Explorer

Getting lost with an early walking simulator

“OK, you weren’t as lucky as you’d hoped — you didn’t die, but now you have a problem. The last planet scan before curruption revealed that the planet consisted of forty billion mappable locations. In nine of them are fragments of your craft”

explorer

It should be pretty obvious from that alone that you don’t need to play Explorer to understand that it’s ever so slightly flawed in the design department there.

Released at a time when it wasn’t entirely unusual for games to compete on “how many screens can we put in a videogame even if you didn’t do much in those screens”, forty billion is obviously excessive but I kinda figure once you’re into the realms of hundreds of screens with nothing to do in them anyway, what’s a few more billion between friends?

Of course, most games don’t ask you to indulge in a scavenger hunt for just nine items so there’s always that.

What’s a few more billion between friends?

But as if it wasn’t already abundantly clear, half the point of Explorer was a game that you could get lost in. Even the marketing hinged around some variation of “if you ever want to get lost then this is for you”. So you’d float around the planet surface on your jetpac, find a clearing to land in and go and have a look around, maybe find something, maybe not and scoot on and off you go to the next one.

Unfortunately, it falls into a problem we still have with large procedurally generated landscapes in that producing enough content to make them look and feel interesting, in 2015, is a massive undertaking when we’re talking exploration, right? Try transplanting that into just 48k and welcome to seeing the same 3 or 4 things over and over again across forty billion screens with little to distinguish one from the other. What is there does look remarkably good, especially considering the limitations of the machine, but having the patience to wade through the same thing over and over is a different matter entirely. Chances are you’d be hard pressed to get through six screens, never mind forty billion.

An idea in search of a technological future

Released at the start of 1987, it’s an early example of what we’d now term a walking simulator and an early warning as to what happens when you procedurally generate super large landscapes so it’s an interesting footnote in games for these things alone. I’m not sure it’s THE earliest fully fledged walking simulator and 1984’s Tir Na Nog does a better job of being a game you get lost in a world with (that’s for another day and another post, mind) but it’s certainly one of the most ambitious and worth acknowledging its place in history for that alone.

Explorer is, like a lot of the outlier experimental stuff from the videogame eighties, an idea in search of a technological future to make it work. That people were willing to push on and try this stuff anyway is something I’ll always appreciate.