Developed by Dynamix and published by Electronic Arts in 1988, Project Firestart is a science fiction survival horror game set on a research station orbiting Saturn’s moon, Titan, in 2061. It is considered to be one of the first survival horror games ever made, and is often cited as pioneering many conventions of the genre.
In it you play a government agent (called Jon Hawking) sent to investigate why communications with the station were mysteriously cut off. You must explore the space station and piece together what has happened within a very limited amount of time. And of course survive attacks by the genetically-mutated monsters (they’re not aliens, it turns out, but a result of human meddling in genetic experiments). Once you’ve reported back to base about the situation you then have to set the station’s self-destruct and get the hell out of there.
Presentation-wise, Project Firestart features side-scrolling levels with the main character running in the centre of the screen. The scrolling is slow and not that smooth, but it doesn’t really have a negative effect on the gameplay (the game is fast enough where it counts). The animation of the player character is excellent, though, and since he is the focus of the game that is a good thing. Music and sound effects are used sparingly, but they are generally very good and add a lot to the game’s atmosphere, which is outstanding for the time.
The joystick control system is very simple; just walking into something that you can interact with prompts a choice displayed as text at the bottom of the screen and a press of the fire button will pick something up or use something. Elevators play a significant role in the game as you explore the various decks of the space station and these are very simple to use too. The developers have to be commended for using a simple-but-effective control system that feels quite modern for the time (you have to remember that many early video games on home computers had very convoluted control systems that usually required different key-presses).
The tension grows during the story and monsters start appearing more and more as the game wears on. Occasionally, as time ticks by, there are short cut scenes showing important things happening elsewhere on the space station.
Project Firestart obviously owes a huge debt of gratitude to the film Alien because the plot is mostly a lift from it, and some of the graphics in Project Firestart even look very similar to Ripley in that movie. The final act of the game is also a hair-raising race through the space station while trying to escape before it self-destructs – again: a direct lift from Alien.
The only real downside to this game is the disk-swapping. Project Firestart was a disk-only game and came on two double-sided disks that needed changing at regular intervals. The swapping isn’t as bad as I’ve seen in other C64 disk games, and the load times are relatively short, so it doesn’t ruin the experience.
Overall, Project Firestart is a really good game that is still fun to play now. If you know what you’re doing it’s possible complete it in under an hour. If you’re just playing casually, you probably won’t last too long because ammunition is limited and the monsters keep on coming, but you’ll undoubtedly have fun trying and dying.