The WinUAE emulator has a stable place on my drive and its main purpose is proving me how worthless I am as a player. While returning to the games I played as a teenager is usually a blissful experience, more often than not it eventually becomes a dissapointment — either the game itself proves to be far less excellent than my nostalgia tell me, or my lack of skill and patience leads to frustration. Well, that’s the discreet charm of classic Amiga games! Unbalanced gameplay, lack of saving options, the endless struggle with the emulator configuration in order to match the particular game’s requirements and avoid a visit from the dreaded Meditating Guru… Nevertheless, sometimes I’m not able to resist the temptation and, against all odds, I return to the womb.
The first moments after inserting the game disk into my virtual DF0: drive made my militarist’s heart skip. The intro sequence would be described as ‘minimalistic’ today, in the age of (faux)retro. A few close-ups of a soldier preparing his battle gear, without any background music, just with short, sharp sounds of a combat knife going into its sheat and a rifle magazine being loaded, were followed by a full size title screen depicting a sterotypical Vietnam-era hero clutching a blade in his clenched jaw, waist-deep in a nameless swamp. Then the screen went black and the drums, or should I rather write THE DRUMS, started beating. Even if it’s only a dozen seconds looped into infinity, the only piece of music heard in the game, it certainly gets the player into a proper mood.
By coincidence, I encountered Fire Force during my primary school years when I was an avid fan of Cat Branigan’s Wings over Vietnam series. If my memory serves me well, it was one of the first games I’ve ever played which had an explicitly military theme. Of course, I had played strategy and simulation games before, Falcon being one of the first games I’ve ever tried in my life, but this was a new experience. Technically, it was a platform game, or at least I would classify it as such with my limited knowledge formed by Super Mario Bros and more ‘mature’ titles like Another World. However, just like the air combat sims I already knew, it had such features like player roster, mission selection screen, precisely defined objectives, and many other novelties which made me, an ordinary boy in his early teen ages, feel really proud that I was playing something far more serious than another game about a cartoon character jumping on mushrooms and shooting bright stars.
When I’m playing it again in 2016, I’m quite surprised to realise that Fire Force has some traits of a roguelike. Most levels are randomised to a certain extent, which is especially painful in the very first mission which main objective is to find and murder (‘eliminate’, in the modern newspeak) an enemy commander hiding inside a building. The problem is that there are four houses to search, the time limit leaves little room for errors, and with each new approach the baddie changes his location — a surprisingly realistic feature, because this is exactly the way a prominent enemy of an atomic superpower would behave in the real world.
The other feature which makes Fire Force a distant cousin to ADOM is permadeath. The player’s status is saved after each mission and since it’s possible to prematurely finish the career by reaching the extraction zone just one minute too late, all too often I’m greeted with the roster screen showing my hero’s name with the grim KIA or MIA runes next to it. Of course, it’s childishly simple to cheat by using two separate savedisks, one of them being a literal Navy Seal graveyard, the other one serving as the Bit-and-Byte Hall of Glory.
Everyone has his guilty pleasures and, I know this will sound horrible, I found it in slitting the throats of my hapless enemies. This was another trait remarkable for a game released in 1992: a killing technique of raw brutality, crawling or even running to close contact and butchering the foe. Of course, the whole gore exhibition was just a few frames of animation and a dozen of red pixels, but you can imagine how exciting it was for a teenager who hasn’t yet experienced Mortal Kombat or even Cannon Fodder.
Despite the medals and the promised satisfaction, I still cannot bring myself to play Fire Force in a ‘serious’ way and finish it. Because I actually managed to finish the campaign and retire as a
mentally scarred satisfied veteran during my first playthrough, more than a decade ago, the only proper way to enjoy it again would be to play it just like the makers wanted it, without using a spare virtual disk as a war cemetery for those unfortunates who missed the helicopter or stepped right into an anti-personnel mine. The thought of playing the campaign from the first scenario after each death isn’t exactly appealing to me, after all, so maybe I’ll just play it for the sport.