The Making Of: Total Eclipse
The team behind the third Freescape game on creating its archaeological adventure game for the Amstrad CPC
The journey that you make around the imposing great pyramid in the first moments of Total Eclipse is one that fills you with excitement, intrigue and adventure. There’s the bright yellow sun casting a shadow over your biplane sitting on the desert sands. There’s a doorway into the pyramid to your right. But just behind that structure is a glimpse of the moon, two hours before a total eclipse. It is, as the watch icon beneath the playing area suggests, 8pm. And it is time to get a move on. Quite why you need to be such in a hurry is explained in the game’s instruction manual. At 10pm on 26 October 1930, the moon is set to totally eclipse the sun, triggering the curse of Re, the God of the Sun, causing Earth’s natural satellite to explode. So there is no time to lose as you seek to destroy the shrine of Re, located at the pyramid’s apex. Only then you start playing. Total Eclipse is slow. Sometimes painfully so. Yet there is a perfectly valid reason for this. The game – which was originally going to be called Curse – was built using the wondrously innovative Freescape engine created by
Major Developments, the software department of publisher Incentive and it pushed the technological boundaries like few games before it.
“It wasn’t thought possible to do solid 3D graphics on 8-bit computers at a reasonable framerate,” says Incentive Software’s founder Ian Andrew. “Before Driller there had been flight sims and Battlezone-type games that used wireframe 3D but you could see through the shapes.”
Undeterred and with some programmers turning the project down, Ian turned to his brother,
Chris, who reckoned he could make it work. It was at that point that the fundamentals of the Freescape titles were nailed. “They had to be adventure games, they had to use shading to get more effective colours and we had to find a method faster than Z buffering [the name given to the management of image depth in 3D graphics],” explains Ian.
Total Eclipse became something of a pinnacle in the Freescape ‘series’. Driller and Dark Side, which were both set in space, had taught the team a lot, not just about the technology they were putting to good use but the type of games that would appeal. “We had learnt that people like the
‘real world’ better
than space,” says Ian. “You can be immersed in a game in a familiar-ish environment much more if you recognise objects and the surroundings better. We learnt how to optimise the code, so we could make things a bit faster and the environments could be bigger.” The result was, as Zzap! concluded, “the most complex and captivating Freescape adventure so far”.
Major Developments consisted of Ian, his brother Chris, Sean Ellis and Paul Gregory, with Freescape – together with its earlier games – created first on an Amstrad CPC. “It had 128K memory and a disc drive,” Chris explains of the choice to use Alan Sugar’s 6128. “The memory also allowed room for the development tools: Devpac Z80 assembler and debugger. Everything was written in Z80 assembler including the routines to multiply and divide numbers.”
Total Eclipse was the most ambitious title yet for the engine. It used 20KB of the CPC’S RAM for the routines, 10KB for the game-specific parts and 10KB for the data. The remainder was used for buffers, variable storage and calculations. More than that, however, was the way in which the game was structured. Aside from using a first-person perspective (“If we showed the character in 3D, it would all move too slowly,” Ian says), Total Eclipse introduced a multitiered level design.
This meant that instead of traipsing around the various rooms that made up the game with your feet firmly on the ground, the 3D environment was much more complex. As you worked your way through the game, solving puzzles and exploring to your heart’s content, you could climb steps and edge yourself across galleries, looking at rooms from up high. It also added a level of confusion which meant players had to map the game or else risk getting lost, but that created a sense of wonder.
It also gave Major Developments an excuse to play around with Lego to prototype the rooms and map the game for their own design purposes. It would certainly have needed a fair few bricks since Total Eclipse was 70 per cent bigger than previous Freescape games, with 50 locations. But, by this point,
Ian and his crew had become more familiar with the engine and they could spend more time on the game. One addition was the introduction of spheres. “I think they were simple to add but I didn’t have to program them in,” recalls Ian. “It was another advancement, though, and I thought the more we could add, the closer to realism we would get, therefore the better the experience it would be.”
Chris admits the spheres weren’t that difficult to achieve given there was a circle routine for drawing the sun and the moon (“they conveniently render as circles,” he says). But aside from the fancy visuals, puzzles were the key component of the game. There were wall panels, pressure pads and treasure chests, together with a need to avoid putting too much stress on your beating heart and keep yourself hydrated by filling your bottle at water stations dotted around the pyramid. “The thinking went along the lines of, ‘We are in Egypt, we are in a pyramid, so what would be in there?’” Ian says. “I think the Indiana Jones films influenced me and we looked at ways of keeping players on their toes.”
Indeed they did, especially with poison darts to contend with. “I like the darts. They really get you going,” Ian continues. “The chest balanced on a pole that may crush you seemed a bit harsh looking back but the increasing heartbeat added a good sense of urgency.” The team resisted, turning the game into an all-out shooter, however, even though the player would need to make good use of a pistol. “I don’t like first-person shooters and I didn’t feel comfortable developing a game like that. Personal preference, I guess,” Ian confides.
Although the speed was touching upon snail-like in relation to 3D games today, Total Eclipse was nevertheless an improvement on Driller and Dark Side. Coprogrammer and designer Paul says every aspect of the Freescape engine was “under pretty constant optimisation” and that, “as new tricks and techniques were developed, optimisations were employed from the very lowest level polygon rasterisation through to the data representation, data flow and geometry representation”.
Indeed, as Chris elaborates, by the time Total Eclipse was being developed “we had learnt how to make the best out of the minimum number of objects”. “We also introduced predefined objects that could be used in more than one area,” he adds, “although Driller had this in a limited preprogrammed way. This allowed bigger worlds for the same data storage.” The 3D engine also let the developers pull of some neat tricks including the ability to not only look up and down and rotate left and right but crouch, too. “Because
“i Think The indiana jones films influenced Me” Ian Andrew
we had built a true 3D engine, things like crouch and look up and down were all there for free,” says Ian.
Memory was the biggest problem, however. “The world data had to be compact – every spare bit was used if possible,” Chris explains. Colours were another issue. “The Amstrad had only four colours at the resolution required and the Spectrum only two, so stippling was used to make up to 15 shades.” On top of that were technical requirements. “The co-ordinates were only 8-bit, so the worlds were broken up into smaller areas,” Chris continues. “You couldn’t see more than one area at a time either, so that reduced the processing power required.” This helped enormously because, as he points out, the Z80 wasn’t fast and the 6502 in the C64 was even slower. “I am still amazed that we managed to get playable games,” he confesses.
And that is exactly what resulted. With Total Eclipse, as Ian says, “there was a feel of being there;
“The home computer club had a LOT Of buying power” Ian Andrew
being aware of what was above and below became important”. The addition of a flashlight, a compass, wrist watch and a pistol, “were all game elements to have in mind so that the player doesn’t relax too much”. Players would need to collect ankhs which allowed them to unlock doors. Any treasure players collected would also let them boost their score, displayed in pounds – “Maybe if I had put a dollar sign in, then we would have sold it into the USA,” laughs Ian. Not that it proved to be a difficult sell on UK soil. Amstrad Action boosted sales by slapping a special-edition cassette demo of the game on to its Christmas issue cover in 1988. In the same issue, it made Dark
Side the Game of the Year and awarded Total Eclipse 93%, making it a Master Game. Meanwhile, Zzap! gave it 94% and it became a Crash Smash on 93%. Sam made versions for the Amiga, Atari ST and PC. “Just by having the framerate much faster meant the experience was better,” says Ian. “We also put more detail in.” A sequel became inevitable.
Released in the Summer of 1989, Total Eclipse II: Sphinx Jinx was actually created to boost the sales of the first game. It was originally made available for the Spectrum,
C64 and Amstrad CPC through the Home Computer Club, a popular mail order company that sent users a monthly catalogue as well as games from its main selection that recipients could decide to keep or send back. Marketed as a double pack with Total Eclipse for a combined price of £7.99 (down from a RRP of £14.95), the ruse alienated those who had the first game. But it worked well for Incentive Software. “The Home Computer Club had a lot of buying power,” Ian says.
The deal had been struck, because Incentive wanted to become the club’s Game of the Month. “That would get us a big order,” he explains. “So to convince them to choose us, I offered them an additional game. As the game format was already done, it only took me a few weeks to create and implement the extra environment and puzzles.” The result was a game with less impact than Total Eclipse but one that was nevertheless very pleasing for fans.
For those that bought the game, more of the same was on offer in a world that was, again, built of shaded geometric blocks. The method of play was also the same, with exploration top of the bill. But the overall objective was different. Rather than seek to find a point in the pyramid, gamers had to locate 12 fragments of a statue hidden in one rather than two hours. It entailed working out the best route, exploring the maze while dealing