Developer: Special FX Software Ltd (Jonathan Smith, Karen Davies, Keith Tinman)
Played Before: Yes
Also on: Commodore 64
Progress: Flipped the switch!
Hot on the heels of Gothik, we’re off on another adventure into the years of my youth spent gazing lovingly at the Spectrum’s 15-colour output. I was late to this particular party, getting Firefly in September 1991 on a free tape with Sinclair User issue 115. With the legendary Jonathan Smith’s involvement and Special FX’s reputation for quality, Firefly can’t help but promise impressive graphics moving at speed, backed up with gameplay purity.
Special FX were generally known for their impressive technical ability to squeeze the most out of host systems, which apparently fed neatly into their next incarnation as Rage Software. My main contact with Rage was the mindless but enjoyably sparkly 3D foot-soldier shooter Expendable. To see my Voodoo2 cards pumping out all of the real-time coloured lighting and explosions confirmed that I’d chosen the correct side in the contemporary graphics accelerator card wars, but I digress. Back to the Speccy. Firefly only requires a 48K machine and doesn’t come with any 128K bonuses. This is a bit of a shame as the game comes with two distinct title music themes which are both very good and hearing these using the enhanced sound hardware, or even in-game, would have been nice. A representation of a keyboard accompanies these themes on the title screen and shows the tunes being played in real time. My musical skills are non-existent, so I have no idea whether this is being shown correctly. Do let me know if you can learn how to play these tracks by following the on-screen prompts.
Into the game itself and the story goes that you’re controlling the starship Firefly, which has returned from decades of deep space exploration to discover alien colonies littering the solar system. How this quite reconciles with having three lives, I’m not sure, but what this means in practice is an 8-way free-scrolling shoot-em-up. But we’re not just flying about, blasting away until we top the score table. Firefly throws in a few simple skill test sub-games to stop you mashing the fire button and glazing over. Before the action proper, you’ve got to consult the map and choose your plan of action. The solar system is laid out on a grid of five rows and nine columns, with the left-most column a clear starting area that you can freely move through and the colony’s green coloured power source in one of the right-most spaces. Yellow planets are colonised areas too heavily guarded to invade and you can’t pass through them. Cyan areas contain a chance to skip the sector entirely via a sub-game where five squares appear on the screen, two showing a thumb pointing up and three a thumb pointing down. A cursor bounces around randomly between them, waiting for you to prod the fire button when you’re ready. Landing on a thumb up will clear the sector allowing you to progress, while a thumb down will send you back to the left side of the map and shuffle the layout of the rest of the sectors. This is not as bad as it sounds and can be used to your advantage should the route to the power source be a winding one that requires clearing a lot of sectors. Empty sectors are occupied but open to infiltration and these are where the bulk of the action takes place. The entire left-hand column plus any sectors that you’ve liberated are covered over in white and you can move into any empty or cyan sectors that are adjacent to these. While sectors in the first few columns contain enemies that are fewer in number and not as aggressive, the sectors in columns towards the right side of the screen can get very nasty and dying is common. Ultimately, you’re trying to work your way to the system’s power source. Move onto that sector and flick the switch to get a lovely points bonus, then you move on to the start of a new system but this time more difficult. There’s no actual ending to the game that I know of, but this doesn’t make playing any less satisfying.
Clearing a sector is a fairly simple affair on paper. Each one contains four energy points that need to be destroyed. Energy points constantly spit out Yokas, which look like wobbly fried eggs, and missiles, which can damage your ship. Catch four Yokas, indicated in the space below the score on the information display, and you’re free to enter the energy point by flying into it. This is sometimes not as easy as it seems, as energy points may be located in tight corridors, giving you a lot of obstacles to dodge at once while still needing to get close enough to catch Yokas. Entering an energy point takes you to one of the sub-games, a test of timing in which you have to stop the cursor on the thumbs up icon to destroy the energy point. Stopping the cursor on the thumbs down icon damages your ship and spits you out of the energy point, leaving you to collect four more Yokas and try again. There is also a teleportation system to help get you around the map if you can’t reach any energy points directly. You can fly straight into these square teleporters without any prerequisites but are faced with another sub-game before you’re allowed through. This time, the Firefly spins in the middle of a circle of squares and you have to press fire when it’s facing a blue square. Do this successfully three times in a row and you’re popped out of the other end of the teleport system. Hit any red square and you’re dumped out where you flew in, with damage taken.
There are 24 different sector layouts and they wrap around at the edges where not blocked by a wall. Each sector is fairly compact and the full map for each is shown beneath the play area, so it’s worth checking for any possible strategies when you first arrive to avoid having to use a teleporter. Because of the rather tight play area, Firefly involves a fair amount of risk management. Going guns blazing into stages located any further than the first two tiers will quickly result in explodey death. Checking the map upon entering a sector to determine the optimum route is key as consistent failure to beat the sub-games will see the Firefly’s damage meter quickly drained. Apart from your collected Yokas and the centrally located sector map, the other important things to look out for on the status display are the Firefly’s fuel and damage meters, located on the left. Fuel gradually drains as you fly around and can be replenished slightly by collecting the cannisters dropped by destroyed enemies. The damage meter can also be refilled and comes with its own method. A certain fairly rare enemy type drops a fish icon when shot and you’ll definitely want to grab it at any opportunity. This makes all bad things disappear from the screen and droplets rain down from horizontal surfaces. Grab these droplets to replenish your damage meter. You’ll get a points bonus for any fuel and damage remaining when you clear a sector.
As is usually to be expected from the Spectrum’s fast action games, backgrounds and enemies for each sector are shown in a single colour, with the Firefly and its thruster usually offering a contrast to keep things looking a bit more interesting. Your ship is equipped with eight ‘oct-o-photonic plasma disruptor balls’ (according to the manual) which automatically return to you after reaching the edge of the screen. These are shown orbiting the Firefly during gameplay and that’s frankly just the programmer showing off. Everything moves at a pace which is perfectly gauged, with control smooth and nippy but not so swift as to send you careering into walls and enemies without it being the fault of your own impatience or bad driving. However, if you’re bad at things that involve stopping a cursor in the right place or avoiding obstacles travelling at speed, this may not be the game for you. Being the simple beast that it is, I keep Firefly in my mental shortlist of palette cleansers; something quick and absorbing to be played between story driven epics or when there’s only half an hour available for a blast of something. From what I’ve seen of the C64 version, it’s the Spectrum version’s equal, so it’s up to you to take your pick of preferred home computer and liberate the solar system.