You take games too seriously.

Escape Velocity: An Indie Appreciation

How can you not love a title screen like this?

When I was a kid, we didn’t have videogames in our house. No NES, no Sega, no Game Boy. It wasn’t until late in the SNES cycle that I weeded enough yards to pick up an SNES, and the world finally opened up in front of me. I rented Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy III, racked up massive late charges, and the rest is history.

But what we did have was a Apple Performa 6116CD – perhaps the worst gaming machine on the planet, excluding the Apple Pippin. The 60mhz PowerPC 601 and 8 MB of RAM could barely power a QuickTime movie, let alone Marathon. But there were people out there who knew exactly what this biege, Gil Amelio-era monstrosity was capable of.

If you had a Mac in the ’90s, you know what I’m headed for. While the PC side had id and Epic to keep them company, those of us who cruised around on Performas and LCIIIs know the real masterminds of ’90s shareware: Mac publisher extraordinaire Ambrosia Software. Ambrosia’s still around today, and making absolutely necessary utilities (and a game, here and there) for Mac OS X and the iPhone. They’re certainly one of the longest-running and most successful shareware publishers, even in this era of swapped serial numbers and open source. 

But in the ’90s, they were first and foremost a game publisher. Apieron, Maelstrom, Avara, Barrack, Swoop – just a few of the names that will bring a smile to the face of anyone who played Mac games back in the day. Ambrosia staked their claim on arcade-y games, based on familiar game mechanics with unique and charming twists, and an undeniable and charming sense of humor. Their house style was immaculate, and nothing came out until it was immaculately polished – think of their supposed Quake-killer, Manse, a survival horror FPS that lived screenshot to screenshot for years until it was finally canned, looking better than the vast majority of shovelware on the PC side.

Escape Velocity, though, was a masterpiece, a piece of intelligent and complicated gameplay with a depth completely unheard of in the shareware world. 

How Escape Velocity and its sequels shaped my appreciation of gaming, and what I think modern games have to learn from it, after the jump.

For the unfortunate many who never had the pleasure of playing Escape Velocity, imagine Asteroids: The RPG. The top-down gameplay looked like any arcade space shooter, and the weapons and ships only added so much complication to a battle system that survived mainly on circle-strafing and homing missiles.

Where Escape Velocity shined, though, was marrying story and depth to this simple setup. The small initial universe, travelled through interstellar jumps, quickly grew as your own abilities grew, just as the initially simple story developed into a series of deep paths you could select or ignore. In its sequels, the game allowed you to choose from up to six factions, with entire arcs developed around each. The original limited you to two, the Rebellion and the Confederation, two classic and iconic models with their own advantages and disadvantages. The story was told through simple but enthralling missions – sometimes speeding escapes, other times massive battles – written in koanlike four-line dialogue bits upon landing on a planet.

As a solely single-player game, though, Escape Velocity allowed you to travel and play however you liked. A surprisingly deep trading system allowed you to purchase a massive freighter – slow-moving and ill-equipped for battle – and carry massive loads of cargo from system to system, searching for places to buy low, sell high, and conquer the galaxy. This path left you weakened to pirates, though, including Cap’n Hector, Ambrosia’s mascot, who would swoop in, remind you to register, and after 30 days begin unleashing merciless beatings on your ship.

This was a sandbox game before the term ever caught on, and a truly wonderful sandbox – one in which there were always bigger goals. The tinkering nature of the shipcraft meant that you could always hope to find the a better, faster ship – or maybe just one more suited to you. You could enlist others to do your bidding for you. You could even sit out random fights, watching the other combatants take each other out, and then swoop in to pirate the credits and equipment from the defeated parties. And eventually, when you built your power enough, you could take on entire planets, until they were forced to pay massive tributes to you, and just by traveling, your fortune could increase immensely.

Unlike so many other sandbox games, Escape Velocity builds and builds upon itself. Each time you choose a path, you open up new forms of gameplay, without removing the old ones from possibility. If you ever felt like credits, you could bounty hunt, trade, or resume the story missions. Ships could be acquired through piracy or hard work. The story was a massive undertaking, especially in the sequels.

Escape Velocity starts simple – Asteroids: The RPG – and then takes that path for all of its many possibilities. It is wise and immaculate game design, as evidenced in its two sequels which may as well have been mission packs, despite all evidence that the developers sought to build different and better games. It’s a reminder of how deep and effective a simple idea can be when taken to its logical extremes. 

Escape Velocity and Escape Velocity: Override are still available, but will not run on Mac OS X. However, Escape Velocity: Nova, the third game in the series, is available for Windows XP and Mac OS X, and mission packs encompassing the scenarios for the first two games are available. The game is $30.00 from Ambrosia Software, and is worth every penny to this day.

– Sam Ryan


Filed under: Commentary, Retro Today, Reviews, , , , , ,

5 Responses

  1. Pom says:

    As a fellow 90s Mac owner, I knew exactly what this article was to be about when I saw that picture.
    A fair appraisal of, and a worthy tribute to, a game well ahead of its time, and almost completely obscured by so few having had the opportunity to experience it.

  2. […] etc), I had fun with them because they were just… well… awesome games. I saw over on Hard Casual a review of one of my favorite games of all time from my childhood, Escape Velocity. It brought […]

  3. Ishman says:

    Oh god, I still play Nova to this day, and your lack of mention of the EV games greatest strength – mods, is irksome.

    Also might mention Ares.

  4. Adam says:

    Ah, Escape Velocity the original on the mac has to be the greatest game that I have ever played, and in the ten years since I first played it, I have yet to enjoy any game more!

  5. zmfrederick says:

    Great game. I wrote a similar (although yours is much longer and more thorough) about the top classic mac games. Hint: my number 1 coincides with this post quite nicely. check it out if you’re interested: http://bit.ly/ejVEnv

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this is a blog about video games by chris plante, sam ryan and chris littler.

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