I’ve played a lot of Amiga games in my time – some very well, most very badly, but definitely in vast quantities whatever my skill level – and I’m fairly certain sci-fi resource ’em up Deuteros: The Next Millennium (Amiga version shown and played, although an Atari ST port was also available) wasn’t one of them – until now. Hey, no problem right? These sim-ish games are all the same when you get down to it: I’ll just gather up some of whatever resource it’s after, build whatever’s available, and keep going from there. I’m sure it’ll all work out just fine.
Reader, it definitely did not work out just fine. I couldn’t seem to do anything worth doing, and it didn’t help that I had no idea what was worth doing in the first place either. I was so lost I rushed back to the fifty-ish page manual like a woman possessed, its combination of short pieces of mood-setting fiction (distant future post-apocalypse Earth, humanity rebuilding out to the stars, etc.) and standard “If you have two floppy drives…” assistance a welcome sight.
However even when armed with this rich seam of reference material Deuteros is still as complicated as all heck; everything takes a long time (especially at the beginning), your end goal seems to be “sort out all of humanity“, and everything you can do seems to need twenty more steps than you think it would and… it’s fascinating.
There’s a lot of micro-managing going on (I should mention that time can be sped up at the push of a button and certain things – transporting ores and fuel between various places, for example – can be automated to a certain extent later on), especially as everything is initially in short supply and everything is important, but by making you so involved with every decision and also by operating at a snail-like pace that really gives you the time to consider your options and thoroughly check which planet might be worth mining next or how far along that new research project is it feels absorbing rather than fussy.
One of your first major milestones is to build a small shuttle, and unlike many games that see these vessels as a stock singular unit or a generic base to optionally slap some extra lasers on to in Deuteros you don’t so much build spacecraft as you do assemble them from separate parts – a chassis, an engine, and then fill up segments in-between with various additional and interchangeable pods (carrying supplies is very different from carrying people, after all), the amount depending on the size of the craft – tailoring the ship to your own immediate needs. The visual design is just as unusual, ships avoiding the usual brushed metal and glowing parts look sci-fi tends to favour and opting instead for something more bleak and semi-organic; an uncomfortable but alluring mix of mass manufactured technology and something that definitely shouldn’t look as alive as it does. It’s not anywhere close to Captain Blood levels of bio-tech (much as I’d like to I’m never going to quite scrub the term “birth ramp” out of my mind), but it definitely seems to follow a similar sort of thought process.
When equipped with the right pod (and fuelled) this little shuttle can amongst other things transport orbital frame pieces you’ve created on Earth into space, slowly building your first space station. As this is Deuteros you’ll have to manually order each of the eight frame parts you need, load just one them into the shuttle’s single tool pod slot by hand, take off yourself, deploy the frame part with a click of a button, return to Earth, and repeat the whole routine seven more times to complete building just one facility. And when you’re finally done? That station’s going to need materials ferrying over to it if you hope to build any of the larger orbit-only technologies on it. And you’ll need you to transport some experienced crewmembers (specifically experienced crewmembers – fresh recruits can’t construct more advanced tech) over to make them too. And you’d better start scouring the solar system (and eventually, beyond) for the rare ores you need to build whatever the researchers have just come up with. And make sure you’ve got the mining derrick’s built to extract them. And larger interplanetary ships ready to link everything together. And…
There’s even a distinction between planetary resources and orbital resources for single celestial bodies, for heaven’s sake! Did you mine a vast amount of precious materials from the surface of the moon? That’s great! But those guys waiting in Production on your floating moon base can’t reach them unless you set up a shuttle with the right transport pod and have also configured the automated computer system (that’s another thing to research and produce) to move the stuff between the two though. And because of details like this I was forever waiting for the part where I started to mind all of this petty number-monitoring but it honestly never came. Everything you learn, everything you manufacture, every decision you make seems to open up more exciting new possibilities, and because you know exactly how much effort it takes to build a ship and then get it the asteroid belt or docked at a distant station you not only appreciate the complexity of all these moving parts but really feel the weight of them too, all of civilisation quietly humming with activity – or under attack from the violent Methanoids. Contact with this new species triggers new research and technological opportunities as well as a whole heap of trouble. But it all creeps up on you so very slowly even the prospect of interstellar war only feels compelling, a new wrinkle to consider in an absorbing sci-fi simulation that stretches across the stars.
I can see why it reviewed so well at the time: While the screenshots may look like an endless stream of numbers and confusing little icons to click (giving them a prod only reveals even more numbers and little icons) it’s such an easy game to lose an entire day on even if you’re no longer a kid with a free weekend and an Amiga 500 before you – and even if this sort of game doesn’t sound like your usual cup of tea.