Duster

1991 Image Works

Platforms: Commodore Amiga, Atari ST and PC

Yet another title caught up in the collapse of Mirrorsoft in late 1991. A title created by Realtime Software, known for both Carrier and Battle Command.

Duster was set in a place called Heaven in 3800 AD, where the world has become a breeding ground for vicious crop-eating pests with a high mutation rate. You are a crop duster, who not only has to save the world, but also make sure you keep your business going. This is done by earning cash with your crops, but also acting as a bounty hunter, taking on various contracts and missions.

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Visually the game was quite similar to Realtime’s previous games, with the main action rendered in 3D as you fly around the landscape, and with strategic sections handled via static images and menus. This was their next big game after Carrier Command (though were reportedly working on Battle Command for Ocean around the same time).

Duster was first announced in 1990, and featured in magazines such as ST format and Generation 4, the latter getting quite excited about the game as a whole – with a series of screenshots shown. The lead platform for the development was PC.

The game looked pretty decent for the time, featuring some strange mutant ant-like creatures roaming around destroying crops. Quite a lot of windmills feature too, which seemed to us like quite an odd thing to see in a futuristic title. However, contributor @polyp2000 made a good point that the premise for the game was one of ecocide, and that the windmills could well have been an indication of wind power being utilized to tackle the climate emergency.

After the initial flurry of previews and news about the game – it all went quiet, when ST Format finally reported an update in July 1991. It detailed that a “change of direction” was occurring within the company and this had meant delays. It was still due for 1991 though, and now had Rowan Software joining in to help finish the game.

Everything would go quiet once again after this, and then the collapse of Mirrorsoft would occur. Amiga Power would report on the game in a “Where are they now?” feature in October 1992. They suggest that Rowan had actually taken over the development after Realtime had undergone a restructure, but since the collapse of Mirrorsoft, there had been no further update on the game.

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Rowan were already working on Reach For the Skies for Virgin games at this point, which suggests that the game died with Mirrorsoft, and no other takers were found to take on the publishing duties.

However, Richard Hewison got in touch with GTW in July 2022 and confirmed that he was overseeing the project at Mirrorsoft. Richard tells us that the game specification was very detailed, printed and spiral bound (and with a few tweaks could have easily been turned into the final game manual).

He felt the subject of the game slightly strange, with dusting crops on an alien planet to fend off over-sized bugs and make money being a little underwhelming. However, the sections of the game up and running were technically as good as Carrier Command on a VGA/MCGA PC (as shown in the screenshots we have here – which Richard suggests he probably even took some 30+ years ago).

Realtime Games was visited a number of times in Leeds, where the game was making slow progress, but there were rumblings within Mirrorsoft that a change of pace and scenario for the game was going to be required to make the whole package a bit more ‘exciting’ in Richard’s words.

Alien invasion rather than infestation, and there were also concerns over the depiction of the bugs (as seen in the screenshots – they were basically spheres and straight lines, not looking particularly threatening).

The slow progress would come to a head leading up to the summer of 1991, when Realtime lost their main programmer on Duster, who was Andy Onions at the time. They admitted they didn’t have the time or resources to finish the game off.

After some frantic discussions, this was where Rowan Software would take up the work in late Summer 1991. Realtime handed all the source code over, and spent time talking to Rowan about how it all worked. They would produce one tweaked version of the game, but Richard doesn’t recall there being much that was different – apart from explosions when shooting at things were beefed up a bit.

Not long after, Mirrorsoft of course went into administration, and all projects ground to a halt. Rowan had barely got started on the game, so had little time/money invested in it to continue with the game. Realtime had already removed themselves from the project entirely, so were not going to be touting it to any other publishers.

As a result, the project died when Mirrorsoft died.

Richard doesn’t 100% recall an Amiga or ST edition ever existing, but thinks there could have been one demo version produced at least for the Amiga, shortly before Realtime had stopped working on it. It cannot be fully guaranteed, but Richard had a vague recollection of it running, and running very slow in comparison to the PC edition.

Could anything of the game be found and preserved here for posterity? At this stage, we’re not sure. There are some avenues to check, but this might be one that has got away. Hopefully it isn’t lost forever.

Article credits

With thanks to Ross Sillifant for highlighting + extra scans, Richard Hewison for the fantastic information about the project and what happened, @polyp2000 for the windmill note, Hall of Light , Abandonware France and Abandonware Magazines for the magazine scans and screenshots.

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