From the mind and programming skills of Julian Gollop, author of Chaos, came this masterpiece in 1988: Laser Squad, quite probably the best and most popular turn-based tactical game in the 80s.
If you weren’t around at the time, you may not realize the sensation that Laser Squad was back then. Even though it was a turn-based tactical game, it was, quite uniquely, accepted by many people who’d never touched a strategy game before. I was in school back then, and I remember the game being popular in my class, especially in its two-player mode — and I’m talking about kids (not that I wasn’t one, but I was always… kind of different 🙂 ) whose favorite genres were sports and driving games. Even later on, in the early nineties, the game was still popular among my friends — and, again, most of them didn’t have any interest in strategy games (except, in a few cases, Chaos… you may be noticing a pattern here).
But what made LS so popular, even with action game fans who preferred their games simple and in small doses? Well, it was polished, easy to learn, and had “arcade-style” graphics, instead of the common symbolic representations in strategy games. The scale was perfectly accessible, and everything looked realistic and was easily recognizable — not only walls, doors and such, but even stuff such as furniture, potted plants, and even the sink and toilet inside a bathroom — not just in terms of looks, but they were actually objects in the game, with a level of detail that wouldn’t be seen until games such as Ultima VI and VII. This scale may seem normal these days (e.g. Jagged Alliance, Gollop’s later X-Com: UFO Defense), but Laser Squad was the first game which showed everything so well ((OK, technically, Julian Gollop had released Rebelstar first, but that one was much more difficult to learn, less accessible and less detailed than Laser Squad.)). And all was controllable with a mere one-button joystick, or with 5 keys (4 directions plus fire). The graphics were good and realistic, and the explosions were a pleasure to watch – especially if an enemy was caught in them. 🙂
Playing against the computer was great, but the best part of the game was playing it against a friend (hot-seat only – it was the 80s, remember). Games could be quick, or take up entire nights. And strategies that worked perfectly against the AI would fail miserably against a clever human – forcing one to adapt, to predict what the other was doing. Again, this is normal for this kind of games this days, but at the time there wasn’t really anything like it.
Oddly, to this day I still prefer the 1st scenario in the original game, called “The Assassins”. In it, one player controlled a squad of 5 troopers, who had to assassinate a weapons merchant in his private home – protected by several security droids. There were so many ways to do it – I loved demolishing part of the house with rocket launchers (yes, almost everything was destroyable), although that meant sacrificing other weapons, armor and so on – if the rocket launchers, with their very limited number of shots, didn’t do the trick, you’d find yourself completely outgunned. Of course, you could do it in the “proper” way, by sneaking into the house – which had several different accesses. Playing as the defenders was great too – a normal tactic was to hide the guy somewhere (such as in the bathroom!) and use the droids to mount a defense, or possibly to “lead” the attackers far away from their main target. Even moving the guy out of the house could sometimes work (assuming the first player deployed all his troops in one side of the house and you were lucky enough to choose the other side to run to) — the game included the concept of “line of sight”, and so you would only see your opponents if they were actually in view of one of your characters.
Another brilliant scenario came only in the first expansion pack, but was already included in the C64 and later ports. In it, you had to defend a base from attacking robots – most of which were relatively weak, but one of them was a large battle droid which not only had a powerful weapon, but it was so heavily armored that it was invulnerable from the front — even to rockets and grenades! The only way to destroy it was to attack from another angle ((OK, that wasn’t the only way. But I don’t want to spoil it here. 🙂 ))- which, if the other player was any good, was anything but easy. I still remember that the first half a dozen times or so I played that scenario, even against the computer on the easiest level, I was completely demolished…
… until I found a way. Which is still one of the things I like the most about computer and video games: the pleasure that comes from finding a way, from solving a problem.
Another unique feature of that level was that more robots would spawn outside the base during the game (the defending side, and both sides in every other scenario, had a fixed number of troops, available at the beginning), so mounting an efficient defense was really essential; the defenders could win by achieving a certain number of points, or simply by defending the base for a certain number of turns; the attackers had something inside the base they needed to destroy to win, but could also achieve victory by killing all the defending troops.
If you like games such as Fire Emblem, Jagged Alliance or X-COM, why not try out the granddaddy of them all? ZX Spectrum emulators work very well these days…