You’d imagine throughout 1986, just one year before Final Fantasy debuted on Nintendo’s Famicom and helped define an entire genre, the staff at Square would be busy making grand plans for their upcoming RPG – lots of tense faces and discarded cigarette stubs, their overworked bodies gathered around a table covered in draft designs and scribbled ideas, gravely aware of how significant their tale of four crystals and the Warriors of Light would be to not only their company’s future but the gaming industry as a whole. The reality is actually far more mundane than that: In 1986 Square were trying to make themselves enough money to keep on existing, and the best way for a game developer to do that is to release games for people to buy. So they did; their ’86 schedule a busy jumble of action, adventure, and role-playing games – including this PC-88 sci-fi experience, Cruise Chaser Blassty.
The lightweight plot is a typical us-versus-them (in spaaaacceeeee) affair, the included manual providing little more information than the infrequent scraps of text you may blindly stumble upon while out exploring in the game itself (this is somewhat made up for by the dedicated material collection showcasing Mika Akitaka’s – of Galaxy Fraulein Yuna fame – fabulous mechanical designs) and really doing little more than giving the interstellar conflict a reason to exist. It’ll come as a surprise to no-one to learn that much of the first half of the game is set in space: “Closed Space” specifically, which mainly differs from regular space-y space by keeping itself within tidy 19×19 boundaries connected to other areas by (space) gates – and if you don’t use maps (like the helpful images found here) to guide your way there’s a very real chance screen after screen of that oxygen-free expanse will be the only thing you ever see. Step outside the walls of the tiny opening space station and you’ll be greeted with a moving sea of stars: it’s an arresting effect as they whizz past your virtual ears before slowly coming to a halt, giving your viewport a believable sensation of motion. Turn to the side and the stars once again whoosh across the screen in an appropriate direction before stopping – and here comes the problem; the scenery from this new point of view looks exactly the same as before. Move forwards and the stars will once again glide past before bringing you to a place that as far as anyone can tell is no different from the last. There is, and I mean this literally, no visual difference at all between one empty square of space and another besides your grid position – and that’s only viewable if you look up the obscure key combination that’s not listed in the game’s manual or in any other official documentation tied to the PC-88 release: CRTL+SHIFT+ROLL UP (that last one’s PageDown if you’re using Project EGG‘s emulator). You may if you’re lucky bump into an impassable asteroid field (all of which are represented by a single image) and be forced to turn to the side – back to another indistinguishable field of stars. That really is the vast majority of the visual information you’re given in Blassty and yes, it does make the game virtually unplayable unless you’re using a guide as your own fading power reserves combined with potentially fatal enemy encounters mean this isn’t something that can be overcome with saint-like patience and a sheaf of graph paper either.
As disorientating as this may be under the hood all the game’s doing is running an ancient movement system familiar to just about everybody: Grid-based 2D movement, as found in Shin Megami Tensei and any number of similar dungeon crawlers. Asteroid screens are displayed whenever you’re directly facing what would be in any other game a wall, and the star fields represent… pretty much everything else. (Invisible) gates are used in place of the traditional stairs down/teleporters, and shops/rejuvenation points are drawn here as beautiful space stations (as with everything else this is just one image, reused forever), allowing you to replenish the Blassty’s power reserves or repair damaged systems in exchange for credits earned by defeating enemies out in the depths of [closed] space.
The second biggest progress-hampering problem comes from the game’s actually-not-overly-frequent random battles: these are turn-based encounters, and always just your Blassty against a single opponent. At the beginning of each turn you choose your actions (which alter depending on the equipment you purchased along the way – after all you can’t use a shield, bazooka, or laser sword if you don’t own one) and then watch the action play out on screen. The animation here is genuinely fantastic, especially for a game that runs off just two floppy discs. Your own transforming mech (which can switch at will between the confusingly labelled “Gunner” and “Shooter” modes – Gunner’s the one you want in a fight) as well as the various enemies you face off against have a range of attacks, all visibly acted out during the fight. The downside to this lush detail is that between the disc access times and the animations themselves battles take a long time to resolve even if a low-level metallic foe does go down in just a couple of hits as the “no animation” mode still displays your own movements (it does however skip enemy attack scenes), but the beautiful pixel art combined with these stunning displays of sci-fi artistry mean you end up not minding the drawn-out flow as much as you might think you would – it gets you away from staring at stars, if nothing else.
Considering the game’s mid-Eighties release as well as the much-loved developer’s later successes there’s an understandable urge to gloss over Cruise Chaser Blassty’s flaws and declare them as simply a product of their time, to attempt to forgive the identical star fields, the way it allows you to screw everything up before you’ve even left the first menu, and largely featureless maps. We didn’t know any better, and if we did the hardware wasn’t up to the task anyway… right? But to fall back on that line of thinking would be a disservice to the PC-88’s wider library: the computer had plenty of other inventive and technically astounding commercial releases capable of accurately displaying your surroundings and in some remarkable detail too, and let’s not forget that Apple ][ Wizardry released roughly five years before this – it may not have been a visual feast for the eyeballs but it was at least capable of graphically conveying states beyond “Directly facing a wall” and “Not facing a wall”.
Unlike many other older games that are still worth playing on their own merits, or at least allow us a taste of a brave experiment gone wrong or to witness the clumsy beginnings of a now long established genre take shape, Blassty isn’t really something worth investing any serious time in other than for curiosity’s sake. The PC-88 isn’t short of more enjoyable and accomplished dungeon crawlers or better told sci-fi adventures, and the year after this Dungeon Master could be plucked from US shop shelves and taken home, offering Atari ST users real time combat in a visible 3D space, floors capable of showing pitfall traps off in the distance and torch-lit walls decorated with mysterious crevices, devious riddles, and ornate stone fountains. As a playable peek into Square’s history there’s always going to be a reason for someone to wheel the game out, but Cruise Chaser Blassty mostly serves as proof that game development has always been a fickle and unknowable beast – even if you do have all the tools and the talent at your fingertips, some concepts still turn out pretty flat.