Now here’s a thing: I’d always assumed that Cecco’s first game was Cop Out (of which more in the future… at some point) but a little research reveals that Equinox was reviewed in the gaming press a few months before and so it looks like that was the first ZX Spectrum sprog Rafaelle dropped (and I’m going to leave that metaphore there because the mental image it created isn’t suitable for a Sunday afternoon as I type). So, having decided that this next article was going to be about the first Cecco title, Equinox it is.
Equinox was published in late summer 1986 on the Micro-Gen label. A quick glance at the screenshot in the top-right will give those who know their British 8-bit software a pretty strong idea of what successful games this was aspiring to; we’ll see how it compares later on.
The plot is nice and straightforward – humans want to colonise a new world but can’t until dangerous radioactive materials, kept in cannisters, are disposed of. Naturally, it’s down to the player to do this dirty work. Gameplay wise, this is practically a perfect museum-piece for the 8-bit era. It’s got flick-screen gameplay, it’s got lots of indeterminately-designed villains flying around that can be shot with a straight-beam laser, it’s got an energy-based life system for the bad guys to sap, it’s got pick-up-here and use-there “arcade adventure” gameplay of the sort now widely dismissed as a relic of a bygone age (even though many modern games essentially use the same device only with added narrative and cinematics that allows washed-up actors to explain in sub-George Lucas dialogue the mystical properties of the red key before the “incredible set-piece” of the red door opening); it also has a curio of the era: the player controls a rather impersonal sphere (see also: Rasterscan, Marble Madness, Nonterraqueous, arguably Spindizzy and the determined-to-fuck-up-my-punctuation I, Ball) as opposed to something recognisably humanoid or even sentient. Whether this was a gaming fad at the time or, more likely, down to the fact that such player characters were a lot easier to draw I can’t say for sure.
First impressions of Equinox scream “Starquake” at you but this is not simply a copy of the 1985 hit. For a start, there are the aforementioned arcade-adventure elements. As play progresses, the player will find their way blocked by numerous inconvenient barriers, from piles of rocks to, well, doors. There’s actually little explicit logic for some of the “which object removes which barrier” puzzle-solving (why does a hand-held drill remove one door, for instance?) but with a little experimentation, the player soon gets used to it – if you find a barrier covering an exit then there’s an object somewhere that’ll remove it and (usually) there’s a certain amount of common sense at play (ie a key opens a door, dynamite clears piles of rubble). The game is also divided into levels, each of which contains a radioactive cannister which must be disposed of to make the level safe and these stages are literally “unlocked” (back when this word was not yet ubiquitous in gaming) using keycards which give access to the next level. What is interesting is that the player is able to move back and forth between current and previous stages, unusual at the time. There are also transporters for moving from one part of a level to another and which are activated by collecting and using something which I think is supposed to be one of those plasma ball things (as memorably featured on a Kenny Everett TV quiz show in the late ’80s, the name of which escapes me) but which looks more like a marble, one of those round sticking plasters or a cyan eyeball (depending on what kind of mood I’m in). Actually, thinking about it maybe it’s a lady ball (or a gentleman ball – we don’t know the player character’s sex after all): that gives a whole new meaning to “pick up”.
If we’re going to be honest, though, Equinox is generally rather unspectacular. It lacks the enormous scale of something like Starquake and the arcade-adventure aspect of play is very crude and seems to be more a way of forcing the player to backtrack through each level’s quite small number of screens than anything else. Certainly, the puzzles don’t seem to be unique and once the player has worked out what object to use with which barrier the “arcade adventuring” turns more into a search for “keys”. Despite all that, this game is still rather fun. It looks nice and colourful and there are some nice touches such as the large green harmless aliens in some rooms which sit there doing nothing except occasionally blinking their one massive eye, embryonic versions of the sort of thing which became characteristic of later games by the same programmer; it also plays rather well in a Starquake-light way and is, arguably, better suited to an era when many retro-gamers prefer more casual games to epic mappers like the aforementioned Steve Crow classic. Whilst Equinox pales next to the likes of Cybernoid, this is still an interesting early title from a great 8-bit programmer.