For many of you, today’s game will be another in the string of somewhat obscure titles that I’ve talked about. But for me, this is a great day. Fort Apocalypse, published by Synsoft in 1982 for the Commodore 64 (and Atari 800) is a game that I’ve just rediscovered after more than two decades. I last played this in the cold basement of our Masachussetts home, chilly hands no doubt gripping my beloved TAC-2 joystick far too hard due to stress and adrenaline. It was the kind of awesome gaming experience that we don’t have nearly as much of nowadays, although some people would say that maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
When I moved across country, I somehow lost my (pirated) disk for this. I could never remember its name, probably because it sounds more like the title of an 80s heavy metal album than a video game. I thought it might be some strange derivation of Choplifter (much like the NES version of Cobra Command bears little resemblance to the arcade), but with no luck. For years I would occasionally see a title, think that was it, load it up and face disappointment. But when this came up in the rotation on my tracking spreadsheet and I saw it in Vice (my C64 emulator), I immediately recognized it. After far too long, I was back in the seat of my Apache-or-whatever-it-is helicopter, facing enemy fire, rescuing soldiers and tackling ridiculous odds.
And after all these years, I ask myself: How the heck did the younger me ever beat this? Fort Apocalypse is old-school hard. Even with the maximum setting of seven helicopters, you’ll struggle to complete game’s two missions. Yup, this one is short, but there’s a lot of challenge here, and the levels themselves are almost amazingly big and interactive for 1982. You’ll have to evade missiles fired by tanks, weave around floating mines, navigate narrow caverns, time your flight around laser beams and moving walls, and, of course, fend off the deadly enemy helicopter that can appear anytime, anywhere. You have to do all this while watching your fuel. Unlike other games of the type, you don’t get a top-up on your gas when your helicopter crashes. Take too long without refueling and it’s game over, regardless of how many helicopters you have left. You can take it more careful, methodically exploring and making sure to refuel regularly, but the bonus counter that contributes toward your end of game ranking will decline.
Do I recommend Fort Apocalypse? Absolutely. The quality of the game is every bit as great as I remember, and that’s not just rose-tinted glasses talking. These days, with more years of gaming under my belt as well as the (somewhat academic) study I’ve been doing here on the blog, I can appreciate the game for different reasons than in my youth. Its challenge is, honestly, unfair at parts, what with narrow passageways, magical seeking enemy gunfire and helicopters that just spawn above you. But you know what else is unfair? Life. Sometimes you just have to deal with it. From a technical standpoint, this is a marvel. At a time when most computer games were entirely text-based or sported crude single-screen graphics, Fort Apocalypse had large scrolling maps that kept track of enemy positions and environmental damage, and even had a Defender-style radar. There’s no music, but the graphics and overall environment (by 1982′s standards) and gameplay more than make up for it. The game can be beaten in under ten minutes but that feat will probably require hours of practice. And it’s totally worth it.