Friday, September 22, 2006

Electrocop - Years Ahead of Their Time

A great screenshot from Epyx's Electrocop, one of the original launch titles for what became the Atari Lynx.

The artists at Epyx were tapping into a future zeitgeist in 1989. They had a new color handheld that was more powerful than anything on the market, and they ran with it. Epyx were pioneers in videogame's cutting edge, plowing ahead with ideas that were literally years ahead of its time.

After much consideration, I'd have to say the best Lynx games are a tie between Electrocop and Slime World. Both games were spectacular showcases of the Lynx's power, and really couldn't be done on any other console. It also helps that they're really fun.

Greg Omi envisioned Electrcop as something akin to a 3D Gauntlet, or a decendent of Xybots. It really wasn't like any other game yet made, set in a three-dimensional world, mixing fast action with strategic code-cracking and maze exploration.

A lot of people didn't know what to think of it, and while it had its fans (myself chiefly among them), it was dismissed or ignored by a great many. Electrocop belonged to a genre of one.

It would take the polygon age to bring these ideas to bear. Super Mario 64. Tomb Raider. Metal Gear Solid. It took game designers years to finally find a working formula for 3D polygon games, and look where we are - right back to the spot where Greg Omi and Epyx camped back in 1989.

Hell, look at how the front walls will appear transluscent when your character faces out at the screen. Sega pulled the same trick on their Model 3 arcade games - in the late 1990s.

Electrocop is also a masterful example of game design, and if it weren't anything more than an impressive tech demo, it wouldn't be worth remembering all these years. But the game strikes a keen balance between adventure and action. You're clearly meant to carry along a pen and paper, so you can jot down the maps without becoming lost. Then add in three more points of tension - the safe-cracking programs, the robots that mercilessly beat you down, and the 60-minute timer before the whole complex explodes - and you have a situation where becoming lost can be fatal.

Today's games will coddle you and hold you by the hand, giving you maps and directing you from point A to point B. This is why the two Metroid games on GBA can't hold a candle to the great Super Metroid, kids.

There's such a great rush of creativity in those first Epyx games for the Lynx. California Games, Gates of Zendocon, Blue Lightning, Gauntlet 3, Chip's Challenge, and Electrocop. You can see their enthusiasm and energy unleashed. Conventions of the day be damned. They were going to set new standards in graphics, animation, sound, and in design. The Atari Lynx would never again reach their peak; neither, might I add, would anyone else for nearly a decade.

I've been on a Lynx kick this past week, partly because of nostalgia, but mostly due to the lack of any real information about the portable system anywhere on the internet. The few sites that mention it merely recite the standard-issue eulogy of a color handheld that was quickly bulldozed by Nintendo's Gameboy. Sadly, Epyx and Lynx have become forgotten in the videogame world, swept under the tide of history and short attention spans.

Just like Devo. Pioneers who got scalped.

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