Come on in, lads! The atmosphere’s lovely!
I’m generally dismissive of the idea that retro-gaming is entirely about “nostalgia”. To me, that’s like saying that playing Scrabble or listening to The Beatles is about “nostalgia”. There are plenty of games from the so-called “Golden Era” of UK videogaming in the ’80s that I think have aged badly and that time has been particularly cruel to (especially the more ambitious games like the Freescape titles) and consequently don’t play very much. And, of course, there are plenty of modern games I’ve more than enough time for. Steam tells me I’ve spent nearly 100 hours picking flowers, failing to hit scarpering deer, and fighting rotting pseudo-vikings in Skyrim, the sad bastard.
But there are some games where it’s definitely all about the nostalgia and very little else. And one of those games is Trantor: The Last Stormtrooper.
Only a few gaming artefacts from the ’80s give me a proper Proustian rush and one of them is the demos given away on a CRASH covertape in October 1987. This was in the era before cover-mounted tapes were common amongst the gaming magazines, which were later reduced to flimsy pamphlets accompanying boxed tapes with gaudy cover art as the press indulged in an ultimately-destructive arms race of mostly-crap old commercial games given away “free”. No, back in 1987 it was “The CRASH sampler”. It was just a tape, attached to the front of the magazine with sellotape. And, unlike most of the covertapes which followed it, all of the programs on it actually worked. And one of them was a demo of Trantor.
Very nice, now let’s see you actually fire whilst jumping, you posey, well-drawn get.
Trantor is quite an interesting game even if it’s not a small, well-remembered, part of your childhood. The demo (following a loading sequence involving a brilliant comic-book style loading screen which wasn’t used in the final release) opened with a lengthy animation showing an intricately detailed and animated spacecraft descending into some kind of pit. A bloke gets out, gestures to others in the ship and then dives to the ground as it noiselessly disintegrates. Even now it looks impressive, back in 1987 it was fucking incredible. And then the game, oh man. The demo gave us a couple of minutes of gameplay featuring a massive central sprite and colourful scrolling. It all looked ridiculously flash and slick. When the demo ended, the viewer was left with the impressive digitised “4-channel” music playing until the plug was pulled. Wham, bam, thankyou ma’am.
When it came out, I bought it, and played it, and really liked it.
And then, many many years later, I loaded it into an emulator and something had happened. I realised that it’s actually a badly designed mess of a game where random placement of often-essential items makes advancement somewhat arbitrary and awful design, fixated on aesthetics rather than gameplay mechanics, means that many enemies are nearly impossible to avoid and Trantor can’t shoot and jump because it’s important that he stick his flamethrower on his back when running, because it looks cool. Trantor is, in short, an early example of a lot of things that went wrong with videogames over the intervening decades: wow factor, presentation and aesthetic design trumping gameplay and enjoyable game mechanics. It’s Shadow of the Beast, it’s Ryse: Son of Rome.
And what’s worse is that I still “like” it, I still play it far more than I play a lot of much better games, new and old, that are more worthy of my attention and I think it’s a big deal when I manage to get quite far. And that, boys and girls, is not because it’s a good game, it’s because of nostalgia and fond memories of loading a tape stuck to a magazine into a ZX Spectrum +. It happens to the best of us.
If you’re intrigued but unwilling to mess around with “fiddly” emulation to play a sub-par game I’ve only a soft spot for because of a cover-mounted demo from 27 years ago then why not watch this YouTube longplay?