The Commodore 64 version of Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future bears little resemblance to the Amstrad CPC incarnation. The plot is the same – Dan still lands on an asteroid which the Mekon is planning to use to destroy the Earth – but the game is completely different. This time around, we have an arcade adventure where Dan, accompanied by a dog-ish pet-thing called “Stripey”, wanders around inside the asteroid looking for the Mekon’s lair and trying to save Digby who’s been kidnapped (and presumably not placed on the other side of a chasm this time) along with someone called “Professor Peabody”. I don’t know much about the original strip, but I’m assuming that Professor Peabody doesn’t have an actual pea for a body.
Anyway, the player controls Dan as he wanders around looking for things to do. And I mean that, because for the first twenty minutes or so that’s exactly what playing this game feels like. Unlike a lot of games in this genre, you won’t find yourself catapulted into distinctive rooms filled with useful-looking objects to grab and ponder the use of. Instead you’ll find a lot of empty, grey, caverns and your first task is to find where the exits are in the edges of many screens because they’re not obvious much of the time. I’m not kidding.
In between exploring, Dan has the occasional fisticuffs with Treens who are patrolling the caverns, presumably having drawn the short straw in the guard’s barracks. Unlike the previous Amstrad CPC incarnation I wrote about, there don’t seem to be any guns in this game and so when Dan runs into a Treen (who walk around rather than floating, thanks be to fuck) he engages them in gentlemanly fisticuffs. This would be rather fun if the “fighting” mechanism wasn’t so utterly inept. Essentially, the player pushes ”fire” and then “up” to have Dan raise his arms and “down” to have him move them to roughly the middle of his body. Pressing “fire” and the direction of the enemy make him punch at whatever height his arms are (ie in the enemy’s head or their body). Generally, I fought by holding down “fire” and the relevant direction causing Dan to punch over and over until the enemy was defeated because that’s the most complicated and involving it gets and that’s all the skill it takes; although the Treen is likely to get a few punches in reducing Dan’s energy (if he runs out it’s game over). Essentially, each fight is a foregone conclusion which will take a bit of your strength until you’ve so little left that the Treen wins. Dan also has some grenades which he can lob at Treens if the player can’t be arsed fighting but, apparently, they should be reserved for fighting the Mekon. So don’t. Much.
The rest of the game is standard arcade-adventure puzzles, although the system used is extremely simplistic. Basically, if Dan encounters something which can be manipulated (a hanging vine, say) the game will flash-up an alert in the form of a text box designed to look, appropriately, like something from a cartoon strip. The player then pushs “fire” and uses “up” and “down” to scroll through the options of what Dan can do with the object, which might be just “pick up” or might be some other kind of manipulation. The whole arcade-adventure aspect of the game works like this, there are no complicated commands to remember but there also seems to be no inventory to check-up on. Depending on your viewpoint this is either a pleasingly no-nonsense and stripped-back interface or overly-simplistic.
So, taking all that into account, how does the game shape-up overall? Well, I’m pleased to say that this is certainly better than the Amstrad CPC version. The graphics are marginally better for a start – Dare and the Treens look rubbish but the backgrounds are quite nice and atmospheric – and the gameplay, despite initial unfriendliness (especially stomping around looking for exits) and frustration becomes quite involving later on with some smart puzzles to solve (such as directing the beam from a massive laser). This is worth playing, even today, but its faults – notably the woeful fighting system – drag it down quite a bit.
And (I’m going to put this here because I couldn’t think of anywhere better off-hand, sorry) I’m still not sure what “Stripey” is supposed to do beyond hang around Dare’s feet and make stupid noises. I’m sure there must be a purpose for him somewhere…
As well as the original C64 version, this game has also been the subject of a remake for Windows by Ovine by Design. You can get it here. Dan looks rather more like Dan Dare in that version and less like a blocky hunchback. The Treens still look a bit daft, tho’.