“How do you make it play games, sir?” – Free Fall

"And, with me... punch! punch! punch! aaand... kick! kick! kick! Come on, mums!"

Free Fall isn’t a terribly well-known game, even by BBC Micro standards which comes as a surprise when you learn that it was programmed by Ian Bell, one half of the duo who gave the world the famous, not to mention ground-breaking, space-sim-cum-trade-em-up Elite.

Free Fall is nothing like Elite, let’s make that clear from the off. If you’re hoping to see the germ of that well-known title you’ll be disappointed, although this game does show an imagination and experimental approach to video-gaming that makes it stand-out from the various coin-op clones that were being published on the Acorn machine at the time. Free Fall is an action game, but not quite, in the sense that action games are usually straightforward to play and to learn to play and Free Fall feels like the player needs some kind of certificate of competence before they can take to the keyboard.

I’ll try and explain things as best I can. The player controls a wee man in a spacesuit who floats through some kind of gravity-free chamber (a look at a page dedicated to this game on Ian Bell’s website tells me it’s supposed to be a Coriolis space station – an Elite link?). This chamber is shortly invaded by various alien beasties who float and spin throughout the room and make a nuisance of themselves; the aliens are also joined by bombs which also worryingly float around the play area. The whole thing, unusually for a BBC Micro game, has been rendered in high-res black and white rather than the usual chunky 8-colour mode.

The player character can (deep breath) punch with his right arm, punch with his left arm, kick with his right leg, kick with his left leg, fire his left propulsion, fire his left propulsion, fire rear propulsion and grab a bomb. Each of these controls has a separate key (although, to be fair, they’re at least intelligently arranged); somehow a separate joystick mode has also been implemented.

Firing the spaceman’s propulsion makes him spin depending on what side is used whilst both at the same time makes him fly straight down (although since he’s in a gravity-free environment, down is entirely relative) and using the rear propulsion makes him fly “up”; the punch and kick buttons do what you’d expect. If he hits the sides he often grabs ahold of them and “punching” with the relevant arm will make him drift free. When the player drifts near aliens he can punch or kick them or, if he’s managed to grab one of the bombs, can try throwing (by pressing punch) it at them and hoping for the best. Touching the enemy drains energy and if they take it all then, as you’ve probably guessing, it’s Game Over time.

Free Fall sounds pretty good as a concept but, unfortunately, it just doesn’t work all that well. For a start, there are just too many controls and even though the player gets used to them after a short while it’s all too easy to punch when you wanted to rotate left and vice versa. It’s also the sort of game where you can obtain similar high scores by trying to play it properly or just pressing buttons at random as it’s difficult to be precise but quite easy to do things accidentally. Nice idea, fairly poor game. Thank goodness Elite was just around the corner.

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