Roots (1): Spacestation Pheta
A few games changed the way I played, once I realized it was possible to create my own original content. The game titles I most avidly played up to that point were Tetris, Galaxian, Oregon Trail, Super Breakout, Super Mario Bros., and Pacman. They were all incredibly innovative and entertaining. But the game ended, became repetitive, or got stuck at a difficult level I couldn’t move past. Then came the big three: Spacestation Pheta, ExciteBike, and Doom. These games stood out in the late 80’s/early 90’s for their editing capabilities. I could now make new user-created content and keep the game going.
Suprisingly, after researching these games that felt so familiar, I realized I had forgotten a lot about them. Reliving the experience has been more difficult than I had anticipated because the content is so old, but I am dedicated to passing on my appreciation.
Level I: Spacestation Pheta
A pixelated stick-space-man runs unrealistically fast through a primitive, static single-screen level. The tech-themed landscape is littered with catwalks, ladders, doors, transporters, human-cannons, and other treacherous devices that impede your goal of reaching the exit. Time is running out, your oxygen bar draining with every step. You are desperately trying to escape Spacestation Pheta (or Theta as I mistakingly recalled it), a labyrinthian death-trap floating somewhere in outer space. One wrong move and you could fall to your death, or slowly run out of oxygen. As a young boy, I spent countless hours glued to this game in our dark basement, solving all 100 levels and building some of my own. We were lucky enough to acquire a decommissioned Apple Macintosh Plus from my mother’s graphic design job, which included a licensed version of the game.
It didn’t rival other games of the time (I started playing it around ’90). In fact, most games had already adopted 16-bit graphics, scrolling environments, more complex controls, and/or intriguing story lines. But, two things gave this game tons of replay value. The 1st was the high score list. Beating the default high score was trickier than it seemed. Even trickier once my sister started beating mine. One wrong turn in a level meant back-tracking, so it was easy to run out of oxygen. The three starting lives go suprisingly fast when one wrong step could mean death. The 2nd made Spacestation Pheta great: it had a built-in level editor! For a programmer to include one in a game back then was almost unheard-of. Possibly the only exception was Lode Runner (which I played later, and much less frequently). From what I recall, the editor operated in a classic drag-and-drop style of pre-constructed objects onto a blank “canvas.” The beauty and simplicity of this style of editor is that all the objects are already programmed with specific functions: ladders can be entered and exited at the top and bottom, canons shoot to the right onto the highest platform, keyA allows access to doorA, etc. This allowed the designer to focus on making the path of the level trickier to complete with x-amount of oxygen “steps.”
Another interesting aspect of S.P. was the inclusion of a “show solution” function. By selecting this, a player could watch a simulation of the computer solving the puzzle. Andrew Vanden Bossche wrote an interesting article on Gamasutra discussing the pro’s and con’s of the show-solution function that harkens back to S.P. It was written in response to Nintendo’s in-game help system for the New Super Mario Bros. game called “Kind Code.” Seems fitting to give a shout-out to S.P. for paving the way, considering Nintendo patented the idea twenty years later. If this interests you, a much better written article exists of how “Kind Code” functions in-game by kombo at GameZone.com. It’s curious that the designers of S.P. would include this shortcut, but I’m glad they did. Otherwise, I never would have taken my first plunge into one of the human cannons.
For the purposes of this post, I tried to get my hands on a copy of Spacestation Pheta 2.7 in order to discuss its level editing capabilities more. Unfortunately, no free emulator exists for S.P. in modern operating systems. I was able to download a freeware, 10-level version directly from T&T Software’s website, but the file is in a format called .sea and requires a program called StuffIt Expander to open. If I could open the file, I’d still need to be running a Mac Classic shell on my MacBook Pro with OS-X to play it. If anyone in the community has a less time-consuming method of running this game, please let me know!
Spacestation Pheta remains the earliest example of video game level design I can remember doing. It was quite versatile and gave me the power to create my own puzzling levels to torment my friends. According to wikipedia, some of the sounds from the game were sampled by one of my favorite electronic music groups Underworld. The game even popped up again in high school on one of my friend’s TI-99 graphing calculators. Maybe some day I’ll get a copy working and try to beat it again. Just wish there was a way to retrieve all my old levels!
End Level I: Spacestation Pheta