Activision’s thoroughly admirable strategy shoot-‘em-up Pastfinder is an often overlooked title in the famous publishers back-catalogue, but is still deserving of attention from Commodore fans, as it’s a beautifully crafted piece of game design. Released in 1984, around the same time as David Crane’s famous Ghostbusters license, and thus rather neglected by Activision’s marketing department, the game failed to make a significant impact in the US. However, thanks to a Sizzler award in the very first issue of Zzap 64, and glowing recommendations from both Gary Penn and Julian Rignall, the game probably gained more prominence and acclaim this side of the pond, and well deserved it was too.
Originally developed for the Atari 800 by Activision designer David Lubar, the game is set in the year 8878 and casts the player in the role of the eponymous Pastfinder of the title, an interstellar explorer and treasure hunter (a sort of future-generation Indiana Jones). At the helm of his or her trusty ‘Leeper’ craft (the unusual four-legged design of which was inspired by a daddy-long-legs) the player is charged with traversing and mapping out a barren alien wilderness, while hunting for various ‘artifacts’ from a long-lost extra-terrestrial civilisation.
The game-world is viewed from an overhead angled perspective in a similar manner to Andrew Braybrook’s later C64 title AlleyKat (quite possibly Andrew was a fan of the game), and though simplistic is rendered in a wonderfully atmospheric manner through clever use of colour and shadows. The unique control system of the Leeper is beautifully fluid. Pushing up on the joystick causes the craft to live up to its name and jump over low structures in its path, as well as gradually increasing its speed (and that of the scrolling background), pulling back slows the ship down. As you move across the screen your craft rotates and animates in a very charismatic manner which is a joy to behold.
The levels consist of a variety of separate scrolling ‘obstacle courses’, littered with various static hazards and the odd hostile, homicidal alien craft. The Leeper can shoot at various destructible enemies, though many of the wall-like structures cannot be destroyed. The enjoyment of the game comes from the excitement of racing against the time limit through the various levels, ducking and weaving over, under and between the various obstacles, while tactically taking out enemies and trying to pick up as many artefacts and power-up items as possible. Cleverly this time-limit is given a believable premise, in the form of ever-building radiation levels which can prove fatal if you take too long in each stage, although you can destroy de-radiating ‘crystals’ as you proceed through each level which can help slow the rate of absorption. The feeling of tension is increased by the eerie ‘Space Invaders’ heart-beat sound-effect which becomes gradually more insistent as you approach fatal radiation levels.
Luckily there are various items of kit and kaboodle with which to equip the Leeper to counter these dangers, which can be selected at the start of each level, but are limited in supply so must be used wisely. The grid-like map screen will show the level of radioactivity in any particular stage before you select and enter it, so you’ll know in advance when it’s best to turn on the ‘Heavy Metal’ anti-radiation device which slows the inevitable build-up of fatal gamma-rays. A ‘Deradiator’ can be used to remove all radiation from the craft at the end/beginning of a stage, useful as otherwise your levels will carry over from stage to stage and if not kept in check will soon having you glowing an unhealthy shade of florescent green. Lastly the ‘Beam Shield’ and ‘Scrambler’ devices can be used to thwart the attacks of the fast-firing enemy ships you’ll encounter in later levels.
The map screen with its 16x13 level grid (that’s 208 stages folks) really gives a nice explorational feel to the game. It’s a similar idea to Jeff Minter’s Anciptal, with the player being able to make his way across the grid in any direction. ‘Bases’ are shown by icons on the map screen, and are useful to visit to drop off your collection of artifacts as soon as you can, because dying loses the player half the number of carried artifacts and reduces your score considerably. Later stages (those furthest from the start point on the grid) are increasingly more dangerous, with such hazards as opening/closing gaps in structures, oscillating barriers, and constantly shifting walls of columns which must be dexterously squeezed through.
Pastfinder is a fascinating and very atmospheric game which seems to have aged remarkably well, a sure-fire mark of great design and playability. For me, the explorational and tactical elements and unique and unusual premise elevate the game well above the average C64 shooter. If you like the sound of it, give it a shot, you might be pleasantly surprised.
|GRAPHICS - 8/10|
|Simplistic but very evocative, with great use of a limited colour-palette and shading.|
|SOUND - 7/10|
|Effective enough, the Space Invaders style heart-beat adds well to the tension.|
|PLAYABILITY - 9/10|
|Still plays really nicely due to the Leeper craft's unique and very slick control system.|
|OVERALL - 8/10|
|A great past Activision classic that deserves to be re-found. |