Computer Gamer

Dan Dare: Pilot Of The Future

Publisher: Virgin Games
Machine: Commodore 64/128

Published in Computer Gamer #19

After over a decade in limbo, Dan Dare bounces back as the hero of Virgin's new game. Eric Doyle braves the Mekons and Treens as he tries to save the world

Dan Dare: Pilot Of The Future

Back in the days when Dad was a lad and television in every home was a Utopian dream, the Eagle comic was essential reading. Pride of place was given to stories of Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, whose granite chin and stiff upper lip epitomised all that was heroic and noble in a world so different from today.

Few heroes reach the status which Dan has achieved over the years and it is not surprising that Virgin Games have decided to breathe new life into his saga with the accolade of a computer game.

In all his tales, Dan was accompanied by his faithful companion and batman Albert Digby and, occasionally, the beautiful Professor Peabody. Aboard the good ship Anastasia, the trio would fly around the solar system righting wrongs and generally making sure that the Earth was safe from harm.

Dan Dare: Pilot Of The Future

Arch-villain of these tales was the Mekon, an evil place of work bent on world domination or its total destruction. The Mekon has a large, domed head atop evil, heavy-lidded, slit eyes - the archetypal little, green chinless wonder of science fiction. At his command hordes of Treen henchman would try to execute his master plan but Dan Dare was always one step ahead in the eternal struggle of good versus evil.

All of these elements have been adhered to in the game. Dare has been given the supreme accolade of an appearance on This Is Your Life when the broadcast is interrupted by the unscheduled appearance of the Mekon. The Green Fiend has launched a hollowed out asteroid containing an atomic bomb towards the Earth. As the time ticks by, the hopes of the world are pinned on one man as Dan Dare goes up there to thwart the dastardly plot.

The game starts with the Anastasia zooming across the surface of the asteroid in true comic strip style. As Dan is lowered to the surface, Digby must remain with the ship for a fast getaway.

Dan Dare: Pilot Of The Future

Dan only has two hours in which to assemble a self destruct mechanism. The five parts of this mechanism are scattered around the complex inside the asteroid and they must all be assembled in the control room if the Earth is to be saved. As a safety precaution, there are looked doors which can only be opened one at a time as each piece is inserted into the control panel.

Patrolling around the levels of the asteroid base are the Treens who will readily engage in laser combat with Dan Dare whenever they meet him. Dan's laser has a limited charge so accuracy and range must be taken into consideration rather than mindless blasting in all direction. Extra ammunition can be collected from some of the sectors to keep Dan going but these are limited in number.

The animation of the running figures is very lifelike and Dan will turn to glance at you despairingly If you force him to pause for too long during his race against time. As he goes about his task, his energy is drained by laser blasts or contact with the Treens so you must keep topping up with energy pills which can be found lying around at various points.

Dan Dare: Pilot Of The Future

As platform games go, the aim is fairly rudimentary: shoot the aliens, collect the bomb parts and use the extra ammunition pods and energy pills when necessary. At first I thought this was too simple and I reached level four with no great difficulty, but then the time limit comes into play.

On level one the first bomb piece is relatively easy to find but Treen trouble combined with wall and floor mounted lasers take a large toll of Dan's energy.

Should you be unfortunate enough to exhaust Dan, the screen goes black and our hero awakes in jail. This means that Dan is not only disorientated but also gains a ten minute time penalty. Falling too far from a platform also causes Dan to be captured try the Mekon's lackies. The only exception to this rule is if he lands on a floor gun. No matter how far he falls, an active laser will give him a soft landing.

Dan Dare: Pilot Of The Future

When he successfully collects and returns the bomb section to the control room, he is told that a door opens elsewhere in the asteroid. As you search you must keep your eyes open for these doors so that you know exactly where to go for the next phase of the mission. Each time you move on to a new level and search for the next segment. It becomes more difficult to overcome the Treens. By level three, merely bumping into a Treen can cause Dan to be captured and the penalty time mounts rapidly if you don't act very quickly. This is not helped by the unreliability of the laser gun which sometimes mis-fires.

At this stage an extra peril makes an entrance. Roaming robotic spheres wander the corridors and these cannot be destroyed but my be disabled for a time. If this occurs while over a floor laser, the gun will be crushed by the weight of the falling robot, a useful ploy for removing the increasing number of these energy-sapping modules.

At level five, the floor and wall-mounted lasers are supplemented by extremely lethal guns which fire rapidly and horizontally across the screen. These cannot be defeated and must be avoided before a blackout occurs.

Dan Dare: Pilot Of The Future

Once a bomb has been activated, Dan must find his way back to the asteroid's surface and relocate the Anastasia, Digby and safety. Will he succeed or will he have to destroy the Mekon first? The fate of the world is in your hands, chaps!

The standard of the programming for the Spectrum is a fine example of the skill of Dave Chapman in visualising the graphics designed by Martin Wheeler. The game is free from intrusive attribute problems and flicker, even though the on-screen action is often supplemented by an animated Mekon head uttering threats and pleas from a small monitor screen at the bottom right of the display.

The bottom left of the screen is reserved for status indicators of Dan's laser charge and energy level, as well as a clock readout of time remaining.

Locating the correct place for the lifts requires accurate positioning of Dan. This just becomes second nature if the time limit is to be overcome because he can use the lift to get out of sticky situations. While in transit via a lift, he cannot be harmed by Treens, robots or lasers. Sometimes Dan's capture can help to move him closer to the control room than can be achieved by searching for the correct return route. The other advantage of capture is that the laser gun is automatically given a 50% re-charge if all of the re-energising modules have been used up.

The two hour limit means that Dan can only be allowed a maximum of twelve arrests if he is to complete any of the task. In practice, this is much reduced because of the time ticking away while he searches the complex for the elusive bomb fragments and hidden doors to new levels.

The gameplay is simple enough to lull you into the mistaken belief that it will be a cinch to reach your goal very quickly. This is the hook which leads you to game after game and I spent hours of frustration when reviewing this dastardly fiendish game.

Unfortunately, Dan Dare's creator did not live to see his comic strip hero translated to the technology which he forecast would occur through his stories. The cassette insert carries a dedication to the memory of Frank Hampson who sadly died on 8th July 1986. Few fictional heroes have weathered the ravages of time like Dan and, although his language belongs to an era long since past, he will be remembered by a new generation of science fiction fans through the ingenuity of Virgin Games' Gang of Five programming team.