By Scott Stilphen (2008)
Years ago, at one of the Classic Gaming Expos, I caught a glimpse of
Rob Fulop testing a then-unknown prototype called Actionauts - a game he started working on at Imagic, before he left there to start up his own company (APT, which is where the bulk of the programming took place). Unfortunately, this was right when the VCS market had all but evaporated. With his original design dying on the
launch pad, due in part to the VCS’s technical limitations, the initial effort was jettisoned in favor of developing it on the C-64. Rob mentioned he wasn’t sure what to do with it, but added he wasn’t interested in releasing it in its current, unfinished state. However, his interest in what to do with the game never wavered, and last year he decided to finally make it available. Not only that, he enlisted a homebrew programmer, John Payson, to help expand the game and make it
more playable! The game went on sale early this year and 250 signed and numbered copies were produced and sold at $80 each, with another 50 un-numbered copies to be given away.
At its heart, Actionauts is essentially a puzzle game. Your goal is to program a robot to negotiate its way through a dozen, different mazes in order to reach a treasure (or cheese as it’s called. Think of the famous ‘mouse in a maze’ test). Instead of simply guiding the robot through the maze, though, you need to “program” its movements. The program itself consists of a list of icons that you can change, and a maximum of 24 instructions you can program - go straight, turn left, turn right, or “jump” back to the beginning of the program. I would compare the gameplay to the classic Milton Bradley programmable tank toy, Big Trak. The display is divided between the Maze and Program screens, with a navigation bar at the bottom that contains a few simple icons that denote functions available for each screen – the “M” icon alternates between the screens, the “RUN/HALT” icon is for stopping and starting your program, the ‘face’ icon is for peeking at the maze while on the Program screen, and the number ‘1’ represents the speed at which your program will run (this can be changed from 1-7, with 1 being the slowest speed). Everything is controlled via the joystick, and no console switches - other that reset and select - are used. There are 12 different levels (or mazes) in the game, with each offering a different solution, although the box incorrectly states there’s only 10.
The biggest improvement made over the original prototype was the addition of extra levels. The game was originally envisioned to be far more complicated. According to Rob’s original notes, there was to be more programming instructions and playfield obstacles, including computer-controlled robots. The programming aspect would have been more in the style of a flowchart, allowing for multiple solutions for a given problem. The released version offers very linear programming with very few instructions, no maze obstacles (other than the maze itself), and no computer opponent. Still, for an unreleased (and unfinished) game, it’s a very polished effort. The visual effect of alternating between both screens is particularly well done, as the screen simply doesn’t flip between the two but instead shows a nice transition, with the Program screen vertically sliding over the Maze screen (from the bottom) while the maze collapses (vertically) towards the center. It’s an impressive effect that I don’t recall ever being used in a VCS game before. The Program screen is especially neat, and it immediately reminded me of the typical computers you’d see in classic sci-fi movies and shows, with their dozens of blinking lights. The sound effects are adequate, and most actions have an accompanying sound, but there’s no music.
As with any unfinished game, there are some minor bugs with this one as well. Transitioning from the Maze screen to the Program screen will cause your robot to shoot up (firing was possible in the original prototype), and transitioning back will show your shot returning back down. Using the Peek command will create a problem with the transition graphics when exiting the Program screen. Also be aware that level 6 is quite buggy, as some blocks can be passed through, and ‘invisible’ blocks lurk in some areas, waiting to hang your robot up. You can also play the game w/o hitting reset, even though the navigation icons are obscured by the copyright info. Aside from a few other minor graphics glitches, I haven’t noticed any serious ones (that would crash the game). As Rob has mentioned, some of these were intentionally left unfixed, as to “emphasize the ‘unpolished’ nature of the game as a ‘work in progress’ and not a completed title”.
The packaging is nicely done and includes a simple, 4-page manual, as well a copy of Rob’s notes that pertain to the original prototype. For some reason, the packaging is the same silver-box style as used by Atari in the early 1980s; if anything, I would have expected Imagic-styled packaging. As far as puzzle games go, once you grasp the programming aspect, all but one of the solutions are easy enough to discover after a few tries, though you’ll find the last level (appropriately named “WOW”) is quite challenging. Completing the highest level will trigger a 'credit' screen to appear. Rob stated that the ROM binary will be released through his website for emulator use, once the remaining cartridges are sold, and that the original prototype will be privately auctioned off at some point this year (though as of 2015 Rob still hasn't done either...). Overall, it’s a worthy addition to anyone’s collection, and an interesting look back at one of the last VCS efforts from one of the system’s most successful game designers. Thanks again to Rob Fulop for releasing another treasure for the VCS community!
Check out the Actionauts page on Rob’s website.
And be sure to check out the Easter egg entry for more information, including the solutions!
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