Combat: Progress and Regress

I finally made some permanent progress in Combat (2001 Infogrames remake). There was none in my previous two sessions. This game doesn’t have a save/load mechanism, and to a player starting from the beginning (and who hasn’t read the manual thoroughly), it’s not at all clear that there’s any saved state between sessions at all. In fact, beating the first ten levels (including two boss fights) permanently opens up a passage in the starting area (like the passages that let you access the different worlds in the original Quake) that lets you skip to level 11 in the future, and likewise beating level 20 lets you skip to level 21. But there’s no recognition of this in the game itself, no notification of any kind. Only after your game ends (presumably in defeat) and you start a new game do you see that you don’t have to start over from level 1 again. And you’re probably not going to see it immediately. You’re probably not eager to launch into a new session immediately, given that you’ve just got through 10 levels in a single session, something that takes about a half an hour and leaves your hands wrecked, and that you don’t know the first time that you won’t have to start over from level 1 again.

It didn’t come as a surprise to me this time, though, because I remember getting past level 10 in my original attempts at this game, years ago. And in fact now that I’ve gotten that far, I’ve also managed to keep going and breach the second checkpoint — apparently I’ve learned the basic skills needed by the game, and will probably finish it soon. (The main necessary skill, it seems, is assessing when you need to stand and clear the room of enemies and when you need to just make a break for the exit. Either approach is imperative sometimes.) But also, I’m kind of cheesing out. The options menu lets you choose whether you start with three or five lives, and whether your shields at full can withstand three or five hits. Both settings default to 3, and I’ve turned them both up to 5. Without this, I would be starting over from the beginning a lot more, and enjoying the game less (even if I would also be keenly honing my tank-battle skills in the process). But then, a more typical modern game would be giving me infinite lives, or, equivalently, a save/load feature, so all I’m really doing by selecting the easier options is bringing the game closer to being in line with today’s expectations.

Mind you, lives were already retro in 2001, when this game was released. Functionally, their purpose is to make the player start over from the beginning every once in a while and thus extend gameplay — a goal somewhat undermined by the checkpoints every 10 levels. But extending gameplay by making it more repetitive was more excusable in the old days, when games were fewer and shipped on less capacious media. The weird thing is that, although this is of course a deliberately retro game, the game it seeks to evoke isn’t that kind of retro. The concepts I’m describing here are completely outside of Atari Combat‘s ludic vocabulary. In this context, limited lives are both retro and whatever the opposite of “retro” is. They fit comfortably in neither time.


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