Monday, June 2, 2014

I is for Imperium Galactum

The latest in a series on games I wish I'd played more of.

Today's entry is a short one for two reasons:

Reason the first is that I only vaguely remember playing Imperium Galactum at all.  I do remember it, but mainly because I felt ripped off by it.  I had a copy that had been ported to the Apple II that I traded for in 1984 - the demand was a copy of several ZX Spectrum games that I had acquired over time.

Not that either of us lost anything - in those days, copying your games was as simple as dubbing onto a fresh cassette tape. [1] Well, in my case a little more complicated since my Spectrum used cassette, but our Apple II+ used 5.25 floppies.

But the fact was that I copied several of my ZX Spectrum games onto a couple of cassette tapes and all I had to show for it was a poorly pirated copy of this strange game with inexplicable controls and no apparent purpose.

If only I'd known.

ISS games are well known for their strange obsession with odd conventions - like using the number keys for movement in an era when number pads were an unusual extra, not standard.  Seriously, who designs games they know their customers are going to have trouble using.

The other thing they're known for is having a rich selection of features, most of which are accessible via a not-necessarily-obvious set of hot keys.  I mean, the S key is already tied up with the "shoot" function, so obviously you need a different key to be the "save" key, right?  Sure, but why L? Particularly when this means the L key is now tied up and you need another key to be the "load" key so you can get at your saved games. Since this was a pirated copy of a copy, I obviously didn't have the instruction booklet that came with the game originally so playing the game was more like a cryptography test than a fun strategy game.[2]  The result? I mainly remember two or three attempts to play the game while getting progressively more frustrated and obsessing over how badly I'd been duped by the guy who claimed it was worth all three of the games I'd traded for it. [3]

Reason the second is that my memories of the game and what it was supposed to be like are completely obscured by memories of a later incarnation of the idea: Masters of Orion.

Masters of Orion was a slicker game written in a more sophisticated age.  If nothing else, it was written for computers that had already blown Bill Gates prediction that no-one would ever want more than 512kb of RAM out of the water. [4]  The game was point and click, and the graphics were attractive.  But ultimately it was the same game:

Imperium Galactum was the same kind of game, a game of galactic conquest in which you worked hard to manage the resources of your civilization to achieve technological advances and build up a fleet to be proud of. The shiny colours of Masters of Orion have faded my memory of IG, but what I do remember makes me wish my 14yo self had been a bit more patient in working out the controls[6] 

You see, like many games of the era - and remember, in this era there were even quite popular games that would only run on a UNIX station - what the game didn't have in glitzy features it made up for in sophisticated game play.  I remember learning a few things in those aborted sessions that MOO was never able to do for all its pretty pictures.  And I have learned since that it won awards and accolades in the PC magazines of the era for its sophistication in simulating a far future empire building exercise.

So I wish I had played it more, I wish I had learned more about how it worked - because as the years passed, my impatient 14yo self lost out on a neat strategy game that I now know would have been obsessive indeed.


1. Anyone else have fond memories of the coloured stripes waving back and forth on your TV as the program loaded?

2. I am making the actual keys up - I can't actually recall the controls, but it was pretty much like this.

3. Yes, neither of us actually gave anything up, and yet I was annoyed by the supposedly lost value.  If you feel the need to argue about this, take it up with my 14yo self.

4. I occasionally amuse myself by calculating how many times my old Apple II+ could fit inside an e-mail, or how quickly I would be able to download my entire collection of floppies onto my phone. [5]

5. Yes, I'm easily amused.

6. Or more resourceful in locating a copy of the instructions to crib from.

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