3D engines are everywhere these days — you can probably name at least two off the top of your head — but in the late 1980s, they were a new and exciting phenomenon.
One of the first companies to figure out a means of making a reusable 3D engine that could be applied to multiple games without too much difficulty was Incentive Software from Reading in the UK, who developed a system they dubbed “Freescape”.
The first game released that made use of Freescape was named Driller, and unfortunately at the time of writing I’m yet to play it. This was subsequently followed up in 1988 by Dark Side, which I did play, however, and have some rather fond memories of.
Let’s talk about that Freescape engine first of all. By today’s standards, of course, it’s enormously basic, but at the time it was an impressive achievement — particularly considering that it wasn’t limited to running on the more powerful 16-bit machines such as the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga.
Freescape allowed for the creation of a 3D “world” split into areas that each had a floor and contained as many primitive objects as the host hardware could handle. These objects could be cuboids, pyramids (technically four-sided frustums if you want to get mathematical), triangles, rectangles, quadrilaterals, pentagons, hexagons and line segments. The engine also supported invisible “sensor” objects that could detect where the camera was in the scene; since Freescape games typically unfolded from a first-person perspective, this, by extension, meant that games could detect where the player was.
Freescape was deliberately limited to allow it to be a piece of technology that was portable to a variety of different systems, some of which had considerably less in the way of processing power and memory. It was a wise decision; the inherent limitations allowed the games to run just fine on even Sinclair’s ZX Spectrum, one of the least powerful (albeit most popular) 8-bit systems of the 1980s.
The 16-bit versions of the Freescape games were the definitive versions, as you might expect. Not only did they include mouse support, which made interacting with the game world a lot easier, they also boasted full 16-colour graphics rather than the limited colour or monochrome visuals of their 8-bit counterparts. They were a fairly impressive sight back in the day; although 3D engines specifically built for 16-bit hardware could provide more in the way of detail, Freescape’s visuals offered a pleasingly distinctive, abstract view of the game world that made them immediately recognisable. On top of that, they had cool digitised sound effects and a great, atmospheric soundtrack by Wally Beber. (Annoyingly, the 8-bit C64 version also had this latter aspect and actually sounded much better than the ST’s rendition of it, but we don’t talk about that.)
Enough of the techie stuff. What of Dark Side? Well, as previously noted, it’s a sequel to Driller, a game in which you had to stop a moon from exploding by drilling holes in the right places. In Dark Side, this time it’s Tricuspid, the other moon of the planet Evath, that is putting lives at risk — the evil Ketars have constructed an enormous cannon on the moon’s dark side, and once it charges up, they are going to fire it right at Evath, destroying it. Naturally it is up to a single, lone hero — that’s you, that is — to sort this whole mess out and save the planet. Oh, and you don’t have very long to do so; apparently your bus was late or something, so you’d better get moving quickly the moment you arrive on Tricuspid.
Dark Side is, at heart, a sort of logic puzzle game. In order to deactivate the cannon, you need to reduce its power level to zero, and you do this by destroying Energy Collection Devices (or ECDs) — large, candle-shaped structures that are connected together by power lines. The tricky twist on this task is that any ECD that is connected to two or more other active ECDs will immediately regenerate if you destroy it, so you’re going to have to find the best places in the network to start in order to even be able to make the slightest dent in those power levels.
Also, the big cannon is locked behind a giant door in a restricted area of Tricuspid that you can’t access unless you have the appropriate crystals to activate a telepod. And said door is locked unless you collect all four letters of the word “DARK”, which, naturally, are also all stored in different restricted areas. Good luck, soldier, you’re gonna need it. Did I mention time is running out?
Dark Side is immediately pretty intuitive to play, though it’s interesting to note that it includes a number of movement and looking options that didn’t become standard in first-person 3D games until much later. You can move forwards and backwards and turn left and right — no strafing here, that didn’t become a thing until later PC-based first-person games — using a joystick or keyboard controls. Additional keyboard controls or icons on the mouse-based interface allow you to look up and down and tilt your head left and right — the latter of which is entirely useless, but was seen as impressive back in the day — as well as fire up a jetpack to fly into the sky, or crouch down to get under low objects.
Moving the mouse cursor into the 3D world allows you to fire a laser; this is primarily used to interact with objects, though there are a few enemies in the game that take the form of big red tanks that need to be destroyed before they blast your shields to oblivion or run you over. Fortunately, they all move on very predictable paths rather than following you — where they move at all — so they’re usually dispatched pretty easily.
As previously noted, the Freescape engine allowed for a world to be created from discrete areas. In Dark Side’s case, this means that Tricuspid is split into separate named “sectors”, each of which has a distinctive colour scheme as well as objects that populate it. The sectors that form the equator of Tricuspid wrap around on themselves infinitely, while the Light Side and Dark Side sectors are accessible from any of the sectors that are to the north and south of the equator — assuming there’s not a restricted area force field in the way.
Walking off the side of a sector immediately takes you to the next if there is one in that direction — there’s no load times between areas. There are also buildings in various sectors; again, these are treated as discrete areas rather than something you can freely wander in and out of, but also again, there are no loading times when entering them. There’s a nice feeling of coherence to the world as a whole — one impressive area features an overhead walkway, for example, and it’s possible to enter that walkway and pass through its inside as well as seeing it from the outside. There’s also an underground tunnel that runs the length of the equator, allowing you to drop down a hole in one area and pop up somewhere else; there’s one sector where this is essential to do to avoid being spotted by security detectors and thrown in jail.
Once you figure out the correct order in which to do things, Dark Side is extremely short — we’re talking like 10-15 minutes tops, here. The difficulty is with working out that correct order and doing so within the time limit. The time limit itself is implemented rather interestingly; rather than a hard countdown, it’s represented by a charging power meter at the side of the screen, and the speed at which this meter charges is affected by the number of ECDs that are still active. In other words, destroy some ECDs and the timer will slow down, effectively giving you more time to figure out what to do.
For the most part, the core “puzzle” of the game is pretty straightforward to figure out — it’s mostly a case of following the power lines until you reach a terminus, at which point you can usually then simply proceed back along the same path, blasting any ECDs on the route. There are a few tricky points where a single ECD is fed into from multiple directions — those on the Light Side of Tricuspid and the sector known as Fomalhaut are particularly troublesome in this regard — but with a bit of logical thinking (and perhaps making a map) it’s not hard to figure out how to do this part.
The tricky bit is getting the final ECD needed to clear the game by acquiring those aforementioned “DARK” letters from the restricted areas. Three of the four telepod crystals you need to achieve this are lying in plain sight — though one requires you to deliberately get thrown into prison, so I hope you didn’t destroy all those detectors before that happened — but the fourth requires the most ridiculous, convoluted and “how the fuck is anyone supposed to work that out” string of events I’ve seen for a long time.
I’ll save you some trouble. Go to the Regulus sector where you start the game. Shoot the door on the storage building to open it. Go inside. Crouch down and turn to the right as you enter to find a small crawlspace. Proceed through it to find yourself in another room. Shoot the “axe” symbol on the wall until it makes a weird noise. Exit the building, then go north to the Sirius sector. Fly up on your jetpack and drop down the hole in the building roof. Shoot the cube inside, then fly back out again. Then go into the equator tunnel, look for a light in the ceiling that is a different colour and shoot the wire that is holding it on the ceiling. Voila! One yellow telepod crystal, because that makes perfect sense.
This is the only really stupid puzzle in the game — and, to be honest, with a bit of time and lateral thinking you could probably work it out with the aid of the comprehensive but baffling “cryptic clues” segment in the back of the manual, which walks you through the entire game in the style of Daily Telegraph crossword hints — but it’s something that can bring a playthrough to a screeching halt when you’re just about to finish the game. Thankfully, there is a save game feature that allows you to pick up from a convenient point if you fail — though with the total length of the game being as short as it is, it almost feels like cheating to use it.
Dark Side is a cool, enjoyable game, and there’s even reason to replay it once you’ve beaten it once thanks to its scoring system. Scoring more points is dependent on you finding all the shield and fuel regeneration points throughout the game and still being able to complete your main task within the time limit — harder than it sounds! Besides that, it’s simply fun to look back on an early example of a 3D game and consider how different the approach was then to how it is now.
Is Dark Side the best Freescape game? Hard to say — partly because I haven’t finished Total Eclipse and haven’t played Castle Master at all yet — but it’s certainly one of my favourites.