Today’s post came about from a discussion on the AtariAge Forums where a thread brought up an oddball from the Atari Jaguar library, Trevor McFur In The Crescent Galaxy. This was a horizontal scrolling shooter (shmup) game that was originally planned to be the pack-in title for the console until Cybermorph came along to bask in that glory itself. Still, as the second game for the system and one that Atari proudly displayed in advertisements, it became the only horizontal shmup for the system to enjoy. Here is a long play video to give you an idea of what is being talked about:
Now this debate isn’t anything new for those in Jaguar circles. There are those who enjoy the game but they tend to be outnumbered by those that see it as a title that the system could have done without. So let’s get into what makes a shmup fun and whether or not this can be applied to Trevor McFur.
To begin let’s ask the question: What makes a shooter video game enjoyable, good or fun? Now this can cover a broad range of answers that depend on the tastes of the user. So let’s boil it down to certain elements that fans of such games state that they enjoy. These elements comes from an informal survey I did of a few people I know who have varied experience in the game industry, both amateur and professional. I didn’t mention Trevor McFur at all, I simply asked them what they felt went into making a shooter ‘good’ or ‘fun’.There is also my own feedback mixed into this as on a professional level, I have needed to evaluate games like shooters to put into my arcade, having spent a bit of money doing so. Since this was done through personal messengers, I can’t publish links to those conversations but here is a sum of what they shared:
-Fast Paced Action (including levels that know when they should be over)
-Diverse Stages with interesting enemies and patterns
-Balanced difficulty curve
-Bosses that require strategy
-Intuitive power-up and/or scoring system
-Consistent art direction
-Memorable and appropriate soundtrack
So the next question for the purpose of this post is: How does Trevor McFur stack up on this scale? Let’s break it down:
Fast Paced Action – There is action in TMF but it is very imbalanced. The levels were broken up between a space level and a planet level. The space levels keep you on your toes as rocks, slimeballs and other assorted enemies are thrown at you in a bit of a hodge-podge way that doesn’t let up until you reach the boss. These levels did attempt to use a formula that Atari had huge success with in Asteroids – shoot a large object to have it break down into smaller, faster moving pieces. However Asteroids was limited to a single screen space and not a scrolling level; there was some reason to the chaos you would find in that game so that when the situation became overwhelming, you knew it was kind of your own fault for ‘spraying and praying’ as opposed to methodically trying to clear the screen(exceptions granted to the UFO wild cards). You also don’t have to shoot every broken off piece in TMF to advance. As it worked out, the hodge-podge approach does mean you can’t rest but it is so random that the game cranks out the difficulty too early on, which is something I’ll get into in a moment.
Planet levels are more in tune with a traditional scrolling shooter as the asteroids idea is replaced with your standard, ‘enemies come at you in patterns’ fare and maybe there are other obstacles to watch out for like steam geysers. The pace here noticeably slows down compared to the frantic action you just went through on the space level.
One word you will come across in regards to TMF is ‘tedious’. Tedious doesn’t bode well for action in the long run and with TMF the issue was that they decided to make the levels longer than your typical shooter. The space levels take on average 3 minutes; the planet levels about 5. Boss battles can vary but using the right weapons they don’t don’t need to take much longer than 30 seconds. To compare, in the original arcade Gradius (that was obviously a major influence on games like TMF where the power-up system shares similarities) you reach the first boss in 2 minutes; you reach the first boss in R-Type in 2 minutes and a few seconds; Darius II the first boss fight is 1:45 sec in and so on. The problem with games like TMF is that the longer you make the levels, the more rope you give to hang yourself with as you have to keep the player interested with something other than feeling like you are stuck on repeat (hence Gradius throwing in the Volcano Trial or R-Type giving you that circular chain of robots to destroy before the boss, etc). So while TMF does give you things to shoot at almost constantly, the imbalance and other issues don’t help it in the long run.
Diverse Stages and Enemies – This is another inconsistency with TMF. The space levels have some differences on enemies but they all follow the “throw everything at the player + Asteroids” formula so it feels like the same thing over and over again. At least you are rewarded with some interesting landscapes when you finally get to the planet surface; there are also bonus stages of flying through rings.
There are some cool vistas in Trevor McFur but one issue with having longer than normal levels and limited cart space (I believe it used 2MB, which can be eaten up quickly with high color, higher rez for the time sprites) is that you soon get a feel that the background is a Hanna Barbara cartoon – i.e. the repeats of the same assets becomes very noticeable early on.
It is true that TMF has a diverse line-up of enemies, the problem is an overlap with consistent art direction – some of the oddities make no sense. Why am I fighting flying scorpions or chrome cupids? Who knows. I guess that’s why the shallow story that the game came up with Odd-It as the villain, to explain why you are fighting crystal pyramids, different types of asteroids, crystal spires, slime bubbles and origami paper-boxes all in the same scene. That’s still a lame excuse for not having a solid direction on your enemies.
The obstacles really needed work in the game and this might have come down to it being a space limitation. Geysers or an acid plant are fine – until you’ve repeated using them 20 times in a level.
Balanced Difficulty Curve – The AtariAge discussion spent some time about how difficult TMF is but what I think some users missed is that TMF is out-of-whack on its balancing, something I mentioned above regarding the action. The chaotic randomness of the space levels starts the player out with a high difficulty curve, which suddenly drops to a less frantic pace once you reach the planet. Usually the best idea is to start off light ‘n easy then build up to your crescendo of the boss battle, not the other way around. It was a neat idea to make use of the keypad by giving you a wide variety of weapons to collect and use but as you can see from the video above, as long as you are careful in spending those weapons, bosses can be pushovers. We’ll get to that in a second but first…
Another aspect of shooters worth noting in this sense is something called the “hitbox”. This is the area of the player ship that actually collides with enemy bullets/objects, causing damage or the ship to die. This affects the game in a way that most players do not realize. Most shooting games from the 70s/80s had the complete character as the hitbox, which provided for a high difficulty in many games since that provides more ‘real estate’ for the player to get hit with (think of Space Invaders on the Atari 2600 and the fat tank vs. the skinny tank options and how that changed the difficulty). The 90s however saw an increase in stuff that could be thrown around the screen, particularly with “bullet hell” shooters. Players had to dodge more flotsam so a solution was to make a small part of the ship – the cockpit or the core – susceptible to collisions. In the case of Trevor McFur, here is your hit box (essentially):
Within the game, it is a rather large ship. It wouldn’t be much of an issue with the design trimmed some of the fat but as it was, it was very easy to run into anything.
Bosses that require strategy – You can have a nice looking boss in any game but how the boss fight works in practice makes a huge difference in fun factor or whether it is memorable for good reasons. A properly designed boss is an event that pushes the skills of the player to the limit. They usually have patterns or other visual/audio effects that make them memorable. The process of the boss fight can require multiple tries as the player is forced to discover patterns the bosses uses so you can defeat them.
In TMFs case, there isn’t really much to do other than dodge the constant barrage of projectile attacks while pummeling the boss with your weapons until they explode. They don’t dish out a unique attack once their health reaches a certain level or attack the player from a different angle or do anything more than just kind of sit there looking pretty. It is true that a lot of games in the 80s up until this point didn’t always change up how bosses worked with different attack patterns but that’s why the genre is replete with shmup shovelware.
It is worth noting that one of the artists for this game (BJ West) discussed his disappointment in the development process, particularly regarding bosses. He discussed it on the long defunct Jaguar Sector II Forums (no link anymore so have to go by memory). To paraphrase, he stated that he ‘originally had a 20+ frames of animation sprite for the mud boss that he was told by management to pare down to just a few frames to save on space.’ Had the budget not been an issue, it is certainly possible that the bosses could have been more interesting, or at least have looked even better.
Intuitive power-up and/or scoring system – Here is one area that TMF does fine on. The main cannon uses a stacked power-up system similar to many shooters like Gradius, which you lose if you die. This is incentive to not die of course, especially when you get the Crescent Laser, which gives you the most coverage on the screen. It also has a bomb feature to blast ground targets although this wasn’t terribly useful since the ground targets aren’t that plentiful.
The keypad is used here for selecting the additional special weapons, which are activated with the C button.As far as I know, this is unique to TMF in the genre, in the sense of so many special weapons being at your disposal. Your ship can hold 9 of each weapon and those include: Magnet (very useful for screen clearing); Tracer (bounces around the screen destroying enemies); Beam (basically a straight on death laser); Flash (a screen clearing bomb); Missile (short range explosive, nice radius); Ring (a cross between a shield and a wingman); Bolt (almost like a vertical beam, great for screen cleaning as well); Shield (you’re invincible for a moment, woohoo); and Cutter (a temporary wingman, also has a huge ship). If anything is worth highlighting on this game, the range of the special weapons would be it as it seems that some thought was put into it.
For scoring, nothing special is going on here, it is standard point earning fare: no medals like in Raiden to incentivize surviving towards the end for more points or chain combos and combo multipliers to get bigger high scores or anything else that would innovative this regard.
Consistent Art Direction: It is true that Trevor McFur served as a tech demo to promote the Jaguar, an early magazine review touted it as a good example of texture mapping on the console (which was wrong, this was all 2D sprites, some pre-rendered). The use of pre-rendered sprites was still fresh in 1993 although the weird thing with Trevor McFur is that some enemies/objects look pre-rendered (asteroids, crystal enemies); some objects are obviously digitized (landscape foregrounds); and others are hand-drawn (the flying enemies on some planets; the Circle Reserves power-up base). This mixture isn’t what you could call consistent but its also the fact that was mentioned above – the enemies just didn’t have a clear vision for their design. You can be fighting flying scorpions on one planet for some reason, and then you’ve got floating purple/white orbs on the same level. Like many other aspects, it is just all over the place.
It is also worth noting some of the artifacting that goes on around certain background images due to image compression but one thing that always bugged me about this game was the mostly flat backgrounds. Parallax scrolling wasn’t a new idea in gaming in 1993, by then it was kind of old hat. Trevor McFur really could have used more than a flat background and occasional foreground objects. The Jaguar was perfectly capable of doing extensive parallax, as evidenced in other titles like Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, Defender 2000, Worms, Primal Rage and even the hated Kasumi Ninja, among others. Sure this was a launch title. But had it used parallax, the worlds would have looked much better and it would have been slightly easier to cover up the amount of assets that had to be reused. Given that rival systems like the Sega Genesis had many horizontal shooters with plentiful parallax (Arrow Flash, Gaiares & Thunder Force 3 come to mind; Dead Moon or Gate of Thunder CD on TG-16, etc.), it stands out when you have a game that is touted a way to showcase the 64-bit power of your system and it doesn’t offer something that was a standard effect at the time.
That all said, the 90s raytraced style images in some cases do look nice, particularly for screenshots. The game can also be commended for making use of the high color abilities of the system (the amount of colors hardware could handle used to be a big deal) and the frame rate isn’t mind-blowing but it is solid. Big boss sprites were also a big deal in those days and TMF had that going for it. It also might be the first example of using photoshopped cat faces onto human bodies in a video game…which I’ve always just taken to being kind of a joke. At least someone had some fun while making the game.
Memorable and appropriate soundtrack: Trevor McFur has two tunes it plays – a title screen track and a level selection track. They are not the highest quality but they are something – which is more than what can be said for the levels as they have no music in them whatsoever. You are only treated to ambient noises.
When it comes to shooter games, the soundtrack is essential in setting the tone of the experience. Late 70s or early 80s shooter games like Zaxxon could get away with it as music wasn’t really expected to be a part of the game. Ambient noise worked in these simpler shooters but as technology progressed, having a soundtrack became standard. Gyruss, Darius, Gradius, R-Type, Raiden and so on all prided themselves on their sound tracks (companies like Taito even had in-house bands to produce their music, like Zuntata). Play those games or others in the Atari realm like Tempest 2000 without the music and it is easy to understand what big of a difference it makes.
If you are still unsure about that then take a look at what happens when you remove the score from one of the most iconic movie scenes of all time:
I’m not saying that TMF was E.T.-in-the-rough, but had it included a decent, tailored soundtrack then those 5 minute long levels might be much more pleasant to blast through.
No 2 player co-op: This is just an addition of my own here in regards to TMF in particular. 2 player support in shooters isn’t a deal breaker but I remember when I picked the game up that I was disappointed that it was single player only. That was in part due to the lack of 2p games I had at the time. Given the promotion of Cutter on the artwork, it seemed like it was supposed to support 2 players. That said, it was far less of a disappointment than finding out Double Dragon V was actually a crap rip-off of SF2 instead of being a beat ’em up like one assumes you are getting with DD (which was the first 2p game for the Jag I bought. What a regret).
Overall: With all that said, it is probably assumed that I hate TMF. Hate would be much too strong a word…it isn’t a game that offends my sensibilities or insults my intelligence. I understand that budgets were tight and that the development process was a bit of “design by committee”, which rarely turns out well. What I find saddening about it is the wasted potential as the Jaguar could have pulled of games like this in a good way. I don’t think it is the worst game on the Jaguar although it would be in the bottom five if I were going to rate the games. It didn’t do many favors for the system outside of trying to boost the marketing early on but that obviously didn’t move units like Atari needed.
Let’s not kid ourselves though in the attempt to see the glass as half-full: there are a lot of shooters like TMF that are much better in every aspect of the game. Even if they don’t look as nice, they play better and are more enjoyable to visit on a repeat. TMF only gets attention since it’s practically a lone wolf on the system but if you go outside of that bubble, then a case for it being a good game in the genre falls apart.
For pros, I mentioned the weapons systems good use of color, there are large sprites and some of the enemies do look cool. There is a lack of slowdown which is welcome in a game like this. I liked the graphics best when they stuck to the raytrace-style as opposed to blending other types. It would have been nice to see a Remix or a sequel that addressed the various issues and properly showed that the system could have had excellent shooters on it, but that would have taken a different development perspective to make it work.
So what are your thoughts regarding the space cat that no one remembers?