Just because something is pioneering in some way that doesn’t necessarily make it any good, some of the earliest television was a nazi version of daytime TV for goodness’ sakes, but anything that helps pioneer a genre is going to be well-remembered, right?
Of course, dear reader, you’re probably more than aware that I’m deploying my sarcasm grenades in the above sentence. It’s long been a problem of ’80s videogaming that much of it gets forgotten, lost under the mountains of other cultural baggage from the period. And European videogames, relatively obscure compared to their Japanese and American cousins, get this more than most.
Why am I telling you this? Well, a couple of years ago a small edit war started on Wikipedia’s page about Real-Time Strategy games. The conventional wisdom is that this genre, which has given up the Command and Conquer and Warcraft series amongst other things, started with a 1992 videogame called Dune 2. Dune 2 is a hugely important game, historically, because it definitely defined the modern RTS game with its player-created bases, factories, resource-gatherers and troop-building but it wasn’t actually the first RTS. This lead to a short rash of fanboys and gaming historians trying to determine what actually was. In the end, no one could really decide and so, as of writing, the entry is a little uncertain on the issue. However, I’ve decided to pick one of these games out from that list, dust it off and hold it, blinking, into the light of 2009 for you all to see. That game is 1987’s Nether Earth.
And it’s an interesting one, seemingly filling an “evolutionary” gap between the earliest stuff like Stonkers and the later Dune 2, chances are this game was never played by Westwood Studios before they started programming their genre-defining title (supposedly, their main inspiration was a Sega Megadrive title called Herzog Zwei). Nether Earth does feature early versions of some things which were found in later titles, though, even if they developed them independently and it’s worth having a look at for this reason.
The game’s plot, something about humans and a rival race called the Insignians battling it out on some planet somewhere, is little-more than a setting for a standard one side versus another face-off. Gameplay itself takes place over a long, thin map with the player base at one with the Insignian bases (of which there are several) deployed further along the map with the player needing to conquer them progressively, one after the other, until the game is won.
And what do both sides use to fight this war? Giant robots, of course, big old robots that, in an excellent bit of thinking, the player designs themselves out of various modules. You can probably guess the sort of building-blocks that are available: various “transportation” modules from legs to hover-thingies which determine how fast the robots move, plus all sorts of different weapons – standard shooting stuff plus an on-board nuclear bomb (apparently used to demolish enemy bases) – and electronic support modules which make the robots a bit more accurate at shooting.
Each robot, once built, can be manually controlled or given orders. The orders are fairly simple: “advance X number of miles”, “retreat X number of miles”, “search and capture”, “search and destroy” and “stop and defend”. “Search and capture” is used to capture the various factories which are located throughout the game map; these factories specialise in certain modules and capturing them makes more of these modules available to create robots.
So, as you can probably tell, we have some of the basics of the Dune 2 template in Nether Earth albeit in a different form. We have a base, we have units constructed from limited resources and we have factories which can be captured by either side and which play the part of resource-creation. Nether Earth doesn’t really play anything like Dune 2, though, and not in a good way.
You see, the problem with this game is that it just doesn’t have the sense of immediacy that Westwood’s later title has. The main problem with this is the way the warfare is handled. In Dune 2, we have a map we can click on and visit any part of at any time to see how things are going. In Nether Earth the player controls a flying machine which flies over the (long and thin, remember) battlefield and has to physically visit the front line in order to see what’s happening. Even when the Insignian robots and your robots are duking it out quite near to home base (and this happens worryingly early on into a game) it still takes a while to fly up and find them. Given that the game map is pretty long, flying back and forth (controlled bases are the only place robots can be built) soon becomes very tedious. It also makes it hard to keep track of what’s happening on the frontline beyond the farty-noise sound effects which give some indication of what’s happening (although not much beyond “someone is shooting” and “someone has been blown up”). It’s been argued that this makes Nether Earth realistic because, in real wars, generals aren’t usually at the front line and need to base their strategy on reports. This, however, ignores the fact that, unless you’re a bit mental, real wars aren’t actually any fun.
Oh, and the fact that the robots, even the “fast” one move at the same rate as grandpa on valium doesn’t help.
And this is the problem with Nether Earth. It’s a strategy wargame, there’s a goal, there’s the means to achieve it and it’s all done in real time (which, back in 1987 was pretty original) but it just isn’t much fun and you spend far too long flying back and forth over the landscape and worrying that those three stubby wee robots you told to advance 100 miles are going to get their tin arses kicked without you even seeing it happen. There might be some people who would find this kind of “hope for the best” long-range strategy interesting in which case good luck to you all, but for me Nether Earth is a game that’s aged badly, something that the march of game development has simply left behind. Maybe it needs more time put in, time to develop a strategy but I simply couldn’t get past the tedium of flying back and forth and the irritation of not being able to tell how well the battle was going much of the time. File under “of historical interest only”.
As usual, I played the Spectrum version and wasn’t terribly keen on taking a look at the versions for other platforms. I doubt they’re all that.