12 January 2018

The Lost Games part 1: Star Atlantis

Even, or especially, in the age of computers, some things are lost forever. They may be digital things that were pre-interent. They may be digital things, that are so obscure and obsolete, that nothing can access them anymore without spending way too many resources. And they may be things that are now impossible to find, thanks to algorithms in search engines that are optimized to other things that are just more popular and have sprung up in the meantime. Let me talk about one such game.

When I was a kid, we always had a PC in the house. My father used it not only to make shift-plans for work (he was a lead-nurse) but also for gaming. Some of my earliest memories include Leisure Suit Larry, Sokoban, Grand Prix and other such titles in glorious 4-colour-graphics. Almost all software we used in the late 80s and early 90s was pirated or shareware. In fact, there were two sources of games in my early youth: Shareware discs and stuff sent our way by relatives with a slightly higher level of computer-affinity. Later my best friend's uncle would also provide large qantities of stolen games but that was after the rise of the CD ROM.

One name that I vividly remember from the shareware disks, passed on from friend to relative to friend, was Jürgen Egeling Computers. I even remember what that JEC-Logo looked like. A cursory research on the web reveals only a profile on MobyGames and really not much more. I KNOW that profile is about as complete as my own (not very) because I remember many more titles from JEC that I played in the shareware version and, in some cases, in actually bought full versions that I wished for on my birthdays.

I was originally going to write about some of the games my memory attributes to JEC, but a cursory google search reveals that they are well documented on DOS- and Abandonware sites. And mostly not by Jürgen Egeling Computers – although that might be an alternative way of memory from a non-german market. When I was a kid, JEC-Disks seemed to generate out of thin air and were everywhere. My dad called the guy some times to order games I really wanted. They'd come on a full disk – unlike the shareware-versions where two to four would be on one.

So this post isn't going to be about those games, after all. No Flying Tigers. No Jetpack (god, I LOVED the level editor on that one – my best friend and I created entire sub-genres of levels). No Starhammer. No Overkill. Search them yourself. This post is going to be about an elusive game that I have in the intervening years tried to find several times. And failed. This one is about


This is a game you won't find. What I remember is all I have. It came from a CD ROM that boasted something like 1300 free games. A lot of them were crappy stuff someone whipped up using Klick 'n Play, a predecessor of Game Maker that I used the shit out of in my younger teenage years. More on that in another post though. Some of the games on that CD were even first person shooters (back then mostly illegal in these parts) and some were real gems of the shareware age. I consider Star Atlantis one such gem.

It was basically my ideal space-set 4X game. It featured a keyboard-only interface and put you in control of the Atlantean people. The enemy were The Swarm and they would overrun you if you didn't do the Expand-part of 4X. The game was mostly text-based but had basic graphics that were, in my eyes, very effective. There was the field of stars. The solar system view had colourful planets and moons, although they were only one colour each. Most importantly: The space battles were animated.

The game set you in a random starting location in a field of stars. Those were (I think) randomly named and each had between one and three planets, which in turn could have between zero and two moons each. Each celestial body had a rating for environment that would mean the upper limit for population and a ressource rating that would together with population beget the productivity. Your empire had a net productivity that you could invest each turn: You could buy (and upon finishing distribute) ground batteries for planetary defense, ground forces to invade, colonize and defend, as well as ships that would always spawn on your capital planet (which could only be relocated when it was conquered by the enemy). There were neutral civilizations that didn't do space travel but had population and (I think) six laser batteries. If one started in your beginning system that was good because it gave you a ready-made colony once you could overcome the defences.

If I remember correctly, there were seven different types of ships, all of which were available from the start if you had the net production. What you couldn't order in one turn, you couldn't build. A rising tech-level (which occured automatically) would raise production and make your ships travel faster in the insterstellar space.

The seven ship types were six war ships, each bigger one more powerful than the others, and a freighter. The warships had three different graphics, always having two classes of similar size share one. The freighter was a bulky version of the mid-sized one. The large Atlantean ships looked a bit like something from Battle Star Galactica, the small ones were rockets. Their colour was green. The grey ships of The Swarm were side-views of flying saucers. Ground batteries and ground forces looked identical for both sides.

Space battles were hands-off affairs: Both fleets were displayed in formation, the Atlanteans on the lower left corner, the Swarm usually on the top left (unless they were attacking a planet. In that case, the fleet would be top right and the planet bottom left, if I remember correctly). Then they'd trade shots, each ship taking a turn and firing, depending on size, once or twice. The ring-shaped explosions indicated hits or not (being somewhere on the screen or at the bow of the target) and damage to ships was indicated by more and more red pixels on the sprite.

When destroyed, the ship would gloriously start to burn in yellow and red pixels and then blow up in a ring-shaped explosion. Bombing a planet revealed a window with a surface-view of ground batteries. Those could shoot back but only as often as the attaking fleet shot at them – they effectively only prevented the landing of troops (the big ships could carry one division, freighters three). I think space battles only lasted a few rounds of each ship firing: Sometimes, both fleets would damage each other but no clear victor would emerge or the loser could flee after the battle.

Ships were always in orbit around a planet and moving around in a star system was free Tac Move. All ships were grouped into Task Forces that could be split and merged at will – but you could only have twenty ships to a fleet and only twenty TFs in total. This was where you could beat the AI: The Swarm would only attack a world when they could kill off all of its ground batteries in one turn. Big ships fired twice so if you had 41 or more gun emplacements on the ground, the enemy would never attack and invade. Likewise, a fleet of twenty battleships (the largest ship in the game) could not be defeated by any other fleet, only weakend.

The early game was always about colonizing lots of other worlds (by dropping troops on them and wait for the outpost to grow to a colony). This was in order to get a big net production before the Swarm came (and it would come in hard). The goal here was to not only have enough space batteries up to deterr the Swarm from attacking, but to be able to build Big Ships. By the time you could make those, the enemy fleets were usually already scouring your solar system and they did seem to concentrate on your capital world. So I'd try to break individual big ships through that blockade (sometimes with heavy damage) and gather them in some remote star system until I had a full Task Force of Big Ships. Then I'd come home and secure my orbit.

As the game was shareware with a buy-adress somewhere in Washington DC, if I remember right, I never got the full version. It was probably old when I first played it in the late 90s. The limitation of the shareware was that you couldn't save. I sometimes left my PC running for two days before a crash terminated my game. Never got far towards conquering a lot of the 200-star-galaxy on the map. I wish I had.

Searching for this game online reveals no results. Trying to narrow it down with other things like DOS game or Abandonware or 4X doesn't help. If there is something out there, it's drowned out by goddamn Stargate Atlantis and some Star Trek games. I cannot find it and all I have to go by is my memory. I even tried the archives of the webcomic User Friendly, as I had tried to get someone to help me with the game back in the day when I still had it: I had hoped that modern emulation (at the time, it must have been around the year 2000, would help me around the shareware versions savegame-limitation. A guy offered helping but his mail accound didn't accept executable attachments.

If you know Star Atlantis, have memories of it or can even give further informations, I'll be grateful for your comments. Or perhaps you are Jürgen Egeling and have found yourself on this blog after googleing your own name (feel free to tell us about the shareware development scene of the 90s!). Leave word.

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