What makes a game fun? What makes a game entertaining despite its uncanny resemblance to prior incarnations of similar games? In his book A Theory of Fun for Game Design, game designer Raph Koster suggested that part of what makes games appealing are the patterns, because our minds tend to embrace the struggle to master a new or unfamiliar pattern. At the same time, however, Koster noted that we have a tendency to enjoy games which offer new puzzles within a familiar paradigm — thus the seemingly odd spectacle of seeing reviews in which the reviewer speaks of “tired formulas” or “breathing new life into an old genre” even as fans continue to gobble up the games in question.
I mean, Halo is fun not because it is so different from Quake or Doom but because it actually respects the things that make such games fun: namely, interesting scenery, nasty bad guys, and big guns to blow ‘em all to smithereens. We seem to like new twists, but that doesn’t mean we always want entirely “new” structures of play.
Which brings me to the subject of this review. While it was first released for the Mac several years ago, Deimos Rising remains a fun, frantic game that harkens back to the arcade games of my youth, when the goal was to see how long you could last on one quarter (suffice it to say I never lasted as long as one friend of mine, who could milk what seemed like hours of game play from one tiny coin).
Basically, Deimos Rising is a vertical scrolling shooter, and it honors the things that made those games such monumental time-eaters (some fools might say “time-wasters,” but then they don’t know of what they speak).
I recently tried the Windows port of the game (available in a shareware version from Ambrosia Software). The “sequel” to a 1990s shareware game called Mars Rising, the game’s basic format is simple: you have to fly your little ship (whatever it is, be it a star fighter or some sort of pseudo-military combat fighter, I’m really not quite sure) along a variety of landscapes and blow stuff up before they take you out. Yup, that’s pretty much it. But it is just as possible to reduce virtually any game to a seemingly simplistic common denominator, so that really doesn’t quite do justice to the game — nor define why it is so much fun.
As the pilot, you’re matched up against hordes of aerial and land-based opponents. To make things a bit more interesting (not to mention more difficult), you have two different sets of weapons — the primary laser-type gun to fend of the airborne baddies and a secondary bombing attack to be used against the stationary cannon and mobile tanks on the ground. The bombs have to be “dropped” in close proximity to their targets, and it usually takes several hits to wipe something out on the ground. Meanwhile, of course, you’re being swarmed by the aerial enemies (and if you attack them, you may miss one of the ground-based baddies, who probably won’t miss you).
As you progress through the game’s twelve levels, both the enemies and your ship’s armament become progressively more impressive. The game designers incorporated plenty of special powerups and the like (often a necessity, including the occasional extra life) and yes, the ship is equipped with a set of shields that don’t last very long but can come in handy on occasion. Although the game’s been out a while, the graphics are still sleek and smooth — quite an improvement over the grainy images of those old arcade games, even if the game play remains largely constant.
The system requirements are minimal (Direct X 7, QuickTime 5.0, Pentium 400mhz or higher, 64 Meg memory) and the game promises to play smoothly on almost any machine.
It is intriguing to see the games different people find addicting; as Koster suggests, there must be certain patterns and challenges that intrigue us in different ways. Some people love Solitaire; others can’t get enough of Madden. A game like Deimos Rising has a basic and timeless appeal with its easy accessibility and yet challenging game play.
If you haven’t experienced the game but enjoy vertical-scrolling shooters, check out the shareware version: it may not be a “revolution” in gaming, but it’s an entertaining twist on a classic genre.