Nether Earth 1987 – RTS Retrospectives

netherMain

One of the first precursor RTS games to feature an isometric view

 

The Homo erectus of the RTS genome.

Probably the first precursor RTS to feature an isometric view.  Published in 1987 in the United Kingdom, it’s about two races, humans and insignian, battling for control of their respective bases.

Game Structure

The game structure is simple.  You simply start the game and face off against the enemy computer. The objective is to capture all their bases.

Gameplay

One very important detail about this game is that the player has an avatar present in the battlefield. A floating command ship that’s meant represent your cursor, since this games was meant to be controlled by a joystick or arrow keys.  I’l explain more about it in a bit about the issues this brings forth.

In this game, your units are robots.  You build them at one of your war bases.  For every robot you build, you have to equip them with different parts.  There are mobility parts, weaponry, and even an enhanced brain for more intelligence.  Each part requires a different resource.  You have a general resource that can be used as a replacement for the other specific resources like missiles, cannons, chassis, even nuclear ammo.  These are produced from factories scattered around the map.  You have to send robots to capture them.  Every 24 hours of in-game time, you generate resources from the factories and war bases you control.

Here are all the parts you can equip

Resources are on the left. Parts are on the right

You also have several options in controlling them.  You can give them orders, like search for neutral or enemy factories to capture, search and destroy enemy robots, advance or retreat X amount of miles.  You can even directly control them – moving them around with up, down, left and right. Though attacking is a chore if you are directly controlling them, since you can’t move and attack at the same time.  You have to stop moving, select the attack order, and then choose a type of attack depending on your equipment.  All these commands are done by hitting the up, down, left, or right keys, and a confirm command.  No mouse yet.  What’s also frustrating is the ways you select units and bases.

nether2

On the right you can see some of the orders you can manually activate while you are controlling a robot.

You cursor is a floating command ship that you move with the arrow keys or joystick, and a thrust for moving it up or down.  For every action you want to initiate, from building a robot, to giving an order to capture or destroy, you have to move and land it on top of that object.  Imagine that in StarCraft, you had to move your command center and land it every time you wanted to order a specific unit or build anything.  And then lift-off and go to the other unit or building.  It slows the game down considerably.  Also, in order to the move around the map and see what is going on, you have to move your command ship as well.  What makes it worse is that the map is a long and thin strip that takes a considerable time to go from end to end.

nether1

Below, you can see a representation of the map… and it scrolls

Another issue is that the AI for your units sometimes acts very dumb.  On many occasions, I would send a robot to search and destroy the enemy’s robots, but instead I find him dancing around in a spots, moving left and right.  Square dancing without a care in the world!.  Combine that with the chore of moving your command ship every time you want to issue an order, and the game starts to feel out of your control.

Thoughts

I really enjoyed the strategic choices of choosing parts for the robots.  It means that I can create the archetypal unit types by my own intuition.  When I need to capture more factories instead of building soldiers, I can simply create fast dispensable units.  If I need tanks to hold positions, I can make them slow, but deadly by equipping them with all the weaponry I can fit.

Resource management is more akin to titles like company of heroes, in regards to securing points and generating resources automatically from them.  In this game, it is a very crucial component in a player’s strategy, more so than in my previous retrospectives.  Unfortunately, its not as fun as it could be due to the frustrating unit AI and the command ship controls.

The game though has many of the staples of modern RTS games: different resources, different units you can build for varying purposes, ordering units to patrol and search for resources or enemies, an isometric view with an UI that gives unit and resource counts.  I would say that this is the first strategy game that look and plays like an RTS… just without a mouse.  Still missing a few things like a more elaborate economy system and more specialized units and upgrades.

Leave a Reply