Thursday, May 22, 2008


There are games you pause to remember fondly once in a while, and then there are games you and your friends still play 20 years later. Ebonstar, designed by the Dreamers' Guild in 1988 and released only for the Commodore Amiga, is both of these. It's a straight-up one-to-four-player space arcade extravaganza wherein you battle the computer ships, your friends, or both. How it came to be is a story that's never been told on the Web until now.

Robert McNally, at the tender age of 17, was the youngest programmer Sega had ever hired. The Sega workplace was a friendly one, with a regular group gathering during the lunch hour to wolf down sandwiches then make a beeline for the dimly-lit back room where sat one of the few four-player Eliminator machines ever made. (see "Chronology: Spacewar," below.) The group was more than four in number, so at the end of a game, only the player with the highest score would continue in the next game - the other three would be replaced, sort of a "king of the hill" series. Young Robert would play so hard his palms would sweat profusely - something that never happened in any other context - and once, when his ship was destroyed, he spontaneously lost control of his body and fell over backwards (luckily there was a pile of empty boxes and packing material behind him which broke his fall.) He also shared this anecdote:
I remember when one of the engineers who had originally worked on Eliminator snuck in a re-coded ROM with a cheat: Between rounds, if a player continuously held down a particular combination of the four control buttons, the machine would reduce the size of that player's "hit radius" for the duration of the round. This would result in the player not being quite as easy to hit as the other players. Used intermittently so as not to give it away, that engineer had quite a bit of evil fun for several months before the other engineers got sufficiently suspicious to pull out the ROM and compare it to the production master.
When Robert left Sega he couldn't stand to see Eliminator go, so he and his brother Michael created Ebonstar.

A few fun notes about Ebonstar:
  • The best way to play, by far, is in Tournament mode with four players of about equal skill. Tournament means you're concentrating on your human opponents rather than trying to get a high score or advance to the higher levels of the game. The game regularly provides fireballs, homing shots, and a lightning bolt that zaps-out-of-existence any ships near you when you trigger it - your mission is to pick up as many of these items as possible and put them to good use.
  • Team play is preferred - two on two. You can play every man for himself, but the game takes on a new dimension when you have one ally and two opponents. Especially when your ally accidentally kills you - "Ca-raaaaaaaap."
  • A computer keyboard was not designed to support the energetic pressing and/or holding down of a dozen different keys at once, arcade-stylee. Occasionally you will experience "keylock," the sudden nonresponsiveness of the keyboard - unless you're the one guy who only uses the joystick - or the mouse (not recommended)
  • Very rarely, gravity will affect the entire play area, and your little ship will resemble a salmon desperately swimming upstream instead of a little bee buzzing around fancy free. No one - not even the programmers - know exactly what triggers this, but some believe that a secret key combination does it - and that I know what it is.
  • There is a great debate that has raged for decades about what constitutes "winning" a Tournament game. It's customary for the last player standing to quit the game with Amiga-Q when he's defeated the last opponent - everyone's eager to play again, and doesn't want to sit around while he plays against the computer ships that once again start coming out. The game itself displays "Winner" in the color of the ship with the highest score, presumably in an homage to those early Eliminator lunches at Sega. But the winner must necessarily be considered to be the sole survivor - who, obviously, could rack up big points on his own, by putting the non-human-piloted computer ships in what is known as "das position" (say it with an evil German accent) and pummel them till the cows come home - or extra ships are awarded. Because your standard shots don't destroy other ships - only bounce them away and possibly into a wall - it's possible to dribble another ship like a basketball for a good while, racking up points in the process.
Some other enjoyable moments to experience:
    • When you've got no weaponry whatsoever and another guy has collected a ton of fireballs, homing shots, AND the lightning, destroy the black hole satellite while he's on the other side of the screen - the game will reset everyone to no weapons for the next level - he'll have nothing (and you'll like it).
    • If the big yellow Nemesis ship emerges from the black hole and comes at you, do all you can to divert it to another player and force him to deal with it instead. As you do this, be sure to say "Take 'im."
    • Too many more to list.
To play Ebonstar on your PC, just download WinUAE, an Amiga kickstart ROM, and Ebonstar.ADF, get three friends, and fire it up!

Also, at the top of this post is a completely clueless negative review of the game (Amiga User International, June 1988). The reviewer clearly didn't experience the multiplayer/tournament/team aspect of the game.


Anonymous said...

I'm very pleased that you managed to work the word "pummel" in there

Robert said...

Hey, I'm Robert McNally, and I want to thank you for the fond memories. I still love Ebonstar and would like to do a modern remake at some point.