1993 Maelstrom / Mirage
The next entry to go into the archive is a title which has been in my blurred memories for many years. I always recall sitting down and watching an episode of Gamesmaster on Channel 4 in the UK and seeing a 3D special, where contestants played a cool looking Star Fox style game. The contestants (and viewers at home) would need to wear a pair of classic 3D glasses to view the game properly.
Thanks to the power of the internet and all the magazine archives out there, I was discover that it was a title called Starfighter Ace. Planned for release by Mirage back in 1993 on PC only. What was surprising was that the title was being developed by Maelstrom, the Liverpool based team which had Mike Singleton at the helm.
With that link, the whole inspiration for Starfighter Ace seems to slot neatly into place (which the Gamesmaster magazine piece essentially confirms too). Mike had many moons ago attempted a stereoscopic 3D game in the form of 3 Deep Space for the Commodore Vic 20, C64, BBC Micro and ZX Spectrum – released by Postern way back in 1983.
The effect worked well on the BBC Micro edition, but not so well on the other platforms without some adjustments to your TV set. Fast forward to 1993, and the technology was advancing to a point where the effect could be implemented far more effectively with the use of real 3D objects in combination with the stereoscopic effect.
The game itself was set to be quite straightforward and a fairly big diversion from previous Maelstrom titles such as Midwinter. The basic goal would be to reach a new planet for each mission, but the missions would comprise of a series of different objectives. PC Zone magazine described some of these as follows:
A huge storm of meteorites and space junk lies between you and your mother ships. The space junk — bits of battleships, space radars and fragments of the Astra satellites — is bulleting towards you at an unnecessary speed. You must dodge and blast a clear path through before the time limit expires.
Hide and Seek
Enemy fighters have moored themselves in a space-station’s ‘car park’. You have to zoom around, avoiding the goodies’ ships and cargo containers, whilst cleansing the parking places with your laser deathbolts. Tight manoeuvrability is essential.
A convoy of evil alien ships are trying to elude you by hiding their cowardly alien behinds in the middle of an asteroid field. You have to plummet through the asteroids, making several laser death passes at the alien ships until they’re space junk.
A huge orbiting mothership is threatening to bring a squadron of super fighters into the solar system. You must engage its defences and somehow manage to get inside and destroy the alien craft before they are scrambled.
A flotilla of suicidal aliens are deliberately trying to collide with you. That and a ton of space junk. Your mother ship is some way off. but it’s your only escape.
A sort of 3D space slalom this one. A long series of stargates in spiral formation have to be flown through to push you towards light speed. Look out for space debris.
The Space Station
A massive enemy space-base is under construction on the outer-most fringe of the galaxy. You must make several penetrations into its unshielded, tunnelled interior until she blows. A ‘few’ enemy fighters will try to ‘take you out’ inside.
The Missile Attack
Your ship is armed with a limited number of fly-by-wire missiles. On firing, the missile camera takes over, leaving you to steer the high speed missile to its target. Of course, there’s a dab of space junk here and there.
You control three ships at once in your attack on a massive enemy fleet flying in formation. But the more alien ships you destroy, the more space junk appears.
You have to tow a crippled ship through a space junk storm. Your weapons’ power is drained by the tow. And if you turn too sharply the tow breaks. Very difficult.
Mike himself described the game as being an high-end consumer product. A straight shoot-em-up. The game would replace strategy from titles like Elite and keep everything as an action packed blaster – perhaps similar to what would eventually surface with Star Fox on the Super Nintendo (the space battle levels at least).
Gamesmaster were building up anticipation for the game due to the show’s 3D special showcase (giving a free pair of glasses away with the magazine etc.). According to them, the game was nearing completion and was due for release in March/April 1993. Originally it had been produced it seems specially for the special 3D challenge, but grew into a fully fledged game. Maelstrom also suggested that the engine could/would be used on a series of future games, like flight sims or racing car games.
To achieve the stereoscopic effect, the screen would have to be drawn twice (once in red, then in green) – but the speed didn’t seem to be affected too badly when to watch the game in action on the Gamesmaster episode that we’ve embedded above. Everything overall looked amazing, and I was excited to play the game myself.
So what happened? Sadly it is suggested that there were royalty disputes between both Maelstrom and publisher Mirage which would result in the game being completely cancelled. Such a devastating waste of a game that was so close to completion. We suspect there might be a bit more to it than that, but with Mike Singleton sadly no longer with us, we may need to rely on one of the other developers involved to shed some light. If you are reading this, please do get in touch.
It is hoped that some day something of the game can be recovered and shown as well. To the author of this piece, this was an opportunity to finally feel like I was in the Last Starfighter film (ironically, this was another game that was unreleased). Sadly it was never to be, but then Star Fox (albeit a very different game) would thankfully help heal things shortly afterwards.