This Sunday marks the 22nd anniversary of Atari’s last real game console, the Atari Jaguar. I’ve spoken of it often on this blog, hoping in my little way to correct the record from do bits matter to games it has that are actually good. While I obviously am pro-Jaguar, I can recognize that it had some stinkers – Kasumi Ninja, Club Drive, Checkered Flag, White Men Can’t Jump – but I just don’t accept that those are the games which are supposed to define the system as a whole. Thus, these Gems of the Jaguar articles. Previous titles covered: Zero 5, Rayman, Super Burnout, Missile Command 3D, & Wolfenstein 3D. Today I’m going to cover a game that has had its share of controversy, which began development while the Jaguar was still actively being sold on the market but didn’t get a wide release until a few years afterwards – 4Play’s BattleSphere.
I got into the Jaguar during the post-death revival – when companies like Telegames were releasing some unfinished games for the system around 1997-1999 to give it an extra life line. At that time it was impossible to visit Jaguar forums or fan pages without hearing about the upcoming BattleSphere. As the story was told, Atari had apparently cancelled the development of their Space War 2000 game for the console after seeing an alpha build of BattleSphere in action. Fortunately for Jaguar fans, the developers kept up the work despite the fact that Atari stopped making the system and after a lot of patient waiting, the game was released in the Spring of 2000. A bit of drama has existed in the Jaguar community since, generally hinging on the fact that the games proceeds were donated to charity and so the developers were not very happy with people reselling the game for big bucks on eBay. Last I checked the game still fetches a high price when resold, which wasn’t resolved by the release of an enhanced version of the game called BattleSphere Gold. I unfortunately missed out on the BSGold release so I only have the original to go off of. But from all I have heard, BSGold is the version to get with improved graphics and play.
I don’t really want to focus on the behind-the-scenes/drama stuff about the game as that long ago stopped being interesting but rather the game itself. What BattleSphere brought to the Jaguar was a modern space dogfighting game with different game modes that served to add replay value to the overall game and show off what the Jaguar could do on a technical level. It is like a blend of the 90s TIE Fighter with Atari’s original Star Raiders. The player gets to choose from piloting different ship classes between seven different alien races, which also boosted the replayability. You can’t control starbases or capital ships so it comes down to finding a fighter, bomber or a supership that feels right. The smaller the ship the faster it is but the weaker the offensive and defensive systems are. The game also has an interesting physics model where a passing ship will ‘tug’ on yours. You can also take damage from debris – which sometimes can be used to your advantage as enemies will also experience that same damage. As you fly through space, the stars don’t zip by your craft since you aren’t moving at FTL speeds; instead various non-colliding space debris zips by to help give you that sense of movement (including a Coke can every once in a while if you look carefully 😛 ).
There are five game modes to go through including:
Training – While a tutorial doesn’t seem very interesting, they gave this 20 levels to go through that become quite the challenge. You don’t need to complete this to experience the other modes, but it does help become familiar with the game overall. I think the highest I managed to clear was level 15.
Free-For-All – Essentially an arena deathmatch mode. You fight 15 other ships trying to reach the top score first. Always great to use this mode as a way to get a feel for the different ships and races.
Gauntlet – This is a wave survival and defense mode. As a comparison, you could think of it as something like Killing Floor or Nazi Zombies but for space and you have specific starbases to defend. Wave after wave of enemies come at you, trying to destroy those starbases. The longer you survive, the tougher it gets but so does the variety of what is thrown at you.
Alone Against The Empires – As mentioned, the game itself is a bit of a homage to Atari’s Star Raiders (particularly the 8-bit PC version) and this particular mode is the closest thing we have seen to “Star Raiders 2000” or a proper Star Raiders remake (sorry shoddy X360 version). While BattleSphere does lack the technical systems management that Star Raiders had, the rest of this mode is about keeping your bases safe across 64 sectors of space while working to take out the enemy starbases and their fighters. One aspect that stands out is that this mode introduced a strategy element to the play – while in the galactic map, you could tell your friendly units to move sectors, either protecting a starbase or attacking enemy units or a starbase. As a fan of the original SR, this is the mode I’ve generally played the most.
BattleSphere – The main mode of the game as indicated by the title but it is not playable on a single console, which I will get into in a moment. At its core, it is a capture-the-flag type mode, with two alien races “placed into the BattleSphere” to duke it out in taking over the opponents starbases with a special weapon. To get to that point you have to rack up your kills/score to upgrade the weapons then strike when the time is right. In a way, it is a little like a blend of Gauntlet and Alone Against The Empires.
Across the board, the AI stands out in this game. Enemy craft will go on kamikaze runs if the situation is looking desperate on their side and they tend to have other tactics in battle that makes memorizing patterns not terribly useful.
Historical Tidbit: One of the people that worked on this game worked for VM Labs of NUON fame for a time. He tried to get BattleSphere brought to that hardware but the proposal was shot down.
One important thing to note about all of these modes is a feature that very, very few games on the console bothered to take advantage of – console networking. In Free-For-All mode, you could network up to sixteen Jaguars (and thanks to the game supporting 2 player co-op, that means 32 players) for an all out battle; Gauntlet mode supports 1-2 consoles; then BattleSphere mode supports anywhere between 2-8 consoles. Alone Against the Empires and Training modes are the only ones that don’t use the feature. (As a note, the only other games to try and use the network abilities were Doom which could only connect two consoles and the crappy Aircars, which could handle up to 8 consoles but it wasn’t a very good game so good luck finding people to play with; devices like the JagLink, JagLink II, CatBox and ScatBox allowed Jaguars to network together). As users saw with Doom, network could be spotty with various errors as there was a bug discovered in the console’s UART chip after release and developers pretty much had to code the network from scratch, making it a difficult task on a console that was already a bit of a challenge to code for. But 4play did often claim that the more Jaguars linked together, the better the game would run as they used the concept of cloud processing. I’ve only played the game linked once and that was with two consoles and since the game was designed with that focus in mind, it was fun.
Footage of a networked BattleSphere game
Graphically the game played to the Jaguar’s strengths as opposed to trying to out-do the N64. All of the vehicles use gouraud shaded polygons with a little bit of texture mapping (that 4Play called “Decal Mapping” – for things like the race symbol). The frame rate averages around 30FPS with the resolution hitting “320×240, overscanned” and at a 16-bit color depth and the LOD could reach objects showing up as 1 x 1 pixels (so no fog or sudden pop-up like in Darxide; you can sometimes destroy an enemy when they are way out of normal firing range). The cockpits are nicely detailed as 2D overlays but they are affected by lighting – move around and you’ll see the shading change which is a nice little touch. There are also objects like stars with lens flare or distant colorful nebulae that were thrown in to spruce things up. The menus are very tech-demo like in their nature – running at 24-bit color, the animated orbs there used the fabled “real-time raytracing” technique that was a bit of Holy Grail back in the 90s. Overall the graphics package of this game is good, they probably could have claimed it was “artistic” in that it wasn’t trying to be super photo-realistic with fully texture mapped models.
BattleSphere Gold in action
The audio for Jaguar games often is really poor (say like Trevor McFur) or really great (Tempest 2000) – so often there was no in-between – and BattleSphere lands on the great side of the scale. There is always music on to please the ears, which falls into a soft/easy listening techno style that fits with the game feel as opposed to the adrenaline-fused techno of T2k. Given that you don’t have non-stop action going on in BSphere, a T2k track just wouldn’t feel right, unless the music engine would have been able to switch tracks on the fly. The closest Jaguar game I could compare the style to is Iron Solider. There isn’t a lot of voice acting, usually just little things like “AWESOME!”. The only complaint I could have is that the explosion noise of when your craft goes up in a ball of flames is a lower-quality type of sound, almost like it is being played over an AM radio. Minor complaint, at best.
The game makes fine use of the Jaguar’s controller and its keypad but like usual, it’s best to have a ProController as opposed to the original pack-in. What is most interesting about the game is that the combination of the physics tugging at your ship, the explosion sounds and the screen flash from enemy weapons makes it feel like there is some feedback to the game even though the Jag hardware had no such thing. I always prefer games that can pull that off without needing the rumble to do it since that requires more fine tuning to convince the player.
One aspect that is sometimes overlooked on this game is the large number of secrets it holds. It’ll probably remain unknown exactly how many there are unless the developers one day decide to unveil the whole lot of them and some codes have been uncovered where it is unknown as to what they do (they probably have to be input with other codes and once all are done it does something special). Among the discovered codes there are even two mini-games that can be played…I believe BattleSphere Gold has even more codes.
Overall while BattleSphere was thought of as a ‘homebrew’ release, it carries the quality of a professional higher budget game with it. It is unfortunate that it can be a little tough to get a hold of due to the high prices and that to experience the full gambit of what it offers, you need to have several Jaguars and players to have a proper network battle. But as a space combat game that avoids getting bogged down with a lot of technical style simulator stuff like with Wing Commander, the streamlined experience is something that fit the Jaguar game library very well.