Games I Like: Sundog, Frozen Legacy

SUNDOG

Or, carting human popsicles around for fun and profit

 

Let’s Talk About Sundog… and it’ll tell you why I wish more games (or any, really!) made today were more like SunDog. With the current level of technology we have, I don’t see why this game couldn’t blow everybody away…

But then again, maybe I’m the only gamer out there that wants a game of these proportions… do you think that’s true? Well, let’s look at good old Sundog and see!

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The Game  Type:

Adventure and Trading

Viewpoint:

First-person/Third Person

Time:

Real time

Synopsis:

Saddled with your uncle’s last contract, but also his Ship – the SunDog – you must fulfill your uncle’s contract to found a new colony and help it thrive. After that, the SunDog is yours… if you can survive the ordeal!

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You step into the boots of the protagonist whose uncle, the heretofore unknown Brock Dor-Ceed, had the gall to drop dead under mysterious circumstances. What is unfortunate for Brock, however, is a boon to you, since you get to fly his beauty of a ship. Unfortunately these wings come with a leash attached: as the last member of Dor-Ceed’s family, it falls to you to complete his contractual deliveries to a religious colony on the planet of Jondd. You must deliver goods and services help it grow, and also bring in frozen members of the colony so that they can thaw them out. Since this is a religious colony, I guess you’re transporting priestcicles?

A standard fetch quest, you’re likely to say- take X from Point A to Point B and the task is done! Well, this is true, or would be true… if there weren’t a few wrenches thrown in. For starters, green as you are to this job,  you have no idea where the colony is. So, you’re going to have to scourge the surface of Jondd using your little land-roving vehicle to find this colony (a task which requires you to stock with provisions, or else you will starve.) Another problem is that the SunDog is… well, I’m not going to sugar coat it: The SunDog is broken, and you are broke, too. You start the game on the deck of your new (old) ship in the Jondd capitol city of Drahew.

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Sundog’s revolutionary look comes from its (first time ever) scalable interface: you’ll enter ships, walk or drive through cities, move through continents, and then soar through outer space. Another game, Megatraveller II (based on the highly-successful pen and paper RPG game Traveller) also used a similar interface, but SunDog pulled it off in a much cleaner style. Ironic, since Megatraveller II came after SunDog.

The Atari version, which was the one that I played (as opposed to the Apple II) used the mouse buttons for movement and navigation, as opposed to the joystick.  Walking out of the airlock or entering the land-rover vehicle takes you out into the city view, where you can roam around on foot (not recommended, as you may get mugged) or drive (recommended, it seems that muggers don’t carjack in the future) to another building.

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The SunDog’s interiors are well-realized and realistic. Several sections of the ship serve different purposes: Storage for food, weapons and medical supplies, spare parts, and the ever-so-important Engineering section which, at the beginning of the game, shows you just how many of your precious ship parts have exploded and need to be replaced with oh-so-precious credits.  Engineering covers all of the basic ship system: warp and sublight engines, guns for fighting, shield generators, scanners and “pilotage” (navigation). You can use artificial shunts to make do at the very beginning, but it’s not recommended that you stick with them for too long because: a) they have a tendency to explore rather easily and b) when using your shunts, the systems perform at sub-par efficiency.

That may not sound terribly significant to you, but when you’re floating in outer space getting blasted by a pirate while looking at how slowly your cannon/laser gauge is replenishing for your next shot… and how low your shields are? It will eventually become terribly significant. Shunts love exploding during combat, so even if you manage to run away, you will find yourself right where you started. This is where your mother probably would come up and say something along the lines of “he who puts off work ends up working twice as long” or something like that.

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SunDog, technically speaking,  was essentially an adventure game with 12 separate missions. You first need to locate Banville, the religious colony somewhere in the outbacks of Jondd. To that effect you withdrew some of your cash, stocked up on food at the pub (hint: do not drink too much at the pub… you might pass out and get robbed!) and then get out of dodge in your little land-roving pod- you’re going on a road trip! At When you leave the city, the world becomes a topographical map, just like this:

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You drive around the continents, trying to find Banville. Traveling takes a toll out of you, however… the player starts with stamina, luck, strength, the typical RPG flare statistics as well as the physical life statistics of hunger (nourish), rest, vigor and health.  While driving, your rest and hunger will go down— go too long without rest and you will die of exhaustion. Forgot to get food? You might die of starvation.  Eventually you find Banville, and you probably spend at least ten hours cursing at the head priest for picking such a remote, god-forsaken location for a colony.

Banville is, in a way, your baby. It starts out with very small buildings with only a local eatery and an exchange house. As you bring more trade goods and colonists into the village, however, it starts to grow– and thus begins your quest to go to other cities and planets to fetch the exotic goods required for Banville to thrive.

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So you end up vising exotic locations and other solar systems… picking up replacements for your broken-down ship and (in some cases) upgrades, such as a cloaking device (how utterly Romulan) for the SunDog.

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Traveling through solar systems has a distinctive Star Wars feel: Warp travel (or Hyperspace) requires you to be away from bodies with large gravitational masses, and so you had to park your ship outside of the solar system proper at a series of waypoints indicated in your astrogation map.

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Once you reach a safe jump point, you bring up the War display to select a destination and charge up your warp engines– and poof, off you went.

Of course, this could be tricky: pirates and rogues were always on the lookout for poor saps, so you could easily get ambushed while you were heading for a safe jump point, or you were charging your engines to make the warp. If you had been cheap and hadn’t invested at least in replacements for the shield systems and weapons, you could be in serious trouble. Specially if the only thing holding your Warp system together was a pair of cheap shunts trying to take you to your next exotic locale. If they didn’t explode.

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These ‘exotic’ locales include places like Woremed, a lawless system where you can buy black-market parts for your ship. While it’s a good place for starting players to get their systems replaced, it’s also a hell of a  location: as its lawless state indicates, you’re going to get mugged regularly (if you aren’t driving), and pirates will jump you the moment you liftoff if you have anything worthwhile in your holds.

For the time, the detail is astonishing. Walking into a bar to strike a deal showed you the people moving around, the patrons, and even slot machines. To strike a deal, you simply had to sit down at a booth with a person and see what deal they had to offer, and what you could offer in return (if you weren’t willing to pay credits for the ‘stuff’).

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If, however, you wanted to state an interest, all you had to do was walk up to the bar tender and select ‘info’, then the bartender asks if you’re buying or selling, and what exactly might that be. You tell him what you’re in the market for, and then he tells you to wait at a booth.

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And, wouldn’t you know it? A few seconds later, the bartender would invariably send someone over to my booth, willing to negotiate!  After you’ve wheeled and dealed and rebuilt your SunDog so she is up to par… pirates are no longer an issue. This feels very rewarding because you have spent the first half of the game running from ambush to ambush, praying that your systems and shields will hold together just long enough for you to make that warp— and hoping that there aren’t any pirates on the other end of that jump! During the second half? The pirates are hoping and praying that anyone but you comes out of that hyperjump. Taking down the Captain Harlock wannabes that had haunted you for so long with just a few shots is terribly rewarding.

You need to make money, and the game’s real stock system is a great way to go about it, as well as the trading system.Of course, transporting stock meant the risk of being intercepted by pirates… but as designer Bruce Webster wrote, some of the things they had implemented in SunDog as ‘real world rules’ allowed players to find… a smarter way around the obstacles:

“Perhaps my single proudest moment was when I had a SunDog player explain to me how he had figured out how to make money without risking pirates. He wouldn’t buy any cargo. Instead, he would buy ship’s components on worlds with high tech levels (where they were available) and sell them on worlds with low tech levels (where they weren’t). He would fill up the various lockers with these parts and said he could clear CR 50,000 in a single trip.

I was delighted, because I had not consciously designed that into the game. It was a consequence of the ‘real world’ rules we had set up, and someone had found a way to use them that we hadn’t anticipated.”

– Bruce Webster

If you were the Han Solo type, you could also accept bounties and blast pirates away for a small reward… but only if you already had a generous stream of cash coming in. Even with new parts, systems tended to blow up if they took too much of a pounding, causing explosions, which in turn needed money to replace the broken components.

The game gets progressively easier on you, muggins decrease as your reputation increases, pirates become less of a threat— but that is only to compensate for the fact that getting the last batches of the needed cargo become increasingly difficult.  The last mission requires the ship to be outfitted with a new engine enhancement which was difficult to find, and then find a city. It may be hard, but damnit, it’s fun … and the sense of accomplishment you get at endgame is great.

You may not have ever heard of SunDog… but everybody who has played it will  tell you it’s one of the greatest games of the classic era. How great? It was given a PC Gamer’s award as one of the best 15 games in history. The author is still getting fan e-mail about the game (27 years after its release.)

SunDog was the precedessor of the great spacefaring simulator. It was so visionary, that in its application it makes the newer science-fiction games feel restricted (SunDog was, after all, an almost open-ended galaxy where you could go anywhere, whereas most science fiction games nowadays have you on a linear track… with the exception of Mass Effect, which might as well be the partial spiritual successor to SunDog) – and this is a game that came out in 1984, Steve Jobs’ year of the Mac. By modern computer gaming standards, it came out during the neolithic period.

SunDog truly was one of the greats: it sought to capture space exploration, discovery, strange new worlds and the adventures of a man or woman and his/her faithful space vessel in the face of impossible odds. And this was twenty-seven years before Commander Shepard and the Normandy! I am actually very glad that Mass Effect took up the gauntlet and gave us a world that could definitely have been SunDog’s, applied to new technology. It is perfectly possible to make games like these… so, developers and writers out there… what’s keeping you?

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merryjest

I do too many things and have too little time. I'm an opera singer, artist, writer and gamer with a lot of diverse interests.

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