“So, you spent $10… on a twenty year old video game… that you already own?”
This was the question put to me by a family member, confused by my recent purchase of The Chaos Engine, a remastering of the Bitmap Brothers’ steampunk shoot-’em-up.
Yes, I’m running an old Amiga game – on my new PC, powered by a 3.4 Ghz quad-core processor with 10 GB memory.
This is what retro gaming’s all about.
Sometime in the Last Century
The Chaos Engine was in many ways a retro game when it was first released in 1993, drawing heavily on the 1985 coin-op classic Gauntlet. Like that game, The Chaos Engine features fast-paced action, multiple playable characters with varied strengths and weaknesses, and maze-like levels packed with monsters.
The Chaos Engine was designed by the Bitmap Brothers, the heroes of the 16-bit computer era. High production values defined the Bitmap Brothers’ output – and disguised deeper gameplay.
When this rerelease was announced earlier in the summer, I was hesitant. Video game remakes have to strike an impossible balance. Alter the original design and it is no longer the same game – but leave the game as is and the developer is accused of a lazy cash-in.
Here the developers have played it safe, and rightly so. Original “brother” Mike Montgomery was on hand for Abstraction Games’ remastering, which features bloom effects and 360 degree movement for analog controllers. The Steam version supports online co-op play and a high-score leaderboard.
Beyond these additions, this is the same Chaos Engine from 1993. And that’s a good thing.
Set in a sci-fi Victorian Britain, The Chaos Engine pits two players (or one player and a CPU-controlled ally) against waves of mutants and machines created by the titular engine, the work of mysterious inventor Baron Fortesque. Four worlds of four levels each make this a relatively compact journey from start to finish. It’s in the bonding of gameplay, multiple characters, and branching paths that make The Chaos Engine stand up so well today.
The Chaos Engine has often been classed as a run-and-gun title, but this is a bit misleading. Fast-paced as the action is, sprinting into new areas is a surefire way to lose your lives.
Your player cannot actually run-and-gun – firing your weapon causes your chosen mercenary to stop and shoot. Coupled with limited health and waves of monsters that spawn quickly, you realize the importance of positioning and movement.
Tactical thinking also plays into navigating each world. Gold and silver keys alter the environment, opening up new paths (and closing others). Careful experimentation will yield secret routes and stashes of treasure, and your cash can then be exchanged for power-ups between levels. And activating hidden nodes will lead to alternate exits, that in turn change the available paths through the following stage.
Clever level design ensures The Chaos Engine’s status as a technically excellent 16-bit shooter. But more than this, it is in the combinations of playable characters that the game reveals its depth.
Enter Six Hard Nailed Mercenaries for Hire
The game’s stylish intro tees up each playable character – the Brigand, the Gentleman, the Navvie, the Mercenary, the Thug, and the Preacher.
Each soldier of fortune is placed on a matrix of health, speed, and weaponry – broadly broken down into three categories of heavy, medium, and light. Though the heavier characters are lumbering giants they can soak up the most punishment, while the lighter characters have lower health levels but quicker pace. Maxing out these health and speed levels has a huge impact on later stages.
Weapons have to be factored in too. Each character’s weapon fires and spreads differently – for example, the Mercenary’s machine gun has a wider angle of fire, while the Preacher’s laser cuts through enemies in a straight line.
Then there are each character’s special powers. Sticks of dynamite and smart bombs carried by one player can be neatly complemented by an ally who carries health kits or monster-repelling gadgets.
Mixing and matching player characteristics of offense and defense offers varied ways to beat The Chaos Engine.
There is no right way to play – only the way that works best for you.
Although Primitive, the Machine Became Incredibly Powerful
Twenty years later, The Chaos Engine still impresses in presentation. The steampunk aesthetic is unparalleled. Though the Bitmap Brothers have noted they were not influenced by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s genre-defining The Difference Engine, the parallels are clear.
The detail level in the game world – especially the cracked and broken-down buildings of the workshops – is superb. From the mud rivers of the first world to the dark, surreal Fortesque Mansion, the Bitmap Brothers’ coherent visual style is at its best here.
If you played computer games on Atari ST or Amiga in the ’80s and ’90s then chances are you listened to the music of the late Richard Joseph. It’s a testament to his work that the soundtrack here is listed as a selling-point on Steam. The in-game music gets the blood pumping. And there is the industrial intro by British alternative dance act Joi:
You Will Be Remembered
The British video game industry that created titles like this is long since gone. While other publishers, such as Nintendo, have not been hesitant to raid the corporate archives to rerelease their back catalogs, the 16-bit era of the Amiga and Atari ST has been a bit neglected.
There have been exceptions – the Bitmap Brothers’ own Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe was updated and rereleased on iOS in 2011. Maybe it is this era of digital distribution and a growing interest in retro games that will open up the Bitmap Brothers to a new audience.
I bought a twenty-year old video game and it’s been the most fun I’ve had in gaming for a while. After all this time, The Chaos Engine remains a smart shoot-’em-up, with an excellent balance of out-and-out action and more tactical leveling-up and pathfinding that adds replay value.
Here’s hoping that we see more rereleases of the Bitmap Brothers’ classics. Gods and Speedball 2 next please!