mindscape’s games, it never found its way out of the past into a modern collection. If you want to check it out, sites such as Virtual Apple are doing their best to preserve it as a part of their efforts to save the past, though you’ll miss out on the extensive documentation which may make things a bit tough.

Maybe Rosetta will get its own game sometime in the future. Or find a home in a game like Kerbal Space Program as a another great mod.

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