I went back to Dark Forces with two things in mind. First, to see if it could still give me vertigo. And second, to find the map of Max's head. This was intended purely as a nostalgia trip, a brief look at an antiquated shooter that I'd once loved. What I'd forgotten was that it's really, really good.
Kyle Katarn, defected from the Empire, works as a mercenary for the Rebel Alliance. Intertwining with the events of the original Star Wars trilogy, the first mission has you stealing plans to the Death Star, in order than someone or other can find its weakness and destroy it. But along the way Katarn stumbles into information about a new Imperial project, the Dark Trooper. Dark Forces has Katarn follow the clues to the location of the various Empire facilities used to create the Dark Troopers, and ultimately to destroy their production.
For many people, when they reflect on the history of the first-person shooter, they go straight to Doom. Sure, Wolf 3D, but Doom is the one that holds a place of love in people's hearts. It was the game that really set the way ahead. For me, it was Dark Forces. Three years later than Doom, and not looking especially more sophisticated, Dark Forces was built in LucasArt's Jedi Engine. Although immediately similar to id's Doom engine, the most significant advance made within was the ability to build levels with a Y-axis: they gave gaming height. And hence, it was the first game to have me creep up to a ledge and say, "Woah!" sitting back hard in my chair.
Getting it running today isn't simple. Dark Forces was built for DOS, Apple Mac and PlayStation, all of which have become rather obsolete. (Zing! at the Mac users.) XP and Vista support a somewhat limited DOS emulation, and since I couldn't find a PSX copy, wedging it into Windows was the only choice.
There's a couple of routes to success with this, and I strongly recommend visiting the excellent Dark Forces fan site (still being updated!), DF-21. I ended up with a compromise. Running straight under XP I had no sound until I set it up with VDMSound, following DF-21's instructions, which then played everything at double speed. Running it via DOSBox worked perfectly, until I Alt-Entered to full screen, where it ran into all sorts of slowdown. In the end, putting up with sped-up speech seemed the better choice, but individual results seem to vary widely. DF-21's forums seem to have addressed most concerns.
It's amazing how clearly this was a 1990s LucasArts game. The cut-scenes were a country light year ahead of the time, beautifully mixing hand-painted and digitised animation, professionally voiced, including a more than fine impression of Darth Vader from Scott Lawrence, and being invariably worth sitting through. Despite being a straight shooter - shoot men, collect keys, find goals - the overtones of LucasArts' adventuring prowess appears, giving things a great sense of depth. It's no accident that Katarn's story is still being told in LucasArts games.
Remember that mouse-keyboard wasn't the norm for the FPS in the mid-nineties? Discovering Dark Force's default setup was two hands on the keys was a time-tunnel flashback. I'd completely forgotten how. While the Jedi Engine lets you look up and down, this can't be mapped to the mouse, and even at its most sensitive it's not possible to use it to turn quickly enough. In the end, I created a Frankenstein's control scheme of WASD, strafing with Q and E, and firing and nudging on the mouse. Like some sort of crutch, I had to have the mouse in my hand to be able to comfortably play, even if I was using it like a big two-buttoned blob. (By the way, to reassign controls, run the SETUP.BAT file in the main directory.)
Once the crazed desire to freely look around is overcome (and compared to playing Doom now and realising there's no jump button, this is a small hurdle) it's any other FPS. Except, a really beautifully designed one. Dark Forces has a level design that's woefully absent in modern shooters. Despite the 256 colours, the world-o-blocks, and sneaky use of 2.5D rendering of objects, the crafting is so refined, so intelligently put together, that exploring the levels is still a joy.
Perhaps we fought against the blue key/blue door nature of early shooters too soon. Toward the end of the nineties, the critical response to shooters was to lament being forced to trek back and forth across levels gathering necessary keys for necessary doors. In removing this, we've left ourselves with the corridor, and good grief, it was a pleasure to have a choice of two directions to go in.
Finding out the way was blocked by a needed key, and heading the other way... S*** happens, doors are locked. Of course, a lot of games started to do this very poorly, but Dark Forces was smart. Generally locked doors are found halfway along your journey to the key, the backtracking only occurring after it's recovered, reminding you to return to the earlier point. You never feel manipulated, or that it's desperately padding. The levels are surprisingly large, and thanks to the Jedi Engine, on multiple floors, letting it create elaborate puzzles spanning entire buildings.
Perhaps another thing that's really sorely missed in modern-day shooters is the secret area. Born of the box-like nature of locations, having a tile on a wall hide a door leading to a bonus room stuffed with goodies was simple. It'd be slightly trickier to pull off in some photo-realistic jungle or beach, clearly, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't look back at it with nostalgic sighs. Dark Forces is packed with them, often taking you on elaborate side-journeys. It rewards exploration, deviation from the main path.
So could a thirteen-year-old FPS, in which you're aiming at literally a block of fourteen pixels when enemies are far enough away, still give me vertigo? Bloody hell, yes it could. Within minutes of starting I was reeling at ledges, leaning back in my chair, and letting loose cries of, "Woah!" It's still got it.
This is partly thanks to quite how slippy the controls are. Less than ideal, edging your way down a ledge along the side of a ravine is a tricky business. The crappy textures along the cliff faces only seem to extend the sensation of height, further exaggerated by the peculiar warping effect that occurs when you use the look up/down buttons.
The vertical structures are still impressive, still far loftier than most games would aim for. Heading to the Research Facility to find Moff Rebus' designs for the Dark Trooper weaponry, you're precariously jumping and creeping your way through gigantic cliff-faces, in more danger of falling to your screaming death than from the Stormtroopers shooting at you. By the time you get to the ice planet Anteevy, on your way to Ice Station Beta and its robotics construction facilities, you're so used to the towering pathways that you get cocky, punished by the slippery frozen surfaces.
It was on Anteevy that my main goal was located. Certainly I'd been distracted by the engrossing Dark Troopers narrative, but fortunately I was able to focus and remember exactly where to look for Max's head.
There's a thing LucasArts does in its games that LucasArts won't ever speak about. Ask anyone, any developer, any producer, and they'll go stony-silent, lips thinned, making it extremely clear it's time to change subject. They hide Sam & Max's rabbit, Max, everywhere. They're not allowed to, because the copyright to Max belongs to creator Steve Purcell. They'll deny it, they'll tell you that they've no idea what you're talking about when you spot one. But Max is there. Max is on Anteevy, and without a moment's doubt I remembered exactly where.
As soon as you arrive on the level, you step off the cliff behind you, and land on a small ledge. Crouch down and you go through a tunnel in the rock, and find a hollowed out cavern, with an extra life token in the middle...
Oh yeah, sidebar: Dark Forces has no saves, and a lives system. Which is extremely strange. If you die it'll restart you moments from your death, but only three or four times, before you have to start the whole level over. A peculiarly PlayStation-like feature, despite being developed primarily for the PC, is possibly not the smartest inclusion in the game. Back to the story.
Walk around the cavern, and like everything in the game, it's a rough squarish room. Curves were still years away. However, hit Tab to bring up the overlay map (remember those?! Bring them back!) and there he is. Undeniably the outline of the foul-mouthed rabbit's head. LucasArts will claim it's just a mad coincidence, of course. Mission accomplished.
It's genuinely surprising how playable Dark Forces remains. The nostalgia is great, memories flooding back the first time a Stormtrooper shouts out, "STOP REBEL SCUM!" or "BLAST HIM!" Just hearing the words "Dark Trooper" was a buzz, and it's still a wonder that Lucas hasn't made them a larger part of the Star Wars universe. But memories aside, it turns out it's well worth giving it a go. There's still a community, there's vast piles of user-made levels to check out, and beyond a few glitches with the sound, remarkably it still seems to run.
There are copies kicking around on eBay for around a pound, and if you've still got the original disc, it's a cinch to get it running. I heartily recommend having a go.